My face contorted in a spasm of dread, but it was too late. Moments before, half a quenelle of foie clung to the bottom of my spoon, fighting a losing battle against gravity before plummeting to the table, its langoustine cream and quail jelly oozing brownly onto what was once an immaculate white tablecloth.
There I was, in one of the world's greatest restaurants, having just marked myself as a yokel while trying to savour every last bite of chef Heston Blumenthal's landmark cuisine. And to make matters worse, I'd lost half of my foie.
I blamed my spoon. I blamed the hollowed-out sphere-on-a-pedestal serving bowl. The damn thing resembles a ball chair, for crying out loud, and aren't they designed to deliberately obscure what's in them? In short, I blamed everything but me.
Ah, the Napkin of Shame, that bane of every fine diner's existence and perhaps the most peculiar creation of the rarefied world of Michelin-starred dining. In that realm, perfection is the goal. That means more than just flawless food; it includes polished silver, service that anticipates needs, and, of course, lily-white tablecloths.
To that end, high-end restaurants keep any number of arrows in their quiver. The most obvious tool is a table crumber, or, as we yokels like to call them, "table swiffers." But it's just a curved piece of metal that scoops up stray crumbs and bits. That's kids' stuff.
For really big messes only the Napkin of Shame will do.
Our first run in with the Napkin of Shame occurred last year at New York's Jean-Georges during a dinner with Sue and Ryan, coincidentally the same friends who joined us on our visit to The Fat Duck. Sue was eager to share a delicious ravioli dressed in a vibrant green herb pesto. Unfortunately, while exchanging forkfuls with me, a piece of ravioli fell, and, given the size of the resulting stain, apparently somersaulted across the table.
We were mortified. "J'accuse!" was its powerful, silent message. "These people don't know how to use a fork and knife!" At moments like this, I feel like I can hear the unvoiced judgments of fellow diners: "Taco Bell is around the corner, buddy. Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out."
And yet there I was, in the middle of a dazzling meal at The Fat Duck, staring down at yet another stain.
Ah, but what a meal:
Setting foot inside The Fat Duck is a thrill. The minuscule dining room sits on the ground floor of a classic English cottage, so the ceilings are low and exposed wood beams frame the space. Sunday lunch means a naturally lit dining room and, for our visit, the chance to wile away a typically overcast, and at times rainy, British day. The room looks remarkably normal (well, "three star normal") for the scene of a decidedly not normal meal, one that plays with preparations, flavours, and presentations.
The meal began with drama: a small cart arrived at our table, a dense contrail of vapour marking its path. Before turning his attention to the liquid nitrogen, our server spritzed the air with lemon essence, prompting each of us to spontaneously close our eyes, tilt our heads skyward, and grin in that way comforting smells compel us to do. The connection between smell and emotion is obvious, but only recently have daring chefs like Blumenthal begun exploiting that link. Our server then 'poached' dollops of light and refreshing green tea and lime mousse, turning them over and over in the liquid nitrogen, before presenting each of us with a 'meringue' sprinkled with a dash of finely powdered green tea.
Palates cleansed, we moved on to that rarest of courses: deception on a plate. For our second dish we were each given two unadorned squares of jelly, one red and one orange. Our server told us that if we chose the red, we would learn the answer to the question, What is The Matrix?, if we chose the orange, our lives would carry on as before but with no memory of our dining experience. Of course, I could be misremembering the whole thing. It could be that our server, grinning like a Cheshire cat, told us to "start with the orange then switch to the beetroot." Thanks to a lifetime of conditioning, we all reached for the orange-coloured square first and were shocked to taste something slightly sweet and a bit vegetal. I, for one, was unsure what I'd just tasted. Then we tried the red jelly, which tasted powerfully acidic, like... a blood orange. Aha! So the first square was actually golden beet. This was the dining equivalent of taking that discombobulating first step on an escalator that's not moving (who knew the Japanese have a name for it?).
