Dinner at Dinner. I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoys saying that and then giggling like a little schoolgirl. You do have to grow up a bit to feel at home in the uber-posh setting of both the Mandarin Oriental hotel and Dinner itself. Although it feels like the little sister to the Fat Duck (mainly because of the Heston connection), Dinner has its own take on proper English fare. You won’t get much of the mind-blowing molecular gastronomy for which Heston is famous, but you will get an education in English heritage, some utterly delicious food, and a overwhelming urge to buy a sous-vide machine on your way home.
For those of you (I’m thinking of you, Nae) that don’t have the time, patience, and/or bladder control to sit through a full review, here is the Q&D summary.
+ Meat Fruit is awesome.
+ Order the tipsy cake (delicious) at the start or face a 40 minute wait for it at the end!
+ Portions for the mains are quite sizeable given the class of restaurant.
+ The Beef Royale is a must for meat lovers.
– The deconstructed pie being tested (it’s a special on the menu) doesn’t live up to the delightful description.
+ Get the house wine. Unless you’ve got a classically trained palate and can tell me at least 3 fruit, flavours, differentiate more than 7 colours of “red”, and determine what type of barrel the wine was aged in.
+ The ice cream cart at the end is a must for dessert.
I’ve thought about going to Dinner ever since I heard Heston had decided to open up a restaurant in Central London. At first, I didn’t want to try it as I knew it wouldn’t (and wasn’t meant to be) as ground-breaking as the Fat Duck. Heston is one of my top culinary heroes so the thought of anything less mind-blowing than the bacon and egg nitro ice cream on the menu would likely shatter my mental image of that master of molecular gastronomy.
A few months after the opening, my foodie friends managed to secure a booking at the Chef’s Table at Dinner and offered me a space. I had grown up from being a whiny little girl (see above) but, with this new found maturity, another problem reared its ugly head. I couldn’t afford it. As cliché as it sounds, I had a mortgage to pay so other things had to be sacrificed.
Finally, I’ve made it there for a belated birthday dinner with two of my favourite Londoners (who both happen to be Aussie): my cousin, Loz, and one of my closest friends, Nae. Anyways, that’s enough of the sob story. Let’s get onto what we all really care about – the Food! (and if you care more about something else, read another blog).
From the warm welcome by the gorgeous hostess to the personal attention paid by our waiter, service at Dinner is first-class. I know I just said we’ll get to food, but Mr. B deserves credit for taking the time and expense to train the wait staff to a level unsurpassed by any restaurant I’ve ever been in. That being said, the bread guy and girl could have used a tad more knowledge than “white or brown” when I asked – for example, I happen to know the white is a unique sourdough recipe which I would have loved to know more about. But minor gripes, really.
Our starters were composed of the Meat Fruit (which wasn’t really a choice, there was no way we weren’t getting it) and the Hay-smoked mackerel. The Meat Fruit was everything it was advertised to be. The presentation was exquisite and visually stunning in its simplicity. The texture and taste of the smooth chicken liver pate with a hint of citrus delights a number of senses. However, this is a dish best shared as it is deceptively rich for an empty-ish stomach and desperately needs the bread to ground it!
The Hay-smoked mackerel was absolutely delicious with thick strips of fish that shone in the subdued lighting of the restaurant. At first glance, I would have sworn it was raw but I quickly realised it was just cooked enough to firm up the flesh while leaving the full flavour untouched. I couldn’t tell you if smoking it with hay made it special although I imagine hay smoke is substantially lighter than hickory or applewood (more traditional smoking fuels) and thus did not overpower the fish.
The Main Events
Although every main on the menu looked appealing, the sound of the two specials was even more so and Nae and I opted for them. Loz, left with just the menu options (as if that was such a bad thing), selected the Powdered Duck after interrogating our waiter. I must say, though, he was quite up to the task and patiently described every dish we asked about which…well…was every dish.
Let’s start with the Powdered Duck. Three massive slices of duck breast (must have been a mega-duck) are cooked using the sous-vide method (vacuum-sealed bag submerged in a temperature controlled water bath) which locks in every last drop of juice and colour. They are then coated with a mix of spices before being lightly seared just before serving. The deep burgundy colour of the duck tempted the eyes and the full flavour of the bird was evident in every bite. Unlike so many duck dishes, this had not a hint of dryness and surprisingly was not overwhelmed by fat either. Typical duck cooking methods allows most of the fat to render our, something not possible with a sous-vide, which makes me think a special lean breed of duck is used instead. Regardless, an excellent dish and one with such quantity of meat that Loz couldn’t finish (but naturally I did). Presentation was tasteful and the meat was served with sautéed veggies just to round it out.
