A WARNING BEFORE WE BEGIN
THIS IS BIT OF A SAGA
NO DETAIL SPARED
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
A single beam of light spills onto white china,
a pool of warmth in the darkness.
My eyes are drawn to this small stage, this ivory theatre.
How can I look anywhere else?
The walls are lost in velvet blackness and for a moment I feel alone in this place…
Next stall over, someone flushes…
When even the toilets are this dramatic,
what am I to expect
from the next 5 hours of Food Theatre?
Photo by the incomparable Geneva
I have gotten ahead of myself… some of you know where I am: some of you may not.
I stood, in that moment, in the bathroom of one of the best restaurants in the World.
Lets be honest for a moment, this is not the most extravagant toilet that I have ever been in and nor the most extravagant restaurant… Rather they have chosen a simple aesthetic with eyecatching flourishes.
One wall boasts a large clock resembling an over sized fob watch (By Jove, I want to steal it!) that not only displays minutes and hours but also, strangely, months.
It takes me a moment to realize that there are only four months arrayed around the Fob Clock and the largest arrow points to how long this Culinary Beast has been residing in Melbourne… counting down how long till it will depart our shores once more. More on that in a moment my freaky darlings… I am setting the scene.
We are currently on the 3rd floor of Crown Towers and one whole wall is taken up by a glass window overlooking the Yarra River and the far bank of Melbourne. You can spy graffiti and big signs advertising ham across the way. I enjoy the juxtaposition of lived in city and shiny new restaurant.
A large table runs down the centre of the room, laden with gleaming glassware, each piece worth roughly twice as much as my kidney. Riedel, I believe.
The last wall has been taken hostage by a half finished puzzle.
If one were to describe the Atlantic as BIG or space as ENORMOUS, one might call this puzzle RATHER LARGE… When finished it will be the largest puzzle in the world, so its best to be understated about these things. The picture emerging from this NOT SMALL puzzle shows the man himself, Heston of the house of Blumenthal, striding, mad-scientist-explorer style, from Britain, across the globe, to the Land of Oz.
No, not THAT Oz, this one. The one without tin men or talking scarecrows or an evil lying ruler. Ok, we might have one of those things, but now is not a time for politics. Now is a time to rant about the Terrariums lining the sill below the large glass window, filled with abstract arrangements of cacti and bleached wood that catch the early afternoon light.
Photos by me
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD, WOMAN?!
I hear you screaming at me through your computer screen. I CAME FOR THE FOOD PORN, BY ZEUS’S TESTICLES!
As did I, my dears, as did I.
Ok, ok, let me give you an appetiser… We are seated by immaculately dressed waiter on the far side of the room. There is a booth that curves around half our table and two seats. Like so
The first plate is placed. A Moroccan style mosaic design that geometrics its way into a small white circle in the centre. Placed just off-centre of the aforementioned circle is a sphere of deep burgundy, split by a layer of cloud-white cream: aerated beetroot with horseradish cream.
We are informed that it is best when eaten all at once, so in I go.
Gently, oh so gently, I pick up this burgundy baby and pop it on my tongue. The texture is like that of Maltesers crafted by tiny fairy foodsmiths. Or summoned perhaps… Sweet roast beetroot flavours that tingle and crackle and gently grasp your tongue while dancing a smooth tongue with the cool bite of horseradish cream.
Classic flavours – on a date with science.
It is sweet, salty, intense and brief. Like a one night stand with a pirate. Made of beetroot.
I should probably apologize now: Food makes me whimsical.
Are you tantalized? I was.
Photo by yours truly
We order drinks with the charming Sommelier. My friend Jack gets the matching wines, but I decide to drink it bit by bit – this is not a time to get too drunk to appreciate the show.
Talking of drinking… Our next course is wheeled out on a gleaming trolley manned by a stylish chap with a vest and fob watch. An aperitif, he says. Not what you expect, he says
He offers us vodka and lime, gin and tonic or tequila and lime. I choose gin, because of course, and he picks up a silver bottle and a spoon. With much pomp and a cheeky smile he pipes a mousse onto the spoon and slips it into his pot of gently steaming liquid nitrogen. Before long a crisp little white meringue type creature emerges and he places it before me. Again, all at once.
