day 2 :
sunday, 27 may
Our faithful readers know by now that seeking out excellent and unique food and wine offerings tends to be at the forefront of our trip activities. Today was a particularly exciting foray in unique dining – we had lunch at The Fat Duck, in the small town of Bray, a 45-minute train ride from London. Getting a reservation here wasn't as unpredictable as the lottery-like system at El Bulli; reservations were more like The French Laundry, where you call exactly two months in advance of the day you want to dine, and if you manage to get through within a few minutes after 10AM, then you'll likely get a reservation. Knowing we'd have only this day free in the UK, we got up just before 2AM two months ago, and tried calling both with our land line and over the internet with Skype. The Skype call made it through right away, and we were the first booking of the day. Best $0.06 cents we ever spent!
We arrived a bit before 1PM, and were immediately seated at our corner table which had a nice view of the restaurant. All guests were seated in a single large dining room, with a somewhat low ceiling of dark wood timbers. The atmosphere was relaxed, with diners dressed in everything from jeans and a nice shirt to a full suit. We looked through our menus, and both quickly decided on the tasting menu with a basic wine pairing over the à la carte menu; that way, we'd get to try a little of everything. "Everything" kept us in our chairs for the next four and a half hours!
What better way is there to start a meal than with liquid nitrogen? None, probably, so that's why our first course was Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse. The server first poured liquid nitrogen into a pre-chilled container. Next, she took a foam canister filled with green tea and lime infused with egg whites, and created a foam sphere on a spoon. Finally, she quickly nudged the sphere into the liquid nitrogen, and retrieved it a second later when it was solidified, presenting it immediately to Dawn, and then another to Eric. We were instructed to eat in a single bite, and enjoyed the sensation of the cold foam shell melting instantly on contact with our mouths. To complete the experience, the server spritzed lime scent in the air as we were eating the foam. As she explained, the lime mousse is a palate cleanser, prepping you for the meal ahead.
Several courses later, we were seemingly transported to a forest as we ate Oak Moss and Truffle Toast. As we placed a dissolving oak strip on our tongues, the server put a moss-filled wooden box in the middle of the table (complete with fog drifting over the box and onto the table). In front of us, there was a wood block with a small toast, covered with truffle butter, and a bowl containing foie gras cream and herbs on top of a multi-layer jelly-like soup. Our server instructed us to scoop all the way down into our bowls, so that we'd taste the flavors from each layer of the thick soup. The flavors were intense and woodsy, memorable tastes that lingered.
After courses of Snail Porridge (the most tender snails we've ever eaten) and Roast Foie Gras, it was time to take a trip to the beach with a dish called Sound of the Sea. We were each given a conch shell with headphones trailing out of the shell, which we dutifully put on. The sounds of the restaurant were replaced with seagulls and crashing waves as we were served a glass tray of sand, four kinds of seaweed, three kinds of shellfish, and sea foam washing over the top. While the sand looked authentic, it wasn't gritty, made from a powdery sand-colored tapioca. It dissolved lightly in our mouths, and intermingled with toasted crunchy pieces of "sand." The dish was paired with a junmai sake, which went perfectly. This dish ranks among the most unique food presentations we've ever experienced. For the curious, we discovered that the headphones were powered by mini iPods tucked into the recesses of the shell.
A few courses later we passed the halfway point, enjoying a glass of Hot and Iced Tea. True to its name, when you sip the beverage, it is simultaneously hot and cold tea. "How did they do that?" we wondered. Our server explained that the cold portion is initially an Earl Grey jelly that dissolves into a liquid when the hot tea is poured into it. The jelly maintains its temperature while dissolving, so when we drank, it wasn't jelly-like, but instead was a mix of liquid temperatures.
We moved onto a series of desserts, including an old-fashioned ice cream cone, and then a dried vanilla bean dipped into a pine-scented sugar powder, reminiscent of Pixy Stix. Before we knew it, we'd wrapped around to breakfast! We knew we'd been eating for a long time, but had it really been that long? Breakfast began with Parsnip Cereal (courtesy of Fat Duck Cereals – we don't think they carry that brand in our grocery store) and milk, followed by eggs and bacon. Well, not exactly – the so-called egg was cracked into a copper pot at the table, scrambled with liquid nitrogen (a nice symmetry with the beginning of our meal), and turned out to be egg-and-bacon-flavored ice cream. Really. This was served on top of pain perdu (French toast) and what appeared to be slices of bacon, but which were really translucent sugar crisps. The effect was well-done – the plate of food looked very much indeed like eggs, bacon, and French toast. We were skeptical of having bacon flavor in our dessert, but the taste was surprisingly good, enough so that we think this is one of our favorite and most memorable dessert courses ever.
By the time we had finished, it was early evening, and we were stuffed and ready to retire for the day. We caught a taxi to the Maidenhead train station, then the train to Paddington station, the tube to South Kensington, and just when we're ready to collapse, we realized that Eric's wallet was missing. We last saw it in the taxi. So began several hours of Internet searches for Maidenhead taxi companies (of which there are dozens), phone calls, leaving messages, and writing emails to The Fat Duck, which was already closed for the evening, not to reopen until Tuesday, the day after we were to be in Spain. Dawn called a taxi company on our list at random, and asked if they worked with The Fat Duck. The dispatcher said no, but gladly told us the name and phone number of the company that does (what luck!). We called them, and after some checking, they called us back and said that a cab driver had indeed found a wallet in his cab, and had driven back to The Fat Duck and given it to them. What were the chances it was any wallet but Eric's, right? So, with that news, we went to sleep without dinner (and no desire for dinner since we were still digesting lunch!) and spent a somewhat restless night wondering how we were going to get it back before our flight to Spain the next afternoon.