Two other dishes stand out for the way they tinker with expectations, though neither relies on outright deceit. Pommery grain mustard ice cream with red cabbage gazpacho straddles the line between savoury and sweet. I liked it, though I don't think it was a winner at our table. The gazpacho had a lovely acidity and hearty texture that contrasted the creamy, grainy ice cream and the crunchy brunoise of cucumber. Likewise, hot and cold iced tea made us laugh out loud with delight. The tea itself tasted much like the lemony sweet tea I remember from our barbeque trip to Memphis, but this was way more fun. The drink starts off very warm but then as you near the end of the glass it suddenly gets very cold. It goes from soothing to refreshing in the blink of an eye, and it tastes great the whole time.
Blumenthal's greatest talent, in my opinion, is his ability to turn his diners' nostalgia into the centrepiece of his meals. Almost every dish on the tasting menu features childhood faves groomed to the level of haute cuisine, though sometimes the efforts go a little too far. No one expects an ice cream cone in such a setting, but there was Mrs. Marshall's Margaret cornet: apple ice cream with ginger granita in a dainty little cone. It's my nominee for most disappointing course, but only soulless automatons don't smile when handed an ice cream cone. Two other trips down memory lane fell short: the pine sherbet fountain, a novel palate cleanser that substitutes a vanilla pod for the traditional licorice stick, just doesn''t impress; and a plate of petit fours featuring a promising mandarin aerated chocolate that sounded like a sybaritic cross between a Jaffa Cake and an Aero that left me hankering for, well, a Jaffa Cake or an Aero instead.
I did write, however, that Blumenthal's ability to tweak our nostalgia is his greatest talent because there were far more masterpieces than flops. Take parsnip cereal. It's presented in one of those single serving-sized cereal boxes that calls to mind childhood trips to the grocery store. I remember pestering my father for six-packs of them as we wandered the aisles of our neighbourhood Loblaws, devouring the good cereals (you know, Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, and Corn Pops) within days, then waiting for the healthy, "bad" cereals to die a slow death in our cupboard. Parsnip cereal merits inclusion in the pantheon of good cereals. It reminds me of Frosted Flakes both in shape and texture, and though the sweetness is tame by comparison, the mild parsnip flavour and crunchiness are lovely. This is a marvelous trip down memory lane.
Just like The Fat Duck's signature snail porridge. Now we know why people discuss it in reverential tones. The porridge has the look and texture of a risotto, but with a wonderfully grainy, oaty flavour that works perfectly with the herb pesto, snails, and thin shavings of fennel that accompany it. The texture is dreamy as well -- the creamy, risotto-like mouthfeel of the oats offers a little chew that complements the delicacy of the snails and the almost imperceptible crunch of the fennel. It's the porridge I wish I could wake up to every morning.
If manipulating two breakfast dishes works so well, why not try a third, right? Nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream with pain perdu, stands out for me as one of my two favourite courses. This dish is finished tableside, with the server wheeling a copper bowl to the table, cracking some eggs stored in a Fat Duck egg carton into it, then pouring in liquid nitrogen and stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon. The eggs are actually filled with an ice cream base, and the egg ice cream is served a little over-frozen, so the finished ice cream clumps into little clusters that resemble overcooked scrambled eggs. As good as the ice cream and micro-thin strip of crispy bacon were, the best part of this dish is the unforgettable pain perdu. This French toast is actually given a thin, burnt sugar top, like a crème brûlée. It is awesome, and the flavours mingle wonderfully together.
If the faux egg "packaging" and mini-cereal box represent Exhibits A and B in the case for The Fat Duck's exceptional use of presentation, Exhibit C is a no-brainer: I may have railed against the foie's ball-on-a-pedestal serving dish, but the first part of this course made our jaws drop: oak-flavoured breath strips (they even arrive in those flip-lid containers used for Listerine pocket packs) served on a wooden box-cum-platform packed with lush moss. After depositing the wooden rectangle in front of us, our server poured hot water on the moss, unleashing a wave of vapour that cascaded onto the table. I can't think of a more impressive presentation.
If only the entire course were as unequivocally dazzling. The oak moss strip has a very faint, very pleasant woodsy taste, and we devoured the toast points topped with black truffle and tiny little half moons of radish. Both were awesome. Pairing truffle and oak is a stroke of genius; it's another one of those circumstances where two organisms that share a close relationship in nature just happen to complement each other on the plate as well. Where this course struggled -- and not just because it made me sully my space -- was the jelly of quail, which sits beneath the langoustine cream and a quenelle of foie parfait. We were instructed to try and get a little bit of each element in every bite, and I did, but the Marmite notes of the jelly overwhelm everything else.