Photo also by me! (what a clever gal I am)
It explodes! A crisp outer shell gives way to a fine crisp gin flavoured mist on my tongue. Crisp is the adjective of choice here. I wish for another but alas! Tis not to be. I will have to try and recreate these bad boys at home…
Next up is a Red Cabbage Gazpacho with Pommery Grain Mustard Icecream. A royal purple chilled soup that is beautifully balanced sweet and salty. The icecream is peppery and hits you gently in the nose. The most enjoyable this about this dish is that the soup tasted like cabbage and the icecream tastes of mustard and it works.
The presentation of this dish is nothing to write home about, but the flavours speak enough beautiful words to fill the gaps.
And on that note, let’s rewind a moment.
Two months or so before I logged onto my fb to see that I had about 20 increasingly frantic messages from my friend Kit. I messaged her back to see what the matter was.
She told me she had tickets to eat at The Fat Duck.
My brain did a series of confused acrobatic tumbles. (The Fat Duck in England? Heston’s restaurant? How amazing! Why was she trying to tell me so frantically? Did she want to sell me the tickets … How would I even get to England?!)
“Do you mean THE Fat Duck?” I typed back. “The one in England?” (Perhaps there was another restaurant with the same name?)
“Didn’t you hear?” She asked. Heston has closed down the one in England for renovations. Then he announced that he was opening it in Melbourne for six months only. Shipping over his whole team.They had a ballot. 90,000 people applied for 14,000 tickets.
We got some.”
Photo of me freaking out in Hobbiton a couple of years ago as a reference for excitement levels
Cue my brain turning into a world class acrobat specializing in flippy floppy fishnastics. (THIS MUST BE A JOKE. IT CAN’T BE REAL. AM I BEING FILMED? OH SHIT, IT IS REAL. OH LORDY SHE IS ASKING ME TO GO. STAY CALM. HOW MUCH IS IT. I DON’T HAVE A FIRSTBORN CHILD TO OFFER. ARGH.)
It turns out it costs 525 per person. Just for food. Without wine. Before flights. I am currently saving to go to Thailand on a part time job.
She says we have to confirm before midnight or the tickets get given to someone else. I say Yes. Ill make it work.
So here I am. My friends crowd funded me to be here. I offered cakes and recipes and love and you gave me your hard earned cash so that I could experience this crazy dream. Its a bit surreal, let me tell you. Anyway, where were we? Oh yes, Gazpacho.
Hold onto your seats boys, girls and gender rebels, because the next course is crazy exciting: Savoury Lollies.
Photo by me
Now those of you who have watched the show Heston’s Feasts may remember these from his 1970’s special. The first one is a Waldorf Salad Popsicle. Each coloured layer is a flavour. The tippy top is walnut. Then celery followed by apple. You lick it from top to bottom (quite the most kinky form of eating I have been instructed in by a black tie waiter) and the fresh flavours of a waldorf salad make a party on your tongue.
The second ‘lolly’ is a tube of beautiful salmon rolled in avocado and wasabi ribbons. Perfect sushi in retro packaging.
Photo by the wonderful Tam
And last but definitely not least, Duck Liver Parfait with fig jelly and nuts. It is a perfect miniature of a Golden Gaytime, that wonderfully kitsch giggle-worthy Australian Icecream.
Photo by Tam
A momentary confession. I do not like offal. I do not like kidney or live or heart or tongue or brain or tripe. I WISH I did. I mean if you are going to kill an animal to eat, you should bloody well eat the whole thing, but no matter how many times or how many different ways I have tried all these crazy innards… I just did not enjoy them.
Until now. It is sweet and salty. A rich creamy meaty cloud of a mousse coated in a fruity little dress of fig jelly. Crunchy little nut friends add texture. I could eat ten. I could eat twenty. Lets have a parfait party.
