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Food #7: Alain Ducasse Rum Baba

At the very top of my restaurant wishlist, standing head and shoulders above all the other three-star Michelin places in the world, is Le Louis XV at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo.

With its iconic Monaco setting, palatial dining room and a menu that promises to deliver all I’ve ever dreamed of, the ode to opulence that is Alain Ducasse’s flagship seems to offer everything I want from a fine dining experience.

The dining room at Alain Ducasse's Le Louis XV in Monaco

Le Louis XV, Monte Carlo

As you’d expect from a restaurant so revered, a number of its dishes have become very famous. The one that springs to mind quicker than almost any other is Ducasse’s signature rum baba, which has been so venerated over the years it has become the standard by which all other babas are judged. No mean feat, considering it’s such a classic dish.

My chances of getting to Le Louis XV and tasting the food there any time soon are somewhere between sod and bugger all, but thankfully there are a couple of options for people like me who want to get a little slice of the great restaurant in the UK. Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester and its ‘Baba like in Monte Carlo’ is, unsurprisingly, chief among them.*

The dining room at Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

Ducasse’s debut London restaurant received a real beating from critics when it opened in 2007 and its reputation has yet to fully recover. Its three-star rating is the butt of many a joke about the UK Michelin guide and its absence from this weekend’s Sunday Times Food List, featuring the 100 ‘best’ restaurants in the UK, was glaring.

But more recent critiques from people I trust indicated that Alain Ducasse had gotten over its rocky beginnings and started producing very accomplished food,** with its desserts in particular drawing a lot of praise.

Two separate reviews saying that its rum baba was every bit as good as the one it was recreating from Le Louis XV were all I needed to hear to decide I wanted to visit. This was an item off my Foods To Try Before You Die list I was really going to go out of my way to eat.

A table at Alain Ducasse at The Dochester, London

The table setting at Alain Ducasse

Ducasse’s baba au rhum is a dish of real showmanship. A beautiful silver*** tripod with a domed lid was placed before me by one waiter, who allowed me to stare at it with lustful anticipation for a few seconds before sliding back the lid to reveal the treasure inside. A silver bowl, shined to mirror-brightness, held snug a perfect sponge; an exquisitely moist yeast cake, split down the centre in a slightly yonic manner to show the contrast between the golden sheen of its exterior and the fluffy white of its innards.

I was given a few more seconds to take in stage one of the spectacle before stage two began – a sommelier arrived with a tray carrying six different bottles of premium rum. Each was presented to me and described, and I was asked to decide which I wanted. I know this dessert wasn’t free, and in fact it was costing me about £20, but dear god did this bit make me feel like I was being treated by a very generous host. It was a dazzling bit of theatre.

I selected one that had honey notes and watched as it was poured liberally over the sponge, which imbibed half and bathed in the rest. The adorning of the baba was completed by another waiter, who with a pair of spoons expertly widened the split down the middle of the cake and heaped a couple of large dollops of vanilla cream on top.****

“Enjoy,” is what I think I heard the captain say as the three waiters moved away from the table. I was in a sort of deep trance by this stage, so I’m not entirely sure. Sat in front of me was arguably one of the world’s great desserts; razzmatazz had set the stage, and all that remained was for me to do my bit and eat the bloody thing.*****

No pressure then. I was almost nervous!

When you think about rum baba, it’s not that exciting. Sponge, cream, rum – that’s it. On paper a trifle is more exhilarating. But Alain Ducasse has helped to lift this very simple-sounding dish to oxygen-depriving culinary heights.

The sweet, light as a feather cake – which somehow managed to be soft and delicate, heavy and rich all at the same time – was a wonder on its own. Soaked in luxury rum and flawlessly complemented by the vanilla cream, it reached celestial levels. Each spoonful was indulgence in its purest, most wicked form; it was the ultimate comfort food.

The intoxicating aroma was every bit as important as the taste. I imagine the bowl had a lot to do with it, but it was like everything in the atmosphere around me and the food had been infected by the dish, making me feel I was eating in some sort of hedonistic, rum-fuelled dream. Food sweats added to the fever experience – admittedly not in a good way – and I began to feel a little drunk.

At one stage I worried I might not be able to finish. After three courses and the week of fine dining that was my honeymoon, it was probably a little bit much, but I persevered and got it down me. When you’re eating a dessert of the very highest standard, you can’t let a little thing like an engorged stomach stand in your way.

I went into this dish with monumental expectations and it met every single one. The food couldn’t be faulted, but it was the presentation that cemented the legend.

Is Alain Ducasse’s rum baba one of the world’s great puddings? You bet your arse it is.

Verdict: Highest possible recommendation

NEXT UP: Potted shrimp


*The other one is Gauthier Soho, which offers a dessert titled ‘Louis XV’, a version of the legendary chocolate croustillant that’s always on the menu at the Hotel de Paris and will always be on my list of Foods To Try Before You Die. The original has been called the best dessert in the world and chef Alexis Gauthier is fully qualified to deliver a masterful take on it, given that he probably made it thousands of times while working pastry for Ducasse in Monaco. I’m very keen to visit.

**I can confirm that this is true and we had an amazing dinner at Alain Ducasse. I’d say only the desserts were three-star worthy, but the rest of our meal was capably at two-star level. I loved the dining room, the service was sublime and as an overall experience, I think it offers one of the best in the UK. The key is to go in with an open mind and forget about the price.

***It’s gold at Le Louis XV. Apparently The Dorchester isn’t posh enough to have all the trappings of Monte Carlo…

****There’s a good gynaecology joke in this somewhere, but like a clitoris I can’t seem to find it.

*****If you want to see what it looked like, check out this pic from The Boy Who Ate The World.

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