February 18, 2011 10:29 pm

History in the making

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal recreates the subtle overtones once commonplace in British cooking
 
Heston Blumenthal and his ice-cream machine prototype

Heston Blumenthal and his ice-cream machine prototype

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park

I arrived for my lunch at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal two hours before I was due to meet my guests there. I had told Monica Brown, Blumenthal’s long-standing PR, that I wanted to ensure our photographer got the best shots. But I really wanted to be an observer, watching the opening of what is possibly the world’s most eagerly anticipated restaurant – and certainly the most difficult to book a table at.

Brown admitted that she was feeling “gaga” at the end of the first week, which had seen seven different restaurant critics in the dining room on only its second day. This was followed by a busy evening that included the late arrival of the top French chef Alain Ducasse and his operations director.

All this attention has taken a toll on head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts, who was at The Fat Duck for nine years before turning his talents to helping to plan this restaurant 18 months ago. “I’ve lost seven kilos in the past 10 days,” he said.

While waiting for my guests, I sat at the Chef’s Table, from where you can see into the elegant open kitchen. The menu, inspired by old British recipes and researched by Blumenthal and Palmer-Watts with food historians, requires some eccentric-looking machinery. In one corner a large spit roasts pineapples for the early-19th-century tipsy cake dessert. Two main ranges stand apart rather than together – Blumenthal insists this will improve efficiency when 55 chefs are serving 300 customers a day.

And beyond all this is a window overlooking Hyde Park through which, at midday, the Horse Guards ride back from Buckingham Palace to their barracks. “Whenever I see them go by,” Palmer-Watts exclaimed with boyish enthusiasm, “I feel like saluting.”

Now that it is finally open, Blumenthal refers to his London home as “The Fat Duck Brasserie”. It is not the dishes or even the style of service that link the two, he says, but the work carried out in their research and development kitchen in Holyport, close to The Fat Duck in Bray. “This,” he added pointing expansively behind him, “is simply a finishing kitchen. The creativity comes straight from The Duck.”

At the table, the menu is folded, wrapped and laid out in front of the customer – there is no hanging about waiting for a maître d’. About two dozen dishes, all of old English extraction, are described and dated, with a note about their origins: the excellent roast turbot, for example, with cockle ketchup and leaf chicory was created in 1827 by Maria Eliza Rundell.

Any qualms our table may have had choosing between salamugundy, a colourful salad of chicken oysters (dark, round pieces of meat from the back of the bird), bone marrow and horseradish cream; rice and flesh, a 14th-century British equivalent of risotto alla Milanese; and beef royal, an 18th-century precursor of today’s slow-cooked beef ribs, were dispelled by our waiter.

“I’ve eaten everything on the menu and really enjoyed it all,” he said. “Do ask me anything”.

As we shuffled plates between us, we were impressed by the finesse of the cooking as well as the depth of the flavours. Palmer-Watts had explained that what they were looking to recreate in modern form were the subtle, smoky overtones once commonplace in British cooking, and here replicated via the presence of anchovy, Gentleman’s Relish and caraway biscuits with the coffee. Blumenthal added that his continuous demands for more acidity in the dishes had reached the point where his kitchen staff knew what he was going to say almost before he had tasted the dish. But his campaign has been successful.

There is more culinary exploration and invention to come here. Earlier on, I was led into the private dining room to see the prototype of a mobile ice-cream unit. When fully commissioned from designer Sebastian Bergne, waiters will use it to hand-churn ice cream for customers at the end of the meal. “We’ve spent £36,000 on this prototype so far,” Palmer-Watts explained, “and that’s what makes cooking here so exciting. We’re never sure that what we set out to do is necessarily going to work.”

The whole experience left my two guests from New York delighted but puzzled. Why, they wanted to know, if British food is as good as this and has such strong historical roots, did it have such an awful reputation for so long? I suggested a lack of pride. Now, thanks to Blumenthal and so many other British chefs, we have a style of cooking to shout about.

nicholas.lander@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lander

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Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, www.dinnerbyheston.com

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