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.
I’ve read quite a few interviews with famous chefs in which they’ve said foie gras, toast and a glass of sauternes would be the perfect final meal. I’m not so sure about that, but it definitely makes for a great afternoon snack at the end of an F1 grand prix. Particularly when you throw in the excellent cranberry and pinot noir sauce from the Michel Roux signature range.
The sauternes I had is out of shot because I don’t think these things through.
Had a lot of fun shopping in Didsbury’s The Cheese Hamlet today, as you can see from the picture below.
What better way to spend a Saturday than watching sport and feasting on this little lot?
Foie gras is something I’d been desperate to taste for years. Like caviar and truffles, I think it’s well established as a must-try luxury food item – something an ordinary person can’t afford to eat regularly, but would probably be excited to eat if given the opportunity.
For some people, the controversial methods used in foie gras production (below) are enough to put them off.
In my case, it probably makes it even more appealing. It’s not that I revel in cruelty towards animals (and I should stress that this is perceived cruelty; the video does some debunking of the cruelty allegations), I’m just of the opinion that they wouldn’t bother with this production method (or be allowed to) if the end product wasn’t wonderful.
And I’m not about to walk away from the chance to taste something ‘wonderful’ just because it was made by forcing grain down a bird’s throat.
It was two-star Michelin restaurant Hibiscus in London that presented me with this chance at the end of July, rolling out a dish of roasted duck foie gras half-way through a ten-course tasting menu. The title of ‘best thing I’ve ever tasted in my life’ had already changed hands twice that night, so it was going to have to go some way to impress.*
And boy did it ever. Richer than a Russian oligarch, smoother than a Cuban cigar and with more bottle than a crate of potcheen, it was (and remains) by far and away the most flavourful thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.**
I was really surprised by how strongly the duck flavour came through. I’m not sure what I expected it to taste like, but extremely ducky wasn’t it. It tasted like they’d made a concentrate of duck breast and fat, one with a flavour ten times more powerful than that of your standard duck, and infused it into a block of clarified butter.***
I felt like I could get gout just by smelling it. And as it passed my lips, thoughts turned to the likelihood of type 2 diabetes. But as I chewed for the first time and the foie gras melted on my tongue, thoughts of anything that wasn’t directly linked to the tastegasm I was experiencing just evaporated away.
It was monumentally brilliant.
I was too distracted by what was happening in my mouth to remember how to speak, so when my wife asked me whether I was enjoying the food, my answer was simply a moan of pleasure. She apologised and said she didn’t realise I was having a bit of a moment. “Would you and the foie gras like to get a room?” she asked.
But I just ignored her. You see, the only thing that mattered in that moment was not that it was the first night of our honeymoon; the beginning of a lifetime of marital bliss. It was me stuffing my face with a fatty duck organ.
I find it very hard to express just what a revelation this dish was to me. I had no idea food could be so big and deep and powerful in flavour. It awakened parts of my tastebuds I never knew existed.
For my wife it was too much. After loving the first couple of bites, the richness began to take its toll and she stopped enjoying it.
But on me it seemed to have the opposite effect; it made it rather addictive. My stomach, my bowels, my entire digestive system began to beg for mercy, but my tastebuds were saying: “Keep shovelling this down your gob. I don’t care if your eyeballs bleed dripping and your veins turn to suet, you will keep on eating this until there is no more left.”
When finally it was all gone, I felt like I could weep. Tears of sorrow that the love I’d had was lost; tears of joy that I’d been able to love at all.
(I’m probably going a bit over the top again, but whatever, it’s my blog.)
Later on in the evening, on the table next to mine, I noticed an Australian bloke who looked like Marcus Brigstocke eating the same dish. Asked what he thought of it by a waiter, he described it as being merely “alright”.
It’s that kind of attitude that lost them the Ashes.
I didn’t think anything was going to top the foie gras during the rest of the meal, and alas nothing that followed came remotely close. Over the course of the week, as we went to a couple of three-star places and a magnificent steakhouse, a few dishes emerged that just about pipped it.
Unfortunately, the only other duck foie gras I had on the trip, at Alain Ducasse, paled in comparison. That version was seared and had a much more subtle flavour. It was still very good and indeed my wife much preferred it in this more toned-down form, but it failed to blow my socks off like the foie gras at Hibiscus.****
This was exactly the kind of experience I was after when I made The List of foods to try before I die. Hopefully there’ll be many more just like it.
Verdict: Highest possible recommendation
*Reigning champion, Big Fat Scallop, had seemed remarkably confident as the rookie ingredient made its way down to the ring. He’d ripped the belt from the claws of Raw Crab earlier in the evening and already made an impressive first defence, tapping out Marginally Overcooked John Dory in a matter of seconds. But the hulking bruiser was no match for Engorged Duck Liver, who had a move set he’d never seen before. Realising his charge didn’t stand a chance against such a relentless assault, Scallop’s trainer, the Welk, threw in the towel after two minutes.
***Incidentally, the bread at Hibiscus, in combination with a vivid yellow butter, was out of this world.
**** I think it says a lot that I barely remember what else was on the plate at Hibiscus, but my most vivid memory of the dish at Alain Ducasse is not the foie gras, but the magnificent duck blood sauce that was served with it.