Friday, October 31, 2008

Five more friends

Thursday, October 23, 2008

David Sedaris on undecided voters

"I look at these people and can’t quite believe that they exist.

Are they professional actors? I wonder.
Or are they simply laymen who want a lot of attention?

To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane.
The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and,
eventually, parks it beside my seat.
“Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks.
“Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and
then ask how the chicken is cooked."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Fat Duck

In order to write this memory, I am breaking through a wax seal—the old fashioned kind, where someone dripped black wax where the flap meets the envelope, then pressed a seal into the still-soft wax. In this case, the seal is three vertical dining implements: a butter knife, a dinner knife, and a fork. Only the blade of the dinner knife is a feather and the tines of the fork are formed by a duck’s webbed foot. Inside the envelope is a menu listing most of the many courses we dined on. We did not just share a meal with Tom and Tristan at The Fat Duck, though; we shared a carefully crafted experience and the attention to detail evident in the presentation of the memento menu was present in every moment of the evening.

This account goes on and on. And on. I know most of you don’t care that much. Frankly, I rarely read descriptions of restaurant meals that go on this long. It’s mostly for me (and Theresa, Tom and Tristan) to remember the meal. So here is an abbreviated version. Magic. Pure magic, and lots of theater, all in the service of creating a meal that was as satisfyingly delicious as it was captivating. The meal was engaging not just to the senses of taste and smell, but visually stunning, occasionally auditorily interesting (and funny), and often texturally intriguing. Highlights included two dishes “cooked” before our very eyes with liquid nitrogen (a meringue cookie and bacon ice cream); a plate that looked and tasted in the best possible way like an ephemeral little piece of sea shore lovingly plated; and the most umami anything I have ever eaten, a combination of flavors and textures so deeply satisfying that although it was only about three courses into a meal of about 20 courses, I could easily have stopped there and been happy. Oh, and the hot and iced tea, together in one glass and separated only by magic. No, wait, science. But it was like magic to me. We asked, and our head server told us that the menu doesn’t change very often because so much time and work goes into creating each new dish. This means that in two or three or five years when we can afford to travel to England again, it will be just about time for a return trip. Because I would put myself in Heston Blumenthal’s hands for a meal again in a heartbeat.

The Fat Duck experience began on June 20, 2008, when Tristan stayed up until and I woke up at 2 a.m. to phone in and try to score reservations for August 20. After about half and hour of trying, Tristan nabbed the last table for 4. The reason for this madness became apparent when arrived: the restaurant is tiny, and by and large it appeared they only did one seating the whole night.

The restaurant is located in the tiny town of Bray, about 40 miles West of London. We had been told it was in the central square and that we couldn’t miss it, but miss it we did. What can I say, the sign was a bit subtle.

So we stopped at The Hind’s Head, Heston Blumenthal’s gastropub, had a drink and asked for directions. We were two doors away. Score one for the quaint English town vs. the highly educated Americans.

The sign above the very low door to The Hind's Head. I am ashamed to admit, I wondered for a moment why there were birds in the restaurant.

Once seated and provisioned with champagne, the first thing that came our way was a rolling cart with a small, insulated bowl of liquid nitrogen. The waiter produced a canister of the sort one might expect whipped cream to come out of and explained that it contained egg whites and lime essence. He shot a small dollop of whipped egg whites into the liquid nitrogen, and spooned the liquid over the bobbing white “meringue.” After a few seconds he informed us that the cookie must be eaten immediately and asked who would be first. We all choked and then Tom pointed at me. The meringue was fished out of its bath, dusted with matcha powder, and placed in front of me. As I picked it up, the waiter atomized our table with lime essence. When I bit down, the meringue crunched, and was a little soft in the middle, just like a meringue, but then it evaporated on my tongue and left me with just lime and a pleasant chill.

Next came two small square fruit jellies: beet and orange, we were informed. One was a beautiful pale orange and the other a deep, deep red. Taking a bite of the red, we quickly realized all was not as it seemed on first glance. A bite of the orange confirmed: the red was blood orange and the orange was golden beet. Gotcha!

The next thing I see on my menu is “Oyster, passion fruit jelly, lavender.” All I remember is a yummy oyster.

Next up: Pommery grain mustard ice cream, red cabbage gazpacho. The mustard ice cream was just that. The gazpacho tasted just like pickled cabbage. The whole tasted just like perfect toppings for a hot dog. In a good way. Really. It was delicious, if a bit disorienting.

