Friday of opening week, friends and I headed to the opening of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental. Perhaps the most hyped restaurant opening in London over the past few years, Dinner is the more accessible venture, (both in price and food) of Heston and his #2 at The Fat Duck, Ashley Palmer-Watts. Dinner reflects both a celebration of English food and our increasing fascination with dishes past – but perhaps this time, with a bit of a Heston twist.
The decor of Dinner emphasizes the drama of the food about to come, with its sharp, clean lines and large floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over Hyde Park and the windows into what one can only imagine to be the most tightly-run kitchen in London. But, a bit of the Heston wackiness still peeks through in the jelly mould lights that adorn the walls.
On our table, we started with the Meat Fruit, (c.1500) Salamagundy (c.1720) and the Lamb Broth (c.1730). Heston’s take on a dish from the Tudor times, we immediately recognized Meat Fruit from his Channel 4 series on historic feasts. We had never tasted anything like the ethereal lightness and smoothness of the chicken liver parfait (perhaps also with a hint of foie gras richness?) encased in a thin, Mandarin jelly. The Salamagundy was also superb, with chicken oysters a perfect complement to the bone marrow and horseradish cream. I didn’t get a chance to try the Lamb Broth, but my friend really enjoyed the intensity of the broth with the slightly runny yolk of the hen’s egg and the tender sweetbreads.
For mains, I ordered the Black Foot Pork Chop (c.1860) and friends all tucked in to the Sirloin of Black Angus (c.1830) (Disappointingly, the kitchen ran out of the 72 hour slow cooked Beef Royal (c.1720), so will have to return to try it!). The main courses weren’t terribly exciting, especially when compared to the varied list of starters and desserts, but were nonetheless all excellently executed. The Black Foot Pork Chop was indeed the best pork we had ever tasted and incredibly succulent, working well with the buttery pointy cabbage and the brown mustard sauce with which it was served. The Sirloin steaks were also well-received, (although I wasn’t particularly keen on the mushroom ketchup) and we finished every last one of Heston’s triple cooked chips.
Along with the starters, dessert was the more exciting part of the meal. We were instructed by our waiter to order the Tipsy Cake (c.1810) at the beginning of our meal, and we duly obliged as we heard this was the dessert not to miss. The Tipsy Cake arrived in a small, cast iron pan with a large slice of Dinner’s infamous spit roast pineapple on the side. It was a heavenly combination of the freshly cooked brioche and vanilla custard with the slowly-caramelised pineapple, which had a slight taffy-like quality resulting from its long and slow cooking. Friends had the Brown Bread Ice Cream (c.1830) with salted butter caramel and malted yeast syrup – an incredibly interesting dish with its yeasty, sugary and salty notes- a classic move by Heston on playing with our taste expectations, creating a dessert neither completely savoury nor sweet. Despite the rather odd individual elements of the dish, they proved to be quite the harmonious combination.
As a petit-four, the Earl Grey-infused White Chocolate Ganache with a Caraway Seed biscuit was one of the best flavor combinations of the evening and the perfect note on which to end our meal before coffee.
However, at a restaurant of this caliber we expected service to be seamless – and it wasn’t. Staff executed their roles perfectly, but it seemed impossible for them to escape the rigidity of their roles and use a bit of common sense in serving customers. Of course, all service is of a hierarchical nature but as customers it was odd to witness the army of floor staff pass our table over a period of ten minutes and ignore the credit cards blatantly peeking out of our bill. Having finished our coffee, spending these last ten minutes of our meal attempting to make eye contact with the ‘right’ waiter on the floor, (and then, asking to pay) felt rather absurd, especially considering at this point in the evening one-third of the restaurant had cleared out.
Whilst staff were technically competent, service seemed to lack this common sense in ensuring the customer enjoyed the experience. The sommelier was uncompromising in his recommendation of wines well over 50% of our 60 pound/bottle budget, which in frustration, led us to order the cheapest red on the list – just so we could get on with our meal.
However, it is important to remember that this was still opening week of a new restaurant and there are always a few kinks to work out before it reaches perfection. The bill for 4, (3 courses each + half a bottle of wine + coffee + service) came to £364 – still very much on the expensive side, but would have been worth the splurge had the service been better. The food was indeed fantastic, although I’m sure it must have involved some restraint on Heston’s part not to throw in more surprise elements to the dishes. I’m headed back in mid-March for lunch for a second try, (mostly to try the Pigeon and Taffety Tart) and hoping that after its first month, Dinner will have rid itself of the tense service we experienced…and perhaps have that 72 hour Beef Royal.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
66 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7LA
+44(0)20 7201 3833