It's Saturday and the husband and I set off for Knightsbridge, incredulous that we've managed to get a booking at Heston Blumenthal's "hot" new restaurant Dinner. I've deliberately not read any reviews (apart from one), so as not to have any preconceptions.
I do know this is not meant to be the Fat Duck Mk II, but a place of its own. Thus pyrotechnics are not expected - although, as I've heard many people raving about it already, I look forward to a memorable meal.
At Dinner, the schtick is historical food - dishes have been drawn from every period and reinterpreted for a modern audience by Blumenthal and the head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts. Some of the dishes have come from Blumenthal's TV series "Feasts".
If any of you saw Heston's Medieval Feast, you'll remember that he created an entire fruit bowl which turned out to be made of meat. Yes, Meat Fruit - and this is the dish I'm most looking forward to, because I do love a bit of whimsy.
So we get to the Mandarin Oriental, the hotel which houses Dinner, and we wander aimlessly trying to find the place and then give up and ask a top-hatted doorman who tells us to go inside and up the stairs.
The lack of signage continues as we veer left and see a couple of ladies behind a desk in front of a silhouetted pear. We walk over to them, admire their Robert Palmer slick hair and bright red lipstick and ask, "Um, is this Dinner?".
"Yes, it is", they say sweetly and they come to take our coats, and I have to suppress a desire to giggle, as they appear to be dressed like Amish people and I am very childish.
We go through a bar and then into the room proper and are taken to table 24 in the top right of the room. A comfy, private window seat with a pleasing view of rainy Hyde Park, but I realise the glass-walled kitchen is, as a result, completely hidden from us, which makes me sad as I'm up for a bit of food pervery.
The waiter arrives and says to us, "Shall we start with a glass of champagne?". I'm put out by this, as firstly "we" will not be doing anything together, but secondly I know that when we say "no" a shadow will pass across his face and I will immediately feel like a pauper.
So we say no, and yes, the shadow passes. I feel like I need to make up for this (though inwardly hating myself) and say, "But my husband will have a beer - what have you got?"
Oh, the joy of approval. We end up disappointing him a few more times though. "Would you like to see the wine list?". Er no, we don't do wine. "Are you sure?" says the waiter, and I blurt out, "I'm on antibiotics" (I am not on antibiotics).
"Fine", says the waiter, "Would you like still or sparkling water?".
"Tap water, please", I whisper, but I know it's downhill from here, as another flicker of displeasure appears on his face. Hey ho.
The menu is a joy to read with its description of the roots of every dish. I go for the fabled Meat Fruit, and the husband asks me to pick for him (knowing that I care more than he does), so I suggest the Broth of Lamb.
For mains, husband chooses Steak and (triple-cooked) Chips, and I pick Pigeon wih Artichokes, which the world and his wife have told me to order, plus a side of pommes purée because the waitress says I'll need it. We also pre-order the Tipsy Cake, as we're warned this will take a while to make.
Beer arrives, as does an inch-depth of lukewarm tap water which I gulp down immediately. The waiter snakes round behind me and tops it up by another inch. Again I gulp it down. Again, an arm appears and tops up the glass. I wonder how long he can keep this up. We had this same problem of water stinginess at Bar Boulud, the other restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental, and I wonder if it's some bizarre hotel policy.
Talking of bizarre hotel policies, my husband gets up to go the bathroom and is told by our waiter that someone will take him there. This seems a bit OTT, until husband returns and says that there's no loo in Dinner and that he was led round the houses to the gents' facilities in the hotel spa (which Bar Boulud also shares). I imagine it would be quite disconcerting for spa guests to keep bumping into diners. Thankfully the ladies' loo is just outside Dinner's bar.
We help ourselves to bread and butter, and the bread is frankly rubbish and shatters and explodes all over the table as we bite down into it.
Then the first course appears and I smell it long before I can see it, but the scent I'm getting is far from pleasant - it's basically burnt toast. My meat fruit comes with "grilled bread" (sic) with thick black stripes griddled into it, and that's what's causing the acrid aroma.
