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The Fat Duck Melbourne – Part 3: Farewell to Wonderland :(

So, here it is, the end of the road…

If you haven’t already, you should read Part 1 and Part 2.

*    *    *

After sitting at our table for maybe four hours at this point, we were well into the late afternoon. So naturally, it was time for breakfast!

Adventurous as my palate is, it’s never been as open with overly strange desserts. Creative, cutting-edge gelatarias may experiment with sausage ice cream (hint – they do) but I probably wouldn’t try it unless coerced or dared. I made one exception with this next dish – the Not-so-full English Breakfast – and this skeptic was certainly schooled.

This course was really the most fun I’ve ever had eating out anywhere. Let me present-tense it for you so you can live in the moment: A waitress arrives at our table with a trolley and tells us she is going to serve us bacon and eggs. She shows us an egg (with the Fat Duck logo subtly marked on it) and “explains” that their eggs taste just like bacon and eggs, because they feed bacon sandwiches to the chickens who lay them, oh and they flew them all the way over to Melbourne from the UK – all this with a straight face, mind you, and I could imagine the more gullible maybe believing her.

The eggs of bacon-sandwich eating chickens

The eggs of bacon-sandwich eating chickens

The young woman then cracks some of the magic eggs into a saucepan to cook; oops, she then says, she has forgotten the gas – how is she going to cook the eggs? Oh look, here is a silver jug inexplicably handy, “I carry this with me everywhere and it seems to solve all of my problems, so I’ll just try it…” The jug just happens to contain liquid nitrogen, which she pours onto the eggs and then stirs with a wooden spatula. After hardly any time at all, the mixture inside the saucepan looks exactly like scrambled eggs, except that it has a “mysterious” cool mist surrounding it, and *gasp* – it’s actually ice cream! Magic and bacon sandwiches, indeed.

Some sorcery is happening here

Some sorcery is happening here

Some other wait staff then appears with plates of thick sticky brioche French toast. The slice of toast on each plate is topped with a thin strip of streaky candied bacon – beautifully glossy, satisfyingly crunchy and sweet. A generous helping of the nitro egg-and-bacon ice cream then tops it all off; and while the ice cream itself isn’t mind-blowingly amazing, eating all three elements on the plate together, the result is a glorious party in your mouth. On the side, an adorable little jar of marmalade each with a red gingham lid which just happens to be edible.

Nitro egg and bacon ice cream with candied bacon on French brioche toast

Nitro egg and bacon ice cream with candied bacon on French brioche toast

Marmalade with edible lid

Marmalade with edible lid

Oh, but that’s not all. We’ve all been given tiny, individual cereal boxes with a cartoon of a wizard Heston and the Fat Duck Melbourne clock printed on the front, and on the back, the story of how Heston came up with this amazing dish. Cereal is inside the box, yes, but 1) the cereal isn’t made from any type of grain but actually flakes of dried, sweet root vegetables and pop rocks and 2) there’s also a very inedible piece of chunky jigsaw puzzle. I’ll get to the puzzle piece later. To go with our all-natural not-cereal, there’s a surprisingly creamy and delicious parsnip milk. Quite simple, so good – I wish this was my breakfast every day.

The story of Heston's Not-So-Full English Breakfast

The story of Heston’s Not-So-Full English Breakfast

Carrot and parsnip "cereal" and my puzzle piece

Carrot and parsnip “cereal” and my puzzle piece

*    *    *

Just before the next course, we got our chance to forever leave our mark on the Fat Duck. Well, at least for the next few months – I don’t know what they’re planning to do with the massive jigsaw puzzle on the wall when it’s finally complete at the end of the Fat Duck’s Melbourne run. On the back of the puzzle piece we each received, there is a unique ID which both tells you where your piece physically goes, and I guess so you can brag to people that you were puzzle piece T19 S47 (*ahem* that’s me) and be forever commemorated as a 2 cm bit of super-thick cardboard. Yes, each diner gets their own unique bit of the puzzle, but you don’t get to (have to?) walk up to the monstrous thing on the wall and figure out where to put it – a staff member comes by your table with a 9 x 9 board specifically for the time period of your reservation (eg. Lunch, Wednesday 6th May) which greatly narrows down the area in which you have to hunt for where your piece belongs.

My piece of the Fat Duck Melbourne puzzle

My piece of the Fat Duck Melbourne puzzle

*    *    *

Being deathly intolerant to strong liquor, there’s not a lot I can say about the Whisky Wine Gums which marked the end of our journey, not counting take-home goodies. It was clever and cute that they arrived stuck to the glass of a framed map of Scotland – each candy is made from a different Scotch Whisky and is placed on the map at the region in which the distillery originates. I had a small bite of each whisky gum (in order to not die, and saving the rest to take home), and even to my extremely inexperienced palate, each one was distinct in flavour and strength – some were smokier, some were sweeter, some tasted “more alcoholic”. Okay. That’s all I’ve got.

