Just when you thought the last frozen nail had been driven into the dehydrated coffin of molecular gastronomy, comes Rikku Ó’Donnchü to siphon some deadly fantasy from the genre and breathe some life into it. I mean, when was the last time you saw a chef bring an IV stand into the dining room? It’s been a while, right?
I guess if there’s anything a arrange at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck will teach you is that tricking the palate theatrically can be eye-opening, and Ó’Donnchü revels in theatrics at Immersion. Fun? Yes. Educative? Without a doubt. Expensive? Shit yeah. I’m not exaggerating when I say Immersion’s tasting menu is the most expensive in town ($360.50, not including drink pairings), but there’s nothing quite like it either.
Put aside the restaurant’s air of exclusivity (it’s located inside the former members-only London House), and you can truly appreciate Ó’Donnchü’s ethos. But not without first signing a waiver. Agree not to take sneaky photos of fellow members inside London House, and you’ll be ushered into a swanky lounge where Katie Zamulinsky, Immersion’s Head of Fine Dining and Etiquette, picks a basil leaf on a plant, freezes it in liquid nitrogen, then asks you to place it on your tongue before handing you a test tube filled with crunchy, herbaceous St. George Botanivore mixed with nitro-tangled basil.
“Oh, this is going to be one of those kinds of nights,” the woman says after taking a sip, and we go to another room where chef Alexandria Wubbolt offers us cigars.
Only these are not cigars, but onion seed bread rolled to look like cigars and served with a covered “ashtray” filled with “embers” fashioned from an emulsion of black garlic, paprika smoked and black garlic ash. Lift the lid and the smoke rises. Dip the cigar in the emulsion and it looks like a lit cigar. We hear oohs and ahhs inside the intimate eight-person room before it’s all engulfed in seconds.
Then we are presented with a cup of tea and a saucer. Inside the cup are truffle pearls, lacto-fermented potatoes and gold leaf. A sheet of shishito fried in tempura is placed on the saucer. The salty white miso soup is then poured into the cup and ta-da! Ó’Donnchü’s take on “Tea and Cookies”. And don’t worry about that saltiness – it loses potency after biting into the crispy leaf and crunchy little potatoes.
“The textures replicate fruit shortbread cookies,” Ó’Donnchü explains, then I realize that the chunks floating in the liquid are reminiscent of my cup of tea after a real cookie bath.
The music inside the room changes. Punderphonic sound clips of “dig-dig-dig-dig-dig” are heard and a “Book of Truffles” is placed before us. It’s open and sitting inside the hollowed-out core appear to be two dessert confections – a chocolate truffle and a cream pie. Only the “truffle” is a choux pastry coated in truffle butter and filled with gruyère cheese, and the custard tart is a savory tart made with truffles and miso. And we descend down the rabbit hole, indulging in this mad hatter’s feast – 15 courses worth, all tuned to ambient, electropop and goth metal.
However, it’s not all smoke and truffles at Immersion. There are clear messages in all this apparent madness: namely Ó’Donnchü’s thoughts on provenance, food ethics, sustainability and food waste.
It is a local seaweed that wraps koji “ice” and golden kaluga caviar in the “barnacle”; the local line-caught snapper and stone crab used in the crudo served inside a shell covered by the crab’s cephalothorax, an eye-catcher by Sous Chef Josh Pfeiffer called “Shell on Earth.” A pour of liquid nitrogen next to the table gives additional visuals to the dish and dramatically transforms our table into a foggy morning in San Francisco. Zamulinsky fills the air with the scent of the ocean as the sounds of whales and crashing waves stream through the speakers. Think of us as immersed.
In a class titled “Left Overs,” Ó’Donnchü draws attention to food waste by using the unused pieces of “Shell on Earth” to make roasted bone broth, molecular ramen noodles with fish gut, and a fish mousse nugget. He even uses fish pulp to make a delicate wafer sprinkled with sesame seeds.
