Culinary Maestro Albert Adria’s Latest Sweet Ventures

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After the recent success of Mercado Little Spain in New York, Cake & Bubbles in London, and multiple restaurants in Barcelona, Spanish Pastry Chef-restaurateur Albert Adria continues to dream up new ventures at a dizzying tempo

“Spanish cuisine is very poorly represented around the world,” laments Albert Adria, visionary pastry chef, conceptual restaurateur, and enthusiastic proponent of Iberian gastronomy. But that is rapidly changing, at least in New York where Adria, his illustrious brother Ferran, and uber-chef Jose Andres are welcoming crowds and receiving rave reviews at Mercado Little Spain, their sprawling new culinary complex at Manhattan’s Hudson Yards.

Although celebrated as a food futurist with Ferran at the legendary elBulli, Albert Adria mastered classical techniques in the 1980’s during winters when the restaurant closed for the season, working with revered confectioner Antoni Escriba. After leaving the elBulli kitchen, Adria, an inveterate multi-tasker, embarked on a vastly expanded career. His company, elBarri, operates a cluster of convivial thematic restaurants in the center of Barcelona, he has self-published a dozen  books, and is involved, with Ferran, in the elBulli Foundation, pursuing serious gastronomical studies. For many years, Adria focused on projects in his hometown, but last November he opened Cakes & Bubbles in London, and this spring, he made his New York debut.

Recently I joined Adria in Barcelona at the whimsical dessert room of his modern tapas bar Tickets, to talk about his selections of sweets for Mercado and for Cakes & Bubbles. His goal in New York, Adria explained, was for any Spaniard walking into Mercado to recognize that what he was eating tasted “just like it does at home.” Unlike the spherification and foams that delight diners at Tickets and Adria’s eclectic new restaurant, Essence, at Mercado the emphasis is on traditional and regional specialties, selected from Adria’s vast repertoire of Spanish recipes.  Now, he is extolling the glories of pastries like xuixos, a Catalonian breakfast staple he describes as “a deep fried dough filled with cream, but crunchy, not soft like a doughnut,” that he hopes will rival the cronut in popularity.

To launch Mercado, with the Adria brothers based in Barcelona and Andres in Washington, the trio began their collaboration via Skype. “Precisely the first call I had with Jose,” Albert recalls saying, “we really have to have a large offering of sweets.” During a whirlwind six months, “working 16 hours a day,” Adria eventually deployed three pastry chefs from his home team to New York for a month to train the newly hired local staff. Intense, focused, and a skillful manager who keeps a keen eye on costs, Adria shuttled back and forth from Spain to join Andres, doing the same from D.C.

With a daunting 35,000 foot space, housing three full service restaurants, two bars, and over a dozen kiosks, the partners unfolded Mercado gradually instead of planning a grand opening, buying extra time to test recipes using ingredients sourced both locally and from Spain. “We worked to make them perfect,” Adria notes, of the array of sweets showcased throughout the market, all made in-house by Executive Pastry Chef Thea Habjanic and a staff of eight. The team works in liaison with Washington based Margarito Lopez R&D pastry sous chef of the Think Food Group, who has been involved in recipe selection and execution since the beginning of the project.

Part of the ambiance at Mercado is strolling and sampling. At the Pasteleria you can try a slice of one of Adria’s favorites, the delicate Cantabrian Brazo de Gitano (‘gypsy arms’), a light sponge cake roll with vanilla cream and custard; the Galician almond cake Tarta de Santiago; or  decadent Cardenal, a Mallorcan meringue and whipped cream pastry napped with a chocolate sauce.

On holidays Mercado celebrates with time-honored specialties. For the Catalonian Fiesta de San Juan in June, marking the longest day/shortest night of the year, the pastry team made an unusual version of the traditional coca de crema, a coriander and anise flavored brioche with vanilla pastry cream, candied oranges and pine nuts, finished with an anise simple syrup. The churros and chocolate kiosk is a tempting stop en route to the Café for Mallorcan pork lard ensaimadas, and the most famous Spanish dessert, Crema Catalana, with its scorched caramelized crust.

At the Spanish Diner, a casual all-day restaurant focusing on regional favorites, the menu  features Galician goat cheesecake, and storied desserts like Pijama, flan, with whipped cream, peach conserves, and vanilla ice cream, invented in 1951 at the Barcelona restaurant 7 Portes. “Some things we kind of tweaked a bit,” Adria admits. “Rice pudding can be very heavy, so we made it a little lighter” for the restaurant Mar, with caramelized rice, milk ice cream and rice foam.

While updated tradition is requisite at Mercado, in London, Adria created a light hearted effervescent concept for Cakes & Bubbles. Not a pastry shop or a dessert restaurant, he points out, it’s a place to enjoy both classic and contemporary confections accompanied by appropriate drinks. Inspired by La Dolca, the playful sweets room at Tickets, the London venture spotlights some of Adria’s iconic avant garde creations – the rose, lychee, raspberry and rosewater spherication, and cheesecake with Baron Bigod brie, white chocolate and hazelnut praline. He is also committed to serving lighter desserts with less added sugar, like Thai pomelo salad with papaya, orange and Asian herbs, and an ethereal carrot cake with grated carrot and ginger. Desserts are selected to harmonize with selected sparkling wines, and there is also a Moroccan tea service paired with Baklava pistachio pillows. The pillows are crispy filo pockets filled with white chocolate and pistachio foam, glazed with orange blossom honey and topped with grated nuts.

Keeping tabs on Mercado, his restaurants, and the London venue is, well, a piece of cake for Adria, who attributes his ability to juggle many projects to long hours and a stellar minimal staff. “Because we’re a small team,” his affable associate Tristan Steward suggests, “we move freely, we don’t have designer or marketing companies, and our motto is ‘do it yourself.’” While the staff handles the details, Adria is conjuring up new ventures. He is writing another pastry book, thinking of opening a chocolate shop, destination undecided, and, he reveals, “Since I put a first step in New York, my idea is to open another Cake & Bubbles there. Really my work is very different now.”