The big wheel keeps on turning - Dinner with Heston and Ashley
The huge picture windows looking out over Hyde Park are still the same, but there is little else that is familiar about this new restaurant. Sprinkled with Blumenthal's magic dust and bolstered by the undoubted skills of head chef Ashley Palmer Watts, it's called Dinner because in the vernacular "having your dinner" may be either a lunchtime or an evening event but is always the big meal of the day. The Blumenthal machine is a very slick one and much as they fought in the aisles at Waitrose over his confit orange Christmas pud foodies must now scrap for a reservation here. Visiting on day two meant that I had missed Fay and party (day one) but I shared the dining room with Tracy, Giles, Jan plus Oliver from the blogosphere. Matthew is reputed to have been in three times before day one. Writing about food and restaurants has become a very competitive pastime indeed.
Like so much that Heston does, there's a twinkle of mischief and a year or so's research behind this menu. One side of the menu lists the dishes, but rather than giving the provenance of each ingredient suggests a date. Turn over and the other side of the menu suggests which old cook books influenced the creation of which dishes. There's room for confusion here, the ancient recipes have served as a trigger only, the dishes are a million miles away from being replicas of a by gone age.
Thus a dish styled "Salamugundy (c.1720) chicken oysters, bone marrow and horseradish cream" bears little relation to the "Salamugundy" in The Cook's and Confectioner's Dictionary by John Nott, published in 1723. Or indeed to any other Salamugundys you may have come across. What you do get is a deep plate, with juicy, confit chicken oysters, discs of shimmering soft bone marrow, some salsify strips (unless I'm very much mistaken) also some perky leaves and a rich gravy. A stunning blend of textures and flavours, perfectly seasoned and very good indeed. Inspired by, but not really, Salamugundy.
The detail of the room is impressive, the chandeliers echo the Tudor roses in stained glass windows, the open kitchen has an open fire and an exceedingly complex set of gears to ensure that the spits rotate at precisely the right speed. Heston had noted that watchmakers often made clockwork bottle jacks in days gone by and so commissioned the Swiss firm Ebel to make his gearing. High on the wall stainless cogs turn serenely and below a serried rank of pineapples spins in front of the fire before becoming a part of the "Tipsy cake" - a great pudding - a small iron pot contains and eggy, spongy, mix. This is a kind of brioche that thinks it's a rhum baba, perfect with a narrow slice of caramelised roast pineapple.
Service is what you would expect on a second day visit. A bit nervous, entirely well meaning, charming and helpful. When they come together as a team things will run smoothly. A must have starter is the "Meat Fruit" – a fine Blumenthal visual joke. You get what looks like a mandarin orange complete with a twig and leaf. The outside tastes of orange and the interior is a delicate, almost fluffy chicken liver parfait. Brilliant.
Or how about the "Broth of lamb"? A bowl comes to table containing a perfect poached egg, radish, turnip and little beignets of sweetbread. Then a limpid, clear, dark brown lamb broth is poured into the bowl. Good eating indeed. "Cod in cider" comes with chard and mussels. "Spiced pigeon" with ale and artichokes. "Beef Royal" is stunning, 72 hour slow cooked short rib of Angus beef with smoked anchovies, onion puree and ox tongue. Good gravy. There's also a sneaky special hiding in the "sides", this dish is shredded Hispi cabbage, plus some onions, cooked in butter and with a splash of vinegar. Very good indeed.
On to the dessert – try the "Brown Bread Ice-cream". The participation of the brown bread is all about making a little crunchy, praline, tartlet that's a plinth for a quenelle of strangely wonderful ice-cream. There's a touch of salt caramel and the heavy notes of a malted yeast syrup. Typical Heston, a flavour you have never had before.
However much you grizzle that it's tough to get a table, this place is set to be an iconic restaurant. Exciting dishes that use the past glories of British cooking as a springboard to do something that is much more cutting edge. Three courses A la Carte works out at around £60 per head which is a bargain, and there's also a three course set meal at £28. It's hard to think of Dinner as anything but a smash hit.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7LA (020 7201 3833 www.dinnerbyheston.com)
The Fat Duck, High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AQ (01628 580333 www.thefatduck.co.uk)
The Hinds Head, High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AB (01628 626151 www.hindsheadbray.com)
The Crown, High Street, Bray, Berkshire SL6 2AH (01628 621936 www.thecrownatbray.com)