After months of slow-drip announcements, a ballot with 250,000 people trying to secure one of 14,000 seats, stories of ballot rorting, the migration (and housing) of 70 chefs, waiters and sommeliers from the UK, announcements of a $525 per head price tag, and the breathless Willy Wonka-esque anticipation over who would score the last of the golden tickets, it's finally happened. The Fat Duck has opened in Melbourne.
The former Breezes restaurant on the third level at Crown Towers has been given a thorough going over, starting with a dramatic entrance via a darkened tunnel with what appears to be a small door at the end which is really a small door-sized video screen playing images of the kitchen team in action. Alice in Wonderland comes to mind. At first it seems as though you've come to a dead end and then a black glass wall slides open and you're in.
The room is dark-hued, lit dramatically, carpeted luxuriously and furnished with curved bone-coloured booths, purple upholstered chairs and spacious tables dressed with meticulously ironed linen. One wall is all geometrically framed glass with views over Melbourne's CBD. Another sports a jigsaw, partly completed, that will become whole over the six months of the Fat Duck's Crown tenure, with every guest adding a piece to the puzzle. On a third wall is another Wonderland touch - a giant fob watch that counts down the restaurant's days in Melbourne, stopping after six months, after which it'll be shipped back to the original restaurant in Bray as a memento.
On day one, minutes before the first service, while TV crews filmed and the smartly turned-out staff were the briefed for the final time, Heston Blumenthal threw himself onto a seat at the kitchen-side chef's table (a one-off in Melbourne - the Bray restaurant is too small to accommodate one) to tell us about this incarnation of his most famous restaurant.
GT: Is the multi-course menu here about The Fat Duck's greatest hits or are there new dishes exclusive to Melbourne?
HB: There will be at least one dish that's new but there will be some changes to all the dishes just because we're using mostly Australian produce. All the dishes at The Fat Duck are in a constant state of evolution anyway. Dishes like the bacon-and-egg ice-cream, the snail porridge, the Sounds of the Sea are always being changed as we change, and I see this migration of The Fat Duck to Melbourne as just another part in the narrative of those dishes. When they return to the UK, they will be changed, too, like a new chapter.
GT: Is this version of The Fat Duck like the most extreme form of a pop-up restaurant?
HB: It's not a pop-up and we've tried from the beginning to make it not like a pop-up. What it is, is a restaurant within a restaurant. We have the first layer, which is The Fat Duck, and then, underneath, there's the second layer which will be the permanent restaurant, which is Dinner.
GT: You've brought staff and furnishings with you, what about The Fat Duck cellar?
HB: It's a combination of stuff from our cellar and local wine. At first I thought it would be amazing to have a list of only Australian wine. It seemed weird to me to come to the other side of the world to drink Italian wine, but we decided that we'd go with the best pairings. We've actually found that some of the best pairings we have come with Australian wines - there's a sparkling shiraz with the salmon that's amazing.
GT: At $525 a head for food, The Fat Duck is the most expensive restaurant in Melbourne. How do you justify the expense?
HB: We should probably be charging 10 grand a head for this because of all the costs of this being built and up and running in six months. Plus we've brought all our staff out here and had to house them. It's actually only £30 [just shy of $60] more expensive than at Bray. It's certainly expensive, I'm not denying that, but there's a huge cost of producing this stuff. If we were charging what the real cost was then it would be ridiculous. We couldn't do it if we weren't being subsidised by Crown.
GT: So how often will we be seeing you in the restaurant?
HB: I'm here full-time for the first month and after that I'll be here 50/50 because I still have four restaurants in the UK, plus the TV, plus the supermarkets, plus, plus, plus. There's plenty to do.
Check out more pictures from the opening of Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck Melbourne at Crown.
The tasting menu is a sequence of dishes designed not only to capture a delicious range of flavours, textures and aromas, but also to bring multi-sensory appeal, culinary history and a real sense of theatre to the dining experience.
RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO
Pommery Grain Mustard Ice cream
NITRO POACHED APERITIFS
Vodka and Lime Sour, Gin and Tonic, Campari Soda
Waldorf Rocket, Salmon Twister and Feast
JELLY OF QUAIL, MARRON CREAM
Caviar Sorbet, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast
(Homage to Alain Chapel)
Joselito Ham, Shaved Fennel
Shiitake, Confit Kombu and Sea Lettuce
MAD HATTER'S TEA PARTY
Mock Turtle Soup, Pocket Watch and Toast Sandwich
"SOUND OF THE SEA"
SALMON POACHED IN A LIQUORICE GEL
Endive, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Golden Trout Roe
LAMB WITH CUCUMBER
Green Pepper and Caraway
HOT & ICED TEA
THE NOT-SO-FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST
WHISKY WINE GUMS
"LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP"
Wine Pairings are available to complement this Menu
Head Chef: Jonathan Lake
Restaurant Manager: Dimitri A. Bellos
Head Sommelier: Isa Bal