Greater Than the Sum of Our Parts

a miscellany of the wonderful and the banal

Archive for February 2011

Heston Blumenthal’s “Dinner” and mine

with one comment

I had the extremely good fortune, yesterday evening, to join my friend Burge, her partner Stu, our mutual friend Doug, my partner Lindsay, and Burge & Stu’s friend Sarah in celebrating Burge’s 40th at Heston Blumenthal’s “Dinner” at the Mandarin Oriental at Hyde Park. I should point out that this good fortune was down in part to Burge’s extreme foresight in booking a table some time last year, and funded by my increasingly impeccunious and not wholly-amused boyfriend.

Of my dining partners, Burge and Stu (the latter, Stuart Nathan, is to blame/credit for the photos in this blog entry) are slightly closer to being Blumenthal officiandos than I am, having actually been to the Fat Duck in Bray, albeit in hiking boots. For people like me, who regard the world outside of the M25 as “here be dragons” territory and for whom the internal combustion engine is wizardry conquerable only by Other People, The Fat Duck has never been a possibility.

I am largely aware of Heston’s particular brand of culinary genius in part because of said friends and in part because my boyfriend is a cookery TV junkie and will watch anything that involves food being prepared unless it’s That Awful Woman (Delia Smith) or That Awful Man (Worrell-Thompson); this means that I was secretly anticipating exploding puddings, sea monsters made of whale vomit, minced mouse, and fire and eyesballs. At the very least, snail porridge.

I should point out, I am not the kind of person who is accustomed to Fine Dining. I like good food, and have been known to bellow delightedly “thank evolution for my tastebuds” in the middle of a very nice dinner, but the fine dining atmosphere is one of stomach-clenching terror for someone who looks as if her face has been attacked by a mad stapler and who considers barking to be a perfectly reasonable form of communication with friends and acquaintances.

Therefore I’d intended to lessen the impact of my presence by showing up well-dressed, with my hair re-dyed and curled and a full face of make-up so as to refrain from frightening the other diners with my “former alcoholic and practicing eschewer of face-washing” complexion; unfortunately the best-laid plans of would-be gourmets aft gang aglay and instead of bleaching my roots and ensuring I had nice clothes laid out on Sunday night I actually went drinking with some friends from Singapore and spent a while discussing tattoos with some large gentlemen in Soho before passing out with all my clothes on and I wasn’t really well enough the next day to contemplate things more complicated than “where is the bus-stop” on my way to college.

Happily a swift change of at least some of my clothes in a public toilet in Hyde Park (after being arbitrarily stalked by a man on a bicycle who wanted to tell me about his digital speedometer) left me looking a little less like I’d been dragged through a bottle of Johnny Walker backward, but I still felt enormously self-conscious and out of place when my (similarly dowdy) boyfriend and I rocked up at the Mandarin Oriental.

This is mostly because they have a lot of staff.

One man indicated the door to us. Another held open the door for us. A third pointed the way up the stairs to a meeting area where Doug and Sarah were looking equally comfortable beside some exceptionally fine armchairs and an open fire (and in Doug’s case, also looking a little like Lemmy and Frank Zappa had a baby together). Once the whole party had been rounded up – six in total, as this is the largest group booking Dinner allows – some more people pointed our lost selves toward the entrance to “Dinner”.

A word on the decor here: the Mandarin Oriental Hotel likes pillars and dark red polished stone which may or may not be marble, and it likes archways. The entrance to “Dinner” is preceded by a massive glowing pear which changes colour from green to blue. There is a bar which has a faintly modern-Japanese feel to it but could honestly be anywhere vaguely cosmopolitan; there is an ovewhelming archway of booze encased in glass through which yet more staff ushered us (only after about forty people had shown us the way, and yet only one poor, poor man had dragged away our countless coats and bags away to the cloakroom) through to a normal-looking dining area.

Having said that, there is an excellent view through to the kitchens through huge windows (unless you’re me, and sat with your back to it), and also through to the private dining room, which has wooden pig heads on the wall for some reason.

