Out for a duck

RESTAURANT: The good life in Britain's best-kept village; The dish was extravagantly presented, with the fishtail pointing heavenwards and deep-fried sheaths of leeks jutting outwards. 'It seems a pity to destroy it,' a neighbour cooed about a similar edifice Photographs by Morley von Sternberg
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The Independent Culture
You will notice that my photograph does not appear at the head of this column. This says nothing, I assure you, about my status on this magazine, but it tells you a lot about the importance we, in our trade, attach to anonymity. The very idea of a star restaurant reviewer, favoured by some of our rivals, is a contradiction in terms - like a star spy, a Kim Philby of the restaurant world. It is essential not to be identified. For this reason, I never wear the same shirt-and-tie combination, or go out with the same companion twice.

The art of making a reservation is also important. Names such as Jagger or Hurley are useful if tables are in short supply, but they provoke an unwanted attention to one's presence, not to mention a certain disappointment on the part of the waiting staff. For this reason, I select my noms de guerre from the telephone book, using a secret formula known only to me and my editor - let's just say it takes as its starting point the first seven digits of each week's lottery winner.

I first began to suspect the staff at the Fat Duck knew my true identity when my request to find out what gave the foie gras its slightly nutty flavour drew the chef and proprietor, Heston Blumenthal, from his kitchen. (It was due, he explained to a particularly almondy sherry that he uses, although I was not sure, while we are on the subject, that the nuttiness added to the dish). I still don't know quite what gave me away, but I put it down to my photographer, who broke all the rules by venturing into the field before me.

The Fat Duck is situated in Bray in Berkshire, although, unlike its more famous neighbour, the Waterside Inn, it does not have views of the Thames. Bray boasts a host of "Best Kept Village" and "Britain in Bloom" awards and is, indeed, a very pretty place, although the complete absence of any pedestrians from whom to ask directions quickly reminded us that this is commuter land.

A fine 18th-century cottage opposite the Fat Duck has been subtly converted into a showroom for BMWs and Rolls-Royces. There is a larger Bentley retailer up the road and all the usual superstores not far away. I wonder if anyone in the village has lived there for more than 10 years.

Blumenthal himself has been in Bray for almost a year now, so it seemed a good time to review his progress. But for three weeks at Marco Pierre White's Canteen, he is entirely self-taught and uses his skills to turn out distinctive French food, both hearty and modern at once. For starters, we had the foie gras pate, served with a slightly dry fig compote, and a dish of pigeon-liver pate on a pigeon breast, covered in a cabbage leaf and wrapped in crisp, paper-thin pastry. Although it sounds complicated, combining as it does elements of stuffed cabbage and Moroccan b'astilla, it tasted surprisingly good.

By the time the waiters had delivered our second courses, they knew that we knew that they knew who we were, turning the rest of the evening into an enjoyable charade. The Jamboneau of duck - a leg of duck soaked, like a leg of ham, in brine, and then slowly cooked with spices, including cloves and juniper berries - was delicious, although the potato puree was a little glutinous. My roast monkfish tail, on the other hand, was rather rubbery, and the pissaladiere - essentially a small pizza - that came with it was soggy. The dish was extravagantly presented, with the fishtail pointing heavenwards and deep-fried sheaths of leeks jutting outwards.

"It seems a pity to destroy it," a neighbour cooed about a similar edifice, but my reaction is always the opposite - to use my knife and fork like a ball and chain. The tarte Tatin for two sounded good, but my companion admitted defeat and so I went for a cacao sorbet (which tasted to me like chocolate ice-cream), on a nutty and slightly salty bed of soft fudge. Bisected by a sheet of caramel, it looked like an El Lizistky painting, but it tasted good.

The Fat Duck occupies the ground floor of a large, low-ceilinged house. With its ancient beams, wooden floors, gothic metal chairs, recessed down- lighters, and ochre walls, the decor is, like the food, half-modern, half- rustic. On the night we were there, the clientele was made up largely of locals, although Londoners drive out for Saturdays.

Our meal was not cheap: pounds 78 for two without service, but including a pounds 17.50 Californian Cabernet Sauvignon.

We, of course, were well looked after, but it was clear other customers were being treated just as handsomely by the charming and enthusiastic staff. Blumenthal needs, though, to work on his menu, which is awkwardly written, badly punctuated, and at points quite impenetrable. (What is "Ballontine of confit duck's neck, prunes and Armagnac, potatoes and gizzards confit"?) We returned home, as we had arrived, by train; I fell into a happy slumber, and only our arrival at Paddington awoke me from my dreams of espionage

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