After The Fat Duck and the most anticipated opening perhaps ever, can Heston maintain his gastronomic glory with Dinner?
Of all the big openings over the past year – Koffmann's, Bar Boulud, Les Deux Salons, Polpetto and Spuntino - and those to come, notably Jason Atherton's Pollen Street Social and St John's Leicester Square hotel, none has generated more international attention, PR and press hype more than Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in Knightsbridge's Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
Despite inevitable comparisons to The Fat Duck, Heston and long-term collaborator and Dinner's beating heart, Executive Head Chef Ashley Palmer-Watts have pulled off something very different: an elegant, robust celebration of historical highlights in British cuisine.
Inside, interiors tend towards international five star with a masculine edge, while jelly mould wall lights provide a whimsical foil to the baronial fixtures overhead, reining back some sense of Englishness. The terrific, presumably bespoke cutlery is determinately cutting edge; and the kitchen, all windows and stainless steel, finds itself bookended by a Josper grill and mechanical spit roast contraption overhanging an open fire. Daytime views over Hyde Park are spectacular (a terrace will be opened later in the year, according to Palmer-Watts).
The immediate impression is casual chic – more brasserie than high-end hotel restaurant: no tablecloths, salt and pepper and menus on the table; the menus wrapped with a card describing the origins of the 'spitjack' – that very classy pineapple spinner - "The unique mechanism of the spit at Dinner has been designed and manufactured by Ebel watchmakers..." Menus introduced us to culinary anecdotes like the history of the fork.
Dishes ranged over seven centuries. The hay smoked mackerel (1730) felt part Dutch summertime maatjes, part sashimi, with the most intense lemon salad on a very British puddle of creamy gentleman's relish; rice and flesh – the oldest dish on the menu at 621 years and looking like risotto alla Milanese – brings that ineffable flavour of saffron and an intense yellow that could light up a corner of a Dutch Old Master. Salamagundy (1720) – a 'hot salad' – was intensely flavoured chicken oysters with bone marrow and an astringent horseradish dressing (vinegar and acids were used masterfully throughout). Meat fruit (1500) was the visual standout – you would have heard about it by now: a trick of the eye mandarin (a nod to Dinner's location) hiding the smoothest chicken liver parfait.
Main courses and dessert expanded a menu that read almost like a narrative and evoked a series of forgotten or childhood taste memories, an unexpected theme of the evening. Mace in the carrots; mushroom 'catsup'/ketchup with the smoky Angus beef rib and triple cooked chips; reductions and spice combinations (East Asian-influenced powdered duck - 1670); the roasted pineapple tipsy cake (1810) reminding us of a Sydney milk bar staple, pineapple fritters (also rated by Mrs Beeton); caraway seed biscuits and Earl Grey and white chocolate amuse with the coffee - the menu was seasoned with a culinary melting pot of age of exploration and the spice trade, with flavours that have lingered in home cooking and in the extended reaches of the Commonwealth.
Ordering the brown bread ice cream (1830), we were warned it wasn't a "sweet" dessert. What arrived was extraordinary - a quenelle shaped scoop of ice cream with "salted butter caramel malted yeast syrup" of umami and marmite, roasted oats and wheat, and a whiff of brewery, like a scent memory of an ancestral bakery.
The cheese board was presented to tables whole, obscuring its smelly, mutably messy joys (perhaps in recognition of the large hotel clientele – many, perhaps, from beyond Europe, and unused to poking around in French markets or Neal's Yard). It was, of course, cut to order and served with oat cakes, Yorkshire chutney and cider apple.
If it weren't for the cheffing wizardry, hardware and centuries-old recipes, this could almost be nostalgia food; not retro but revolutionary in the way it sets off then holds involuntary memories. Food reminiscences bounced around our table - the whole dining room seemed similarly animated - about the theatre of it all, our grandparents' cooking, malted milkshakes and cooking with fire.
What evokes food memories for you? Those dishes we need to indulge in occasionally, or wish we could – the home cooking, synthetic sweets or flavour combinations that seem to have gone the way of velour...
What's your madeleine?