Back when I first started writing about food, I do remember many a quizzical eyebrow being raised. The notion of a vegetarian epicure was perceived as rather paradoxical.
Spot on for noticing my use of the past tense.
Critics might have only marginally softened their patronising or unforgiving stance against my lot, but more importantly, there is now much more than meats the eye at even the restaurants renowned for championing an abundance of flesh.
Case in point: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, the two Michelin-starred restaurant synonymous with iconic dishes such as Meat Fruit and Rice and Flesh. Yet as our party of six recently experienced, it caters more than adequately for veggies too – especially if you let them know of your disposition in advance (as we did)…
Situated within Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, Dinner is surprisingly and strikingly understated in comparison to its imposingly-grand surrounds. The interiors reflect the rich level of detailing you’d expect of this sort of establishment, but there is no stuffy heaviness to this high ceilinged and capaciously-proportioned room.
The highlight of course is the open kitchen on one end. Separated from the dining area by large glass walls, the state-of-the-art setting doubles as a portal for travelling back to Britain’s storied past… one Medieval recipe at a time!
As noted on the slim menu accompanying each table-setting, dishes at Dinner trace their lineage as far back as the 14th century, inspired by historic recipes quarried from ancient manuscripts such as The Forme of Cury. Exhumed from the archives of the British Library, the parchment scroll is fashioned from calfskin – meticulously stitched together at 30cm intervals – and is believed to be the oldest cookery book written in English!
It details close to 200 eccentric entries, a few of which particularly caught Heston’s intrigue, including “Rice of Flesh” and “Frumenty.” Taking their cue from the original ingredients and methods, the modern-day versions of these dishes demonstrate the culinary alchemy so extolled of Heston Blumenthal, and the executive chef at Dinner, Ashley Palmer-Watts.
Rice of Flesh essentially manifests as Rice and Flesh, a saffron risotto punctuated by red amaranth and calf’s tail infused with red wine. Our vegetarian version appeared sans veal, but garlanded with beetroot. It was as intrepidly sublime as it was deceivingly simple…
Beets were a front-runner in our savoury porridge too, their natural sweetness offset by a smoky flavour while fennel added a bright and sprightly note. Had I not heard high praise of the roast cod otherwise accompanying this dish, I would have presumed our vegetarian rendition to have been the original!
Heston’s revival of medieval dishes also extends to Frumenty. A staple of sorts back in the day, it traditionally featured cracked wheat cooked in a broth or almond milk, and was either served hot (as you would porridge), or thickened and sliced upon cooling (a bit like polenta), typically as a side to meat or fish.
Its popularity slowly waned over the ages, with Frumenty eventually reduced to a source of fuel in Victorian workhouses… It has since received a rich lift at Dinner, revolving around a maelstrom of seafoods including grilled octopus! Cracked wheat is replaced with toasted spelt for a nutty base to a pool of intensely-flavoured vegetable broth. Also known as the oyster plant (I’m told the taste is rather oyster-y once cooked), salsify was an ingenious addition to our veggie version, subtly evoking the sea-inspired flavours and ingredients which this frontrunner dish at Dinner is famous for. A bit of lovage wasn’t amiss either, with this elusive herb lending a dash of intrigue (its flavour is somewhat of a cross between parsley, celery and aniseed…).
Salad, sorry Salamagundi (a 17th century style of salad dish) astonishingly proved a high point too, a wildly beautiful assembly comprising asparagus and char-grilled cauliflowers (among other elements) on a bed of tahini.
Although all of the afore-mentioned dishes are billed as starters on the menu, the Kitchen plated a larger size of each given that the selection of mains had only the one veggie-friendly offering – braised celery braced with parmesan, gruyere and apples. It was as lovely as celery can potentially be, but inescapably disappointing when compared with the giddy delights presented by the rest of our meal.
Sadly, there was no vegetarian Meat Fruit (now that would definitely have been an oxymoron)…
But we did finish on a thrillingly heady note, with Dinner’s signature Tipsy Cake – a riff on the Victorian pudding, featuring an impossibly light and fluffy brioche soaked with brandy cream. The sweet-and-sticky stick of spit-roast pineapple on the side was as much fun to eat, as it was to say the first part of this sentence aloud. The sight of the pineapples being ceremoniously cooked with precise clockwork in the kitchen, stirred a ripple of excitement too…
The theatrics so loved of the Fat Duck (Heston’s three Michelin-starred restaurant) played out with the trolley rolled out to our table after, to be quickly followed by billowing clouds of (liquid nitrogen) smoke which gave rise to silkily-smooth vanilla bean ice cream. Scooped out in a cone and embellished with a popping candy for a playful touch, your average Mr. Whippy this certainly was not!
What I loved most about Dinner was that it presented both – an intensely memorable bucket-list experience, yet a highly-repeatable one (even by limited vegetarian standards) that would definitely draw me back. You see, I’ve been day-dreaming of that Tipsy Cake ever since…
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7LA