So, it’s been awhile, hasn’t it?
Yes, I am still alive.
Where have I been? Well, I took a tumble down a rabbit hole recently, and let’s just say that the usual pedestrian variety of “being alive” rather pales in comparison to the magical afternoon that followed.
Uh huh, the Fat Duck.
With the $525 minimum price tag, you can’t exactly accidentally get to this Wonderland, but after hurtling down that rabbit hole on your own steam (nearly literally – there is a long corridor you must walk yourself down, at the end of which there is a tiny door), all of your mundane, daily worries float away, along with your ordinary, good sense.
Would I like to go with the matched tea tasting, they ask, seeing as I can’t drink wine? Sure, let’s do it! Never mind that this selection of six teas alone costs the same as a full degustation at a regular restaurant. Oh no – that sort of concern is for those poor plebeian souls not currently dining in a magical fantasy land. And a $15 juice to start? Yeah, I’ll have one of those, thanks, and then I’ll promptly spill it all over the pristine tablecloth!
Never one for brevity (really, I’m just obsessively thorough), this review is a fairly massive three-parter; but I promise there will be plenty of eye candy along the way if you stick with me.
However, for those with inadequate attention spans, I’ve put together a little FAQ, which I will post here before launching into my usual diatribe. These are actual “frequently asked questions”, mind you – you have no idea how much I’ve been interrogated about my meal in the weeks following it, by all sorts of people from corporate bosses to broke-ass students, close friends to total strangers, McDonald’s lovers to strict vegans.
The Fat Duck Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: How was it?
A: Um, pretty amazing.
Q: Was it worth the money?
A: The short answer – yes, every penny.
Q: What was the food like?
A: Tasty, fun, weird – in a nutshell.
Q: Did you take photos? Can I see them?
A: Duh. Why else are we here?
Q: What was the highlight of the experience?
A: The front of house staff. They were excellent – each great at what they were doing, and engaging and attentive without fussing over us. Also, the kitchen tour we were unexpectedly given – read to the end to find out how!
Q: Your favourite dish?
A: Tricky one; they all had different noteworthy qualities. Based on taste, probably the poached salmon or snail porridge. Based on concept and all-round entertainment, possibly the not-so-full breakfast with “scrambled eggs” ice cream, or maybe the odd and whimsical mock mock turtle soup.
Q: Did you get to meet Heston?
A: Sadly, no. I believe he’s only in Melbourne for the very start and end of the Fat Duck’s run here, and we were there pretty much right in the middle of the period. I’d say I was personally insulted but actually have to admit I’ve only rarely watched him on TV and mostly know him by reputation.
Q: Do you realise how lucky you are? I entered the ballot [insert ridiculous number] times and still couldn’t get a table!
A: Yes, yes I do. And I actually got in twice (once through a friend, once through my own entry) but decided I couldn’t justify going again. Please, don’t hate me. On second thought, go ahead and hate me – I don’t care, I went to the Fat Duck without having to survive the death struggle the booking process is reputedly, or even jump on a plane.
Okay. Serious business begins here, interspersed with pretty pictures.
By the 6th of May 2015, I’d been waiting three months almost to the day since being invited (by my friend, Erwin) to dine at the Fat Duck Melbourne and more than once during that period I’d wondered about being disappointed after so much hype and anticipation. So, I tried to go in without too much prior knowledge – for example, I diligently avoided reading any reviews of either the Melbourne or Bray restaurants so I wouldn’t have any specific presumptions about the dishes.
I’m pretty pleased to now be able say that the overall experience absolutely lived up to expectations.
What really stood out for me wasn’t the taste of the dishes, but the fun of it all – the food was not only delicious, as expected, but weird and wonderful in a surprising way, as was our entire afternoon. The atmosphere was relaxed and distinctly un-stuffy. The staff members were friendly, funny and knowledgeable; they seemed like they were enjoying their jobs and were open and unpretentious. The delivery of each dish was a little performance, with playfully ridiculous stories accompanying some of them.
The tea tasting was an absolutely brilliant idea – a perfect option for those who don’t or can’t drink and normally feel left out of the matched food/beverage experience. Among those teas were some of the best I have ever tried and the taste pairings were often spot on, sometimes a better match to the dish than even the paired wine.
Our sixteen course journey started with the aerated beetroot, a small, spherical macaron-like appetiser which was unassumingly delicious. A fellow diner commented that it was like a “reverse Malteser”, being crunchy and aerated on the outside and creamy on the inside.
