Every April we have a ritual in our house. After the morning paper arrives on the day of the Grand National we all gather around the kitchen table to pick the horse we think will win the race. Billy studiously looks at the form while the children and I pick a horse with a name we like the sound of. Most of the time Billy’s logic wins the day (and the race). But occasionally Charlie, Alex or I pick one of the first three past the winning post (although mine almost always take a detour en route and finish last – if at all).
I mention this auspicious race, not because of the recent horse meat scandal plaguing the processed food industry, but because Billy remarked that choosing what to eat from the menu at Dinner was rather like picking a horse in the Grand National. True to form I picked something I liked the sound of. He went with logic choosing something which contained ingredients he likes and that he thought would work well together. At times like these it’s almost like we have entered our own competition to see who will pick the best dishes.
Situated in the swanky Mandarin Oriental hotel a stones throw from Harrods, showmanship is clearly the order of the day at Dinner. The kitchen is on full view of the restaurant (albeit behind glass). A waiter ferries around a trolly topped with an innocuous looking food mixer from which smoke like vapour billows rather ominously. On the whole this restaurant is chic and modern with playful nods to the culinary history which has inspired it. Even the hostesses have a medieval wench look about them in a stylish 21st century way and the lights are shaped like antique jelly moulds. These historical accents are what stop it from feeling too formal or stuffy. Just what you would expect from a Frankensteinish genius like Heston Blumenthal.
And then of course there is the menu steeped in the food of yore. I had been drawn here by my interest in food and history – a chance to taste a modern take on bygone meals of kings and nobility. It was hard to choose from the eight starters and ten mains. Given the opulence of our surroundings we were sure that each one would be both taste delicious and look spectacular.
Or so we thought. For once Billy’s judgement of the form had gone awry. He had chosen the Savory Porridge (c.1660) because all of the elements – smoked beetroot, garlic, parsley, fennel and even the frogs legs – appealed to him. It looked attractive. Two lolly pop-esque breaded frogs legs perched on top of paper thin fronds of beetroot which appeared to almost float on top of the grassy green porridge. The porridge and the frogs legs in themselves were tasty, he said, but the dish was marred by the overpowering taste of vinegar. As much as he loves beetroot in all of its forms (including pickled) the acidity was just too much for him.
One dish stood out among the starters for me – Salamugundy (c.1720). It sounded like an affable character from a Dickens’ novel. Chicken oysters, carmalised batons of salsify and small pieces of breaded bone marrow were placed on top of a smooth horseradish cream and garnished with a purple hued salad with a fine grating of fennel. The flavours were robust. You would expect the peppery tang from the horseradish and mustard leaves to perhaps drown the flavour of the delicate chicken but the fowl stood its ground (although beyond a pleasing textural contrast the marrow did seem a little redundant in the taste stakes). I was pleased with the introduction to my historical meal. It looked like I had taken an early lead in the dish wager.
A couple on the table next to us had the Bone in Rib of Hereford Prime (c. 1830) which pleasingly oozed with juices as it was carved. It was tempting but it seemed like a waste of an opportunity to have steak (even if it did come with mushroom ketchup and triple cooked chips) when we could try something more adventurous. Billy looked like he was back in the race with his choice of Roast Black Foot Collar of Pork (c. 1780). The pork, so often a dry meat when roasted, was succulent and the Robert sauce had acquired the depth of flavour only possible through careful reduction and seasoning by an expert hand.
The menu does a pretty good job of summarising what each dish contains. However, if there is any doubt or confusion over what you are about to receive, the staff are always on hand to explain the mystery. So it was for my Powdered Duck Breast (c.1670) with smoked confit fennel and umbles. The powdered element referred to a form of brining with spices. The umbles (in this case) were duck hearts. Our waiter explained that umbles refer to the offal of an animal which were often baked into pies, hence the saying to eat humble pie. This was the pinnacle of my meal. The sous vide cooked duck was blushingly pink yet butter like in texture. The hearts were tender (if broken) and the fennel had just a hint of smokiness.
As intrigued as we were by the roving volcano of the ice cream trolly (you can have vanilla ice cream made fresh at your table using liquid nitrogen then served in a cone with your choice of sprinkles) we decided to choose from the more grown up dessert menu. If you want the Tipsy Cake (c.1810) you are advised to order it at the beginning of your meal. Not knowing how full we would feel after our mains we hadn’t felt inclined to do that. Instead I chose the Tafferty Tart (c.1660) and Billy the Brown Bread Ice Cream (c.1830). How can you not like something called Tafferty Tart? There was a pleasant tartness from the apple underpinning the general sweetness of the dish which was gently scented with rose. It also had a delightfully crispy, almost Frosties like, topping. I felt sure I had picked the winner this time.
If ever you needed to be convinced of the modern World’s addiction to sugar then Billy’s dessert said it all. It was unusual in that the ice cream had a sour edge (not dissimilar to the taste of a ripe sour dough starter) probably designed to counteract the sweet salted butter caramel. It wasn’t unpleasant and as a whole dish the individual elements worked in unison. They were just a bit odd on their own to our 21st century sugar dependent palates. Billy I’m afraid was not convinced. He conceded defeat. I had won this dinner race.
However, the table next to us had had the foresight to order the Tipsy Pudding in advance. It emerged from the kitchen bubbling in a mini cauldron. A nineteenth century, alcohol drenched version of bread and butter pudding (which happens to be Billy’s favourite dessert) with spit roasted pineapple. We looked at each other. Perhaps we had both been pipped to the post. I would happily return to Dinner to delve further into the past and sample more of Heston’s innovative treasures. My food was exceptional and the service was impeccable yet friendly. Billy, however, is happily rooted in the 21st century and is resolutely against any further time travelling dinners no matter what the odds.