FORGET The Fat Duck. Just for a minute.
Sure, there’s a lot of hype regarding Heston’s relocation of the famous Berkshire restaurant down under, and it will be awesome. Blumenthal plans, after all, to relocate just about everything, including the signage, from Bray to Southbank, and for many of us it will be as close to a Fat Duck experience, and its famous, laterally thought cuisine, as we’ll ever get.
Not a pop up. Not a guest chef appearance. Six months from February 2015 in the space at Crown Melbourne currently known as Breezes.
But, you know, it’s a fad. It won’t last. Long after the thrill of the Duck affair is over, we will be married to Dinner. And let’s face it: Dinner, Blumenthal’s restaurant in the swish Mandarin Oriental in London’s Knightsbridge, is a five. Not a 47. That’s five as in No 5 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, the annual restaurant pissing contest sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.
And the Duck? Well, it’s not dead but it’s not as healthy as might be … on that infamous list, anyway.
So if we are going to look at what’s coming Australia’s way, we can do no better than take a seat at Dinner the night after its impressive move into the world’s top five. A Tuesday night in Knightsbridge, the scent of summer in the air, and it’s a place brimming with confidence, humming with affluence.
Blumenthal makes no bones about Dinner being a concept designed from the outset to be replicated. He said so when he was here in March, confirming Dinner’s imminent arrival at Crown (with his surprise reveal of the Duck’s temporary relocation during renovations).
Crown again has its preferred architects Bates Smart on the Fat Duck/Dinner case and interior design chief Jeff Copolov has already been to Britain to inspect both parent restaurants.
And while he told us his relocation/renovation/launch plans will occupy this year and next, you wouldn’t need a genie to figure out that, if all goes to plan, there will be a Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at Barangaroo by the end of the decade, as well. And who knows where else the James P-Heston B duo will land.
“It will be similar to London, but won’t look exactly like it,” he said. “We’re looking at more grey woods (as opposed to brown), lots of glass to showcase the river. There will similarities in terms of the spit roast and the pineapples, and the kitchen will be the same.”
Ah, the kitchen. It’s a culinary trainspotter’s delight. Once you’ve made your way through the doors of this super elegant hotel, up the stairs, and through the bar to the dining room overlooking graceful lawns and, to the other side of South Carriage Drive, Hyde Park, it’s the kitchen you cannot help but notice: a massive glass box in the middle of the space where a team of about 20 service chefs turns the work of the prep chefs into finished plates of rather clever food.
The dining room gives diners a view of the kitchen and its unique pulley system. Modelled after a version used by the royal court, the pulleys rotate a spit on an open fire.
Blumenthal says Dinner employs a total of 120, of which about 55 are in various kitchens, and that he expects Melbourne will be similar.
It is calm, mostly male, and an almost tattoo-free zone. Before you’ve even sat, however, you will notice the place is unstitched but, at the same time, remarkably attentive and professional, combining elegance (say, the cut crystal tumbler for your Campari soda) and whimsy (jelly mould light fittings) with timeless, informal style (acres of beautiful timbers, including naked tables). Think Rockpool Bar & Grill — any of them really, or maybe Aria Sydney — and you have the tone.
What will be most difficult to replicate, I suspect, will be neither the ambience nor the food. Dinner delivers both a masterful level of staff professionalism and a whacking great slab of it. The sheer number of really excellent waiters will be difficult to muster.
And, one senses, it goes beyond training. There is nothing like a waiter — or 50 of them — who enjoys his job to elevate dinner. Particularly at Dinner. Tonight we’re managed by a young man in a suit who tells us it was his pleasure to serve my table at Vue de Monde several years back. That indicates the calibre here.
But what Dinner is really all about, and will be so in Melbourne, is heritage cuisine, reinvented. Reinvention is, after all, the Blumenthal leitmotiv. It is, says Blumenthal, a “unique menu of historically inspired British dishes”, developed with right-hand-man Ashley Palmer-Watts, who will be part of the bedding-in of both The Fat Duck and, when it’s gone, Dinner.
Tonight it’s a diverse group. A jolly crowd. Lots of people having a good time. There’s not a hint of gastro temple reverence. It’s more a sense of pleasure to be on the ride with Heston’s curiosity.
There are two ways of approaching the food at Dinner, and both are legitimate. One is to examine the genesis of each dish, and how it has been reinterpreted for today. Each listing on the menu includes a date — say Rice & Flesh c. 1390 — while the flip side details the provenance of each. In this case, The Forme of Cury by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II.
The other, and I suspect more widespread approach, is simply to enjoy the dishes as unique examples of modern British gastronomy. That rice and flesh, for example, is by any other name a rather excellent saffron risotto with a base layer of red wine and a peppering of calves tail.
Roast turbot may have its origins in Mistress Meg Dodds’ 1830 tome The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, but, with its mussel and seaweed ketchup, salmon roe and sea rosemary, it is, if you think about it, a profoundly of-the-moment treatment of beautiful British fish.
And thanks to the likes of modern British chefs such as Mark Hix and Fergus Henderson, puddings like the baked Sussex pond (c. 1670) or old-fashioned ice creams such as Dinner’s brown bread version, with its distinctly sourdough overtones, served with salted butter caramel, croutons and malted yeast syrup (c. 1830) are less curious to most of us than might have been the case 15 years ago.
Dinner works at both levels.
And will it work at Crown? Time will tell. It’s certainly not an inexpensive restaurant. Equally, however, it taps a culinary vein as yet untested in Australia, and that can only be a good thing. If it aspires to the London level of service professionalism, it will be a wake-up call to a lot of the industry. And for Australia’s restaurant landscape, Dinner may prove to be a very interesting meal indeed.