Immersion at London House injects phantasmagorical whimsy into the molecular tasting menu genre

"We're asked to select a stabbing implement of our choice. Mine looks like some sort of medieval eating spike"
"We're asked to select a stabbing implement of our choice. Mine looks like some sort of medieval eating spike" Photo by Rob Bartlett

Just when you thought the last flash-frozen nail had been hammered into the dehydrated coffin of molecular gastronomy, along comes Rikku Ó'Donnchü to siphon-whip a bit of deathly whimsy into the genre and give it some life. I mean, when was the last time you saw a chef wheel an intravenous drip stand into the dining room? Been a while, right?

I suppose if there's anything a stage at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck will teach you, it's that tricking the palate in theatrical fashion can open the eyes, and Ó'Donnchü revels in theatrics at Immersion. Fun? Yes. Educational? No doubt. Costly? Hell yeah. I'm not exaggerating when I say Immersion's tasting menu is the priciest in town ($360.50, not including beverage pairings), but there's also nothing quite like it either.

Set aside the restaurant's air of exclusivity (it's situated inside the former members-only London House), and one can truly appreciate Ó'Donnchü's ethic. But not without signing a waiver first. Agree not to take furtive pics of members membering inside London House, and you'll be ushered into a swank drawing room where Katie Zamulinsky, Immersion's fine dining and etiquette manager, picks a basil leaf off a plant, flash-freezes it in liquid nitrogen, then asks you to place it on your tongue before handing you a test tube filled with crisp, herbaceous St. George Botanivore blended with nitro-muddled basil.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
Photo by Rob Bartlett

"Oh, it's going to be one of those kinds of nights," says the wife after taking a swig, and we're off to another room where chef de cuisine Alexandria Wubbolt offers us cigars.

Only they're not cigars, but onion seed bread rolled to look like cigars and served with a covered "ash tray" filled with "embers" fashioned from a black garlic emulsion, smoked paprika and black garlic ash. Lift the cover off, and smoke billows upward. Dip the cigar into the emulsion and it looks like a lit cigar. We hear oohs and ahhs inside the intimate eight-person room before it's all gobbled down in seconds.

Then we're presented with a teacup and saucer. Inside the cup lies truffle pearls, lacto-fermented potatoes and gold leaf. A tempura-fried shishito leaf sits on the saucer. Salty white miso soup is then poured into the cup and ta-da! Ó'Donnchü's take on "Tea and Biscuits." And don't worry about that salinity — it loses its potency after bites of the crispy leaf and crunchy little potatoes.

"The textures replicate fruit shortbread biscuits," says Ó'Donnchü, and then I realize that the bits floating in the liquid are reminiscent of my teacup after a proper cookie dunk.

Music inside the room shifts. Plunderphonic sound bites of "dig-dig-dig-dig-dig" are heard and a "Book of Truffles" is set before us. It's opened, and sitting inside the hollowed-out core appear to be two dessert confections — a chocolate truffle and a custard tart. Only the "truffle" is choux pastry coated in truffle butter and stuffed with Gruyère, and the custard tart is a savory one made from truffle and miso. And down the rabbit hole we go, indulging in this mad hatter's feast — 15 courses worth, all of it set to ambient, electropop and goth metal.

Not all is smoke and truffles at Immersion, however. There's some overt messaging in all this seeming madness: namely, Ó'Donnchü's reflections on provenance, food ethics, sustainability and food waste.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
Photo by Rob Bartlett

It's local seaweed that wraps koji "ice cream" and golden kaluga caviar in the "Barnacle"; 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 tableside pour of liquid nitrogen lends additional visuals to the dish and strikingly transforms our table into a foggy morning in San Francisco. Zamulinsky spritzes the air with an ocean scent as whale sounds and crashing waves pipe through the speakers. Consider us immersed.

In a course dubbed "Left Overs," Ó'Donnchü draws attention to food waste by using the unused bits of "Shell on Earth" to make a roasted bone broth, fish-gut molecular ramen noodles and a fish mousse nugget. He even uses fish pulp to craft a delicate wafer flecked with sesame seeds.

