Heston Blumenthal Looks Back

At his new London restaurant, Dinner, the avant-garde chef goes historical

Once you get past the mildly annoying "Who's on first?" implications of the name ("Where are you having dinner?" "Dinner." "Yes, dinner. Where?"), Heston Blumenthal's new restaurant — Dinner by name — is pretty much an unalloyed delight.

Blumenthal, of course, is best-known for The Fat Duck, his avant-garde establishment in Bray, the Thameside village in Berkshire famous in culinary circles for having not one but two of the U.K.'s four Michelin three-star restaurants (The Fat Duck and Alain Roux's posh Waterside Inn). At that establishment, Blumenthal has, since 1995, amazed and delighted and occasionally disconcerted diners with such avant-gardery as "scrambled egg and bacon ice cream," made tableside with liquid nitrogen (pictured); "snail porridge," which combines minced snails, ham, and fennel with oatmeal porridge cooked in garlicky snail stock; and salmon wrapped in licorice gel, poached, and served with black truffles, asparagus, and vanilla mayonnaise. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Sifu Renka)

To produce some of his more unusual dishes, Blumenthal often employs technology and materials more often found in laboratories than kitchens — he was a participant in some of the early "Molecular Gastronomy" conferences in Sicily, so that term was inevitably applied to his cooking — and though their food is nothing alike, he has often been mentioned in the same breath with Ferran Adrià (and has held the same "World's Best Restaurant" title that El Bulli has).

Last year, Blumenthal announced that he would open a restaurant in London, in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel — with a menu that wasn't avant-garde at all, but rather that drew on historical sources to resurrect English recipes dating back as much as 600 years or so. He dubbed it Dinner — which, as the menu helpfully points out, was once the term for the main meal of the day, taken around noon (actually, the official name seems to be Dinner by Heston Blumenthal) — and in answer to the inevitable question, yes it is possible to have lunch at Dinner.

In any case, from the forefront of gastronomy, Blumenthal was now going to delve into the culinary past. This wasn't as much of a stretch as some observers made it out to be. To begin with, Blumenthal also runs a very traditional establishment called The Hinds Head, a few doors down from The Fat Duck. Named Pub of the Year for 2011 by Michelin, the Hinds Head serves such fare as crab on toast, oxtail and kidney pudding, and rib eye steak with bone marrow sauce and Blumenthal's famous triple-cooked chips (thick fries cooked three times to drive every drop of moisture from their interiors so they stay crisp).

More to the point, the chef has long included dishes with a venerable history in his Fat Duck tasting menu, among them his version of a mid-19th-century mock turtle soup and a dish of lamb with cucumber dating from circa 1805. The idea at Dinner, though, was to use historical recipes exclusively, reviving, when necessary, old-fashioned cooking techniques to produce them.

The restaurant is no Olde-Englishe culinary theme park, though. There are references to the past in the décor (by the prolific, cosmopolitan Manhattan designer Adam Tihany, whose many American restaurant interiors include those at Per Se, Daniel, and Aureole), but they are subtle: Sconces are custom-made porcelain replicas of antique jelly molds; a wall in the bar is inset with copies of old recipes that can only be seen from certain angles in the right light; glass walls giving into the kitchen offer views of the medieval-style pulleys operating the rotisserie. Those touches aside, the room feels like a nicely-lit, airy, contemporary-style hotel dining room, with nothing old-fashioned about it. (Photo courtesy of The Mandarin Oriental)

The menu, on the other hand, makes the historical theme clear. Each listing is followed by a date, exact or approximate — i.e., "Hay Smoked Mackerel (c. 1730)" — with specific origins, if known, detailed on the back. (Ashley Palmer-Watts, a longtime chef at The Fat Duck is in day-to-day charge of the kitchen.)

 

 

Perhaps the most written-about item on the menu has been "meat fruit" (circa 1500), an early example of the kind of visual trickery that chefs like Ferran Adrià and Grant Achatz much later became famous for: To all appearances, it was a perfect little tangerine, glowing orange and glossy, that turned out to be a globe of silky, opulent chicken liver parfait cloaked in orange jelly, a real marvel of flavor and texture. Salamagundy (circa 1720) — the term, usually spelled salmagundi, means a hodgepodge or variegated mixture and typically describes a salad-like combination of meats and vegetables — is here a combination of chicken oysters (those ovoid bits of dark meat found near the rear of the bird's thigh), bone marrow, and salsify (pictured) in a very light horseradish cream, strange but pretty tasty. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/gorgeoux)

"Powdered duck", from a recipe published in 1672, is duck cured in salt and spices (cinnamon and nutmeg among them), then slow-cooked for nine hours. It was very good, especially in counterpoint to the accompanying potato purée and smoked fennel finished in duck fat, though I'm not sure the results were worth all that time and trouble. Spiced pigeon, in a halo of cardamom, ginger, allspice, star anise, and garlic, was richer and more complex in flavor, and was nicely offset by an ale glaze and sweet little pieces of artichoke. A serious "black foot" (i.e., pata negra) pork chop with cabbage and Robert Sauce (mustard, garlic, thyme, and smoky bacon) was meaty and filling. Cod in cider, the youngster on the menu, dating only from circa 1940, was just a gorgeous piece of fish, full of flavor, and nicely served by its garnish of earthy chard and smoky "fired" mussels.

Among the desserts, brown bread ice cream (pictured) with salted butter caramel and malted yeast syrup (circa 1830) was a sticky enchantment, and a 1730-vintage chocolate bar (a veritable ingot of chocolate with a center of passion fruit jam and some not-very-gingery ginger ice cream on the side) must have been very good indeed, because my friend who'd ordered it refused to share a single bite. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/gorgeoux)

So… this was a fine meal, then, rich and varied and intensely savory — not as much fun as a tasting menu at The Fat Duck, maybe, but more consistently satisfying. The surprise to me was the extent to which Dinner's entire historical conceit turned out to be rather beside the point. From the plating to the combinations of ingredients to the very agreeable flavors of the food, this was just good cooking, timeless in its quality.

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