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16/06/2005

Snail porridge

Wolfram Siebeck tries out what is supposed to be the best restaurant in the world – The Fat Duck, near London.

This is part one of Wolfram Siebeck's articles describing his gourmet cruise through the Guardian's list of the world's fifty best restaurants. In his second article he visits London's "best".

Finally it's official. The best restaurant in the world is called The Fat Duck. To thank for this revelation are 600 experts (chefs, critics and connoisseurs) who were surveyed by the British newspaper The Guardian. And because 600 experts could never be wrong, we finally have the conclusive list of the fifty best gourmet restaurants in the entire world. An exceptionally high number of them – 14 to be precise – are in England. Which doesn't surprise anyone who has ever succumbed to the culinary seduction of English family hotels.

England can now be proud to possess a better first class cuisine than countries which have traditionally been granted this distinction, say France or Italy. And we can be proud that Germany also falls in this category. With one place: Dieter Müller's restaurant im Schlosshotel Lerbach, in Bergisch Gladbach. A coup for Dieter Müller! Let's raise a glass to our German chef, who took 39th place on a list of the world's fifty best chefs. It's a shame for Harald Wohlfahrt, Heinz Winkler, Joachim Wissler and the other members of the German team, but where 14 English restaurants are cooking their way to Albion grandeur, our goose roasts don't have much of a chance.

Even France, proud home to an absurd number of star-rated chefs, is only assigned ten spots in the top fifty list. Pierre Gagnaire of Paris occupies the sixth position. Robuchon is nowhere to be found. But at least the French have caught up with the Americans, who, with ten restaurants, have now entered the gastronomic hall of fame with the second best cuisine in the world. Now at least the regular guests of Charlie Trotter in Chicago (14th place) know why they voted for Bush.

So again: Congratulations to our English friends! What they were unable to achieve in soccer, they've made up for in the kitchen. And this counterbalances the bankruptcy of their last automobile company. And the state of the London underground.

The Fat Duck is located outside London in the chic retirement village of Bray on the river Thames. The fearless train traveller gets there by going from London's Paddington Station to Maidenhead and then taking a taxi to Bray. I say fearless, because the British rail system does not belong to the top fifty in the world. The chef, who can now call himself the world champion of all chefs, is Heston Blumenthal and is one of a handful of molecular chefs who has hired a chemist to pass him the needle when it comes to injecting the leg of lamb. The Guardian characterises his cuisine with the snappy sentence:"Mix snail porridge and sardine-on-toast sorbet and you have a fat duck".

Indeed, such things are to be found on the menu: scrambled egg-flavoured ice cream, white chocolate with caviar, salmon with liquorice and further terrors for the common man. (I have already commented on Blumenthal's creativity in the past.) His Degustation Menu costs something over 150 Euros without wine.

Since the Catalonian Ferran Adrià unleashed a similar cuisine in El Bulli on the Costa Brava ten years ago, gourmets are aware that this is the gastronomic avant-garde of the day. (The El Bulli occupies second place on the "Best of" list.)

The Guardian list is irresistible for critics. I found myself back in Paddington Station, from where my eccentric heroes of English literature depart for their country homes in England's Southwest, where the butler waits with cucumber sandwiches and a hot water bottle for the cold, damp bed. I had already been out to Bray many times, because there one finds one of England's few three star restaurants, the Waterside Inn. (Yes, Heston Blumenthal also has three Michelin stars now, which isn't so unusual for the best restaurant in the world.)

The Waterside Inn is a bit like the L’Auberge de l’Ill in Alsace: river with meadow out the large windows, conservative eaters inside, conservative technology in the kitchen. No dog in the pan goes crazy there.

In The Fat Duck, things are cooked in such a way that it could be Frankenstein's lab. As a matter of principal, everything is cooked at 60 degrees Celsius; it's not surprising that Blumenthal has decided that roasting at high temperatures is detrimental. Others have reached the same conclusion. But serving ice cream at 80 degrees and producing lime tea mousse in liquid nitrogen at minus 196 degrees in front of the customer; these are just two of Heston Blumenthal's regular conjuring tricks. He specialises in anything that can be subjected to these processes in order to impress gastro-snobs. Anyone who has not studied chemistry for at least a few semesters and cannot recite Einstein's theory of relativity by heart is likely to leave the place in a strait jacket.

It's much the same with his model, Ferran Adria, who transforms vegetables into jelly babies and tries various things on his guests, for which he is feted as the greatest of the avant-garde chefs and given three stars by Michelin.

In theory, all this is unnecessary. But all nonsense can he justified somehow. We call that progress. Throughout history, the kitchen has been a site of experimentation. But it was not always scientific aspiration that directed the grill flippers' forks. In reality, no chef looks for transcendence in the soup because at some point "one cannot judge or enjoy the aesthetics any more; all that remains is a perfected taste – and that's the end of culinary pleasure" (Baudrillard).

If cooking is no extreme sport, if the chef is not driven by a curiosity about what lies beyond the stars, then what? The revolutionary. It always appealed to chefs and artists. Nobody is as delighted to break the rules. The Tatin sisters went down in culinary history for doing this. Which is why I wouldn't have been surprised to find the pirate's scull and daggers flag flying from the roof of Blumenthal's restaurant.

But The Fat Duck is the epitome of understatement in a nice pretty village, where a Mercedes and BMW are parked in every garage. Entering the restaurant, one is warned in a most friendly way not to bang one's head on the low ceiling beams.

The next friendly gesture comes a good forty minutes later, when the table is finally set. In the meantime, I reminded myself of all the three star restaurants where the service was extremely attentive and the guest was treated like the golden child as he lowered himself into an expensive chair. The only conclusion to be drawn here: if The Fat Duck is the best restaurant in the world, it has the worst service. In places of this quality, the guest should actually not have to wait more than half an hour for bread and wine and would prefer not to be spoken to in an incomprehensible dialect.

When the performance finally began – we were waiting for the Degustation Menu for 97 British pounds (which can only be ordered for the table) – the opening was a white foam of green tea from a spray can, which, with the help of liquid nitrogen, was transformed into a half-solid morsel. Why, I'm not sure. I prefer to drink green tea hot and in a cup. The second act was a passion fruit jelly in an oyster shell - that was better. Then two huge plates were brought out, in the middle of each, a nut-sized dumpling in violet sauce: supposedly mustard ice.

With this fart of nothingness, the leitmotiv of this cuisine became clear to me. It was the old nouvelle cuisine. Then there was jelly again with cream in a specially custom-made porcelain egg: something like a foie gras parfait.

After this appetiser, it continued: three snails on a parsley-green porridge said to contain jabugo ham - not that this was to be tasted. What was to be tasted were the two little cubes of foie gras which accompanied an almond gel. The sardine to follow was as big as a fingernail and disappeared, unidentified in the depths. Then came a piece of salmon coated in licorice and that was not only original, but so delicate that I would even have wished for a bigger piece. I had the same thought with the little tid-bit of scrumptiously seasoned pigeon breast.

After, there was a series of sweet things, which also suffered from a certain deficiency of size. They were served with as much significance as absurdity. At the same time, one was expected to sniff a tiny vial, only sniff, probably to hear the angels singing from the heavens. This worked about as well as the little baggie of muesli, whose contents one was expected to douse in a milk-like liquid.

At which point, my escort snarled: "Are they trying to make an ass of me?" And that in the world's best restaurant.

The Fat Duck, High Street, Bray SL6 2AQ, Berkshire, Tel. 0044-1628/580333 www.fatduck.co.uk

*

This article was originally published in Die Zeit on June 9, 2005.


Wolfram Siebeck, born in 1928 in Duisburg, is one of Germany's most famous chefs and restaurant critics. He writes a regular column for Die Zeit.

translation: nb

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