Dinner by Heston @ Mandarin Oriental Hotel

There has been a lot of hype over ‘Dinner’ since it opened in early 2011, Heston Blumenthal’s latest endeavour in collaboration with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Shooting straight to number 9 as a new entry to the league tables of The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants and praised by the most discerning of food critiques, I was chuffed to bits when my friend made a lucky last minute reservation as a treat for my birthday.

A world away from the alchemy that The Fat Duck brings, Dinner is a much more modest affair. Its ‘USP’ is a menu inspired by British gastronomy of times gone by, elevated to the present era through contemporary cooking techniques. As you browse the menu, the approximate date of each dish is noted, and a brief blurb on the reverse reveals the inspiration behind each one. Little cards were placed on the table with random facts, however these read more like an excerpt from an encyclopaedia and were a bit lost on me…

Located in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and backing onto Hyde Park, the ambience is what you would expect of a high end hotel in prime location London. Decor was subdued, dark wood dining furniture and low hung, slightly medieval looking chandeliers with candle-like lights. The visual stimuli really came from the glass chamber of chefs located to one side of the dining room, and we were delighted to bag a top spot with tranquil views of Hyde Park to one side and the hustle and bustle of the kitchen to the other. We weren’t lucky enough to have Heston on site on the day, but had plenty of opportunity to catch Head Chef Ashley Palmer-Watt as he commanded the service of his rather calm brigadier of chefs.

Suitably seated and pondering which of the lovely cocktails we were about to order, we were greeted by the sommelier who persuaded us to go for the “very, very, very good” champagne instead of the cocktail. The champagne was nice, but on reflection felt as though he was a little pushy in his recommendation, and can only assume he did this as pouring two glasses of champagne is much easier than making two different cocktails. The wine menu was extensive, but expensive! The cheapest bottle of red was about £35 and £40 for white.

So for the starters. Tempted as we were to go for the now legendary Meat Fruit (chicken liver parfait cleverly disguised as a glossy tangerine), we wanted to sample some of the other dishes on offer. My friend chose the Hay Smoked Mackerel c.1730 (with Lemon Salad, Gentlemen’s Relish & Olive Oil) at £14.50. Pretty as a picture, I didn’t try any but was assured that it was light, well balanced and tasted good.

I opted for the Roast Scallops c.1820 (with Cucumber Ketchup and Borage) at £16.50. The scallops were juicy and well cooked, as you’d expect from a Michelin Star restaurant. The cucumber relish was tasty, slightly sweet and acidic. I particularly liked the cooked cucumber chunks, something I’ve never tried before. Overall it was really accomplished, but I think it could’ve done with another variation in texture as everything on the plate was soft and wet.

For main course, my friend chose the Black Foot Pork Chop (with Hispi Cabbage, Lardo, Ham Hock and Robert Sauce) at £30.  So called ‘black foot’ aka ‘pata negra’ from the Iberico Hams typical of the Basque country. The chop was generous is size and the mouthful I tried was juicy and flavoursome. A quick search on Wiki reveals that Robert sauce is one of the oldest compound sauces on record, a version of which is cited in Le Cuisinier Francois (1620) by one of Henry IV cooks. Lucky Henry, the sauce was very good indeed.

I chose the Veal Sweetbreads with Morels and Asparagus (featured image).  This was one of the specials for the day and I didn’t manage to catch the date of origin. Very happy with my choice, the sweetbreads were lightly crumbed and perfectly cooked.

In contrast to the starters and desserts, the mains seemed far less complex.  More along the lines of ‘meat and two veg’ (although by the sounds of the feast that Henry IV had on his Coronation in 1399 it’s no small wonder!). Not that good food needs to be complicated, but after comparing the pictures of the mains with the other courses, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were from different restaurants.

The first dessert was Brown Bread Ice Cream c.1830 (with Salted Butter Caramel & Malted Yeast Syrup) at £9.50. Creamy, sweet, salty and malty with a bit of crunch and refreshing cubes of melon to cut through the richness.