In the “Golden Egg”, its shiny shell shaped by mannitol, the same sugary powdered binding agent that Ferran Adrià used to make his famous “peanuts”, Ó’Donnchü stuffs dried red Egyptian goose liver miso, or “ethical liver”. fat,” as he calls it. He makes a big splash when he drops the egg onto the plate which is already painted with dollops of cherry and drops of goose egg yolk. The miso-corn croissant was just a little too heavy for a dipped bun, though. Light and airy as a marvel of Bachour, it was not. A “cherry” is picked from the cherry tree in the dining room and added to the plate, but that’s more of a quibble. It looks like a cherry, stem and all, but it’s really dark chocolate covered cherry mousse made to look like a cherry.
However, it’s not all smoke and truffles at Immersion. There are clear messages in all this apparent madness.
Several alternative (and sustainable) proteins are featured: “Open a Can of Worms” contains mealworms in a “soil” of gochujang emulsion, crispy pieces of quinoa and blood sausage, pickled shimeji mushrooms and carrot tops. It comes with a cricket pie consisting of a cricket cracker covered in cricket foam and topped with a chili lime cricket.
After a serving of Matsusaka A5 wagyu tartare, we are asked to select a stabbing instrument of our choice. Mine looks like some sort of medieval eating pick, which I clumsily use to rip a nice cut of Egyptian goose, a non-native species here in Florida, into a dish called “Winged Pharoah.” It’s glorious, just like the crisp goose skin draped over the meat. There’s cauliflower mixed with curry oil, lavender and raisins on the plate, but the stuffed cabbage, a Brussels sprout stuffed with goose offal, almost steals the show (which , moreover, lasts almost four hours).
We’re stuffed, but there are pani puri topped with Taleggio cheese and platinum osetra caviar. “Where is the bread? ” I ask. Just a sly look from the chef. I bite into the puff and voila – “pani” evaporated as smoke. Now we are really drunk, but then we are asked to choose between a blue pill or a red pill. We are deep now.
Yeah, The matrix is invoked in this cleansing palace of powder-filled capsules, liquid nitrogen raspberry lollipops “cooked” on an anti-grill, and a few cloying liquors (the blue one with blue curacao and the red one with some kind of vodka ).
Then comes… a skull. Come out of the skull and a small brain is inside. Sounds real, but it’s beet panna cotta. Ó’Donnchü injects the brain with honey-lemon-ginger syrup, rolls in the IV cart, and squeezes the blood (it’s beet kombucha) onto the noggin to complete the “blood clot”. The lights go out and Type O Negative’s “Black No. 1” sounds above our heads. I can’t help but send grainy photos to my editor. “Sounds like a Viking death sentence, not a good meal,” she replies via text, but I’m having a blast.
The fusion drink pairing ($265 for the table) featuring a selection of cocktails, wines, and spirits curated by Zamulinsky keeps things moving. And dynamic is the only way to describe Ó’Donnchü’s final revelation.
We are led through the kitchen into a cold, black-tiled room. The smoke from the liquid nitrogen rolls over our feet, giving the impression that we are in the clouds. Skulls and wooden hands with raised fingers rest on the table, along with an open-topped Plexiglas box. Ó’Donnchü pours aerated foam into the box and it swirls as the sakura-flavored gas inside the box suspends and flavors the foam. A strange science is happening there. The mousse is placed on a dessert plate called “Levitate”, comprising a donut filled with mascarpone and matcha cream meaning bamboo bulb, bamboo “leaves” made with bamboo ice cream and espuma of sakura stuffed inside a piece of bamboo. Only it’s not bamboo – it’s a white chocolate shell shaped and colored to look like bamboo.
The purpose of the dish is to draw attention to the highly invasive plant and how it can be used in cooking. We take him back to our seats and stare at him for a while, sated and elated.
From his days in Gåte, South Africa to Amorette in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Ó’Donnchü has told his story, a story rooted in science and fact, but told in a non-traditional way. And that’s one hell of a story. A real page turner. When we came out of the hole, our mouths coated with the woody essence of bamboo, we understood that here at Rikku’s Believe It Or Not, the medium is the message.
Immersion at London House by Chef Rikku, 7728 W. Sand Lake Road, 407-734-0000, londonhouse.life/immersion $$$$