When one of my dearest friends planned to fly in from Australia and suggested I take a day off work to feast in a place which has been named “The World’s Best Restaurant”, I was beyond delighted: he couldn’t have asked someone more enthusiastic.
Before I get started I must tell you that:
- The Fat Duck is an exceptionally unique experience. In other words? Spoiler alert! If you have any intention of going, I would recommend you skip this post. Before you even get to the ratings at the bottom, I can assure you this is a fantastic and memorable experience, and you should allow yourself to experience all the surprise and wonder of it without me ruining it for you;
- This review will not be like the others, as I cannot cover a dining experience that spanned five hours in the same way I would any other restaurant. Some parts will be covered in more detail than others, but there is a LOT to cover and some of it will have to be covered in a light-touch approach as I’m not looking to write a book here.
With all that said, let’s get started!
Arrival at the Fat Duck wasn’t complicated: there isn’t much else in the tiny village of Bray, and parking was found easily enough across the road. As we made our way to the building we were greeted, still outside, by a well-dressed and uniformed gentleman who showed us in. Our names were confirmed in the small foyer, which contained little else besides a 3D-like animation that suggested a taste of things to come. Our coats and umbrellas were taken, we were let in and shown to our seats.
We were surprised to see just how simple the internal decor was. Quite frankly, it was perhaps a little too simple. The tables were dressed in crisp, perfectly clean linens and beautiful flatware, the staff was polished in their uniforms, but our surrounding were bare and even a little gloomy. With its low ceilings, my dining companion described it as similar to a bunker; another friend and previous diner was a little kinder, describing it as similar to a pub. The meal, service and overall experience we were about to have were entirely incongruous to the decor. True, the lighting above each table at least served to also provide a bit more of an immersive experience, but that was as much of a tool for the service staff as anything else (much like other techniques that have been carefully designed).
So, having sat down, you are presented with a wine list that is just about as big as those huge bibles they use in church services which you imagine are written in font size 172. That is because this list really is extensive, and there is such a thing in life as too much choice. I could have easily been overwhelmed and taken ages in the selection process. Luckily, in this case our choice of a glass of Sancerre each was a very simple one: (a) I was driving and limited to one glass; and (b) we had not yet won the lottery. The prices were exorbitant, naturally. Those that fell in our price point were few and far between.
Wine choice out of the way, the fun could begin. We started with a cocktail – served on a spoon. And that pretty much sets the tone for what the rest of the experience is like: original, surprising, and full of wonder. We selected the cocktail for us though our own playing cards, and our ‘drink’ of choice – based on palate and flavour preferences indicated on the cards – was raised among the others as if in a poker game. My pina colada was made with liquid nitrogen and, while cold outside, it was as refreshing and liquid as any pina colada I’ve had before. Serving it on a spoon made it so much more fun, though! My friend’s drink was just as original, as oil from the orange peel was passed through a flame and into the liquid nitrogen to get that perfect effect. We were more than impressed.
While we are still recovering from our surprise, Jess – our storyteller – introduces herself and informs us that our day will consist of going on one of Heston’s childhood holidays to Cornwall: from the anticipation of preparing before departure right through to the end. She wasn’t kidding either; we receive a map and itinerary (below) – and the accompanying dishes are written in the tiniest of fonts, but that’s what the magnifying glass on the table is for! I felt a little like Alice in Wonderland as she embarks on her journey…
We start with a tonic before we go to set the mood, and that consists of smoked cumin royale with Jerusalem artichoke ice cream. Sounds curious, doesn’t it? I couldn’t have imagined it being presented as beautifully as it was. Moreover, I was blown away – with this dish and throughout – with the unique flavour combinations, the way they were so perfectly balanced and yet so distinct, and the creative, artistic mastery in the presentation. This was special.
We reflected and marvelled over this orchestra of flavours, but it was soon time to begin the holiday! As with any stay away, the day began with a breakfast card for us to complete, which we did with our Fat Duck pencils in the colour of our choice. This wasn’t just a whimsical nod to our childhood: through this subtle mechanism they distinguished by breakfast choices from those of my friend, and our silverware for the breakfast portion matched the colour of our pencils; it was rather ingenious in its effectiveness and simplicity.
