Dinner by Heston Blumenthal – Knightsbridge
Lunch at Dinner. That’s how Heston Blumenthal plays with time. The eccentric chef fiddling with the space-time continuum like Doc from Back to the Future. And if Blumenthal’s Doc then Ashley Palmer-Watts, Blumenthal’s long-time kitchen accomplice and executive chef, is Marty. Except I know it’s midday because of a giant clock mechanism above an open kitchen – with spit-roast pineapple slowly on rotation – and anyway, it’s still light outside. The huge, stretching bay windows look out over a strangely sunny February day in Hyde Park. Clearly Blumenthal has hit a switch somewhere, or somehow created a honey-glow from the sky using test tubes and a spatula.
It’s only day four at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, my anticipation for this meal only matched by that half-an-hour before you know you’re going to loose your virginity. Luckily however – for me (lunch) and the said young lady (sex) – it wasn’t over before it began (phew!), and as well as speaking to Blumenthal about the dishes (each dish includes a circa date, the furthest dating back to c. 1390 is Rice & Flesh), I was wowed by six-courses, and that included two desserts.
The restaurant is the first new dining room to open in Knightsbridge for 100 years. Its location is in fact inside The Mandarin Oriental Hotel rather than a standalone restaurant of throughway traffic and punters peering in from the streets of SW7. And it sits – shiny and new – in good company, within a privileged community of Russian billionaires and Middle-Eastern Sheikhs, who splurge wads of cash in Harvey Nicks and Harrods and return home by their seven-second Rolls Royce journey across the road to Number 1 Park Lane and a £135-million penthouse.
At Thursday lunchtime, Dinner wasn’t yet full. You can hear whisperings of excitement on the floor, from tables where celebrities, politicians and general ‘foodies’ perch, licking their lips. Blumenthal was doing the rounds, his crisp chef whites unstained by kitchen dribble. His manufactured sunbeams geared towards him, penetrating through the windows and illuminating him like the Second Coming. For Mr Blumenthal has finally arrived in London.
Unfolding the menu what you read is quite astonishing, each entry with their respected circa date and at the top of the Starter list: Meat Fruit (c. 1500), a creation I’d first seen demonstrated by Palmer-Watts at last years Identità – “Mandarin, chicken liver parfait & grilled bread.”
So this is it. Entry Number one at Dinner. A baffling juxtaposition, a mind-bend, and apparently inspired by a dish from the late Middle Ages (c. 13th – 15th century). On the eye, simple. Straightforward. A plump, singular mandarin sits with a glistening sunny-skin and brilliant green stalk and leaves. Break the skin with a knife and you reveal the smoothest, most silkiest of parfaits, soft, mellow, like slicing warm butter. A rich, heart-stopping foie gras spread like a meaty-treacle across grilled bread. This is exceptional, both in presentation and delivery, an unparalleled starter and soon to be the flagship dish here.
Moving forward and Blumenthal has had his merriment, the tomfoolery-brilliance now replaced with more serious, researched British finds, such as Roast Marrowbone (c. 1720) inspired by The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary by John Nott, 1723 - ”Parsley, anchovy & mace, pickled vegetables.” Presented like a small Blue Peter garden, the hollowed marrowbone held mixed-contents, with the meat and anchovy pairing nicely for a lifted taste above the pickled vegetables. There were strong hints of garlic and olive too. This was a much cleaner dish to the Meat Fruit, yet less entertaining.
I’d already clocked the regular gobblers about the room. Only day four and to date, Dinner has fed the likes of AA Gill, new daddy Giles Coren, Charles Campion, Fay Maschler, Jan Moir, Mark Hix, Matthew Fort – who waxed-lyrical about the experience in his Wednesday Guardian piece and walked in for the second time in four-days, immediately asking me what I thought of the Meat Fruit? – but incontestably this is the review you’ve really been waiting for, isn’t it? And don’t pretend otherwise. There’s learning guised in this boisterous ramble…
Douglas Blyde sat with Dom Chapman at the table next to me, experiencing similar hysteria from the dishes. The only beef I had, was with the beef: Sirloin of Black Angus (c. 1830) – “Mushroom ketchup, red wine juice & triple cooked chips.” It was a plump strip but chewy, the tough sinews giving the mouth a real lunchtime workout.
I’d be interested to know why Blumenthal and Palmer-Watts chose Black Angus? Black Angus is the most popular beef breed of cattle in the United States, and I know Blumenthal believes to have found the best steak in the US amid glitterballs and go-go girls at Robert’s Steakhouse in New York, where the beasts are ‘grain-fed for twenty-six months, followed by four months on a 99-per cent protein feed.’ Would Longhorn have been better? How about Stirling Charolais?
This recipe’s origin goes back to 1826 and The Cook and Housewife’s Manual by Mistress Meg Dodds. The triple cooked chips were some of the best I’ve ever tasted – that includes Hawksmoor and The Bull & Last – yet the mushroom ketchup left a vinegar sting and some acidity that gave the meat a sharp texture.
Interestedly, I asked Giles Coren what he recommended I order the day before my lunch: “Meat Fruit, Spiced Pigeon and Tipsy Cake,” he replied, only a matter of hours before taking his wife to the hospital to give birth (congratulations daddy Giles Coren and mummy Esther Walker!). And so, upon suggestion and bypassing the £32 price-tag, the Spiced Pigeon (c. 1780) was ordered, cooked in ale and served with artichokes. The delicate meat had a spiced-ruby glow and relaxed itself in an ale sauce.
The chilled Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc had long gone by now – more than half the bottle consumed in the Mandarin bar before dining – and so moving on to bolder tastes, but keeping with the Kiwi artisan touch, Gem Pinot Noir 06′ was a perfect match for sirloin and pigeon.
In truth, the menu is reasonably priced at Dinner. It’s not Set Menu or stonking Michelin prices (you’re looking at £150 per head at The Fat Duck – without wine), however wine mark-ups are where restaurants make their buck and at £29 for the cheapest bottle on the menu (not £39 as stated in The Evening Standard), you’re not only reminded of Knightsbridge prices but exactly whose company you are in. This very good Pinot Noir from Wellington, New Zealand was priced at £55.
In the final chapter I’d already had half the work decided for me: Tipsy Cake (c. 1810) would feature, with spit-roasted pineapple served alongside a doughy, sweet brioche in an iron cocotte. Too much has already been written about the Tipsy Cake so I’ll just say this, it was stunning and I weed my pants a little bit.
My second dessert, Brown Bread Ice Cream (c. 1830) – its origins sourced from A New System of Domestic Cookery by Maria Eliza Rundell, 1827 – less so, but I’d already done the joyous, warm release so there was a tingling comfort throughout this sweet too. The Hovis crumble was again a playful nod to British history and a “salted butter caramel malted yeast syrup” had an enduring drive equally as long as its description.
To finish, a teacup of white chocolate and Earl Grey ganache with cardamom biscuit. Delightfully English and surely a tip of the hat to afternoon tea, perhaps one of our longest and more indulgent of traditions? This again shows how Dinner refines concepts to reinvigorate and celebrate our British culinary heritage.
And so I must conclude, rather routinely now, that I sing the tune of those before me: this is one of the best meals I’ve ever had with at least two standout dishes that rank amongst the very best in London, and therefore the world. Heston and Ashley have cracked it, they’re riding the wave, and they’re pushing out plates while the telephone lines jam with reservation requests. Dinner represents the fine balance between that gastronomic brilliance you expect and brasserie requiescence you desire. Go! Go now and revel, just remember to bring a change of pants.