Heston’s Dinner by an insider

Published on Jancis Robinson on 16th June 2012:

Something tells me that Qin Xie (or is it Xie Qin?) knows quite a bit about the kitchens of Dinner, Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant in London’s Mandarin Oriental…JR

Buttered crab loaf, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

When dining in London, and particularly in affluent areas like Knightsbridge, you expect to pay above the average for your meal. The location of the restaurant alone dictates much of the price, and that’s before you’ve factored in the ingredients, the service or the chef. Yet there is one particular restaurant which I’ve found surprising value in: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.

First, let me put up my hand and say I haven’t actually eaten there as a guest yet. Instead, I’ve been fortunate enough to taste the majority of the menu as a stagiaire and seen the intricacies behind their creation.

Guided by Blumenthal’s reputation at the Fat Duck, you might think what sets Dinner apart from other restaurants is its employment of molecular gastronomy. Not so – it’s really a modern interpretation of age-old recipes, done with Blumenthal precision.

Take Meat Fruit for example, it’s possibly the most popular thing on the menu in terms of both column inches and numbers sold. What’s not on the menu under ‘mandarin, chicken liver parfait & grilled bread’ is the metamorphosis of foie gras, chicken liver, shallot reduction and eggs, amongst other ingredients, into that pristine tangerine. From start to finish, the two-day process takes the raw ingredients through the Thermomix, the temperature and humidity-controlled oven, the blast chiller, the flash freezer and more; and each step is dictated by a precise time and temperature.

Even more strenuous, perhaps, is the exercise which takes whole cucumbers to their fluid gel state. The gel uses only juice from the green peel, combined with gellan powder, processed via the Thermomix and put through a chinoise multiple times. Every batch is rigorously taste tested for flavour, colour as well as consistency – even a slight graininess to the texture, say from the mixture not being allowed to rest for long enough, would mean starting the whole operation from scratch. The result, I am told by Canadian chef Kimberley Hernandez, is ‘the smoothest fluid gel you will find anywhere and certainly better than anything you can find in North America’.

The food is not just checked by the Group Executive Chef Ashley Palmer-Watts at the pass. The impressive attention to detail extends from prep, to pass and finally plate. Watching over my first service in the show kitchen, I spotted two consecutive eggs for the broth of lamb being discarded. Curious, I asked Hernandez what was wrong with them. ‘They weren’t perfect,’ came the response. Seeing that I was lost for words, Hernandez explained that the covering over the yolk has to be even and consistent so that the plate arrives at the table in just the right way – tending to perfection.

The real action, though, takes place in the prep kitchens downstairs, where the distinguishing feature and one of Dinner’s greatest expenses is made – their stocks. Rather than using trimmings and offcuts, as is traditional with stock making, all of the stocks and sauces are made using purposely purchased ingredients. Meticulously prepared by Pip Sandrey using pressure cookers and blast chillers before being filtered and reduced from 40 litres to something like four, the final product could be compared to the finest distillates. And that really is how something which appears so simple on a plate can contain so much flavour.

Order check, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

Now let us consider the price.

For three courses à la carte and without wine, you will be expected to pay in the region of £60 plus service. This may sound rather steep if you’re used to entire meals costing the same as you might fork out for a main at Dinner, but compared with restaurants in similar areas, £60 isn’t really a price tag worth blinking at. And when you consider the different components of each dish and the processes that produced the results, you realise that it’s not just a plate of food in front of you but rather something much more like art. In that respect, some might say, it’s really rather good value for money. Perhaps that’s part of what prompted me to finally pick up the phone and make that Dinner reservation.

Cooking Dinner

Published on the Taste of London blog on 8th June 2012:

There’s little to say about Dinner that hasn’t already been said. Anything remaining from its launch last year has been well and truly covered in the stories surrounding its placing at number 9 in the recent World’s 50 Best Awards – making it the UK’s top restaurants by this measure.

We spoke to journalist, blogger and trainee chef Qin Xie, who has something new to add. She hasn’t just eaten at Dinner, but actually worked in the kitchen for a week. In her words…

After working 9am to 11pm for seven consecutive days, you get a pretty good idea of the whole operation as a stagiaire. Certainly by the end of the week, I was more than impressed.

It wasn’t everything that I expected. Like the kitchen; you’d expect it to be noisy but one comment from Head Chef Ashley Palmer-Watts and the noise is reduced to a bare minimum. The entire operation runs so smoothly that it’s not just the show kitchen that makes an entertaining viewing, rather, the whole thing is theatre. And everything from start to finish is done with finesse.

Behind the scenes, too, is deserving of praise. Fantastic team work aside, there’s support and nurture found everywhere. More senior chefs take the time to show and teach junior chefs. Enthusiastic and talented chefs are always given the opportunity to progress, whether internally or externally – even I was allowed to plate up and send out starters. And they really take the time to care too; every ailment is taken seriously be it a cut, a burn or simply slight dehydration.

But most of all I am impressed by the chefs. How they have so much passion for what they do. How they are so aware of what other chefs are doing and what the press is saying. How they have travelled the world to work in the kitchens of the best restaurants in the world before working at Dinner.

When the time came for me to leave, I was pretty sorry to go. I really felt like I was part of the team. And what a team to be part of. So it really is with my warmest congratulations to Ashley Palmer-Watts and his exemplary team of chefs for winning this year’s highest new entry at number 9. What is there left to do now but wait in eager anticipation for next year’s awards and see what else they can achieve?

The Perfect G&T

Published on the Taste of London blog on 18th May 2012:

As we inch into summer, the weather begins to perk up and the countdown to Taste of London begins, there’s only one thing that we can think of other than summer food: summer drink.

Here journalist, trainee chef and stagiaire at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal enthuses over a drink first enjoyed at one of Heston’s other venues, The Hinds Head.

There’s nothing more refreshing than a cool glass of G&T at the height of summer, but the simple drink is not always treated with the respect it deserves. A G&T is not just a G&T. Each gin has different characteristics, as does each tonic. Then there’s the garnishes to contend with. Preferences will vary from person to person, but finding a harmonious blend is like striking gold.

To my taste, The Hinds Head has one of the best combinations sorted. They do a fabulous G&T with my favourite gin – Gin Mare (pronounced mar-ray) – and perk it up with a floral tonic and some unusual garnishes.

Even on gloomy rain-filled Sundays, a taste of its heady blend of citrus and herbal aromatics takes me back to the roasting summers day when I first discovered it at the Hinds Head bar.

Here’s a guide to that ‘perfect’ G&T. It’s just a guide because, as with everything, it should be done to taste…

Key parts:
a tall glass
ice cubes
wedge of orange
sprig of rosemary
25ml Gin Mare
Fever Tree Mediterranean Tonic to top up

Fill your tall glass with lots of ice, bigger cubes will melt more slowly. Throw in your wedge of orange and sprig of rosemary. Pour over Gin Mare and top up with Fever Tree Mediterranean Tonic as desired. Enjoy.