Hungry as we were (we both skipped our actual breakfasts for this feast!), we opted for nearly everything (as you’d be advised to do!). This included brioche served with salt on top which was warm and heavenly – easily best brioche I’ve ever had and could have had just that on repeat for the meal. It was served with creamy butter as well as coffee and tomato jam, which sounds like it shouldn’t work but it really does! It was nice to have a jam that wasn’t overly sweet! We had this with ‘hot and cold’ tea, which was entirely unexpected. Imagine drinking a tea that looks like it’s a single, homogenous drink, and then experiencing two different teas: iced tea and classic warm tea, all in the same sip. I don’t know what magic they cast in that kitchen of theirs but I was left feeling like a child experiencing the world for the first time, in all my awe and wonder.
Breakfast continued with ‘cereal’ presented in those cute, tiny boxes that anyone who was a child in the 80s will remember, but of course there is more than meets the eye here with this cereal. The dish of truffled egg mousse was quite simply delightful: a grown-up take on a childhood breakfast, but not without some childhood nostalgia! Remember those surprise toys you’d find in every cereal box? Well, we found one too! A wooden box we had to assemble ourselves and a ‘coin’ to use in the sweet shop later. This was clever both in its recreation of a childhood experience as well as in the creation of the feeling of further anticipation over what’s to come!
And let me just say before I go on that it’s precisely in that way that this experience is so special: it’s not just the tens of dishes, the gimmicks and tricks, the lighting and the storytelling each on their own. It’s the way that when it all comes together, you really do feel like you’ve been transported to another place, another space in time. Sure, we’ve all had that taste of our favourite childhood food that takes us back, but I’ve never had an entire meal with tastes, sounds and sights create that experience for me to this extent ever before.
Next stage in the holiday experience was trip to the sea, and that is exactly what they created for us, initially through sound. A conch shell was presented to us with headphones coming out of it so that we could hear the sound of the seaside, waves and all, while we enjoyed our seaside dishes. And quite frankly, I do believe it makes a difference – especially when you are eating a dish that looks like you’ve literally picked it up from the sea. Sand and all. Everything presented on this glass – including the sea foam, algae and ‘sand’ – was edible. The fish was delicate and light. I felt like I was there; it was a pure moment.
It’s not a trip to the seaside without ice lollies, and we were presented both a savoury (of seafood and horseradish) and a sweet (of walnut and berry) lolly in a whimsical manner that made us both feel like children.
And then we went rockpooling… Jessica explained this tradition to us, this fun ‘hide and seek’ game of finding crabs and other shellfish on the shore. This feeling was recreated when the dish of cornish crab, smoked caviar, trout roe with veloute’ of white chocolate and sea vegetables was presented on a very unusual dish: it was a bit of a hide and seek game of making sure you found all the food! Practically speaking, it was a little tedious eating off of this dish, but I suppose this is where you’re supposed to keep your childlike wonder about you and focus on the overall experience.
…and after a morning by the sea, in the afternoon we go to the woods. The woodland centerpiece that was placed on the table had more than an aesthetic purpose: once activated the vase filled with smoke and released beautiful scents of the woods, the most prominent I picked up was pine. It very much succeeded in changing the atmosphere from our morning at the sea. The accompanying dish that followed was also very much in theme: beetroot, blackberry and mushrooms were among the key flavours and baby worms even made a presence on the dish, which added to texture. Perhaps the only ‘fault’ I could give it is that truffle, typically a strong flavour, wasn’t picked up by either of us even though it was very clearly present on the plate. But otherwise, it was a delight of flavours and I felt like I’d been on a walk in the woods and had been scavenging as I went. Albeit in a far more refined manner!
Next it was onto the mock turtle soup! I appreciated getting the introduction on how mock turtle soup came to be; the history is as interesting as the original soup was! But was was clever was how this teacup in two parts was presented: a ‘gold watch’ in a box was presented for me to emerge into this golden liquid; as it dissolved, I could then pour it onto the bottom part of my teacup and enjoy this original mock turtle soup and egg. Yes, of course it tasted amazing; savoury, delightful flavours danced on my tongue. But it was the creativity of the dish that most left me inspired.
Our mock turtle soup was served with a ‘toast’ sandwich. This is entirely true: there was toast in the middle of two pieces of bread. But ah, by now you’ve figured out that at the Fat Duck, that is never the full story! It tasted as delicious as any savoury afternoon tea sandwich I’ve ever had, the only difference was the unexpected crunch in the middle, which was delightful and put a smile on both of our faces… until we learned it was dinner time! We were starting to get full by this point, but the main meal was yet to come!
We began our dinner with a palate cleanser: a delightful ball of horseradish, beetroot and mascarpone cream which was tart, sour and sweet all at the same time. We were also served homemade two-flour bread and homemade butter made from Somerset cream, which was every so slightly salty just as you’d like it.
The ‘starter’ was the lasagne of langoustine… at this point in this epic meal I was a little concerned about how heavy I know lasagne to be, but I had nothing to worry about. The dish – small in portion anyway – was rather light and more like a decomposed lasagne: no thick, heavy layers. Served with a pea puree’, meat reduction and topped with perfectly cooked, tender baby asparagus, it was delicate and divine.
When the choice of main was requested, it seemed unthinkable to choose anything but the duck: the restaurant’s namesake, after all. Served with turnips and blood pudding, I admit I was a little hesitant about the blood pudding – but I had no need to be. The dish, served with concentrated flavours of blood pudding and mint, topped with duck heart and with turnips that looked like glazed scallops, it was sublime. I was grateful the bread came around again, because uncouth as it may have been, I mopped up the dish and left no drop. And, as hearty as a dish sounds by description, as if it would be presented at a high-end gastropub for a Sunday roast option, this was as beautifully plated and presented as any other dish.
It was now time for dessert and, as I’m not typically a fan of mango, I was a little apprehensive yet again with the upcoming mango, and kumquat dessert. But as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, it was light and delicious. I find mango to be overly sweet and often following with a less than desirable aftertaste, but this was in no way the case here. The dessert was sweet but not overly, and was as pretty as a picture. Yes, there was a bit of side leakage from underneath the edges of the dessert, but I cannot fault them for that when it was such a stunning dessert otherwise.
After a delightful holiday, it’s time to go to bed – but not before a hot chocolate! Teas, coffees and hot chocolates were presented in a menu but I opted for the restaurant’s signature ‘choc chai’ – and I’m so glad I did. The combination of the warm flavours of a ‘chai’ with the sweetness of a ‘choc’ ensured a delightful drink that wasn’t overpoweringly sweet. This perfectly balanced treat consisted of 85% cocoa, coconut milk that had been prepared for 24 hours in advance, and an array of ginger and spices. Oh, to go to bed with one of these every night!
But the surprises don’t end there! The beverage was served with a meringue. A delicious, small, simple meringue, but of course at the Fat Duck they don’t do subtle: it was served on a gravity-defying pillow. The pillow, floating as if to mimic the lightness of the meringue, was just the trick to send you off to sleep after a lovely day of holiday.
Now that the kiddies have gone to bed, it’s time for the digestifs – in this case, presented as a selection of whiskey gums. Precisely because of the relatively low alcohol content, the whiskey flavour really comes out – which actually created the sensation for me that I was drinking several whiskies! I learned later that they have a non-alcoholic alternative with teas around the world that go from matcha to Earl Grey as an alternative, and are designed for vegetarians as they are made without gelatin.
Now that our experience has come to an end, they certainly wouldn’t let us leave empty-handed! Remember that coin for the sweet shop we had saved? Jess has reminded us about it, as it’s time to spend it:
This beautifully designed sweet shop is modelled after the building in which the Fat Duck is located, with same window panels and all. Lovely as it is, the fun starts when the shop opens and an automated mechanism causes the drawers inside to open and close like a game at a summer festival. The last drawer that remains open is the one whose contents get put in your sweet shop bag to take home with you.
Cheeky as I am, early on in the evening I had asked if there was any way of earning more coins – more out of curiosity than anything else, as I didn’t know what the sweet shop experience was going to be like and if it was just going to be one wine gum I figured I’d see what I could do about it – especially as it was a birthday treat, and they knew it. Well, aside from the card they had presented me at the start of the dinner that was signed by the whole of the staff, my little drawer came with a second coin, so I got to have two sweet shop bags! So sweet… literally! So, what’s in the bag, you ask?