Scotch whisky wine gums

Scotch whisky wine gums

*    *    *

We certainly weren’t to be sent home empty-handed. After the whisky gums, we were each given a gorgeous pink-and-white striped paper bag with a card entitled “Like A Kid In A Sweet Shop”, with a menu of the bag’s contents listed underneath. The card also said “smell me” – I felt as silly as Alice when I obeyed, but it smelt like, well, a sweet shop. I definitely felt like a little kid right then. Certainly no candy shop today would give me such an adorable paper bag to put my sweets in, so it was like I’d stepped into a 1930s movie where I was out of my depth.

While we would have had plenty of time to open up each of the goodies while still chatting leisurely at our table, we all opted to take them home to extend our Fat Duck experience for as long as possible.

Like A Kid In A Sweet Shop

Like A Kid In A Sweet Shop

So, what was inside? My favourite was a thick playing card made of white chocolate – Queen of hearts on the front and a classic card design on the back. Perfectly printed – how do you print a sheet of chocolate this perfectly? Or is it hand painted that precisely with food colouring? There was a little dome of dark chocolate – lightly aerated like a high-end Cadbury Bubbly and filled with mandarin jelly, an “apple pie caramel” wrapped in a clear edible film, and lastly, the “oxchoc”, made of wagyu nougat (who knew?), Guinness and beef caramel. The strange combination of this last one prompted me to save it in my fridge for three long days before I finally gave in and devoured it – not because I was worried about it being too weird but because I wanted my final tangible remnant of the Fat Duck to be as adventurous and interesting as the whole wonderful afternoon was for me. This last surviving candy turned out to be rich and delicious, but the flavour wasn’t as beefy or Guinness-y as I expected – it was there, but subtle. A satisfying end.

Queen of Hearts white chocolate playing card; aerated chocolate and mandarin jelly; apple pie caramel; oxchoc - wagyu nougat and Guinness beef caramel

Queen of Hearts white chocolate playing card; aerated chocolate and mandarin jelly; apple pie caramel; oxchoc – wagyu nougat and Guinness beef caramel

*    *    *

At the beginning of this epic, monstrous thing, I mentioned spilling very expensive juice everywhere. I also mentioned in the FAQ that we received a tour of the Fat Duck’s main kitchen. I’ll explain both –

I really did spill strawberry and pepper juice across half the table. This was a good thing. Why? Well, while they were cleaning it up, they discreetly whisked us away to the kitchen for a little tour! This had me thinking I should strategically spill drinks at all upmarket restaurants if I want to see what goes on behind the scenes.

One of the kitchens of the Fat Duck Melbourne

One of the kitchens of the Fat Duck Melbourne

We were told that the kitchen we were standing in was one of the three kitchens where the Fat Duck magic is cooked up – we were in the hot kitchen, and there was a cold kitchen, and another one downstairs somewhere. It was very quiet for a commercial kitchen (great, now I’ve done that thing where I’ve typed “kitchen” so many times it doesn’t look like a word anymore) but with no lack of bustle and activity. It was super organised, with no yelling, and every chef was focused intently on their task in their workspace.

During this little impromptu kitchen tour, which I later confirmed definitely was not a privilege extended to all guests (just VIPs or especially clumsy ones, I guess), we gained some other titbits of insight into the Fat Duck Melbourne. For example, there are 35 or so chefs working in the kitchens all up, and about the same number of front-of-house personnel. This means that the number of staff at any one time exceeds that of the number of diners that can be seated in the restaurant at a time (56).

Plating up the roast marron in the kitchen

Plating up the roast marron in the kitchen

Taking into consideration their wages, the cost of the superior ingredients and fancy equipment and the probably astronomical rent prices in the Crown complex, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think Heston couldn’t possibly be making much profit out of the restaurant from the seemingly exorbitant prices alone. Plus, it took the top two Masterchef contestants – who had been cooking under time constraints daily for three months – five hours to create just one course; I can’t begin to imagine how many hours of work goes into the preparation of the entire repertoire of culinary wizardry.

I had the good fortune of dining with companions who also realised this, and fully appreciated the entire experience. Although I had never met two thirds of my table before that day, we all got along fabulously through our love of food – conversation followed easily with casual discussion of the dishes and banter with the staff.

The Great Fat Duck Melbourne Jigsaw Puzzle

The Great Fat Duck Melbourne Jigsaw Puzzle as at the beginning of May.

