When the hotly anticipated Dinner by Heston Blumenthal opened its doors at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park to the public a year ago, London's broadsheet food critics united in an unprecedented outpouring of praise. So well oiled was the Blumenthal PR machine, it had everyone from Gill to Maschler to Rayner to Coren gushing obsequiously, with Coren hailing it "the best new restaurant in the world." A year on and a Michelin star to its name, the hype has died down to polite applause, and what remains is an impressive hotel restaurant that rises above the confines of its surroundings and offers a theatrical, and more importantly, delicious dining experience.
In a bid to connect us with our culinary past, Blumenthal has delved into Britain's edible history via cookbooks of yore to revive old recipes, from the quirky to the strange – Rice and Flesh anyone? Dated c.1390, and taken from the oldest known cookery manual in the English language: The Forme of Cury The Master Cooks of King Richard II, the sunshine yellow dish is a lot friendlier than it sounds, consisting of a saffron risotto dotted with shreds of calf tail. Each dish is dated and referenced in a bibliography on the menu for gastro geeks to fawn over. King of the kitchen is executive chef Ashley Palmer-Watts, who's been under Heston's wing at the Fat Duck for a decade.
The light and distinctly modern space designed by Adam Tihany, who has previously put his stamp on Apsleys at The Lanesborough, Per Se in New York and the hotel's sister restaurant Bar Boulud, features floor-to-ceiling glass windows looking out onto the oft horse-filled Hyde Park. The kitchen is dominated by a pulley system that mirrors the insides of a giant watch, serving to rotate a spit on an open-fire lined with impaled pineapples. Clutching the ivory walls are antique jelly moulds that glow erotically, while the bar displays recipes from 16th century cookbooks, which appear and disappear depending on the light. Brown wall panels resemble unwrapped chocolate bars, while swirly art deco light fittings add elegance to the austere interiors.
No trip to Dinner is complete without sampling signature dish Meat Fruit. Having enjoyed the clever creation vicariously in numerous nuanced reviews, I'd been dreaming of and drooling over it for a year. Never in my adult life have I so lusted after something edible. I'd ask friends to recount their experience of the enrobed meat globe in minute detail, conjuring the flavours in my mind. A lucky win at a Halloween quiz (the prize being a meal at a restaurant of our choosing) and here I was sitting down to lunch at Dinner, mere moments away from my own mandarin. Before the waitress can even take our order I request it, the urgency of the situation heightened by its impending resolution. She asks whether I'd like to share it. "No", I reply emphatically. Such a longed for experience could not be tarnished by prying knives.
Ten minutes later and it’s in front of me, as beautiful as I'd imagined it. Masquerading as a mandarin, its faintly dimpled orange skin glistens expectantly in the light. My mouth begins to water. Not wanting to spoil its almost Platonic form, I have to force myself to cut into its skin, which reveals a dusky pink, creamy interior of chicken liver parfait. Grabbing a piece of the accompanying grilled bread, I slather on a generous scoop and take my first mouthful, rewarded at first with the refreshing tang of the mandarin jelly, and soon after the luxurious, rich, heavenly parfait. Playful, indulgent and utterly delicious, it's the closest Dinner gets to a Fat Duck trompe l'oeil trick.
Having soared to such celestial heights so early on, the rest of the dishes were bound to feel more mundane, and on reflection, I wish I'd ordered two more starters rather than a main, though my spiced pigeon with artichokes in ale (c.1780) arrives perfectly pink and, having been cooked sous vide, is tremendously tender and with pleasingly crispy skin, but served slightly cold. In fairness, few dishes could have successfully followed Meat Fruit's lead, but having got so used to London's small plates philosophy, Dinner's starters seem to bring more joy and beauty than its meaty mains; both the roast scallops with cucumber ketchup and the roast bone marrow delighting my fellow dining companions in appearance and taste.
Be sure to bypass the side order of fries and ask politely instead for the triple cooked chips, which usually only accompany the Hereford Ribeye steak. A fistful of golden shards that glint like jagged yellow diamonds; their jackets are impossibly crunchy and interiors warm and fluffy. Wine doesn't come cheap – bottles start at £35 and quickly escalate skywards. On our visit we begin with a bottle of the house Champagne – Moët & Chandon 2002, which shows off the elegance and complexity of the vintage, moving on to a Northern and Southern Rhône comparative tasting of Domaine George Vernay Terres d'Encorse Saint-Joseph 2008 and Les Racine Les Pallières Gigondas 2007. The former is prettily perfumed, with attractive savoury notes and a refreshing mineral core, while the latter displays a distinctly raisined character of dried fruits and Christmas cake.
The wine highlight however, is a bottle of Vincent Girardin Vielles Vignes Puligny-Montrachet 2008. Assembled from parcels with vine ages averaging half a century and having been vinified in a good proportion of new oak, the liquid gold has an unmistakably Burgundian nose of honeysuckle, lily, peaches and cream wrapped around a mineral core. The flavours dance across the palate, enhanced by mouth puckering acidity. Puddings are exquisitely executed. The painfully pretty Taffety Tart (c.1660) comprises paper-thin layers of pastry housing canon balls of fromage blanc, pressed apple doused in rose water, a sprinking of fennel seeds and a teardrop-shaped scoop of intensely flavoured blackcurrant sorbet.
Resurrecting the wow factor of Meat Fruit is Brown Bread Ice Cream (c.1830) decked out in a pinstripe suit of moreish salted caramel and malted yeast syrup. A strange and satisfying marriage of sweet and savoury, the Hovis-like yeast kick of the bread is quickly assuaged by the sweetness of the caramel and the crunchy toffee biscuit base below. Part history lesson, part edible theatre, while much of Heston's culinary alchemy has been tamed; elements of the Blumenthal magic remain. And for those who can merely dream of a meal at the Fat Duck, lunch at Dinner is the next best thing. Just make sure you order the Meat Fruit.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7LA; Tel: +44(0)20 7201 3833. A meal for two with wine and service costs around £200.