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Late last year, together with around 250 000 other Australians (and perhaps a few non-Australians), I entered a lottery with a twist – one where winning involved me forking over at least $525 instead of taking home the cash. And thanking my lucky stars that I would be fortunate enough to do so, no less!
I’m talking, of course, about the ballot to secure a table at Heston Blumenthal’s legendary Fat Duck restaurant during its 6 month temporary residence in Melbourne whilst its permanent home in Bray was undergoing refurbishment.
During that time, they would be hosting just 50 extremely lucky individuals per service, with only 2 services available per day, 5 days a week. That’s 13 000 seats, in case you were counting. Out of over 250 000 applicants.
Knowing full well that my chances were slim, I rounded up my gastronomy troops and demanded they put their names down too. Between us, we requested every permutation possible – lunch, dinner, table for 4, table for 6, chef’s table – in the hope that our chances of hitting the jackpot would be increased by covering all bases.
Imagine our disappointment when every single one of us received those emails of rejection.
You’d think I’d have had no shortage of people lining up outside my door calling out “pick me, pick me” so they could join me on what is probably one of the most extravagant experiences of my life, but think again. I had just 48 hours to find 3 others who could commit to not only immediately shelling out $675 in cold hard cash, for DINNER, but on top of that, would most likely also need to organise some leave from work as well as organising and spending an additional $600 at least in airfares and accommodation. You see, for those unfamiliar with the vastness of Australian geography, as a Perth girl (with friends mostly based in Perth), I am actually situated, if all goes well, approximately 3.5 hours away from Melbourne. By PLANE.
But I am nothing if not determined, and fortunately, I have several other equally inane friends who I can count on to indulge me in my more outrageous schemes. So, just under 2 months later (and a day after running my first ever half marathon!), I found myself flying over the Great Australian Bight towards my great Australian bite.
Situated rather obscurely on level 3 of the Crown Towers in Melbourne, with only a modest black and silver sign and an unadorned menu by the main door, you’d never guess at what wonders lay ahead. We arrived 10-15 minutes before service time to find other equally exhilarated diners already drunk with the anticipation and taking turns to have their photos snapped next to the restaurant signage.
For maximum impact, diners are only let into the restaurant one full table at a time, with a few minutes’ wait between each table. What impertinence! One might be tempted to think. But the reason for this timed entry became all too clear the moment we were allowed to pass through those doors.
Unfortunately, it was too dark and I was already too giddy with excitement to remember to take any photos of the rabbit hole I had just fallen into. For whimsy and Wonderland are never too far away when you step into Heston’s world. So, at the end of a dark corridor, I found myself face-to-face with the images and sounds of a kitchen hard at work, trying to find that small door I imagined I had to open and crawl through.
Luckily, I didn’t need to puzzle over that conundrum for long. A few seconds later, a door swung open to the right, revealing the main dining room ahead of me with its incredible views of the Melbourne CBD.
Stepping through the threshold, we were greeted by not just 1, but a whole TEAM of attendants who cheerfully welcomed us and took our coats. The waiter for our table then showed us around the main dining room, lingering at the clock which had been specially custom made not to tell time as we know it, but instead to count down the months that the Fat Duck would call Melbourne its home.
Then, there was the main feature that one simply couldn’t help but notice since it spanned an entire wall – a 19 500 piece puzzle that would play a part later in the evening’s proceedings, and which, we were told, would eventually be auctioned off for charity.
The chef’s table
Situated directly opposite the savoury kitchen (yes, there are 2 kitchens!) just 4 lucky people per service are invited to dine at an expansive long table where you get to watch each dish being prepared and plated. That’s just 130 tables of 520 people over the entire 6 month period that the Fat Duck was in Melbourne. We really felt like we had won the jackpot there, that’s for sure!
But it’s not just for the views that one forks over an extra $150. The chef’s table is also named because every dish is presented to you by Jonathan Lake, the head chef himself, who also remains on hand at every step of the journey to give an explanation of each delicious morsel that passes through your mouth. If so desired anyway.