Would I go back? Yes. But probably not for the next couple of years at least – not merely because my poor bank account needs time to recover (or that I don’t have chance in hell of getting another reservation anytime soon), but because I want to give Heston and team a chance to create some new weird and wonderful dishes before I visit them again. Due to how much time, science and ingenuity goes into dreaming them up and perfecting them, the courses offered at the Fat Duck don’t change as much as at other high end restaurants – it can take some years to be retired, while a few stick around as iconic staples. So, while my afternoon in Wonderland was amazing, I’m not in a hurry to drop another seven hundy until I get to try a good proportion of totally new things.

But I will be back, Fat Duck. Bye for now and thanks for a great time.

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The Fat Duck Melbourne – Part 2: The adventure continues

You should go and read Part 1 HERE.


Okay, let’s go.

*    *    *

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party is a Very Important Course, not only because it’s one of the most talked about, but it’s also the symbol, the icon of the current Fat Duck brand, which, if you hadn’t noticed, is full of Alice in Wonderland motifs and references both sneaky and obvious. This dish is essentially a mock mock turtle soup. For anyone who doesn’t know, actual mock turtle soup is a soup made from cheap organ meats that imitate the texture of actual turtle meat used in green (non-mock) turtle soup. Yep – nothing like a bit of light 1700s food trivia. Well, there are no calves brains here at the Fat Duck in 2015, and nothing is as it appears. There is something that looks so like an egg, you would never believe it wasn’t if you weren’t told by your waiter that the egg yolk was made of swede and the egg white of turnip – not a single ounce of vessel-of-potential-chicken-embryo in it at all.

Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Mock Turtle Soup

The tea party bit goes like this – you are given a clear teapot and a clear teacup. In the teacup sits the aforementioned not-an-egg. Planted in the mock egg are tiny golden enoki mushrooms. Arranged around this are tiny cubes of ox tongue (I think!) and pickled turnip and cucumber, garnished with tiny micro parsley. Then you’re presented with a “gold watch” that is not gold nor watch, and is used like a tea bag, except it’s also not a teabag. Confused? Drop the not-a-teabag-or-a-watch in your clear teapot and when dissolved in warm liquid, it disappears and turns the darkening liquid into a beautiful mushroom-y stock. Pour this into the teacup with the not-an-egg and voilà, your mock mock turtle soup.

Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Mock Turtle Soup

Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Mock Turtle Soup

But wait, there’s more! The soup is served with little mini sandwiches with toasted bread that includes among its delicate fillings black truffle, bone marrow butter, egg white salad and a really good mayonnaise. Of course, not even sandwiches can be presented ordinarily at the Fat Duck so the platter is decorated with a big, feathered top hat – on theme as ever.
If I had to describe this course with one word, it would be whimsical. If I had three words, I would add weird, and what-is-this-sorcery? As much as I enjoyed the experience, I honestly believe my brain was too confused to form a truly accurate and critical assessment of the actual tastiness. I think it was delicious?

Mad Hatter's Tea Party - Sandwiches with bone marrow butter and black truffle and other stuff

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Sandwiches with bone marrow butter and black truffle and other stuff

*    *    *
Well, that chaos was followed by Sound of the Sea, another course that engaged many senses. First, you’re given a giant seashell – each person at our table had a unique one. You notice fairly quickly that there are some earphones poking out of the shell; place them in your ears and you’ll actually hear a soothing soundtrack of waves crashing on sand and other (you guessed it) sounds of the sea. The edible part of the course is served upon on beautiful glass-topped block and arranged beautifully to represent a beach. There is the fluffy foam ocean (made from seaweed stock), various flora and fauna of red samphire, green samphire, butterfish, abalone and kingfish, all resting on a bed of convincing coarse textured “sand”, magicked up using fried baby anchovies, tapioca starch and nuts.

yes, those are earphones poking out of a giant seashell.

yes, those are earphones poking out of a giant seashell.

Despite the combination of taste and sound elements, it actually didn’t feel like a complicated dish by Fat Duck standards, at least to the diner sitting at the end of the undoubtedly painstaking preparation process. As with “Walk Through the Forest”, Heston no doubt wants to bring to mind our own personal experiences – this time, memories of sand and sea, perhaps a childhood summer at the beach. I can tell you that this worked quite well on many people, even making some diners quite emotional. Being a bit of a robot at times, I’ll say I enjoyed the dish for other reasons – I love fresh seafood in all its forms, so I loved this course, and thought it was as clever as I was coming to expect from this restaurant.

Sound of the Sea

Sound of the Sea

*    *    *

Before the next course was served, I was delivered my fourth tea – Bohea Lapsang from Fujian, China; a hong cha (straight translation: “red tea”, closest actual translation: “black tea”). The bohea had an unbelievably smoky aroma and taste, very complex, and so rich. This might have been my favourite tea, or perhaps it was only because it was by far the best tea and food pairing of the day – it went so well with the dish that came next that everyone at my table agreed that it was a better match for it than the wine.

a crowd of tea, all for me

a crowd of tea, all for me

*    *    *

The salmon poached in liquorice gel arrived at the table with little pomp and ceremony; yet the dish looked gorgeous, with the salmon encased in a glossy chocolate-coloured coat of liquorice, topped with golden trout roe, lying beside prettily browned witlof and surrounded by morsels of juicy king grapefruit, with droplets of fragrant vanilla bean mayonnaise and dots of balsamic reduction livening up the plate.

