This last week I have swum in both the deep and the shallow end of Heston Blumenthal’s pool. Lucky me, it was my birthday, and someone was kind enough to take me to Dinner by Heston, his restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, London. I also saw two and a half episodes of Heston’s Fantastical Food, his new ‘vehicle’ for Channel 4. It seemed like a good idea to talk about them together.
The restaurant itself is as modish and moneyed as you’d expect from a five star hotel sitting literally in the shadow of One Hyde Park, the most expensive property development in the UK. You enter through a bar filled with the sort of Prada-bedecked people I’d personally emigrate to avoid, but the restaurant itself, warm and beautifully lit, is bray-free. Dark wood and blown glass. We don’t get to overlook the fabled kitchen like some tables, but I’d take our spot again with its night view of the park. The concept behind Dinner by Heston is taking archaic British dishes, each one lovingly cookbook-dated on the menu, and celebrating and updating the ideas with pernickity attention to detail. As Matthew Fort said in a rave review in the Guardian, “Dinner reclaims and reinvents our own cooking heritage, reinvigorating the tired and ordinary orthodoxies of traditional British cooking.”
Unfortunately, the tired and ordinary orthodoxies of TV don’t come in for the same treatment. The high-concept elevator pitch behind H.F.F. is this: “Heston makes giant food.” That’s it. It’s window-dressed with his usual tropes of nostalgia, childhood flavours, and magical imagination, plus a parade of Roald Dalhl-ian silliness. But none of these quite support the premise or justify the means. “I’m going to expensively make an enormous thing, enlisting local people and food technologists up and down the land, and entertain the people doing so.” The giant fry up, the giant ice cream, the giant pot of tea. The ‘why’ is never really gotten to. And that’s the problem. There is no reason for this programme to exist. There is no good reason for the scale of the stunts – the glib explanations given aren’t even remotely convincing. The justifications – basically, that it will fire the imaginations of children – aren’t really borne out by the footage.
Back to Dinner. We skip the signature ‘meat fruit‘, a classic bit of Blumenthal legerdemain, and I go for Roast Marrowbone (c.1720) with snails, parsley, anchovy, mace & pickled vegetables, while my companion has the Rice & Flesh (c.1390) with saffron, calf tail and a red wine reduction. The marrow and snails are a little oily and samey for me but the Rice & Flesh is extraordinary; like a British risotto rippling with meaty unctuousness. Not remotely French, let alone Italian. We move on to the mains, and both decide to go for the Battalia Pye (c.1660), a barrel hoop crust filled with sweetbreads, lamb tongue, devilled kidneys and little pigeon legs, plus a little boat of the richest, densest lamb gravy ever devised by man. This is a potent celebration of meaty English flavours. You feel greedier with every mouthful. This is a pie, that most utterly Anglo-Saxon container. A pie filled with offal – which could similarly describe the sort of four-for-a-pound jobs you can get from Iceland – and yet it screams with flavour and texture and technique. It’s gloriously nostalgic and robust, and yet refined to perfection. It’s entirely Heston.
When Heston gets his lab coat on, special things happen. Like Ferran Adria, he seems happier experimenting, tasting, thinking, perfecting. Unlike Adria, whose distinctly Catalan take on molecular gastronomy is flighty and theatrical with nods to the avant-garde, our boy constantly returns to his well-worn themes of nostalgia, the tastes of childhood, and synesthesia. The bits on H.F.F. where he gets in the ‘lab’ and relates his ideas and technique are easily the best sequences; he looks relaxed and entirely in his element. This being Channel 4 TV, these scenes are pared down to the bare fucking minimum, in favour of pedestrian vox pop wandering and bonhomie with the cast of characters required, a job he isn’t really that suited for – it strikes me that this might work better as a two-hander with someone else to knock about with the public. The tone is uneven as well – when he gets wacky with the sketchpad and starts to look like a clunky fusion of Harry Hill and Joe 90, you wonder if the man who created a restaurant once voted best in the world isn’t going through some kind of midlife crisis. Do you really need to be loved this badly?
Back at Dinner, we’re onto Pudding. I thought the mains were good, but these really seal it. I get brown bread ice cream (c.1830) with salted butter caramel, pear & malted yeast syrup. I’ve had many salted caramel things before, but nothing even close to this; the texture perfected, the crunch, the presentation, the slightly savoury tone balancing the utter malty sweetness. Just amazing. My companion has the taffety tart (c.1660) with apple, rose, fennel & vanilla ice cream, which works a parade of flavours effortlessly. We wait a little while for the ice cream trolley to work its way round the last few tables. This slightly incongruous flourish could have been invented by Heston’s agent. Basically, they make ice-cream in front of you using a rotund, waistcoated man, a hand-cranked, hand-made mixing machine, and liquid nitrogen throwing billowing clouds and drawing everyone’s attention; a seaside science show. There’s a touch of apple coulis in the cones, the nod to finer things. Then you roll your ice cream cone in your choice of toppings; I go for sugar-coated fennel seeds, which were delicious. The whole experience borders on kitsch – perfectly executed kitsch. For this closer, they charged us £8.50 each, but given the twenty minute post-dessert wait and the extra couple of glasses of wine we ordered because of that wait… Dinner was not cheap. But it was exceptional, and the finest expression of what the man is good at.
Back in TV land, a giant, unflavoured ice-cream weighing one tonne is prepared (twice) by experts and craned onto a waffle-coated steel structure. Then Heston and his lad-mag boys fire ‘flavour bombs’ at it with cannons and paintball guns. There is a ludicrous and lengthy preamble to all this where he attempts to make a giant cone out of the normal cone-stuff that will support the vast weight – when it is clear to the viewing public, as it must be to him, that such a thing is impossible and another solution must be found. He gloomily goes through with the TV convention anyway. One tonne of ice-cream in a public park, rapidly melting. There aren’t enough kids in the crowd to eat even a fraction of it. His imagination is rampant, but the vast expense and wastefulness of this programme, in the lingering tail of a recession, in a country where seven million tonnes of food are thrown away every year (to the point where the government has launched a campaign to reduce it) borders on the obscene.
Please. Heston. Stick with what you are excellent at. Refuse to compromise with the idiots who run the idiot box. Stay in the public eye. Stay on television, but show people about work and perfection and glorious English cookery. Don’t sell yourself short. You’ve done a great deal for food and food culture in this country. You don’t need to do rubbish like this too.