Is it really as good as everyone says it is?
Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal needs no introduction for anyone who has even a casual interest in restaurants – the man is everywhere from numerous TV programs to even the front page of the Daily Mail. I’ve been chomping at the bit to try out his new London restaurant, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, for some time now. Due to its overwhelming popularity and my own laziness, I’ve only recently snagged a reservation. This turned out to be well-timed as Dinner will close temporarily for ‘maintenance’ from 1-22 September 2011. To help me out I dragged along the Euro Hedgie, Wicket and Kangaroo Face. While neither I nor Wicket have sampled Heston’s cooking before, the Euro Hedgie has been to Heston’s Fat Duck in Bray twice and has already been to Dinner twice. Kangaroo Face has dined at The Fat Duck once.
Dinner is located inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge. While the hotel has a rather oppressive Edwardian decor, Dinner has a much lighter, airier feel. Wine racks encased in glass cabinets line the hallway leading from the bar to the main dining room which is tastefully bland and unremarkable. The exceptions to this rule are the unusually shaped lighting rigs and the handful of tables with views of the open plan kitchen – our table had a view of the elaborate apparatus used to roast the pineapples for the tipsy cake. There are also a handful of tables on the terrace overlooking a stretch of Hyde Park which are available first come, first served weather permitting.
Although the monied location prompted Kangaroo Face to don his dandiest threads, Wicket wore a rumpled linen shirt and pants while the Hedgie pulled on an old sweater and jeans. As expected, the helpful, knowledgeable and friendly staff didn’t batt an eyelid. Like many American restaurants, we were attended to by a small army of waiters and servers, so as attentive the service was it also felt a little impersonal with no single, friendly face to turn to.
The menu at Dinner changes occasionally and consists of traditional British dishes with a modern twist. Although we all had our doubts about the provenance of some of the menu items, the historical basis of all of them is listed on the rear of the menu. I started off with the salamagundy which consists of smoked calves hearts and beetroot served with horseradish and chopped walnuts. Although wafer thin, the calves hearts were firm with a surprisingly dense, meaty texture resembling roast beef or German liverwurst. Most of the flavour came from the horseradish and walnut though, of which there wasn’t quite enough.
Kanagroo Face opted for the roast marrowbone. Instead of the jelly-like texture I expected from previous experience at St John and Prune, here it had a surprisingly coarse, gritty texture. It appeared to have been mixed together with anchovies and mace and served out of the carved bone itself. Kangaroo Face likened it to a particular moreish form of stuffing and seemed to enjoy it – especially the contrast in texture and taste between the pickled vegetables and the stuffing-like marrowbone.
Wicket dived into the the appealingly-named rice and flesh which turned out to be a risotto-like dish made with calf tail and a hearty dollop of saffron. Wicket didn’t seem entirely convinced by the dish, but seemed to enjoy the fragrance of it as well as the medium-sized grains of rice which were neither too clumpy or too loose.
I was barely able to get any comment out of the Euro Hedgie as he tucked into his broth of lamb which consisted of sweetbreads, turnips, celery and radishes served with a delicately poached egg. He described the broth as meaty but not too salty and without any clingy aftertaste – umami if you will. He thought it resembled a less intense version of the mock turtle soup at The Fat Duck, which was rather unhelpful for those of us yet to experience The Fat Duck.
For my main course I ordered the powdered duck which is considerably less exciting than it sounds; the ‘powdered’ is an anachronistic term referring to salt. That didn’t mean it was a boring dish though – the smoked fennel added a very distinctive flavour to the tender meat and there’s also a tangy fruitiness which tastes unusual to my taste buds raised on the more spiced flavours of Chinese roast duck.
Wicket made the seemingly unadventurous choice of Hereford Ribeye steak cooked medium, but the flavoursome, tender meat is nothing to sneeze at. It was complimented well by a red wine reduction and topped with roasted bone marrow. The accompanying fries aren’t a patch on the triple cooked chips at Hawksmoor, but they were made more interesting by the distinctive taste of mushroom ketchup which is exactly what it sounds like – a tangy and slightly sweet ketchup that tastes of mushrooms.
Kangaroo Face opted for the spiced pigeon which, as it turned out, was not especially well spiced. The nicely cooked meat was well complimented by the distinctive taste of the ale gravy though, of which there was just the right amount, although the accompanying slices of artichoke were surprisingly muted. He did think the portion was a bit on the small side though, so he was glad he had ordered extra sides of creamy, fluffy mashed potato and juicy cabbage which was neither too soft nor too tough.