Salmon poached in a liquorice gel, vanilla mayonnaise, balsamic reduction, endive and king grapefruit

Salmon poached in a liquorice gel, vanilla mayonnaise, balsamic reduction, endive and king grapefruit

I’m not normally a fan of liquorice at all (what is the point of it?) but it was quite subtle here – striking a gentle balance between its slight savoury-bitterness and the sweetness of the salmon and caramelised witloof – and the gel casing helped retain the juices of the perfectly cooked fish. Yes, the fish, by the way (having been cooked sous-vide, I’m told) was melt-in-your-mouth tender, almost creamy; and, I’ll admit that the liquorice likely had a strong hand in helping the flavour of this dish meld so perrrrfectly with the smoky bohea tea.

*    *    *

Saltbush lamb saddle, caviar oil, cucumber and caraway

Saltbush lamb saddle, caviar oil, cucumber and caraway

Calling the Lamb with Cucumber the least memorable course of the day wouldn’t be untrue, but it also wouldn’t tell you that it was still a lovely dish. There was no bad food here – how could there be, with each course having be developed, refined, served and improved over many years? Nevertheless, my recollection of the main part of this lamb course is pretty fuzzy, most of my strong impressions from the stunning accompaniment of lamb consomme jelly infused with mint – dark and meltingly rich, topped beautifully by a borage flower and served with crispy quinoa biscuit. Also on the side were cubes of lamb tongue, heart and scrag, a variety of textures, each full of flavour. The main plate of saltbush lamb saddle – with cumin, cucumber with green pepper and caraway, caviar oil and a gel made from fish stock and mint butter – was as well-cooked and pleasant as you’d expect, but failed to blow me away, though others named it as a favourite dish.

Lamb consomme jelly, quinoa biscuit

Lamb consomme jelly, quinoa biscuit

*    *    *
The next course was understandably recommended with no accompanying beverage. Seeing that it was the Hot & Iced Tea, it would have been especially awkward to pair a “tea” with another tea. The little glass of amber liquid that turned up looked simple and unassuming, but oh boy, did it pique my interest. Exactly one half of the content of the glass was cold as iced tea and the other half (occupying the other side of the glass) was warm as, well, a nice cuppa. The drink is a somewhat thick, syrupy consistency that is not truly a liquid, but actually a gel made up of millions of tiny bits of broken down jelly – this is how the separation of the hot and cold sides is achieved (well, that’s the easy version – if you want the full method and explanation, chemistry and all, just ask Google). We were instructed by wait staff not to wait too long before drinking and not to turn the glass before drinking – advice which made sense once we understood that it was served at the perfect angle to present even proportions of the hot side and the cold side on first sip. The tea itself? As far as I could tell, it was a regular earl grey with hints of lemon and honey – tasty but not unfamiliar flavours.

it's warm, it's cool, it's hot and iced tea.

it’s warm, it’s cool, it’s hot and iced tea.

*    *    *
Okay, I’ll be honest here – I’m kind of running out of steam after writing about one, two, three… twelve courses and four teas, and the final tea (Cassia oolong from Fujian, China), served right before the dessert courses wasn’t all that memorable for me. Honestly, if you’ve read this far, then… well, I’m surprised that you’ve read this far. Anyway. Moving on.

*    *    *
First up of the sweet courses was the Botrytis Cinerea – no doubt now famous among ordinary Australians due to its starring role in the grand finale of Masterchef 2015 (and this is how I know I’ve waited too long to post this blog). This captivatingly gorgeous – and I mean seriously beautiful – dish was introduced to us as a “tribute to dessert wines on a plate”. Botrytis cinerea, we were told, is a type of mould that can grow on grapes and some other fruits.

Rather embarrassingly, my Fat Duck lunch happened well before the Masterchef season had even started, but I was grateful for Heston showing up in that final episode, because oh boy, did his explanation of this dish save me a lot of time recalling and researching and zooming in on my photos.

Botrytis cinerea - really, "grape fungus". But fancy.

Botrytis cinerea – really, “grape fungus”. But fancy.

The botrytis fungus comes in two forms – a grey rot, and a “noble” rot. It’s this second type, the result of dry conditions following wet or humid conditions, that helps create a great dessert wine grape. “The grapes shrivel up, they lose their moisture and they develop all these really complex flavours. So, what we’ve done is taken the flavour characteristics and then we’ve also looked at what molecules create those flavours and we’ve used that to inspire the ingredients.”