With the nitro-poached aperitifs, we had our first piece of food theatre and a refreshing palate cleanser. Wait staff with a trolley made pseudo-meringues using liquid nitrogen as we watched, the flavours based on our choice between a few options – vodka and lime, gin and tonic, or tequila and grapefruit. I opted for the vodka and lime because it sounded like a great way to wake up those taste buds, get myself good and ready for what was to come.
My first tea arrived around this time – a refreshing white tea described on the menu as Pre Rain Organic Anji Bai Cha from Zhejiang, China.
The gazpacho came next, red cabbage creating a beautiful reddish plum colour in the soup, poured over a Pommery grain mustard ice cream. Having ice cream as the third course certainly plays with your head a bit, but tasting it, you certainly won’t confuse it for dessert – it played out like a refreshing starter that just happened to be in ice cream format.
Next up was a course whose reputation precedes it – the visually fantastic Savoury Lollies, based on actual popular iced lollies/ice blocks/whatever you call them. Despite my loosely self-imposed Fat Duck media blackout, I had already seen many photos of this clever dish. The tiny Rocket popsicle is inspired by a waldorf salad, with layers for apple, celery and walnut; the retro Tangle Twister is actually rolled smoked Australian salmon with a swirly wrap of avocado and horseradish cream; finally, the miniature Golden Gaytime is a perfectly smooth and velvety chicken liver parfait coated in fig jelly and dipped in crushed almonds. Creativity earns the most points here, while the taste was nice but nothing mind-blowing.
I was then delivered a lovely, strong oolong to pair with the richness of the next few courses – a Traditional Iron Buddha Oolong (Tie Guan Yin Wu Long) from Fujian, China.
Walk through the Forest was the first of the two courses meant to be a multi-sensory experience. Your table is presented with a wooden block covered in oak moss, on which there sits a little plastic dispenser for each person containing what looks like a thin, translucent film, similar to those breath freshener strips. You place the strip on your tongue, and being greeted with a taste of the forest, watch as a clear liquid infused with oak moss essential oil is poured from a teapot onto the moss-covered block, which then instantly and magically turns into fragrant smoke and mist to evoke the aroma of “home fires and damp wood”. Heston wants us to engage all of our five senses here, and it works without feeling too gimmicky.
Up to this point, this course has already provided visual, aural, tactile, gustatory and olfactory stimulation and we haven’t even arrived at actual food yet. The dish proper is quail jelly drowned in an ultra-rich roasted marron cream with pea puree and a dollop of caviar sorbet, served with a thin slice of oak moss and truffle toast. Chopped very finely, the truffle packs a surprising flavour punch for the tiny size of the cracker which somehow reinforces the experience of being surrounded by the damp, dewy greenery of a forest. The marron cream is simply delicious, its richness meant to counterbalance the sharpness and freshness of the oaky, mossy, plant-based accompaniments, and it does that very well.
On the side, fresh bread is presented with butter infused with oak moss essential oil and truffle that grows under oak trees.
The Snail Porridge was one of my favourite courses in terms of taste. It seemed quite technically simple and rustic, yet a famous, long-lived Fat Duck dish – a hearty, beautifully textured soup that’s a shade of vibrant parsley green with meltingly tender braised snails, Joselito ham, topped with marinated fennel shavings. As much as I enjoy escargots the French way, I loved this much more. The flavours were rich and complex yet, not being completely drowned in garlic and butter, didn’t overwhelm the neutral-tasting snails, allowing them to actually be the star of their own dish. It was one of my dining companions’ first taste of the mollusc (never having had the traditional French dish) and his opinion was much the same. Yes, this is definitely a yummy, warming, (very expensive) comfort food that I wanted more of when I reached the bottom of the bowl.
The third tea, a Japanese sencha, turned up at this stage – organic Gyokuro from Uji. The leaves were very attractive – deep green and needle-like – and brewed, it was rich and beautifully fragrant with a distinctly sweet taste which accompanied the next dishes well.
I think the Roast Marron was probably one of the more “normal” siblings in this motley Fat Duck family of dishes, in that most of what was on the plate was actually what it looked like it was. Here, the quality of the ingredients was really able to shine and the marron was fresh and tender. Confit kombu, cured shiitake and sea lettuce lent natural saltiness and umami to balance with the sweetness of the marron. I read in another review somewhere that the writer thought there was too much going on in this dish, but I disagree. If anything, I thought it was lovely, but was slightly underwhelmed by the sheer normality. In hindsight, I think it was probably a good idea to have this little break from the surreal in preparation for the next course, which was definitely the weirdest of the lot!
Read Part 2…
Still to come:
- All the things!
- Mad Hatter’s tea party and the mock mock turtle soup!
- An iPod in a giant seashell!
- Moarrr tea!
- Egg & bacon ice cream?
- That mouldy grape dessert thing from Masterchef…