Dinner by Heston (no. 45 on our list) is set in this auspicious Mandarin Oriental Hotel, one of several restaurants in the building. It’s in the posh end of London near Hyde Park and, according to a quick Google, is an “elegant, contemporary dining room” with a “menu inspired by British culinary history.”
This is probably the most faithful description one could possibly write for this place, which is otherwise largely non-descript. In tones of beige and neutral, nothing really stands out other than the chandeliers, and the strange, blamanche shaped wall lights. The lights, incidentally, are truly hideous, but I suppose they’re meant to tie the decor back to British food through the ages and someone thought picking a 70’s dinner party was the ideal aethetic.
As unique as the decor is the restaurant’s premise, which is to draw inspiration from around a thousand years of culinary history. If you’ve not seen Heston’s Feasts, it’s worth a watch as an introduction to how each dish on the menu came into fruition. Working with Ashley Palmer-Watts, Heston Blumenthal looked to create a menu that combined dishes from the cookbooks of kings with flights of fancy from the likes of Lewis Carroll in his Adventures in Wonderland.
Before I arrived I had heard tell of the Mock Turtle Soup in the shape of a pocket watch, and was quite excited to try this. Sadly this appears to be no longer on the menu, which is a shame, because I hear it was very good. Instead, it feels like many of the more eccentric dishes from Heston’s repertoire have been sanitised to fit the mass appeal needed from a hotel restaurant.
Unlike other restaurants in this calibre, we are not presented with a tasting menu on arrival. The menu takes a very traditional three courses, and the waiter informs us that the tipsy cake dessert is a particular highlight and must be ordered in advance. As I’m allergic to pineapple, my father ordered this one while I examined the menu for the most innovative and different dishes. Each is written with a date next to it to indicate when the original recipe was from, although very little of what makes it to the table has any recognisable tie back to its namesake.
One thing I must concede is that the starters on offer are truly delicious. I had the roasted marrow bone while my father tried the famous meat fruit. The roasted marrowbone was cleverly presented on an actual bone, and was served with some incredible pickled veg. The cauliflower was a particular highlight, which was somehow crunchy and yet tasted like piccalilli. The bone marrow, on the other hand, was mild, and very fatty. It worked well with the snails, and had a lovely garlicky favour, but was perhaps a little wet.
The Meatfruit starter is justifiably famous – a chicken liver parfait that legitimately looks like an orange. It’s even textured to match, and we spent a good while trying to work out how this was done. It’s served with a large hunk of bread, and is a very creamy, mild flavour. However, on reflection, all that’s innovative about it is its presentation. The combination of orange, chicken liver parfait and bread have been gracing menus for many years now.
From the starters, sadly it was largely downhill. It’s always quite difficult admitting you actively don’t like something when in a restaurant of this calibre, you’d expect everything to be delicious. For the main, I opted for the sea bass with mussel ketchup. I’m a big fan of seafood and have yet to meet a fish or crustacean I haven’t liked, so was surprised to find the mussel ketchup to be a slimy, umami goo. It provided a good contrast to what was really quite a dry piece of fish, but was actually unpleasant to eat. On the other hand, the gherkins that were added to the dish assumedly for tang were delicious, and while the combination of gherkins and fish may be a little dated, it certainly works and is a clever revival.
On my father’s side of the table, the duck was met with a sense of ennui. By all accounts, it was two pieces of albeit tasty duck in some sauce with a few bits of vegetables and very little innovative about it. Which is a shame, because it was beautifully presented.
After the disappointment of the main course, we weren’t optimistic about dessert, and the feedback was certainly mixed.
The tipsy cake, which was made of a caramel soaked brioche and a piece of pineapple, was exceptionally sweet. The brioche came lovely and soft, but there was no real contrast in the dish. While it was beautiful, it was a pineapple upside-down cake served with the pineapple on the side and, as such, was largely insipid.
On the other hand, I had the goat’s cheesecake, which was cleverly presented sprayed silver as if it was just a normal circle cut from a goat’s cheese log. The cheese was pleasantly unsweetened, tangy and savoury, and ideally paired with some caramelised walnuts that almost dissolved on the tongue. Inside, there was a beautifully surprising sweet and tart elderflower purée, which cut through the richness. The pear on the side was a little out of place, but not overall disappointing.
We then finished with a petit four of chocolate ganache with a caraway biscuit, which was far too rich a flavour for this stage in the meal. Flavoured with orange blossom and infused with earl grey for four hours before serving, the ganache was certainly unique and not unpleasant, but also seemed unnecessary.
One thing that does work in Dinner by Heston’s advantage is its impressive tea menu, which is definitely something to look out for. The range of teas is far above that that one traditionally expects, and I would definitely recommend the Silver Needle tea to anyone who wants something light and refreshing after a heavy, rich meal.
At the end of the day, it’s a shame that so much of the food at Dinner by Heston failed to live up to its promise. It’s largely pleasant, but lacks the sort of innovation and flair that one would expect not just from the famous Heston Blumenthal, but also from a restaurant that is rated among the 50 best in the world. In my mind, it hadn’t done enough to qualify. While I would be interested to see how Heston continues to innovate dishes from the years of British history, without a real commitment to genuinely innovative flavours and dishes, I don’t see myself returning.