This photo is because there was a wonderful add for Golden Gaytimes some while ago with the tagline ‘Its hard to have a Gay Time By Yourself!’ (Photo by Tamala)
A table over from us is looking at their Baby Gaytime with distrust. “Its amazing!” I call.
“But it’s liver.”
“I don’t normally like it either,” I offer, “Trust me. It’s amazing.”
They love it too.
Lets take a breather for a moment, dear readers,
because the next dish blew me away and I want to do it justice.
Deep breath in… Ok, are you ready?
The waiters place a small dish filled with moss into the centre of the table. Nestled atop the moss is four little plastic containers, marked simply ‘film’.
We are told to take the strip from within the container and place it on our tongue. We remove the ‘film’ and into the mouth it goes. Oak. Smokey. As this melts on my tongue the waiter pours a mixture of oak moss essential oil, alchahol and hot water onto the bed of moss. An incredibly dramatic fog rolls down the side of the box and across the table. It smells of the forest. More oak. Tannins
Two dishes are placed before us. A little cave of a bowl. There are layers. The first layer is pea. Silk sheets would weep with jealousy. Tiny cubes of of turnip. The next layer is cream infused with marron. Somewhat like a bisque panna cotta but more subtle. Topping this creamy beauty is the piece de resistance… a deeply rich quail jelly. The jelly is just set, the moment it hits the heat of your mouth it turns to liquid. Its robust and complex, a roast gamey base with a perfect balance of sweet and salty. It is served with truffle toast and I breath in the heady scent of forest fog as I nibble. Balanced atop the amber-sap coloured jelly is jet black quenelle of caviar sorbet. Hot Damn
Photo by Tamala
Somehow the quail and seafood flavours weave to create something more than the sum of their parts. I will dream of this dish.
Later, when we are giving menus as momento’s the sub heading to this dish is ‘Homage to Alan Chapel.’ I took a moment to read up about Mr Chapel, an idol of Heston’s. One line about him in particular caught my attention. ‘A meal at Chapels restaurant was like a symphony.’
This dish, then, does him Justice.
(Kit said I would gush. You were right. Shhhh. )
Dish number Six. This one needs a little introduction. It is one of the restaurants signature dishes. The legend goes that Heston was making porridge for breakfast one morning when a delivery person arrived with a crate of fresh snails. Tick, tick, tick went the hands of Heston’s brain clock and he started thinking about oats and snails. He knew that Snail Porridge would be a hard sell to the eating public, so he based it around flavours classic-ly paired with snails. Fennel and herbs and ham. He wanted to create a dish that seemed surreal in concept but comforting in the eating. And it is.
The well oiled machine that is the waitstaff bring out our little pots, all shyly hiding their gastropod glory beneath demure lids and in almost perfect synchronized harmony they remove the lids and announce, “SNAIL PORRIDGE” with cute smiles before gliding away. They both have slightly sheepish looks at the tweeness.
Photo by Miss Nom (That’s me)
It is comforting and hearty. A little tangle of thinly shaved fennel perches above this surprisingly fresh oaty porridge redolent of herbs and studded with meaty little morsels of snails.The dish is served with fresh farmhouse style bread (soft in the middle, chewy on the outside, smoked to finish) with a generous slab of golden butter.
Photo by me
The concept may be odd, but the dish itself makes me want to curl up by the fire with a big ol’ book and a bigger bowl of porridge.
Omg Snail Porridge! Photo by Tam
BUT THE SHOW MUST GO ON.
(to be sung in your best Freddie Mercury voice)
Lets talk about Umami. Prepare your brain, because I have some knowledge for you. Did you know that their are five flavours? Most people, if questioned, would name salty, sweet, bitter and sour. For many years chef, cooks and scientists alike would have agreed with you. But there is a fifth flavour. It is called Umami. Most often associated with seafood, this is a complex flavour to describe. I won’t go into the science of it too much here, but it is in ripe tomatoes, beef, mushrooms and, most noticeably, seafood. That ‘sea’ flavour.
