restaurants: French revolution

Looking for stars in Bray; The duck was really superb, and reminded me of the safe (if not infallible) generalisation that only the French and Chinese know how to cook a duck Photograph by Keith Dobney restaurants
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Three-and-a-half months ago, a young Englishman named Heston Blumenthal opened a restaurant called the Fat Duck in Bray, a pretty Thames-side commuter village in Berkshire. If his name does not mean much in cooking circles, it should be more recognisable to French maitre d's. Mr Blumenthal reckons that in France alone he has eaten in more than 100 Michelin-starred restaurants. He is only 29.

It all started when he was a teenager, eating out with his parents. By his late teens, he was financing his own gastronomic tours. He says that from the time he was 18, for the pounds 30 to pounds 40 his friends spent in the pub every month, he saved the same amount, plus a bob here and there by forsaking an album or sharp suit. Then, every six months, he would take his bundle, make for France and eat around with the little red book.

His savings clearly added up to more than meals. Mr Blumenthal is not sure how many cookbooks he has amassed. Suffice it to say, there are at least two for every meal eaten in a Michelin-starred restaurant. These are useful things to read if you want to become a chef; however, the only logical thing Heston Blumenthal did not do before opening the Fat Duck is train in a restaurant. He says he has only four months' experience in professional kitchens, most of that time spent only recently in the Canteen in west London. Amused and touched by Mr Blumenthal's passion for French food, the Canteen's proprietor, Marco Pierre White suggested he work for him for four months to "learn how to cope with numbers".

The upshot of this most unorthodox training, the Fat Duck itself, is a remarkably pleasant place. It seems fitting that it is in Bray, the heart of Roux country, a near neighbour of one of Britain's oldest three-stars, the Waterside Inn. And it is a relief that the Fat Duck is not an overly swank restaurant, rather a pretty conversion of an old pub.

A somewhat ancient beamed room has been painted a fresh white, and furnished with a simple and pleasing assembly of tables and chairs. A bar made from hammered copper lends the place lustre, and there are lady-like decorative touches, such as the strategic placement here and there of large terracotta urns of the sort one sees in Liberty's gardening section, or in books about Ancient Greece. These are pretty vessels, if not my sort of junk. The showpiece that caught my eye was a first-class cheese board, set on a fine old table.

The Fat Duck could almost be taken for a posh wine bar until you see the menu, an A4-sized folder in an expensive beige buff paper. Here six starters, seven main courses, and five desserts are listed in language that signals the gastronomic ambition of Heston Blumenthal. Starters: herb and leaf salad; barigoule of artichoke and basil; chicken liver and foie gras parfait with fig compote; haricot blanc soup; marinade of mackerel with dried leeks. Main courses: salmon, puy lentils, pea and horseradish sauce; roast cod with braised cocoa beans, jus gras; chicken Bois Boudran, pomme fondant; petit sale of duck, potato puree; crepinette of oxtail, celeriac and carrots; steak and chips, sauce Moelle; roast rump of lamb, ratatouille and potato gratin. Desserts: cheeses; poached pear and vanilla cream; chocolate tart and milk ice-cream; apple crumble and almond ice-cream; jasmine tea and orange flower water brulee.

Marinade of mackerel may sound like a fishy liquor; rather, it is a deftly cured fillet of mackerel served with a dressing that may have served as a marinade. I am not so sure about serving an oily fish with a slightly oily dressing, but the mackerel was delicious, firm and flavourful, and went well with the vinaigrous splash of the dressing. The crispy wisps of leek across the top were decorative, but pointless. Another starter sampled, barigoule of artichoke and basil, was a sort of light soup with a braised artichoke heart at its centre, and basil garnish. This was not so good, the artichoke overcooked, the liquor lacking body and seasoning.

I have no idea how Mr Blumenthal prepared this dish, except to guess that it was probably involved. He does not take short cuts. Here, for example, is how he says he made the main course that I would travel for: the petit sale of duck, or brined duck. He made a brine, boiled it with spices, cured English duck legs for a day-and-a-half in the brine, then made a duck stock, braised the duck in the stock, and left it in the liquor to cool. Just before serving, he removed the legs from their liquor, and glazed them over with soy sauce, chestnut honey and egg. This duck was superb, and reminded me of the safe (if not infallible) generalisation that only the French and Chinese know how to cook a duck.

The only problem with the duck was the mash that accompanied it: this pomme puree was made the hard and long way, but managed to come out tasting a bit glutinous, as if it had been passed in a blender. Far better, spuds-wise, were the chips with steak and chips. These were terrific: chunky, blazing hot, perfectly seasoned, really crisp outside, melting within. Best chips ever, maybe. The steak was good too. At its base, there were a few small chunks of sweet-tasting, slightly greasy marrow; as for the highly-reduced liquid in the sauce Moelle, it was dark, intense, salty and discreetly deployed. It tasted like a classy and well-judged cousin of that very good common condiment, HP Sauce.

