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May, 2018

February, 2018

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January, 2018

December, 2017

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September, 2017

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May, 2017

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December, 2015

November, 2015

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October, 2015

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December, 2014

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March, 2014

February, 2014

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January, 2014

December, 2013

November, 2013

The Fat Duck Melbourne: a world of pure imagination

By
Hannah Koelmeyer
Added
20 April, 2015

Cooked editor Hannah Koelmeyer goes through the looking glass at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck Melbourne.

When ballots were issued for the fanatically sought-after tables at The Fat Duck’s six-month Melbourne jaunt, my partner was one of the lucky winners. His Charlie Bucket-like excitement was tempered by my more financially-reserved considerations (that golden ticket came with a minimum $525 price tag, after all) but in the end carpe diem wisdom won out and five months later we find ourselves standing around next to a huge indoor pool in Crown Casino waiting to be let in to one of the best restaurants in the world.

We’re ushered into a long, dark corridor that ends at a small screen displaying a miniature door, making Heston’s allusions to Wonderland clear at the outset. Six adults are completely bamboozled and we start ineffectually pressing on the screen before the laughing concierge opens the entrance again and points us to a fairly obvious button to our right, which opens a huge door into the spacious, light-filled dining room.

Our table is seated by the window around a large circular table covered in white linen. A big, pristine blank canvas. There’s no music to inform the atmosphere, just the gentle murmur of diners. An almost A3-sized storybook of a wine list is placed on the table by a brisk French sommelier. We’re somewhat intimidated and opt for the $200 wine match (also available in $450 and $1150 options – you can check out the wine list here), our one decision for the day being that we’re not here to make decisions.

There’s a fretful sense of anticipation (my partner keeps worrying at the idea that we somehow don’t, in fact, really have a booking, and they’re about to come over any minute now and kick us out). A seemingly endless number of staff in stylish 1940s-inspired uniforms move about the space in a kinetically efficient whirl, maneuvering past our table with a parade of colourful sculptural space-age miniatures. We crane our necks to watch tables across the restaurant being treated to what looks like close-up magic with elaborate props and clouds of liquid nitrogen.

The first dish is brought to our table by three wait staff, each placing the gorgeous turquoise hubcap-sized dinner plates in front of us in a synchronised sweep. We’re told the small red sphere in the centre of the plate is aerated beetroot filled with horseradish cream and it should be eaten in a single bite. Since there’s no blue pill on offer, there’s only one direction to choose and down the rabbit hole we go.

AERATED BEETROOT

Two hemispheres of impossibly crisp-crunchy magenta honeycomb sandwiched together with an airy horseradish cream. Crack into it with your back molar and the entire thing dissolves in a puff of pure, intense beetroot.

Aerated beetroot | Nitro poached aperitifs

NITRO POACHED APERITIFS

Three silver cream whippers, an array of citrus, a candle and an ice bucket full of liquid nitrogen. We’re offered a choice of three aperitifs: vodka and lime sour, gin and tonic or Campari soda. I opt for the gin and tonic, with lime. A booze-infused egg-white mousse is foamed onto a spoon, snap-frozen in the dry ice then spritzed with citrus oil from rind warmed gently by the candle. High theatre kept down-to-earth by our waitress’ sardonic commentary (“I’ll be back with this,” she says pointing at the smoking ice bucket. “I have one job.”) Straight into the mouth before it melts, the intense cold is punctuated by the citrus oil, the texture curiously firm before it dissolves. Exhalation causes frozen fog to stream from the nostrils and we all dissolve into giggles. Our waitress, “Oh yeah, this dish may cause dragons.”

Mustard ice cream in a pool of tangy red cabbage gazpacho

RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO

A quenelle of grainy mustard ice cream sitting in a pool of vivid magenta. The ice cream is smooth and luscious, the tangy soup counterbalancing the surprisingly subtle horseradishy pungence of the mustard. The whole thing melts into a creamy mess by the end and it’s a struggle to not pick up the plate to lick up the final smudges eluding my spoon.

