This meal has been on my mind ever since WordMonkey was writing for Food & Travel magazine in London, where she heard whispers that the great bald-headed chef was planning to open a new restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, on the corner of Hyde Park opposite Harrods. Back then it was all secret squirrels from people in the restaurant game as to what this concept was going to be, earning it a place in our 2012 Most Anticipated List.
Dinner by Heston has just been named as a contender for Toughest Reservation in the World. It’s super-popular, and would-be diners are only able to book three months in advance of the date they intend to visit, so in early November I found myself shooting off emails to anyone connected with Heston and the Mandarin Oriental to try and secure a place on a day we were actually free. Luckily, we got ourselves in.
This five-star hotel is all about service – from a suited and booted doorman greeting you on the pavement in front of the grand building to the guy who escorts you up the steps to the two sets of front doors, where you are met by a set of two further doormen who open the doors and pass you on to concierges. After lots of smiling and feeling under-dressed, we reach our final destination – Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.
As it is the depths of (a very mild) winter, coats and hats are taken and reservations confirmed at the Dinner front desk. You might notice the pineapple above the desk – but you will see why that features here in good time.
LDN Trivia: First brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus in 1493, from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, pineapples remained a rare delicacy for centuries and hence became a symbol of wealth and hospitality. In the 18th century, a pineapple cost the equivalent of £5,000 today. John Rose, gardener to the Earl of Essex, presented the first pineapple raised in England to King Charles II in 1661. You will now notice that when you walk around London you will see pineapples feature in almost all of the royal architecture.
We entered through the colourful bar area to a large and airy space – a real prime position as far as hotel restaurants go. The open-plan kitchen is exceptionally big with around 16 chefs studiously at work (all looked surprisingly calm and controlled, even in the middle of a Thursday lunch service). Glass walls on three sides allow for theatre dining, alternatively, on the other side of the room, windows overlook a rather blustery (on the day we visited) Hyde Park with its Serpentine lake.
The wine list is a sturdy tome of bottles from around the world and we were amazed to find that prices started at just $30. Back in Melbourne this might be close to the BYO charge at a mid-range restaurant.
We had a choice of two menus – the set menu was a very affordable £32 ($40) for three courses or the a la carte. The menus were elegantly presented and had a comprehensive description of where Heston found the recipes and plenty of historical background.
Sourdough is not as hot an item in London as it is Down Under, but Heston has come up with his own version. I felt the crust on the bread was much too hard to be totally enjoyable on its own. But the Buttered Crab Loaf (c.1714) – Crab, cucumber, pickled lemon and stone crop – made up for any misstep with the bread. The fresh tasty crab was draped across a soft pillow of lightly textured dough, which was crispy on the outside, soft in the centre.
Lemon Salad (c.1730) – Goats curd, buckler sorrel & raisins – was the second starter and WordMonkey was over the moon with the generous serve of cheese, which was salty with a zesty tang from the lemon.
A Brit cooking pork belly using a recipe from the early 1800s? I had to give it a go. So I ordered the Slow cooked Pork Belly (c.1820) – Potato puree, black pudding and sauce Robert – as my main dish. Looking at the photo it still makes my mouth water. Three strips of the moistest pork ever presented on wilted spinach. The velvety potato puree was sprinkled with small pieces of black pudding, which gave an extra degree of meatiness to proceedings. The crackling on the pork was perfectly scored with what must have been a very sharp knife. The best bit? The addition of popped crackling, which was like a porky version of popcorn. You just can’t go wrong, and this was on the set menu. Bargain.
WordMonkey decided on the Roast Halibut (c.1830) – dandelion leaves and cockle ketchup. Beautifully cooked fish, just fell apart, with a briny foam studded with plump cockles.
Into the mix we decided to throw another serve of Heston’s triple-cooked chips to see how they compared to The Hinds Head. And also you would be stupid not to order the most famous chips in the world.
Having spotted that the light fittings were actually made with the jelly molds Heston used for one of his episodes of Heston’s Feast, we agreed that so far this was one of the best meals ever. And the only thing that could bring it down was dessert. How would it fare compared to the rest of the meal?
Orange Buttered Loaf (c.1630) – mandarin and thyme sorbet – sounds boring but in Heston we trusted. And so we should. Look at what we received. The loaf was caramelised on the outside and mouthwateringly soft in the centre. Bringing the dish together was the amazing burst of flavour from the mandarin and thyme sorbet. Balanced in between both sweet and sour it played well with the freeze-dried and mandarin segments.
Chocolate Bar (c.1730) – passion fruit jam and ginger ice cream – if that doesn’t pique your curiosity then you must be a dessert-hater. The chocolate bar was made of the most cocoa-rich chocolate syrup outer (dotted with a fleck of gold paper), which encased two soft sponges, which in turn sandwiched a layer of passion fruit jam – offering a citrus acidity that broke through the dark chocolate. And again the ice cream perfectly offset the chocolate and rested on chocolate soil.
The meal was finished with a thick chocolate mouse and cardamom biscuit. Had I known this was coming in the place of petit fours I may have changed my dessert choice, as it was a lot of chocolate to finish up with.
Post-meal we walked a path through Hyde Park to reflect and discuss the meal that we had just had. We agreed that every phase, from arrival to departure, were truly on song. The service was attentive but casual – there when we needed them and invisible when we did not. We could not fault it.
Many great meals have one area in which they let themselves down. It may have been a portion size, a flavour, overpriced wine list or maybe the food was perfect but service was disappointing. Not the case here. The food was utterly superb. Every single element of every course hit exactly where it was intended. I can honestly say this was one of the best meals of our short lives. So I expect that Dinner by Heston Blumenthal will make our Best Of 2012 list at the end of the year.
If you are in London or looking to visit I urge you to put this on your list of ‘Must Eat’ destinations. If you did live in London I would also recommend that if you have any international guests visiting, if you take them to The Mandarin Oriental, visit Heston’s restaurant for a meal for $40 for a great meal, you will have a set of impressed guests singing your praises.