Oh look, another food blog review of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental. Just what the internet has been crying out for.
If you haven’t already seem them let me highly recommend the opinions of Meemalee’s Kitchen, Sui Mai, Winkipedia, the Skinny Bib (and their invaluably comprehensive repeat visits) and, of course, The Critical Couple.
If you still want to read more about Dinner by Heston then here’s my two pence worth.
I rang the morning reservations opened last December, but booked mid-April, giving us a lazy hour in a baking-hot Hyde Park before dining (and a chance to scope out the view through the windows like Dickensian orphans). Our reservation was for 2.30pm, enough time to drive down from Manchester – we made the one-day round trip just for the meal.
Thanks to Bar Boulud most London-based restaurant bloggers will be familiar with the interior of the Mandarin Oriental. But I’m not, and there’s only vague signs for the restaurant once you enter the hotel. Huge thanks to Meemalee for saying to look for the illuminated pear sign amongst the austere gloom.
Everyone else will have told you about the Hyde Park views, glass wine cage and jelly-mould lamps. What they probably haven’t mentioned is that Dinner looks battered. Three months of popularity have left their mark, scuffs on the leather walls and dents in the table (from all those digital cameras?). Even the wooden serving platters are faded. Nothing terminal, but unexpected for a place I still consider “new”.
I’d read criticisms of badly trained waiters and rudeness if you don’t double your bill on the wine list. Worrying for 3 non-drinkers. In fact staff turned out to be charming and efficient at every stage.
Special mention should be made of the brilliant Maitre’d. With less than a week’s notice he was able to turn our 2 person booking into a table for 3. Given the clamour for seats fitting an extra person in had to be tough, as political as it was logistical.
I know Heston’s Dinner menu better than most exams I’ve sat.. Spot -test me on Twitter if you need proof. And I’ve read so many blog reviews that I see the dishes when I close my eyes, like when you play too much Tetris. I bet most foodies with a reservation have probably done the same and know what they’ll order before even walking in (Meat Fruit, Beef Royale, Tipsy Cake).
Actually Beef Royale was off the menu. Seems around 50% of diners are ordering it and the kitchens can’t keep up with that volume without sacrificing quality. This turned out to be a good thing.
To avoid the alleged 2nd Class Citizen treatment we got stuck in to the non-alcoholic cocktail menu. (Left to right) Sunrise, warm and delicious. Green Goblin, the favourite. Red Cucumber, clean, refreshing and summery.
I really wanted a set lunch to go alongside our a la cartes, but got outvoted in favour of four starters, two rounds of desserts and more triple cooked chips than was sensible.
Scallops with Cucumber Ketchup (£16.00)
Illustrates how Heston and Ashley are maximising the impact of their ingredients. Searing the cucumber produces a range of flavours, added to by the borage (thanks Wikipedia). Cubed pieces in the sauce give more texture. Light, summery and balanced.
Savoury Porridge (£13.50)
“It tastes like cup-a-soup!” was the first comment I heard. I sent my own fork out to bring back a sample for further testing. The verdict? It does, sort of. There’s a similar complex savouriness, but due to skill and techniques, not salt and additives. Intensely tasty.
Dense, flavoursome cod cheeks will be familiar to fans of the Mission Impossible series (Royal Navy episode). I think there’s even a bit of tongue and soft palette in there. Quite different to the porridge dish at the Fat Duck.
Rice & Flesh (£14.00)
Saffron risotto with wonderful creamy, gooey texture and al dente rice. Calorifically creamy and starchy, but not overwhelming. Everyone is right though, you need more calf’s tail.
M**t F***t (£12.50)
Blah blah blah. Ok, 3 things:
1. Unless you only eat plastic display fruit you won’t be deceived into thinking it’s a real mandarin orange. Very cute though.
2. c1500? More like c1970’s Duck a l’Orange! Anyone remember that bit in Heston’s 1960’s Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory Feast? Served in a box like a Terry’s chocolate orange. You know:
3. A lot of people told me they thought Heston’s Meat Fruit recipe was revolutionary. I’d say evolutionary, supercharged pâté on toast for 2011.
It’s as good as they say. Weirdly, the creamy, savoury aftertaste reminded all three of us of those cheeseburger-flavoured Quarterback snacks. I’m not joking.
You don’t get enough grilled bread to deal with all the parfait though. We spread the remainder on our side serving bread, and preferred that combination. Try it.
Spiced Pigeon (£32.00)
As with all the mains at Dinner the sauce is what gives the dish it’s life and richness, cut through by those tiny onions. Delicious, tender.
Blackfoot Pork Chop (£28.00)
“The wagyu beef of pork”. Marbled fat spreads flavour through the meat, served pink and meltingly tender via a combo of Josper grill and sous vide-ing. The complex Robert Sauce is even better. If I’d been eating this in the privacy of my own home I’d have licked the plate clean. You would too.
It’s a big portion, you’re able to share some and still feel satisfied. Free side-dish of cabbage served under the chop as well, bargain hunters. If Beef Royale had been available I’d never have ordered this, an unexpected blessing. Incredible.
Roast Turbot (£32.00)
Textbook fish and meaty bounce from the cockles. Greatly balanced flavours, maybe needs a bit more contrasting texture. Wish I’d pinched more of this one.
