On the last night of 1985, we rang in the New Year at London’s Hyde Park Hotel, which later became the Mandarin Oriental.
It was one of the most prestigious hotels in London. The rooms are decorated in a traditional style, and I’ll never forget the tub that was as big as a bathroom located right in the center. The hotel later changed hands, and even if the façade remained the same, the interior was subjected to an extensive modernization.
The breakfast room (which doubled as the main dining hall) looked out onto Hyde Park. Similarly to all big old hotels, it was large. The tables were spaced out from each other and draped in linen, while the waiters served you with gloves on.
On our New Year’s Eve, we were serenaded to our room with the sound of bagpipes; it was the first time we had heard a piper in a kilt play the bagpipes. We were surprised, but we liked the sound.
The day after, there was something that surprised and pleased me even more when we came down for breakfast: fruit.
We stood gaping at the fruit that was coming to us in the magnificent hall that looked onto the expanse of green in Hyde Park. The fruit plate looked like a Naturmort from the hand of an accomplished painter. This fruit wasn’t like what we have there. I was struck most by the strawberries – they were enormous. We couldn’t bring ourselves to eat or even touch the fruit. I guess it meant that in a luxury hotel in Britain, they ate fruits that were a lot different than what we have. Is this the difference wealth makes? We thought it unfortunate that we didn’t have something like this back home.
Years passed… We finally put two and two together that the fruit that we enviously spied, couldn’t bring ourselves to eat and likened to a Naturmort painting was actually genetically modified concoctions full of hormones. At the time, this scourge hadn’t yet reached our shores – that’s why we didn’t know about it. First the scourge infected the advanced nations, but while the rich were digging into opulent but hormone-filled food in England, we were apparently enjoying our gnarled and crooked – but natural – fruit!
Thirty years went by – this time we didn’t come to the hotel to stay for the night, but to eat.
The hotel’s name had changed; it was now the Mandarin Oriental.
The dining hall had also changed; the wide and large hall had been partitioned into smaller areas, meaning that it no longer possessed that overpowering grandiosity.
The sober decoration of before had been replaced by a modern interior design featuring wood, leather, iron and glass.
The tables draped with linen had given way to bare tables.
Even the waiters’ attire had changed; gone were the white uniforms and the older waiters who wore them, to be replaced by young men and women in everyday dress.
In his song La Bohème, Charles Aznavour relates how he has come to the realization about how happy he was when he would just get enough to fill his stomach in exchange for a picture in the cafés of Montmartre. But when he returns to the same haunts, he notes, with melancholy, that “Montmartre is not the same as it was before. Everything’s changed, and I don’t recognize the streets and houses. Even the color of the lilacs has faded away.”
I felt the same sense of alienation when I returned to the Mandarin’s dining hall. Feeling a wave of melancholy, I saw that nothing was as I had left it.
But the sadness I had felt at the entrance began to dissipate after I sat down at my table.
The name of the dining hall had been given to someone famous: Heston Blumenthal.
It’s true; the passage of time doesn’t make everything worse. In fact, perhaps we’re not searching for the quality of the past when “casting our mind back,” but our “youth that remains in the past”… Who knows?
We were treated to a crescendo of delight from the moment we sat down at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal until the moment we rose to depart.
The servers were young men and women who always presented a smiling face, knew their jobs well and never allowed any delays in service thanks to their distant but continuous observation of the table, all while ensuring that their service was not overbearing for the customer.
When I invited the sommelier to the table, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think to myself, “What does this person know about this job?” when I saw that it was a young lady. I quickly felt ashamed, however, when sipping one of the wines that had been paired with our food. It was such that the 2010 New Zealand Syrah that she recommended to us from the Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Vineyard left us enraptured.
As for the food, one can only define the meal presented by Heston Blumenthal, one of the world’s most famous chefs, and the executive chef Ashley Palmer-Watts as a “work of art.”
Blumenthal is the owner and chef of the famous Fat Duck. Everything started with the interest he began showing in French cuisine when he joined his family on a trip to France at the age of 16. This was followed by the years in which he honed his skills. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to categorize the subsequent phase as one in which Heston “developed cuisine.” His approach to food is scientific, and he is one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy. He takes different foods and combines them with unique techniques to create completely new inventions, like white chocolate caviar and ice cream with bacon and eggs. He researches, he works, he writes books, he makes TV programs, he gives conferences… At the end of the day, he’s a kitchen engineer that stands before you with honorary doctorates from two universities, Reading and London. The Fat Duck and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal are duly regarded as two of the world’s best restaurants. The first boasts three Michelin macaroons, while the other sports two.
I’m not much of a fan of molecular gastronomy products on principle. Years ago, I tried some by Ferran Adria, but I didn’t enjoy them. But I can do nothing but doff my cap at the food created by Heston following his research of 15th– and 16th-century English cuisine. Each of our dishes was more delicious than the next and really caught the eye. The cold lobster soup made with the water of the cucumber and a classic dish called meat fruit stood out the most among the starters. As for mains, the duck which was squeezed into powder was exquisite. The rare Filet Mignon was cooked in the way they instruct future chefs to do so at the Cordon Bleu – such that they were as pink as can be but produced not a gram of blood when cut. For the spicy pigeon, however, I can’t even find the words. If I say “beyond extraordinary,” it might just capture some of the taste.
And finally there were the strawberries in the Spring Tart. They weren’t like the huge and garish berries I had eaten in the same hall 30 years ago; instead, they were small with excellent scent and taste.
It means that not everything goes bad with age!
I have now reverently added Dinner by Heston Blumenthal to my list of favorite restaurants.