I had dinner at Tayyabs the other night. It was a bit of a boys' night. Lots of Belgian beer and much-travelled Gewurtztraminer. There were gins beforehand and a martini or two afterwards. Messy, but enormous fun.
At some point during the evening the raucous conversation drifted temporarily away from children and enormous tax bills (neither of which I know much about) and touched tentatively on social media (which I do). My chums are so busy structuring financial products - whatever that means - or developing the IT systems that make such things possible that they barely acknowledge the existence of the internet; they certainly don't have time for such trivialities as Facebook and Twitter. Not for the first time I had to talk them through the phenomenal and ongoing success of the former and try to explain the latter to them from first principles. I was armed with lots of facts and figures but none of it made a lot of impact. They don't get it; perhaps they never will.
The only time I came close to hitting the mark in defence of Twitter was when I explained that without it I wouldn't have had the chance to go to The Fat Duck last weekend. But even that fact was soon lost when yet another platter of sizzling lamb chops arrived. Tayyabs will do that to you. Conversation dries up in the heat of the meat.
The fact remains, though, that the six of us who descended on Bray last Saturday wouldn't have been there without Twitter. Chris, from the very excellent Cheese and Biscuits, had made a speculative booking a couple of months ago and decided to invite dining companions from the Twitterverse. I leapt on his tweet with indecent haste.
The last time I went to the Fat Duck was back in 2002. It only, I think, had one star at the time but it was still a step up from anything I had ever eaten before. A tasting menu was novel enough; the fact that it included beetroot jellies, mustard ice cream and parsnip cornflakes took dining to a whole new level for a chap not yet versed in the ways of modern gastronomy. At one point, in a moment of high, if slightly creepy, theatre, the waiters hovered behind us to deliver a single spoonful of white chocolate and caviar directly into our mouths. And told us not to chew. In a precursor of the blog that was to follow I composed a slightly giddy email to friends and family afterwards that was little more than a list of the dozen or so dishes with a few additional tasting notes thrown in. I dined out on it for months.
I said at the time I didn't think I would need to go back anytime soon. I was glad I'd been but I wasn't completely convinced that the clever bells and whistles were really for me. I suspected, I think, that it was all froth and no substance; that it was a restaurant very pleased with itself for its clever tricks but that it had forgotten (or simply overlooked) the importance of providing a Good Lunch. I also had no desire to be spoon-fed again. Not by someone fully clothed at any rate.
Eight years on a few things have changed. The Fat Duck has two more stars and has been consistently heralded one of the top two or three restaurants in the world. Heston Blumenthal has managed to establish a solid media career without apparently diluting his mad professor brand. And I have been eating in lots of restaurants. Definitely time to go back.
I'm not going to go into chapter and verse about the meal we had over four or five glorious hours in Bray. Those who are interested can read Chris's review. Partly this is because I don't think I can do a better job than Chris in capturing the joy that is the Fat Duck dining experience. But mostly I just want to whet your appetite - and not spoil the surprise. The pictures below (and on Chris's blog) will give you some idea of the fun but they can't give you the full sensory experience. For that you must go for yourself. And I mean 'must'.
But what I will say is that this lunch was a whole lot more than just the sum of its undoubtedly clever parts. For a start, pretty much every single frippery, every waft of dry ice and every dissolving gold watch, was there because it successfully enhanced the experience. I'm not completely convinced about the famous iPod delivering seagull and wave noises during the Sound of the Sea course but that may have been because we all slightly had the giggles at that point (someone - ahem - had made a Blackadder-style joke about a seahorse's willy among the edible seaweed). But even there you could appreciate the sound theory.
Most important, though, is the overall impression that what we had on Saturday was a Good Lunch. Possibly the best I've ever had. Each dish had its share of fun, interest or challenge (sometimes all at the same time) and each boasted flavours that not only worked really well together but could be picked apart individually if so desired. The progression of dishes flowed beautifully, too, and the wine pairing was (with the possible exception of the big Douro that came with the already challenging salmon and liquorice dish) spot on.
When we sat down at the start of the meal the Maitre d' asked us how we were all feeling. When most of said "hungry" he was visibly delighted. It's possible, although frankly unlikely, that the twinkle in his eye (evident in just about everyone who works there) even intensified as he assured us the restaurant would rise to the challenge of sating that hunger. By the end of the meal it was clear his confidence - and his twinkle - had not been misplaced. This was a meal that delivered on every level: it may have been whimsical, technical and occasionally challenging but the point is that it was also delightful, rewarding and overwhelmingly satisfying. It's hard enough to pull off any of these individually. That The Fat Duck succeeds on all of them - and does so in style - suggests it deserves every plaudit it gets.
The traditional roll call of dishes follows: a little more colourful, this time, than a simple email, but deliberately light on comment. Book a table. Now.
The Fat Duck, High Street, Bray, Berkshire: SL6 2AQ 01628 580 333
Another bonus dish. Pork belly with truffled spelt gratin, green cabbage choucroute and shaved truffle. To paraphrase Marina O'Laughlin from an old review in Metro, this smelt like something nice girls aren't supposed to know about...
Egg and bacon ice cream (made at the table in liquid nitrogen) with pain perdu. Not the first time this has featured on the blog, but the first time I've had it. Fantastic.
The "BFG", a smaller, more refined version of the black forest gateau Heston devised in his In Search of Perfection series.