The wine list
Not one to do things by halves, it should come as no surprise that Heston’s curation of wines was a veritable tome that we politely leafed through with thinly veiled interest. The truth is, though, that as a table of Asians, 3 of whom lack the necessary enzyme for metabolising alcohol, we were never planning to indulge in the vine. Although I suffer no such deficiency, I have found that imbibing to excess does result in significant and often embarrassing disinhibition. The last time I partook of a degustation meal with paired wines, I was reduced to a giggling schoolgirl after about 3 courses, tittering at the poor sommelier’s rather pompous description of each vintage. No, I wanted to keep my wits about me this night, not just so I could maintain some semblance of dignity, but more importantly, so I could savour every nuance of each dish and recount it to you here in exact detail.
Sadly for the head sommelier, he had been assigned purely to attend to us seated at the chef’s table. As his services weren’t going to be needed, he scurried off not long after to make himself useful in the main dining room.
After banishing our sommelier, our waiter reintroduced himself to us and reminded us that our utmost comfort and enjoyment was to be the order of business for the night. We were to dictate how quickly or slowly we wanted the courses to be brought out to us, and we should feel free to wander around and explore our surroundings whenever we wanted, including the kitchen. His presentation of each dish together with the head chef was clearly well rehearsed, and his demeanour was friendly and at times cheeky. The result was service that was impeccable in catering to our every whims, yet at the same time felt comfortably casual.
We were wowed by how clean and orderly everything was. Think about it, it takes a brave and supremely confident chef to lay it all bare like that. All night, we felt like we were watching an extremely well oiled machine. You know how the Masterchef contestants run around like headless chickens, repeatedly wiping sweat off their brows and brushing hair off their faces? Not so at the Fat Duck.
Precision is the order of business here, from the meticulous placement of every micro herb with tweezers, to the careful stacking of each plate at the end of the night with foam sheets between every dish. We were struck by how unflustered every single member of the team was, and how much they all seemed to love what they were doing.
There was no yelling at all from the head chef, though at one point I was rather amused to observe him tersely urging his staff, “I have a table of hungry people staring at empty bowls right now. Come on then. Get it done!”
The synchronised plate dump
One thing that I’ve noticed about fine dining establishments is that they endeavour to not only bring out everyone’s food at the same time, they also try hard to place everyone’s plates before them at precisely the same moment. If you don’t believe me, take a look for yourself next time you’re at a fancy restaurant – even if there are only 2 of you dining, the 2 plates will be brought out by 2 waiters, who will give each other a quick glance and maybe even a slight nod right before they put the dishes down.
When a friend and I first noticed this a few years ago, we dubbed this the “synchronised plate dump”. Since then, we have considered the accuracy of synchronisation to be a mark of just how good a restaurant is. As you can imagine, our waiter and head chef’s synchronisation was faultless. Every time our waiter and the head chef approached with a dish in each hand, all 4 dishes would land on our table at exactly the same time.
First course: Aerated beetroot
The scene was set by a single crimson sphere set resplendently on a hypnotising turquoise hued platter. The unassuming morsel consisted of horseradish cream sandwiched between 2 half spheres of crisped beetroot foam. Jonny Lake, the head chef, laughed when I remarked that the flavour sort of reminded me of a giant wasabi pea, but had to concede there was some truth to my comment. This is still the best way I can think of to describe this dish, except that Heston’s version has a much more delicate Malteser-like texture and a lighter flavour that leaves you wanting for more.
We had a choice of vodka and lime sour, gin and tonic, or tequila and grapefruit flavours. I went for the 1st option.
A roughly bite-sized spherical mound of foam was dispensed onto a spoon, dropped into the liquid nitrogen, and swirled around for a few seconds until it essentially formed a mini snowball. “Eat it quickly before it melts!” our waiter instructed. So I dutifully popped the icy treat straight into my mouth without getting the chance to first photograph it. It melted almost instantly in a burst of refreshing flavour.
How I wish I had taken a leaf out of O’s book, who ignored our waiter’s advice and snapped a few pictures beforehand. As warned, her aperitif had already begun to melt. Observing this, our waiter obligingly made her a 2nd. Photos AND 2 bites at the fruit? Genius!
