In Defense of Heston Blumenthal (Not That He Really Needs It)

So if the Prick’s entirely unscientific survey of one restaurant review and a few social media discussions are any guide, it is now becoming a bit of a thing to hang shit on Heston Blumenthal.

This is perfectly natural: A high-concept molecular chef with a constellation of Michelin stars is a big juicy target even before he lends his name to a line of Waitrose Christmas puddings so robustly engineered that they can survive the sea voyage to Australia, to say nothing of three further pre-Christmas months on the shelf at the supermarket up the road from Stately Prick Manor. And let’s not even get started on his $200 cookbooks which contain not a single recipe that could be made in any home kitchen short of Nathan Myhrvold’s (Heston at Home is a useful little volume, however).


Makin’ Dinner

But surprisingly the backlash is not against Blumenthal’s more crassly commercial enterprises – and the Prick would indeed be sympatico to any voice that said, “mate, leave that nonsense to Jamie and Gordon” – but rather his 2011-vintage London diner, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. The criticisms take a couple of tacks: One suggests that the restaurant, with its conceit of reviving and updating centuries-old British dishes, is nothing but a charmless cog in the engine of high-end gastrotourism: “This restaurant is a question in search of an answer; it is nearly, in psychological terms, a yacht”, sneers Tanya Gold in the most recent Spectator (an otherwise venerable magazine whose pages the Prick has chipped into on a number of occasions).

“The customers [are] an unceasing parade of youthful Scrooge McDucks, looking for meaning in their wallets.”

Now Tanya is (surprise, surprise) something of a socialist who neither smokes nor drinks and who believes the revolution should begin at Oxford, so it is no wonder that she Dinner might not be up her street.


The Prick does his best “youthful Scrooge McDuck” impersonation

However the other argument, which the Prick has seen a few times around the place, is a more purist one. It is suggested that Blumenthal, as talented as he is, routinely violates the idea that food should taste like what it is and that his various trompe-l’oeil techniques detract from what is on the plate. There is more weight to this charge, especially when it comes to dishes like “meat fruit” (more about which later).

But ultimately it misses the point of what Blumenthal and Dinner head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts are trying to do.

Mrs Prick and I dropped in to Dinner – for dinner – on our recent greed-and-gluttony tour of London, and without spoiling the plot had one of the best and, crucially, most fun meals we have had in our years of eating out together.


Salamagundy: Get your bone on…

And despite its awful name – “meat fruit” sounds like an invitation-only fetish party – the dish is an elegant, fun, delicious piece of work. Essentially foie gras parfait tricked up to look like a mandarin, it is a reminder that today’s modernist and post-modernist chefs weren’t the first cooks to make one thing look like another and could serve as the thesis statement of the restaurant.

It is also, if embiggened poultry livers are your thing (and if they aren’t, they should be), a hilariously, table-thumpingly delicious thing to eat. My only regret is that I did not have the presence of mind to pick it up and eat it as a piece of fruit.

Other dishes nod to the past but are more firmly anchored in the present and don’t overdo the history lessons. This isn’t an American Express Platinum field trip to Ye Olde Georgian Towne, it’s more an excuse to delve into the way-way back catalogues of British cookery and remaster old numbers by way of the immersion circulator. “Salamagundy” comes out with a combination punch of bone marrow and chicken and salsify and big, sharp, crisp flavours, tied together with a hint of mace if memory serves. “Powdered duck” is deceptively simple but the most tender breast of bird imaginable. Mrs Prick’s fish comes with an orbit of garnishes including little winkles which sing of the sea and make urchins look tame by comparison.


Anyone for ice cream?

What naysayers, purist and neo-Puritan alike, miss is the joy of the place (and Lord knows this site enjoys taking the piss out of the popular). Too many Michelin joints sit along a spectrum which runs from the sacerdotal to the sepulchral, ritualistic temples where offerings of food are made to the supplicants rather than vice versa, each dish delivered with a hushed incantation (“sea anemone, foie gras, cucumber, wallaby”). Dinner is not such a place. It may seem a little naff and gimmicky but if you can sit through having your ice cream made tableside with liquid nitrogen and vapour pouring all over the place and not crack a six-year-old’s smile you are probably too jaded to live. It’s also ridiculously smooth, because quick churning at sub-freezing temperatures results in crystals about as hard to find as the Higgs-Boson.

And that’s the thing about Dinner. In the never-ending race for “innovation” Blumenthal has done the only smart thing, namely, gone back to the past. In doing so he’s delivered a genuinely fresh experience that resurrects old flavours without the ancient formalities, and we can even forgive him his forays into the mass market: A man’s got to earn a crust, right? People don’t talk to each other or wave from table to table like sailors on Sydney Harbour but – and maybe this was the wine talking, spectacular stuff available by the glass from in our case a lovely lady sommelier who really knew her stuff and put us onto a gorgeous Condrieu, among other things – on our visit there was even among the youthful Scrooge McDucks an unspoken communal vibe of, “Hey, how cool is this?”

Answer: Very cool indeed.



Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon

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4 Responses to In Defense of Heston Blumenthal (Not That He Really Needs It)

  1. TimT says:

    …One suggests that the restaurant, with its conceit of reviving and updating centuries-old British dishes, is nothing but a charmless cog in the engine of high-end gastrotourism:

    It sounds like a good idea for a restaurant. Classic British food too often gets the short end of the shtick but there’s plenty of great British dishes that are worthwhile reviving. “Meat fruit” does sound a bit revolting, like that Victorian term “meat parties” (tea parties with cold meats, hams, tongue, etc – which could be very tasty indeed, but offputting to modern sorts who get queasy at the very idea of meat).

    I was leafing through Marsha Washington’s cookbook yesterday (not the original obviously!) and noticed she had a recipe for ‘cabbage cream’. (You heat the cream up until it gets a skin, skim that off, and arrange it to look like cabbage!) Add that to the meat fruit?

  2. Free Advice says:

    Scotch Thistle Soup is a dish I have always wanted to try. I imagine it was only served in the leaner years or at times of war, like Polk Salad, but I’m assuming that if you drown it in lemon and a bit of salt it would taste lovely!

    Probably goes well with ginger ale and bully beef.

    • timt says:

      Nettle is a versatile thing. Apparently you can get chymosin from it, the active enzyme in rennet that curdles milk for cheesemaking. Well, I tried that earlier this year by making a nettle soup and mixing it in with some cultured milk and had…. an absolute and utter bloody failure. (Turns out the nettle had already gone to seed, which alters its composition and makes it useless for curdling). Had to hastily salvage the project by making ricotta instead. Nettle cheese will have to be another project when the stuff springs up again next year.

      Nevertheless we were able to use the soup to feed to the other plants (good for the hops vines) and make some very very tasty nettle pesto. Apparently nettle meads and wines are also possible…..

  3. Dan Lewis says:

    Extreme Gelato in Sydney’s Chinatown also use liquid nitrogen for some quite interesting flavours.

    I love the pricing on their blackboard menu:
    1 Scoop: $6
    2 Scoops: You don’t need it.

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