Oh Heston. Oh sweet, sweet Heston. Dear Willy Wonka. Arch-Mage of the culinary Dark Arts. What have you done? What have you presented us with? What is this mandarin masquerading as meat you speak of? Dinner by Heston Blumenthal has landed at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park and has already encountered a feverish first two weeks of reviews. Reaction has been almost universally gushing. Heston has been there every day, but cooking is headed up by Ashley Palmer-Watts, “it’s his restaurant” as Blumenthal is keen to remind us of.
Dinner is a historical waltz through the forgotten dishes of Britain through the ages. Each dish has a historical date alongside, and is referenced to its origin. The back of the menu is a bibliography for each dish, so the really keen can hook out A New System of Domestic Cookery by Maria Eliza Rundell (c.1827). There will be those who do, I’m sure.
The glass-walled kitchen dominates one side of the room and is pure theatre. Skewered pineapples for the Tipsy Cake (c.1810) can be seen raised above an unseen heat source. Three thousand chefs dance as if choreographed behind glass, with unnervingingly little sound. The insides of a giant clock tick silently on the wall. The rest of it feels like the hotel room that it is, although with a fine view of Hyde Park along one side.
The carnival unravels itself slowly:
Meat Fruit (c.1500) – It’s a bloody mandarin. See, it really looks like one. Can it be? No, silken chicken liver parfait is set, dipped into a jelly made of the mandarin skin at exactly the right temperature so the jelly “sets” around the meat, leaving a globe of meat enrobed by mandarin jelly. Clever, the stamp of Heston all over it, and this is as tricksy as the food gets. This could appear at The Fat Duck for the humorous, playful, sheer cocky technique. The “fruit” deflates with a soft sigh as the skin is punctured. Tangy jelly, rich, obscenely textured parfait, it all makes sense. A signature dish already.
Roast Marrowbone (c.1720) – Like St John with the work done for you and no scraping around for elusive fat, stomach-flutteringly rich morsels of marrow, parsley and anchovy, balanced by cutesy pickles, including baby white turnip.
Rice and Flesh (c.1390) – Saffron risotto by another name, and a very good one. Nuggets of calf tail nestled amongst the grains, underpinned by rich red wine sauce, used sparingly. Risotto lovers rejoice.
Spiced Pigeon (c.1780) – Pigeon breasts of such preternatural velvet texture they think they are Wagyu Pigeon. Only meat which has been sous-vided to perfection can behave like this, utterly compelling, cooked in ale, gently spiced and worth coming here for alone.
Black Foot Pork Chop (c.1860) – Solid slab of pig, cooked with seductive char, rose-pink within. Pig instincts sated.
Taffety Tart (c.1660) – Pretty little tart of thin pastry, encasing spheres of fromage blanc, pressed apple shot through with haunting notes of rose-water, punch of fennel seeds, and the best damn, dense blackcurrant sorbet ever. Ever. Like condensed Ribena.
Brown Bread Ice Cream (c.1830) – Ice Cream Hovis. Decadent. Luxuriously textured.
Wine boy Matteo is Italian and charming, and the Portuguese Head Sommelier, João Pires, has put together a tight list. House Champagne is Moët 2002, dull for being Moët, exciting for being 2002 (stellar year in Champagne and Burgundy). Burgundy lovers will enjoy seeing strong Domaines Etienne Sauzet and Louis Carillon on the list, and there is a particularly obsessive list of sweet wines by the glass. A good thing. Good names throughout, Shaw and Smith from Adelaide Hills, Australia, always good to see on a list.
Front of house are true professionals, not missing a beat when going through the considerable faff of ceremony with menu descriptions.
There it is. The highest profile opening of the year has already happened. The Second Coming? Return of the Prodigal Son? Back to the Future? Return of the Mack? The answer must be somewhere in between all of these. A couple of the dishes are truly startling in their brilliance, others are strong and decent plates of food that could more than hold their own in any restaurant. A Heston restaurant with food that is entirely normal and without gimmick (apart from a date and author name-check), is a fresh addition to his “mad professor” brand. Although it’s Ashley’s restaurant, ‘innit?
Part history lesson, part dining theatre, part playful wizardry, part perfectly normal food, all executed with savage accuracy. The mark of a great restaurant is one that you helplessly end up booking again on the way out. It happened.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7LA. Tel. 020 7201 3833. Website.