Dinner by Heston Blumenthal was my sixth and last dining experience on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list in New York and London, and stood out in its innovative menu, despite going back far into British culinary history, and its extreme friendliness and excellent service. The restaurant was ranked 45th Best Restaurant in the World in June, and is 2 Michelin star rated.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal has been ranked between 10 – 20th Best restaurant in the World in the past few years, but dropped severely to 45th rank this year. I asked waiter Peter McKenna what they ascribe this to, but he optimistically said to me that they are still in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list, and that is what counts. He shared that Chef Heston’s pop-up The Fat Duck in Melbourne took him out of the country for a period, and that may have been part of the problem. The Fat Duck in Bray, the best known of Chef Heston’s restaurants, moved location in Bray, so Chef Heston has had a lot on his plate. Confusingly The Fat Duck in Melbourne has now been transformed into Dinner by Heston Melbourne, becoming a sister restaurant to its London counterpart. Peter showed me the two clocks in the kitchen, showing London and Melbourne time, if the head chefs need to communicate with each other about new dishes.
Embarrassingly I had slept though my first lunch reservation at the restaurant, made worse by the fact that it had been made for me by Chef Roger Jones, having flown in from New York early in the morning, and was due for lunch on the same day ten days earlier, but feeling ill from a bug which I had caught in The Big Apple. I called the restaurant the following day to apologize for not arriving and for not cancelling ahead, and I was impressed with their generosity and understanding, and rebooking of the lunch to my last day in the UK last Thursday, and not charging a no-show fee
As I was traveling to Heathrow from the restaurant, I was able to store my luggage at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel, in which the restaurant is located, receiving a luggage voucher. I needed to access my bag after the lunch, before leaving the hotel, and nothing was too much trouble for the friendly hotel staff.
One walks up an impressive staircase, at the top of which is a beautiful floral display of alyssiums, attracting one’s attention, on the way to the restaurant.
The kitchen is glass-enclosed, and visible to diners facing it. As I had a side view of the kitchen from my table, I walked around to its front, to take a photograph of the kitchen. Most chefs were standing on the kitchen side of the pass, but one chef stood on the customer side of the pass. I mentioned that I was from Cape Town to the chef, and asked him who the Head Chef is. It turned out to be Chef Johnny Glass I was talking to. He was the most friendly and chatty chef I have spoken to in a long time, and his face lit up when I mentioned my home city. He mentioned Chef Ashley Heeger, who worked in his kitchen until earlier this year, and who has opened her own restaurant Ash in Cape Town recently. He also fondly remembered one of my favorite Cape Town chefs, Frank ‘Hurricane’ (their nickname for him) Marks, who spent three years at the restaurant, before returning to Cape Town and opening Borage Bistro in 2014. He also informed me that Chef Luke Dale-Roberts spent a week in their kitchen last year, which impressed me greatly, as there has been no PR spin about this! I am afraid that I distracted Chef Johnny from his job at the pass, being so lovely to talk to! Chef Heston has South African links, his father having grown up in our country.
I was then ready to be seated, and Peter introduced himself. My napkin slipped off my lap, and immediately a fresh one was brought to me. Head Sommelier Stefan Neumann came to my table, and I could hear a German accent (actually Austrian I was corrected), so we switched to German. He thought that I could be German, from my reservation. Stefan offered me a glass of Laurent-Perrier champagne as a complimentary welcome drink, offering me a choice of their Brut or Rosé, a generous offer which I had not experienced at any of the other eight top restaurants I dined at in London and in New York.
At the table next to me were seated Jenny and Damian from the Gold Coast in Australia, and we soon started chatting, exchanging information as to why we were eating at the restaurant. Their 14-year old son is a huge fan of MasterChef Australia, of which Chef Heston has been one of the judges. They came to eat at the restaurant for him. We exchanged notes about each other’s dishes, and got on so well that I tried a taste of their Tipsy Cake, the signature dessert of the restaurant, something I have never done before!
The restaurant room is large, with massive glass windows facing a park, lighting up that side of the room. No other lighting comes in from the other walls, making the interior darker than average. I was fascinated with the lighting design, which did not assist in making the room any brighter. The round wood ring lamps looked like old-fashioned wagon wheels to me, my South African background coming to the fore to even associate the two! Even odder was the ‘jelly mould’ wall light fittings, which Peter explained as a representation of the history of British cuisine.
The room looks darker with dark stained wood tables, and dark brown highback leather chairs. There are no tablecloths. Interesting was the use of German side plates by Tafelstern. The wooden salt and pepper grinders looked basic, not befitting the quality of the restaurant. White napkins were placed on the side plate, and cutlery is by Studio William, looking shiny and new.
