I’ve eaten in some odd places before – a Kashmiri houseboat and a rather lopsided donkey cart going over the Senegalese border spring to mind – but never before had I dined atop a triumphal arch. High above Cinquantenaire Park, The Cube by Electrolux, is taking the notion of pop up restaurant to a heady extreme. Surrounded with glass on three sides, this minimalist crow’s nest is dramatically poised on the roof of Brussels’ Arc de Triomphe, with sweeping views across the city’s neat parks and gleaming office towers.
A recyclable structure of wood decking, angular glass walls and entirely white décor, The Cube reminded me of a cross between modernist Scandinavian chalet and luxury Californian beach house. One had to marvel at this being erected on the roof of 147ft tall monument and serving up exquisite meals twice a day.
Inside The Cube is a single dining table seating 18 people and an open kitchen, where Sang-Hoon Degeimbre, head chef at the two Michelin-starred L’air du Temps restaurant in Noville-sur-Mehaigne, did alchemical things in a space not much larger than my own kitchen at home. All composed and softly spoken in his white smock, South Korean-born Sang-Hoon is an altogether more ethereal species than our TV chefs; I couldn’t imagine him swearing at the sous chef. He appeared at the table with each course to introduce his creations and generally decode what we were about to put into our mouths.
The commentary really was necessary: when a white toothpaste-like tube appeared in front of me, along with an assemblage of translucent purple squares, I heard him say something about SPF and assumed we’d been considerately given a tube of sun lotion (after all, it was a hot day and we were sat rather exposed to harmful rays in a greenhouse-like structure).
We all looked a little perplexed, but fortunately before I grabbed the tube and started anointing myself, some experimental fellow a few seats along from me squirted a blob onto one of the purple paper squares and took a bite. Ah, of course, what we had here was in fact a tube of cream cheese and potato starch crisps dyed with beetroot colouring. It was then that I realised we were dealing with Belgium’s answer to Heston Blumenthal, and I knew that we had an exciting lunch ahead of us.
The next entree was a little plant of ‘potted asparagus’, one spear delicately sprouting from a ‘soil’ of black olives and breadcrumbs, bedded in a light egg mayonnaise. These ingredients reappeared in the starter (that’s fine, we’re all used to asparagus being used with abandon in springtime menus and Sang-Hoon’s was perhaps the best I’ve had) with handmade bowls of succulent white asparagus and a boiled egg on the side, which had been cooked for one hour at 63 degrees Celsius. It meant that when, as instructed, we cracked the eggs open, they plopped intact onto our asparagus with jelly-like whites and a liquid yolk. This technique is one of Sang-Hoon’s signatures – these mousse-like eggs are to him what snail porridge is to Heston.
Then there came cod with micro herbs, and veal smoked in glass domes before us at the table. Dessert arrived as a smooth chocolate globe sprinkled with gold leaf, which waiters then ladled some kind of spitting hot liquid onto from copper pans. The chocolate shell melted but the fondant inside remained icy cold, and we all giggled as our teeth began crackling and tingling from a mysterious ingredient that must be the grown up’s equivalent of popping-candy.
Finally, the table was lowered and our chairs replaced with cushions: time for the Japanese tea ceremony. We drank green tea sweetened with honey freshly collected from their miniature on-site beehive, and shots of fruit juice containing little bubbles of liquor that popped open on your tongue.
Since I’m currently rehabilitating from an addiction to the recent series of Masterchef, I relished all this inventive, thoughtful haute cuisine. No doubt it’s currently attracting a well-heeled bunch keen to sample the latest chic pop-up eatery and the quirks of molecular gastronomy. My visit was the day before it opened to the public and already the Cube was fully booked for lunch and dinner for weeks to come.
One thing they might not get though is why white goods provider Electrolux is behind it all. As we stood sipping champagne on the terrace of the Cube, we were told how the arch was erected by King Leopold II to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Belgium’s independence. I also heard how Electrolux is the only brand to cater for both professional and home appliances. Hence the display of gleaming new fridges and dishwashers that is temporarily sitting among medieval armour in the military museum below. The connection was somewhat tenuous in my opinion, and even the PR looked a little sheepish when I lightly interrogated him about it after the meal: “So, wait a minute, you’re saying the reason for having the first Cube here is that Electrolux’s span of both professional and domestic kitchen appliances mirrors the unification of the Belgian and Dutch peoples on this spot?” He replied, with what could have been either extreme earnest or stoic wryness, in the affirmative. “There’s a connection between these things…” “Indeed.”
But as stretched as these associations may be, the restaurant is actually a clever move – after all, it got a sizeable gathering of journalists from across Europe talking and writing about white goods, certainly not something I usually get that excited about. What’s more, it was a persuasive demonstration of what could be conjured up with their products in a realistically tiny space. The proof was in the pudding, if you will. Okay, we might not all have the culinary skill of Sang-Hoon, but those high-end ovens and hobs certainly produced some inspiring food. Which is pretty much the best way of convincing me of anything.
The Cube is due to relocate to Zurich, Stockholm, Moscow and Milan after it’s three month run in Brussels, although which obtusely symbolic locations they’ll select in each of these cities is a mystery at this moment in time.
The other thing this visit had me sold on was how fantastically close Eurostar makes the continent seem (and they didn’t even give me a free meal for that recommendation). A day trip to Belgium sounded rather indulgent to my mind as I told people about this trip in the weeks before, but in fact I’ve found it more troubling and time-consuming to get to friends who’ve decamped to Bristol or Newcastle. Hell, some of my colleagues have commutes of comparable time periods. Hopping on at St Pancras for a smooth two and a half hour journey at 7.30am and rolling back in time for supper the same evening means I now perceive weekly macaroon reconnaissance missions to Paris and casual moules frites meetings in Bruges as eminently doable.
One of the other reporters and me are even plotting to catch The Cube again when it goes to Switzerland, you know, just to see how it compares. Well, why not? Europe really is very small, and it’s not often one gets to eat Michelin starred food on the roof of a national monument.
Runs until 3rd July 2011. More information can be found at the website.