When was the last time that you really lost yourself? The last time you had that uninhibited suspension of self-consciousness that leaves you unabashedly absorbed in just one activity? Without dialling up your pal Jimmy for some “fresh pow” or falling deep into an Ambien coma, can you remember not just ignoring but not even hearing the siren call of multitasking?
If you want thus to occlude your ears via the mouth, look no further than Hotel Café Royal’s new dessert bar. Executive pastry chef Sarah Barber waves you forward, inviting you to tumble down the rabbit hole into her sweet, fanciful world, where you will surely lose yourself (and find something delicious in the meantime). The Café at the Hotel Café Royal has transformed into a topsy-turvy restaurant with a tunnel-vision on treats, in a whimsical nod to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
If you’re snuggled staunchly in the savoury camp, stuck in the mock turtle’s song – will you won’t you will you won’t you will you won’t you join the dance? – forget your preconceived notions of desserts and step through the looking glass. It will be the best unbirthday present you’ll ever receive.
Nestled inconspicuously within Regent Street’s heaving bosom, Margot Tenenbaum and Steve Zissou wouldn’t look amiss in the room’s ochre embrace. The Siena marble laps from beneath your feet over the bar and onto the walls; cream with saffron veins splitting through it. With low-hung black and white photographs displayed alongside pastel flowers and diaphanous sweets, the restaurant is as much a confection as the dishes it serves.
It is feminine in a dreamlike way, without being poncily female. It is fanciful, without being kitsch. Barber leads you by the hand on a sensory exploration of nostalgia, offering a choice of three tasting menus (one sweet, one savory, and one that moves from savory into sweet as it goes along) or a four-course ‘Pick N Mix’ option. The staff here knows that the heart wants what the heart wants, and will generously accommodate special requests and personalised combinations; for this is not, eventually, the Mad Hatter’s tea party. There are no rules here.
Each dish evoked, for me, a happy melancholy, and I found myself lost in the food – lost between wistfully languishing over the last forkful and ravenously devouring the next. Everything is at once surprising and familiar, so do not expect to stray too far from your memory’s cradle; although, whilst the dishes are complex and inventive, little heed is paid to seasonality, with tomatoes and raspberries making an appearance long before they’re due.
If you’re not a contrarian, you’ll want to begin with the savoury. ‘The Burrata’ is unctuous and intoxicating, spreading quickly across the plate when punctured with a fork. Olive oil pearls scattered across the top burst like caviar and bind to the creamy cheese. The accompanying vegetable terrine is a sturdy companion, though in dire need of a shake of salt and enough pepper to turn a baby into a pig.
‘The White Rabbit’, like its literary counterpart, arrives in a frothy whirlwind, pale and elegant. The artichokes swim in a shallow puddle of double cream that’s punctuated by thick shavings of black truffle. It’s surprisingly mild – almost more of a palate cleanser than a powerful dish in its own right. That being said, if you choose only one savoury, you must make it the ‘Chicken Foie’. So light as to flirt with molecular gastronomy, yet the tart earthy quince and buttery brioche anchor it back down to the ground.
Where things really get good, however, is with the desserts. ‘The Queen of Hearts’ playfully personifies Carroll’s loveable villain. The sugared rose petals shimmer royally, while the raspberries and jellies ensure her tart side is not forgotten. Each bite is cloaked in Champagne foam as intoxicating as the smoke from the caterpillar’s hookah.
Whatever you order, the ‘Eat Me, Drink Me’ is not to be missed. A high-brow interpretation of a Snickers and Ovaltine, but curated with layers of patisserie cream, nougat, and chocolate gélée, it is a perfectly engineered food. It toys with our heartstrings, bringing back childhood memories of sweeter times. It balances textures – the gelatinous chocolate layer, the smooth peanut cream – and flavors – a roasted saltiness from the gilded peanuts, the subtle honeyed flavor of the caramel – in a way that only processed foods usually can. Dining at The Café at Café Royal is evocative and comforting. Barber will delight engage you in a way that is so rare in restaurants these days. A meal here is truly an adventure in wonderland.
Daily 8:00am–11:00pm for the all-day menu
Daily 6:00pm–10:30pm for the dessert menu
£30 / person