The base of the dish plays on the dessert wine and cheese idea, and is made of a soil of dried parmesan and Roquefort blue cheese powder. Some of the elements on the plate include peach jelly (a sort of wine gum), compressed red grape dipped in nitrogen, a grape fluid gel, citrus sorbet, aerated saffron (kind of a meringue), a green-grape coloured white chocolate sphere filled with pear caramel and popping candy, a stunning gold sugar ball filled with citrus-infused yogurt, and a stalk made of churros. And there’s more – oh, so much more. Tenplay has decided to publish the full recipe on their website, although I’m not sure how many home cooks are keen enough to attempt this thing or even have the equipment that seems to be required!

Oh, my impressions? Delicious, interesting, delightfully varied textures, pretty – definitely favourable, but not my favourite. I tend to most love the savoury dishes in a tasting menu, or maybe I just don’t have a full appreciation for dessert wines due to my intolerance to them. However, there’s no doubt that this dish is an absolute masterpiece and I was completely in awe of its stunning presentation and complexity in flavour, textures and execution.

*    *    *

Read Part 3

Still to come:

  • Egg & bacon ice cream?
  • Yet moarrr tea!
  • Clumsy me is clumsy.
  • What does a Heston kitchen look like?
  • Why was it so worth it?
I have no idea what this is. Seriously, don't ask me.

I have no idea what this is.

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The Fat Duck Melbourne – Part 1 (dun dun dunnnn)

The Fat Duck in Melbourne

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.

Down the rabbit hole...

And then there was this tiny door...

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!

The dining room

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?

The Fat Duck Melbourne clock

The icon of the Fat Duck Melbourne – the clock face represent’s the Fat Duck’s tenure in Melbourne and the hand indicates how far we are through that period

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.

Look at this massive wine list!

Get a load of this massive wine list!

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.

aerated beetroot

aerated beetroot

*    *    *

making nitro-poached aperitifs

making nitro-poached aperitifs

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.

nitro poached vodka and lime meringue

nitro poached vodka and lime meringue

*    *    *

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.

Pre Rain Organic Bai Cha

Pre Rain Organic Bai Cha

*    *    *

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.

Pommery grain mustard ice cream

Pommery grain mustard ice cream

Red cabbage gazpacho; pommery grain mustard ice cream

Red cabbage gazpacho; pommery grain mustard ice cream

*    *    *

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.

Savoury lollies - waldorf salad rocket; salmon twister; chicken liver parfait with fig gel (golden gaytime)

Savoury lollies – waldorf salad rocket; salmon twister; chicken liver parfait with fig gel (golden gaytime)

*    *    *

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.

Oak moss strips

Walk through the forest – Oak moss strips

Smells of the forest

Walk through the forest – Smells of the forest

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.

Walk through the forest - jelly of quail, marron cream, truffle toast

Walk through the forest – jelly of quail, marron cream, truffle toast

On the side, fresh bread is presented with butter infused with oak moss essential oil and truffle that grows under oak trees.

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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.

Snail porridge, Joselito ham, shaved fennel

Snail porridge, Joselito ham, shaved fennel

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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.

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Roast marron, cured shiitake, confit kombu, sea lettuce

Roast marron, cured shiitake, confit kombu, sea lettuce

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!

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Organic gyokuro and a preview of things to come... in the next part!

Organic gyokuro and a preview of things to come… in the next part!

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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…

Fat Duck

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MFWF 2014: Tarbert’s Table & Eat Ocean, Drink Succulent

Author’s note, or something: I feel odd about publishing a post that talks about haggis during my strictly herbivorous month – you can’t really get a lot less vegan than haggis!

A recent episode of How I Met Your Mother featured a Scottish-Mexican fusion restaurant as an example of ridiculous places that should not exist and things that “do not fuse”.

Funny, not just because it does seem pretty silly, but that in recalling my own recent food adventures, I realised that my opening weekend of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival did in fact feature both Scottish and Mexican “cuisine”.

How I Met Your Mother - 9x21

Amusing as the combination might seem, my experience perfectly represents the rich medley of events that comprise the MFWF, which in turn exemplifies the undiscriminating and incredibly ethnically diverse food culture in Melbourne.

I am so absolutely excited by variety, yet though I was vaguely aware of the MFWF before moving to Melbourne, I didn’t know just how much was on offer. Food festivals back home were one-or-two-day one-venue affairs – I had no idea it could be this incredible, colossal, city-wide celebration of food that spanned two and a half weeks! Several years on, and it’s definitely tied first with Christmas for my most anticipated time of the year. As mentioned in my opening post of the festival, this is my third MFWF run, and I already feel like a bit of a veteran, planning my way around the two and a half weeks while making sure to fit in a diverse range of events.

