John Shields, the chef of Town House, was unnaturally familiar with the forty-two dishes that were recently set down before us at el bulli. Having tried unsuccessfully for years to get a reservation at the restaurant, he had spent a considerable amount of time reading about and canvassing the internet for pictures of Ferran Adria’s food.
I almost didn’t have the heart to break the news to him: Not only had I never made a serious attempt at el bulli, but I had never read about or seen photos of a single dish that has come out of Adria’s kitchen.
I’ve never even leafed through a single one of his many cookbooks.
Partly, due to lack of interest.
But mostly because, should the opportunity ever arise, I would be able to experience Adria’s food anew, unprejudiced.
And I did.
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I don’t have to tell you how hard it is to get into el bulli, especially in this, the restaurant’s last season. Winning one of the restaurant’s remaining seats is like finding a golden ticket inside of a chocolate bar.** I was one of a few lucky guests invited to the table of he who wishes to be called “The Godfather.” To him, I owe a big thanks for this eleventh-hour opportunity.
Everything they say about el bulli is probably true. I can’t confirm my hunch, since I’ve read so little about it. But, if the consensus is that el bulli is one of the best restaurants in the world, based on this one visit, I can’t disagree.
I arrived a skeptic and left a believer.
el bulli achieves what is not possible elsewhere.
There are fifty diners per service. No table is turned. There are fifty cooks and twenty-five waitstaff. We had forty-two courses, each one a book, a picture, a thousand words.
Pacing was like clockwork, precise and perfect.
Here, everyone is a VIP.
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Removed from civilization, the restaurant exists in a world unto itself, especially if you visit at night, when the world drops away into an inky sea of darkness.
Leaving the seaside town of Roses, you head into the hills and emerge, after a harrowing, twenty-minute hairpin trace along a seaside cliff (with no guardrails), in a quiet courtyard lined with pebbles. A building rises out of a stony outcropping. Waves crash, just on the other side of the ramparts. A balmy breeze blows, palm trees sway. The sky is littered with diamonds.
You could be in an novel, a movie, on Mount Olympus, or in sleepy Cala Montjoi.
For being the capital of cutting-edge cuisine, el bulli is refreshingly rustic, shockingly simple.
Inside, you’ll find a Spanish tavern: a stretch of tiled floors, exposed wood beams, painted stone walls, and floral-print upholstery. It could be 1665 or 1965, but hardly 2011. It’s a bit mismatched, a touch dowdy. And yet, it seems so right, so homey. A little kitsch never killed anyone.
There’s a patio. On it is a bevy of tables with a seaside soundtrack and a panorama of the Mediterranean framed in archways.
There’s a window into the restaurant’s kitchen. Through it, you can watch Adria and his cooks during a mid-meal break, just you and the crickets and the crashing waves.
The kitchen is cavernous, brightly lit and teaming with cooks, swarming like schools of fish, this way and that. Chaotic order, I supposed.
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How do I write about forty-two courses without losing you after the third one? I can’t (this is another reason why I’ve read so little about el bulli). So, instead, I’ll paint the experience with broader strokes. If you want the details (the menu we had, the wines we drank, the photo links, and my notes for each dish), consult my annotations by clicking here.
Retelling our meal in chronological order makes little sense to me. The experience was far too complex to fit into such a simple format.
Collectively the forty-two courses composed a fugue, with each dish building upon familiar themes that recurred and overlapped throughout the night. I group the dishes accordingly.
Upending expectations is Adria’s trump card. He plays it repeatedly and effectively, using textures and temperatures as his primary disguises. Although there was a heavy dose of classicism in our meal (Catalan buñuelos, and meaty bolognese sauce, for example), rarely was anything as it appeared.
Of the examples of “molecular gastronomy” that I’ve encountered, el bulli’s, to me, is the most successful form. At this meal, technique was backseated, leaving theory, wonder, and flavor to drive the course.
Nuts were sprinkled throughout, in various forms. There were peanuts inside crystalized petals of hibiscus flowers, and pistachio paste inside sugary pouches. Hazelnut mousse was piped into transparent, tissue-thin cones made out of sugar. They looked like carrots in a basket, one of many trompe l’oeils, another mask in Adria’s kit of disguises.
Game meats comprised the largest anthology, the focus of no less than eight courses. Arriving in quick succession: quail, woodcock, hare, hare, and more hare. Taking form in a variety of shapes and sizes, many of these game dishes overlapped with other themes. There was a cocktail of hare and raspberry, for example, and “mimetic” (chest)nuts filled with hare puree.
Adria doted on crustacea for a few courses, presenting them whole, juiced, and reformatted into a tissue-thin “tortilla” that tasted like the mother of all prawn crackers. There was a fried torso of prawn, crunchy and crisp, still attached to its barely cooked tail, soft and silky, a dazzling display of textural variance.
