Our travels

The World’s 50 Best: Dinner by Heston

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The World’s 50 Best: The Clove Club

The Clove Club in Shoreditch is the highest placed new entry on the list at no. 26. Set in the vibrant hub of London’s most trendy area, it is remarkably stripped back. The decor itself wouldn’t be out of place in Pizza Express; it’s a relaxed Italian restaurant atmosphere with hanging hams, empty wine bottles and a huge bar.

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It’s at the bar that I end up sitting, where I am promptly engaged in conversation with Robert the Barchef. Before you even get to the food at The Clove Club, it’s impossible to resist ordering a drink, and Robert is one of the best bar chefs going. From being interviewed by the FT, to being cooked for by Massimo Bottura (of Osteria Francescana) himself at a party, Robert is as much part of the fabric of the restaurant as the menu itself. If you ask him to make you a cocktail from scratch, it’s like watching the master alchemist at work, and I can guarantee you’ll enjoy the result.

Moving on the food itself, The Clove Club offers an impressive set tasting menu. If you want to eat in the main restaurant, this is what you will be served – and much to the surprise of some newspapers, you pay for your food when you book, in advance, via the Tock ticketing system. There is a secondary bar menu, which has smaller snacks and plates to go with your cocktails, but this is only served in the bar area.

With a tasting menu over 10 courses long, it’s a hefty amount of food and the dining experience lasts around three hours. It’s a relief that the menu is well thought out, or the experience could be overwhelming. In addition to the menu below, I was served a frozen gazpacho with toasted almonds and elderflower cream, buttermilk fried chicken with pine salt, a crab tartlet and a warm haggis bun to start, with petit fours of caramel chocolate, barley cake, a strawberry with pepper and a mint liquor pastille to end. In many ways, the menu is reassuringly familiar in its structure – starter, fish, meat, dessert – just extended into more courses.

Menu

The sheer range of different flavours almost contrasts with The Clove Club’s commitment to minimalism, but there’s a sublimity and a thought that goes into each section that maintains the simple elegance of each flavour. Take the warm haggis bun, for example. Serve in the middle of an artist’s palette, it’s presented as if part of a wider scheme. It’s soft, savoury, and has the spicy umami taste you expect from really good haggis. This is then expertly paired with a dehydrated apple cider vinegar, which adds the tang you need to balance such a deep flavour.

Each course is presented in an exceptionally stripped back manner – it’s beautiful, but often on such large plates that the food seems overshadowed by the sheer scale of the crockery. This does have the effect of making the portions look manageably small, but also detracts from the sheer beauty that has gone in to designing each course.

One of the standout spectacles of the meal is the whole roast duck. As you reach this course, a waiter appears holding a full roasted duck and explains exactly what you will be receiving. The idea is that the flavours progress from the lighter consume through to the more intense sausage, to explore the full range of duck flavours. It’s a shame that part of this show is just charade, as the duck you are shown is not your duck, but rather a “here’s one we prepared earlier”.

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Heather honey & black beer glazed duck breast

What does stand out in the theatrics of this dish though is the hundred-year-old madeira. The waiter explains that this madeira is one of the best in the world, a D’Oliveira from 1908, only bottled to order. You are served it in a large wine glass, and told to sip until only a trace remains. It’s strong but beautifully subtle, and when the last dregs remain, the consume is poured on top, picking up the last of the flavour to blend with the bacon-y duck soup. The sweetness is the ideal balance point for the earthy consume flavour.

Another stand out feature is the desserts. There’s often a sentiment with outstanding restaurants that dessert can be almost disappointingly lacking in innovation, or, far worse, overpoweringly stodgy after so much fine food. This is not the case at The Clove Club, whose apricot sorbet is the perfect contrast to the rich duck courses that have gone before. Beautifully refreshing with a tart burnt honey disk, it has a complex range of textures thanks to the bee pollen and almonds, and tastes delicious.

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Apricot sorbet

A lasting testament to The Clove Club’s commitment to minimalism comes in the petit fours. At the time, my only note next the simple strawberry with pepper was a heart. The perfectly right, soft strawberry is paired with the spicy heat of the pepper to create something that just tingles on your tongue before returning to a familiar sweet flavour.

It’s impossible to deny that The Clove Club has earned its place on the list. Its innovative, minimalist plates and range of flavours is underpinned by a relaxed almost family-like feel that make you feel entirely at home. If anything, I would have placed this one easily in the top half of the list, but perhaps only its youth stands between it and a top ten spot in next year’s judging.

 

The beginning of the story

This journey began for me with Noma – not visiting it, but just the opportunity of going. I was supposed to be on a business trip to Copenhagen which involved a client dinner at the former no. 1 restaurant in the world (now no. 5). Excited would have been an understatement. I had researched the menu, scoured the web for photos, even dreamed about it.

However, at the last moment I could no longer go on the trip, and my chance of going to Noma evaporated. It’s hard to express how upset I was, and how silly it felt to be upset over a restaurant. In that moment, I realised how important food was to me, how much I was willing to travel and how far I was willing to go to discover food that was truly wonderful. A colleague shared Restaurant’s The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and the gem of an idea was born. If I wanted to go to one world-class restaurant so much, imagine how I felt when I was presented with 50 of them.

With that, I began to make lists, drawing up budgets, travel plans, alerts for when different reservations opened, and the quest began. This quickly became almost as much fun as the restaurants themselves, as I researched cities, public transport routes, landmarks and hostels. I even made a map to help plot which restaurants were in convenient clusters for holidays. 

After a few months of hard saving, planning and waiting, we came to now. As the tour begins, I work up in the city Monday to Friday to fund my trips and travel the world on the weekends, searching for the best food humanity can produce.