Dinner By Heston Blumenthal, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1
Will Heston Blumenthal's centuries-old menu give Dinner diners a rare old time?
Sunday 20 February 2011
You may feel you've read everything you need about Heston Blumenthal's new restaurant. Dinner has been garlanded with praise in just about every newspaper and magazine in the land, with critics racing to get their hyperbolic verdict into print. Not only do we hear that it may be "the best restaurant in the world" and "the most exciting opening for a decade", it's impossible to get a booking before May and your only hope is to bid to buy someone else's reservation on eBay.
So why review it? Well, it may not quite be the best restaurant in the world but it is special, and worth, if not getting fleeced by the foodie equivalent of a ticket tout, then certainly calling the reservations line when it opens again on 1 March.
My experience, if it helps, was very similar to what yours might be. This will be about the food, not our chit-chat with the star chef. I'd booked anonymously when the reservations line first opened, and could only get 9.30pm. Despite the room being only three-quarters full, we are shown to a bit of a duff table against a pillar next to the waiters' station. But from this vantage point I can see Heston chatting up guests he knows, the chefs beavering away in one of four (four!) kitchens and the much-discussed-elsewhere clockwork pineapple grill.
I'd heard about the "meat fruit" starter before my visit and felt it my duty to order it. It's a suitably batty Heston idea with roots in gastronomical history – the theme of the entire menu is dishes from the 14th to the 19th centuries. The perfect mandarin is served on a wooden block, with grilled bread. It's a near-perfect conceit – the "skin" is a slender layer of intense fruit jelly, and within is a deliciously smooth chicken-liver parfait. It is quite rightly an instant classic (if something invented in 1500 can be) and I urge you to order it if you visit.
Mr M chooses roast scallops with cucumber ketchup and borage, a Johnny-come-lately from 1820. Scallops have been so devalued by their Masterchef ubiquity that it's a surprise to see them on such a high-falutin menu but the emollient, delicate cucumber flavour and plump sweet scallops work beautifully. It is not, of course, like any ketchup we've had before – more of a softened flesh.
Before the arrival of the mains, I notice something rather curious – there are salt and pepper grinders on the table. Curious, as I'd have predicted that the maestro would send dishes perfectly seasoned, and that to add anything would ruin his acutely calibrated flavours. It's an indication of where Dinner is aimed – as a restaurant rather than an experience. It's certainly joyous to eat such wonderful food, but it's quite "straight": three courses, no liquid nitrogen, bottles of wine for less than £40 (admittedly not many, but our 2008 Roger Sabon Côtes du Rhône at £35 is smooth and drinkable).
My pork chop certainly doesn't need seasoning – it's quite the most tender, rich bit of pig I've eaten (as it should be for £28). As elsewhere, the excellence of the food's provenance is clear. The deeply savoury, reduced Robert sauce tinges each slice of pork beautifully but makes the more-butter-than-spud potato purée redundant. Mr M's 72-hour slow-cooked short rib of Angus with smoked anchovy-and-onion purée and little cubes of ox tongue is, for me, rather too earthy, but he likes it. Quite how something cooked for so long can be so precisely judged proves why not everyone can charge nigh-on £30 for a modest tranche of beef.
Rushing on (although the waiters never made us feel hurried, despite being well after 10.30pm), another "wow" moment comes with pudding – a stratospherically delicious tipsy cake, brioche baked in a small cocotte and basted with brandy and cream, served with a wedge of the grilled, burnished pineapple.
After all that, it seems rude to even contemplate the white chocolate and Earl Grey ganache served in a tiny teacup with a caraway biscuit – I have a madeleine moment: it's rather like sweetened condensed milk, which my mum used to give me as a treat, in an eggcup.
My husband, a man not given to needless praise and positively averse to hype, says it is the best meal he's ever eaten in a restaurant. He's not a journo, he's not chummy with Blumenthal and he doesn't earn a banker's salary. So in the end, the best critical praise comes from someone who's not a critic at all.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets, tel: 020 7201 3833 Lunch and dinner daily. About £180 for two, including wine
Dinner By Heston Blumenthal, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66, Knightsbridge, London SW1, tel: 020 7201 3833Lunch and dinner daily. About £180 for two, including wine
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The Castle Hotel
Castle Green, Taunton, Somerset, tel: 01823 272 671
A classic hotel dining-room in a classic hotel, this picture-book, wisteria-clad castle has been in the Chapman family since 1950 and its main dining- room offers fine cooking.
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Vast, solid traditional British dishes have long made this popular, pub-like Victorian institution a reliable stand-by in the city centre.
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This sumptuous (in a chintzy way) Hardy Country manor house offers excellent cooking and elegant service. Even the wine list is a masterpiece.
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