Friday, October 15, 2010

Waterside Inn (London Trip - Day 4)

The eating exploits of our last full day in London are almost exclusively focused on our visit to Waterside Inn, a 3-Michelin star temple of culinary renown located in the small town of Bray, about a 35-minute train ride west of London. Amazingly, Bray has a 2nd 3-Michelin star restaurant, Heston Blumenthal's well-chronicled molecular gastronomy joint Fat Duck, just around the corner from Waterside Inn. Before our trip, I attempted to secure a reservation to Fat Duck; however, unlike Per Se in New York, it would have been a much more expensive endeavor to sit on the phone for 30 minutes at a time trying to reach a live body at the reservation stand (not to mention physically challenging as the reservation line opens up at 10 am London time, or 4 am Central for those of you keeping track at home - I'll do a lot for food, but I have to draw the line at lost sleep). Although Waterside Inn was our second choice, I'm told we were fortunate to get a table as they often fill up throughout the summer months well in advance.

Joining Mrs. Hackknife and I on our dinner excursion was our New York City fixer and FOH (Friend of Hackknife) Adam, whom you'll recall from earlier posts helped us navigate the finer points of NYC dining during our trip there in March. His London visit for a business trip happened to overlap with ours on the day of our reservation and we were able to snag a seat for him at the table. Meeting up at Paddington Station, the 3 of us traveled British Rail to Maidenhead, then took about a 5-minute cab ride through lovely countryside to our initial destination: the Hinds Head Pub for pre-dinner drinks. The Hinds Head is about 25 feet from the front door of Fat Duck and also happens to be owned by Heston Blumenthal (apparently, he's been able to colonize half the town with his take from the restaurant). We settled in for a pint in the charming, 15th-Century pub and wondered what it would be like to eat there (they specialize in traditional British dishes, that is, the non-shitty kind); alas, the kitchen is closed on Sundays, so there would be no Devil on Horseback (cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon) for us this evening.

We were able to walk to Waterside Inn from the bar, taking a moment to photograph the menu and stare longingly inside the windows of Fat Duck (probably the closest we'll get to dining there for a long time). Upon our arrival at the restaurant, we were directed to the sitting lounge while our table was prepared (a second group shortly joined us and was given a bottle of cognac "on the house" by the General Manager - apparently, they were some sort of VIPs). During our wait, we were able to read a little more about the place's history: it was opened in 1972 by the Roux brothers as a follow-on to their celebrated London restaurant, Le Gavroche (at the time, no one was really doing fine French-influenced dining in the UK) and is now run by Alain Roux, one of the original owner's sons. The Rouxs are well known for launching the careers of many great chefs throughout the world and also for their exacting demands in the kitchen (having spawned the term "Roux Robots" as Marco Pierre White put it). As we experienced during our meal, it's hard to quibble with the results of their efforts.

We were soon brought into the dining room, which sits overlooking the Thames River pretty much right outside the window (it was a little hard to see in the darkening Fall evening, but I'll bet it's amazing in the sunlight). Oddly enough, there was a glass vase on the table with a pattern that nearly exactly matches the one on a set of decorative martini glasses we have in our downstairs bar at home (other people might think they spent a fortune on those vases, but I think I can now safely out them as having got them at, like, Target for $12.99 each). Anyway, there was nothing big box-ish about the meal. We all chose the house tasting menu (140 pounds per person, cost that is, not quantity - good thing we were out of the country since I couldn't really calculate exactly how much that was in dollars until we got home) and conferred with the sommelier to order a couple of glasses of wine that would pair well with most of the meal (a white Burgundy and a red Rhone). Starting off, we got a platter of 3 amuse bouches, one a prawn w/wasabi, another a delicate cheese puff, and lastly, a small escargot preparation. This was followed by a small sphere of crab salad, another amuse bouche. Now, the fun begins. First course was a scallop ceviche in olive oil and yuzu juice (a Japanese citrus sauce), followed by a lovely foie gras terrine embedded with peas (Picture #1 above).

The next course was our fish, a delicious turbot baked in a grape leaf. The leaf became the subject of much discussion at the table as I thought it was almost better than the fish (and I mean that as a complement since the fish was fantastic) - it was crispy and smoky, almost like a bacon. I puzzled over how they were able to get such a flavor in the leaf (having previously made kale chips in the oven by simply coating them in olive oil and roasting them, I was able to achieve something of similar consistency, but not the smoky flavor) and asked the GM when he came over about it. He told a funny anecdote about how Chef Roux clandestinely brought two suitcases full of the leaves (taken from a vineyard at his family estate in Southern France) through British customs, but that didn't really answer my question, and I didn't have the stones to ask the chef himself when he visited our table later in the evening. I did, however, find a clue on the flight back home - I was re-reading Jim Harrison's culinary memoirs "The Raw and The Cooked" and he makes mention of roasting meat wrapped in grape leaves over a woodsmoke grill (a-ha!), which I think might do the trick. Anyway, next came the most amazing venison loin (ordered medium rare per the chef's recommendation) prepared en croute, with a duxelle-like layer of mushrooms stuffed between the meat and the pastry (Picture #2). Now, those of you who know me well know that I usually won't go near a mushroom, but I will occasionally make exceptions and I'm certainly glad I did in this case - it was UNBELIEVABLY, melt-in-the-mouth good, almost worth the price of admission in and of itself.

Having reached the meal's apex, the desserts that followed were pretty much anticlimactic. There was an extra first dessert that escapes my memory (again, the dreaded curse of no notes and too much elapsed time to a food blogger - Adam/Mrs. Hackknife, can you help me out here?), a small prep of pear, blueberries, shortbread cookies, and red fruit coulis that wasn't bad, and a golden plum souffle (Picture #3) that photographed well, followed by the ever-present mignardises. Dear Reader, please don't get the wrong idea about the desserts - they were very good, but I am more of a chocolate enthusiast when it comes to sweets, and after the turbot/bacon leaf and venison, plum souffle was going to be a tough sell. In any case, it was a wonderful meal and a wonderful experience - a great way to conclude our trip.

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