On my recent 25th birthday, I found myself at Dinner, Heston Blumenthal’s acclaimed restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental. It has been about a year since the much anticipated restaurant opened, and a quick browse on Google will reveal that within weeks, if not days, of its opening, reviews saturated both print and online media. You will be able to no doubt find the perfect reviewer – food critic, blogger or otherwise – to parallel your palate and virtually experience Dinner before you have ever actually step foot in the restaurant. I certainly did.
So why this review as my first review for The Penguin, one year after the restaurant has opened? Well, first of all, the restaurant has had time to come into its own, work out any of its early kinks, and has (if only partly) revamped its menu. Secondly, as a food lover who loves to read about these restaurants (Michelin starred, et cetera) but is restricted by a modest student’s budget, these experiences – unlike your Guardian food critics or wealthy bloggers – are unique and rare for me, allowing me to get especially excited when these occasions do arrive albeit once in a blue moon. And finally, most puzzlingly, I’ve had a Dinner-induced animal aversion since the night of my 25th birthday. I overdosed on meat that night and I haven’t been able to appreciate it since – more on that later.
In February 5th’s Sunday Times Style magazine A. A. Gill introduced me to a yet unheard of neologism: vegevore. Despite my hatred of his food writing (typified by his insistence in this particular piece that we open our mouths, pop in the new word, and “suck it and see”) and my amusement at watching the now vintage battle between Gill and Gordon Ramsey on Boiling Point, I have to admit he hit the nail right on the head, at least in terms of my personal food choices and what I’ve wanted to eat for the last few years. I grew up with a pescatarian father (a vegetarian, who grew up Kosher, so he ate fish but shuddered at the thought of shellfish) and an omnivore mother who exposed me to all sorts of protein-dominated gastronomic experiences. I grew up eating and loving everything from sushi, (raw, and only raw) oysters to fried frogs legs and balut, that much discussed Fear Factor delicacy of boiled, fertilized egg. I have to admit, my maternal Filipina family loved it but I could only ever bring myself to drink the “soup” (it was delicious by the way). Nevertheless, I’ve always had a special affinity towards vegetables.
So yes, I’ve had a varied history with meat. I love meat, and am in no way a vegetarian, but am very strict about what kind of meat I will ingest. Often, I see meat as more of a flavouring agent than the main attraction (i.e. roasted brussel sprouts with pancetta, hashbrowns with asparagus and pancetta, pretty much anything with pancetta). But when I’m presented with an opportunity to eat my heart out at a place like Dinner, I make sure to seize the day.
My partner and I ordered three starters, mainly because we were bickering about who would get to order the Meat Fruit – the famous chicken parfait disguised as a mandarin orange. Please look up a picture, it’s beautiful. I ordered the Savoury Porridge, a green concoction of risotto-like consistency, serves with snails and chanterelles. The Significant Other ordered Roasted Marrowbone with picked vegetables; it was delicious. The marrow felt like it was crumbed and ever so lightly fried. The outside had a crunchy consistency while the inside melted into delicious, creamy nothingness. The pickles ideally complimented the marrow – not too astringent, perfectly palatable. My porridge, without a doubt, was my favourite dish of the night. It was incredibly clever, so savoury and moreish, I could have easily ate a bowl of it as my main. Cutting into the Meat Fruit, placed in the middle of the table where we both could reach it, was our evening’s moment of wonder and awe. To see the orange give into a surreal, soft, creamy paté with the slightest weight of the knife was a pleasure to see and feel; obviously, it was a pleasure to eat as well. However, this creamy chicken parfait with hints of mandarin was the beginning of the end for me: I myself started to feel the weight of this meat-dominated meal in my stomach.
I couldn’t finish the parfait. Not because I wasn’t hungry, not because it wasn’t delicious (it was!) but because it was just too much meat! Our mains didn’t do much to alleviate my beginning to feel a bit ill, but to be honest, the three cocktails I had before dinner probably didn’t help. The S.O. ordered the Black Foot Pork Chop, I ordered the Spice Pigeon. Both were two ridiculously well-cooked pieces of meat. But it was simply far too much meat! My pigeon was accompanied by artichokes which were flavoured so well by the game that I devoured every piece. I left half my pigeon on the plate.
We ended on a high: the deserts were delicious. My Tipsy Cake with a four-hour roasted pineapple was just what I wanted to eat. Sweet, slightly boozy brioche-like cake serves with a sickly sweet, incredibly tart, caramelized pineapple. I left a very happy girl … partly because I didn’t have to see the bill. Dinner at Dinner, my friends, does not come cheap.
I have to state right now that my dining partner did not feel the same way I did about the meat factor. He loved his meal. He loved his pork chop. He even finished the pigeon I couldn’t manage to consume. He loved it all. I, other the other hand, am apparently a vegevore (can’t we rethink this word Gill? It isn’t the easiest on the palate). The meal at Dinner was meat overdose, and I haven’t been able to eat a piece of meat since.