In the "Golden Egg," its gleaming shell shaped by mannitol, the same sweet powder-cum-binding agent Ferran Adrià used to make his famous "peanuts," Ó'Donnchü stuffs red miso-cured Egyptian goose liver, or "ethical foie gras," as he calls it. It makes a heavy splat when he drops the egg onto the plate that's already painted with dollops of cherry and blobs of goose egg yolk. The miso-corn croissant was just a bit too heavy for a sopping bread, though. Light and airy like a Bachour wonder this was not. A "cherry" is plucked from the cherry tree in the dining room and added to the plate, but it's more chicanery. It looks like a cherry, stem and all, but it's really cherry mousse covered in dark chocolate made to look like a cherry.

Not all is smoke and truffles at Immersion, however. There's some overt messaging in all this seeming madness.

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Several alternative (and sustainable) proteins are showcased: "Open a Can of Worms" has mealworms sitting in a "soil" made from a gochujang emulsion, crispy bits of quinoa and blood sausage, pickled shimeji mushrooms and carrot tops. It's paired with a cricket tart comprised of a cricket cracker layered with cricket mousse and crowned with a chili-lime cricket.

After a serving of Matsusaka A5 wagyu tartare, we're asked to select a stabbing implement of our choice. Mine looks like some sort of medieval eating spike, which I clumsily use to tear into a beautiful cut of Egyptian goose, a non-native species here in Florida, in a dish called "Winged Pharoah." It's glorious, as is the wafer-thin crisp of goose skin draped over the meat. There's cauliflower laced with curry oil, lavender and sultanas on the plate, but the chou farci, a Brussel sprout stuffed with goose offal, nearly steals the show (which, BTW, goes on for nearly four hours).

We're stuffed, but there's pani puri topped with Taleggio cheese and platinum osetra caviar. "Where's the pani?" I ask. Nothing but a sly look from the chef. I bite into the puff and there it is — evaporated "pani" in the form of smoke. Now we're really stuffed, but next we're asked to choose between a blue pill or a red pill. We're in deep now.

Yup, The Matrix is invoked in this palate cleanser involving powder-filled capsules, liquid-nitrogen raspberry lollipops "cooked" on an anti-grill and a couple of cloying liquors (the blue with blue Curaçao and the red with some sort of vodka).

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
Photo by Rob Bartlett

Then arrives ... a skull. Pop off the cranium and a small brain sits inside. It looks real, but it's beet panna cotta. Ó'Donnchü injects the brain with a honey-lemon-ginger syrup, wheels in the IV cart and squeezes blood (it's beet kombucha) onto the noggin to complete the "Blood Clot." The lights dim and Type O Negative's "Black No. 1" blares overhead. I can't help but text some grainy pics to my editor. "This looks like a Viking death sentence, not a nice meal," she texts back, but I'm having a blast.

The fusion beverage pairing ($265 for the table) featuring a selection of cocktails, wines and spirits curated by Zamulinsky keeps things buoyant. And buoyant is the only way to describe Ó'Donnchü's final revelation.

We're led through the kitchen into a cold, black-tiled room. Smoke from liquid nitrogen rolls over our feet, making it seem we're in the clouds. Skulls and wooden hands with raised fingers sit on the table, along with a Plexiglas box with an open top. Ó'Donnchü spoons aerated foam into the box and it oingo-boingos about as the sakura-flavored gas inside the box suspends and flavors the foam. Some weird science going on there. The foam is set atop a dessert plate called "Levitate," comprising a mascarpone and matcha custard-filled donut signifying a bamboo bulb, bamboo "leaves" made from bamboo ice cream, and sakura espuma 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 point of the dish is to draw attention to the highly invasive plant and how it can be used in cooking. We take it back to our seats and just stare at it for a while, glutted and entranced.

From his days at Gåte in South Africa to Amorette in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Ó'Donnchü has told his story, one rooted in science and facts, but narrated in a nontraditional manner. And it's one helluva story. A real page-turner. When we climbed out of the hole, mouths coated with the woodsy essence of bamboo, it dawned on us 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 $$$$

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