First things first. Loud, clear and right up-front: I didn't pay for my lunch at The Fat Duck Melbourne. This wasn't because I did a runner, but because I (or, more accurately, Gourmet Traveller) was invited as a guest of the restaurant. Nice work, obviously, but also problematic in terms of objectively reporting on the experience.
If I'd footed the $525 bill (plus booze, where wine-matching options start at $200 a head and rocket up to north of $1,000), would the slightly giggly, perception-shifting playfulness and the ostensibly pointless but astonishingly clever technique of many of the 16 or so courses have the same impact? Or would it be compromised by the background buzz of all that filthy lucre? My own filthy lucre.
Obviously, I can't say for sure and will never know because, like most of the 100,000 or so other people who entered the ballot for the 14,000 available seats, I was unsuccessful in securing one. I tried, Your Honour.
But whether you're a paying punter or a comped hack, it's actually pointless to talk about (or review) The Fat Duck Melbourne in normal restaurant terms.
The combination of ridiculous price tags, a ballot, Heston Blumenthal's celebrity, tens of thousands of people prepared to line up and fork out and the evil-genius fact that from the moment it opened you couldn't get into what is, in fact, a pop-up version of the most famous restaurant in the world renders all normal restaurant discussion nonsensical.
This is not about eating lunch or dinner. And it's certainly not the place to discuss value for money. The Fat Duck Melbourne is about indulgence, folly, hedonism, extravagance, theatre with some humour, wonder, surprise and admiration chucked in for good measure. It's all about the experience and being able to brag about the experience on Instagram and watch the likes light up.
So consider this less of a restaurant review and more of a travel story about a place you'll probably never get to because the borders are closed and the destination itself will vanish altogether in August.
The borders to the land of The Fat Duck are patrolled by well-groomed people with clipboards standing near the humid entrance to Crown Towers' lavish spa and pool complex. You may find yourself walking in the same direction as hotel guests headed spa-ward in terry-towelling robes and slippers before your paths diverge as you (your credentials politely checked) are ushered into a darkened tunnel with what appears to be a small well-lit door at the end, but is actually a door-shaped video screen beaming in the action from the kitchen. The real door is a wall of black glass that slides open to reveal a grand double-height space with views across the Yarra through geometrically framed windows.
It's a luxurious room. The unset tables, dressed in meticulously ironed linen and laid with Fat Duck-embossed linen napkins, are extravagantly spaced, the deep-purple carpet expensively cushy. There are horseshoe booths in stone-coloured leather, purple upholstered armchairs, timber-and-stone waiters' stations, a grand central wine table swathed in linen and charming, perfectly turned-out floor staff. For those with $525 still whispering mutinously in their ear, it makes super-polished, inarguably stylish sense. But there's still a touch of the indulged casino eatery about it.
It's the less-polished touches - the slightly naff wall-sized jigsaw with a caped Heston as centrepiece; the oversized, doomed Disney-esque fob watch on one wall with its hand edging from February towards August where it will stop forever, just like The Fat Duck Melbourne; the bouquet of antique dildos at the front desk, a gift from Blumenthal's mate and MONA owner David Walsh - that snap the place out of its seriousness and the potential for it all to become just a bit too posh. They're the signs, reminders, of Blumenthal's great talent for messing with minds.
Most of that, of course, comes with the food, and the first three courses - all about acidity and heat to get the saliva flowing - are a fitting overture.
A small berry-like morsel placed at the centre of a large plate is a single-bite combination of aerated beetroot and horseradish cream. It doesn't so much dissolve in the mouth as elegantly swoon away to nothing, leaving just a sigh of horseradish heat to mark its passing.
Next up is a carny trick dish of liquid nitrogen-poached apéritifs, created tableside, all wafting nitro smoke, stainless-steel whippers and charming banter with a lit candle adding a "look into my eyes" hypnotist touch. There's a choice of gin and tonic, Campari and soda, and vodka, lime and green tea, which take the form of meringue quenelles. They're poached in the nitrogen and go straight into the mouth so, while pondering the amazing/off-putting sensation of snorting and chewing a cocktail, vapour leaks, dragon-like, from your nostrils.
The final of the opening trio is the most comforting and food-like, a gorgeous Pommery wholegrain mustard ice-cream served with a vinegary red-cabbage gazpacho and compressed cucumber. It serves as a reminder that there will be identifiable food during the next four to five hours and that chef Blumenthal (and his Canadian head chef Jonny Lake) are as gifted with classic balance and finesse as they are with technical whizz-bangery.
Savoury Lollies arrive as three scaled-down versions of ice-creams/icy poles on sticks, poked upright into fake grass, and ready and willing to mess up the relationship between your eyes and your tastebuds.
