- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 7, 2009

BRAY, England | It’s a culinary mystery worthy of Agatha Christie.

Britain’s Health Protection Agency said Friday that about 400 people reported falling ill after eating at The Fat Duck, a world-renowned British establishment famed for dishes such as snail porridge and bacon-and-egg ice cream.

Health officials are baffled by the outbreak of diarrhea and vomiting. The celebrity chef, Heston Blumenthal, has said his restaurant will remain closed until the mystery is solved.

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“It’s so weird - we haven’t found anything. But I can’t take the risk of keeping open until we have exhausted every single avenue,” Mr. Blumenthal told the Times of London last week, shortly after the first group of people reported falling ill.

Britain’s Health Protection Agency is screening The Fat Duck’s recent diners, and food samples are being tested at the agency’s Center for Infections in London. So far, there are no answers.

“This is a very complex outbreak,” agency official Dr. Graham Bicker said. An agency spokeswoman declined to elaborate except to say they had yet to receive any results.

Peter Harden, the co-editor of Harden’s London and U.K. restaurant guide, said that while top restaurants were occasionally embarrassed by unclean kitchens or unsanitary staff, he had never heard of a restaurant closing under such circumstances.

“It’s pretty much unheard of,” Mr. Harden said.

Mr. Blumenthal, whose three-Michelin-star restaurant is arguably the most famous in the country, is known for using gels, enzymes, liquid nitrogen, and nontraditional techniques such as dehydration and vacuum cooking. Described on the restaurant’s Web site as a culinary alchemist, the bald, bespectacled Mr. Blumenthal has regularly appeared on television, whipping up things such as raspberry sorbet by mixing pureed raspberries with dry ice.

Mr. Harden said that while Mr. Blumenthal had a bit of a “mad scientist” image, his concoctions could impress even the most jaded palate.

Mr. Blumenthal’s latest televised gastronomic adventure, “Heston’s Feasts,” includes stabs at absinthe jelly, deep-fried mealworms (injected with tomato-flavored paste for added gooeyness) and a pink “Alice in Wonderland”-inspired potion designed to taste like toffee, toast, custard, cherry pie and turkey.

By comparison, the food offered on The Fat Duck’s $172 tasting menu is relatively conservative: Guests can choose from nitro-green tea, parsnip cereal or roast foie gras “benzaldehyde.”

The Fat Duck has been in business since 1995, and tables have to be reserved months in advance.

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