The new restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental may seat 140 guests, but getting one of these seats is not easy. We reserved our table in January not long after the booking lines had opened and got the earliest table available, which was a 2.30 lunch sitting in March. This meant we had been looking forward to “Dinner” for what seemed like ages. Could it possibly live up to the hype or more importantly to my mind could it justify the loss of The Foliage?
Interestingly there does seem to be a restaurant review pattern, in that the food bloggers are less wowed than the professional critics. A pattern I am afraid we find ourselves following. To be fair Heston in interviews has emphasised that Dinner is not trying to be a fine dining restaurant, it is not an outpost of The Fat Duck. The staff also made that very clear to us on our visit. So we tried hard to adjust our expectations accordingly.
The kitchen is headed by Ashley Palmer-Watts who has worked with Heston at The Fat Duck for nine years in the capacity of Group Executive Chef. “Dinner” (still hate the name) has unquestionably been the hottest opening this year, gathering an incredible amount of publicity and accolades.
During the summer months the terrace overlooking Hyde Park will be used for al fresco dining and it may well take until the summer to get a reservation. The Restaurant is apparently fully booked to the end of June. Reservations are even being offered as prizes and being sold on ebay!
It was really nice to be greeted by the last two surviving members of the Foliage staff. As a welcoming treat we were given a sample of the famous Meat Fruit, enabling us to effectively “tick the box” on that one. It was a perfectly fine chicken liver parfait cleverly shaped like a Mandarin Orange in homage to the hotel. I then ordered the Hay Smoked Mackerel starter with lemon salad, Gentlemen’s Relish and olive oil. I found it to be a tasty and refreshing dish. For main course I chose the Pigeon, which was delicious, but in retrospect did not really justify the price which was actually more than the cost of the entire set menu. The standout dish for me was my dessert choice – no not the famous Tipsy cake with pineapple. I was a bit more adventurous. I went for the Brown Bread Ice-Cream, even though I had been warned and perhaps a little put off by it being described as having savoury elements. It was unusual, but for me it really worked with the yeasty Ice-Cream contrasting well with the caramel sauce and oats. I found it really quite moreish.
My companion was less successful with his choices. He started with the Rice and Flesh which combined flavours that he did not particularly enjoy. He also ordered the Powdered duck. The meat was moist with subtle flavours but he did not like the contrasting hard fennel. On the whole he felt that the historically inspired flavour combinations were a bit incongruous, sadly reminiscent of the cooking style at Oliver Peytons National Dining Room.
He then had what he described as the “Krispy Kreme” doughnut like Tipsy cake with spit roasted pineapple. The Tipsy cake was OK but the smoky after taste from the pineapple chunks was less successful.
We finished the meal on a “high” note though with a small cup of Earl Grey ganache and some caraway biscuits. This was rather playful in that it conjured up the taste of accidentally picking up and drinking a long discarded cup of cold tea – until the sugar rush kicked in! This sweet treat seemed to be closer in concept to the type of food served at The Fat Duck than to Dinners historically inspired menu.
The restaurant with its £4 million make over looks good, but not stunning. With that sort of money I expected this flag ship restaurant to have the same level of glamour as achieved by Moments at the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona for example.
It was also strange to find ourselves seated at the same table location as we had during our memorable last meal at the Foliage. Maybe it was just a coincidence or perhaps it was intentional, indicating the level of customer care the Mandarin is famous for.
After our late lunch we met up with some friends in the adjoining Mandarin bar for a quick drink that lasted about 6 hours! The cocktails were on the whole really enjoyable, served by the super efficient staff. One annoyance was that they no longer offer bar food, just the room service menu if you are a resident. I suspect this is a side effect of losing the The Park Restaurant.
So in conclusion I have to say unfortunately Dinner is not somewhere that I would rush to return too. Indeed if in Knightsbridge, I would be more likely to make a return visit to Koffmans or perhaps even Bar Boulud. We have no doubt that these changes will bring financial and critical success to the Mandarin Oriental and certainly getting Heston to open his first London Restaurant here is quite a coup, but from our perspective sadly we feel that the Mandarin has lost more than it has gained.
UPDATE : October 2011 : The 2012 Michelin Guide has unsurprisingly awarded Dinner a star.