Third course: Red cabbage gazpacho with pommery grain mustard ice-cream
I’m not usually a fan of cold savouries, which also means I don’t particularly enjoy gazpacho as a general rule. However, Heston’s take on this dish was not only rich in colour but also depth of flavour, with the mustard adding a subtle heat that seemed to take the edge off the coldness. I was pleasantly surprised that we were on to another winner with this dish.
Fourth course: Savoury lollies
The journey then took us back to our childhoods, with each of us being presented with 3 replicas of popular ice blocks – a Rocket, a Twister, and a Feast (or, in Australia, a Golden Gaytime).
We were advised to start with the Rocket, which had the least intense flavour profile but was also the least impressive of the 3. It was essentially a representation of a Waldorf salad, with apple, celery and walnut flavours stacked one on top of the other. I found it simply, well, icy with overly subtle flavours that I struggled to detect.
Next, we sampled the Twister, which had been meticulously formed by intertwining avocado and horseradish creams around succulent tea-smoked salmon. Unsurprisingly, this tasted like a very light sushi without the rice.
Finally, we sampled the pate which was wrapped in a thin glossy gel. I have previously sampled Heston’s meat fruit at his London restaurant Dinner, and the Feast reminded me of that. Then, as now, I found the pate incredibly intense in rich flavours and creaminess, but the sprinkling of chopped nuts over the top provided just enough balance in taste and texture to prevent it from being overwhelming.
Fifth course: Jelly of quail and marron cream with caviar sorbet, oak moss and truffle toast
Next, we prepared to enter the Enchanted Forest. This next course was brought to us in 3 stages of ever increasing aromatic intensity. First, we were each given a dissolvable film that had been lightly scented in such a way as to conjure up images of a mossy forest.
Underneath the moss, we were informed later, was some dry ice. The addition of hot water over the top created an instantaneous and dramatic steamy effect that not only released the fragrance of the moss, but also simulated the experience of walking through the swirling mists of a mysterious forest. The effect was breathtaking!
Finally, the marron cream with quail jelly and accompanying truffle toast. Of course, the use of marron signifies that this is an Australian take on one of Heston’s classic dishes, and I was pleased to see that he had made the effort to source some of our fantastic local produce. The marron cream together with the quail jelly had a rich intense flavour requiring alternating sips of the cream with nibbles of the subtler truffle toast. Each element had bold strong flavours, but somehow, they all seemed to work together.
Sixth course: Snail porridge with Joselito ham and shaved fennel
This is one of Heston’s signatures – essentially de-shelled escargots on a bed of parsley butter and topped with shaved fennel. The porridge portion consists of granola buried within the parsley butter. This dish was full of flavour and textural contrasts between the crunch of the granola, the creamy parsley butter, the smooth and slightly chewy snails and the crisp fennel shavings. I enjoyed it, but still think that the best escargots can be found in Epernay.
Seventh course: Roast marron, shitake, confit kombu and sea lettuce
Another nod to Australian produce. The marron was perfectly cooked and well balanced with the earthy flavour of shitake mushrooms and the taste of the sea in the kombu and the most satisfyingly crisp dried seaweed you’ll ever taste.
Do you hear that ticking sound? This indicates that the watches are faulty. Do you remember how the White Rabbit’s faulty timepiece was fixed? By dunking it in a teapot of course! As soon as this happened, the ticking noise stopped, and the gold leafed stock dissolved, creating the mock turtle soup base that we could then pour over our mock turtle egg and perfectly cubed vegetables, truffles and beef tongue.
The consommé was light and aromatic, a perfect foil for the more intense flavoured beef tongue. The truffles added a greater depth of flavour and the vegetables added textures. I would have been satisfied with this dish on its own…but you can’t have tea without tea sandwiches. Can you?
Trust Heston to think of sandwiching toast between 2 slices of fluffy bread. The crisp middle was a clever touch that brought these morsels out of the ordinary.
