Dinner

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.

Opinion: 8/10

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
66 Knightsbridge
London SW1X 7LA
Tel: 020 7201 3833
Website: www.dinnerbyheston.com

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Sir Charles Napier

a genuinely bright light among the morass of dreary, charmless proto-rural ‘gastro’ pubs that pepper the English countryside

Relationships. All very different. And by which I also mean how a relationship might vary with the gradual passing of time: waxing and waning as we evolve. Indeed, think of somebody you may have known for some time – an old friend perhaps – and how that particular relationship has made the journey alongside you; sometimes triumphant and world-beating, other times thorny or just outright soul sapping.

Whatever their type, relationships can be short-sweet-ta-very-much-see-you-around or they can be enduring. You might unexpectedly stumble upon the lust of your life and instantly embark upon an all-consuming affair with much passion and fireworks, or you could be one of those pitiful souls who, ignorant of any better way, falters from one futile association to the next, doomed to make the same mistakes ad infinitum. Your relationships may be warm, secure, comfortable, or they might just combust spectacularly at any second. It might even be an entirely different sort of connection altogether. For example, it could be one of respect and reverence or of light-hearted fun. It could just as easily be one of cool detachment.

You are of course aware by now that what I am actually talking about is restaurants. Or at the very least the places we choose to dine out at, and our own relationships with these places in whatever form that happens to take.

Immediate first impressions might lead you to decide “no way mate, I wouldn’t touch it with yours” and that would be the end of that. Things likely to bring on this kind of resolve usually include but are by no means limited to: those places that have pushy waiters/salesmen posted outside (rest assured that quality levels encountered inside will be exactly inversely proportionate to levels of affability/intimidation encountered outside); places where menus contain any kind of description whatsoever (a rich and rustic doberman drizzled in tangy farmhouse battery acid) or anyplace where waiting staff are obliged to explain what the ‘concept’ is (the concept is we choose, we eat, we pay). Oh, and Garfunkels. And Jamie’s Italian. I always maintain that anybody who chooses to eat in these places of their own volition deserves everything they get.

My own relationship with the Sir Charles Napier has always been a happy and good-natured one. Initially, it was lust at first sight. Although nowadays the ‘Napier’ is like an old friend, one that has (thus far) remained loyal, cheers you up when needed and whose company you always seek for a decent evening out. Maybe not always the most exhilarating of friends but one that never takes themselves too seriously either and rarely lets you down. And that right there is probably the finest attribute in any association you might make, be it platonic, epicurean, or with barnyard animals if that’s what it takes. That and a somewhat off-beat sense of humour.

Situated in the charmingly bucolic-sounding Spriggs Alley, The Sir Charles Napier is hidden away in deepest, leafiest Oxfordshire high up in The Chilterns. Proprietor Julie Griffiths has run the place now for well over 30 years. During this time it has doggedly built up a well-justified reputation for culinary brilliance; a genuinely bright light among the morass of dreary, charmless proto-rural ‘gastro’ pubs that pepper the English countryside. From reinvigorating pub food through the early to mid 90’s during the gastropub boom years to earning a Michelin star in 2011, the Napier remains a destination venue. Only do not make the mistake of calling it a pub (it is a restaurant, clearly). You might very well find yourself on the business end of Julie’s rather sharp tongue which itself has a reputation of its own to maintain. Consider yourself warned…

You arrive in the beamed bar area which itself is more snug and welcoming than many pubs. Deep, comfy sofas – and in the winter months the warm, smoky haze of a log fire – welcome guests. Reclining here is a pleasure and something I could happily do all evening long, perhaps nursing an Islay Malt to the sound and smell of softly crackling embers.

The dining room is in the rear of the building. Ceilings are low with tables arranged in an informal hotch-potch. A sense of eccentricity prevails. Furniture is mismatched while a range of equally eccentric sculptures can be found either as table centre pieces or lurking in corners. Be sure to keep an eye out. It is definitely a dining room with a sense of humour.

Foie gras, corn bread and cherry jelly got everything off to a rip-roaring start. The fried lobe of foie was plump and devilishly, shamefully unctuous as oozy bubbles of cherry provided an inspired counterpoint.

Rose veal, polenta, morels and baby summer aparagus was certainly evidence of more polished, refined cooking. It was wonderful: everything, from the veal, youthfully soft, sliced thin and rare through to the warmly savoury morels through to the earthy green-ness of the asparagus. Confit duck with five-spice, carrot and yuzu just worked. Elsewhere, a surprisingly bold squab pigeon with imam biyaldi and lentils came with an exceptional pithivier of its liver that was all bold, musky offal. A generous hunk of pearlescent turbot came with samphire, sea greens and a cockle risotto.

For dessert, an imaginative assortment of ice creams and sorbets: sticky toffee pudding ice cream contained gooey chunks of actual toffee pudding and was a riot, while a Limoncello sorbet was so sweet – too sweet in fact – it pulled your gums back over your teeth. It was rather like overdosing on blue Smarties but with an additional kick of booze. But best of all was a perfectly baked, languorously melting blackberry and apple soufflé.

Service is unobtrusive and well-drilled and matches the food for quality. There is also a dedicated and well-informed sommelier to match a good, across-the-board wine list. Julie Griffiths clearly runs a tight ship.

Absolutely bagfuls of character and such good fun. But always steady. More than steady. This is one relationship that is certain to endure. Top notch, first rate food and the best restaurant for miles around. Oh, and if the fact that the Sir Charles Napier is Raymond Blanc’s favourite local restaurant doesn’t inspire you to pay a visit then nothing will.

Opinion: 9 / 10.

Sir Charles Napier

Sprigg’s Alley
Chinnor
Oxon OX39 4BX
Tel: 01494 483011
Fax: 01494 485311
Email: info@sircharlesnapier.co.uk