Back for Seconds At Heston’s Mandarin Oriental Restaurant
Note: This post is based on a visit in August 2011 and was written shortly afterward. Some content may be out of date.
Solidly booked since it opened, universally glowing press reviews and a billion fawning blog posts – it’s fair to say that Dinner (byHestonBlumenthalattheMandarinOriental) has been a huge success.
A few of us we’re down in London for Frightfest over the 2011 August Bank Holiday, which seemed the perfect opportunity to go back and sample Dinner’s lesser-trodden Set Menu. Well, we had to eat somewhere interesting visiting our nation’s capital, and they’d hardly let us in Le Gavroche dressed for a horror movie festival.
Please accept my apologies, on behalf of Apple, for the shockingly quality of images taken on using the poor camera found on the iPhone 3GS.
First on the agenda was grabbing a photo of that cheeky illuminated pear they use in place of a sign. I forgot to take one last time, so I wanted a snap to fudge into our original review. No chance of that, it’s been replaced by a pineapple.
“We thought it was a bit more appropriate” said the Maitre D’ when we asked why. No doubt about that, considering how iconic those rotating spits have become
Before taking the picture the Maitre D’ kindly turned the light off, explaining “We’ve found photos turn out better this way”. An example of how cheerily accommodating they are. And also that digital cameras are as ubiquitous as napkins when you visit. (Not that we can talk, eh?).
We’d come specifically for the set menu. Judging by the distinctive plates we saw leaving the kitchen so had a lot of others. Whether it was a touristy bank holiday crowd or not, the dining room was still a bright, lively, chatty place, filled with staff artfully balancing friendliness and respect.
Since its opening the menu had only seen a few minor changes. Veal Sweetbreads and a Summer Tart made brief guest appearances in June. Aside from Christmas the Beef Royale has been thoroughly exorcised and Brown Bread Ice Cream has changed it’s name more often than Prince. So much for the early press promises of 4 different seasonal menus per year!
Interestingly, instead of Beef Royale there’s now three different types of steak on the menu. Sous-vide and Josper treatments aside this isn’t Hawksmoor or Goodman, so we’re baffled as to why. Maybe it keeps all the power-lunch punters happy.
Personally we’d only opt for a Heston steak if it was paired with his Triple Cooked Chips (I myself made this mistake when I buggered up the ordering on our trip to the Hind’s Head). Like at the Bray pub, Triple Cooked Chips were “out of season” during August.
Our waiter explained that the variety of spud they use (I didn’t catch the name) develops excessive sweetness this time of year, affecting the taste. Not sure why they can’t just use a different variety of spud. One to annoy Ashley Palmer-Watts with on Twitter maybe?
Salamagundy (Set Menu)
Translating from the Olde Englishe as “a jumble of things” Salamagundy can essentially be anything Ashley and Heston want it to be. This time a summery salad of tomatoes, radishes, buckler sorrel and what looked like baby turnip. We’re all for the historical inspiration, but raw turnip feels like something Baldrick would serve up.
We’ve never had the a la carte version of Salamagundy (though obviously we’ve seen lots of blog photos of it) so we’re not qualified to say how the two compare. It’s a simple dish, the lightly zingy dressing added to the plate not the salad, so not drowning the leaves.
Result: the dish relies on the quality of ingredients and the wisdom of their pairing. Both are good, but simplicity isn’t what you visit Heston for. Slightly underwhelming.
Ragoo of Pig’s Ears (Set Menu)
Compared to Salamagundy this feels much more like it. Unctuous and deeply flavoursome. The ribbon strands of slow-cooked pig ear offer no resistance. Gooey bread soaking up the sauce underneath is a real treat.
Portion size is disappointing, but this is so rich we doubt you could eat much more.
Broth of Lamb (£13.50)
The meaty broth is intensely flavoursome without being heavy. Gorgeous clear appearance too – no doubt the result of ice filtration in some remote subterranean prep kitchen. Vegetables add a pleasing contrast, as do the nuggets of sweetbread with their light crumb and velvety insides. The egg is an inspired addition, yolk magically transforming both texture and taste of the broth.
The Critical Couple were right to state that this is very much a winter item, but we found the broth itself light enough to be enjoyed on a sunny summer’s day.
Savoury Porridge (£14.50)
Snails, eh? Here’s a change needed from day one, if only to satisfy customer expectations.
We’d loved this dish with cod cheeks, but then we’d been lucky enough to have the original version at the mothership in Bray. Anyone else ordering a savoury porridge dish from a Heston menu would be rightly disappointed if it wasn’t rife with molluscs. Auldo’s interview with Heston mentions similar outrage when the dish was taken off the Fat Duck’s tasting menu.
We think it now tastes very different to the cod cheek version. When we asked they assured me all that the only change was swapping out fish and beetroot for snails and mushrooms. But that distinctive bang of savouriness is gone, replaced by a smooth, creamy, buttery-ness. Or so it seemed to us.
Still a great dish, and doubtless more crowd-pleasing now. One significant difference to the Fat Duck’s version is the lack of Jabugo ham. This dish badly needs addition of some cured pork.