Each year, the festival has an overarching theme and the individually hosted events that are a part of it try to work with that as the central idea. In 2014, the theme was “Water”.

Tarbert’s Table of the Loch (Golden Gate Hotel)

A mere 24 hours after my first World’s Longest Lunch, I was heading off to South Melbourne’s Golden Gate Hotel with KP for some traditional Scottish fare. This event, called “Tarbert’s Table of the Loch” was run by the Melbourne Venue Company (MWC), who had also organised a themed lunch last year called “A Conquistador’s Adventure”. That event was held in a pub in Port Melbourne, part of a family of pub venues around the city, and was featured in my photo post summarising my 2013 participation in MFWF.

Tarbert is a village in Scotland that is built around a loch (Gaelic for “lake” or sea inlet) and so the meal features several seafood dishes, thus satisfying the MFWF’s water theme of the year.

As it was at last year’s South American feast (A Conquistador’s Adventure, mentioned above), the food was quite delicious overall. It’s a pleasant surprise (for lack of a better word) because these MWC events are catered by the resident chefing talent of the pub it is held at. Often these pubs have a strong, positive local reputation, yet are not exactly famed for their food and the chefs are unknowns.

I am not sure how the MWC managed to find some person or persons at The Exchange Hotel capable of whipping up over a dozen different Central and South American specialties in 2013, but this year one of the Golden Gate Hotel’s very own just happened to be Scottish – a young guy by the name of Fraser, the pub’s head chef.

What’s even more amazing is that they managed to track down a Scottish minister from a local Scots’ church to read a Gaelic blessing before the meat course!

The other guests were a mishmash of personalities – a mix of locals who seemed to frequent the pub and probably saw a flier, people who had travelled in Scotland and missed the food, actual Scottish people who missed their food or were curious, foodies who had found the event online or their friends and spouses who were dragged along. The host or “MC”, if you will, was the very same guy who had dressed up in Spanish conquistador costume last year and was now dressed in a kilt!

Lunch began with canapes of crushed black pudding, crumbed fried scallops and smoked salmon on a sort of plain mini pancake. I thought that scallops and salmon were rather uninteresting choices (though the bite-sized servings were nice enough), but the black pudding was rich and delicious, not too dry, not too overwhelming. Even KP, who normally dislikes black pudding and morcilla sausage and the like, really enjoyed it.

The highlight of all the courses was, almost indisputably, the Cullen skink, which is similar to a rather thick seafood chowder. It was hearty, creamy, flavoursome, subtly smoky and full of fresh seafood-y goodness, topped with one large, perfectly fried potato-and-fish dumpling. Once I had cleaned my bowl, I simultaneously craved seconds and felt like I couldn’t have one more rich, lactose-laden spoonful.

Haggis came next, and it was pretty much a given that this famed Scottish fare would feature in a lunch showcasing that country’s traditional cooking. It was served with “bashit neeps” and “chappit tatties”, which mean crushed turnips and mashed potatoes, respectively – I had to giggle as I suddenly had a vision of myself, furiously BASHing turneeeeeps! There’s not much you can say about mashed veges, except I would describe, for example, bad mashed potato to have a powdery texture and taste, and good mash to be smooth, velvety and quite creamy. This was good mash, and the beaten up turnips were good, too.

I can’t have eaten haggis more than maybe twice ever, so I don’t have of a point of comparison, but I quite liked it – it actually tasted a lot like a rich pate, but with oats through it. Rather than being made in-house, it was instead purchased from a butcher in Dandenong (I think?) which was apparently somewhat well known for it. Ah, there you go, I just looked it up. It’s called Rob’s British and Irishy Butchery. Rob makes authentic British smallgoods that seem to be very popular with the immigrant communities as well as delis Victoria-wide.

The meat dish of lamb backstrap less satisfying than all the other courses – mine in particular was a little more than a touch dry and overcooked, and I seemed to also have a smaller serving with thinner slices of lamb than others at my table. The sauce was, moreover, slightly gritty, though quite tasty. I put it down to having a large number of guests to serve, and perhaps others got very juicy and delicious portions.

At the start of the meal, I let the waiters know that I wouldn’t be able to eat the dessert of Cranachan, which included whisky-soaked oatmeal. They were flustered for only a minute, but went to speak to the chef, and came back to inform me that he’d be able to whip me up one of two other options for dessert – a pannacotta or a sorbet selection. Not yet knowing how rich the meal would turn out to be, I opted for the pannacotta, later wishing I’d chosen the more refreshing sorbet! It was absolutely lovely of the chef and wait staff to accommodate my rather last-minute request for a menu modification during an event with so many people to cater for.

It turned out that some people did not seem to enjoy their cranachan dessert very much, which the host had introduced as being similar to Eton Mess (to which comparison I heard a few dissenting murmurs from the Scottish people present), but I have no comment to make as, unlike with wine, I didn’t want to risk having even a taste. My pannacotta, on the other hand, was beautifully presented and quite lovely.

