Dinner by Heston
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park,
66 Knightsbridge, SW1X 7LA
Tel: 020 7201 3833
Cost per person without wine: XXX
LEARNING that Heston’s new restaurant was to be called Dinner, I grimaced and sneered. How pretentious! Plain old Dinner indeed – this from the man behind snail porridge and yam flakes served in a cereal box.
Yet once you eat at Dinner, all your “yeah, whatever” sentiment goes away. I was not a fan of the Fat Duck, Blumenthal’s most famous restaurant. I thought it was overpriced and overperformed, with a bizarrely unchanging menu.
But Dinner, which is inspired by British food of several hundred years ago, is just great. The room is big, windowy, squeaky clean in the way of big hotel restaurants, with light fittings resembling sea creatures and, most importantly, a full view of the kitchen. Of paramount interest, almost hypnotically so, are the pineapples roasting on spits, seemingly controlled by the slow turning of a giant Ebel cog set high up in the wall.
Pineapples, once a sign of exoticism and cultishly popular in Victorian England, have made a comeback from their 1970s nadir (think tins and ham and toothpicks) but still strike me as sickly and a bit tacky. But somehow, once I’d seen them, bright and dripping, turning on Heston’s spit and intended for something called Tipsy Cake (c. 1810), I changed my tune. Well, in so far as I demanded my companion, Rhodri, pre-order it for dessert. Where, served with a bread and butter pudding, it was delicious.
So the menu is a tour of our country’s culinary past. It’s incredibly gratifying on all levels. First, the names (meat fruit, salamagundy, rice flesh, turkey pudding); second, the neat matching of plates with dates (if you want more information, see the recommended reading at the back of the menu). Thirdly, the results, which are delicious to a mouthful.
I kicked off with the much-vaunted meat fruit (c. 1500). It’s a praline-like blob of chicken liver parfait enclosed (via some complex chemical process that Heston himself explained to us) in soft, marzipan-like mandarin casing. It looked beautiful in a small, compact, non-edible way, but boy was it edible. My fork sliced into its rich, spiced interior and delivered a mouthful of arresting creaminess and savour, dense but not cloyingly so. Taken with a bit of buttered grilled toast, it may have been the perfect mouthful. Heston – taking time to talk to us as he did his rounds – explained that while the recipes were based on old ones, clearly they’d been sexed up for the modern palate. Indeed: I was beginning to think that culinary life in 1600 was pretty brilliant.
Had he his way, Heston’s menu would be flooded with oysters – a mainstay of British eating until the 20th century. But the oyster-induced mass food poisoning at the Fat Duck in 2009 has made him distrustful of British oysters and so, he lamented, he’s had to do without.
No bother. To counter the meat fruit, Rhodri had the rather exquisite hay smoked mackerel (c.1730) - a clean, aromatic arrangement of fish with lemon salad, Gentleman’s Relish (an anchovy paste, before any dirtier thoughts cross your mind) and olive oil. It was onion-like in its flavour rings, and firm but light. The rice and flesh was also a major temptation: calf tail and red wine with saffron and, one presumes rice, though it was news to me that Brits had rice in 1390.
For mains, I had the powdered duck: a plate of beautiful, slightly crispy duck legs that were served a pinkish caramel hue I’d never seen but which bespoke a candy-like, lacquered crunch on the outside and silky meat on the inside. Served with startlingly moreish smoked fennel and what was clearly the best mash ever, this was a really good take on a dish from 1670. Rhodri had the recommended beef royal (c.1720): 72 hours slow cooked short rib of angus, smoked anchovy and onion puree with ox tongue. Beef like this is always a bit gelatinous and death-tasting for me, but Rhodri revelled in its intense earthiness. It was an all-singing/dancing dish, that’s for sure.
Other temptations were the turkey pudding (there’s something irresistible about dishes that sound horrible, like the rice and flesh), which contains mushrooms, cockcomb and bone marrow; and the 19th century black foot pork chop with “pointy” cabbage and Robert sauce (sauce with brown mustard).
Dessert. Finally, the tipsy cake: a cheerful yellow pudding in a ramekin and by its side, a mound of spit-roast pineapple. Rhodri thought it was more like two great puddings than one.
I was too preoccupied with my unsweet brown bread ice cream, which tasted exactly of brown bread and was completely wonderful: a hit of malt and caramel without the naked sugar. Malted yeast syrup, it turns out, is really good in puddings. A lighter option would have been poached rhubarb (c. 1590), with rosehips and rhubarb sorbet.
My only gripe is that this restaurant is seriously expensive. Dinner for two with the cheapest bottle of wine and two apertifs cost over £200. A single tea cost us nearly £10 (though the little pots of earl gray cream served with it softened this blow a bit). Starters are in the 16 pound region which really hurts, since you’re not going to want to miss them. But if you’re feeling flush, book. The food, by and large, is worth the price tag.