The concept behind Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant, Dinner, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is an interesting one. While his other restaurant, The Fat Duck, pushes the boundaries of modern cuisine, Dinner takes its inspiration from recipes from Britain’s past. He explains why the restaurant was given its name;
In the past, the main meal -dinner-was eaten at midday, before it got too dark. But affordable candles and, later, gaslight saw dinner shift. By the mid-1800s people were dining later. People working in the cities were taking a ‘lunch’ to work and having their main meal at 5.00pm when they got home, while in rural areas the main meal was still taken at midday.
Even today, depending where you are in the British Isles, ‘dinner’ might be served at lunchtime, suppertime or, indeed, dinnertime!
This made ‘Dinner’ the natural choice for its typically British quirky history and linguistic playfulness. If nothing else, I hope it’s easy to remember.
Though, I suppose, because I live in London rather than the Scottish Borders these days we had “lunch” rather than “dinner”. Anyway the older of my two sisters was down from Scotland on her annual pre-Christmas trip to London and my younger sister suggested that we go to Dinner. Grace and I said “yes please”.
You walk into the restaurant through a bar area, which looks a pleasant enough area to have a drink while you are waiting for friends and/or your table. The restaurant itself is a large open room with a view over Hyde Park (a strategically placed hedge hides the road that runs between the hotel and the park. A glass wall runs down one side of the room allowing you the see into the kitchen and the famous pineapple spit.
The dress code is pretty relaxed, at least at lunch time, but I doubt that it would change for the evening. While most people, including ourselves, had dressed up a bit, there were a few diners wearing t-shirts and jeans and very few men were wearing ties.
Grace declared the chairs to be suitably comfortable, so on to the food.
We decided in the interests of economy to have the set menu, which is only available from 12:00 to 14:30, but at £38 for three courses is good value. Neither of the two choices of main course were suitable for a vegetarian,so Grace was given a dish from the A La Carte menu called “Braised Celery” She also went off piste with her pudding, but more of that later.
A very comprehensive wine list was proffered and flicked through. Possibly I missed it but I couldn’t see the £12.50 House Red. Wine by the bottle is not cheap. There are few, if any bottles at less than £50 and an awful lot over £100. We decided to go with the suggested wine pairings at about £10 per glass.
The set menu offers a choice of two starters, two mains and two puddings, if you are interested click here to see the full menu.
My starter was the Ragoo of Pigs Ear on Toast. The recipe it is based on comes from around 1750. The pig’s ear is cooked in red wine and Madeira with onions and anchovies until it is falling apart. The sauce is heavily reduced to a slightly sweet syrup. My sister who also had the dish suggested that it had the texture of pulled pork, she was about right. It is served on a slice of toast, which soaks up the juices and saves asking for bread to mop them up. The wine that went with it was a full bodied Rioja. The intense meaty flavours would have completely overwhelmed a more delicate wine.
Lemon Salad (c.1730)
Grace (being vegetarian) and my other sister chose the Lemon Salad which dates from around 1730. It consisted of smoked artichokes preserved lemon, beetroot and goat’s curd. They both pronounced it excellent.
(The photo is borrowed from my sisters Facebook page)
My main course was Roasted Quail, which was served on a bed of cabbage with a celeriac puree, smoked chestnuts and a quail sauce. This was a lovely dish. Quail is quite a delicately flavoured bird and because of it’s size not the easiest to cook, it is very easy to over or under cook and even easier to dry out. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a two Michelin Starred kitchen managed to cook it perfectly, but it was. The puree was smooth as silk and the smoked chestnuts added a complimentary flavour and texture. What they did to the cabbage I am not quite sure, but it was simultaneously creamy, crunchy and had more flavour than any cabbage I can remember eating. The wine that was served with it was something I had never tasted before. A Corsican red, made from two grapes that I had never heard of and whose names I cannot remember, I really should have taken notes from our very (pleasantly) chatty and informative sommelier. When we tried it the first reaction of my sister and myself were exactly the same “That’s different, but pleasant”, when it was drunk with the food it was perfect. I don’t think I have ever had a wine that went with the food I was eating as perfectly as that did.
Grace had the only veggie main on the menu;
Braised Celery (c.1730) with Parmesan, girolles, vinaigrette, cider apple & smoked walnuts. Unfortunately the restaurant got the idea that she was a Vegan rather than Vegetarian (she’s not it’s just that she doesn’t like too much egg or cheese and lazy cooks have a tendency to produce a cheese omelette) the kitchen left the parmesan sauce off the dish. She said it was fine and that the carmelised smoked walnuts were something else, but it probably did need the sauce or something to bring it together.
My other sister decided to have the Roast Pollack (c.1830), Admiral’s sauce Parsnip puree, shrimps, shallots, brown butter & capers. She is married to a fisherman so knows what a good piece of fish should taste like. She pronounced it the best bit of fish that she could remember eating.
My pudding was a Custard Tart, but that doesn’t really do it justice. Yes it was a perfectly made custard tart, the pastry was thin sweet and crisp and the custard, well, custardy soft and not too sweet, but what lifted it to the special was the intense thin layer of mincemeat with a good kick of brandy between the pastry and the custard, oh and the brulee type topping.
My sister had the Millionaire Tart (c.1730), which when it arrived at the table I said “oh it’s just like mum used to make”. Apparently, it had similarities in that it had a biscuit base, a caramel layer topped by a chocolate layer, but that was where it ended. Mum I’m afraid that your Millionaire’s Shortbread is now only the second best ever. (Though I don’t think they could top your Apricot Tart.)
Grace decided that she would like the Tipsy Cake (c.1810) with Spit roast pineapple from the spit that we could see revolving away from our table. She didn’t like the pineapple, but that was because for some reason she has developed an aversion to acidic foods, so she left it to the rest of us to try, it was perfectly fine, but I didn’t think the taste justified the hype. The tipsy cake on the other hand brought a huge silly grin to her face with the first spoonful, which stayed there ’till we got home. She was generous enough to let the rest of us try a little bit. It was a brioche filled with creme anglaise and soaked in rum, pure indulgence. She described it as the best bread and butter pudding ever.
We finished our meal with coffees which came with a caraway seed biscuit and a little pot of chocolate ganache to dip them in.
The service throughout was excellent but unobtrusive, I don’t think my water glass remained unfilled for more than five seconds. Actually our sommelier wasn’t that unobtrusive, but he was informative and fun, so I forgave him.
The bill, including drinks and service came to £75 per head, not cheap but I think for a one off occasion worth it.