The Euro Hedgie only had good things to say about his cod cooked in cider. Although that may sound like an odd combination, the lightly acidic and expertly prepared sauced complimented the fish extremely well. The texture of the flesh was also very consistent with none of the toughness that can sometimes affect the top half of the fish in more poorly made versions.
In the run-up to our dinner at Dinner by Heston, the Euro Hedgie wouldn’t stop raving about the desserts and how he would eat nothing but the desserts if he could ever overcome the social stigma and increased risk of diabetes. I thought the little porker was exaggerating, but the desserts at Dinner are truly something special. Despite the elaborate roasting apparatus for the pineapples as pictured above, the fruit is merely just a garnish or accompaniment to the tipsy cake. Despite the use of either brandy or sherry, the cake wasn’t too boozy or too tart and although it had a firm exterior, it gave way to a yieldingly soft interior. The juicy pineapple wasn’t too fibrous due to the extensive slow cooking, although it does mean you have to order the tipsy cake with the rest of your dishes at the beginning of the meal.
I opted for the chocolate bar served with ginger ice cream, although calling it a chocolate bar is a disservice. The bittersweet liquid chocolate coating hides layers of lovingly sweet chocolate all sitting on a tart passion fruit jam base which had a texture strikingly reminiscent of marzipan. The overall effect is strikingly reminiscent of the Golden Louis XV at Gauthier Soho. The boldly flavoured ginger ice cream, which is delicious in its own right, can overwhelm all these delicate tastes and textures though, so it feels like a tacked on afterthought. Even so, I’d rather have this dessert than many of the other lesser desserts I’ve had at other restaurants.
The Euro Hedgie and I shared the taffety tart which is easily the most dazzlingly complex and accomplished dessert I’ve had to date. The fruity, rosewater-flavoured tart has layer upon layer of different textures from crisp to fluffy to jelly-like. It’s complimented well by the boldly flavoured blackcurrant sorbet with cardamom-like hits of flavour and a gentle acidity. For me, this was the highlight of the evening.
Wicket was no less impressed by his baked lemon suet pudding. The presence of suet, namely beef or mutton fat, means this dessert isn’t suitable for vegetarians. Judging from Wicket’s moans of ‘gorgeous’ and ‘lemon heaven’ in between mouthfuls, everyone else should make a beeline for it. The short crust-like exterior hides a delicately balanced lemon flavour that’s neither too sweet nor too tart, although the cream seems a little superfluous.
Kangaroo Face was impressed with his generous portion of brown bread ice cream. He thought the strong flavours of salt caramel and malty syrup were too samey though and needed a lighter element.
As expected, the sweet delights didn’t end there. The petit four was an intriguing pairing. A caraway biscuit with hints of raisin and aniseed tastes even when dunked into the bold, distinctive and smoky Earl Grey ganache that tickles the back of the throat in a most delightful way.
Although I was content with tap water, my dining companions were keen to sample the booze. My three chums shared a bottle of Clos de Los Siete which is apparently a Malbec blend from Argentina under the aegis of Michael Rolland. It’s one of Kangaroo Face’s favourites since it has a deep, earthy, pleasantly tannic flavour that goes well with meat. As expected it costs significantly more here then it would elsewhere at £60 a bottle, but that didn’t stop my companions from quaffing it down.
I will rarely admit this in public, but the Euro Hedgie is right about one thing at least – the desserts at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal are spectacular and are reason enough to dine here. I feel more ambivalent about the savoury dishes though. The starters, while by no means bad, were a little disappointing. The main courses were far better, but paradoxically also felt a little generic in spite of their generally accomplished execution – perhaps due in part to the insistence on a historical British background. I certainly don’t regret dining at Dinner by Heston and while I would certainly visit again (if only for the desserts), at this price Gauthier Soho remains my favourite for intriguingly inventive dining – but only just.
Name: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Address: Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7LA
Phone: 020 7201 3833
Opening Hours: seven days a week midday-14.30, 18.30-22.30
Reservations: essential. Reservations typically open one month in advance. For example reservations for the month of August open on the 1st of July. Get in there fast!
Total cost for one person: approx. £70 without booze (£90-100 with booze)