And that brings us to Roast Marron with shitake, confit kombu and sea lettuce. YES, YES, BUT WHAT DO THOSE WORDS EVEN MEAN?
Marron is a crayfish from the West Coast of Australia and is similar in taste and texture to lobster. Rich and dense and moist. This particular piece is possibly grilled? Or maybe roasted? Shitake is a Japanese mushroom, with a distinct flavour. HOW CAN I EXPLAIN IT. I CAN’T. GO EAT ONE.
Kombu is a type of seaweed, also from Japan, and has the distinction of being the only seaweed that is used to make stock. The particular stock made from Kombu is called Dashi and it can be a soup or a seasoning. Chances are, if you have eaten at a Japanese restaurant you may have had Dashi. Kombu is known as “The King of Seaweed”. Its rich in the aforementioned Umami flavour.
This whole dish is a choreographed battleground of flavours. Bam! Rich Marron! Kablam! Umami attack! Whack! Crispy seaweed parry!
My taste buds are on high alert. A punchy dish indeed.
And of course, following the fight comes the seduction.
A glass cup is placed in front of me bearing a faux egg.
An inside out egg at that. Tiny enoki mushrooms sprout from the inverted yolk…
My tummy is aquiver…
We are about to take a tumble down the rabbit hole.
This dish is also featured in Heston’s feasts
(seriously, if you haven’t seen the show, pop it on the top of your watch list) so I know a bit about the inspiration for this madcap dish.
In the time of Lewis Carol Turtle soup with fabulously popular with the rich and famous of the time. Of course, as with most trends, the poorer folk wanted to get in on the action. Part of the appeal of turtle soup, so the history books tell us, lies in the fact that turtles were no where near Britain and had to be shipped so far to be fed to the elite.
A clever businessman made a working mans version from beef: a mock turtle soup. The character of the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland is in fact a nod to this gastronomic evolution, thus the turtle with the cows head…
Our old mate Heston is inspired by all things Wonderland and so he based this dish around the Mad Hatters Tea Party.
The Mock Turtle eggs are made from Turnip mousse and swede jelly and teeny tiny enoki mushrooms sprout forth. Little chunks of pressed beef and miniature herbs for a ‘garden’ of sorts in the base of the bowl.
Then there is a teapot. Glass also filled with hot water. And then, and then. A velvet box displaying four gold fob watches with tea strings instead of chains.
You dip the watch, into the hot water and swirl. The watch is a cleverly disguised soup coated in edible gold leaf that melts to turn your water into a rich beef and mushroom broth flecked with gold that is then poured over the faux egg.
Oh yes. I love broths. The art of turning water into flavour using food is an incredible thing. The ability to then turn that broth into a fob watch is probably just magic. And it tastes good. Really good.
It is finished off with the ‘toast sandwhiches’ which were unfortunately not up to par… Perhaps I am just not a fan of thin white bread?
And the signature dishes just keep on coming…
The Sound of the Sea
We are given shells with headphones trailing out of them.
I remember reading about this dish years ago. Scientists have found many links between sounds and memory and they can affect they way we taste things. Heston first came across this theory because an experimental psychologist at Oxford had asked him to be part of an experiment exploring has sound affected taste. One of the experiments included eating a bag of crisps while listing to the sound of crisps. Apparently if the soundtrack had more crunchy sounds it seemed the chips themselves seemed crunchier…
The gentle hshhsh of waves hitting and rolling on a pebbled beach fills my ears. Occasionally the squawk of seagulls. The accompanying dish is served on a rectangle of glass suspended above a picturesque bed of sand.
I am going to have to come right out and say it: I didn’t love this dish. It was an adventure, to be shore, (Ha! Adam, that one is for you) but the flavours tasted just a bit too much like the sea. Umami overload perhaps. There is edible sand made from dried eels and breadcrumbs, a ‘ocean foam’ that tasted just a little too close to the actual ocean. There were three kinds of raw fish (which I loved, but can’t for the life of me remember what they were) and more kombu and seaweads.