This event also included a “whisky library” with cushy chairs where guests could sneak off to at any point and sample a Scotch whisky tasting flight – quite a nice thing and added great value to the experience (if not for myself!)

Overall, I really enjoyed the afternoon with good food and varied company – though I didn’t feel it was as fun or interactive as A Conquistador’s Adventure, I recognise it was probably a trickier and less “user-friendly” theme to pull off compared to last year’s theme! KP and I both stumbled home feeling full and satisfied, with the feeling of an afternoon well spent, and that’s definitely what I consider a successful event.

Golden Gate Hotel on Urbanspoon

Eat Ocean, Drink Succulent (Mamasita)

Mamasita is certainly an establishment that needs no introduction, being widely known as serving up some of the best authentic Mexican cuisine in Melbourne, and probably the Southern Hemisphere; so I’m not going to dwell in great detail on the food we experienced at this event, which was, as usual, delicious.

This night, Mamasita took on the challenge of hosting a great night and changed things up, bringing out some dishes that were quite different from their usual fare of tacos, quesadillas and deliciously marinated seafood (though we had those, too!)

I jumped at the opportunity to make a booking for this event because, well, normally the restaurant doesn’t take bookings for small groups, and having been a patron in the past, and though having loved it, I’m not all that keen on queuing to get in on the nights I want to eat there. Perhaps it’s my old age.

In the same vein, probably – my main complaint of the evening would be that I ended up with a sore butt from sitting at the bar for over 4 hours – tiny stool, not so tiny butt. This was partially my fault, as I’d been given two options for seating when booking, and while neither were ideal (as I booked late), I chose the bar myself. Nonetheless, I would wager that the bar seating was not designed for long, drawn out events like a 9 course dinner. But hey, at least I got to look at all the pretty tequila bottles all night!

I felt the pacing of the courses was regular but a little drawn out – as it was quite dark and rather loud, the atmosphere wasn’t really conducive to having involved conversations to pass the considerable length of time.

We started off with a canape of braised octopus with peppers, cherry tomatoes and olives, which counted as the “eat” portion of the first course, which was lovely, but was neither introduced in any way nor served at a consistent time across the venue.

Only before the second course of the ever-amazing Mamasita elote callejero (grilled corn) was the event format and theme of pairing seafood (eating “ocean”) and tequila (drinking “succulent”) explained.

Beer, wine, and tequila were all practically free-flowing throughout the evening, with great variety and well matched with the food. However, occasionally the introductions to the beverages got lost in the din or the staff simply forgot.

Neither the aguachile nor ceviche took me back to my time on the Yucatan peninsula last year – though I did enjoy them and the seafood was fresh and sweet, the preparation wasn’t what my limited knowledge would have considered authentic.

The taco course came as a surprise – smoked eel. Eel is a fish I have never eaten outside of Japanese cuisine, but it worked pretty well. As ever, you can’t go wrong with a quesadilla if it has cheese in it, but to my even greater surprise, after I was emailed a list of the courses we’d sampled after the event, I found that I had eaten something called “huitlacoche”, which upon Googling I discovered means “corn smut“.

So what the hell is corn smut? It’s like a fungal infection that grows on top of young corn, which doesn’t sound very nice… but essentially, it’s just mushrooms. Grown on corn.

When it came to the sopes, the corn bread base was a little dry or stale but the duck and tamarind together was a tasty combination.

My favourite dish of the night was a warmingly hearty and aromatic seafood cazuela (a sort of soup or stew) of barramundi, shellfish, orange and fennel, served with tomato and garlic chilli rice.

There was only one sweet course – frozen chocolate mousse with dulce de leche, fresh cream, sesame praline and figs – and I wasn’t a fan. But then, I’m never really a fan of rich chocolatey desserts after a big meal.

Though the evening had room for improvement in various areas, the food was delicious and varied, the portions and drinks generous, and I sincerely hope Mamasita holds more reserved events like this. To their great credit, the team sent out questionnaires to the attendees, requesting feedback, and if they can take it all on board for future events, I’ll be even more impressed!

Mamasita on Urbanspoon

Thus ends my long story of how Scottish-met-Mexican in the context of my life. It may not be as memorable as seeing men with moustaches wearing sombreros and kilts playing bagpipes, but it was a fun weekend nevertheless.

MFWF 2014: The World’s Longest Lunch

Imagine my disappointment when I found that, for the third year in a row, I had missed out on getting tickets to the World’s Longest Lunch, the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival’s annual signature opening event, this year promising courses by Jacques Reymond, Stefano de Pieri and Adam D’Sylva. The idea of sitting at a half-kilometre long table in the late-summer sunshine being served a delectable alfresco lunch with courses designed by some of the country’s most accomplished chefs not surprisingly excited and intrigued me. I kicked myself for not getting organised earlier, again, and vowed not to miss out next year.