On the left, the red, green and cream Rocket looks like old-school moulded jelly and tastes like Waldorf salad. In the middle, the pretty Twister is a remarkably simple, satisfying combo of salmon, avocado and horseradish, while to the right, the Feast - renamed for local sensibilities as the Golden Gaytime - is chicken-liver parfait coated in fig gel and sprinkled with crushed almonds. Anyone unable to giggle just a little at the silliness, disconnect and brilliantly precise flavour combinations of this lot might need to seriously adjust their attitude.
I fear I missed the point and the connect of a complicated flurry of more wafting nitro steam in a bed of oak moss in the centre of the table, tiny slivers of "film" with a truffle-like, oak-moss flavour, an incredible quail jelly teamed with pea purée and caviar sorbet and a side of truffle toast topped with tiny slivers of radish. It was fun but came across as more about brilliant parts than the sum.
The famed snail porridge is lovely with its ribbons of shaved fennel, deep-green colour, flecks of jamón Ibérico, loads of parsley and garlic, comforting oat base and the softly chewy blanched and braised snails.
The snails, like many of the dishes here, have been photographed, written about, dissected a thousand times but, with constant tweaking, they retain a surprising capacity to surprise.
Does the Sound of the Sea soundtrack - waves and gulls, played through headphones attached to an iPod in a conch shell - actually make the dish of butterfish, abalone and kingfish served with edible sand (tapioca and anchovies), foam (vegetable-based stock infused with seaweed), fresh and dehydrated seaweed, and a lovely array of sea succulents (oyster leaf and dead man's fingers included) any better? Maybe, maybe not, but, boy, is it relaxing. You find yourself reluctantly handing the headphones back, emerging from the beach with an almost post-massage level of light-headed relaxation. Perhaps the aural satisfaction is the result of a remix by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, who offered his services because he thought the original mix was too seagull-heavy.
The Mad Hatter's Tea Party is all tricks as gold-foil pocket watches dissolve in teapots to form a mock turtle soup (a super-clarified, super-complex beef stock) that's poured into a cup filled with truffle, enoki, ox tongue and an egg made from swede and turnip cream. A special mention should go to the toast sandwiches, exquisite little white bread numbers, crusts removed, with a crunchy sliver of toast in the middle and fillings that include smoked anchovy, bone marrow, cucumber and truffle.
A little cup of Earl Grey tea is mind-bogglingly hot and cold at the same time.
One dessert is a breakfast of cereal (in a Heston-branded box, candied parsnips, popping candy and a little bottle of parsnip milk included), bacon and egg ice-cream, and marmalade in a jar sealed with an edible gingham lid made from chocolate. Another is an exquisite homage to Botrytis cinerea (the "noble" rot that transforms Sauternes-style sweet wines) that arrives as an abstract bunch of grapes playing on classic botrytis wine flavours - saffron, vanilla, apricot, citrus - and the flavours that go with the wine, such as fenugreek and Roquefort.
Moments unique to the antipodean The Fat Duck include a superb dish of roasted marron accompanied by an umami bomb of confit konbu, tamari-glazed sesame seeds and dried sea lettuce, and a quietly brilliant lamb dish that has been adjusted and changed because of the quality and texture of the local lamb (Suffolk, from South Australia). The two-part dish includes lamb tongue, heart and scrag, pea-shaped mint emulsion, quinoa crisps and a thrillingly good lamb-consommé jelly.
The other revelation is having an all-Aussie wine experience, something that's pretty much unheard of in Australian restaurants offering dégustation menus. Of course, the cartoonishly large wine list is dripping with venerable names from all over with astonishing lineages and price tags and the roasted marron is paired with a Japanese sake, but drinking 2013 M3 Shaw + Smith Chardonnay with the snail porridge, 2004 Seppelt Sparkling Shiraz with liquorice gel-poached salmon or the brilliant 2005 Yarra Yering Dry Red No 1 with the lamb is enough to bring on a slight nationalistic flush and a mental note to do better in future.
The service, too, is revelatory. Calm, charming, in charge, it's a textbook display of why good service is the polar opposite of subservience. It's the easiest thing in the world to hand over complete control of your existence to this team for four to five hours.
I reckon I'd gush a bit about Fat Duck Melbourne even if I'd had to fork over my own money. Yes, there are gimmicks and tricks and cornball moments. Yes, it's absolutely ridiculous to spend this sort of money on a meal. Yes, Heston Blumenthal sells take-home meals in Coles. But still, with such a precision, all-out assault to please here it would take a stronger person than me to resist. And, really, why would you?