Heston Blumenthal - The master of culinary deception
“Best Restaurant in the World” shouted the headlines of Britain's usually staid Times newspaper the morning after Dinner, Heston Blumenthal's new restaurant at London's luxury Mandarin Oriental Hotel, opened in 2011.
Rave reviews flowed for the self-taught chef, famous for pushing culinary boundaries in dishes such as bacon and egg ice-cream, cauliflower with chocolate jelly, and sardine-on-toast sorbet at his celebrated Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, west of London, and popular television programs.
“Astonishing,” “sprinkled with magic dust” and “bloody lovely,” various critics declared of Dinner, Blumenthal's first foray into a London restaurant.
They weren't wrong: two years later I feast on an extraordinary meal at Dinner, a gastronomic masterpiece of historically-inspired British dishes served in a sleek, modern dining room that occupies a vast chunk of the Mandarin Oriental's ground floor.
Dinner executive chef Ashley Palmer-Watts and his team of 20 are on full display cooking in a glass-walled kitchen, complete with a huge cog-mechanised rotisserie custom-made by the a Swiss watch company, while floor-to-ceiling windows overlook Hyde Park.
I start, as any fan of Blumenthal's television shows must, with meat fruit, a circa 1500 dish of chicken liver and foie gras parfait enrobed in mandarin jelly, artfully constructed to resemble a trompe l'oeil mandarin. It feels criminal to cut into this incredible dish, which looks like a mandarin right down to its dimpled pores, but when I do, tasting the rich, silky parfait with its accompanying grilled sourdough bread, I want to applaud.
My companion is equally smitten with his starter of Salamugundy, succulent chicken oysters (those little coins of meat from behind the wings) dressed with slithers of rich marrowbone and a horseradish cream, drawn from a 1723 work The Cook and Confectioner's Dictionary.
Blumenthal's inspiration for Dinner's menu – other starters include Roast Scallops with cucumber ketchup, purple sprouting broccoli and borage from 1820, and Rice and Flesh – saffron, calf's tail and red wine, which has its origins in the 14th century – comes from old English cookbooks including the Forme of Cury, a collection of 196 recipes copied by King Richard II of England's scribes at the dictation of his cooks in around 1390.
Foodie time traveller Blumenthal spent years researching and exploring Britain’s gastronomic past, consulting with food historians, royal palaces, and at The British Library.
In 2004, looking for inspiration in his collection of medieval and Tudor cookbooks, Blumenthal recalled a conversation two years earlier with Marc Meltonville, a food archaeologist restoring the Tudor kitchens of Hampton Court Palace, at the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery, an annual conference on food history.
I think Meltonville has the best job in the world: he is project coordinator of the Historic Kitchen Team at Hampton Court's labyrinthine 55-room kitchen complex – ranging from confectionery chambers and sauceries to roasting rooms - where he and his 10-strong team recreate period dishes such as spinach-and-date fritters, pureed peas with spices, and roasts turned on the spit, using the same methods and utensils cooks used 500 years ago to prepare meals for up to 600 people, including Henry VIII, twice a day.
Sharing a passion for historic gastronomy, Blumenthal and Meltonville began collaborating on historical dishes at Hampton Court and Bray.
Their first dish was quaking pudding - “a sort of cross between a crème cameral and blacmange served piping hot,” Meltonville tells me - which first appeared in The Accomplisht Cook in 1660. “Because recipes from that time have no amounts, cooking times or temperatures, it took about 50 attempts to get the dish right.” Recipes such as chocolate wine and buttered beer were similarly demanding, says Meltonville.
Perfecting the recipes on Dinner's menu took months of experimentation: an original 15th century recipe from Hampton Court's kitchens for “pommes,” spicy balls of minced veal rolled in a green batter of parsley juice, flour and eggs, and cooked to look like apples, was the inspiration for Blumenthal's exquisite meat fruit.
Our starters at Dinner are so good that we wonder how the mains could possibly improve on them. Choosing from such an incredible menu isn't easy: there's Powdered Duck Breast - smoked confit duck with fennel - from a 1670 recipe; circa 1780 Spiced Pigeon with ale and artichokes, and 18th century Roast Turbot with mussel and seaweed ketchup and salmon roe ketchup.
I eventually decide on Hereford Ribeye steak with mushroom ketchup, red wine jus and triple-cooked chips, from a circa 1830 recipe. The tender, marbled steak is cooked to perfection, the accompanying rich mushroom ketchup and jus delectable.
My companion declares his Roast Iberico Pork Chop (circa 1820) the best pork chop he has ever eaten: cooked sous-vide, finished on the grill, pink at the centre, it's incredibly succulent – I have a taste - and the accompanying sauce Robert, a sticky mustard demi-glace, delicious.
Choosing dessert is so difficult that we decide life is too short and order three – Tipsy Cake with spit roast pineapple, goat's milk cheesecake, and Brown Bread Ice Cream.
The circa 1810 Tipsy Cake - hot, fluffy buns with pineapple caramelised on a spit to a sweet intensity – and Sambocade, goat's milk cheesecake with elderflower, apple, poached pear and smoked candied walnuts from a circa 1390 recipe – are delicious. But the Brown Bread Ice Cream, from the 1830s, a fusion of salted butter caramel and malted yeast syrup atop a crunchy, fudgy base, is simply ambrosial.
I'm not surprised that at last year's The World's 50 Best Restaurants awards, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal came in seventh.
Sated and happy, we retire upstairs to our plush, quintessentially English room at the Mandarin Oriental, regarded as one of the world's best hotels. Built in 1889, it's adjacent to Hyde Park, opposite Harvey Nichols, near Harrods, and just down the road from Buckingham Palace – the hotel is a long-time favourite of the Royal Family, who come and go through a private Royal entrance.
Our spacious and elegant room features plush drapes, a big telly, fresh orchids, and a vast and deeply comfortable bed dressed with crisp linens. Tea is served, naturally, by a butler – there's one on every floor - with as much pomp as we were among the royalty who have stayed here. It couldn't be a more splendid finale to an unforgettable dinner.
The Mandarin Oriental Hotel is situated at 66 Knightsbridge, London. Packages include the Historic Gourmet Escape, which includes accommodation, full English breakfast, a reservation for lunch or dinner for two at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal with a £200 credit per room, and a signed copy of Blumenthal's new Historic Heston cookbook. Rates from £810 per double, more at mandarinoriental.com/london.
A three-course meal for two at Dinner by Heston costs in the neighbourhood of £120 (sans alcohol). It's wise to book at least two months in advance. Phone +44 207 201 3833, more at dinnerbyheston.com.au.