After six months and nearly 15,000 diners Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck came to an end in Melbourne last week.
For six months the British chef sent his three-star restaurant and its entire team down a rabbit hole to Melbourne’s Crown resorts while the building housing the 20-year-old original – a 1640s pub outside London – was refurbished.
Blumenthal is an unabashed fan of Alice in Wonderland and Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and the Melbourne chapter was a giant ode to Lewis Carroll’s wonderful tale.
Several years ago I ate at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray, England. One observation I had about an incredible meal was that some of the culinary fireworks and surprises were a bit like telling a joke – once you’ve heard it, the impact is lost.
I was wrong.
The $525 16-course meal at The Fat Duck in Melbourne was even better, even if I knew what was coming.
It was five hours of brilliant culinary comedy theatre. This wasn’t so much a series of old jokes but rather favourite songs you love singing along to. The food was better than I remembered – more vivid and complex. I laughed, I got goosebumps, it was simply bloody delicious, and magical and so many other superlatives that reminded me I was experiencing something very very special.
The Fat Duck down under had evolved for the better and amid the greatest hits so many came to eat, such as the egg-and-bacon ice-cream, some of the most brilliant moments were dishes made especially for Australia, such as a dessert paying homage to mould botrytis cinera, which grows on grapes and enables local winemakers to produce the wines Australians call “stickies”. Then there was a range of great Australian wines to enjoy with the food – in the UK, it was mostly French, with the occasional “New World” wine.
The other thing that made it special was taking a friend who didn’t know what The Fat Duck was all about. Watching her delight, surprise and amazement brought another level of pleasure to the experience. It’s like seeing a movie the second time around – you see the things you missed first time because you were busy trying to figure out the plot.
I didn’t run a review earlier because I didn’t want to spoil the magic for anyone yet to eat there, but now the team has returned to the UK, ready to start again, it’s a story worth telling.
Blumenthal created something ephemeral and beautiful in Melbourne.
Even before you arrive the anticipation builds via a website designed to embed memories that will be evoked once again during the meal. You get a special link and can watch it just 3 times (you get another email after you leave that allows you to look again).
Then there’s the entrance, which builds its own sense of anticipation and slight bewilderment before the restaurant reveals itself to you.
The giant fob watch on the wall counted down the days in Melbourne and has gone back to the UK as a reminder of The Duck’s time here. There was a 19,500 piece, partly completed jigsaw of the chef as superhero on the wall and every guest who ate there added a piece to the puzzle.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” says the Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
It sounds like Heston Blumenthal’s philosophy on life.
The Fat Duck has gone, but he returns, Phoenix-like to the same space, with the first overseas outpost of his London restaurant, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, one of the world’s top 10 dining destinations.
“I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly; “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
This was my adventure.
You walk through a curtain into the dark and see this video illustration - it's a crazy contraption supposedly used to make the first dish.
Then it's a walk down the dark corridor in an optical illusion that makes you think, Alice style, the world is shrinking before your eyes into a small view of the kitchen - it's actually a video and then a door opens beside you.
The meal starts with a small ethereal macaron-like combo of beetroot and horseradish with a incredible intensity of flavour that evaporates in the mounth.
Next, it's cocktail time. Our waiter has three flavours to choose from tequila, grapefruit and basil; gin and tonic; and vodka, lime and green tea...
The 'cocktail' is a liquid nitrogen-poached meringue, you pop whole into your mouth. Steam blows out our nostrils as we bite down on it. We feel like dragons.
It's ice cream time! A small canoe of Pommery grain mustard ice cream floats in a sea of red cabbage gazpacho.
Savoury lollies! It's entrees as ice creams (l-r) a spectacularly good play on a golden gaytime made with chicken liver parfait and candied nuts; a smoked salmon twister with cucumber and cream; and the waldorf salad rocket. So unbelievably delicious.
Next is an absolute classic. It's an homage to the French chef Alain Chapel, and a play on forest flavours and oak. You eat a little film of gel first, which is sitting on the moss. It tastes woody and earthy.
