“This is not your ordinary food. You ask yourself at the end of this experience: what is a meal…what should a meal be…what can a meal be? Should food be science? Should food be art? I don’t know. But I think these are questions Ferran Adria asks every day and explores every day. What he does is a challenge to the very foundations of what we do. The realm of the possible becomes suddenly much larger in strange, fabulous and slightly scary new ways. Things are different now.” – Anthony Bourdain (No Reservations: Decoding Ferran Adria, 2006)
Anthony Bourdain’s special No Reservations production of Decoding Ferran Adria was my first introduction to the concept of ‘molecular gastronomy’ – now more commonly recognised by a plethora of alternative terms, including, but not limited to, ‘avant-garde’, ‘modernist’, ‘multi-sensory’ and ‘experimental’ cuisine.
I developed a mild curiosity as to what it might be like to eat pasta-less liquid ravioli, carrot air, apple caviar and aerosol spaghetti. But even more so, I garnered a fascination for the minds behind the movement, those that had changed food and the face of cooking forever. Namely, I grew a distant admiration for Ferran and Albert Adria.
Over the years I received small glimpses here and there into what this new approach to cooking might be about, from Tapas Molecular Bar in Tokyo to e by Jose Andres in Las Vegas. Each of these took on board techniques and principles that had trickled down from the Spanish forefathers, eventually finding their way across the globe. All were…good. However, I could not help but feel that flavour, more often than not, settled into the backseat, whilst the elements of shock and surprise took control of the wheel.
Whilst I kept a keen eye on the Adria brothers and the projects they embarked on following El Bulli, my interest in this cooking style had begun to wane…and then I received an email from Food Expectations: Albert Adria would be taking up residency at Hotel Cafe Royal in London for a mere 50 days. Hooray! Finally. The Chef I had placed on an irrationally high pedestal was within eating distance. [I am from Australia, remember].
We booked ourselves in and eagerly awaited our turn. I must admit, I was apprehensive. After all, it is so often said that you should never meet your heroes. I was afraid that the evening would be more about technique and showmanship and less about the food on the plate.
Luckily, I could not have been more wrong. Somewhere between my arrival at 7:00PM and my departure just after midnight, I was sold. So very, very sold. A crazed, screaming fan of Albert Adria. Whilst in normal circumstances, I would sooner lie down on the floor and die than confess such a thing, in this instance I don’t mind because it simply means that all those years of being a pathetic Chef groupie were totally warranted.
We started our food adventure over cocktails and canapés in the breathtaking Oscar Wilde Bar, following which we were invited up to the Domino Room for our meal proper. Everything ended where it all began, back downstairs in the Oscar Wilde Bar with coffee and petit fours. With such an enormous amount of food to sample, one can only expect hits and misses between dishes to be inevitable. However, some form of Chef magic deemed this to not be the case. Each and every dish to grace the table was absolutely delicious. Top quality ingredients were left to shine, but an element of disbelief and wonder somehow managed to creep in here and there (much to my childlike delight).
Thirty-three courses – ranging from individual bites to more substantial plates – whizzed by in a happy blur. A wonderful, whimsical, heart-warming blur. A week has passed and words continue to fail me when it comes to describing just how enjoyable I found this meal to be. And I am rarely one to be lost for words.
All I can say is I was blown away.
[Queue: photos] [Read: lazy…or am I just lost for words? That sounds better, let’s go with that]
Elote (Mexican cob of corn) Cocktail: concentrated tonic, corn cordial, frozen raspberry powder.
Olive-S: bursting spheres of pure olive essence. Out of this world. The olives were washed in Worcestershire Sauce, which I guess was a nod to the team’s English-based hosts.
Olive-S: based on how much press this little mouthful has received, I expected the spherical olives to be underwhelming. They weren’t. Even Food Expectations – an adamant hater of olives – was left swooning.
Corn: one of the few dishes that did not wow me. The little corn meringues encased a kernel of corn, all of which was to be eaten directly off the cob. Cute, but the flavour was muted and I thought they were a little sweet.
Fable Cocktail: delivered to the table in a manner similar to a traditional absinthe ceremony, this aperitif comprised of absinthe, vodka infused with oyster leaf, white tea, dry vermouth, cranberry and rhubarb.
