This article was also published in the Financial Times.
I arrived for my lunch at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, which has just opened in the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, two hours before I was due to meet my guests from New York.
The pretext I gave Monica Brown, Blumenthal's long-standing PR, was that I simply wanted to ensure our photographer Charlie Bibby got the best shots. The real reason was that I was sure that this interlude would yield some unexpected insights into the opening of what is possibly the world's most eagerly anticipated restaurant - and certainly the most difficult to book a table at.
These insights became immediately apparent. Brown admitted that she was feeling 'ga-ga' at the end of the first week that had seen seven different restaurant writers in the dining room simultaneously on only its second day. This was immediately followed by a busy evening that included the late arrival of top French chef Alain Ducasse and his operations director, obviously on their own spying mission.
The impact of all this attention has taken a more physical toll on head chef, Ashley Palmer-Watts, who was at The Fat Duck for nine years before turning his considerable talents to this restaurant 18 months ago. 'I've lost seven kilos in the past 10 days', he added.
This interlude also allowed me to sit at the Chef's Table and inspect the most elegant, open kitchen (see below).
In one corner is a large spit that roasts whole pineapples for the early-19th-century dessert called Tipsy cake. It is powered by huge gears from Ebel, the Swiss watchmaker, and is charmingly numbered 01/01. The two main ranges are, most unusually, separated rather than contiguous, a feature Blumenthal insisted on because he believes it holds the key to its ultimate efficiency when 55 chefs will be serving 300 customers a day. On one wall is a massive Josper grill.
Beyond all of this is a large window overlooking Hyde Park, along which, on the stroke of midday, the Horse Guards ride back from Buckingham Palace to their barracks. 'Whenever I see them go by' (just visible in the picture above left), Palmer-Watts exclaimed with boyish enthusiasm, 'I feel like saluting'. (All pictures courtesy of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.)
The combination of all this kitchen equipment, the most unusual natural light and a restaurant team trained by Simon King and head sommelier João Pires are some of the reasons that have drawn so many young, talented cooks here. But as I was led into the plush private dining room I was to see a physical example of the principles of culinary exploration that underpin this whole enterprise.
This is currently home to the prototype of a mobile ice-cream unit which, when fully commissioned from designer Sebastian Bergne, will allow a waiter to hand-churn ice cream and serve it in cones to customers at the end of the meal. 'We've spent £36,000 on this prototype so far', Palmer-Watts explained, 'and that's what makes cooking here so exciting. We're never really sure that what we set out to do is necessarily going to work.'
Now that it is finally open, Blumenthal does refer to his London home as 'The Fat Duck Brasserie', adding immediately that it is not the dishes or even the style of service that link the two but the research, carried out in their R&D kitchen in Holyport, close to The Fat Duck, and the techniques finely honed in that restaurant over 16 years. 'This', he added, pointing expansively behind him, 'is simply a finishing kitchen. What's so exciting for me is that the creativity comes straight from The Duck.'
Creativity, and sensitivity, that become immediately obvious at the table.
The menu is folded, wrapped and laid out directly in front of the customer. There is no hanging about waiting for a maitre d', which is just as well as there is plenty to study. It unfolds to reveal, under the headings starter, main and dessert, about two dozen dishes, all of old English extraction, all with brief descriptions and underneath each the approximate date of their creation. The back of the menu lists their origins: the dish of roast turbot, cockle ketchup and leaf chicory, a particular highlight, was created in 1827 by Maria Eliza Rundell, I now know.
Any qualms our table may have felt choosing between salamugundy, a colourful salad of chicken oysters (dark, round pieces of meat from the back of the bird), bone marrow and horseradish cream; rice & flesh, a 14th-century British equivalent of risotto alla Milanese; and beef royal, an 18th-century precursor of today's slow-cooked beef ribs, were quickly dispelled by our waiter. He exuded the same enthusiasm I had encountered in the kitchen before adding something I don't think I have ever heard before from someone in his position. 'I've eaten everything on the menu and really enjoyed it all. So do ask me anything you like.'
As we shuffled plates between one another, we were increasingly impressed by the finesse of the cooking as well as the depth of the flavours. Palmer-Watts had explained that what they were looking to recreate in a modern form were subtle, smoky overtones, once commonplace in British cooking, and here replicated via the presence of small quantities of anchovy, Gentleman's relish and the caraway biscuits with the coffee. Blumenthal added that his continuous demand for more acidity in the dishes had reached the point where his kitchen staff knew what he was going to say almost before he had tasted the dish. But his campaign has proved fruitful.
All of which left two New Yorkers delighted but puzzled. Why, they wanted to know, if British food is as good as this and has such strong historical roots, did it have such an awful reputation for so long? I suggested neglect and a lack of pride. Now, thanks to Blumenthal and so many other British chefs, we have a style of cooking to shout about. Very loudly indeed.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, www.dinnerbyheston.com