Still, even if my Derek ex machina hadn't delivered me to Terry, I can think of many worse places for a gastronome celeb to be stranded than The Fat Duck, a small restaurant in the London-commuter-belt village of Bray, which is rapidly eclipsing its more famous neighbour, The Waterside Inn, thanks to youthful chef/proprietor, Heston Blumenthal.
This was Terry's first visit to The Fat Duck, although he used to live in Bray ("before Michael Parkinson moved in and property prices took a dive"). We were renewing a happy acquaintance which began 15 years ago when I worked as a researcher on his TV chat show. "I'm glad you asked me here - I've wanted to try it for a while, but I can never get a table," he said, as he attempted to settle his comfortably upholstered frame into one of The Fat Duck's rather less comfortably upholstered iron chairs.
The recent award of a Michelin star has increased the pressure on dinner tables, although for our midweek lunch, the dining room was only lightly occupied. Converted from a pub, the restaurant's low ceilings, roughly finished cream walls and coir flooring give it a homely, countrified atmosphere which belies the sophisticated polish of its food.
Blumenthal's cooking is best described as modern French, though his labour- intensive methods and adventurous combinations of unlikely ingredients mark him out as a genuine original. A whole veal sweetbread is roasted in a salt crust with hay and served with cockles. Spiced cod is paired with braised coxcombs; it's the kind of menu where you wouldn't be surprised to come across caramelised seahorses, or a horse's tail in aspic.
Luckily, despite his professional background in Fighting The Flab, Terry has a cheerfully indulgent relationship with food, and was keen to sample widely from the intriguing menu. "People often say about me, `You're too thin - you should eat a bit more!'" he chuckled as he pondered his selection. "And I have to say to them, `I eat every bit as much as you do - it's just that I'm highly strung, so I burn it off. I'm coltish!'''
He began with a characteristically complex creation - a thick tranche of roasted foie gras, served with seasidey accompaniments of marinated raw salmon, a crisp crab biscuit, crystallised seaweed and a pureed oyster sauce. "The foie is beautifully cooked, and that's very hard to do when it's such a thick piece," Terry pronounced. He was impressed, too, by the supporting ingredients, "though I tend to think foie gras should be served very simply, just crisped on either side, with probably a sweet or piquant counterbalance". This probably qualifies as the longest serious speech I've heard him make.
My starter, a lasagne of langoustines, pig's trotters and truffles, was equally elaborate and no less fine. Silky sheets of fresh pasta enfolded three sweet langoustines and a fine dice of truffles and mushrooms, to which julienned pig's trotters added jellied richness and vanilla notes. "In Ireland, they call pig's trotters `crubeens'," Terry mused as he tried to catch their fugitive flavour in the stingy mouthful I spared him.
There was something oddly familiar about eating unusual food in Terry's company because, as viewers of Wogan may remember, its host was regularly obliged to sample bizarre delicacies, such as alligator and kangaroo, while rolling his eyes and grimacing. It was part of my job to procure these recherche foodstuffs for him; I still shudder to recall the morning I spent eating my way around an East End whelk stall in the interests of research.
Since the programme finished, though, Terry has successfully rehabilitated his palate in Gascony, where he has a second home, "in the heart of duck country". He was therefore particularly keen to taste my main course, jambonneau of duck "petit sale", one of Blumenthal's signature dishes. In it, the duck is prepared rather like ham, first soaked for 24 hours in a spiced broth and then poached, before being roasted in a soy sauce and honey glaze.
Shiny as toffee apples and pinned up to resemble two miniature legs of ham, the duck was sensationally tender, like a subtler, moister version of the classic confit, but without the layer of fat beneath the skin. Pureed potato provided a luxuriously creamy counterpoint, with sweetness coming from a caramelised sauce of green coffee beans.
Terry's cote de porc was served with "parmentier of andouille", which he correctly identified in advance as a kind of shepherd's pie made with tripe. "My mother was the world's worst cook, but the one thing she could cook was pork, because pork needs to be overcooked," he said, looking meaningfully at the ruddy pink centres of his roast pork. Nevertheless, he was pleasantly surprised. "It's rare, but it's got a good flavour," he announced. "I do miss a bit of crackling, though." Caramelised apple slices and a reduction of roast pig's ear were also well received, and having polished off his own dish, he was soon laying into my duck, with an enthusiasm I don't remember him displaying when confronted with the fruits of Tubby Isaac's whelk stall. "I'd quite like to do a food show, just to eat," he reflected as he grazed.
Terry's next TV commitment, however, is in Israel, where he's due to supply his deliciously subversive commentary to next week's Eurovision Song Contest. Was he hoping for a UK victory, I wondered? "My main hope is that we've picked the right restaurants in Jerusalem," he replied. "The director has already been on a recce and brought back lots of menus, so we've more or less mapped out where we're going to eat. And I imagine the contest will be fine, too."
We both awarded douze points to our puddings. Terry's tart tatin was made with a variation of a Breton pastry called kouing-aman, denser and yeastier than the traditional puff pastry. My bavarois of butternut squash was a lesson in how unlikely ingredients blossom under Blumenthal's touch, the subtle nuttiness of the mousse boosted by a tuile of dried squash, and rounded off with a light goat's milk ice cream.
With coffees and a pounds 30 bottle of wine, our bill came to pounds 140, though we could have opted for the pounds 23.50 menu du jour. Service was exemplary, informed without being intrusive. I wondered whether Terry would be returning to The Fat Duck. "I would, but not on the basis of the chairs," he replied. "Still, that's my one criticism. It's a very pretty place, and he's obviously a good and original chef." And with that, the happiest man in showbusiness set off for home. "I won't eat another thing now ... until tea-time," he laughed heartily as he left.
The Fat Duck, High Street, Bray, Berkshire, 01628 580333. Lunch Tue- Sat 12-2pm, Sun 12-2.30pm. Dinner Tue-Thur 7-9.30pm, Fri-Sat 7-10pm. Three-course set lunch pounds 23.50. Disabled access. All cards except Diners Club.
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