Before Heston Blumenthal, there was Ferran Adrià, head chef of the now-legendary elBulli restaurant at Cajal Montjol on Spain's Costa Brava, a man who brought risk, freedom and creativity to food and cooking, and whose innovative and daring approach has had a lasting influence on how food is cooked, presented and perceived. No longer simply nourishment, food has been transformed into a science and an art form. This exhibition at Somerset House celebrates the "Art of Food", and the enduring influence of elBulli. The restaurant has now closed, to make way for a new organization called the elBullifoundation, which will nurture the raw materials of cooking – creativity and talent.

When Ferran Adrià first went to work at elBulli in 1983, while completing his national service, the restaurant was already well-established with a reputation for sophisticated food and a coveted Michelin star (its name comes from the bulldogs owned by the restaurant's first owners). Within four years, at age 25, Ferran Adrià took sole charge of the kitchen and embarked on a voyage of culinary discovery to stop copying and to start creating dishes that were solely his own, drawing influences from the traditional food heritage of Catalonia, and thereby catapulting Catalan and Mediterranean cuisine into the limelight of the modern and sophisticated. As the reputation of the restaurant grew, so did its waiting list for reservations, would-be diners waiting months for a table. With its limited season, the restaurant retained huge exclusivity, accommodating around 8,000 guests, but receiving over 2 million enquiries, and elBulli has been awarded the Best Restaurant in the World five times. Ferran Adrià is now considered a global icon of gastronomy.

The exhibition – the first ever about a restaurant – offers insights into the creative mind of Ferran Adrià and his team, over 2,000 people who have shaped the present and future of modern gastronomy. It reveals food as an artistic, theatrical and creative experience, one that is fun and experimental. This is wittily demonstrated in the first room of the exhibition: a giant bulldog, created entirely from meringue and garlanded with sugar paste flowers, greets visitors. Passing through scarlet curtains, the next room presents a timeline illustrated with atmospheric photographs, sketches, bills, letters and other ephemera, together with biographies of Adrià and his key colleagues. Continuing upstairs, a lively display on mini iPads projects short films and mouth-watering photographs of individual dishes. There are plasticine models which were made of all dishes for quality control of colour, portion size and presentation; there are specially-developed utensils, which would not look out of place in a chemist's laboratory; beautiful, simple tableware designed to enhance the display of the food; drawings showing how dishes were conceived, from initial idea to finished plate; menus; notebooks and even a piece of music composed by Bruno Mantovani as an homage to Adrià and his team.

Of course, the exhibition cannot recreate the dining experience of elBulli, but it is successful in reflecting the excitement, passion and innovation inherent in Adrià's food philosophy, and provides inspiration not just to food enthusiasts but to graphic and product designers, and photographers. But for all its sumptuous pictures and meringue models, I felt the exhibition lacked real substance. Visually stunning, perhaps this is the key to it: simply a feast for the eyes.

The Art of Food, at Somerset HouseFrances Wilson's review of elBulli - Ferran Adrià and The Art of Food at Somerset House3