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Monday, 7 March 2011

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Knightsbridge

Cooking and writing are similar in lots of ways. Good writing, like good cooking, requires a deep understanding of its various component parts – not only the selection of words or ingredients, but their interplay, their correspondences, their echoes and their history. Coleridge said that a good writer (Samuel Johnson, in his example) produces prose in which ‘you cannot alter one conjunction without spoiling the sense.’ Spoiling is culinarily apt, as is what follows: ‘It is a linked strain throughout.’ If good writing means that every word, every clause and every sentence counts, then good cooking might require similar strains of thought and conjunctions between ideas. 

Heston Blumenthal is a master of making things count. There is never anything extraneous in his dishes. And if that sounds odd in reference to a man who’s developed television programmes almost wholly about ornament in cooking, then, well, you shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV. 

Consider ‘Meat Fruit (c.1500)’, our opening course at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. A much-admired chicken liver parfait encased in a mandarin jelly, it could serve as an emblem of all that’s great about Blumenthal’s cooking (though, let’s not forget, Ashley Palmer-Watts is the head chef here, even if it’s not his name on the menu). It’s a gimmick, certainly. But then you need the sharp jelly to cut through the luxurious paté. And there’s more to it than that. This is a funny dish (funny ha ha, but also strange), that confounds your sensory expectations in the disjunction between its appearance, texture and taste. You know, as you cut into the orange globe, that it’s not a real mandarin, and yet you still expect the skin to be tough. It’s like getting on a stationary escalator and adjusting your step anyway, if a lot nicer. 

But there’s more to it than that too. Meat Fruit drags back through culinary history to medieval banqueting tables, but also alludes to other kinds of culinary illusion. Blumenthal’s admiration for Lewis Carroll is well known, and this dish could have come from Wonderland, with its tricksy pills and mock turtles. Its slightly risqué title adds crude humour, while the 'mandarin' pokes gentle fun at the restaurant's host.

Roast Marrowbone (c.1720) provides fewer laughs, though that circa seems amusingly optimistic. Even so, it is similarly confounding, with rich marrow sat louchely among assertive anchovy, mace and parsley. You expect it to be heavy, but it’s light; you expect it to be meaty, which it is, but it’s also refreshing. There’s even a hint of the Danish school – it looks and tastes like something you could have at North Road or, dare I say it, Noma (I’ve never been). 

Many reviewers have done down the main courses at Dinner, at least by comparison with those remarkable starters. That’s unfair. Roast Turbot (c.1830) picks up where the marrow left off, but like any good story, expands and develops the promise of its introduction. This was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, anywhere. Its ‘cockle ketchup’ is another nice joke, but again, delivers in flavour to the extent that the dish is inconceivable without it. Bitter, sweet and sour, with a very slightly gelatinous texture, it tastes of the sea and the kitchen – a marriage of craft and raw materials that would have impressed those emerging industrialists around at its birth.

Spiced Pigeon with Ale and Artichoke (c.1780) is positively conventional by comparison, proving that excellent artists can always do the simple as well as the complex. The pigeon is perfectly cooked, while the ale seems to hark back to 18th century taverns or rather grander hunting lodges. Of course, it’s also there because it tastes good and because ale is becoming more trendy by the day. It might be slightly weaker than the other dishes, though that reflects more on them than on it. 

An English cheese board to share does exactly what it should, though it must be said that it’s rather foisted upon us by an up-selling waiter. It’s an unfortunate trait of the restaurant, this tendency to make you feel like a lesser diner if you don’t have champagne before you start, or you don’t want cheese, or you ask for tap water (we had the champagne, the cheese and the tap water, but we probably would have done even without the pushiness). Indeed, were the food less brilliant, this would be a serious problem. 

Desserts mark a return to the humour of the starters. Brown Bread Ice Cream (c.1830) is yeasty and unsettling, but it’s utterly delicious. Taffety Tart (c.1660) contains a chewy, rosy jelly bracketed by crispy, fennely caramel and enhanced by cream and a truly superb blackcurrant sorbet. Variants of texture, taste, temperature and even tone need to be in concert for this to work. It coheres perfectly. 

Finally, an earl grey and white chocolate ganache comes with a stick of shortbread. This, like the Meat Fruit, asks you to suspend your disbelief. You know roughly what’s in it, and you know what you think it’s going to taste like. And then it does, but more so, with more tea and more chocolate than seems possible – it’s a high wire act, a magic trick. 

Of course, all this costs a lot – about £100 per head including a bottle of Fleurie. But if you’re going to spend £100 pounds on anything, make it Dinner. Coleridge said that prose is ‘words in their best order,’ while poetry is ‘the best words in their best order.’ Heston Blumenthal is a poet of the table.

Phil Lett’s take: 8/10

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