Saturday, 6 August 2011

Worst Ever Dining Experiences #3: The Fat Duck, England

The Fat Duck is to food as Damien Hurst is to art. Neither is either, by any reasonable definition. Rather, they're an attempt to see how far you can lead people down the path of the ridiculous, if you constantly reassure them how sophisticated they are. Not that different from the story of the Emperor's New Clothes. In both cases they have been highly successful: the Fat Duck managed to fool the Michelin inspectors into giving it three stars, which is truly astounding.

The original concept of a restaurant was that it was a place you could go to get a decent meal. Surprisingly, it was originally not a generic term, but the name of a specific establishment in Paris, the word coming from the French verb restaurer, to restore or replenish. Since 1765, when it was first coined, the meaning has evolved somewhat. If you want a good meal you naturally think of going to a restaurant. But at the same time some of the top restaurants of the world have evolved beyond simply giving you a good meal, to giving you a unique eating experience. You don't go to Troisgros or the French Laundry just because you're hungry. (Or maybe some people do - there was a distant friend of the family, wealthy, who lived in Roanne and who supposedly ate at Troisgros every night. Why not - he could afford it and it was better than eating the French equivalent of beans-on-toast at home).

Though there are still top restaurants whose focus remains just a good nosh - the Savoy Grill in London, for example, which serves excellent but basically unsophisticated food, that Desperate Dan would feel at home with.

There's no question that the Fat Duck provides a unique culinary experience. It's just that it has strayed so far from any notion of food that you can't really call it "eating", except in the raw physiological sense that you do put something in your mouth, chew it and swallow it. Though I'm not sure "eating" applies to things that aren't food, except maybe in the sense "the dog ate my homework".

Our visit there was before it had acquired the fame it has today, about ten years ago. No Michelin inspector had yet been bamboozled into giving it three stars. We were with another couple, making four of us. There were several amuse-gueules - tiny teaspoon-sized concoctions, each more bizarre than the previous one. I remember some kind of purple jelly thing. None of them had much in the way of flavour, I suppose the idea is to look extraordinary - which they did.

But it is the main course that I'll never forget. It was supposed to be the greatest item on the menu - after all, if you're going there, go for the best. Raw pigeon. Yep, pigeon breast, raw. Marinated in something that had changed it a bit, but fundamentally, a raw piece of pigeon. Isabelle took one tiny mouthful and left the rest, in disgust. Foolishly, I persevered with it. It was edible, though a bit chewy, and with little taste. I really can't imagine, with hindsight, why I ate it. It wasn't enjoyable, it wasn't interesting, and as it turned out it was exceedingly unwise.

I don't remember the details of the rest of the meal, except that were even more weird amuse-gueules. Eventually we left and drove for twenty minutes back to our hotel. I just about had time to run from the lobby to the nearest toilet, where I was violently ill. There's a reason why raw pigeon isn't a common element in the human diet, and I'd just discovered it. Fortunately, I'd recovered by the next morning - after a thoroughly unpleasant night - and was able to take our flight home.

I guess the inspector who awarded the three stars must have chosen something else, or maybe has developed an immunity to fowl-borne gastric infections. Though the Fat Duck did have an extended bout of poisoning its customers a couple of years back, for reasons that have never been very clear. Amazingly, that has done nothing to harm its reputation. The local Indian restaurant would have been shut down (we're talking hundreds of customers here, not just one or two, over a period of months). But when your reputation is about shocking people rather than feeding them, maybe it doesn't matter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Absolutely true (including the undefined purple mousse). I will put Manresa (another Michelin three stars, in Los Gatos) in the same category: I was the one violently ill there.