A must for the chocoholics, we also ordered the Chocolate Bar c.1730 (with Passion Fruit Jam & Ginger Ice Cream) at £9.50. The chocolate bar with a layer of very sweet passion fruit jam was insanely rich, a little too rich for me. I loved the ginger ice cream but don’t think it quite stood up to the intensity of the bitter sweet chocolate.

To finish the meal, we were given complimentary Chocolate Ganache.  A nice touch, but had we known this was coming we’d have gone for something other than the Chocolate Bar for dessert. Definitely a case of chocolate overload!

The final verdict? I think those reviewers that have marked Dinner down for a lack of “WOW’ factor and theatrics have missed the point. If you go with expectations of iPods in shells and dry ice you’ll be sorely disappointed.  If you go with expectations of “What you see is what you get” then you should be pleased.  Each dish was a fine example of what it claimed to be – cooked using modern techniques and delivered in a no fuss or frills way.  More typically “British”, you could say.

Pricewise – there’s definitely others out their serving food of a similar standard at a fraction of the price.  The excessively expensive wine menu is also a deterrent. A three course meal for two with wine will leave you little change from £200.

The service was meticulous but pushy at times, I don’t have a problem with my glass being topped up every 5 minutes but I do take note of the sommelier pushing the champagne aperitif.

Would I go again? Hmmm…the jury is out on this one.  The problem is I can almost taste the other dishes already – precisely because what you see is what you get, no hidden tricks or surprises. Might just wait for some of the hype to die down and for a few more of the dishes on the menu to change before I venture back. We were very lucky with the last minute reservation and location of the table, I would book far in advance for this as the experience wouldn’t have been the same in some of the tucked away spots with restricted views.

Holy Grail Chili Oil

Once upon a time, I was AFRAID of chili.

Like many kids, I used to bite my nails. Unlike many kids, my parents were sadomasochistic. Instead of popping down to the nearest chemist and buying some “Stop ‘n’ Grow”, mine would dunk my fingertips in cayenne pepper or hot chili powder. A rather crude and abusive way of getting me to kick the bad habit I think, and solely responsible for my aversion to anything even mildly hot or spicy until my mid teens. Years later, I’ve forgiven my parents for their ‘tough-love’ – my nails look normal, and more importantly my tastes buds have developed and I now love anything with a bit of a fiery kick.

I can’t remember what turned me or at which moment I became a chili fan, but it’s something I can’t get enough these days.  It’s not the pure heat I crave (although I have been known to challenge colleagues over Mad Dog 357), I prefer something with more depth, or flavour layers.

This addictive holy grail of condiments can be used on just about anything – it packs a lot of fire but also has an intense depth of flavour from the dried scallops, salted fried dace and black beans.  It’s really a hybrid between XO Sauce and a more traditional Chili Oil, and suits western food as well as the more obvious asian dishes, from dim sum, noodles and rice to pork chops and even poached eggs (hangover breakfast!).

It’s surprisingly quick to make and lasts a long time.  A typical XO sauce normally calls for dried shrimp, I didn’t have any so used 1/2 a tin of Salted Fried Dace with Black Beans (Dau Si Laing Yiu) – you can get hold of this in any chinese supermarket.

Small handful of birds eye chili

10 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 inch ginger, finely chopped
Small handful of dried scallops
1/2 tin Dau Si Laing Yiu – Fried Salted Dace with Black Beans
Rapeseed oil – approx 150ml
Steam the dried scallops in a bamboo steamer for 10 minutes then blitz in a food processor till you have fine shreds.
Blitz the birds eye chilis till you have a coarse mix.
Take 1/2 tin of Salted Fried Dace with Black Bean and finely chop.
Add a couple of tablespoons of a neutral oil to a pan and set on a low heat.  Add the garlic, ginger, scallops and salted dace with black beans and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally to stop it from catching. The mix will turn a deep brown colour. 
Take off the heat and stir in the dried chili. Transfer to a sterilised jar. Heat approx 150ml of neutral oil in a pan till its hot but not smoking.  Then pour into the jar over the chili mix.  Give it a thorough stir, then seal and allow to mingle for at least a few days before using. 
Add a teaspoon or two during cooking or drizzle generously at the end.