Meat Fruit (£13.50)
Last time we thought the standard table bread was a better match for the parfait than the grilled stuff it came with. Looks like the Dinner team decided something similar.
Visually that toasted table bread doesn’t look as good as before, and the bread portion feels even smaller. Ungrilled bread still pairs better too, in our opinion. A bit of a step backwards here.
Roast Quail (Set Menu)
Both of us on set menus ordered this tiny bird, you essentially get a whole quail portioned into a pair of breast fillets and both legs.
There’s a pleasing gamey-ness to the meat (breasts are tender but stringy leg meat requires a bit of effort). This could’ve been a perfect microcosm of a Sunday lunch. But the overall effect is slightly bland and the portion size is starter rather than main. I’m sure you’re noticing a recurring theme with the Set Menu.
In retrospect one of us should’ve tried that Cured Salmon.
Powdered Duck (£26.50)
Almost ordered this on our last visit. Another delightful Sunday Lunch-ish dish.
“Powdered” equals spiced brine, there’s an almost Christmassy edge to the two leg portions.
Bargain hunters ought to opt for this ahead of the set menu. It came with a significant bowl of Dinner’s silky potato purée, likely the 70˚C perfection stuff with a 1:1 butter ratio. I didn’t get to try much of this (thanks, Declan) but what I had I really liked.
No picture, sorry.
We had to try these to see if they work in place of the triple cooked variants. Also out of curiosity, because Auldo gave them a thorough slating on his visit.
We thought they were ok. Very crunchy, a bit too oily.
Chocolate Wine & Millionaire Tart (Set Menu)
Obviously one of Heston’s favourite pairings. Variants of this dish have been seen at both the Fat Duck and Hind’s Head, as well as the Taste of Summer stall at 2007’s Manchester International Festival.
The gunky chocolate ganache is magnificent addition to the original Millionaire Shortbread’s salted caramel and biscuit base. You have to love that chocolate crumble topping too.
I didn’t enjoy the Chocolate Wine as much this time. Served warm, it had a sickly quality. Even less appropriate to summer than that broth of lamb. We preferred it in it’s Mancunian slushsicle form. Once again, a bit of a stingy portion. But too rich to warrant having much more.
Raspberry Loaf (Set Menu)
On the menu in place of the Orange Buttered Loaf with Mandarin & Thyme Sorbet, this was paired with a Raspberry & Coconut Sorbet.
I really wanted to like this. But, like the Chocolate Bar on our last visit, it was just too overwhelming. I prefer less sugar than most and this sorbet was a remorseless assault on the teeth. A layer of jam runs through the middle of the caramelised brioche. Combined with the raspberry sorbet and the slick of raspberry sauce on the plate it was just too much.
Regrettably I had to swap this for the remnants of Robert’s Millionaire Tart. He’s more of a sugar fiend. The only positives I can offer are that the presentation is excellent and the caramelised shell on the loaf is outstanding.
Chocolate Bar (£9.50)
I pleaded with Duke to get the Brown Bread Ice Cream instead of this, I think he just enjoys being contrary.
The single bite he let me try was a lot more palatable than last time. The chocolate is still very rich and bitter and the jam very tart, but at least this time we didn’t need a chisel to get through the base.
We’re not sure if the recipe has changed slightly. An improvement, but there’s still other dishes we’d order ahead of this.
Tipsy Cake (£10.00)
One thing I didn’t see first time round (when we all fighting for the last piece) was the puddle of delicious syrup left in the bottom of the pot. Good manners were abandoned and we slurped that down as well. Using spoons – we’re not animals!
Earl Grey Ganache
Unlike on our first visit, this didn’t massacre our gums with sweetness. Cups didn’t look as full as before either, so maybe that’s how we finished without it becoming sickly. Caraway biscuit is still divine.
Total: £186 (including some pricey booze)
Maybe it was down to focusing on the set menu, or maybe the lack of novelty (for me at least), but Dinner just wasn’t as exciting this time round.
To be fair, we’ve already had our way with our first choices from the a la carte. Set menu restrictions this time meant we were eating what we had to have, rather than what we wanted to have.
Hunger could’ve been a factor – we’d risen late and skipped breakfast. Even sharing bonus starters and desserts we still left wanting more. And that includes having twice as much bread as you’re meant to.
The Set Menu seems a wonderfully egalitarian thing though. Could it be a mandate from Heston, the working class lad who once sold his car to pay for an eating holiday around France.
Set Menu dishes were flying out of the kitchen that day, so it’s obviously having the desired effect of making the restaurant accessible to all. But while Heston’s Set Menu mostly delivers on flavour it underperforms on satisfaction. Stock up on side dishes.
Have the 12.5% gratuity removed and survive on tap water you can get in and out for £28 a head, but you’d probably leave underfed and underwhelmed. No matter how much spare bread & butter you could get out of them.
UPDATE 12/10/12: Forget all that stuff we said about the pricing of the set lunch making Dinner accessible to all. It was probably more to do with keeping within expense account limits.
Even that’s over now. As other dishes on the menu have nudged up by one or two pounds, the set lunch has jumped to a less-inclusive £36. We just hope this means the portion sizes have increased too.