Food #5: Goose foie gras
When I had duck foie gras for the first time at London’s Hibiscus restaurant (2 Michelin stars) it stole the show. There were lots of other great things about that meal and there were even some dishes that were as good. But the foie gras just had this star power that made it stand out head and shoulders above everything else.
When I had goose foie gras for the first time at The Waterside Inn (3 Michelin stars) in Bray a few days later, it did nothing of the sort. In fact, if I made a list of the most remarkable things about the meal that night it wouldn’t even crack the top five.
Now, to be fair, it was up against stiffer competition. The dining room at the Waterside and the view over the River Thames (below) was amazing and it’s hard to top that. Similarly, the service – which was just this week named best in the country by Zagat – was unfathomably brilliant. The restaurant’s staffed by Jedis who respond to your wants a good minute or so before you’ve even wanted them.*
Then there was the spit-roasted Challandais duck, presented and carved at the table in a delightful bit of theatre, which made me think it was the greatest dish I’d ever had. And the stonkingly good raspberry soufflé, which made the memories of the best desserts I’d eaten in my life wave little white flags and surrender like cheese-eating monkeys of unspecified nationality.
And who could forget the ridiculous amount of alcohol my wife and I consumed in the space of about three hours?**
So the goose foie gras had a mountain to climb if it was going to stand out as much as its echo-defying quack cousin. And given it was served in the form of a terrine and not roasted or pan-fried – the cooking processes that turn it into such a flavour monster – it didn’t really have a chance.
Still, if I’m trying to be fair, I should probably do more than just judge it against the other stuff I experienced that week. And looked at in isolation, the goose foie gras was very strong indeed.
Terrine of Foie Gras, Lightly Peppered Rabbit Fillets, Sauternes Wine Jelly, Salad of Chinese Cabbage Leaves, Violet Mustard Flavoured Brioche Toast
Flavour-wise, it was incredibly subtle and refined. There was a certain ethereal quality to it, like you’d get if you cooked an elf sous-vide. Just graceful and sophisticated and seriously, seriously classy.
The combination of it with the rabbit and the jelly and the salad leaves and the brioche was a match made in heaven. A sort of divine pâté on toast.
But in terms of texture and appearance, it wasn’t so special. Dense and a grey-ish monochrome, it reminded me of the kind of space food HAL serves Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It just looked dull, and I think that sums the whole dish up more or less. The foie gras was lovely, but not particularly exciting. To be something great it needed the other ingredients alongside it, and even with them it didn’t exactly shine. It was too polite, too safe.
It had no balls.
A few days later, I ate pan-fried goose foie gras and it more or less lived up to the experience I had with the duck variety. Obviously it tasted a bit more goosey, and I wasn’t quite so blown away because it wasn’t my first time, but it was marvelous nonetheless.
Then last week, I bought some duck foie gras and had it cold on toast. It took me right back to the terrine experience again. Nice and boring.
What I learned, I think, is that it doesn’t matter so much whether you have goose foie gras or duck. What really matters is how it’s prepared/cooked. Cold, you’ll like it but wonder whether your money might’ve been better spent on something else. Pan-fried/roasted, you’ll be searching for dead bodies to climb over to get your next bite.
NEXT UP: Beef Rossini
*Going to the toilet here is an amazing experience. Move to get up and there’ll be a waiter there to pull your chair back for you before your arse is an inch away from the seat. No need to ask where the toilets are or even speak – they know what it is that you want and the arrangements have already been made. “Step this way, sir,” you’re told while you’re still trying to figure out where the hell this Mr Benn shopkeeper-esque staff member came from and how he’s able to read your mind. You recover just in time to notice the hand signals he’s giving to the other waiters and realise that he’s just told eight of them to clear a path so you don’t need to walk without two yards of another person as you leave the room. Someone else takes over at the door and points you in the right direction before you’ve even noticed they’re there. As you head to the bathroom, you just about glimpse the man who keeps the toilets in perfect condition disappearing around the corner so you can relieve your bladder in peace. Slick.
**Here you go: two strong gin and tonics, followed by two glasses of champagne, a bottle of white wine, a bottle of red wine, two dessert wines and another two glasses of champagne. We had to ask for petit fours to be served in our room for fear we were too drunk to be out in a public dining room. Whoever it was who said you don’t get hangovers from expensive alcohol was a terrible, terrible liar.