There is no denying that one of the most anticipated new restaurant openings so far this year has been Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London, so when reservations first opened in December of last year, I was on Opentable furiously trying to get a table. As it turned out, I ended up with 3 reservations (all within the space of a month) as I as randomly entered dates to see if I could get that elusive lunch reservation for 4 people. One of the dates I managed to get was the day before Becky T’s birthday and given how she’s broadening her palette horizons, along with how much she loved the Heston Blumenthal “feasts” series, this would be the perfect Birthday present for her. As it was a table for 4, the other 2 spaces would be taken by Dan, her boyfriend and Rich H who like Becky, has been taken into the world of fine dining by yours truly. Given how my dining companions would be people who have no preconceptions about fine dining or indeed, what to expect at such establishments, they would be the ideal people to eat with because their excitement would be contagious. More to the point, they are very good friends of mine and what better way to try something new and exciting than with your friends?
Arriving with time to spare, but not really enough time to go grab a coffee or to look for a pub beforehand, we decide to head in. We’d all previously read about the bar prices and had all agreed that none of us were going to drink any wine with our meal, and we hadn’t really decided about drinks beforehand – Whilst it would hard to justify a £17 cocktail when were going to #meateasy later in the evening and be served fantastic cocktails for a fraction of the price, this was a special occasion for Becky’s birthday. As it happens, we got seated in the bar whilst waiting for our table and looking through the cocktail menu, we all decided to live for today and go for a drink. There was a bit of a delay getting the drinks to us (Seriously, 20mins to make 4 cocktails?), but the whole place was so relaxed that we didn’t really mind it. Even sitting in the bar, everybody loved the décor, the soft furnishing, even the lighting was commented on. It’s very easy to feel intimidated by the surroundings, but right from sitting in the bar waiting (and then drinking) our cocktails, we all felt completely at ease and not intimidated at all. At no point did we feel rushed (quite the opposite with the amount of time it took to make the drinks!) and the bowls of snacks were replenished before we got to the point of licking the bottom of the bowls. We were off to a good start..
The actual dining room is light and airy with the large windows overlooking Hyde Park providing vast amounts of natural light to the room and the tables weren’t cramped together so that you could overhear the conversation at the table next to you (which is probably a good thing for anyone sitting near us!). Seated at our table, the menus are laid out and you could feel the excitement building up from seeing the placard saying “Dinner by Heston Blumenthal” laid out in front of us. Squealing from excitement was a very real possibility and although I like to think that we could have got away with it, I’m relieved that we didn’t have to find out for real if we could have got away with it or not.
For starters, we had all decided that since the Meat Fruit was *the* dish that we all had to try, we would order it as an extra starter to share between us so we could choose other starters and thus be able to sample a wide choice of dishes:
Becky chose the Hay Smoked Mackerel: Lightly smoked fish with a subtle hint of hay that didn’t overpower all the other ingredients. For someone who doesn’t really eat fish like Becky, she could tell how fresh the fish was as it just melted in your mouth without having to chew down into it. The accompanying lemon salad was refreshing and perfect counterpoint to the oily fish.
Dan (to all our surprise) chose the Salamagundy: chicken oysters and bone marrow with a horseradish cream. Make no mistake, this was NOTHING like Dan had ever eaten before and we were all impressed that he actually chose it. The verdict was that he didn’t really like the bone marrow (which was fine as I ate it instead) but he loved all the other elements of the dish.
Rich chose the Rice and Flesh: Saffron risotto with braised calves tail. The risotto was cooked perfectly; rich, creamy and rice not overly or undercooked, the saffron wasn’t too overpowering and the consistency was just right. The accompanying calves tails were beautifully braised in red wine until meltingly tender – A delicious balance to the risotto.
I chose the roast marrow bone which was possibly the plainest dish of all. Perhaps it’s because I had tried all the others first but the bone marrow was lost in the mix with parsley, anchovy and mace. That said, the pickled vegetables were good and cut through the richness nicely.
And to the pièce de résistence, the Meat Fruit. A lot has been (quite rightly) written about this dish and indeed, it’s become seemingly mandatory to mention “Meat Fruit” whenever you talk about “Dinner by Heston Blumenthal”. For the 3 of you out there in the Blogosphere who don’t know what I’m talking about, a wooden platter is presented to you with a mandarin and 3 toasted slices of bread. Except this is a Heston Blumenthal restaurant and so you should know not to expect it to actually be a mandarin – Even though the outside of the skin has is dimpled and there is a green stalk with green leaves on it. Even as you cut through it, it sags a little but once you are through the outer skin your knife plunges smoothly through the “mandarin” and it’s clear that this really isn’t a mandarin at all. Open it up and revealed is an impossibly smooth chicken liver parfait.
And how did it taste? Seriously, the best parfait I’ve ever eaten; Impossibly silky smooth, intensely flavoured without being too overwhelming, creamy without being too rich, the actual mandarin “skin” is a mandarin jelly which adds that fruity taste to cut through the richness, even after you’ve swallowed the mouthful, you get a pleasant aftertaste about 10 seconds later which reaffirms the feeling that you’ve just eaten something very special. I think we all could have gobbled the whole lot by ourselves – And asked for a whole basket of fruit.