Savoury lollies, clear winner of the 'most Instagrammed dish' award

SAVOURY LOLLIES

This is where we begin to properly relax and start to really get it. I involuntarily clap my hands in delight and my companions all laugh. A row of colourful childhood favourites, the pinnacle of joy on a hot summer’s day reimagined for a grown-up tongue. The Rocket: a Waldorf salad; the Twister a sapid confection of avocado and smoked salmon (I get a delicious black-olive soft serve instead due to a food allergy) and the highlight, a Golden Gaytime constructed from chicken liver parfait coated in fig jelly and a sprinkling of toasted almonds and shards of crackling. The silky parfait is decadently rich and the jelly an intense reduction that is meltingly, deeply savoury. It’s probably our favourite part of the whole meal and it’s gone in three slow bites. We eyeball the staff carrying them off to other tables wondering just how much trouble we’d be in if we tried to intercept them …

Chicken liver parfait Golden Gaytime | fragrance of oak moss

JELLY OF QUAIL, MARRON CREAM

A wooden box is placed in the centre of the table, six small plastic containers nestled in oak moss. On closer examination the containers appear to be custom-made Listerine PocketPaks labelled ‘Fat Duck Films’. “This dish is oak, a walk through the forest.” The waitress instructs us to allow the strip of film to dissolve on our tongues as she pours water over dry ice hidden beneath the moss. Tendrils of oak-scented fog creep across the table as the dish proper is delivered.  Marron cream and caviar sorbet with quail jelly accompanied by truffled toast. The flavours are earthy, our palates primed by the oak-flavoured filmstrip and fragrant mist; it’s a playful invitation, an outstretched hand to lead you into the depth of the woods.

SNAIL PORRIDGE

An oval-shaped butter dish sits before each us. Three staff reach down, clasp the handles, lock eyes with one another, then … “Snaaaaail porridge!” The lids are removed in a dramatic flourish. ‘Porridge’ is a bit of a misnomer, the garlicky snails sit in a green intensely grassy-flavoured chilled parsley soup with hidden crunchy goodies beneath. We’ve stepped out of the forest and into the backyard to dig about in the lawn.

Snail porridge | Roast marron

ROAST MARRON

A gorgeous mini crayfish sits on a bed of shiitake and pickled daikon, the soft, sweet flesh pierced by salty crisp shards of sea lettuce; an oceanic kaiju of Japanese flavours.

Mock turtle soup | Toast sandwiches

MAD HATTER’S TEA PARTY

Heston continues his homage to Lewis Carroll in this whimsical play on literature’s most iconic afternoon tea. A fob watch is dipped into a glass teapot until it disintegrates into a gold-leaf flecked mock-turtle soup which is poured over an ‘inside out’ egg dotted with tiny enoki mushrooms. Intriguing toast sandwiches are served on a tiered cake stand shaped like the Hatter’s headwear. This tips over into straight-up theatre and it finally starts to click that this ‘meal’ really is more akin to an interactive drama in 16 acts.

“SOUND OF THE SEA”

I’d always thought this dish sounded like a gimmick – an iPod concealed inside a shell plays ocean sounds through headphones to be listened to while eating. Ooooh, it’s a multi-sensory experience! But, I must confess to falling for this schtick, ah, hook, line and sinker … The listening devices are delivered a few minutes before the food. The waitress directs us to pop in the headphones and close our eyes. Headphones in and I’m immediately transported. It’s a pebbly English beach with squawking seagulls and cold waves lapping at the shore. I can see the whitewashed buildings and smell the whitebait. No wait, that’s the food being delivered. The dish itself is a gorgeous arrangement of kingfish and abalone on a bed of edible ‘sand’ made from panko, eel and seaweed, planted with sea herbs and bordered by a briny sea spume made from shellfish and kombu. The flavours are challenging (especially to my slightly seafood-resistant palate) and I can’t say I actually enjoy the taste, but that’s what makes it magical. The soundtrack focusses my perception and takes me to a place where the flavours have a pleasurable context; a fishy stench made lovely by the salty sea breeze it’s carried on. The dish makes me consider the way our palates mature as we grow older, the way we seek out more tastes that on the surface tend toward the unpleasant; acrid, pungent, bitter tastes that ultimately reward perseverance with complexity and depth of experience. There’s something indelible about a flavour that requires a little effort to grapple with. When the headphones are removed we sit in silence, and it takes us a moment to return from where we’ve just been.

SALMON POACHED IN A LIQUORICE GEL

There’s nothing challenging about this one. Salmon is sous vide and then poached in liquorice gel to make a glossy cube plucked from a chocolate box, the salmon within unctuous like strawberry fondant. The endive is sweet and caramelised to enhance the anise, daubs of vanilla mayonnaise add richness, and trout roe and segments of ruby grapefruit provide bursts of poppy texture and freshness.

Lamb tongue, heart and neck, quinoa crisps and mint consommé

LAMB WITH CUCUMBER

Medallions of lean, pink lamb sit on wedges of grilled cucumber (for some reason, in a day of savoury icy poles, liquid nitrogen and melting gold fob watches, this is what blows my mind – who would think to cook cucumber???). The plate is adorned with onion and green pepper gels, oyster leaf and a square of lamb-skin crackling. A small side plate holds a delight of accompaniments: a cube each of neck, heart and tongue sit in a rich gravy next to a chilled jellied mint consommé. It’s a polyphony of roast lamb with all the trimmings, each element distilled to its perfect form.