Strangely the bread tastes okay (not great - okay), but to be honest I don't care as the amber ball in front of me is manna from heaven. The "mandarin peel" is the finest, sweet citrus gel - like pimped-up aspic - and the chicken parfait itself is about as far from bog-standard pâté as it's possible to get.
I relish every silky morsel and think to myself that when foie gras finally disappears from the planet, this will be an ample substitute.
Husband is much less happy with his dish. His face crumples and he says, "This is just wrong. It's like a couple of Oxo cubes dissolved in hot water". We swap plates (I'm a little resistant) and I dip my spoon into the broth and sip.
I quite like it, but then I quite like drinking Bovril, and I completely understand my husband's distress. It does taste more like concentrated beef stock than anything else (I find out later that there's miso and bonito in it, as well as lamb, which makes for an umami triple whammy).
The bits and bobs that float in the broth are rather delicious though - fried sweetbreads, pickled turnips, softly poached egg.
So for me a great start despite the burnt toast, though the husband looks cross. Next come the main courses.
Husband's steak looks oddly like a VHS tape with two discs of bone marrow plonked evenly on its fatness, sprinkled with snipped chives and breadcrumbs. It's a nice steak, but that's it.
The mushroom ketchup is fab and saucy though, and I make a mental note to try to recreate it at home.
The much-vaunted triple cooked chips divide opinion - this time my husband is in favour, saying, "They're just like the overdone scraps at the bottom of a bag of chips", and I dislike them for exactly the same reason. I expected them to be crunchy on the outside, fluffy in the middle, but these are crisp almost all the way through.
As for my pigeon, it looks just like a MasterChef dish. Four pieces of pigeon, four wedges of artichoke, artlessly arranged with a drizzle of ale jooooo.
The pigeon is tender, but after a while, each mouthful is a chore. And the artichokes taste just like the ones on top of a Pizza Express pizza. It's all so ordinary. Accomplished but ordinary.
The pommes purée, more butter than potato, tastes like Mr Mash. I like Mr Mash so I'm quite pleased, but it's also way too gloopy. It comes in a little cup, so I'm tempted to turn it upside down to see if it the potato will pour out. I don't - I'm not that uncivilised.
Three-quarters through his steak, my husband says "You want some of this?". I say, "Why?" and he says, "I can't be bothered to finish it - it's just a huge chunk of meat".
I say, "It's a £30 chunk of meat", and he sighs and carries on chewing dolefully. I do relieve him of his marrow discs though, as he's not very keen on the idea.
Meanwhile the beverage battle of wits continues, as I down my inch of tap water and a hand immediately replaces it.
Time to order dessert. Our waiter hefts a huge cheeseboard towards us and asks if it appeals. We shake our heads and there's that look of disappointment again. I feel like I've drowned a kitten.
Back to the menu. The Tipsy Cake is on its way, but we also want the Brown Bread Ice Cream and the Taffety Tart. We elect to have all three out of greed and indecision. The waiter says, "Oh, now I love the Brown Bread Ice Cream, but I have to warn you it's not very sweet".
Soon the puddings appear and they are quite ridiculously beautiful to look at. The Taffety Tart is a delicate, colourful, tiered creation; the Brown Bread Ice Cream has ripples of salt caramel draped seductively on top; and the Tipsy Cake comes in the cutest little Staub pot.
We plunge our spoons into the Tipsy Cake and it's enjoyable enough. Like an excellent sticky toffee pudding.
The spit-roast pineapple wedge on the side looks more exciting, and I go to break off a piece when I realise that it's actually five pineapple chunks that have been pushed together to look like a slice, which seems a bit Del Monte to me. It tastes Del Monte too. There is somehow no hint of the caramelisation that we see - just warm, not very sweet pineapple. "You can have the rest," I say to my husband.
A waitress appears at this point and says, "Oh, have you finally started?" with a wink. I presume this is in relation to the fact that I took photos before digging in, and I have to bite my lip to stop myself saying, "Oh, fack right off - I want service, not an editorial".
