- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

LONDON (AP) - Lovers of snail porridge, mustard ice cream and jelly of quail, rejoice.

Britain’s most famous restaurant reopened Thursday, more than two weeks after it shut due to a mysterious outbreak of sickness that left 400 people reporting bouts of vomiting and diarrhea.

That kind of bad publicity could kill an ordinary restaurant. But the Fat Duck and its chef Heston Blumenthal _ a science-loving gastronaut who has brought concoctions like bacon-and-egg ice cream to popular attention _ are anything but ordinary.

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“Heston Blumenthal is the only U.K. chef who is, on a worldwide level, of any interest as a chef,” said Richard Harden, co-editor of Harden’s restaurant guides.

“My hunch is the ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ aspect of this will outweigh any negative.”

Blumenthal shut the Fat Duck voluntarily on Feb. 24 and called in health inspectors, after 40 diners reported getting a stomach bug after eating there. Some 400 people eventually complained of falling ill in cases stretching back to late January.

The Health Protection Agency said it had examined the restaurant’s kitchen, food, staff and sick patrons but still hadn’t identified a single source for the outbreak. It said its investigation was likely to take several more weeks.

But it said preliminary findings suggested it was safe to reopen the restaurant, which has agreed to comply with health inspectors’ recommendations. The agency did not reveal what the recommendations were because of the ongoing investigation.

The Fat Duck said it was open, and fully booked, for Thursday lunch. Blumenthal said he was delighted.

“Whilst they are still awaiting outstanding test results we cannot comment further, but obviously we are overjoyed to be able to get back to business as normal,” he said.

Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, said the diners’ symptoms could have a wide range of causes _ food-borne or airborne, bacteria such as salmonella or a virus like the “winter vomiting” bug.

He said that unless investigators had been able to take samples from sick diners while they were still ill, the cause of the outbreak might remain a mystery.

“Without having the bug from some of the people who ate there, one is left casting about” for an explanation, said Pennington, author of the book “When Food Kills.” “Which is unfortunate for Heston Blumenthal because it leaves an element of uncertainty hanging over it, even if the place is perfectly run, which I suspect it is.”

One of only three British restaurants awarded the Michelin food guide’s top three-star rating, the Fat Duck has collected superlatives since it opened in 1995 in the genteel riverside village of Bray, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of London. In 2005, the modest 40-seat establishment inside a 17th-century cottage was named the best place in the world to eat by Restaurant magazine.

Self-taught chef Blumenthal, 42, has been called a “culinary alchemist,” and is a leading proponent, along with Spain’s Ferran Adria, of a brand of cooking known as molecular gastronomy. Some of Blumenthal’s recipes sound more like chemistry experiments. The Fat Duck’s 130 pound ($180) tasting menu includes “nitro-green tea and lime mousse,” “salmon poached in licorice gel” and “roast foie gras benzaldehyde.”

He is one of Britain’s best-known chefs, with a genial mad-scientist image cultivated in books like the massive “Big Fat Duck Cookbook” _ which weighs in at almost 6 kilograms (13 pounds) _ and a series of television programs.

“Heston’s Feasts,” currently running on Britain’s Channel 4, shows Blumenthal exploring food from different eras. Wednesday’s program had him recreating a medieval feast, complete with lampreys, blackbird pie and edible cutlery.

For now, there are few signs the outbreak has hurt the chef’s high-flying career.

Pennington pointed out that any restaurant meal is a calculated risk, and said he’d gladly eat at the Fat Duck.

“The place has been gone through with a fine-toothed comb,” he said. “I would be very happy to eat there.”

On the Net: https://www.fatduck.co.uk

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