After our weekend of serious scallop eating (and heavy wine drinking) we popped into Central London to visit the far less serious, though equally magnificent Moomin Exhibition at the Southbank Centre.
I have a love/hate relationship with London. I love its museums, the shops and most of all the ever-expanding, ever-diversifying, ever-more-glorious array of restaurants, food markets and gastronomic experiences it affords. Conversely, I can never be content in a place where there is such high concentration of human beings. Oxford street is, for me the epicentre of all evil… But I'm ranting, and the wave of deep seated discontent which gushes through my veins each and every time I step onto one of the world's most famous shopping thoroughfares is presumably not what you came here to read about.
Now I know that this is petty and of course I recognise that without the masses of inhabitants and visitors, none of London's redeeming features could hope to survive. For one to exist, so must the other and so on and so forth.
Thus it is inevitable that from time to time, if one is to indulge in certain pleasures, one must be brave and foray into town. The logical thing to do though, is to kill as many metaphorical birds as possible with each visit. So on every trip, I make a point of booking a table at a restaurant I fancy, thereby reducing the necessary number of visits.
On this occasion, it was the turn of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in Knightsbridge. Brainchild of Heston Blumenthal and holder of two coveted michelin stars as well as various other national and international awards, it is an obvious choice and has been on our 'to do' list for some time.
The concept is a modern interpretation of dishes from Britain's culinary back catalogue, given the Heston treatment and delivered with a dose of twenty first century panache. It's a good idea. I've always felt that serious food is best served with a sprinkling of humour. This is a clever way of achieving it, and from a man who has previous form in mixing science, humour and food into genius, the same man who gave us 'snail porridge' and 'the BFG', this had to be a winner.
The dining room is large. A little too large if anything, but it is modern and nicely designed with views into the kitchen and comfortable chairs. We sat and ordered some aperitifs. An excellent dry martini for myself and an (also very good) espresso martini for Catherine.
The menu is promising. Dishes dredged up from the past include Frumenty (c.1390), salamagundy (c.1720), Chicken cooked with lettuces (c.1670), braised celery (c.1730) and a host of other intriguing concoctions.
I opted for "meat fruit" (c. 1500) followed by powdered duck breast (c. 1850), while Catherine chose sherried scallop (c. 1970) then spiced pigeon (c. 1780) and truffled mash to share with the main.
The food arrives with the usual promptness and precision of an experienced, central London front of house team and is as photogenic as one expects.
The chicken liver parfait is smooth, rich and deliciously complemented by the mandarin jelly and hot, toasted brioche. Catherine's scallops are sweet, plump and perfectly matched by smoky cauliflower and grilled shiitakes. This is a delicious dish.
A short time later and the mains arrive. These are equally as accomplished, as are our desserts. Catherine's the Brown Bread Ice Cream (c.1830) and mine the Taffety Tart (c.1660). All the dishes were delicately intricate and carefully prepared, but as we neared the end of our meal and our hunger had been satiated, we found ourselves looking back over one of the less satisfying evenings we have spent together in the capital.
Its not that the food at Dinner isn't good. It is good. In places it is exceptional. Its not the quality of the offerings that is wanting at all. Its the quality of the experience.
From the off, the reception is friendly, but no canapés, no amuse-bouches... I'm not sure how I feel about this. Actually, I am. I bloody like those little "treats from the chef", and when one is accustomed to them, one begins to expect them. They give a little insight into the chef's personality, prepare the palate for the delicacies to come, and give hungry diners a talking point. So I'm sorry, but even if all they represent to the chef is somewhere other than the bin to shift his scraps, they enrich the evening for the diner. It is worth mentioning that there was a pre-dessert but it must have been pretty pedestrian, because I can't for the life of me remember what it was.
Add this to having to choose (and pay extra) for sides with main courses (maybe its a personal preference, but when I'm paying £150+ a head, I don't expect to have to finish my dish off) and the fact that we were in and out in the blink of an eye, and suddenly I'm left with the faint impression that I just had my dinner on a factory production line. A slightly sterile, depressingly efficient, profit maximising machine.
If you only eat at 2 michelin starred restaurants and are a bit short on time, then Dinner is right up your street. If like me, you have an irrational distaste for London, you'll need more than this to tempt you in.
Dinner by Heston, 66 Knightsbridge, London
N.B. We booked and paid for our meal at Dinner by Heston ourselves, and all opinions are our own.