Thankfully the Taffety Tart lives up to its looks, its nutty brittle layers particularly delightful, although its rosehippiness bothers my husband, and the accompanying blackcurrant sorbet is sharp to the point of astringency.
His Brown Bread Ice Cream is a real cause for upset though. "This is wrong," he says, pushing the plate towards me. I try a spoonful and say, "Ooh. Yeah. That's savoury. That actually tastes like Marmite. If that was a starter, I'd have loved it".
"Have some with the caramel sauce and oat base", he says. I oblige and I go, "Oooh. Yeah. That's not good".
By itself, the caramel sauce is delicious and sweet. Combined with the yeasty ice cream, it's actively disagreeable. Plus for some reason there's an occasional, ghostly waft of lemongrass which makes me feel slightly ill. As for the base, I bite down and wail as I get an especially tough oat. Eyes watering, I whimper to my husband, "Can you bruise your teeth? I think I bruised a tooth".
The ice cream is left to melt while I run off to the ladies to check out my molars.
When I return, the waiter brings us petits fours in the shape of two espresso cups of Earl Grey ganache and some caraway biscuits. It's just tea-flavoured condensed milk, but we both like it greatly - my husband says it's the highlight of the meal as we dunk away.
"Would you like some tea or coffee?" says the waiter, and we look at the menu, and when I spot the exact same tea I had at Viajante a week previously, but for £6 more, we say, "Can we just have the bill please?".
So we pay and we get up to leave, but before we go, I take my husband up to the glass wall of the kitchen to show him the clockwork pineapple spit.
"Seems like a lot of wasted effort", he says, shrugging his shoulders, and I can't help but think that this is an apt appraisal of our Dinner experience overall.
For a similar take, see A Rather Unusual Chinaman
Dinner by Heston
London SW1X 7LA
Sorry to hear though you had a bit of a rubbish time, eating out should be a pleasure, not a chore
@Su-Lin - The set lunch looks much more interesting to me (with dishes like ragout of pig ears, and chocolate wine which are not on the a la carte) but sadly it's not available at the weekend. Also, it's only £28 I think, so much better value.
Then again, you are always left wondering whether it's your own predilections that are swaying your judgement or whether it's a fair critique. And then yiou say, oh sod it, £60 is a week's shopping for god's sake, it ought to be drop dead brilliant. Les Centenaire in Les Eyzies (2 rosette) was like that - all substance and no damned flavour.
You have to face it though, (actually you just have) people who don't drink the wine etc., are not popular. The sommelier would like to convince you that it's essential, but malmsey (which was one of the tipples at the time of some of these dishes) was like most mediaeval drinks foully sweet to my taste!
@chumbles - Exactly, £60 isn't cheap. I like the sound of malmsey though :)
@Anonymous - Thank you. I think I would go back to Dinner just to have the meat fruit for starter, main and dessert - I liked it that much.
But I really don't like being made to feel deficient for only wanting tap water and I do think it's a hotel restaurant problem. I've been to other restaurants just as "posh", but not felt pressured into ordering wine.
I made the mistake of reading all the reviews that popped up in my RSS feed and, to be honest, although most were singing Dinner's praises, they kind of put me off so I've decided not to book, certainly not for now anyway.
Good to read your take on some good and some mediocre dishes.
@Kavey - Urbanspoon alone lists 20 blog reviews on it - that's partly why I hesitated writing about it.
@Anonymous - In retrospect it was a daft thought, but the fleeting feeling of panic when I thought I'd actually broken a tooth was awful.
I'm disappointed, for your sakes, that it didn't live up to some of the rave reviews - but I'm positively spitting at the attitude of the waiter re your drinks. Grrrrr and double grrrr to that kind of behaviour. You did well not to slap him.
Excellent review, and it's now given me a quandary - to go or not to go? Maybe as Kavey says - I'll go, some time, some day, but after all the hoohah has dissipated. It sounds like the kind of food/experience you have to try at least once, even if it ends up not being all you hoped for.