This may sound like a long lead-in to a review-with-pictures of a three-course-meal, and I promise I am not going to do a Giles Coren on you all, but there was an obscene amount of fuss prior to the actual food:

A very prim and personable chap whom the receipt informs me was called David spent a while explaining the menu to us and talking about how the backs of the menus showed where the original recipes which had inspired the current dishes hailed from, and all-but-begged us to question him on any aspect of the Dining Experience. Despite my original angry mutter of “yes thank you I know how a fucking menu works” to my boyfriend, I did have one question regarding the “Salamagundy”, to whit –

“What are chicken oysters?”

I was eagerly informed that they’re a specific area of a chicken somewhere between thighs and the sides, “a combination of white and dark meat regarded by some to be the best part of the animal” (yes, David, but there are people who think the nuggets are the best part of a chicken) and promptly lost all interest in the Salamagundy, leaving it to my boyfriend.

“I was hoping,” I told the table, “that it would be something properly mad. Maybe oysters injected with chicken fat.”

“Well,” I was told, “at least they weren’t its bollocks?”

I didn’t actually consider that much of a consolation.

However, I stopped sulking somewhere between the bread board (wholemeal and sourdough, with very nice little pats of sea-salted butter) and instead began constructing our imaginary Mathematical Meal while we waited for starters:

Lindsay offers the starter: “Mandelbroth: all the ingredients of mandelbroth themselves have ingredients, all of which are the ingredients of Mandelbroth.”

I forget who came up with the main: “The Mobius New York Strip, a cut of beef that only has one side, served with fractal (Romanesco) broccoli.”

But of course Burge brought us to a graceful halt with dessert: “Pi. Pie. Pi-Pie.”

Nothing quite so mad, pretentious, or trite awaited us at “Dinner”, although it cannot be stressed enough that efforts were made in this area, and the food itself provoked noises bordering on the sexual.

The Meal

Meat Fruit

Meat Fruit

I did not, in the end, avail myself of this starter, the perplexing and oft-referenced “Meat Fruit” from the menu. But Burge did: this is “Mandarin, Chicken Liver Parfait and Grilled Bread”. The citrus skin conceals the parfait, so it really is Meat. Fruit. Burge did not consent to share any of this with me, but judging by her expressions it tasted bloody delightful.

Rice & Flesh

Rice & Flesh

This is what I had instead. “Rice and Flesh”, £15.00; a kind of saffron-filled rissotto with calf tails in a red-wine based sauce dotted around it. “Abusively delicious” is about the best description I can come up with, which I realise is not useful in categorising it. It was rich. The entire meal was rich, intense, and flavoursome, and in a strange way the calftails were more delicate than the heavy, dense rissotto. On a scale of one to ten I have to give it around a 9/10 because I was at least capable of maintaining a conversation throughout it.

Spiced Pigeon

Spiced Pigeon

For my main course I miraculously avoided consuming steak – my default for judging restaurants (oh hello, my name is Delilah, I have Asperger’s, I am a creature of habit) – which was recommended medium rare (abuse of a cow!) and entered into my boyfriend’s mouth instead. He let me have some and I broke down a little. There may have been some histrionic crying.

The spiced pigeon itself was oddly lacking in spice, and I think I preferred the smoked artichokes and the potato puree I ordered as a side; which is not to say that the pigeon itself wasn’t exquisitely cooked, delicate, and practically falling apart on my tongue, just that I was expecting it to be a little more … spiced. On the other hand I would have happily eaten a plate of smoked artichokes on their own.

Perhaps not for £32.00 though.

