CAKES & BUBBLES
Inside Albert Adrià’s all-dessert London eatery
For our wedding anniversary, my partner and I indulged in a three-course meal consisting of nothing but desserts at the fabulous Cakes & Bubbles in London’s Regent Street.
Life is short. Eat dessert first. This succulent and sage advice, a phrase apparently coined by either Helen Keller or the French pastry chef Jacques Torres (and sometimes also attributed to Barbra Streisand), has guided me through many complicated restaurant menus.
I don’t literally order dessert first, but I always have a good look at the choice of desserts before I order anything else. I want to make sure I don’t eat too much before we get to the most decadent part of the menu. Yes, a good dessert needs a dollop of decadence. A healthy fruit salad just doesn’t do it for me.
In fact, when I first moved to France, I couldn’t understand that some restaurants forced you to choose between cheese and dessert as the third course. Why would anyone choose a boring chunk of cheese rather than a crackly crème brulée or a slice of delicious tarte au citron, I wondered.
That was before I realised that some French cheeses, like the peachy pink Mont d’Or or the smooth Brie de Meaux or the unsurpassed Brillat-Savarin (named after the grand master of French culinary writers), could be as rich and decadent as a creamy dessert. Now I sometimes surprise myself by actually declining dessert and going for Brillat-Savarin or some other cheese delight.
Or I choose a dessert incorporating cheese, like ice cream made from Roquefort or goat’s milk cheese, which has led my taste buds up exciting new avenues.
But I still love a good decadent dessert, preferably with chocolate or caramel or cream, even better if it contains all three. Stuffed with enough sweetness to end the meal on a sugar high. And my French beloved has even more of a sweet tooth, so when we recently found ourselves in London around the time of our wedding anniversary, we decided to throw all caution (and budget constraints) to the wind and treat ourselves to a three-course “meal” consisting of nothing but desserts at the famous Cakes & Bubbles at the Hotel Café Royal in Regent Street.
Full disclosure: Most years we forget our wedding anniversary, but we needed an excuse for some reckless gastronomic pleasure, and after racking our brains we finally remembered that this romantic reason for celebration would come up soon. Enough said.
Cakes & Bubbles, specialising in desserts and champagne, is the culinary playground of Albert Adrià who, with his older brother Ferran, pioneered molecular gastronomy at the legendary El Bulli in Spain. Ferran was chef and Albert pastry chef of this restaurant, chosen as the best in the world a record five times between 2002 and 2008 by the renowned fine dining magazine, Restaurant.
We rarely visit Michelin-star restaurants, because of above-mentioned budget constraints, so we never got to El Bulli before it closed down. But on this glorious late-summer afternoon last week in London we could discover the creations of Albert Adrià who had helped his brother to achieve El Bulli’s three Michelin stars, more recently also crowned as World’s Best Pastry Chef by the same Restaurant magazine.
And what a, well, sweet experience it was. Yet so much more than simply sweet and decadent, since the small desserts are all constantly surprising combinations of flavours and odours. Slightly salty here, a touch of acidity there, a whiff of rosewater, a sniff of Brie de Meaux cheese.
Yes, cheese, because the last of the three dessert courses is cheesecake, although definitely not cheesecake as we know it.
But before we got to this extraordinary cheesecake, we had at least six other desserts to discover.
The first course is served on one of those three-tiered cake stands, and you start from the bottom layer, tasting your way to the top, surprised, delighted and even astonished with each bite. The miniature scone with clotted cream and blueberries has the texture of mousse rather than scones, light as air, but certainly the tastiest air I ever had. The baklava pistachio pillow alludes to the traditional Greek dessert from which it is derived, in the same way as the scone-mousse suggests the classic English tea-time treat, while taking it somewhere unexpected.
The presentation of each small portion is as delightful as the taste. The chocolate in the form of a wine-bottle cork, the egg flan (with an unforgettable salted caramel aftertaste) in a gold-painted egg-shell, the After Eight marshmallow (once again hinting at a classic English after-dinner taste) in the shape of those delicacies known as Italian kisses. But as these After Eight Italian kisses are also strawberry flavoured, they come in a deep shade of pink, bearing a distinct resemblance to a woman’s nipple.
Or maybe there was just too much sensory stimulation and my imagination was running away with me by the end of our first course of desserts. Perhaps I was the only patron in the restaurant imagining I was biting into a beautiful pink nipple tasting of strawberries and peppermint.
The second course was the showstopper, with people turning around in their seats to stare as the waitron carried four fresh and fragrant red roses to our table. We had invited two friends to share our celebration and each of us received a long-stemmed rose with a shiny pod-like creation nestling among the petals. The texture on my tongue reminded me of a lychee, the taste was raspberry mixed with rosewater, the sum was somehow larger than the parts. Inexplicable and exquisite.
Still, the final course with the cheesecake was my favourite. It looked like a miniature version of a whole round cheese wrapped in sackcloth – with “Happy Anniversary” written in chocolate on the plate – and every part (except for the plate) was edible. When you started digging with your spoon, through the “wrapping” made of white chocolate, you tasted Baron de Bigod cheese, the fabulous British version of Brie de Meaux made with raw cow’s milk. And a soupçon of nuttiness that turned into a lingering aftertaste of hazelnut.
Alas, I couldn’t finish this wondrous cheesecake. Although the previous portions were all tiny, we’d eaten each portion so slowly, waiting for the surprise to hit our taste buds, that by now I felt as sated as any magnificent meal should make one feel. My Frenchman gladly finished the remains of my cheesecake, and would probably have enjoyed a fourth course too had there been one, proving once again that his sweet tooth is sweeter than mine.
The sorely missed chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain praised Albert Adrià’s desserts in his inimitable way: “Pastry chefs everywhere – when they see this – will gape in fear, and awe, and wonder. I feel for them; like Eric Clapton seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time, one imagines they will ask themselves, ‘What do I do now?’”
I didn’t wonder as I walked out into the late-afternoon traffic of Regent Street, carrying our four red roses as a souvenir. I knew this was a once in a lifetime treat, unless I win the lotto soon, in which case I would regularly stuff myself with Adrià’s desserts until my money ran out.
Who was it who said you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy dessert – and that’s more or less the same thing? Surely a motto that a dedicated follower of desserts could live by, I decided with my nose buried in the petals of a rose. DM/TGIFood
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The author supports Ladles of Love, an NGO feeding the hungry and providing healthy food in Cape Town. You can support them here Ladles of Love.