Thursday, 4 April 2013

Duped by Dinner

Dinner by Heston. It was probably the most anticipated restaurant opening of 2011; it was definitely our most anticipated meal of 2013. Were our expectations too high? Did the allure of Michelin stars and San Pellegrino Top 50 lists cloud our judgement? Whatever the case, we left thinking: ‘How on earth has this restaurant earned such a great reputation?’

It’s not the food that's the problem. It’s still ‘fearsomely expensive’ and, dare I say, over-rated. It’s rather the service that caused the whole evening to feel off kilter. Now, I’m no veteran of Michelin-starred establishments but, having been to a fair few, the service, at its worst, has always been discreet if a little formal. At its best it has elevated the evening and the dining experience. At Dinner, we often felt uncomfortable and at times downright harassed.

Imagine it’s the anniversary of a special occasion and as you raise your glasses for that celebratory toast, your waiter clumsily chimes in like a pissed wedding guest in the middle of the best man’s speech. Your gauche, French sommelier asks if you’d like to see the wine list and proceeds to hold on to it, so much so that you are forced to peer at it until he graciously hands it over. Why do that? This wine list caused the waiting staff much vexation. Surely they had more than one? Yet, each member of staff seemed intent on retrieving it from our grasp despite many protestations.

Add to this a dining room devoid of intimacy, the overwhelming feeling that every other table is more important than yours, the realisation that most people are here on business, staying in the Mandarin Oriental and have charged a steak and chips to their room – and the entire experience quickly lost its charm. Perhaps my account is a little revisionist, tainted by some not so rose-tinted glasses? Maybe we were just naive? But I expected more: the glowing reviews; the high standing; the endless superlatives.

I wish these were the only caveats and I could now utter as Jay Rayner did ‘Oh, but the cooking!’ It was very nice in parts but that obsessive compulsive attention to detail that Heston is always bragging about didn't materialise.

As per usual, we’d agonised over what to choose beforehand (this was after all a very expensive meal and we didn’t want to make any costly mistakes) so the choice of starters was already a foregone conclusion.

Ever since I saw Ashley Palmer-Watts cook the scallops and cucumber dish, it had made my shortlist. It was as I expected and no more: refreshingly clean with a lovely minerality from the scallops and seared cucumber and great acidity from the cucumber ketchup. This is really more about the cucumber than the scallops, treating the ingredient in ways that many will not have seen before. The best dish of the meal. The salamugundy was full of wonderful textural contrasts – slippery marrow studded with crispy chicken skin, crisp chicory, juicy chicken oyster.

The special of Royale of Beef (which brought to mind Pulp Fiction) with ox tongue, smoked anchovy and onion puree was a delicious exercise in savouriness with a great depth of flavour. The Turbot with cockle ketchup was expertly cooked and balanced. To be honest, I'm struggling for things to say. Whether it was a side effect of the service and ambiance or not, everything rang a bit hollow. Come to think of it, Jay Rayner's review must have also exerted some subconscious sorcery on us as we unwittingly chose exactly the same menu. Great minds...or maybe fools never differ.

If you happened to be staying at the Mandarin Oriental, it would however definitely be worth popping down for a dessert. The tipsy cake brought a smile to my face and the buttery, syrupy brioche pudding actually recalled of all things a krispy-creme pudding I'd had some weeks ago at a FireandSalt supper club. Bearing in mind the accompanying pineapple is roasted on what must be one of the world's most expensive spits, it has that air of overindulgence. The brown bread ice cream with salted butter caramel was malty, salty, sweet goodness that actually might have salvaged the meal.

So, an evening of highs and lows. The food might have disappointed less had we not been to Simon Rogan's new opening at The French in the same week. And I doubt we would have been so critical if the service were up to scratch. I'm wouldn't write the place off on the back of this one meal but at these prices I'm not hurrying to return. Frankly, there are better places in London to spend your hard-earned cash.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon