the very essence of cucumber distilled and multiplied thousandfold. Cucumber in excelsis
To say that people’s expectations of Dinner were in the stratosphere is something of an understatement.
Heston Blumenthal is one of the finest and most adroit British chefs to have donned whites in the past twenty plus years. His other establishment of international renown, the Fat Duck in the Berkshire village of Bray, is one of only four restaurants in the country to hold three Michelin Stars. As a chef, Blumenthal is spoken of in the same hushed tones as Arzak, Ferra and Gagnaire. And here he now is: in London, at the Mandarin Oriental, Knightsbridge, with a brand spanking new restaurant, the robustly British-sounding Dinner. Waiting time for a table is already beyond the hope and aspirations of most mere mortals and there is the not altogether trifling matter of it already being ranked 9th best in the world by Restaurant Magazine. So not too much hype then?
We are all, of course, accustomed to hype nowadays. It is simply consumption’s companion. And we are all, of course, taken in by it so there is no shame in it really. Ok maybe that is not strictly true. Feel free to embrace a warm frisson of smugness by pointing and laughing at anybody you know who has ever been panicked by bird flu, camped out overnight for a new smartphone, purchased anything in HD DVD or decided that Tony Blair was the answer to their prayers once upon a time. Oh, so that’s everybody then.
Perhaps that is all rather cynical. Expectation is harmless enough. It is fun. It creates a sense of buzz. And there is no better feeling than a fevered sense of anticipation. It actually felt like a genuinely momentous occasion when Dinner opened; really and truly, it felt big. And right on cue, hype exploded into hyperbole the very moment the doors opened to the expectant media circus hammering away outside.
“Is Dinner already the best restaurant in the world?” wondered one critic, days – days!– after opening. Dish after dish was bestowed with the most ludicrous of histrionics: “Astonishing!” “The greatest show on Earth!” “I had an orgasm that lasted for half an hour!” Ok, ok, I admit, I made that first one up.
So just what has been going on at Dinner to have caused such frothing at the mouth and elsewhere? Has Blumenthal been spiking the Perrier with LSD before serving his already rather trippy absinth and dildo jelly? (That is an actual thing by the way – Google it). Tell you what, he would have had much more luck serving that to bemused Little Chef diners rather than thyroid gland hotpot.
Memory and reminisce is the whole rasion d’être of Dinner. If not to create a favourite meal but to remind you of one. Now though, the emphasis is on the collective rather than the personal.
Blumenthal has worked alongside food historian Ivan Day developing the restaurant’s menu which was inspired by actual, documented British recipes from various points in history. The idea is a riff on the meaning of, and the ingredients that would combine to make ‘dinner’ in times bygone. On the menu each dish is dated along with a brief description of its background. The most primordial delicacy can be traced back, it is claimed, to the year 1390 and the country’s first ever written compilation of recipes, The Forme of Cury. No, the surprise under the cloche isn’t Black Death but a dish entitled Rice And Flesh. Another, Meat Fruit, dates back to Henry VII and is really just a playful send-up of Late Middle Age feasting: a perfectly formed mandarin complete with aromatic, dimpled skin masquerades as a chicken liver parfait (or is it the other way round?). More instantly recognisable would be the prime rib of Hereford Beef (c 1830), tantalisingly cooked over 72 hours.
Now obviously there is poetic licence. The food is modern restaurant recreation of historic British cooking – albeit immaculately choreographed. Anybody expecting a history lesson is missing the point. And there are no molecular shenanigans either. The menu is straightforward and simply offers three courses.
As is currently the trend, the kitchen is open-plan to the dining room so all diners have the best seat in the house when it comes to viewing head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts and his team put their meal together. It’s not the best or most atmospheric room, hotel dining rooms never are. To be honest you could be walking into the breakfast buffet of any smart-ish hotel.
So what of the food? Poached Lobster & Cucumber Soup (c 1730) was a thing of beauty. The lobster was sweetness itself along with an uncommonly good herb salad: zingy, light, bright and fresher than a lemon enema. The true revelation though was the cucumber soup poured around it; the very essence of cucumber distilled and multiplied thousandfold. Cucumber in excelsis. And the colour: a wonderfully lurid green.
The much hyped Rice & Flesh was a saffron risotto studded with strands of calf tail and red wine. It was another visually striking dish – vivid yellow this time. A very al dente risotto of pure saffron sounds so wonderfully decadent a dish and so it proved with haunting eddies of the smoky, iodine spice insistent thoughout. The Meat Fruit was, as was hoped for, an exemplary liver parfait.
That the main courses could not quite match the starters was frustrating. Shame, I was just starting to buy into the hype(rbole).
Pigeon with Ale and Artichokes (c 1780), and the Chicken and Lettuces with Spiced Celeriac Sauce (c 1670) were ordered. The pigeon, cooked rare, was ferrous and livery and came with a sauce every bit its equal. Again, that clearness, that intensity of flavour just sings. Everything up to now being economical and precise but with the volume and contrast turned right, right up. So Heston.
The chicken? Not so much. Well, it was a chicken breast. The lettuce? Well you all know what lettuce is I presume. Sometimes it is never quite possible to glean from a menu just what exactly might arrive from the kitchen. Chicken and lettuce might be some innovatively deconstructed variation on a theme… or, it might be a chicken dressed with a wisp or two of lettuce. Apologies for labouring the point but it all seemed rather inadequate compared to what had come before.
Tipsy Cake was a sumptuous treat bordering on the erotic. A shamefully creamy brioche cake infused with headily fragrant Sauternes, baked with love and bad intentions and partnered by a wedge of tart spit-roast pineapple. Incredible. ‘Quaking Pudding’ (c 1660) would not, could not, be anywhere near as good. It wasn’t, but was still great fun. It was a marvellously old-fashioned blancmange pudding tasting of poached pears, caramel and spices that evoke Christmas.
There was of course the famous liquid nitrogen ice cream trolley, kind of like a cross between a Dalek and a Mr Whippy machine, though we didn’t sample its wares.
There were quibbles: service was enthusiastic but seriously clunky at times: you are always looking around trying to attract attention if you wanted anything while staff seemed to have been trained at the Stand In Groups Until Told To Do Something School of Waitering. And why isn’t there a tasting menu?! If ever a restaurant is screaming out for one, it is this one.
The history and dates schtick is really just window dressing for dishes that are mostly expertly put together, even if they are a bit gimmicky for some. I didn’t think so. It is fun. It is a send up. And Blumenthal knows what he is doing. Does it live up the hype? Of course not. But neither does hyperbole ever descend into bathos.
So often too these days flavours can be muddied and imprecise. Things are lost in transmission when too much is happening on the plate. No such qualms here. Plus you really, genuinely do want to try everything on the menu. Dinner is an eminently approachable restaurant where food cooked to exemplary standards manages to be innovative and historical, new and familiar all at once. It will endure, certainly… with just a bit of fine-tuning.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
London SW1X 7LA
Tel: 020 7201 3833