What it's like to eat in luxury at Heston's
A couple of hours into my experience at The Fat Duck, I'm brought what looks like bread and butter. "What's this now?" I ask, a little too eagerly, the wine pairing tickling my edges. "Fish and chips? A reformed mulligatawny soup?"
"No, sir," the waitress says with a patient smile. "It's just bread and butter."
How was I to know? Here in Bray, nothing is as it seems. The first thing I can remember having was a solid cocktail – a frozen boozy lump that sent dry ice tumbling from my nose like a frosty dragon.
Later I had a cup of "coffee" that was simultaneously hot and cold, different halves sliding to opposite sides of my mouth. The sensation left me worrying I'd suffered some sort of palsy mid-meal.
Heston Blumenthal's singular restaurant has been raising smiles and eyebrows for more than 20 years with dishes that pickle the mind. Some sound almost purposely off-putting; tasty though it is, crab ice-cream is a hard sell (at least for a normal person – it's been here in one form or another for 17 years).
A dish inspired by a recipe from the 1920s. Ice Cream with Vegemite. Toasted barley cream, yeast caramel, macadamia, puffed spelt and sourdough crumble. Part of the fantastic desserts at Dinner by Heston in Melbourne. #Heston #HestonBlumenthal #DinnerbyHeston @ashleypalmerwatts @dinnerbyheston #instagood #instafood #dessert #icecream #Australia #foodie
As part of the evolution of the menu, Blumenthal's most infamous dish, snail porridge, was last year retired to the "hall of fame". The judges at Michelin were not too upset – The Fat Duck was again awarded its maximum three-star score in the most recent edition of the guide.
The sweet shop, which is wheeled around the restaurant on a sort of steampunk chariot, cost £150,000 (NZ$264,000) to custom build. To put that in perspective, the average house price in Wales is £147,000 (about NZ$260,000). All that, for what's essentially a little souvenir to take away after 14-plus courses of the strangest, best, most entertaining food you've ever eaten.
When Blumenthal arrived in this village in the mid-1990s, there were three pubs. His group would eventually buy all three. The Ringers became the Fat Duck; The Crown, which was also recently refurbished, just about remains a traditional pub. The Goldilocks option in the middle is the Hind's Head, which has evolved beyond a pub into a gastronomic destination of its own.
It might look like a 15th-century tavern from the outside, but it has a brilliant little tasting menu too, good enough that Michelin has given it a star of its own. If you're only here to kill time before getting to the more famous restaurant, upstairs there's a cocktail lounge.
The walls are a mass of wood and curios. Some drinks are served with gold leaf, others in dainty tea cups designed to whet the appetite ahead of walking around the corner and through the looking glass into The Fat Duck.
Blumenthal's role in all this has evolved beyond the shop floor towards something more symbolic. In recent years, his name has been attached to everything from airline food, to supermarket ready-meals to, most recently, a new range of barbecue equipment. He may sign off on every menu item across his growing empire, but he's rarely covering a dinner service.
When it was decided that essential maintenance and a refreshment needed to happen in the ageing Fat Duck, rather than close, the team took the typically ambitious decision to move everything, wholesale, elsewhere.
Any well-heeled community in the world would have let the Fat Duck roost for six months – one location in Sainte-Maxime on the Cote d'Azur was seriously considered – but the team decided to go long-haul all the way to Melbourne.
"It would have been much easier in terms of suppliers, but it would have been nowhere near as rewarding to go to the south of France," head chef Jonny Lake says. In the end they took everything with them – almost every member of staff, and 14 tonnes of equipment. All the kitchenware, all the crockery, all the cutlery, even the linen.
"At Crown (in the space now inhabited by Dinner), it wasn't an imitation of the English restaurant – it was the English restaurant, albeit even more expensive. The set menu was $525 when in Melbourne, but that astronomical fee did little to dampen demand.
"It was insane, the response to it," Lake says. "It was nuts. It made it really special, because every single day, every single service, there was this atmosphere where people were just so excited."
Simple the move was not. At the highest level of fine dining, the staff are so familiar with their roles and environment that even small changes can be difficult to absorb.
"I think perhaps we underestimated how finely tuned the restaurant was," restaurant manager Dimitri Bellos says. "When you took the restaurant out of that building, and some people out of the equation, it changed the whole thing. The first couple of months, it took a little while to get it to the same level."
What was gained in Victoria was lost in Berkshire. Yes, the Hind's Head and the Crown continued to be busy (remarkably, Bray is also home to another of Britain's quartet of three Michelin star restaurants, The Waterside Inn). But for more than eight months the village was diminished. Businesses such as Bray Cottages, a series of beautifully appointed properties with close ties to the restaurants, inevitably saw its inquiries decline.
Worse, the Michelin Guide had to abandon The Fat Duck. Even though the menu and most of the staff remained unchanged on the other side of the world, the guide's strict range of criteria does not allow for changes of venue. Having once been No 1, the restaurant also dropped out of the World's 50 Best list.
If there are hints of regret or notes of bitterness at the omission then it's understandable. While Michelin reluctantly revealed the science of its judgments in an extensive 2007 New Yorker interview (it included the fact that the anonymous inspectors often can't reveal their professions to their own families) the process for the World's 50 Best is less clear. Even the name isn't clear – the list is 100-strong.
To this itinerant glutton, it seems laughable that restaurants in Dubai with access to no local produce whatsoever can find a place on that list while the mischievous deliciousness of The Fat Duck cannot.
I can't compare eating there with anywhere else. Whatever your concept is of a maximum meal, the restaurant seeks to usurp through a combination of fairytales, nostalgia, and expert cooking.
For years Blumenthal has been described as a Willy Wonka figure, but to me that's an imperfect analogy because while he may be eccentric and perhaps a genius, he's more of a storyteller than Wonka – with multiple narratives and genres contributing to an overall canon.
When I think about what I saw in Bray – dusty young chefs making pastry; another working at speed in a cold room; teams contemplating the future of apples in the experimental kitchen – I think more of Roald Dahl than one of his characters.
Blumenthal is often quoted as saying that his restaurant is about multisensory storytelling. But who does the story belong to? It's in part his autobiography – the "journey" starts with your "storyteller" describing Blumenthal family holidays to Cornwall, a young Heston's excitement at getting away from the city (he grew up on the outskirts of London). There are elements of Alice in Wonderland too – one of the courses encourages you to dissolve a pocket watch coated in gold leaf inside a teapot, which you then pour into a tea cup to make mock turtle soup.
In the end, though, the story you come away with isn't Heston Blumenthal's, or Lewis Carroll's – it's your own. And how can you put a price on that?