Dinner by Heston Blumenthal was booked solid for three months before it opened on Jan. 31.
The Times of London asked the next day if it was the best new restaurant in the world. On EBay, a reservation for Valentine’s Day lunch drew a bid of 175 pounds ($280) for the booking slot, not including food.
Chef Mark Hix said in the Independent, “It was the best meal I’ve had for at least two years.” The Sun, a newspaper not noted for its coverage of fine dining, carried a review by Alex James. “It’s the greatest show on earth,” the rock musician wrote.
Don’t think I’m accusing others of over-egging the pudding: I interviewed Blumenthal twice in the weeks before the opening. You’d think once would be enough. After sampling dishes with him and Ashley Palmer-Watts, who’s in charge in the kitchen -- I’ve been back four times, dining with chefs Pierre Koffmann, Lorraine Pascale and Mark Sargeant among others.
To say Dinner is the talk of the London restaurant business would be an understatement. Chef Jason Atherton said that he couldn’t remember a similar buzz and that he was glad he had a gap before March 27, when he plans to open his own Pollen Street Social. The question for the rest of us is: Should we believe the hype?
The answer is yes, though if you go expecting a life-changing culinary experience, you might be disappointed. Dinner is not the Fat Duck, a restaurant where the creativity of the dishes is matched only by the theatricality of the presentation: One course comes with a magic trick, another with headphones.
Dinner, by contrast, is an up-market brasserie serving historically inspired British dishes. Blumenthal introduced me to a woman sitting at the chef’s table working on a laptop, Camilla Stoddart. She’s his historical researcher. (That’s a first.) Each dish is accompanied by the date of its invention and a footnote detailing the source of the inspiration.
All this would just be a gimmick if the food weren’t so good. You don’t need to know that Meat Fruit can be traced back to about 1500 to realize that this is an exceptional starter. It’s a boozy chicken-liver parfait encased in a mandarin jelly that looks like a tangerine on your plate. The skin is slightly mottled and the visual trick is completed with fake leaves.
Other standout starters include Rice & Flesh, a rich saffron neo-risotto, with calf tail and red wine; and Broth of Lamb, whose meaty aroma reaches you before you investigate the slow-cooked hen’s egg, celery, radish, turnip and sweetbread within. (Koffmann’s favorite, after Meat Fruit, was Salamugundy: chicken with bone marrow and horseradish cream.)
Among the main courses, the meat dishes such as Black Foot Pork Chop, Beef Royal and Wing Rib of Black Angus, pack the biggest punch in terms of flavor: great produce expertly seasoned. Sirloin of Black Angus comes with mushroom ketchup, red-wine juice and triple-cooked fries. (Blumenthal is developing a line of ketchups for Waitrose Ltd.: Historically, a ketchup is a sweet-and-sour condiment that isn’t synonymous with tomato sauce.)
The other dish not to miss is Tipsy Cake, a creamy brioche-type dessert served with pineapples roasted on a spit driven by a giant Ebel clock mechanism that’s a design feature of the restaurant. (New York-based Adam Tihany, who also designed Bar Boulud, has done a good job here, using natural materials such as wood and leather to reflect the venue’s historical theme, while adding quirks such as jelly-mold lampshades.)
Some of Dinner’s dishes have been in development for years but time and effort don’t necessarily result in great food. Palmer-Watts has a lightness of touch and a technician’s skill in harnessing Blumenthal’s wilder inspirations and translating them into something that can be reproduced in a restaurant.
Service is noticeably fine -- good humored and efficient -- and Dinner has a real buzz, particularly in the evening, while the daytime views of Hyde Park are a draw at lunchtime. The wine list offers little choice at the low end, so it’s fortunate the house option at 29 pounds is drinkable. Head sommelier Joao Pires says he is adding lower-priced options.
Blumenthal and Palmer-Watts aren’t wacky scientists experimenting for the sake of novelty or to shock. They’re creative chefs who are expanding the boundaries of British cuisine, in this case by digging deep into the past.
With the opening of Bar Boulud last year and the addition of Dinner, the Mandarin Oriental is on a culinary roll. Don’t be put off by the hype about Dinner. It’s worth the wait.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London, SW1X 7LA. Information: http://www.dinnerbyheston.com/ or +44- 20-7201-3833.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? The set lunch is 28 pounds.
Sound level? Buzzy, 75-80 decibels.
Inside tip? Book early.
Special feature? Liquid-nitrogen ice-cream machine.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Ideal.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)