When Dinner by Heston Blumenthal opened it seemed the whole culinary world was talking of nothing else. Bloggers and critics alike were singing its praises; not even A.A. Gill could find a negative word to say about it. Getting a booking was like a local trying to get a ticket to the 100 metre final at the London Olympics.
Now, almost a year on, the hype has died down but dinner at Dinner is still an improbability. So I opted for a lunch booking and in the end a leisurely lunch (four hours!) was the perfect way to savour the experience. And who better to share it with than the only person I know who loves Heston more than me, Alex – aka Blumenthal’s Biatch.
I have had a lot of fine meals in my life – but not because my life has been especially privileged by western standards; where other young women might have spent their first earnings on the latest fashion, I spent mine on dining out. This was definitely in the top three meals of my life.
Part of the attraction for me was that it had all the thought, finesse and elegance of a fine dining meal, without the ponce. There were no fancy foams or mousses, the portions were generous, the presentation was carefully considered but never at the expense of taste, and not one of the ingredients was superfluous, each had its proper place.
Still, there is theatre here – Ashley Palmer Watt’s is Heston’s protégé after all. The signature dish, and probably my favourite, not least because it managed to live up to expectations, was the Meat Fruit, a chicken liver parfait encased in mandarin jelly and modelled to look like a mandarin. It was astonishingly realistic, even the jelly was textured to look like the skin. A.A. Gill described it as “A perfect mandarin orange that smells like mandarin, even minutely examined it looks like a mandarin, but, cut open, it is immensely fine chicken liver parfait.”
When sampled alone, the jelly tasted strongly and distinctly of mandarin, but was only faintly perceptible when pitted against the rich, creamy parfait, and this is as it should be. They had also managed to capture the distinct taste of liver so often missing from the bland and flavourless renditions ubiquitous on ‘gastro’ pub menus around the capital. The toast, buttered and then grilled, rounded off the wholly indulgent experience.
A knowledge and love of proper British fare is probably a prerequisite for getting the most enjoyment out of Dinner; there is a lot of offal and game here. I like to be gutsy with gizzards, and BB was game too, so we shared everything and when we couldn’t decide on the second starter, we had three – he really was the perfect companion.
Starters two and three were the Rice and Flesh and the Salamagundy. Of the two the Rice and Flesh won, but both were beautifully balanced dishes. The rice was a saffron risotto and the flesh was calf’s tail. I have never had a dish that tasted so exquisitely and deeply of an aromatic. In some of his most evocative words, A.A. Gill described it as “a Chinese yellow saffron risotto with that characteristic flavour of dust and closed jewellery boxes”. I could not explain it better if I tried and so I won’t, except to add that the rice was cooked to perfection, not soft and mushy as risottos so often are, but al dente, with just a little bite.
When ordering the Salamagundy we thought we were being especially ballsy – we were after the chicken oysters. Like many people I thought that these were the testicles, when in fact they are two small circular pieces of brown meat found on the inner thigh. They are prized by chefs for their flavour, but I must admit that I didn’t think them anything special.
The Salamagundy itself was very good. The word Salamagundy is thought to come from the French salmagondis which means hodgepodge and in English refers to a salad comprising many disparate ingredients. There were certainly a lot of flavours and textures on display here – crisp, fried breadcrumbs that gave way to soft and sticky bone marrow, smooth and tangy horseradish sauce, bitter leaves, roast salsify, firm meat. Palmer-Watts hints at hodgepodge in his seemingly jumbled array of ingredients and presentation, but of course it is well thought through and everything comes together as a coherent whole.
I was intrigued by the Powdered in Powdered Duck Breast, and despite enquiring several times about its meaning, I was still unable to commit the answer to memory. This may have had something to do with the amount of wine consumed, but is more likely because it is a rather misleading name. I’ve since discovered that it is an old fashioned word meaning to cure in brine. I did not notice any marked effect from the brining process; what made the duck special was how exactly and perfectly it had been cooked – deliciously moist, tender and rare. No doubt the product of Heston’s favourite sous vide method.
The Black Foot Pork Chop was also a triumph of precision, just on the under side of done with a glimmer of pink. It was advertised as coming with spelt and Robert sauce, which sounds much less exciting than what actually appeared. Spelt makes me think of health food stores and hippies, but I was tempted enough by the pork to overlook this. And I’m glad I did, for it turns out that spelt, when it is not ground up and turned into horribly wholesome bread and cookies, has a lovely texture similar to pearl barley and a deep, earthy flavour.
The spelt was combined with a rich jus, bacon and shallot, all marvellous accompaniments for the pork. But the final touch on this dish, what for me raised it to the next level, was a sticky, salty film of lardo draped over the shallot and bacon and dotted with airy, popcorn-like pork crackling.
Of course we had to have a side of Heston’s famous triple cooked chips and they were every bit as good as I expected; light and fluffy in the middle and fantastically crispy and golden on the outside. And there was depth to the crunch – you know those occasional chips you savour at the bottom of a portion, the one that is slightly ragged at each end so that the oil and therefore the crunch has penetrated all the way through – Heston manages to achieve this with every chip without sacrificing on fluffiness.
I am not really a dessert person but for a long time it was what the British did best and so by nature, Dinner has put a lot of effort into making this part of their menu every bit as exciting as the rest. For me to be stuck for choice on a dessert menu is saying something.
The Brown Bread Ice Cream with salted butter caramel and malted yeast syrup was truly exceptional and the perfect dessert for someone like me with its neat balance of savoury and sweet. The textural contrasts were also tops – a grainy oatmeal shortbread was smeared with rich, buttery salted caramel . This was adorned with light, airy, slightly sweet croutons and topped with the brown bread ice cream, which really did taste of wholemeal bread. Alone it would have been quite horrible but it worked amazingly well with everything else. Melon infused with lemon zest lent a lighter note while the malted yeast syrup probably added more to the presentation than in flavour.
The only dish that verged on disappointing was the Tipsy Cake with spit roasted pineapple – only because this is the signature dessert and it had been highly recommended by a friend. It had to be ordered at the beginning of the meal which further exalted its status, and with it our expectations. The pineapple had a wonderful caramelised and slightly smoky flavour, but the cake – a toffee flavoured sponge of sorts –though perfectly pleasant, was nothing extraordinary.
Wines are, of course, abundant and vary as much in price as they do in style. They start around £35 and go up to four figures. They cover all the major regions of the world, and some more obscure ones too.
The service was gracious, efficient and informed. Someone was always there when you needed them, but more importantly they were not there when you didn’t – quite impressive given the four hour window.
I usually hesitate to talk a place up too much for fear of raising expectations so far that they can’t possibly hope to be met. But I had such expectations and I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed. I would almost say Dinner surpassed them.
Almost. I was expecting a lot from Heston.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal: 66 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7LA; 020 7201 3833
Mon-Sun: Lunch 12-2.30pm, Dinner 6.30-10.30pm
Entrees from £14.50 to £16.50; Mains from £23 to £33