If you’ve never heard of the Longest Lunch, the “longest” refers not to the time-frame of the meal (though it does tend to span the better part of the afternoon) but the length of the table – this year, over 530 metres of pristine white-tablecloth and 1504 charmingly mismatched chairs set along the Yarra river by Alexandra Park.

Let’s backtrack a little at this point.

Years ago, many people knowingly nodded when I informed them I was moving to Melbourne. “You’re just doing it for the food, aren’t you?”

I wasn’t, actually. Somehow, I’ve felt at home in this city since the first moment I set foot in it to visit a friend, and though I returned quite a few times before becoming a resident, I never gave much thought to “why” – when you find a true city soulmate, you plan to move there as fast as possible and don’t really overthink it. I guess if I were to name a few things I love, they would be the focus on culture and art, the beautiful historic buildings, the very old trams, the many events and enthusiastic way Melbournians take part in even the oddest ones, the boutique and outlet shopping, and yes, its world class dining and amazing things to eat on every budget.

So, before I digress any further, my point is – the World’s Longest Lunch is a perfect example of a very “Melbourne” thing, encompassing both the Melbournians’ love of slightly different events and the city’s rich epicurean culture.

My annoyance at missing out was pretty understandable.

Then… I received an unexpected email newsletter in early February from a website (Club Secure) I’d just used a couple of times. Before I could get annoyed at the spam, I saw that it contained exclusive ticketing offers for, among other things, the WLL event which had been sold out for weeks by that time. I snatched up a couple of tickets without delay and set out to find the ideal dining buddy.

The funny and charming Yen from theyennipenni channel ended up accompanying me on the day and we were both pretty excited by the prospect of a day of good food and interesting company.

After same taxi dramas, we arrived at the gardens breathless due to both anticipation and running late and were ushered towards the action by staff who handed us each goodie bags that included straw fedoras. Our places were a breeze to find as we were right down the very end of the table in seats 1501 and 1503. While we wouldn’t be in the “thick of the action”, we had an amazing view of the whole half kilometre of table.

Obligatory photos were taken and of the entire length of the table – or as much of it as we could fit in frame – to be Instagrammed, of course, and almost immediately afterwards we were engaged in friendly conversation by our immediate neighbours who turned out to be incredibly lovely and interesting people. In fact, we could not asked to be seated with better company. We seemed to have been lumped in with many people who worked in or were related to the industry.

The food that afternoon was a little bit of a letdown in terms of both dish execution and presentation – perhaps my expectations were simply so high due to the stellar reputations of the chefs involved that they couldn’t be reasonably met in such a setting, catering to so many guests!

First dish to table was smoked hiramasa kingfish, which turned out to be my favourite of the three courses, though I wouldn’t have guessed it at the time. The fish was a lovely, tender texture with a nice smoky flavour, however, some of the diners’ plates (including mine) were missing the tamarind sauce that was supposed to accompany the dish, while others had the sauce and assured us it worked well with the fish. I feel that failing to include an essential condiment was a fairly large oversight, though it was obviously through no fault of Adam D’Sylva’s.

The main was duck tucupi (“tucupi” being apparently a yellow sauce extracted from Brazilian manioc root), which was the dish designed by Jacques Reymond. There was a bit of a show involving the plate of duck and cute little glass bottles of hot broth being served separately, and the diners having to pour the broth over the poultry themselves. The broth was rich deeply flavourful, however, the duck itself wasn’t well cooked – the fat not having been fully rendered and the flesh somewhat chewy and overcooked.

I personally enjoyed De Pieri’s carrot cake dessert well enough, however, being very dense and moist but not particularly rich and indulgent it was not everyone’s cup of tea.

The service (provided by Peter Rowland Catering) throughout the afternoon was slightly brisk (understandably, with 1504 guests to wait on!) but still friendly and capable, and the staff were impeccably dressed in cute uniform. Conversation with our companions flowed beautifully and naturally and the long afternoon flew by in a blink even with long gaps between the three courses.

Wine was interchangeably poured by the staff or sitting in ice buckets at intervals along the table – not being a drinker at all, I’m not sure if this was preferable to full service, but from what I could tell it meant that those who came for mainly for food and company were able to better control their intake and those who wished to get a little tipsy could do so to their heart’s content.

As it approached 4pm and guests started dispersing, the afternoon ended with an optional boat ride up the river to Southbank and as it was a beautiful, sunny day, I jumped at this opportunity and spent the later afternoon walking along the river bank eating gelato.

All in all, the long lunch was a fabulous experience, thanks to the glorious weather, the relaxed atmosphere, the good-natured service and the amazing company.

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