When it comes to finding the best cuisine in Europe, many gourmets will head for the hills of Tuscany or the boulevards of Paris. But, as of today, the correct route is to turn off the M4 at junction eight and seek out a 450-year-old former pub run by a chef named after a motorway service station.
Heston Blumenthal, the proprietor of the Fat Duck restaurant in the Berkshire village of Bray, which has become synonymous with such gustatory delights as bacon and egg ice-cream and cauliflower with chocolate, is now the owner of the best eaterie on the continent.
The restaurant, which is already the holder of the most rapidly achieved three Michelin stars in British history, saw off competition from such temples to gastronomy as El Bulli in Spain and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris to collect the award at a ceremony in London last night. It was only beaten to the title of the world's best restaurant by the American incumbent, French Laundry, in California's Napa Valley.
The top 10 for the award, run by Restaurant magazine and decided by an international panel of restaurateurs, chefs, critics and journalists, contains two other UK restaurants - Gordon Ramsay (8th) and Nobu (7th), both in London. These make Britain second only to France, which has four listed.
But the Fat Duck's second place also represents a personal victory for Blumenthal, 37, who is credited with turning cooking into a subject of interest as much to physicists as gastronomes by dint of his trademark technique, known as "molecular gastronomy".
The self-taught chef, who claims that he was named by his parents after the service station near Heathrow airport, said: "We are part of a growing group of chefs, scientists and psychologists which is looking at food and the way that we eat from a different angle, the approach being more holistic and with new controlled experimentation that does not automatically take historic kitchen lore and tradition for granted."
The result is a list of dishes prepared in a tiny kitchen in the Thameside village squeezed between Maidenhead and Slough which bare little relation to the Fat Duck's original menu when it opened as a "bourgeois French restaurant" offering steak and chips, rillettes of salmon and lemon tart.
Instead, diners are more likely to be swallowing basil blancmange, snail porridge, sardine on toast sorbet, white chocolate and caviar buttons or salmon and liquorice.
Blumenthal, who only began cooking for a living in 1995, bases his cuisine on 3,500 "essences", kept in garden sheds behind his restaurant, which are chemical versions of the methods he uses to pair tastes in food.
But the food alchemist, who cooks some dishes for 60 hours, stops short of seeking to combine the two. He explains his concoctions as a result of examining the way "the brain can almost pre-determine the taste of something". He said: "Eat sardine on toast sorbet for the first time and confusion will reign as the brain will be trying to tell the palate to expect a dessert and you will therefore be tasting more sweetness than actually exists."
Commentators will draw parallels between the philosophy of Blumenthal and that of his rival for the number one spot in global gastronomy, Thomas Keller, who opened the French Laundry in the Californian countryside in 1993. Just as his British counterpart pays obsessive attention to the constituent parts of his ingredients and the physics of cooking, so too does Keller.
And although Blumenthal has said he has little ambition for expanding the Fat Duck, which shares Bray with another three-Michelin star restaurant, the Waterside Inn, Keller has opened a branch of the French Laundry in New York.
But commentators in Britain were last night happy to take satisfaction from the progress of its understated flag-carrier, who has consciously turned down all offers to become a "celebrity chef". Thom Hetherington, the marketing director for Restaurant magazine, said yesterday: "It's great to see that such a variety of British restaurants made the list." Experts also pointed to the nation's growing strength in depth. Eleven of the top 50 restaurants are in Britain. The others were: Hakkasan in Fitzrovia (14th); St John in Smithfield, London (16th); The Merchant House in Ludlow (21st); The Ivy in Covent Garden (24th); Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons in Oxford (30th); the River Café in Hammersmith (41st), and the Wolsley in Piccadilly (39th).
TOP TEN RESTAURANTS
1: French Laundry, Yountville, California
2. The Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire
3. El Bulli, Montjoi, Spain
4. L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Paris
5. Pierre Gagnaire, Paris
6. Guy Savoy, Paris
7. Nobu, London
8. Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London
9. Michel Bras, Laguiole, France
10. Louis XV, Monaco
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