The next part of the combination is toast with fresh truffle slices, and finally, a fabulously opulent combination of quail jelly, marron cream and caviar-speckled sorbet, with a pea puree buried deep within. As you start to eat, the waiter pours water on the moss and dry ice underneath creates a fog that floods out over the table to create a moody atmosphere.
Even the bread and butter, which they made, was so bloody delicious I could have had it as a meal and been very happy.
Another classic: snail porridge. This latest incarnation, with shaved fennel and joselito ham, is much more complex, texturally interesting and all-out delicious, with a malty, crunchy base, than the version I tried years back.
Lasagne of marron: an early Fat Duck dish that shows how far things have come in 20 years. It reminded me of the great 80s/90s British cooking and chefs like Marco Pierre-White, who were still heavily influenced by classical French cooking. It's jammed full of bold, concentrated flavours from pig's trotter and truffle. This seriously cool surf-n-turf dish was revived for the 20th anniversary charity dinner - the final meal in Melbourne.
The Asian-influenced menu version of the roast marron - with shiitake, confit kombu, sea lettuce and pickled vegetable. It was paired with sake by Yamahai Jikomi to create an exquisite combination that took both things to another level, rich with umami.
Mad Hatter's Tea Party, part 1: A little bit of Heston magic, via Lewis Carroll, with the theatre of our waiter taking us through the story of the White Rabbit and his gold pocket watch, presenting the watches.
Mad Hatter's Tea Party, pt 3: The watch is actually stock, set into a jelly, which dissolves before your eyes in the teapot.
Mad Hatter's Tea Party, pt 4: the tea, flecked with gold leaf, is poured over mock turtle soup (a dish traditionally made from calves' head).
Mad Hatter's Tea Party, pt 5: Next in the tea party comes sandwiches, with a middle layer of toast between fresh white bread and layered with chicken, truffle and more. How cool his the mad hatter plate?!
Sound of the sea: Heston via Steve Jobs for one of his most famous dishes. A shell arrives with an iPod mini hidden inside. It's playing seaside sounds - the waves crashing, seagulls. On a glass plate is malty tapioca ‘sand’ with slices of raw kingfish and bonito with abalone, seaweeds and tidal succulents, plus a ‘surf’ foam.
Fat Duck diners drank more than a bottle of wine each, on average, during its Melbourne stay, emptying around 16,000 bottles. There were plenty of great Australian wines, including this classic: an 11-year-old sparkling shiraz from Victoria's Grampians region. Matching it with the salmon poached in liquorice gel was sublime genius.
Salmon poached in liquorice gel with vanilla mayo, trout roe and roasted endive, another Duck classic.
David Blackmore wagyu short rib with piccalilli - England's version of Indian pickles, using spiced and pickled vegetables that cut through the incredible buttery richness of the beef. It was served with the Tout Pres by Farr pinot noir, which was even more interesting because...
... the next dish was The Duck (traditionally matched with pinot) with Mt Langi Ghiran's 2012 Langi shiraz.
It came with fried duck chips, made from tapioca flour and duck meat, in a bowl of the spices used in the main dish
The duck is served with blood pudding, bitter chicory leaves and a green coffee sauce. It's another rich course. There's a duck neck 'cigar' filled with red wine braised and smoked duck neck.
Next is hot and iced tea. Yep, two temperatures in the same glass cup. Mind blown. How do they do that?
This exquisite dish, botrytis cinera, was created especially for Australia. It's an homage to 'noble rot' - a mould that grows on grapes to make sweet dessert-style wines - an looks like a bunch of grapes. It's served with De Bortoli's famed Noble One.
The next dessert is breakfast: the not-so-full English breakfast, starting with Heston's version of cornflakes, made with vegetable chips and parsnip milk. Inside the cereal box is a piece of the giant jigsaw that filled the back wall.
Whisky wine gums! And they taste just like the actual whiskies, including Laphroig's smoky peat and seaweed oiliness. You peel them off the picture frame. There's even an Australian whisky from Lark in Tasmania. As a whisky drinker, I was in heaven.
And finally, a lolly bag, titled 'Like a kid in a sweet shop' full of more delicious goodies including...
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