The cheeses, mainly French, mainly cow's milk, were in perfect condition. This takes work, and Mr Blumenthal seems to possess the necessary fanaticism. A chocolate tart was, again, perfect: deep, dark and chocolately filling, firm but not dry, served on crisp pastry in a generous wedge. The accompanying milk ice-cream pleased my companion; I would have preferred a bit of cream. It seemed no time to diet. The jasmine and orange flower water brulee was nicely set, but so fragrant it should be sold in the Body Shop, not a restaurant.

The wine list, which sits to the left hand of the menu, is admirable in two respects: it has a good wine for almost any food, and almost all of them are served by the glass. A Rolly Gassmann Edelzwicker was a lovely, floral Alsace blend. Anyone who doubts the quality of South African wines should try the Green Valley chardonnay. And the ochoa tempranillo from Navarre was just the thing to accompany Mr Blumenthal's great steak and chips. As for the dessert wine, a Katnook Estate botrytised chardonnay, it was served a bit warm, and tasted cloying. This was nothing the addition of cheerfully supplied ice-cubes did not cure.

Considering the quality of the food and wine, the prices are reasonable: all starters are pounds 3.50, main courses pounds 12.50 and desserts pounds 4.50, including VAT. One could easily eat for pounds 30, unless you are as greedy as I am. My friend and I took three hours, each had a first-rate Bloody Mary, sampled three glasses of various wines apiece, ate three-and-a-half courses each (the half being a shared cheese plate). This, with a bottle of designer water and two coffees and tip, cost us pounds 45 each.

This might seem a high price to pay a beginner. Certainly any recommendation of the Fat Duck should be accompanied by the warning: the Heston Blumenthal school of catering is as dicey as it is eccentric. However, Heston Blumenthal himself seems not to have paid his dues, the pounds 45 I paid him produced that rare and pleasurable thing, a remarkably good meal

LONDON

A restaurant called Chez Bruce sounds like a Monty Python joke. In fact, Chez Bruce, 2 Bellevue Road, SW17 (0181-672 0114) is one of the better London restaurants. Its chef, Bruce Poole, trained at Bibendum and worked with the Renzland twins at Chez Max before taking over this pretty Wandsworth site. He brought with him a passion for hearty French food: excellent terrines, braises, pan- fried fish with herb crusts. The restaurant manager, a distinguished Frenchman, is one of the best in the business. A nice place, if a bit too French to be suitable for vegetarians. Open lunch Tues-Fri (Monday throughout December) 12noon- 2pm and Sun 12.30-3pm, dinner Mon-Sat 7pm-10.30pm. Three-course lunch, pounds 16.50; dinner, pounds 23.50. Major credit and debit cards.

BRISTOL

Markwicks, 43 Corn Street, BS1 (0117-926 2658) is a desert island restaurant. Read that to mean the place is beautiful, the food is terrific, the prices are keen and don't take your car. It is set in Bristol's old Georgian commercial district, the favourite beat of Bradford and Avon traffic police, and there is an exceptional wine list including some great Rhones. The room is seriously flattering: soft light bouncing off handsome plasterwork and burnished wood. The previous proprietor and her tasteful designer went bust after converting the place. The present proprietors, Stephen and Judy Markwick, are great cooks. This is just the place to have a gutsy fish stew topped with punchy gremolata. Everything, even the olives on the bar, is exceptional. Open lunch Mon-Fri 12noon-2pm, dinner Mon-Sat 7-10.30. Lunch about pounds 20, dinner more like pounds 30. Vegetarian meals. Access, Amex, Visa, Switch

NEWCASTLE

The fanciest restaurant in Newcastle, 21 Queen Street, 21 Queen Street, Princes Wharf, Quayside, NE1 (0191-222 0755) recently let its hair down. The owners ripped out the plush reception, gave away the padded sofas and lowered the prices. They realise by doing so that they may lose their Michelin star, but they also report that their custom is up by 20 per cent. Not that it was ever down: this restaurant has an explosive quality. A favourite haunt of barristers from the nearby law courts, at lunchtime the window panes tend to rattle with laughter, cigars are smoked between courses and drink is quaffed. It would be snooty to describe the cooking as some of the best in the northeast. It is some of the best in the country. Mussel soup in a saffron and cream liquor will be given punch by dill pesto. That said, there is a northern edge. It may be the only place in the country where foie gras and pease pudding might figure on the same menu. Very cheery staff, who, among their plus points, did not recognise Michael Winner. Open lunch Mon-Fri 12-2, dinner Mon- Sat 7-10.30. About pounds 20 lunch, about pounds 38 for dinner. Vegetarian meals on request. Access, Amex, Visa, Diners

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