For mains, the Beef Royale was no longer on the menu. We joked that perhaps it’s because they couldn’t keep up with demand given it took 72 hours to cook but it also meant that we have to choose something else for our mains:
Becky had the sirloin of Black Angus (cooked medium) which came with mushroom ketchup, red wine juice (not jus) and triple cooked chips. The steak was perfectly cooked and *so* tender – You could cut through it using a butter knife without too much force so you can imagine that not a great deal of chewing was required once it was in your mouth. It may only have been a steak – But it was a very nice piece of steak! Again, I ended up eating the 3 blobs of bone marrow that were nestled on top as they weren’t really to Becky’s taste. The accompaniments that came with the steak were all tasty too but the star of the show was the steak. Becky, battling against the inevitable meat sweats and heading at breakneck speed towards The Wall, persevered as hard as she could but had to admit defeat 3/4’s of the way in. Considering it sacrilege to leave food uneaten, Rich and I happily polished it off for her.
Rich opted for the roast turbot which was perfectly cooked inside and seared to a crisp on the outside. As good as the turbot was, the highlight of the dish was the cockle ketchup; a salsa verde with capers and chopped cornichons all enveloped within a thick sauce which added a piquancy in contrast to the meaty fish. Rich wolfed it down and declared it a winner.
Dan went for the Black Foot Pork Chop which was something I considered ordering and after tasting it, I honestly wish I had; A good char on the outside but still very tender on the inside without drying out which is what you often get with pork chops. As with the Becky’s steak, it was cooked beautifully and other than not gnawing on the bone that was left, Dan gobbled the whole thing up. I should also point out that the pork chop was served on a bed of pointed cabbage with (what can only be described as) a translucent sheath of something which nobody could determine what it was. However, Dan declared it to be very tasty and had eaten most of it before we could get someone to ask what it was.
I opted for the Cod in Cider with chard and fired mussels. I’m generally don’t order fish in restaurants because I eat a lot of fresh fish at home and have rarely eaten fish in a restaurant and thought that it was exceptional. Sadly, it was the case here too. That’s not to say that it was a bad dish or that it wasn’t beautifully executed – It was as well executed as Rich’s turbot dish was, but perhaps it suffered (again) from having to follow 3 other brilliant main dishes with all their bells and whistles to tantalise your senses, that when it came to this one, it was a bit.. meh. However, it didn’t stop me finishing the whole thing (and wishing I’d gone for the pigeon or duck).
A word now about the service: Faultless. I expected it to be a very slick and professional operation and indeed it was, but given how my dining companions weren’t used to this kind of service, it was refreshing to see how all the little touches went a long way to impress them; Making sure that glasses of water were topped up at all times, being informative and helpful about menu choices. One of our servers even offered to take a group photo of us and not only was she comfortable using my D-SLR, she even took more than one picture and from different angles too. As before, never were we made to feel out of place and the others were particularly impressed with how she gave information of where to buy some of the teas we drank (without necessarily paying through the roof for them if going through the hotel). I like to think that it was equally refreshing for them to have customers who were chatty and friendly to them and didn’t think twice about lifting glasses from the table for them to wipe it down, as opposed to those who don’t even look or acknowledge their existence unless they really needed to.
Finally, onto desserts:
The Tipsy Cake was ordered at the beginning of the meal as it takes about 40mins to cook and like the Meat Fruit, it was something we all thought we could share. However, by the end of the main course, Becky and Dan couldn’t eat anything more. Rich and I on the other hand, were more than happy to continue and there was no way we were going to miss out!
Rich went for the Taffety Tart which visually was stunning; deep crimsons contrasted against the brown layers and the white plate, the mille feuille of burnt sugar with intricately piped cream and the jelly in between was almost too delicate to break into, but the combination of flavours from the fennel, rose and sugar along with the sorbet was delicious. On their own, they were too strong but combined, it was stunning.
And to round off my disappointing choices, the Brown Bread Ice Cream I chose wasn’t as great as I was hoped it would be. The waiter had warned that it was more like a savoury dish but I was thinking that it had one of my favourite things in the world – Salted Caramel – in it so it couldn’t possibly be that bad? Well, it wasn’t bad per se, just not as delicious as I hoped; The ice cream itself was smooth and the malted yeast syrup was lovely – as was the shortbread and the cubes of bread, but the salted caramel was neither salty or caramel-y and there were lumps of sugar within it that was an unexpected crunch. I’d rate it no more than 5/10 for this dish – Easily the weakest dish of the day for me.
However, desserts were completely redeemed by the Tipsy Cake. Any worries I had that the pineapple would have been hard or dry from being spit roasted for too long were washed away as soon as my spoon went through it with great ease to cut it. The pineapple itself was still incredibly juicy and not as acerbic as the raw version. The Tipsy Cake itself was incredibly rich and buttery, but without being sickly so. That, combined with the pineapple was gorgeous, I could have eaten a whole serving to myself.
With our teas, there was one more bit of deliciousness heading our way; a white chocolate and Earl Grey tea ganache. It was so good that Rich ate Becky’s..
So there you go. There were a few good dishes rather than all round fantastic dishes and there was only one disappointment (out of 10 dishes) so overall it was very good for us all. Jay Rayner wrote in his review of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal that you should save up to eat at Dinner because “it’s bloody lovely” and I’m inclined to agree – Just trust your instincts when it comes to ordering. Oh, and have the Meat Fruit.
For a full set of photos, go to My Flickr