I swear either the espresso cup for the ganache has gotten MUCH BIGGER or they've given you about half the amount since our visit. Not that it's a problem because I found mine so overbearingly sweet I couldn't enjoy it and ate half. And I usually LOVE tea-flavoured desserts.
When we went, there were two sommeliers - one was totally sniffy (I'd guess the same one you had) and the other was utterly delightful - we assumed it was down to teething problems as we went in the first week - am sorry it's not better now - that kind of thing is horrible and I think it's really sad that one individual can cast a shadow over what we generally found to be charming service.
We loved the food, but I guess that's partly just down to luck/taste - in particular, I loved both the grilled bread with the meat fruit and the pineapple (so smokey - made me determined to BBQ more bread and fruit this year. Maybe that's just me, but it sounds like maybe the consistency of the quality isn't what it might be.
I was also completely sold on the mushroom ketchup -you've reminded me that I was planning to make it at home too!
We had a lovely time, so felt justified in what we paid (as a once in a lifetime type experience) but it doesn't take much to make an experience less comfortable and hence seem like far less good value.
Brilliant writing. LOVED IT.
I have to be utterly honest though, when I clicked on the link I thought 'oh, well she's BOUND to hate it with pre-conceived notions resulting from the booking debacle from The Fat Duck' but I trust that you took it on it's merits (or rather merit, singular)and that when forking out that much, of course you wanted to have a good time!
My husband read it over my shoulder with a smirk on his face as he and I are often arguing as to whether what Heston does can be regarded as 'cooking' (though we've never had practical experience.)
Anyway, given half the chance, I would still go and try it for myself.
Like you, I'm open to experience, try not to get swayed by popular opinion but often left wide-eyed in wonder, alone in my thoughts thinking 'is it just me, or.....'
@Charmaine - I'm fond of condensed milk which is probably why I liked it. It was quite a small serving but I guess that's because it's uber-sweet.
@Miss Whiplash - I think he meant well, but that we just weren't the type of customers he was used to (ie wine drinkers) so he was taken aback. The smell of burnt toast really upsets me.
@Deanna - And that's the other reason I hesitated writing this post. I was worried people would think this was sour grapes. It genuinely isn't - we were delighted to get a booking and wanted to love it.
I've said it before on Cookwitch Creations but it's worth repeating:
What many restauranteurs/chefs still fail to get is that food bloggers are predisposed to being on their side.
We love food and we're paying to eat at their establishment, so obviously we *want* to have and more importantly think we *will* have a good experience - that's why we chose their restaurant.
So we turn up with happy thoughts, excited about our meal (or in the case of me and the Fat Duck, we try to book with happy thoughts).
It's their game to lose so it's sad if they drop the ball.
We had different dishes to yours and we liked what we ate
We are going back again in mid-March. After reading your review, I think I have to be careful what to order again!
Normally in such establishments the thing I feel most uncomfortable and a bit embarrassed about is taking photos but they gave me a huge smile and said I was completely welcome to take photos of absolutely anything I wanted.
Sounds like my (burnt) experience at Byron which everyone else raves about but which I fail to understand! :(
I find the lack of loo thing a bit stupid. Being escorted to look would probably put my husband off going.
To be honest, I'm surprised it's not even MORE expensive as I ate with friends in Cafe Luc yesterday and their top steak was £28. (And a rip off to boot).
The likelihood of me choosing this as somewhere I'd pay to go myself is remote but I've enjoyed reading about it.
I've never eaten at any of Heston Bloomingdales places,but actually oddly I've never fancied them.The reviews I've read of Dinner prior to this one conjured up the image of a circus with himself as the ringmaster resplendent in red coat(not sure why).
Often wondered if you take away all the gimmicks is the food really that good?
The water thing is disgraceful though and there is no excuse for pompous service.
@Charmaine - Ah fair enough :) I think for us the sweetness was a good antidote to the ice cream.
@Winkypedia - Yes, London Eater was there the same lunchtime and picked differently and loved it. Your pictures are fab - I wish we'd been able to see the kitchen.
