London celebrations

Inside Ferran Adrià’s all-dessert London restaurant

Life is short. Eat dessert first. This scrumptious and sage advice, a phrase apparently coined by Helen Keller or 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 look carefully at the dessert selection before ordering anything else. I want to make sure I don’t overeat before I get to the most decadent part of the menu. Yes, a good dessert needs a dollop of decadence. A healthy fruit salad just isn’t for me.

In fact, when I arrived in France, I did not understand that some restaurants forced you to choose between cheese and dessert as the third course. Why would anyone choose a boring piece of cheese over a crisp cheese? creme brulee or a slice of delicious lemon pieI was wondering.

That was before I realized that some French cheeses, like peach-pink Mont d’Or or creamy Brie de Meaux or the unrivaled Brillat-Savarin (named after the great master of French culinary writers), could be so rich and decadent than a creamy dessert. Now I sometimes find myself turning down dessert and opting for Brillat-Savarin or another cheese delight.

Or I choose a dessert that incorporates cheese, such as Roquefort or goat cheese ice cream, which has taken my taste buds down exciting new paths.

But I always love a good, decadent dessert, preferably with chocolate or caramel or cream, even better if it has all three. Stuffed with enough sweetness to end the meal on a healthy dose of sugar. And my French sweetheart is even more of a sweet tooth, so when we recently got together in London for our wedding anniversary, we decided to throw all precautions (and budgetary constraints) to the wind and treat ourselves to a three course “meal” consisting of desserts only 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 gourmet indulgence, and after racking our brains, we finally remembered that this romantic reason for celebration was coming soon . Enough said.

Waiting for our treat at our table at Cakes & Bubbles. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

Cakes & Bubbles, specializing in desserts and champagne, is the culinary playground of Albert Adrià who, together 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, voted best in the world a record five times between 2002 and 2008 by the famous gastronomic magazine, Restaurant.

We rarely visit Michelin starred restaurants, due to budget constraints mentioned above, so we never got to El Bulli before it closed. But on that glorious late summer afternoon last week in London, we were able to discover the creations of Albert Adrià who had helped his brother obtain the three Michelin stars of El Bulli, more recently also crowned best pastry chef of the world by the same Restaurant magazine.

And what, well, sweet experience it was. However, much more than simply sweet and decadent, since the little desserts are all combinations of flavors and smells that are constantly surprising. Slightly salty here, a touch of acidity there, a whiff of rose water, a whiff of Brie de Meaux cheese.

Yes, cheese, because the last of the three desserts is cheesecake, but certainly not cheesecake as we know it.

But before arriving at this extraordinary cheesecake, we had at least six other desserts to discover.

Our first three level course. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

The first course is served on one of these three-tiered cake stands, and you start from the bottom layer, taste all the way to the top, surprised, delighted and even amazed with every bite. The miniature clotted cream and blueberry scone has the texture of mousse rather than scones, light as air, but definitely looks the tastiest I’ve ever had. The pistachio baklava cushion alludes to the traditional Greek dessert from which it originated, in the same way that the scone-mousse suggests the classic English teatime treat, while taking it somewhere unexpected.

The presentation of each small portion is as delicious as the taste. The chocolate in the shape of a wine bottle cork, the egg flan (with an unforgettable salted caramel aftertaste) in a gold painted eggshell, the After Eight marshmallow (once again hinting at a taste after-dinner English treats) in the form of those treats known as Italian kisses. But since these Italian After Eight kisses are also strawberry flavored, they come in a dark shade of pink, distinctly resembling a woman’s nipple.

A chocolate in the shape of a wine cork. (Photo: provided)

Or maybe there was just too much sensory stimulation and my imagination was running away with me at the end of our first course of desserts. Perhaps I was the only restaurant patron who imagined myself biting into a beautiful pink nipple that tasted like strawberries and peppermint.

The second course was the highlight of the show, with people turning in their seats to watch the waiter carry four fresh, fragrant red roses to our table. We had invited two friends to share in our celebration and each of us received a long-stemmed rose with a brilliant pod-like creation nestled among the petals. The texture on my tongue reminded me of a lychee, the taste was raspberry mixed with rose water, the sum was somehow greater than the parts. Unexplainable and exquisite.

The magnificent long-stemmed red roses; in fact, the taste of this fiendishly crafty confection smelled of lychee and rose water. (Photo: provided)

Still, the last course with the cheesecake was my favorite. It looked like a miniature version of a whole round cheese wrapped in a bag – with “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate on the plate – and every part (except the plate) was edible. When you first started digging through the white chocolate ‘wrap’, you tasted Baron de Bigod cheese, the fabulous British version of Brie de Meaux made from raw cow’s milk. And a hint of hazelnut that turned into a lingering nutty aftertaste.

Our Happy Birthday Cheesecake. (Photo: Marita van der Vyver)

Alas, I couldn’t finish this wonderful cheesecake. Although the previous servings had all been tiny, we had eaten each serving so slowly, waiting for the surprise to hit our taste buds, that I now felt as full as any magnificent meal should feel. My Frenchman happily finished off my leftover cheesecake and probably would have enjoyed a fourth course too if there had been one, proving once again that his sweet tooth is sweeter than mine.

The late chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain praised Albert Adrià’s desserts in his inimitable way: “Pastry chefs around the world – when they see this – will gape in awe, awe and wonder. . I feel for them; like Eric Clapton seeing Jimi Hendrix for the first time, one imagines that they will ask themselves: ‘What do I do now?’ »

Ferran Adrià in his Cakes & Bubbles restaurant in London. (Photo: provided)

I didn’t wonder as I stepped out into the late afternoon traffic of Regent Street, carrying our four red roses as a keepsake. I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime treat, unless I won the lottery soon, in which case I would regularly gorge on Adrià’s desserts until my money ran out.

Who says you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy dessert – and it’s more or less the same thing? Surely a motto a devoted dessert devotee 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 that feeds the hungry and provides healthy food in Cape Town. You can support them here Love ladles.