Waiters look like managers, wearing white shirts, a blue tie, grey trousers and a matching waistcoat. Not wearing a jacket makes them appear more approachable.
Peter brought the menus to the table, bound by a branded information piece explaining the use of spices during the Middle Ages, reflecting the wealth, refinement, and extravagance of the user. It was an introduction to the spoken background provided by Peter, in stating that their menu is inspired by Britain culinary history. I had looked at the menu on the website, something I rarely do in advance, and noticed that each dish had a ‘c’ and numbers next to it, and so did the menu I received. I assumed that they might be a calorie count, but in fact it denoted ‘circa’ and the date of the origin of the recipe, Chef Heston having commissioned long-standing chef colleague Palmer Watts to study the history of British culinary history, the oldest recipe on the menu going back to 1390! The trouble taken to do the historic research was not only impressive, but I learnt some new words too, incorporated into the menu! Peter said that the historical recipes pay tribute to the culinary tradition in the country, modernized to suit the current times. There were two menus, and I was told that I could choose dishes interchangeably.
I chose the ‘Meat Fruit’ starter, one not understanding the meaning of the dish name immediately, but I saw ‘chicken liver parfait’ as a description, and that was an obvious choice for me (£18,50). I was not told what the dish would look like, and there is no way that I could have guessed that the ‘mandarin’ served in fact contained the chicken liver parfait! It was the most creative dish I experienced on my culinary journey! I liked the significance of the mandarin, being symbolic of the hotel name. I was told that I could eat the whole mandarin, except for the stem! The starter was accompanied by ‘grilled’ campalou bread. The dish origin dates back to circa 1500, the menu informed. Peter’s French colleague explained how the ‘mandarin’ is made, from mandarin purée and oil, glucose, gelatin, and paprika for colour. The same waiter had clearly observed that I did not have enough toast for the last bit of the chicken liver parfait, savouring every bite of it, and a new slice of toast arrived at the table, without having asked for it, amazing proactive service! At that stage I had already received a board with three slices of whole meal sourdough with a little rye flour bread, with unpasteurized Wiltshire butter.
Other starter options are roast marrowbone (£18), calf tail, chicken oysters and marrowbone (£19,50), frogs legs and mushroom (£17,50), Earl Grey Tea cured salmon (£17,50), grilled octopus and smoked sea broth (£19,75), and lobster and cucumber soup (£25).
My main course order was described as ‘powdered’ duck breast, referring to it having been placed in a brine of salt, juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, coriander, and thyme. The duck was prepared pink in a sous vide bath, of which they have about forty in the restaurant, allowing them to control the quality of the end product. They then remove the skin of the duck, sous vide it for 24 hours at 60C, and then reattach it to the duck breast! With it was served smoked confit fennel, smoked beetroot purée, and ‘umbles’, being crumbed duck heart (£36). The saying ‘eating humble pie’ comes from this dish, a pie made of innards. The duck livers are sous vided for five to six hours, and covered in bread crumbs and coriander seeds. This dish originated from a recipe dating back to circa 1670. The two slices of duck breast were generous portions, and delicious. I had ordered a side dish of carrots with caraway seed too, having been unnecessary in hindsight, given the generous duck portions. A sauce of duck stock, cardamom, tomato, and ginger was brought on the side. Peter told me that it is their most photographed dish.
Other main courses are roast sea bass (£42), lamb and cucumber (£40), roast Iberico pork chop (£40), braised celery (£28), cod in cider ( £34), chicken cooked with lettuces (£36), Hereford ribeye (£40), Fillet of Aberdeen Angus (£44), and bone in rib of Hereford Prime (£90 for two). The menu informs that the beef cuts are aged for at least 21 days, and cooked over wood and charcoal. Sides cost £4,75 each, and include mash, cabbage, and green beans.
Peter assured me that the Tarte of Strawberries, with vanilla cream, aerated white chocolate, Tasmanian mountain pepper tuile, roast and compressed strawberries, and strawberry and verbena sorbet would make a beautiful photograph and he was true to his word. He saw my Instagram photograph, and commented that he had not seen it from the angle from which I had photographed it, the ‘exclamation mark’ being unintended. The dessert originated from 1590, and cost £13,50.
