Friday, February 4, 2011
On December 1st at 9am, I sat with one hand on my phone and the other feverishly hitting the refresh button on my Internet browser. I was determined to get a reservation at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, the new restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Given Heston’s iconic status in the culinary world, I knew it would be a big opening.
My diligence paid off. Within 30 seconds I had secured a table for four on opening week. I invited three friends to join me, and marked the date on my calendar.
Two nights ago I arrived at the Mandarin Oriental in great anticipation of my dinner at Dinner. I walked up the stairs onto an empty landing by the bar, and suddenly found myself face to face with Heston Blumenthal.
He was busy talking on his phone, but spared a second to make eye contact with me. Like a teenage girl meeting Justin Bieber, I was unable to repress a giggle. Embarrassed, I ducked into the coat check, only to emerge a minute later to find myself running into him again at the hostess stand. I really hoped the restaurant didn’t have an anti-stalker policy, because I was about to be ejected.
The three hostesses who stood sentry at the entrance of the bar interrogated me as to whether I had reservations. When I passed the test, I walked with one of them through the crowds of cocktails (and right behind Heston) into the dining room.
It was spacious, with high ceilings and wide windows out of which I would have been able to see Hyde Park had it not been dark outside. The decor was done mostly in browns and blacks, and the open kitchen was glassed-in for a look-but-don’t-hear dining experience.
My friends arrived shortly after I did, and we picked up our menus to see what was on offer. The restaurant featured contemporary cuisine inspired by historic British recipes, and each menu item had the date of its origin next to it. Some dishes went all the way back to the 14th century, while others were quite modern at 1850.
Nowhere on the menu did we see any nods to the molecular gastronomy that Heston’s flagship restaurant, the three Michelin starred Fat Duck, is famous for. And nowhere did we see a tasting menu or wine pairing. This was, as Heston claimed, a ‘refined brasserie’. Starters were priced from £12.50 – 16.00, and mains at £20.00 – 32.00. Desserts rung in at £8.00 – 10.00. Wines were much steeper, but the list was impressive.
Despite being detailed on the dates, the menu was rather sparing on the descriptions. We were left to ask our server to explain to us exactly what Rice & Flesh (saffron risotto with veal) and Powdered Duck (duck legs cured with ground salt) were. But once we knew, we had a hard time choosing.
Finally it was decided that two of us would start with the Meat Fruit, a dish from 1500 that featured a bright orange skin of mandarin jelly filled with chicken liver parfait. The other two would begin with the Roast Scallops, which dated back to 1820.
They were good choices. The meat fruit looked so perfectly like a tangerine that I was almost sad to cut into it. But the rich chicken liver parfait was something out of a dream. Two of the three toasts that came with it were a bit too crunchy, but otherwise it was perfection à la Heston Blumenthal.
By the time we finished our starters, we had also finished our first bottle of 2008 Meerlust Pinot Noir, which came from a great South African winery that I had visited on my trip to Cape Town two years ago. As we started on our second bottle, our mains arrived.
These came in the form of the previously mysterious Powdered Duck and the Braised Celery from 1730, which was served with generous helpings of Parmesan, pickled walnuts, apple, and onion. I had the latter dish, which was good, but not on the level of the Meat Fruit.
About half way through our mains, I caught the first flaw in the service. Our server came by and placed new wine glasses next to the ones in which we were enjoying our Meerlust. We all looked at each other, wondering if he mistakenly thought we had ordered more wine. When he returned to the table with the bottle, I got ready to tell him that it must have been a mistake.
But before I could open my mouth, he quietly said “from the gentlemen at the table by the window.” We all smiled. For a restaurant where reservations were so difficult to come by, we serendipitously knew people at two other tables that night.
The ‘gentlemen by the window’ were good friends of ours who later joked that they didn’t know when they would ever have another chance to send a bottle of wine to a table of girls at a Heston Blumenthal restaurant. We were flattered.
As we tucked into our third bottle of wine, we realized that we had forgotten to pre-order the Tipsy Cake, an 1810 dish of impossibly light brioche cooked in a tiny cocotte and served with spit roasted pineapple from the restaurant’s very own gas rotisserie. Our server had informed us at the beginning of the meal that it took 40 minutes to cook, and thus should be ordered during dinner if we didn’t want to wait for it.
We were in no hurry, though. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal wasn’t turning tables yet. We had our seats for the entire evening, and we meant to put them to good use. We ordered two Tipsy Cakes. We also ordered a Brown Bread Ice Cream, an 1830 dessert with salted butter caramel malted yeast syrup, and a Chocolate Bar, a 1730 concoction that featured passion fruit jam and ginger ice cream.
While we waited, we ordered a cheese plate. Out came a smattering of British cheeses, from cow’s milk to goat’s milk and beyond. Oat cakes and bread were furnished, and we enjoyed the rest of our wine as we sampled the selection.
At some point during the meal, the maitre d’ walked over to our table and asked if one of us was a food blogger. I wasn’t sure how he knew that, or if it was my giant camera that gave me away. I answered in the affirmative, and he asked how we were enjoying the meal. I told him that everything was perfect; the only thing we were missing was Heston (it may have been the wine talking).
He smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.” Heston had spent ample time at a table by the entrance where Jeremy Clarkson sat with three dinner companions. As such, I doubted a London food blogger would get any more attention from him than the brief eye contact I had stumbled into in the foyer.
I saw the matire d’ walk up to him, and watched out of the corner of my eye as they both turned to look at our table. A few minutes later, Heston Blumenthal came over and welcomed us. We spent a few minutes talking with him about the restaurant, and when my friend asked him about the decor, he had a very interesting answer.
The walls on one side were covered in leather rectangles that were meant to look like the brick walls of the Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace. Having been there, I had to agree. The circular wooden chandeliers hanging from the ceilings were cut to the design of a stained glass window in Westminster Abbey. I liked the historical references.
The giant metal clock gears turning the pineapple spit, however, were designed by a watchmaker friend of Heston’s. Okay, so not really a nod to historic Britain, but they looked nice, so we didn’t complain.
Our post-Heston void was conveniently filled a minute later with Tipsy Cakes and other sweet endings. My friend ordered us a bottle of Tokaj to go with it, and we started in on our last course at Dinner.
The Tipsy Cake was well worth the 40 minute wait. The brioche was perfectly soft and sweet, and the braised pineapple was a great compliment.
It was almost midnight by the time we left Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. The dining room was still buzzing, and we could tell we weren’t the only ones that had enjoyed our meal. With the restaurant booked solid through May, I didn’t know when I would be back next. But given that Heston will only be at Dinner full-time for the first three weeks, I was glad to have been so diligent as to get a reservation for the opening days.