Nori Seaweed with Quinoa – Yuzu Pistachio – Crispy Beetroot Thimble – Strawberry, Sesame and Curry Cookie – Raspberry Ginger Bite – Parmesan Cookie – Blackcurrant Meringue with Horseradish Yoghurt – Pseudo Peanut – Cumquat and Mezcal Jelly Shot – Fried Potato Pillows: Just like high tea…only better! A towering tier of fantastical little bites. A number of these were a too sweet for my liking, but who could deny the creativity and craftsmanship at play here. Plus it was just so much fun!
50 Days Baby Pizza with Stracciatella: the base was created from pasta and topped with basil jelly, olive oil caviar, parmesan and a generous side of burrata stracciatella to spoon over. Something so familiar delivered in a new and delicious way – comfort food at its very best.
Mediterranean Tuna Sashimi with Caviar and Almond Oil: our first eating utensils of the evening were somewhat akin to tweezers. They were perfect for folding this paper thin, meltingly fatty piece of tuna belly over tiny pearls of caviar. Next to nothing could compare to this bite…perfectly simple, simply perfect.
Tuna Tartare with Dashi Shoyu Jelly and its Nori Canape: the tartare, derived from fatty flesh scraped from the spine of the tuna, was marinated in tiger’s milk. So tasty.
Curated “Rubia Gallega” with Toasted Bread and Tea Butter: salt-cured Galician beef, air dried for three days and then marinated for three weeks. Food Expectations wasn’t a fan due to the high fat content. I, on the other hand, love fat. This was rich, beefy and right down my alley. Another simple dish that successfully showcased a high quality ingredient. Sometimes less is definitely more.
Canelon Avocado and King Crab with Mayonnaise Ceviche: my least favourite dish of the evening. To be fair, there was absolutely nothing wrong with it – in fact, it was really yummy and the crab was fantastic. However, there was nothing new or special about the flavours or presentation…I simply felt I could have eaten this anywhere.
Smoked Salmon, Sherwood Forest Crostini with Pickled Beetroot, Shallot and Vinegar Powder. I am not usually a fan of smoked salmon, but this was really nice. I particularly liked the powdered vinegar and my little fingers kept finding their way back to the plate for more swipes of it.
Galway Oyster with Kimchi: SO. GOOD.
Pickled Cucumber with Sesame: a cleansing chaser for the oyster.
Oxtail Meat Pie with Red Bean Mayo: they did not look like a traditional meat pie, but they sure tasted like the corner of Oxford Street and Crown Street at two in the morning…all I could splutter with through my mouthful at this point was “this tastes like home”. So comforting, so good.
“King Oyster” Spaghetti with Double Cream and Black Truffle: my favourite dish of the evening. The pseudo-spaghetti had great texture and the flavours were spot on. Excellent.
Scottish Tenderloin with Glazed Shallots and Confit Potatoes [served with a Cress Salad and Pickled Crosnes]: Also excellent.
Wild Berries Royal, Basil Sorbet, Black Pepper: a really refreshing palate cleanser to carry us across to dessert. Interestingly, the berries adopted an almost savoury quality.
Chocolate Air Waffle with Sticky Toffee Date Sauce: we happily tore at this with our fingers.
Chocolate Ganache: …but the above was infinitely improved when smeared liberally with the ganache, which was the perfect butter-like accompaniment.
French Coulommiers Cheesecake with White Chocolate and Hazelnut: airy, creamy, subtly sweet, slightly salty and served with butter cookies, this was undoubtedly the best cheese course I have ever had. Ever.
The Nashi Pear and “50 Days” Song by Gorka Font: we were serenaded as we made our way down to the Oscar Wilde Bar and offered slices of pear, which tasted like mojitos.
Kiko Corn Nut Rocher.
Green Tea and Mandarin Biscuit – Ginger Candyman – Raspberry and Rose Peppermint – Black Sesame Rock – Jamrollpop. Playful and fun.
Dry Apricot: carrying the appearance of my most hated lunchbox snack, this was in fact essence of mango in spherical form. I found this to be less successful than its olive cousin we encountered at the beginning of the meal, as the outer skin encasing the liquid within was a little too thick and almost gummy in texture.
After Eight: a tasty take on an after-dinner mint chocolate thin, this was a light and airy peppermint infused marshmallow coated in chocolate.
Chocolate Cigars: encased in a crisp wafer and filled with a light smoked vanilla cream, these were playful and delicious.