Triple Cooked Chips (several at £4.50)
I’ve spent two years waiting for these. When we went to the Hind’s Head they were off the menu (potatoes were “out of season”, apparently!). Home experiments only ever produced badly-cooked, rather than triple-cooked, chips.
Crust is amazingly thick and crunchy like ideal roast potatoes but dryer, insides creamily smooth. I ordered far more of these than we could finish then ate everyone’s leftovers, laughing to myself with delight at each bite. They probably thought I was a lunatic.
Hispi Cabbage (£4.50) Carrots (£4.50)
Sorry, no photo. I was too busy stuffing my face. Cabbage is bright and tender, buttery carrots are nicely caramelised.
Tipsy Cake (£10.00)
Yes. It’s all true.
Brown Bread Ice Cream (£8.50)
Bland and strange by itself, but get some of that salted caramel, a bit of lemon and dehydrated bread on your spoon and it becomes a thing of immense majesty and originality.
The standout dish of the entire meal. I preferred it to the Tipsy Cake.
(Note: Now changed to Malted Barley Ice Cream, which doesn’t sound nearly as fun.)
(Note 2: Now changed back to Brown Bread Ice Cream, this dessert is having more of an identity crisis than Prince in the 1990s!)
Baked lemon Suet Pudding (£8.50)
Smaller than you expect, but so intense you wouldn’t want more. You need every last drop of cream or it’s excruciatingly sweet. Lemon flavour very subtle.
I’ve never had it at the Hind’s Head to be able to compare, but is this a poshed-up version of Heston’s Sussex Pond Pudding recipe? Let me know please.
Tafferty Tart (£8.00)
They used to serve a version of this at the Fat Duck. Dinner’s version is about 3 times larger. Here’s how the two compare side by side:
I got this for our 3rd diner who hadn’t eaten at the mothership. It’s very sugary, especially the sorbet. My teeth were tingling after the first mouthful. Strong flavours in each bite, I’d struggle to finish this portion by myself.
Heston and Ashley always max-out every aspect of their dishes. This dish might be a step too far. Chocolate is too bitter, passion fruit jam too sweet and crunchy biscuit base is rock solid.
Ginger ice cream can’t balance out the bitterness. I left the bar (no one wanted to share after their first bite) and just finished the ice cream. On it’s own it’s no more than an “interesting flavour”.
Earl Grey Ganache
Everyone loves Heston’s one-thing-made-to-look-like-another stuff. This is more convinvcing than the Meat Fruit. Fun too; your after dinner cuppa and petit fours in one.
The clever flavour pairing works brilliantly, but if you’re not a fan of white chocolate it can get sickly fast. Caraway seeds make the biscuit magically light.
Total bill: £265 including (non-alcoholic) drinks.
We all tried each other’s food and struggled to agree on favourites. Everybody liked everyone else’s dish more than their own.
There’s no question that Dinner is overhyped. Evidence is in the frenzy of critics, deluge of blog reviews (damned bloggers!) and “Best Restaurant In The World” headlines. Dinner definitely isn’t the best restaurant in the world, just a fun, relaxed hotel restaurant serving 21st century comfort food.
Heston might be famous for his cutting-edge Fat Duck dishes, Dinner’s menu is deliberately conservative. When I looked at our table’s plates of meat and sauce, potatoes and vegetables in the centre for sharing out, Dinner made perfect sense: it’s a masterful, high-tech English Sunday Lunch.
Lots of bloggers have been underwhelmed, probably expecting “Fat Duck comes to London” when the ambition is more Hinds Head goes 5 star. Look elsewhere for liquid nitrogen and fish ice cream.
Fat Duck influence is in cooking techniques, attention to detail and understanding of flavour. The history really isn’t more than fun inspiration and garnish: Rice and Flesh sounds exciting, Risotto Milanese less so. (c1600-style dishes have been on the FD menu for ages). As in Bray, Ashley Palmer-Watts’ kitchen is consistently masterful.
Of course there’s something more to enjoy at Dinner than just food and atmosphere: smugness. High prices and limited availability make Dinner reservations feel rare and exclusive. Half the pleasure seems to be just getting a table. Check out reactions to the @MatireD’s news of walk-in availability.
Those prices do risk spoiling the taste. Roast Marrowbone is just a remixed Fergus Henderson dish, but for twice what you’d pay at St John. Website-watchers will notice everything’s gone up by at least a quid recently. What are you gonna do, walk out?
Treatment was impeccable. The only sour note was that, even though we told it was a double birthday celebration (a lie) there wasn’t a single gesture toward this, not even a chocolate-stenciled plate. At Maze they’d give you a free tiny dessert with a candle to blow out.
In an opening-week interview Heston stated his biggest fear was the public’s expectation being much greater than the reality. There’s lots of better and more exciting restaurants in London, and for many Dinner won’t justify the hype, wait or cost.
I wasn’t disappointed by the fun atmosphere, nor underwhelmed by the brilliantly executed food. I’d happily go again, but that’s easier said than done.
There’s no shortage of blog reviews for Dinner by Heston. Those listed at the top of this post are all well worth checking out. For an interesting take on the less-hyped Set Lunch check out Aki Eats. The Millionaire Tart looks even better than the Fat Duck / Hind’s Head / Manchester ’07 ones.
And please make sure you check out the enviably talented Cumbria Foodie and his home-made version of the famous starter.