The signature dessert is Tipsy Cake, which is served with pineapple roasted on the spit in the kitchen, rotating automatically, and I photographed Peter next to the grill in the kitchen. The lovely Jenny from the table next door raved about this dish, and then offered me a taste of theirs, a sign of complete neighborliness! Other desserts are brown bread ice cream (£13,50), goats milk cheesecake, chocolate bar with ginger ice cream £13,50), a Taffety Tart with apples, resembling a Tarte Tatin (£13,50), and a selection of British cheeses served with cider Apple, Yorkshire chutney, oat cakes, and seeded crackers (£18,50). I was offered tea (by UK tea supplier Jing), with eight varieties, ranging in price from £5 – £24, or coffee, but declined. A small post-dessert of chocolate ganache infused with Earl Grey tea and Orange Blossom with a cumin biscuit (what an unusual combination) arrived at the table.
We had seen a trolley with ice cream making equipment at a number of tables in the restaurant, and the ‘smoke’ of the liquid nitrogen. My Australian table neighbors ordered two cones, so I could hear the information while Peter was explaining it to them. The ice cream trolley was designed by Sebastian Bergne, Peter told us, and the cones had been made using North African pastry. The ice cream was made from a mixture of custard, including egg yolk, cream, vanilla, and natural yoghurt, to which liquid nitrogen was added to create the ice cream instantly, using a recipe going back more than 100 years. Four topping options were available, including multi-colored coated fennel seeds. The cost per cone was £8,50. I photographed Damian’s cone, with all four toppings.
A Set Lunch Menu of three courses is also offered at £40, with a choice of two starters, two main courses, and three desserts.
I was grateful for the offer of a kitchen tour by Peter, and their Josper oven takes pride of plàce. I also saw the start of the making of the ‘mandarin’ starter, with the chicken liver parfait being piped into moulds.
The Wine List
The brown leather covered winelist consists of 37 pages, reflecting 850 wine brands in their cellar, Sommelier Stefan told me. They stock mainly wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux, as they are the most ordered wines. I asked how South African wines could come onto their winelist, and Stefan told me that winemakers and their representatives can offer to bring in their wines for a tasting.
South African white wines on the winelist are Hof’s Chardonnay 2014, Waterkloof Circle of Life 2012, Bouchard Finlayson Blanc de Mer 2014, The Goose Sauvignon Blanc 2015, Cederberg Five Generations Chenin Blanc 2012, The Sadie Family Skurfberg Old Vine Series 2014, and The Sadie Family Palladius Signature Series 2013.
Red wines from our country are Hof’s Merlot 2011, Bouchard Finlayson Hannibal 2013, Hamilton Russel (sic) Ashbourne 2009, Crystallum Pinot Noir Mabalel 2014, Reyneke Syrah 2013, Le Riche Richesse 2013, Kaapzicht Pinotage 2012, Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2012, Sadie Family Soldaat Grenache Old Vine Series 2014, Sadie Family Treinspoor Old Vine Series 2014, Sadie Family Pofadder Old Vine Series 2014, and Sadie Family Columella Signature Series 2013.
Peter made the experience at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal exceptional, being patient in answering all my questions, providing good details of the dishes, and nothing was too much trouble. He offered to show me the kitchen, an opportunity which I jumped at. The friendly nature of Chef Johnny and the amount of time he spent chatting to me was much appreciated. Odd was that no Amuse Bouche was served, compared to the other London World’s 50 Best Restaurants, but the restaurant serves a chocolate ganache post-dessert with the beverages, even if one does not order tea or coffee. The glass of champagne was not charged. In small print the menu states that they add a ‘discretionary service charge‘ of 13,5%, higher than the 12,5% charge of the other two London World’s 50 Best Restaurants I ate at. It is written on the dessert page, so I did not notice the service charge mention. On the bill the percentage is not shown, only the calculated amount. I only picked this up when writing this blogpost. The service I received was far superior to that of The Ledbury and The Clove Club. I found the decor dark and depressing, and the jelly lamp shades and ‘wagon wheel’ lamps very old-fashioned, and I could not associate them with the history of British cuisine! Making ice cream (at a high cost to the restaurant goer) is a clever final touch, something that the diner is unlikely to forget!
Postscript: Last year I ate at Chef Heston Blumenthal’s Hinds Head one star Michelin pub in Bray, invited by Katie Friedman.
Exchange rate £1 = R17,48
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park. Tel +44 20 7201 3833. www.dinnerbyheston.com Twitter: @Heston_Live Instagram: @DinnerbyHB Monday – Sunday Lunch and Dinner.
Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.whalecottage.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@WhaleCottage Facebook: click here Instagram: @Chris_Ulmenstein