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.

London Calling: Where to eat during the Olympics

Published in The Tomato Magazine March/April 2012 Issue number 146:

Going to the Olympics this summer? Got your hotel resos? Check. Event tickets? Check. Dinner reservations? Gahhhh!

To prevent the convenient but boring prospect of falling into the nearest Prêt a Manger or the perfectly dreadful idea of a burger at Wimpy, we asked two London food journalists to give us the goods on their fave spots. From Dinner, Heston Blumenthal’s London outpost, to vegan eatery Counter Café close by the stadium, journalists David Constable and Qin Xie offer their takes on where, and what, to eat to guarantee you a full-on London experience.

There has never been a better time to visit London, home to some of the world’s best restaurants and bars, as well as host of the 2012 Olympic Games. This year, the city’s culinary landscape, bolstered by a whole score of new openings, is as international as its visitors — from the Russian Mari Vanna to the Peruvian Lima and Ceviche, there’s bound to be something for everyone.

Visitors don’t have far to go either. Right outside the main Olympic Stadium is the recently opened Westfield Shopping Centre, offering a small cluster of eateries. The likes of Franco Manca, Pho and Comptoir Libanais, all part of small chains, wave the flag for good food at accessible prices. For something more unique in London, visitors should head west on the Central Line.

Stop briefly at Bethnal Green to sample Nuno Mendes’ creative fare at Viajante and Corner Room. Mendes, previously of El Bulli, never fails to plate up interesting flavour combinations. Close by is Shoreditch, more easily accessed via Old Street Station, the area of London where some of the trendiest bars paint a unique map of cool. Callooh Callay and Nightjar are some of the East End’s favourites.

A constellation of gems can be found around Soho, where eating and drinking integrate seamlessly. Oxford Circus is your portal to this gastronome’s paradise. This is where you will discover Italian wine bar and restaurant Dego with its unusual Champagne and Franciacorta list. If wine is really your thing, do stop by Terroirs near Charing Cross for some of the most interesting natural wines around.

Proceed further south to discover NOPI, the restaurant that’s a unique Yotam Ottolenghi blend of Mediterranean, Middle-eastern and Asian cuisines, where the restrooms are as much a talking point as the food. Nearby is Hix, the bar and restaurant that feeds London with some of the meatiest feasts and the most potent cocktails.

Just to the east of NOPI is where you’ll find Polpo, part of Russell Norman’s mini-empire of small plate eateries. Always busy, this bacaro offers Venetian décor matched to Italian cichetti and Aperol Spritzes. And across the road from Polpo is Bob Bob Ricard, described by some as a “pleasure palace,” where sumptuous delights await in the form of champagne and caviar. But, interestingly, it’s often celebrated for having the most accessible wine list in London with some of the lowest mark up rates.

Further east still is Yauatcha, known for dim sum, tea and faultless Michelin meals at a fraction of the price you might expect.

Speaking of Michelin, The Ledbury, St John and Hibiscus are all worthy of that detour and all are named in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Equally, Roganic, a two-year pop up by Michelin-starred Simon Rogan, and Dinner, Heston Blumenthal’s London outpost, also require your attention. But make sure you’ve left enough room and time for a reservation at Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, before you leave.