The quail jelly was the first and last time I didn't enjoy the taste of a dish, though there were a couple of instances where I was underwhelmed by texture. An oyster on the half shell is always a good start to a dish, except when a passion fruit jelly traps that oyster in much the same way carbonite imprisoned Han Solo. The acidity of the passion fruit complements the oysters nicely, as do two small shards of caramel and a bud or two of lavender, but overall the jelly detracts from the dish. There's no textural contrast between the two main elements, just the same squooshy texture. As for the roast foie gras "benzaldehyde," it was topped with a sprinkling of parmesan and accompanied by a smear of creamy almond gel and thick, luscious cherry gel, a small cherry, and three tiny cubes of amaretto jelly. I enjoyed it, but I thought the texture of the foie was a little too wobbly like jello when it should have been buttery, though the amaretto jelly was superb and all the elements worked nicely with the main component.
One last complaint before I heap fawning praise on the whole experience: I know many consider the salmon poached in liquorice gel with artichoke, vanilla mayonaisse and 'Manni' olive oil a signature dish, but it doesn't quite work for me. I love the mix of flavours -- I've had vanilla and salmon before, and I think vanilla pairs beautifully with most seafood -- but there's just too much fat in this dish. The salmon, for one, feels like it's been poached in low temperature oil, which adds a certain fatty mouthfeel. Beyond that, the vanilla mayo, though marvelous, adds yet another layer of fat to the dish, as does the generous swirl of olive oil. The only real acidity on the plate are little flecks of grapefruit (these are the individual components of the fruit, and I think they're extracted by freezing segments in liquid nitrogen, then breaking them down using a rolling pin), but that's just nowhere near enough to create the balance inherent in any great dish.
Enough nitpicking, however, too much went too well for that. Like an astonishing ballotine of Anjou pigeon with black pudding 'Made to Order,' pickling brine and spiced juices. The pigeon was cooked blue and required only the barest flick of the knife to slice. What makes this dish a masterpiece, however, is the black pudding, which resembles a perfect hollandaise in texture, but adds a concentrated, gamey note that complements the flavour profile of the pigeon perfectly.
Good as the pigeon may be, 'Sound of the Sea' defies superlatives. A mini-seascape of edible foam and sand strewn with shellfish and seaweed resting on a glass platform set atop a sandbox, this dish is presented alongside a conch shell with an iPod nestled inside it. Diners listen to a soundtrack of ocean waves lapping against the shore and seagulls squawking while devouring the habitat set before them (if only eating this dish weren't a metaphor for what we're actually doing to the oceans!). I can take or leave the soundtrack (seagulls sound rather harsh to me), but the dish itself ranks among the best I've ever eaten. I love the tapioca maltodextrin sand and the soy lecithin sea foam, but a couple of elements really stood out: the 'sand' includes wonderfully crunchy bits of deep fried baby eels, and there are wonderfully salty tendrils of seaweed in the dish that add umami and a wonderfully subtle hint of the sea. This dish really is unforgettable and the hype is justified. We scraped our plates clean on that course.
Actually, we scraped our plates clean on every course. And drained our glasses, too. After four hours at the table we stumbled out of The Fat Duck and wandered just a few doors down to size up the experience over a pint at Heston Blumenthal's pub, the Hinds Head (try the Devils on Horseback). Two months earlier, I'd forced myself out of bed at five in the morning on a statutory holiday and, exhausted, juggled two cell phones and a landline in an effort to be one of the lucky few to spend an exorbitant amount of money on one meal. It worked, and, yes, it was worth it.
As for the Napkin of Shame, it never emerged. But there will be other opportunities, I'm sure. Why just last week I requested a reservation at el Bulli for the 2009 season, thus raising the possibility that I may yet earn my second Napkin of Shame at the best restaurant in the world.
Now that would be embarrassing.
Our Fat Duck tasting menu: