Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Fantastic Feasts: Dinner by Heston

Dinner by Heston
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, SW1X 7LA

This was the second of our visits to Heston Blumenthal's London outpost (the first was 2 years ago).  In the time since our last visit it has rapidly picked up a Michelin Star as well as places on some pretty impressive lists. Rather than take full control over the venture himself, Heston has delegated a significant amount of control to Dinner executive chef is Ashley Palmer Watts, a Fat Duck alumnus who is beginning to gain a name for himself in the food festival circuit (he did a demonstration at the Taste Lab, for example).

Brown Bread Ice Cream
Unusually for a restaurant of this standard, the kitchen is entirely open plan, with the entire hard working crew exposed for everyone to see. The dining space is notably less intimate than the Fat Duck and yet more relaxed for it, with ample spacing between the tables, high ceilings and large windows. The menu is based entirely on extensive research of British dinner dishes throughout history (the oldest dating back to 14th Century), updated using the kind of technical wizardry you'd expect from the man who came up with nitro-poached green tea and whiskey wine gums.

Rice and Flesh
The first of the starters was the Rice and Flesh (c. 1390), the oldest dish on the menu. Flavour-wise I think it was the better of the two starters we tried. I absolutely love Saffron but I find that too much can tend to lead to an over-bitter, dominating flavour. Not here, the tender risotto rice was bathed in a rich golden yellow colour, perfumed with that wonderful exotic floral aroma. It by no means dominated over the 'flesh' part however. The meat used was calf tail cooked in red wine. The meat was beautifully cooked, its full bodied flavour boosted by the red wine (Heston/Ashley really have a way with non-steak cuts of meat, at the Fat Duck as well).

Meat Fruit
The other starter was the famous Meat Fruit dish (c.1500), a dish that was popularised in Henry VIII's court as part of one of his many illusion-filled banquets (clearly an influence on Heston, judging by his Channel 4 TV shows). Our waiter explained that a basket of oranges would be bought at the end of a feast with one of the oranges containing meat. Old Henry was quite a prankster by the sounds of it. It's a great dish, theatrical in the way that wouldn't look out of place at the Fat Duck. It does stand out somewhat from the other dishes, which are slightly more orthodox (whilst still beautiful of course) in their presentation.

It wouldn't mean much if it didn't taste any good but it really does. It's not too heavy, the chicken liver parfait and foie gras that make up the filling are incredibly airy and light (volume-wise) whilst still having that rich, satisfyingly fatty flavour. The subtle mandarin flavour worked really well in adding a very light acidity to cut through the fattiness. The dish was served with grilled bread to spread the parfait over.

Spiced Pigeon with Ale and Artichokes
Onto the mains. My main was the spiced pigeon with ale and artichokes (c.1780). I have to say this was by some distance the best pigeon dish I've had. Clearly sous vide cooked, the benefits are immediately obvious here as the flesh managed to hold an astonishing amount of moisture, whilst still having a full, but not overly-gamey flavour. The balance between meaty and gamey flavours was expertly balanced, likely benefitting from good hanging. The ale flavour here was as potent as the red wine in the rice and flesh, boosting meat the meats' rich flavour whilst giving a nuanced, bittersweet flavour. The artichokes were similarly excellently cooked, their slightly sweet grassy flavour being complemented superbly by the ale sauce. Great stuff.

Black Foot Pork Chop
The second meat main we ordered was the Black Foot Pork Chop (c.1860) with Hispi cabbage, lardo, ham hock and Robert sauce. I didn't try it myself, but I was very reliably told that it was also excellent,  juicy but lean whilst full of typically Heston-esque Maillard-caramelised flavours. It's a very evocatively English dish, something you'd more likely find at a proper old school country pub rather than a flashy 5 star London hotel. It was another accomplished meat dish. I've heard a few complaints about the Black Angus steak at Dinner, but in my opinion I don't see why you would go for steak here as there are such other interesting meat dishes that you rarely find on London menus. I'd rather go to Hawksmoor or another speciality steak establishment for my fill of T-Bones and Rib-Eyes. Something worth thinking about though.

Roast Halibut with Leaf Chicory and Cockle Ketchup
The last main we ordered was a fish course - the roast halibut (c.1830) with leaf chicory and cockle ketchup. This was a slight variation on a similar dish using sea bass we had on our previous visit, which was a disappointing dish we have to say. I can't say we were much more impressed this time, even though halibut is my favourite white fish. Compared to the level of cooking in the meat dishes, I didn't find it to be quite as spectacular. Don't get me wrong it was well cooked enough and nicely seasoned but it didn't quite reach the same heights as the meat courses.

This is something we did find at the Fat Duck too mind - the liquorice poached salmon dish, whilst good was one of the least memorable ones of our many courses there. The leaf chicory and especially the cockle ketchup were brilliant though. The cockle ketchup (what a mouthful!) had that knack for taking a traditional part of our cultural heritage and yet making it seem so original and novel at the same time. It had a wonderful umami flavour whilst retaining the excellent cockle flavour.

I should note about the fantastic triple cooked chips, one of the centrepieces from his brilliant Heston at home cookbook. They were perfectly crispy oustide whilst retaining the soft, fluffy insides. Nicely seasoned too. They were devoured in seconds and with the number of Belgians at our table (they know their fries, trust me on this!) that's high praise indeed.

For desserts we ordered the brown bread ice cream (c.1830, pictured at the top of the page), a favourite from our previous visit and the taffety tart. The brown bread ice cream was as lovely as ever, a proper English style dessert with its heavy, toffee/caramel flavours. I could see why it would be a bit much for some though, as it is quite overwhelming in many ways. I grew up having bread and butter pudding, sticky toffee pudding and treacle tart as school dinners so the experience was one of pure nostalgia for me.

Taffety Tart
The taffety tart (c.1660) was much more adventurous in its use of flavours, covering every range of taste with its apple, rose, fennel and vanilla ice cream. The individual components were all great, but it was the flavour combination of all the toppings and ingredients that made this dish shine. 

The last of the desserts was the nitro ice creams trolley. Owen's tried his hand at these before (access to liquid N2 is one of our scientist perks!). I really recommend looking at his post on it, it's great fun! It's not listed on the menu, but is accompanied by a supplementary charge. It is a bit coercive if you ask me, as it comes across as an extra surprise course and it's pretty difficult to turn down when you see the kitchen mixer coming round, overflowing with condensation (maybe it's just the geek in me?). 

The ice cream was ice crystal-free and super smooth. The toppings are great too, I went for the sugar coated fennel seeds (very Indian flavours, reminiscent of desserts in Delhi as a kid) but the crackling candy topping that Nathalie had was delightfully fun too. Heston has a gift at bringing a certain nostalgia in dishes, which seem to be surprisingly common to so many of us despite our differences in backgrounds and experiences. The process is obviously a very personal one if you watch his TV shows.

Overall, we had a great time again at Dinner by Heston. The standard of cooking, fish dishes aside, was pretty exemplary across the board. It's a lot more accessible than the Fat Duck, but less mysterious and theatrical for that. That's not always a bad thing of course; the service is unintrusive, the dining room is airy, light and comfortable. It's certainly still one of our favourite dining experiences in Central London and wouldn't hesitate in visiting again.

It is a shame about the number of supplementary items on the menu, something which is sadly becoming increasingly common in London...and they do add up. I'm not sure if it's the 7th best restaurant in the world (I did enjoy the Fat Duck more personally) but it certainly deserves all the praise as it is a true celebration of our culinary heritage by one of our very best chefs. - Shahz

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Square Meal

Photos by Nathalie.

1 comment:

  1. Always wanted to go but never had a reason, planning on it next month though!


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