Poached Rhubarb with Rosehips and Rhubarb Sorbet

Poached Rhubarb with Rosehips and Rhubarb Sorbet

Dessert. I have a mildly unsettling obsession with rhubarb so there was very little deliberation in the choice of my final course (nor in Doug’s – after a mouthful of “Chocolate Bar” he threated to stab with a fork anyone who so much as looked like they might want to try any of his; sampling some of Lindsay’s I can safely say I am surprised he didn’t die of the intensity of chocolate). This was the “weird” I’d been looking for in earlier courses, containing what looked like a freeze-dried wafer of rhubarb, and some rose sugar “glass” shards which again constitute a perfectly marvellous concept on their own … but.

Some time previously to this I have died at the much-less-fêted but wonderful Allium in Fairford, and there consumed a fantastical confection combining floral tastes and rhubarb, crunchy and smooth textures, and it was better.

Sorry, Heston.

I should point out that while we were consuming this, Mr Blumenthal was spotted talking to Raymond Blanc about four metres away, and we were all very well-behaved and no one did anything at all stupid, although Burge later remarked that she did want to stroke his head.

Dinner was concluded with a espresso cup full of white chocolate ganache, and a glass of rosebud tea (“Iran”, quoth the menu) which smelt heavenly and tasted “quite nice”.

I have a note on my arm telling me to talk about the service, which was solicitous and attendant to the point of being intimidating; which is not to say that the staff were anything other than impeccably turned-out, friendly, helpful, and willing to comply with almost any request made of them – more that I find it unnerving for it to need four people to “take care of you” when all I am doing is going to relieve myself. I don’t think I ever want to be famous!

… Sensible people go home after a meal like that, but I went to Academy in Soho, where the bouncer grumpily made me take off my tie (to prevent suicide? The cocktails weren’t that bad) and I drank things whose names I cannot remember while shouting about lizards and ex-boyfriends (often the same thing).

Star ratings are for people who know what they’re talking about. Dinner was scary, but for the more socially-confident and wealthy I imagine it is a fantastic place to dine regularly, and I would like to steal some of the waiters.

Post by Delilah.

Advertisements

On Being A Patron of the Arts (when I can be)

leave a comment »

I would dearly love to be a patron of the arts, but I am broke, so instead I am an occasional but enthusiastic buyer of prints & art books, and commissioner of people I know well enough to give me “mates’ rates” (and then feel guilty about wasting time they could be using on proper clients!). A couple of the artists among the manyI have a particular fondness for are Coey Kuhn and Shy Custis, whose work I have been following on various websites for several years now.

Though both artists are capable of tooth-rottingly cute styles, which affords them a degree of popularity with the kawaii-kawaii crowd, the majority of their work is darker and more complicated – intricate and stark at once, with themes of decay, dissection, and agony.

One of the most fascinating things about having followed the evolution of Coey & Shy’s work over the course of these years has been seeing how their personal styles have been influenced by each other as they have also improved with practice and study – but retained the innate core of their original artistic characteristics, their identity as individual artists at the same time.

Prints have been purchased and adorn my bedroom wall alongside the work of Gillian Blekkenhorst and Matthew Woodson:

A study of Coey Kuhn with arrows and an appleA throat being violently sewn uptwo prints: one of a man tied to a tree, the other of a man sewing up a corpse

I stumbled over my own paypal to pre-order the individual sketchbooks for 2009-2010, both:

Front covers of Coey Kuhn and Shy Custis's sketchbooks

Shy’s:

Interior art from Shy Custis's sketchbook

And Coey’s:

Interior art from Coey Kuhn's sketchbook

I also bought an art book which features both of their work, a 13Crowns production, which was as far as I’m concerned an excellent investment as it also features work by another favourite artist of mine, Lois van Baarle:

The 13 Crowns Studio Art BookInterior art from the 13Crowns book

And now I’ve managed to make a tentative agreement with Coey Kuhn for a tattoo design commission in the future, about which I am very excited.

I admit, this level of admiration and awe does make me feel a lot like a stalker in some respects, and I’m sad that I have neither the wealth nor the social cachet to be a “patron” rather than “an annoying fan”. I hope both women in question aren’t too annoyed by it!

If you want to buy the sketchbooks, they’re on sale here.

Post by Delilah