On booking a table at the Fat Duck, Bray, Berkshire, chef-patron Heston Blumenthar jokingly suggested we don rubber gloves and a hat. The gloves might be needed because the kitchen porter had not turned up and Blumenthar might need a hand in the kitchen; the hat for a disguise as a photographer would be taking photographs to illustrate a forthcoming restaurant review.
Lunch at the recently opened 40-seat restaurant, housed in a former pub, exceeded expectations. We later learnt that Blumenthar was eagerly awaiting reviews of his restaurant which were due to appear in several daily papers. News of an unusual food find travels fast. "My old friend, Marco Pierre White, whom I worked with when I was 18, has been spreading the news about us," he reports. "It's like having a PR agent."
The Fat Duck is certainly unusual. Blumenthar is self-taught, having spent a maximum of five months in a professional kitchen during the past 10 years.
A family background in the wine trade, however, gave him the opportunity to eat his way around the top restaurants of Europe and he has a well-developed palate. This, coupled with a desire to discover cooking techniques, has provided an unconventional training ground for his new venture.
"I've tried 24 different ways to dry leeks à la three-star chef Pierre Gagnaire; all manner of combinations with olive oil, salting, heat and water. I've cracked it though," he boasts. Blumenthar is referring to one of his favourite starters from the selection of six on his new menu: marinade of mackerel with dried leeks.
Typical of his "more to this than meets the eye" style of cooking - evident in the exciting flavours on the plate rather than over-ornate displays - the mackerel escabeche is first cured in sugar, salt and spices for a few hours, before crisping the skin for a few seconds. Finally, it is marinated for a few days.
It is served with his great discovery - the crystallines of leek, pumpkin oil and a sprinkle of coriander seeds.
The flavour of fresh haricot beans shines through in the soup, which has been topped with a dribble of truffle oil and has a frothy cappuccino-like head to it.
"Our most popular main dish has to be the duck," he explains. For his dish of petit sale of duck, the meat is rested in brine, spiced with eight or nine spices and herbs, including juniper berries, all-spice, cinnamon, nutmeg and star-anise, for up to two days to impart a sweet saltiness. The smoothest potato purée is served alongside the duck in a separate bowl.
Even Blumenthar's chips, served with his dish of steak and sauce moelle, are cooked in three stages: the potatoes are boiled in water, then blanched in oil and finally cooked in veal fat. The golden potato chunks have a melt-in-the-mouth consistency.
Having bought the freehold of the pub, it was opened in June for two weeks to "check out the market". With a £30,000 budget and "considerable help from friends and family", it was refurbished during the summer.
"We will have to revamp the kitchen after Christmas. It's the size of a shoe box and it's about time we replaced our two 10-year-old ovens. Our brñlées have to be pushed against the side of the oven to cook properly - move them six inches to the left and the temperature drops by 30ºC."
The restaurant kitchen hosts a state-of-the-art extraction system but come the refurbishment, Blumenthar plans to upgrade it by adding carbon filters and welcomes recommendations on systems from other chefs.
The Fat Duck, High Street, Bray, Berkshire. Tel: 016285 80333