Birthdays are a special occasion requiring a special eatery. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal checked every box on the 'restaurant of the moment' list - TV darling chef, sycophantic Sunday supplement reviews and a choice of two reservation times: too early or too late.
So our booking was made for 10.30pm. We were shown into the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental by a beaming doorman and promptly seated in the hotel bar while our table was readied. The drinks menu is as bloated as you'd expect from an establishment that offered a six-night Royal Wedding celebration package for £18,000. We ordered two non-alcoholic cocktails at a comparatively charitable £8 each and clawed eagerly at complimentary Kettle chips.
20 cocktail-less minutes elapsed and we were permitted to enter the restaurant. The quality of the decor is undeniable, though the aim of reflecting elements of historic Britain is unsuccessful. Giant spirographs hang from the ceiling, supposedly echoing stained glass found at Westminster Abbey. Alas, with dark leather, floor-to-ceiling glass and wood panelling dominating the space, the effect is more akin to a hotel business centre in Brussels.
At the centre of the dining room sits an exposed show kitchen, staffed by calm, pristine chefs. The real cooking happens downstairs in a presumably sweatier, more manic environ. Our waitress offered a tour of these other kitchens to be taken after our meal. We accepted without hesitation but later remarked the proposition felt a little disingenuous. So we weren't surprised to find she'd left for home by the time we'd finished eating.
We ordered the 2005 Château Bouscassé at £45.00 (the second-cheapest on the menu) and toasted just as the elusive—and by now forgotten—cocktails arrived.
Starters were Snail Porridge and Meat Fruit - Heston personified. This is why you come to Dinner. It's food as theatre - something you can't help but sneak a photo of with covert iPhones. The snail porridge is a love letter written by a 14-year-old - sniggering at you with its faux-daring in name and colour - yet beautifully delicate in presentation, bold in flavour and completely unforgettable. The Meat Fruit is less triumphant. As striking and inventive as the presentation is, the dish feels ill constructed. There's too much parfait. The bread served alongside was an oily, grilled version of our table bread, too thickly sliced to be complimentary.
We ate halibut and pigeon for main. The roast halibut could win a beauty pageant and was without fault. It didn't sing like a £31 dish probably should, but it's the best piece of fish I've eaten. The £33 spiced pigeon was bland, boring - as memorable as office furniture.
There's an argument that it's a poor choice from a Heston Blumenthal menu but banality should not be an option at a Heston Blumenthal restaurant. Besides, the other items are not all car chases through the Swiss Alps: ribeye steak, chicken & lettuce, braised celery. If Dinner by Heston is food theatre, the main courses are the interval.
When the waitress slithered forth to take dessert orders she made noises about an extended wait for what we wanted: the tipsy cake. The show kitchen's own centrepiece is a spit-roast of pineapples seductively turning in the corner of your eye, all of which go into this flagship pudding. We did the requisite uming and ahhing and got the desired response that wait times could indeed be normalised.
That's the problem with Dinner's front-of-house: they're too well trained. They'll enthuse about any dish you enquire of but in an over-rehearsed, memorised script way. They'll tell you the tipsy cake needs to be ordered ahead even when it's 11.45pm and not actually necessary. They're unnatural and can appear insincere, which is a shame.
So why is this place so wildly popular? How come it's so hard to get a table at normal o'clock and why has it been so well-received? The answer is because it's very good. Everything is deeply thoughtful, from the concept to the decor, the ingredients to the menu design. Yet this isn't quite a world-class restaurant. It's a restaurant designed for a TV audience. A restaurant that always knew it would be overflowing with Heston fans and so it gives them what they want - something to talk with colleagues over. Pictures to put on Facebook. Oddities like the Meat Fruit to tweet about.
The starters and desserts provide enough to grab the headlines and live in the memory and on hard drives. The main courses, though, are devoid of that invention. They're too refined, reduced to plates of meat or fish with an accompanying sauce - perfectly cooked but unspectacular.
For £180 we expect spectacle. 30 minutes into the new day, we let ourselves out. We left feeling deflated. Hype creates expectations, and while ours were high, they weren't unrealistic. Dinner is a fine restaurant by most measures, but its many small flaws meant that the experience was ultimately disappointing.