Last few photos by me
Tamala said it took her back so vividly to getting dumped by waves that she was a bit unsettled. None of us adored this dish, though perhaps if you grew up around the ocean it would tickle all your boxes. I did enjoy eating this dish – not for the flavours this time, but rather because the nostalgia it evoked was thick. Despite the fact I was surrounded by waiters and white tablecloths and cityscapes… I felt I was at the beach.
SOME DRAMA OUT OF NOWHERE
A bit of the way into eating this meal Jack leans over and asks me quietly “Is that meant to be there?” pointing to a small piece of seaweed. I nod, in my seascape haze. A few moments later he asks us again and we realize there is a small live insect (or very tiny sea creature) happily nestling in his seaweed.
“Nope,” I say this time. “I don’t think that is meant to be there.” We get the waiters attention and point out the small creature. He is instantly apologetic and asks if Jack would like another or just a totally different dish. Jack is fine with another. The little dude and his habitat are whisked about and moments later the restaurant manager is at our table checking, double checking that Jack is ok. He’s all, Its fine! I just wasn’t sure if he was meant to be there? Extra protein, I guess?”
The manager checks again if he would like another dish and he insists its fine.
As a chef I seriously commend the beautiful and proper way they treated the gravitas of the situation. Jack didn’t care: but he could have.
Later they give him a glass of 18 year old whisky, on the house. Jack says he wish he found bugs in his food more often.
SALMON POACHED IN A LIQUORICE GEL
THIS IS THE KIND OF DISH TO PROPOSE MARRIAGE OVER.
The salmon was sous vide (which involved cooking the fish at a
super slow-and-low temperature in a sealed bag inside of water)
that results in fish like butter with a brilliant pink texture. This little gem was then coated in a liquorice gel and served with vanilla mayonnaise, grilled endive and golden trout roe.
Once again it is a symphony.
The individual flavours combining to become more than the sum of their parts.
I am at a loss for words over this one.
I managed not to lick the plate.
I may have wiped the last scerricks off with my fingers and
licked them unabashedly though,
no promises on that one.
Photo by me
We are well into the swing of mains by this time and they bring out a baby portion of tender lamb cooked to perfection and served with lamb and mint jelly, confit cubes of the tongue, cheek and neck of the lamb (on the little side plate there). Great flavours, classic flavours, given the Heston touch. Mmmm, dat lamb and mint jelly. I’d spread that on my face.
Photo by Tam
Righty ho, back to business, or was it pleasure.
AND THUSLY DO THE DESSERTS BEGIN
Hot and Cold Tea
A small double walled class filled with a simple amber liquid is placed in front of us. Drink from just here, they tell us and look good little diners, we do.
It is hot. And cold. Its a beautiful Earl grey brew but also its magic. Some parts of my mouth are hot and some parts are cold and before long we are all giggling as our brain refuses to understand what is happening.
They did tell us how this is achieved, but Ill keep that to myself.
Ask me sometime… Over tea
The next dish is intriguingly named “Botrytis Cinerea” and it refers to a special kind of grape. Well, when you get right down to it is actually a particular type of bacteria that infects plants but when it comes to grapes they use it deliberately (somewhat like mould on cheese, I guess) as it imparts a particular flavour. Apparently the mould can rot the grapes (not good) or ferment them (good) and these are used to makes Sauternes, a popular dessert wine. The latin name Botrytis Cinerea in facts means ‘grapes like ashes’ possibly one of the most gothic food names I have heard, and this dish is inspired by the flavours of these grapes
The dish is presented like a art nouveau painting of grapes. Each ‘grape’ is flavoured of these fermented little beauties but presented as a sorbet or a jel or a puree or a chocolate shell filled with popping candy… It is sweet and a little sour. And so much fun. It is and adventure of tasting. A motley assortment of the same flavour in different forms. It is the Orphan Black of desserts.
There are even edible stems
THE NOT SO FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST
Part one of this dish comes in a box bearing the wizard explorer Heston picture emblazoned with ‘A PIECE OF THE PUZZLE.’