Next, Special #1: the Beef Royale. I understand that this is a frequent special at Dinner and it’s easy to see why. A good amount of slow-cooked (we’re talking 48 hours here) of short-rib is presented with a reduced gravy sauce and some odd little cubes. I have no idea what those cubes were but they were a tad starchy so maybe a type of root vegetable? The short-rib itself was a testament of meaty goodness which will have any carnivore salivating. To be fair, it was a very fatty cut of meat and potentially tough after a Meat Fruit if you had any pretension of being healthy. Luckily, we didn’t.
Finally, Special #2: An Unusual Pie. This dish was a “pie” composed of a pastry shell filled with a roast quail (or was it pigeon) leg, a sliver of tongue, a piece of kidney, one of liver, and a battered and friend sweetbread. Over all was a very dark reduced meat sauce likely also made from offal. Each item was cooked individually and then assembled into the pie in an effort to highlight each flavour. Our waiter told us that this dish was being tested for possible inclusion into the menu and that they wanted feedback. Well, I didn’t get a chance at Dinner (I was way too full and sleepy) so here goes.
The desired effect of isolating the flavour of each component was achieved, but in my opinion was a bit of overkill. The sweetbread was delicious and easily one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. The bird leg, although tricky to eat, and the tongue were tasty although not exceptional. The part that really tripped me up was the kidney and liver which were so strong it overwhelmed my senses. The only way I could think to describe the taste was that it tasted like the smell when you walk into an animal’s stall at the petting zoo. A mix of hay, animal sweat, and the slight tang of droppings – none of which are things I want to experience in my food. Still, I’m willing to put most of that down to my less than exuberant view of liver and kidney.
The last factor was presentation and concept. While it looked great upon serving, it required disassembly to eat and was nearly impossible to mix things in one bite. As individual items, I appreciated it but as a combined dish it lacked any sort of integration beyond the fact everything was covered in the same sauce. I wonder if there couldn’t be a better way to serve. Perhaps if it was served in something like those jewellery boxes my sisters have which open up in a spiral of tiny drawers. Each one could hold a different meat and the sauce could cascade down. Exactly how one makes such a thing of pastry, I don’t know, but Mr. B probably could figure it out and just how cool would that be?
I’m getting full…luckily I have a dessert stomach!
No meal is ever complete without a dessert or two and sometimes I find myself just eating some food to avoid the social disapproval of going straight to the sweet stuff. At Dinner, the Tipsy Cake was an inevitable choice (made before any other selections for the meal) and we decided to fill out the end of the meal with the ice cream cart as well.
The Tipsy Cake is a plan brioche cake that is saturated with a rum and sugar syrup, hence the name. Now it isn’t very boozy, but it is most definitely sugary so be warned. The syrup tends to pool at the bottom of the dish where it is absorbed by the light and fluffy (think cotton candy but in more bread-ish form and slightly less sugar) brioche. The brioche is also topped with slightly caramelised sugar in case your sweet tooth was still wanting. As a mark of how good this is, Loz, who doesn’t like desserts, still managed to eat a portion. The Tipsy Cake is served with a side of spit roasted pineapple which is nothing special taste-wise but extra points for quite literally having a slow turning spit with pineapples on show.
The ice cream cart is just highly entertaining and is one of the few times Heston seems to have given in to his love of liquid nitrogen. According to our waiter, this is a proper Victorian ice cream cart albeit with some minor improvements. Now I didn’t know that the Victorian era was known for its ice cream (how did they freeze it?) but I imagine they had some sort of cold desserts. What makes this so much fun is that the waiter tells you a whole tale while he’s making the ice cream. And when the liquid nitrogen is poured in it quite literally steals the show with billowing smoke drawing everyone’s attention. I think we inspired quite a few other diners to get it given the action the cart got after our dessert.
The ice cream is scooped onto a cinnamon sugared cone and then dipped in your choice of: nitro=dried raspberries, chocolate covered walnut pieces, the original 100s and 1000s (fennel seeds coated in brightly coloured sugar), and apple flavoured popping candy. Whatever you do, get the popping candy! It’s an awesome mouthfeel that takes you back to your childhood (while mine anyways).
At the very end, an earl gray chocolate ganache is served with a shortbread biscuit (there was some flavour to the biscuit I couldn’t quite place…I’ve heard rose though). Bonus points to the waiter for somehow picking up on the one time someone mentioned it was a dinner to celebrate my birthday. I still am amazed this is possible but check out the pic. They’ve managed to write (in excellent cursive) “Happy Birthday” using chocolate sauce. Absolutely brilliant!
Overall, you’d be hard pressed to find a better dining experience in Central London. The meal for 3 (including a bottle of wine) came to £220 which is pretty reasonable for a Michelin starred restaurant let alone one inspired by Heston. Although I’ve been referring to Mr. B mostly, I think a special shout out must be made to Ashley Palmer Watts, the Executive Chef at Dinner, who is the driving force behind making all these cool ideas a reality.