The sleek Fat Duck kitchen

THE FAT DUCK KITCHEN

“Now that you’ve finished your last savoury course, would you like to come and take a look around the kitchen?” Of course we do! The immaculate kitchen is huge (it’s apparently much bigger than the Bray kitchen), having been designed for the eventual Dinner by Heston that will take residence when The Fat Duck goes home. We’re told that the wall will be knocked out making the kitchen open to the dining room. There’s a separate prep kitchen upstairs and a room around the corner just for dishwashing. There are between 15 and 18 chefs on service at any one time and they rotate stations every few days so they’re not always doing the same thing. It’s a young team with an even-looking mix of men and women. Staff are given two days off a week and two weeks holiday during the six-month tenure, which many are using to visit the Great Ocean Road and to experience some of Melbourne’s dining (Brae and Vue de Monde have been highlights). And what are The Fat Duck staff finding most inspiring about Melbourne? (You’ll never guess …) Coffee! “Who knew there was so much to know about coffee!”

HOT & ICED TEA

A perfectly ordinary palate-cleansing cup of tea. Except one side is hot and the other cold. The sense-boggling effect is achieved with a liquid gel. A divider is used to separate the hot and cold liquids in the glass and is removed just before serving – the different viscosity of the liquids holds the two separate just long enough to blow minds. It's an extraordinary piece of culinary magic.

The most beautiful dessert ever to be inspired by a fungus

BOTRYTIS CINEREA

An ode to ‘the noble rot’ fungus essential to the production of dessert wines such as Sauternes. A beautiful bunch of ‘grapes’, each sphere its own exciting texture and flavour: crisp pear soaked in sticky wine, a translucent peach wine gum, a citrus sorbet, a white chocolate shell filled with caramel and popping candy. The bunch sits on a crumble laced with Roquefort to give it the noble funk required. It’s a masterful, gorgeous dessert full of delight and discovery.

Scrambled eggs ice cream prepared at your table

THE NOT-SO-FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST

A dish in two parts. The first is a small box of Heston cereal made from dried carrot, parsnip and pop rocks served with a little bottle of parsnip milk. A cute and absurd (and surprisingly delicious) take on childhood breakfast, followed up with the return of our friend with the liquid nitrogen. She sets up a frying pan and proceeds to theatrically crack eggs that have been filled with custard. Liquid nitrogen is stirred in and presto! scrambled eggs ice cream. This is served on a crunchy sliver of caramelised pancetta atop sticky brioche French toast. 

WHISKY WINE GUMS

Five whisky wine gums are adhered to a map of Scotland showing their provenance. In a local nod, Tasmania has jumped hemispheres for inclusion, with the final gum hailing from Hobart’s Lark Distillery. Each bottle-shaped sweet dissolves into pure whisky after a moment on the tongue.

Thoroughly grown-up sweets: one made from whisky, one made from beef

“LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP”

Pink candy-striped paper bags full of sweets with a lolly-shop scented card describing the contents. Four final morsels: an aerated chocolate filled with mandarin Jelly, and apple pie caramel with an edible wrapper (of course), a white-chocolate strawberry tart-filled Queen of Hearts playing card, and an ‘oxchoc’, wagyu nougat with Guinness and beef caramel (not as rich as it sounds). We’re told we can take the bags of goodies home if we want, but we go ahead and devour them there and then.

And then it’s done. We’ve been there for six and a half hours. As we’re leaving we notice a hilariously phallic sculpture that Heston apparently has on loan from Mona’s David Walsh. We’re not surprised they’re friends – there’s a clear parallel in their creative vision and desire to change the way people (literally, in Heston’s case) consume art. We emerge, blinking, back into the real world and walk home in dazed silence. Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.

The best description I can think of for the Fat Duck is that it’s delightful. Not in the mild-mannered, tepid sense of the word, but in the literal, full-of-constant-delight sense. It’s high art, it’s tremendous fun, it’s silly and entertaining and moving and challenging. Is it worth the extraordinary price tag? Absolutely. (And when you consider everything that goes into the preparation and presentation of each dish, it suddenly starts to feel like enormously good value.) Like his muse Lewis Carroll, Heston employs masterful technical proficiency in an invitation to yield to a childlike sense of wonder and an unforgettably joyous celebration of extraordinary imagination. 

What's your most memorable dining experience? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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