And a sachet of vegetable cereal. That’s right. Carrot and swede ‘cornflakes’ served with parsnip milk.
I loved the milk. The vegetable corn flakes were tasty but they suffered from that cornflake problem… they got soggy too fast. Parsnip milk though, I could drink a tall glass of that, let me tell you
We were also given a piece of the puzzle to add the the wall. We got to write on the back before it was places into the giant (ahem, decently sized) mural to my left. I bypassed writing anything hilarious and simply wrote ‘Not all who wander are lost’ because it is one of my favourite quotes and it seemed relevant for that to be a part of the puzzle on the wall of a wandering restaurant.
THE SECOND PART OF THE DISH
The liquid nitrogen man is back with his trolley! As dapper as ever with his vest and fob watch pocket this time he arrives at the table and announces, “We have a lot of chickens on the roof and we feed them nothing but bacon. They love it.” He deliveres in a wonderfully deadpan manner.
On his trolley there is a carton with four seemingly normal eggs in an eggbox stamped with the Fat Duck Insignia, a beautiful copper pan atop an even more beautiful copper contraption, some liquid nitrogen in a silver jug, a spoon and a teatowel. “We discovered that these chickens produce extraordinary eggs.” Explains the waiterwizard. With deft practice he cracks the egg into the copper pan and out pours a smooth custard. In goes the liquid nitrogen and with that more impressive fog pours forth.
It is the famed ‘Egg and bacon icecream’.
It is lusciously smooth and redolent of bacon with a notes of egg.
It is served with a perfect little caramelized rectangle of buttery brioche, crispy pancetta and
a tub of Earl Grey marmalade
See that little checkered top on the marmalade?
Whisky Wine Gums
Im sorry whiskey lovers. I will be terrible at giving you anything exciting about this dish because I just don’t love whiskey… The smokiness is wonderful but that aftertaste is just not my cup of… spirits.
Five little ‘bottles’ of whisky infused jellies were placed on a map in relation to where the whisky came from. Four from Scotland and one from Australia. I wish you could try them and love them for me…
AND WE ARRIVE AT THE LAST
APTLY NAMED ‘Like a Kid in a Sweet shop’
The cutest little bag with pink and white stripes and a matching plate. In the bag where five fascinating sweets and a menu that was scented like a sweet shop. After we finished up Tam and I went for some drinks with friends of mine and she kept approaching people and saying ‘Hello stranger, smell this’ and proferring the card at them. Enjoyable for all.
Back to the sweets.
Aerated chocolate with mandarin jelly – a mandarin aero! Om nom nom
Apple pie caramel … exactly as one might imagice
The Queen of hearts – It looks like a card! But it was a white chocolate and jam tart. A bit sweet for me but so cute…
Aaaand. My favourite! The Ox Choc! A beef flavoured nougat. Steak crossed with a mars bar. Forget vegemite chocolate, my friends, this is where it is at.
I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to have eaten at this crazy wonderful place. Was it worth it? Yes. Not because you can’t get delicious food for affordable prices, you can. Ten dollar ramen slowly simmered for ten hours from Sunnybank is still one of my favourite things in the world. In Italy I had handmade taglietelle with porcini cream sauce that nearly made me orgasm right there in the restaurant. It cost me 20 bucks. A ripe tomato fresh from the market sliced with a sharp knife and scattered with torn basil and extra virgin olive is a thing of beauty.
But as an experience? Yeah, this was once in a lifetime. And the rollercoaster that my mind, body, mouth, ears, eyes and nose were taken on will stay with me for years to come.
In fact in took me over a week to be able to form coherent sentences about the experience.
THANK YOU TO ALL THE PEOPLE WHO MADE THIS POSSIBLE. I LOVE YOU
AND THANK YOU TO THE MAN HIMSELF, HESTON, FOR BEING A SCIENCE FOOD WIZARD WITH A BIG CHILD IN HIS HEART. YOU BRING MAGIC TO THE WORLD AND FOR THAT WE ARE GRATEFUL