On Thursday I had lunch at the Fat Duck to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Not so long ago, it was “The Best Restaurant in the World”. It is still amongst The Best, but the foodie crowd are hard to please so once they got sick of snail porridge they moved on to El Bulli, and when they got sick of that, to Noma (where I’ve been but only for a cup of coffee, as I mistakenly thought it was a coffee shop servicing the Faroese information centre next door).
So of course I went with impossibly high expectations. But expectations of what? The idea that there is a “Best Restaurant in the World” rather suggests that it is at the top of a numerical list in which every single restaurant in the world can be assigned a ranking, ending inevitably with The Worst Restaurant in the World. (I have a few ideas about candidates for that position, by the way. Staroslovenska Krcma in Bratislava springs to mind. Not since the fall of the communist regime has a crime against humanity been committed on Slovakian soil of the scale of “pork fat with paprika and plastic cheese”. At least that’s how I remember it).
But the problem with a linear scale of best to worst when it comes to restaurants is that it isn’t actually that hard to create the maximum amount of eating pleasure, even for the most discriminating diner. Start with some good ingredients, add a bit of polished technique and inventivess, and Bob’s your uncle. Over the last year I’ve had some damn fine meals, and can’t really conceive of better food than roast grouse at Le Cafe Anglais, halibut collar curry at Hix’s, or bone marrow agnolotti at Scarpetta. And these restaurants don’t even come within cooee of the 100 Best Restaurants in the World.
So if that’s the threshold test we have to look at the finer details of a chef’s talent in order to sort out the very best. And unfortunately, at least from my point of view, the more exceptional a chef’s technical ability, the more imaginative he is, then the less likely he is to produce something you would actually want to eat, thereby producing the reverse effect that a list of the Best might be expected to have.
Take “Sound of the Sea” for example, the 7th Course of the 14 in the tasting menu at the Fat Duck. It is undoubtedly a work of culinary genius, with technical execution of the highest order. You get served a plate of glass with a pile of edible sand and seaweed in the middle, with a few slices of exceptionally good quality fish of different types (each either raw or cured, from memory) on top, and a foam resembling sea scum (in the nicest possible way) on the side. You then get plugged into an iPod hidden in a seashell set beside your plate. You listen to the sound of waves crashing, etc, and eat the food, and indeed you really do feel like you are beside the sea, eating sand, perhaps licking a seaweed-laden rock. Undoubtedly an eye-opener, and it really is very accomplished. The problem is that I don’t know why anyone would want to eat it. I actually found it quite unpleasant. I think there’s something a little bit sad about grown ups paying hundreds of pounds to trying to re-create an experience they could get for free elsewhere. Another dish that fits into this “so what?” category is the “jelly of quail, crayfish cream, chicken liver parfait, oak moss and truffle toast”. You have to get the ambient “forest” feel by dissolving a little film on your tongue and allegedly inhaling the scent of moss (pictured above), all of which adds negligibly to an otherwise lovely (but typical “posh ingredient”) dish that might be found in any one of a number of other non-Best Restaurants in the World.
The really impressive dishes on the menu at the Fat Duck are those where the team hasn’t
dicked around with things too much. The famous Snail Porridge really is amazing and ranks among a handful of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. It’s actually not particularly weird at all – a tiny bowl of plump snails, oozing with flavour, and nestling in a fresh, unctuous sauce dominated by parsley, with a few creamy grains in there to justify the “porridge” appellation. It’s actually just snails with herbs and is bloody brilliant. Similarly the lamb with cucumber, onion and dill fluid gel. You can ignore the gel – it’s basically just like jellied mint sauce that someone forgot to heat up – but the lamb is perfect and tender and accompanied with a little sample bag of offal prepared in different ways, which is an excellent combination of talent and taste. And in the pudding department, “macerated strawberries, olive oil biscuit, chamomile and coriander” (pictured) is perfectly orthodox and utterly delicious.
Perhaps the dish that comes closest to justifying the whole Best Restaurant thing is the “Mock Turtle Soup – Mad Hatter Tea”. You may have seen it on TV last year. The waiter places a book-mark in front of you with a passage from Alice in Wonderland written upon it. A teacup arrives with water in it. You are given something resembling a pocket watch (in the way a chocolate coin resembles a coin). You dangle it in the water and give it a good stir, and it dissolves into an intensely flavoured consommé-style soup flecked with gold, that you then pour onto a little bowl of goodies including beef shin (I think?), and little things that look like (but I’m sure are not) a hard boiled egg and some mushrooms. It’s clever, it’s tasty, there’s an element of performance about it; it’s simply genius, and I feel sorry for anyone who isn’t swept off their feet by it. Along similar lines is a tiny envelope with an edible “wax seal” of chocolate, containing an edible Queen of Hearts playing card made of white chocolate.
You could easily reduce the menu from 14 courses to 5. For example, I’d rather just drink a gin and tonic than a “nitro poached” frozen gin and tonic meringue cloud with the waiter squirting the scent of a citrus grove above my head (I’m not lying). And although a pre-dessert of a glass of tea that is simultaneously both hot and cold has the signature of Willy Wonka upon it, by that stage you just think “oh come on, Heston, now you’re just showing off”. A series of “Whisk(e)y Gums” served stuck to a photo-frame with a map of Scotland (and Tennessee) on it has a touch of the didactic to it that might be illuminating to some but I felt detracted from proceedings. Roast foie gras seems to be on the menu simply because people paying that sort of money probably expect it.
So yes, the Fat Duck is an experience. From the moment you arrive to the moment you leave you do feel perfectly looked after. The service, without a doubt, is perfect in every way (note that none of the staff that served us were English). Professional, warm, not overly familiar, unobtrusive, not the least bit condescending (as I was expecting it to be), even funny. In a word, faultless.
But Best Restaurant in the World? Quite possibly, judging by the silly criteria I set out above. But really, on the dishes I enjoyed the most, there’s not a struck match between the Fat Duck and some other, less venerated institutions that we normal people are more likely to ever eat at. That is not intended to cut down a tall poppy; it’s merely intended to make people realise (as I did) that you do not have to go too far to eat as well as you could ever expect.
So if you ever get the chance, go. But if not, don’t despair. If you have ever eaten really good fish and chips on the beach, a perfect bowl of mussels, or a steamed pudding with jam and custard, then you will have already experienced the greatest joy that food can bring – an there is not a restaurant in the world that has a monopoly on that.