Then, the magic started in earnest. On our table was placed a rectangular tray covered in moss, with four tiny toasts topped with minced black truffles. We were each given a tiny plastic container in which was a “taste strip” quite like those breath strips that dissolve on your tongue, but these dissolved into essence of oak forest. In front of each of us was placed a round white porcelain vessel with an open front. We were told to try and take a taste of “everything at once.” Inside the vessel was “Jelly of quail, langoustine cream, parfait of foie gras.” Also, something green at the very bottom-pea, maybe? Never mind the component parts. The effect of a little of everything in that enchanted vessel, plus a tiny bit of truffle toast was an umami bomb. Waves of deep contentment washed over me as our server poured water into the tray with the oak moss, which obviously contained dry ice because the table was soon enveloped in a fog, to match the state of my endorphin-loaded brain.

Next came snail porridge, Jabugo ham, shaved fennel. I remember nothing of the ham or the fennel. I vividly remember the dark black snails and the brilliant green parsley sauce full of rolled oats. I was too lost in my own reverie to notice Theresa and Tom exchanging looks that said, “Really? Eww. Well, here we are, what’re we gonna do about it? I’ll try it if you will.” And then, “Huh. That’s not disgusting. I think I can choke this down. No, wait. That’s kinda tasty. No, wait. That’s freakin’ delicious!”

Now things got weird. Not with the food, which continued to delight and satisfy, but with the descriptions. Roast foie gras ‘benzaldehyde’ Almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile. Huh? It was delicious, perfectly balancing sweet and tart cherry with a little almond flavor and the bass note of foie gras. It was explained to us that benzaldehyde is the chemical in cherry pits that smells like almonds but is poisonous, and that the name was just a play on this. Tom, the chemical engineer, was skeptical. I just thought it was silly. But yummy.

Sound of the Sea. No kidding. Before our food arrived we were each presented with a conch shell, inside which lay an iPod shuffle and ear buds. Placing the headphones in our ears we heard waves lapping gently on the shore (Theresa, the marine biologist, identified it as a gently sloping beach with shallow water) and seagulls crying above (these were tentatively identified as black footed gulls, but we are asked not to hold her to that). I burst out laughing, and others giggled a bit as well. Looking around the restaurant, others with the earbuds were not even cracking a smile. Some people take their food way too seriously.

The food arrived on rectangular trays, placed lengthwise in front of each of us. On the bottom of the tray was actual beach sand, above which was an acrylic platform holding, left to right, a long strip of sand, then seaweed, then foam. It looked just like a bit of beach. It tasted just like a bit of beach, even gritty, but not unpleasant. The sand we were told was made with tapioca. It must’ve been uncooked and pulverized . . . or something. Anyway, the sand also contained bits of dried eels and shrimp. The foam was made from clam and seaweed juice. The effect of the whole, earbuds and all, was pure teleportation and a fleeting moment at the beach.

Next came Salmon poached in liquorice gel, artichoke, vanilla mayonnaise and ‘Manni’ olive oil. The notable part of this dish for me was that the salmon was warm and I’m guessing cooked sous vide, because it had the consistency of sushi. It was perfectly coated in a dark layer of liquorice gel that was oddly pleasant to me. I say “oddly” because I ordinarily detest liquorice flavor, but this was just right with the salmon and amazing with the notoriously difficult to pair artichokes. Many months after the fact I can recall the flavors and textures of this dish perfectly.

Ballotine of Anjou pigeon, black pudding ‘made to order,’ pickling brine and spiced juices. The pigeon was again cooked sous vide. This worked less well for me on dark bird meat, but it was still delicious. This course was the most conventional of the evening and frankly, I thought, a bit superfluous. Perhaps it is a concession to those who said they did not get enough to eat in the chef’s tasting menu. It was delicious, but irrelevant to the meal as a whole, I thought.

The magic was soon back, though, with a glass of hot and iced tea. A clear acrylic (?) cup was placed in front of each of us and we were instructed to please pick it up and drink it in the orientation it had been placed before us. Zut alors! The cider-colored liquid was a slightly sweetened green tea, but the left side was quite chilled and the right side quite warm. Second and third sips, same thing! The two temperatures never mixed, despite being apparently the same liquid of the same consistency.

The next course was a bit out of character for the meal. We were presented with small pamphlets, entitled:
Mrs Agnes B. Marshall

The Queen of Ice Cream
The pamphlet contains a lengthy essay on this woman, described as “without question, one of the greatest Victorian cooks.” We are informed that she wrote four books on ice cream, “amongst the best ever written,” started a cooking school, started a weekly newspaper, “The Table,” gave cooking demonstrations all over England, owned a large cooking shop, invented and patented an ice cream freezer, and “ran a staff recruitment agency.” Although not, apparently, the inventor of the ice cream cone, she was an early adopter, and “the first person to publish the extraordinary suggestion (in 1901) of making ice cream using liquid gas.” She died of cancer at the age of 50.

Pause here in the meal to feel like an underachiever and eat a delicious and Lilliputian ice cream cone.

The Pine Sherbet Fountain (Pre-hit)* delighted Theresa. We each got a tiny paper packet containing a sweet powder, with a vanilla flavored stick to lick and dip in the powder (and repeat). This is a play on an English candy that Theresa remembered from her visits to her grandparents in Norwich when she was little, and she said they hit the mark spot-on.
*I have no idea still what “pre-hit” means.

Mango and Douglas fir puree, bavarois of lychee and mango, blackcurrant sorbet. After mocking the Doug fir puree for months, none of us can really remember much about this course. How odd.

When the waiter presented the next course, he said, “Good morning. Welcome to the Fat Duck. We will now serve you breakfast.” We each got a small box with the restaurant logo and the words “Fat Duck Cereals.” Inside was a clear plastic bag containing parsnip cereal, parsnips that had been thinly sliced into coins and baked or fried until crisp. The table got a small pitcher of milk that was slightly sweet and tasted of parsnip. When we poured the milk over the cereal in our bowls, the taste was eerily like frosted flakes. But with a parsnip finish. Incredibly yummy and less weird than it sounds.

Next, a cart arrived tableside with a copper fondue pot, an insulated pitcher, and a carton with three eggs. The waiter showed us one of the eggs; each was stamped with “Fat Duck” in red. He cracked them into the fondue pot and began to whisk while pouring in liquid nitrogen from the pitcher. Meanwhile, we each got a plate with pain perdu and tea jelly, topped with the thinnest, flattest strip of candied bacon. When the nitro-scrambled egg and bacon ice cream was finished, a small bit, looking for all the world like scrambled eggs, was placed on our plates. What can I say? It tasted just like weekend breakfast. Theresa was particularly taken with the fact that once we had finished, the remnants on the plates looked just as if we had been eating French toast with syrup, bacon and scrambled eggs.

We finished with petit fours: carrot and orange lolly, mandarin aerated chocolate, violet tartlet, apple pie caramel “edible wrapper.” I don’t have much to say about these. All were very good, though I quite disliked the violet tartlet but that isn’t anyone’s fault; I just don’t much like flower flavors in my food.

More stones and weird prehistoric things

The last stone circle we visited was Avebury, the largest stone circle in the world. And friends, it is huge. You can't really see the whole thing at one time it's so big. There is also a town sort of built right into the middle of it.

Here is an aerial view:

There are also a whole freakin' lot of sheep grazing, meandering, and napping amongst the stones.

Oh, and pooping

There was also one stealthy highland coo spotted:

Just South of Avebury is Silbury Hill:

Wtf is it? No one knows. Just call it an enigmatic monolith.

Across the highway from Silbury Hill is West Kennet Longbarrow, a burial site with five chambers. As with so many prehistoric sites in Great Britain, this one was remarkably unattended--we just walked up and in, and poked around a bit. Clearly there had been some rituals performed recently, as there were various bits of dried flowers and herbs lying around. But no grafitti, and almost no litter.

The Cotswolds

We spent one night in the town of Painswick in the almost laughably picturesque Cotswolds. Here are some ridiculously scenic pictures to prove it.

Saturday, October 04, 2008


Someone sent me this, a very funny short get out the vote video (Sarah Silverman just keeps getting funnier)

But on the sidebar was a link to "Thoth." All I saw was a guy with a violin, but of course that was enough to get me to click. Apparently this film won an Oscar for best short documentary in 2002. I never watch anything longer than about 5 minutes on the computer but I was rapt for the entire 40 minutes. I was so taken by this man's story about identity, self, and the creative process. The music and performance are incredible.

Maybe I *do* like opera, at least if it's performed in a tunnel in Central Park!