On arriving at Maidenhead Train Station I felt the eye of the storm descend predictably, from that perpetually gunmetal sky, over me, over my companion (the beautiful gastro-Gnome) and over the station, which was, for the moment at least, the point of no return. I knew we were to be subjected to a real test of our table manners, from the two days the Gnome had spent on hold attempting to secure a reservation, and the further two months it had taken for the reservation to come round. Two months! Who were these people? Why didn’t they want our custom? This wasn’t the NHS, after all!
The overriding style in Maidenhead was distinctly ‘Scally Chic’: a milieu I feel, if not at home with, then most definitely able to visit the home of- for a pot noodle, perhaps. So my dining partner and I, bedecked in our finest silken track-suits, hailed a cab without fuss from the ranks parked next to the ranker- and then it was time to go up in the world. On announcing “the Fat Duck, Bray, please” the driver’s inward groan and shudder were unmistakeable.
The drive from Maidenhead to Bray was seemingly an ascent into a rurally English Valhalla: the miserably huge office blocks under grey sky shrinking and morphing into (admittedly still gargantuan) Tudor cottages under a quaintly charming drizzle. I had turned my head uncomfortably backwards on my neck to catch a further glimpse of a bungalow flashing by that had seemingly been constructed from gold or some such, but my dining comrade announced with a succession of shrill little yelps that we had arrived, and it was gone.
Ah, The Fear. I knew it would come at some point.
Bray reeks of cash, or rather, plastic. Looking around me I could well imagine it to be a theme village constructed somewhere in California, so flawless were its lawns and window boxes. Those lawns seemed to have been strimmed to a precision that could only have been deemed atomic. No blade of glass was more than a molecule longer than its neighbour and the flowers were obviously genetically engineered to the point of low level sentiency. No hooded gangs of blacks here! And lucky for them- they would probably instantly have been lynched and hung from one of the many willow trees, so Constabley (is that an adverb?) overhanging the river.
Looking longingly at The Hind’s Head Hotel, the other establishment of the Fat Duck’s head chef and proprietor (the now ubiquitous Heston Blumenthal), I yearned for the pints of cider and Roast Dinners that undoubtedly were available within. But we were here to pretend. And so, every step seeming to increase me in size until I was a lumbering, many limbed Cyclops, we stepped into The Fat Duck.
Located in what seems to be the front room of an old, tumbledown little cottage, what is regarded by many as the ‘world’s best restaurant’, and subject of years of histrionics from the Indy, is also the British font of ‘molecular gastronomy’- a concept so stupid that only a true genius could have thought of it.
On entering, the pleasantly soporific atmosphere outside in the high street is shattered. Plate captains of all hierarchical significance intermesh like yokel barn-dancers (unfortunately sans banjo and ‘yee-haws’), under an impossibly low beamed ceiling that is clearly intended to instil some sense of servitude in the patrons. The maitre d’ greeted us with a smile so short lived it could have been described as quantum (perhaps the next phase of gastronomy?) and led us to our table. I covered the journey in one huge stride, my gigantic limbs contorting and straining hard to not send anyone’s dinner, or indeed table, hurtling embarrassingly across the room. After having squeezed myself into my chair, I looked lovingly at my companion and we shared one micro-second of intimacy before The Service began- I estimated us to have had at least six waiters, all performing their allocated task flawlessly, mechanically, in what looked like autopsy overalls by the end of our meal. First, the maitre d’ checked we were ‘all right’. Whether this was a genuine inquiry into the Gnome’s mild back trouble or an insinuation that we weren’t to be trusted by the mafia, I could not ascertain because he had swooped off before my mouth had opened to reply, indeed before my brain had begun to consider.
Just as I really was beginning to doubt myself, my own ‘all-rightness’, my crisis was curtailed by the arrival of the Sommelier, bearing what appeared to be a copy of the bible. Leather bound and around three inches thick, my partner later described it as a ‘weighty tome’ after it had turned out to be the Wine List. When I asked if he could recommend a bottle, he laughed laconically, replying thus: “hundreds”. He then asked us to ‘think about it’, telling us he would return so we could ‘discuss it with him’. It was at this point that I felt very much out of my depth. Opening the list gingerly, it became apparent immediately that not only was I out of my depth, but that I was about to drown, about to drown in wine that ranged from £25 to, often, well over £600 a bottle. We had just settled on a White Burgundy, a 2003 Aligote Dom. Fichet at £26 a bottle, when the Sommelier returned, accepting our protestations of ‘limited financial resources’ with good humour and fetching us our booze forthwith. When my partner had ventured bravely to the toilet he popped over to chat to me about the wine’s ‘structure’: I mumbled something about gooseberries, and he fell silent and moved away, shaking his head.
Returning some hours later from the bog, the Gnome announced that she had been outwitted by the automatic tap, just before we were given the a la carte menu, another leather bound, but this time five dimensional piece.