Ninth course: Sound of the sea
Another signature dish. Heston ensures that all of our senses are roused by evening’s end, this time by taking us to the sea. Not only does this dish resemble the day’s catch washed up onto the seashore, he even brings us the sound of waves crashing and seagulls calling through an iPod embedded within a polished shell. I can’t really say that the edible soil, foam or audio enhanced the flavours, but they certainly didn’t detract from the quality or freshness of the seafood, and the overall result was both visually stunning and fun.
Tenth course: Salmon poached in licorice gel
I couldn’t fault the execution of this dish. The salmon was melt-in-your-mouth tender, just about the best I’ve ever had in terms of texture. But I’m just not fond of licorice or aniseed flavours, nor do I enjoy the bitterness of endives. The vanilla mayonnaise, although subtle, added yet another layer. Ultimately, I thought there were too many flavours on one plate that seemed to clash rather than complement. This was my least favourite savoury dish.
Eleventh course, option A: The lamb
We were fortunate to be dining at the Fat Duck just as they were perfecting a new dish which would later replace the lamb. As a special treat, Jonny Lake decided he would serve us both the then current eleventh course, as well as the one it would soon be replaced by, making use of this opportunity to enquire which one we preferred.
The lamb was tender, succulent and did not smell of, well, lamb, which is something that normally puts me off eating lamb. It was served with wedges of grilled cucumber, which added a nice touch of freshness and lightness.
Eleventh course, option B: The duck
The duck version of the 11th course begins with a prelude – deep fried duck chips presented in a glass filled with complementing aromatics. These had the satisfying crunch of very well made crackling, only more delicate and with a subtle duck flavour. I only wish I could have had more to nibble on!
The duck itself was served with thick, creamy, intense blood pudding and chicory. Whilst I’m not fond of chicory, everything else on the plate was beautifully balanced in salty sweetness, and the duck was again perfectly cooked.
However, once again, it was the side dish that I found to be most memorable. Shreds of duck neck caramelised to achieve an indescribably intense salty, sweet and umami flavour, encased in a crisp and delicate cigar. It was this component of the dish that ultimately placed it miles ahead of the lamb, in my opinion.
Twelfth course: Hot and cold tea
Just as I was feeling like I couldn’t possibly eat another mouthful, out came the palate cleanser, leading me to marvel at how perfectly coordinated the entire meal was, right down to the pacing and quantity of food served so that we would leave feeling satisfied but not over stuffed.
As someone who clearly enjoys taking things to extremes, it is perhaps no surprise that when Heston chooses to pare back, he takes it all the way to the other extreme. The palate cleanser was the least visually striking course of the evening.
Yet, as we know, Heston has taken the “things are not as they seem” approach to molecular gastronomy to a whole new level. So, when we were told not to turn our tea cups but to drink our tea in the direction they had been presented, we dutifully did as we were told.
Such an unassuming course, yet the experience was the most surprising of the evening. Deliciously fragrant tea, yes. The catch? One side was hot and the other cold! This mindbogglingly yet pleasantly bizarre sensation was enabled through the difference in viscosity between the hot and cold teas, which had been poured into the cup with a divider in place. The divider would then be carefully removed just before serving.
Thirteenth course: Botrytis cinerea
What a good thing it is that I have a separate stomach for dessert, for the next course was the most complex one I have had the privilege of tasting to date!
Fans of Masterchef Australia would recognise this dish as the one that Billie conquered in the 2015 finale. Some may remember that Botrytis cinerea is “noble rot”, a fungus that causes grapes to shrivel up and develop complex flavours. Some may even remember the almost ludicrous number of components that make up this striking dish, presented to resemble a bunch of grapes sitting on a soil of dried parmesan and Roquefort blue cheese powder. There’s peach jelly, a compressed red grape in liquid nitrogen, a grape gel leaf, aerated saffron, a beautiful golden sugar ball filled with pear infused yogurt, citrus sorbet, a chocolate sphere containing pear flavoured salted caramel and popping candy, a churro twig and a caramel vine.
In the words of Billie, “It’s like nothing I’ve ever eaten before.” And I couldn’t agree more!
Ordinarily, I would think that this many components would be confusing. Yet, as masterfully prepared and delicious as each element was, they all melded together perfectly to create a dish that was supremely greater than its parts.
The crumbly cheesy saltiness of the soil contrasted beautifully with the mildly sweetened and slightly tangy stickiness of the jelly and melt in your mouth gel. The compressed grape added a firmer cold element to complement the sorbet. The saffron was light and airy, and the sugar ball crunchy yet creamy. The chocolate sphere both snapped and crackled, and the churro and caramel vine added yet more crunch elements. My mind was going nineteen to the dozen trying to process all of the flavours and textures, but in the end, all I could do was just to savour and enjoy what I considered to be the piece de resistance of this meal. Let us take another chance to marvel at the sheer artistry of this amazing dish.
And here’s the recipe if you feel like making it at home.
Fourteenth course: Not-so-full English breakfast
Finally, it’s time to do some work! But first, you’re going to need your Wheaties. The cereal at the Fat Duck is made from root vegetables, and the milk is from parsnip. It all sounds strange, but is actually very tasty. I definitely wouldn’t mind eating this for breakfast on a regular basis.
Like any good cereal, Heston’s comes with a treat in the box – a puzzle piece. So this is how, as promised, every diner gets to participate in that wall-sized puzzle. No worries if you’re feeling a little tipsy by now or if you can’t reach where your piece is meant to fit, as your portion of the puzzle is brought to the table and you’re given a lot of help!
Time now for the hot breakfast. First, you’re shown the eggs which, as the story goes, have been laid by chickens that have only been fed bacon. These are then cracked into a pan and cooked in front of you with…liquid nitrogen?
Another one of Heston’s signatures, the bacon and egg ice-cream is not as wacky as it sounds. With the aid of videos on his iPad, Jonny Lake shows us how a small hole is made in each egg, through which all the contents are siphoned out, the egg is then sterilised and finally the prepared ice-cream mixture is syringed back into the egg, ready to be “cooked” in front of guests.
Bespectacled Jonny Lake looking on to ensure the waiter does his job correctly
To be honest, the ice-cream isn’t the best I’ve tasted in terms of both smoothness and flavour. But you just can’t fault the presentation. It’s served with crisp candied bacon on beautifully caramelised yet still fluffy French toast, and really DOES look like bacon and eggs on toast!
This dish is also served with a small jar of marmalade. The marmalade itself is sticky and tangy, and pairs well with the chocolate you have to break through to get to it (yes, really!). Just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen at a restaurant!
Fifteenth course: Whisky wine gums
Essentially 5 adult “Gummi bears” spiked with whisky, this was my least favourite course. Then again, this is mainly because I like my alcoholic beverages sweet, cold and preferably bubbly. There was an order in which to taste them, moving from least to most intense. Whilst the first 2-3 were subtle enough for my enjoyment, I found the last 2 too strong for my liking.
Sixteenth course: Like a kid in a sweet shop
The final course was presented in a vintage style treat bag that guests could take home if they were feeling too full by this stage. Naturally, I couldn’t resist the urge to immediately take a peek at what was inside!
Not only was the attention to detail astounding on the white chocolate, it was also delicious, being filled with tangy jam. In comparison, the other petit fours, though tasty, lacked the same wow factor.
So, was it worth spending $675 (more in accommodation and flight costs) and 5 hours of my life? Absolutely! The Fat Duck experience is not simply fine dining brought to another level – it is a magical unforgettable experience worthy of any bucket list. The attention to detail in all areas from the conception of the menu, to the preparation of each course, the theatre and the service, is beyond par. 5 hours may seem like a long time to sit through dinner, but believe me, the evening is so enjoyable that the time just flies by. If I could, I would spend that money and do it all again!
The Fat Duck was at the Crown Towers in Melbourne, but sadly has now returned to its home in Bray.
High St, Bray, West Berkshire SL6 2AQ, United Kingdom
+44 1628 580333
At its Melbourne location, you can now find Heston’s less fantastical but equally worthy restaurant, Dinner.
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