@Yeebot - I'm glad to hear that. I think we were unlucky! Re the bread, I've looked at a few photos since then and ours does seem more charred than everyone else's. Stunning visually but such an offputting smell (to me).
@Sarah Trivuncic - The loo thing is baffling. And yes, I'd quite like a pineapple spit too even though it is silly.
I was looking at the menu again and saw that my boring pigeon cost more than the steak at £32!
@Northern Snippet - Smoke and mirrors, my dear.
The service there sounds very overbearing, and everything that makes top end dining so much of a chore sometimes. Like you, I think service is really important. You eat out for the whole experience and it can really make or break a meal. And when it is both overbearing and condescending. *shudder*
Have to say I didn't have any issues with asking for tap water but maybe they mind less when you're ordering wine?
I had a lovely evening there but I don't remember it being as expensive as that. I would have had more issues had our mains cost >£30!
All in all - fun as Dinner is - I typically enjoy myself more in smaller, cheaper, more relaxed joints. Which is probably just as well...
@The Grubworm - I wanted to love it :(
@mecwalsh - Ordinarily I'd get cocktails or fruit juice - I'm conscious of the fact that restaurants don't like people who don't order drinks.
But with the champagne thing and the pushiness re wine list, I didn't feel like ordering anything but tap water.
Re different opinion - the chef Ashley Palmer-Watts has unfollowed me on Twitter. Fair enough, I've probably hurt his feelings.
I'm a bit annoyed though, since before I went to Dinner, he asked me what day I was coming in and I refused to tell him.
Part of me can't help thinking that had I told him, I would have got better service etc.
But since I came in anonymously, I got what I got as Joe Public.
See Marina O'Loughlin's take on this.
I didn't notice any condescension/disappointment/awkwardness from the staff though when we turned down champagne or when we took our wine right from the bottom of the list.
All in all though I wasn't blown over with the place like some others have been. I thought the meat-fruit was fun but ultimately just pate on toast, and the scallops were too cucumber heavy for me, but then that's not their fault and the gf loved them.
I thought the pigeon was one of the tastiest dishes I've ever eaten too, couldn't get enough of it, and was pretty partial to the gf's 72 hour beef.
Conversely I thought the taffety tart just added texture to the hugely overpowering sorbet. The brown bread ice-cream on the other hand was up their with all time favourite desserts, individually I found some of the parts not nice but thought they sang together.
Really funny about the inch of tap water...the waiter that served us actually gave us that option.
it's nice reading a review that balances out all the hype. not negative, by any stretch. just... honest. it does seem a bit style over substance though, and your waiter sounds like a right tit.
@Kay@Chopstix2Steaknives - It seems that a few others have had a similar experience :(
@grania @ Crumbs for Dinner - Yes, it's a hotel dining room. The jelly mould lights are cool though.
And thank you for taking this review for what it is - honest.
I really am considering making the meat fruit at home, you know.
But seriously, that sense of disappointment is far reaching. Bad service can be dealt with, badly cooked food can be pointed out. It's tangible, concrete - but that sense of being let down...it's hard to define.
Also, can someone explain to me the obsession with the pineapple grill? Yeah ok it looks quite fabulous, but the Brazilian rodizios have been doing it for quite a while, no?
I don't usually get the waiter shrug (because mostly I do want them to bring me some wine) but I do dine alone alot. To be honest it doesn't worry me one bit but waiters seem to feel like they need to talk to me because I'm by myself. Seems to happen more in Sydney. I'd really rather them leave me to enjoy my meal.
The water game was a bit odd though?? I don't understand that either.
You pictures look amazing. I know you have had a rocky ride with Heston over the past few years and after reading this post, despite a few dishes jumping out at me, I can't say I am in a hurry to visit anytime soon.
Great post meems
I just want to say that I am still giggling at your description of your husband's teak - a VHS tape. In fact, I'm going to go back and look at the photo and have another giggle.
Excellent blog. Excellent writing.
Thank you for your lovely comments *blushes* and hope you'll stay :)
ITS A FUCKING STEAK WHAT ELSE DID HE THINK IT WAS!!