Cheese was rolled into papery tubes, flaky and crisp like sheets of cellophane. In another course, Parmesan arrived in the form of a macaron, unexpectedly cold, shockingly soft – the meringues were like marshmallows made out of foam. And in yet another, St. Felicien oozed, runny and warm, out of a yeasty pocket of griddled dough. It’s the best grilled cheese I’ve ever had, simple and comforting – the one course I wanted most to repeat.
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Mimicry was a repeated motif (those “chestnuts” filled with hare puree are a good example), hand-in-hand with an arsenal of eye tricks. There were crispy matchsticks made out of soy sauce, the match head wrapped in gold leaf. The metallic tang of the gold, the smokiness of the fermented soy – together, they created the taste and scent of a flinty flame.
Tiramisu at el bulli illustrated the power of sight and suggestion. The cloud of whipped tofu, dusted with cocoa powder and dotted with red miso, looked like the familiar dessert. Texturally, it tasted like the familiar dessert. But this tiramisu was savory. Despite what my mind knew, I had to reboot my brain with each bite, forcing it to bridge the gap between eye and mouth.
And hazelnut “caviar” was served on a pool of caviar cream. Next to it was its negative print: caviar served on a pool of hazelnut cream. Visually, they were ying and yang, but in the mouth the two sets were indistinguishable in texture and flavor. Fantastic.
There was an apparent fascination with thinness, brittleness, and crispness. Multiple courses featured gossamer sheets made of sugar and other ingredients (like that shrimp tortilla). There was a wafer paved with shaved black truffles, and a sweet pane topped with a sawdust dome of powdered foie gras. There was a sugary chip slicked with olive oil and dashed with sea salt, and lemon dumplings encased in crystalline wrappers flecked with nori.
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I might be over-thinking the meal by pointing out all of the circles we saw (I mused over a collection of Michelin tires – coconut ice cream “donuts” coated in very bitter chocolate couverture – served at course forty). But I don’t think I’d play the fool for noticing the nonstop parade of luxury that passed over our table, an obvious ploy to overwhelm and elate, flattery by excess. In this they succeeded.
It was black truffle season, and el bulli’s were excellent.
There were baby eels, which made the Frenchmen at our table gasp and giggle. A highly protected class in the European Union, elvers are a rare delicacy.
Five baby quail breasts per person seemed unduly lavish, painted with carrot escabeche and served on a gold plate. But next to a tin of pine nut hearts – each one extracted by hand – the quail breasts seemed rather ordinary.
Who was the poor commis that was set about the blackberry patch, debudding each berry to make a “risotto,” each bud a grain? Unbelievable.
And just when you thought the last layer of shock had been peeled away, the page turns again and a dresser drawer of chocolates arrive, seventeen varieties in all, set on beds padded thick with cocao nibs. These were left on our table, to be enjoyed at our leisure and pleasure.
Indeed, a golden ticket had landed in my lap.
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Was the food delicious?
Yes, some of it was extremely so.
But, some of it was barely so.
Among my least favorites was a family of endives, steam-baked in a papillote. I liked the texture – they were left firm in the middle, a touch crunchy. But their bitterness completely overwhelmed the generous avalanche of black truffles that was shaved over them.
On the plus side, flavor was not lacking. Dishes were bold and punchy, never shy. I liked that about the food at el bulli.
But on the downside, rarely was there nuance or finesse. A few dishes were almost too blitzed with flavor to bear, like a shingle of sugarcane flambeed with rum and served with coffee powder. If it weren’t so indulgently boozy, I’d condemn it as being ten degrees too sweet.
Speaking of sweetness, there was a lot of it. I would venture that over half of our meal included some form of added sugar. For me, it was a bit much. Of course, sugar can be a invaluable tool for balancing and widening flavor. But when it becomes a noticeable part of the meal, it can be a distraction, a convenient crutch. This was the case with quite a few dishes, not the least of which was a syrupy cherry soup blanketed with cocoa powder.
Like most of the best meals I’ve had, the sum of my dinner at el bulli was greater than its parts.
The setting was magical, the service was gracious, and the dinner was a riotous cornucopia, an embarrassment of riches layered with references, internal and external.
For me, the genius of el bulli is not found in the individual dishes and compositions that are presented. To evaluate the meal course by course would be foolish and, given the expense and trouble of gaining a meal there, perhaps disappointing.
Rather, the genius of el bulli is in the culinary web it manages to weave over the course of a meal. It offers a complex story, a peerless anthology. It surprises and provokes. It upends and shocks. It miraculously connects the dots in a sky as thick with stars as the one that hangs above the restaurant every night.
I left el bulli wanting to share the experience with everyone, wishing the world a dinner there.
Given the opportunity, I’d return in a heartbeat.
Cala Montjoi, Spain
* Of course, I’ve seen dozens of derivative Adria dishes.
** The restaurant is only open six months out of the year. In the past, it received nearly a million reservation requests each season for 8,000 seats.