With: Dr Science
How much: £165 for the pair of us, with a (relatively) cheap bottle of wine and one set lunch menu
Come here if: you're sure you'll be put off by that fancy stuff at the Fat Duck, but want to tell your friends you've eaten with that man off the Waitrose adverts. Or conversely, if you're planning ahead to wow a client. Other than that, give it a miss.
Not being the best at picking imaginative yet apposite presents for my friends I often end up falling back on the ever acceptable drink option, arriving at the party proffering a guilty bottle of Balvennie or a bottle of bubbly (price tag artfully removed). To be fair, it works for most of them, bunch of sots that they are. That being said, for Dr Science's 40th (sorry mate, you don't act it) I really wanted to find something a bit special.
Ever since I found out about the opening of the "most exciting London restaurant opening ever" ((c) everyone in the mainstream food press), at the Mandarin Oriental, there was no way I was going to be able to avoid it. Either to meekly back up the pages of positive print it has had already, or to stick a slightly snippy line down on it, thus fighting my own personal fight against the hype, either way, nothing me or any other (proper) food writer could say about it would have any effect on the 6 month waiting list. For those of you who have spent the last year only eating in MacDonalds, or who don't care a fig for fine dining, bald headed culinary Wonka Heston Blumenthal (he of the snail porridge and 'food as theatre' TV programmes) has just opened a new restaurant called Dinner on the most expensive street corner in Western Europe. Restaurateurs. Don't. Get. Any. More. Exciting. Than. Him.
At a stroke I'd solved two pressing concerns. Dr Science's forthcoming birthday, and my desperate need to get to Dinner by Heston and see what the fuss was going to be about. I booked, we took the afternoon off, and resolved to have a seriously decadent time.
The room is fairly generic opulent hotel resto chic. Neutral beige palate, expensive fixtures and a proliferation of arseholes in suits. It is the dining room of the Mandarin Oriental, one of London's most expensive hotels, after all. That being said, there are moments of zany Heston-ism scattered around; jelly moulds act as light fittings, the back bar is lit with gummi coloured bottles of booze and serried ranks of pineapples roast on a spit powered by the largest Swiss watch you'll ever see (I'll come back to those...).
It ain't another Fat Duck. Neither is it just a posh food pit for fat cats to roll around in. It's somewhere between the two, but mostly just a five star hotel restaurant. It's less complex than you'd expect. There's no nine course set tasting menu here (no tasting menu at all, unless you're in the Chef's Table overlooking the pass), just three simple courses, each with 8 or 10 options. Recipes aren't beset with foams and gels and carnival flourish, but are taken from the annals of British food history, the grand dishes served to our forefathers (or at least the forefathers belonging to the monied arseholes in suits).
As you'd expect, the prices are challenging in places, challenging to those not on expense account dining certainly. While there are a number of wines in the 28 page list below £100, the vast bulk of the list is pitched above this point (some considerably so), that being said, we found a very pleasant Fleurie at £45. More surprising is a three course lunch set menu at a very reasonable £28. I go for this while Dr Science plumps for the a la carte option. I've seen one too many reviews not to have heard of the Meat Fruit, a chicken liver parfait coated in mandarin gel, shaped and textured like a little mandarin. We add one of those to the table too, with the current waiting list at 6 months it's going to be a while before I'm back to try it again. My Ragoo of Pigs Ears is a real star. It's been braised for hours with sweet onion and parsley and the cartilage is sweet and soft, an intensely concentrated meaty kick. Dr Science goes for the Salamagundy, a perfectly constructed and flavoursome hot salad of chicken oysters, bone marrow and a light horseradish cream. If anything it's a little soft and texturally lacking, but that's not much to lay against it. And the Meat Fruit? It's a ball of chicken liver parfait. Strangely tasteless without the char of the sourdough. I don't think I saw a single table go without one though.
The Roast Quail from the set menu was another flavour triumph for my cheaper menu choice. The turnips served with it were subtly smoked and then roasted, just the sort of thing you hope for from Heston. Soft game breast worked well barely cooked, though the just cooked meat was remarkably difficult to separate from the tiny quail legs. Dr Science's 72 hour slow roast rib of angus beef managed to arouse high passion on arrival, a thick lozenge of dark meat, served with a thick jus, cubes of ox tongue and baby veg. It was good, but certainly not brilliant. The meat had the texture of a hunk of salt beef, and was relatively one dimensional in its flavour. Definitely one that didn't live up to my hype.
That being said, we finished on a storming note, with the Tipsy Cake. A baked brioche, crystal studded with sugar, cooked in cream, Sauternes and brandy. It came served with a slice of the pineapple from earlier mentioned spit roast and my rapidly expiring heart. Pudding perfection from 1810; no wonder they had a life expectancy of less than 45 back then.