When Heston Blumenthal opened his new restaurant, Dinner, at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London it was one of the most hotly anticipated and talked-about restaurant launches this country has seen in decades. In December last year, when reservation lines opened, they took a staggering 6000 bookings on the first day, and the restaurant has remained more or less fully booked ever since. Early reviews were mostly positive, at least compared to its sister-restaurant-in-spirit, that other hymn to olde English cookery – the Gilbert Scott at St Pancras, and after 6 months of it being open I decided it was high time I went to see what the fuss was all about, and whether a £70,000 clock-turning-spit really could make a pudding as special as the tipsy cake was rumored to be.
The restaurant itself is mostly unremarkable, being located in a vast hotel it is inevitably a large, echoey and rather dull space, with the now ubiquitous ‘open kitchen’, the only real highlight of which is the aforementioned massive clock mechanism, which is quite magnificent in a Zurich watch advert kind of way, and an admittedly droolsome view of pineapples, sticky with glaze, turning on gigantic spits in one corner of the kitchen.
The menu is not long, and is especially short on description – the waiting staff are clearly primed to answer all questions with a 20 minute history lesson – but as I prefer to make my menu choices without a tour guide and encyclopedia we just opted for whatever sounded most interesting.
Meat Fruit (c.1500) – mandarin, chicken liver parfait & grilled bread
Salamugundy (c.1720) – smoked calves heart, beetroot, horseradish & walnut
Both our starters were excellent modern interpretations of some of the more famous classic old English dishes, but meat fruit is THE signature dish at Dinner, and in fact I didn’t see a single table that failed to have it – even the large Japanese family next to us who otherwise ate solely from the fish options on the menu. Despite being a rather dry pun on the name of the hotel in which Dinner resides, this dish really is a show-stopper, and as delicious to eat as it was a delight to look at. On the outside is a tender jelly layer so ethereal in lightness it’s a wonder how it holds in the mass of parfait within. It is intensely aromatic and fruity, tasting exactly like biting into a fresh mandarin with a burst of juice that washes over your palate, making way for the intensely smooth and creamy liver parfait inside.
This is a rich and indulgent dish, one that Heston (and indeed the actual man in charge: Ashley Palmer-Watts) can be hugely proud of, it is so far from being the gimmick some have mistaken it for that I wouldn’t be surprised if it is still on the menu in a decade or more’s time. Our other starter, the ‘Salamagundy’ was essentially a very good cold-cut salad; the thinly-sliced smoked calf’s heart flavoursome and astoundingly tender, well counterpointed by the sweet-sour of the pickled beets and the bite from the horseradish, with the walnut adding welcome texture.
Powdered Duck (c.1670) – smoked fennel & potato puree
Spiced Pigeon (c.1780) – ale & artichokes
Main courses were tasty but distinctly more pedestrian, a powerful reminder that Fat Duck II this ain’t. Powdered Duck was the big failure of my ordering policy, I’d been hoping for something dry, crisp, crunchy, but what it was in fact was duck leg confit (the ‘powdered’ referring to the salt cure) in a bitter meaty glaze that frankly was either over-reduced or had been made from bones that had seen rather too much of the inside of the oven. Of the two legs served, one was almost entirely fat and skin, no meat at all, and when I pointed this out to the waitress she managed to fail in epic fashion by just nodding sagely and saying “yes duck leg is very fatty”. No madam, this isn’t very fatty, this is ALL fat. But never mind…
I shoved the duck over to hubby to finish and instead gorged myself on its accompaniment, the most buttery, creamy, silky potato puree I’ve ever tasted. Joel Robuchon reputedly made mash so indecently good it was made with equal amounts of butter to potato, this tasted like it was more 70/30 in favour of butter, with perhaps a splodge of cream for good measure. Hell on the waistline, heaven on the palate. The spiced pigeon was very well-executed and tasty, albeit not particularly novel; a very nice pigeon breast, poached with what today would generally be considered a very Oriental-seeming mixture including star anise, cinnamon and so forth, but which a fairly cursory inspection of pre-industrial British recipes will reveal to be as English as mulled wine and mince pies. It was accompanied by an ale-based reduction suspiciously similar to the glaze adorning the duck, though better tasting for being less reduced.
Tipsy Cake (c.1810) – spit roast pineapple
Taffety tart (c.1660) – apple, rose, fennel & blackcurrant sorbet
So, the grande finale – that ridiculous, preposterous, outlandish spit-roasted pineapple and its friend the Tipsy Cake. A dish that takes an already buttery dessert bread (brioche), then bakes it in a bath of syrup made from butter, alcohol and sugar, then serves it with a technically healthy item (fruit) basted in yet more butter, alcohol and sugar – how could it not be wonderful? And indeed, it was wonderful. I don’t actually have much of a sweet tooth these days, so found it rather heavy going towards the end of the dish but gods was it worth it. Every mouthful was sweet, rich and moist, and a bite of still acidic pineapple (for all its buttery glaze) cut through beautifully. Sitting next to this boisterous, star studded dish was hubby’s choice of taffety tart: a delicate, rose-scented and beautiful example of the patissier’s art, which was delicious but utterly overshadowed by the accompaniment; a sorbet of unbelievable depth and richness which instantly took me back to childhood summers, sucking Blackcurrant and Liquorice sweets doled out in carefully rationed doses by my grandmother.
Amuse bouche: white chocolate & Earl grey ganache
Stuffed to the gills, overdosing on sugar and butter, it was all we could do to wolf down the delicious amuse bouche, decline the coffee and petits fours and stagger out into the sunshine before we exploded. And our verdict? Olde English recipe-diving may have more than a hint of gimmick to it, but regardless of the provenance of the recipes, in general the chefs here are doing it at the top of their game, with spectacular results.