To say the food looked exquisite is an understatement- (I believe the word exquisite always is-how can one adjective possibly hope to synopsise such subjective and complex qualities in so many different things?)- it looked insane. Suffice it to say that instead of describing what each menu item was, the menu merely conveyed the constituents of each item on it. Choosing by pointing with eyes shut at what was described as ‘Crab Biscuit, roast foie gras, crystallised seaweed with rhubarb and oyster vinaigrette’ to start, followed by ‘Best End of Lamb, gratin potato and confit lamb shoulder with jellied lamb consommé’, I then blindly selected a ‘Mango and Douglas fir puree, bavarois lychee and mango, blackcurrant sorbet and green and black peppercorn jelly’ for, well, pudding. But this bore no real relation to the meal to follow.
Immediately after having ordered, we were presented with vinyl-sized bowls with something microscopic in the centre- so this is what they meant by molecular gastronomy, I thought, as I watched the thing for any sign of movement, life, or indeed, growth. I watched the Gnome’s face crinkle up in suppressed laughter at the sheer size of it. But we had both been given the same thing- and we hadn’t ordered it- some kind of mustard ice cream with red cabbage gazpacho. But why? We both ate this tiny, unexplained thing in less than one mouthful, like greedy giants and wondered if we had just eaten our starter or perhaps someone else’s. But there was no time for worry, or conscience. Before we knew it, there were two lumps of wood replacing the huge bowls on the table, with what appeared to be a giant crustacean on each, resting on a huge mound of wet salt crystals, filled with some unidentifiable goo/flake/mollusc mix with a bit of lavender on the side. Was this insanity to be expected for the rest of the meal?
Eating these gewgaws in as maladroit a fashion as was workable, we really began to get the fear. What the fuck was going on? Were we being tested? Was this what this was all about? I knew this much: we were definitely being watched: there was no bottle of wine on the table, but our glasses stayed full. And if it was a test, what would happen if we failed? Maybe I’d been watching the X-Files too much. The waitress gave us an odd look as she took the shells away. I began to wonder if I had just eaten a table decoration.
Soon, we got into our stride. Along came the starters we had ordered, and we realised it was all going to be ok. Pulses slowed, irises became less white- ringed. Apart from the fact that my fast- growing digits were having trouble grasping, and indeed selecting, the cutlery, and the incriminating stain in the middle of the table from where I had tried to feed the Gnome some of my crab sat, evil-eye-like, all seeing, for the rest of the meal, everything was now proceeding beautifully. Even when I was given a glass sphere, one small hole cut into the side and told theatrically that it was a ‘prelude’ to my main, I took it on the chin. I tried to get my knife and fork through the tiny hole and into the damned thing to no avail, trying to get at that stuff at the bottom, eventually conceding defeat and resorting to the use of a teaspoon.
It was with the arrival of the mains that we were finally assimilated into our surroundings. Though I still felt out of place, lumbering and clumsy, the paranoia had gone. Surreality became reality, the fantastic became tangible, the pretence was real. We were rich wankers! I was Zsa Zsa Gabor, Princess Di, fuck it! The Queen! We had been accepted, were peaking, ecstatically with all the spine-tingling intensity of the first time on acid. Even the Gnome, a lifelong Green and general liberal, began to worship this place, this altar of excess, this temple to entropy.
The lamb was scarcely real: it was a psychological and illusory monolith. Description does not come close, I should know, I tried to tell my Mum about it and failed. The texture, the flavour…..We both lost our composure. This is what food should be like. The Gnome’s eyes rolled back into her skull and flickered worryingly sexually with every bite of her venison. We were truly in the land of the bourgeoisie now, minus the rather un-refined spasms of pleasure that frequently racked our malnourished bodies. But, as the (admittedly decent sized) portions began to dwindle in size, the Gnome, once again, said it all. “It’s ending!” she cried. And she was right. Once again, I was reminded of the first time, peaking on acid and coming down, back to the horror of the real, after the deliquescence of a beautiful glimpse of eternity. And indeed from then on, we were coming down- I nor my partner have sweet teeth- and save for the quick upward jolt of the arrival of a ‘pine sherbet fountain’ and ‘carrot lollipops’ due to novelty and surprise value before the dessert, it seemed that the further we were from our mains, the further we were from perfection.
After some time and an admittedly excellent cup of earl grey, we left, reluctantly, the Gnome walking with a new-found elegance, me striding painfully straight into an oak post. And as we wandered over to the Hind’s Head for a pint, not only did I wonder if I would ever be able to enjoy eating again, but if I would ever return to my normal size. I still felt, and feel clumsy, stupid.
I felt like I had glimpsed too much. Like I had come too close to perfection, an Icarus who, instead of his wings of delusion having been melted by the Sun, had had his mind liquefied by a piece of lamb in a pretentious, expensive restaurant.
Later that night, eating a Somerfield pie, 67p, and drinking from a box of red wine, I began to weep bitter tears, and to plan my escape from the underclass.