What Albert Adrià Is Feeding London at His Pop-Up Restaurant
Albert Adrià, brother of Ferran and essential collaborator with him at the late, legendary elBulli in Catalonia — and himself the most dynamic and continually surprising chef–restaurateur in Barcelona these days — has brought a taste of the Adrià culinary magic to London. This is the first time either Adrià has cooked on any formal basis outside Spain. On Friday, February 12, Adrià launched a two-month-long pop-up, 50 Days (it operates six nights a week, through April 9) in two different rooms at London's Café Royal Hotel. Why here? I asked Albert. "This," he said, gesturing around him, "Piccadilly, it's the center of the world!"
The evenings, which will accommodate 56 guests each, sold out almost immediately after the pop-up was announced late last year; two days before the series launched, there were 2,800 people on the wait list.
The Café Royal has fabled origins. It was opened in 1865 by a fugitive French wine merchant named Daniel Thévenon. By the turn of the century, it had become one of the most famous eating and drinking places in London, and over the decades, celebrities from George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and Oscar Wilde to Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie gathered there. The restaurant closed in 2008, but was subsequently bought by the Israel-based Alrov Group and expanded into a 159-room hotel under the Set Hotel brand.
The 50 Days experience begins in the 1865-vintage Grill Room, renamed the Oscar Wilde Bar in honor of its most notorious patron. This is a stunningly ornate room, undeniably garish but so self-confident about its excesses — floor-to-ceiling mirrors frames in rococo gold, painted ceilings, immense wall sconces — that it somehow works (or would if it weren't for the jarring little orange leather chairs with which the cocktail tables have been furnished).
Appropriately to the exuberance of the decor, the first tastes are fantastical little bites in the mode of elBulli or Albert's 41º in Barcelona — the latter of which is now transitioning into a new place called Enigma. (His other places are Tickets, Pakta, Bodega 1900, Hoja Santa, and Niño Viejo, and he and his brother are reopening Heart, their multi-media collaboration with Cirque du Soleil, for a second season this summer on the party island of Ibiza.)
Out came a plate full of miniatures: curls of crisp nori peppered with kernels of quinoa; "pistachios" that were actually a cream of yuzu; strawberry cookies flavored with sesame seeds and curry; marshmallows made of parmesan; and more. The famous spherified olives -- olive juice treated so that it became enclosed in a skin of itself — made an appearance, but with "a British touch": each one contained a tiny drop of Worcestershire sauce. My dining companion, the Irish cookbook writer and television personality Clodagh McKenna, had never encountered this example of Adrian magic before, and her eyes widened in surprise and pleasure as the sphere melted in her mouth.
Two small cocktails, agreeable enough, came along with these bites: an Elote, made with corn juice and manzanilla (sherry), and a Bellucci, a blend of yogurt vodka, fresh vanilla, lime juice, and basil.
Apéritifs finished, the guests are invited to migrate upstairs to the hotel's Domino dining room, as spare and hotel-generic as the Oscar Wilde Bar is ornate. There, a dozen small courses came out in brisk succession. The Adriàs have never been localists about their food; they believe in choosing the best of each product from wherever it may hail. What was interesting about the 50 Days dinner was that the chef let the ingredients stand in more recognizable form than he has often done.
There meal proper began with little canapés of Mediterranean red tuna with almond oil and caviar, followed by "tartar de cuchara," a "spoon tartar" of meat from the tuna spine, marinated in tiger's milk and so soft that it has to be eaten with spoons (ivory caviar spoons were provided, along with nori chips). Next came thin slices of raw, six-week-dry-aged rubia gallega beef — meat from Galician cattle, processed in Belgium — with grilled bread and rich butter. The faintly gamy flavor and silky texture of the meat against the crunch of the bread worked wonderfully.
Next came smoked salmon on toasted malt bread with pickled beets and vinegar powder; a Galway oyster from (McKenna noted) Kelly's, the best producer of these excellent bivalves, nestled in a pool of kimchi; a small bowl of sea bass ceviche with kumquat taking the place of the usual lime juice; and a dish of Norwegian king crab "Singapur style" in a pungent, salty pomelo sauce — vaguely reminiscent of the sweet-and-sour sauce in an old-style Cantonese restaurant, McKenna pointed out.
A ramekin of "spaghetti" in portobello mushroom sauce with clotted cream and bits of black truffle was the penultimate savory course. The noodles, which were al dente, almost squeaky, clearly weren't made from flour and water, but from something else cut into threads; I guessed blanched squid — but it turned out to be king oyster mushroom stalks, mandolined into thin slices and then cut into short lengths crosswise. More important than the technique was the fact that the dish was intensely flavored and most agreeable. So was the almost-classic final savory dish: a piece of Scottish sirloin with glazed shallots and what was billed as "a classic Café de Paris sauce, with 25 ingredients." On the side were pickled crosnes (the knobby little roots also called Chinese artichokes) and a few gossamer pommes soufflés so tiny they looked under the legal limit.
Desserts upstairs were a gelée of wild strawberries (where they came from, in early February, is anybody's guess) with basil and a lime sorbet; an airy chocolate waffle; and what looked like a Crottin goat cheese but was actually a Coulommiers cheesecake with a frosting of hazelnut cream — really good. More sweets were served downstairs, back in the Oscar Wilde Bar, including Adrià versions of After Eight mints, Ferrero Rocher hazelnut chocolates, and chocolate cigars.
Thinking back on the meal the next day, I had mixed feelings at first: Individual bites were dazzling, and a number of the courses were so appealing that I wished they could have been bigger — but stylistically the progression seemed to jump around; there seemed to be less orchestration than I'd anticipated (and experienced at many previous Adrià meals, whether from Ferran or Albert). But the more I thought about it, the more I decided that the lack of a slow steady build, the zig-zagging, the unexpected moments of earthbound delights interspersed with modernist flights of fancy, were precisely what made the experience so enjoyable — and so appropriate to this great, ever-changing international food capital. Albert Adrià knows his audience.