London is buzzing with Olympic excitement. The city’s program of special celebrations goes far beyond the starting lines of sporting events to a marathon of cultural activities.
For foodies, one of the summer’s most exciting and exclusive dining venues is on the roof of the Royal Festival Hall in the Southbank Centre arts complex on the River Thames. Built for the 1951 Festival of Britain, the prestigious concert hall has been adorned for the Olympic with a drop-down, pop-up restaurant that sits like a white cubist feather in the building’s cap.
The sky-high mobile restaurant, the Electrolux Cube, is a sleek metal and glass structure that’s more rhomboid than square with a penchant for perching on landmarks. It houses a single table for 18 diners and an open-plan, state-of-the-art kitchen. The Cube restaurant was inaugurated in 2011 atop Brussels’ triumphal arch and has since appeared on a Milan rooftop overlooking the Duomo. Its twin is now summering in Stockholm, on top of the Royal Opera House.
Mobile restaurant, rotating chefs
The draw for Olympics guests goes beyond these iconic locations. The Cube’s kitchen is staffed by star chefs from the country’s top restaurants. In the United Kingdom, the four-month season kicked off with Sat Bains, whose eponymous two-star Michelin restaurant is in Nottingham, about two hours north of London. He’s being followed by two-star chefs Claude Bosi, of the cutting-edge Hibiscus restaurant in London, and Daniel Clifford of Midsummer House in Cambridge. They’ll alternate with young chefs Jonray and Peter Sanchez-Iglesias, of Casamia in Bristol, and Tom Kitchin, from the Kitchin in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Cube is in London through September.
The format comprises a set, seven-course meal cooked personally by the chef at lunch or dinner with handpicked wines accompanying each course. Diners can watch the chef cook, ask questions, and be part of a truly exclusive eating experience. The cost? £175 ($275) all-included per person for lunch, £215 ($340) for dinner.
“It’s a unique opportunity for both chefs and diners,” says the jovial Bains as he plates his amuse-bouches before lunch: small cubes of wild horseradish ice cream made from plants growing along a river near Nottingham. “We see firsthand how our customers respond to our food, and they talk to us as we’re preparing the meals.” Despite the formal service, the mood at the communal table is relaxed and friendly, like a private lunch party where guests compare notes about their favorite dishes and restaurants. Bains is an expansive host, and the atmosphere is convivial as diners move around the Cube, taking pictures and admiring the high-tech Electrolux kitchen and breathtaking views of London beyond.
Brit-Asian and local
Bains, who comes from a Punjab family, grew up in Derby in the industrial Midlands, and likes to maintain contact with his Asian roots. He works with the finest British produce without losing sight of the multiculturalism that defines modern Britain. “To me, British food always has been a magpie food,” he says. The chef is known for his creativity with local ingredients. For his stint at the Cube, he’s featuring a handful of artisanal products, including Lincolnshire Poacher butter, Jersey Royal potatoes, Banbury cake and a newly created soft blue cheese called Beauvale from Nottingham Stilton producers, Cropwell Bishop.
Bains has a fine sense of humor. His opening dish is named for his postcode: NG7 2SA. “People are big on foraging now,” he says, “so this is a nod to them — a wild horseradish panna cotta with wild garlic sauce that we source right around the restaurant.” The dish manages to be modern and English: delicate and summery, yet with a hint of fire and bitterness.
The panna cotta is followed by an exceptional plate of scallops seared on one side only and served with elderflower mayonnaise and a fresh strawberry compote that’s given added acidity by sun-dried tomatoes. It’s an instant hit with the guests who burst into applause after eating it. The floral notes of elderflower and strawberries remind me of a wine’s bouquet. “I’m definitely more into flavor than substance,” says Bains as we crowd around him in the kitchen. A lively raconteur, he charms the group by describing how he used Twitter to find extra elderberry flowers when he ran out in his first week at the Cube. “A kind lady in south London obliged by bringing us the fragile blooms from her own garden,” he laughs.
Two more savory dishes come next, poached new potatoes with ham and dashi, and braised lamb shoulder with seaweed, smoked leeks and caper sauce, each a microcosm of balance and interest. The new Beauvale cheese is paired with a fruity Banbury cake lifted by citrus and served with a Port sauce. What could be more British? Imaginative desserts follow: chocolate spiced with cumin and lime and, finally, a treacle sponge baked for just seconds in the microwave in homage to that technique’s creator, Spanish pastry chef Albert Adrià of elBulli, which closed last year. The afternoon ends with Chef Bains signing autographs on the menus. Even after the Olympics, summer in London promises to be deliciously stimulating.
Top photo: Chef Sat Bains’ dish, NG7 2SA, horseradish panna cotta with wild garlic sauce. Credit: Carla Capalbo
Slideshow credit: Carla Capalbo