The Oxchoc (right, above) consists of layers of nougat, caramel and shortbread, and has roots back to the 1890s; very appropriately matched to the old style of the sweet shop. The pie caramel (left, above) is chewy and tasty but the best part is surely that you can eat it with the whole wrapper – that’s the fun in it! The middle chocolate, light as a feather with huge air bubbles created with nitrogen gas, as a perfect shiny surface and its textures are a delight in them of themselves. But my favourite? That was the queen of hearts:
This beautiful piece is creative, inspiring and fun: the edible seal on the envelope, the appearance of a perfectly normal playing card, and then, the jam tart flavour when you bite into it… To me, this final touch summarises all of the surprise and wonder of the experience throughout.
Before they sent us on our way, we had the pleasure of visiting the wine ‘cellar’ (more accurately the wine attic, as it was upstairs. The vast collection of wines – some that date back prior to the second World War – were far too intimidating for me to even consider touching! I am far too clumsy and have far too much respect for the wine.
Of greater interest to me was the visit to the kitchen. Visiting the kitchens of the world’s best restaurants, you notice the same remarkable features: how they are spotless, how they have no lingering food smells, how the team functions like a well-oiled machine – or more like an orchestra of musicians who each play their part in harmony and balance with the others, all as important to the overall experience as each other. I love seeing where the magic happens.
And so, my friends, there you have it. I’m sure you can see why the dining experience took us nearly five hours! Before I get to my scores, I will leave some final observations:
- Among the clever tricks utilised to pull off this experience efficiently, there was the repetitive use of key ingredients throughout. Items like beetroot, mascarpone and others featured in multiple dishes. I don’t say this as a criticism; more like an appreciation for their savviness to be efficient while creating such novel experiences with every dish.
- Hands down, this has been the best customer service experience of my life – and this goes far beyond the extra sweet shop coin or the birthday card, which could have been done elsewhere. I was impressed the way that every time someone sneezed in any corner of the restaurant, one of the staff would come right away with a tissue box (a beautifully encased tissue box, of course), ready at hand. Also, it was absolutely remarkable the way that when I finished the first breakfast course, one of the servers took note that I had been eating with my left hand. She asked to confirm if I was indeed left-handed, and for the next course, positioned the spoon at the top of the dish in the opposite direction for my convenience. This has NEVER been done for me before – not even by my own mother. I felt special and looked after; it was wonderful.
- The thing about the Fat Duck is that it isn’t a restaurant with an a’ la carte menu for you to choose dishes from: the experience is one and only, and there are very few selections made. In other words, you’d come here once and that’s the experience; that’s it. Once you’ve done it you wouldn’t do it again – at least not until they revise with a new journey, which I don’t believe happens more frequently than once a year at best (and given the prep work involved, it’s easy to see why!). So it’s unfair to consider whether or not I’d come back as a judgement on whether or not the experience was a great one.
*Calories: if you think I logged calories for this meal with any success, then I’m sorry to disappoint you but that’s practically impossible. I just enjoyed this one and ate sensibly for the next several days.
Food taste: 4.8 / 5 (Of course it was delicious; more so it created tastes that were new to me and textures I hadn’t experienced before. Magic. Very little deduction for the points raised above, such as the undetectable truffle in the woodland dish )
Food/table presentation: 5 / 5 (Original, unique, inspired. In constant awe.)
Service: 5 / 5 (As per my second bullet point above in the closing reflections, I have never experienced a higher degree of care and attention in the service.)
Atmosphere/decor: 3.5 / 5 (I have no choice but given the bunker-style room we dined in I don’t know how how I not to give an average score, which is only boosted a bit by the spotless kitchen, and the high tech toilet of the likes I haven’t seen since I was in Japan )
Value for money: 4 / 5 (The dining experience, drinks, and service all combined? We paid about 400 GBP per person. Is it the most costly meal I have ever paid for on a per-person basis? Absolutely. Is it worth the cost? Absolutely, for this one-of-a-kind experience. And that’s why I still rate it highly for value for money ).
Overall rating: 4.5/ 5