review: anthology… (elbulli)
I got to have lunch on that patio by the sea after all.*
Having already had the extraordinary fortune of getting a seat at elBullí in February, I was invited back in early July, last-minute, by my friend Adam of A Life Worth Eating, who, having eaten there last fall, found another golden ticket to share.
So four of us – Adam, Peter the Great, Google, and I – piled into a taxi for that winding way to Cala Montjoi for lunch (which, by the way, was a much less harrowing drive in daylight than by headlight). And for seven hours, we alternated between tables outside and inside, a leisurely graze through forty-four courses.**
It was unforgettable.
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A chapter turns today, and a new one begins on the Costa Brava, where, as this post issues, Ferran Adria and his staff are preparing the last service at elBullí. And thereafter, the restaurant will pass on to a special place, where only people of a certain generation with a certain spark of luck can say, wistfully, that they once passed through its doors.
What can I add to gallons of ink that have been spilled over this restaurant?
Probably not much. And forty-four courses is far too many for you to read about, anyway. So, like my first post about elBullí, I’m going to swing wide, pause on some highlights, make some comparisons and contrasts, and send you to my annotations, if you want more. (CLICK HERE to see the full menu with links to photos, and my annotations for each course.)
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What had changed in the five months between my two meals at elBullí?
At first glance, surprisingly little. Dishes still flocked together thematically, a series of overlapping anthologies: nuts, Japanese, Mexican, wild game, and local seafood – among smaller subsets, like Parmesan – all bookended by cocktails.
Twenty-two of the forty-four courses at this second meal – exactly half – were repeated from my first meal. While this might seem disappointing, I welcomed the opportunity to reconsider some of them, to be able to compare and contrast them over time. This, actually, turned out to be the more compelling half of the meal for me.
But, as our lunch unfolded, the distance between my two meals at elBullí widened.
Where I found the flavors generally headstrong and too sweet in February – bullish in a china closet – there seemed more balance and restraint at this second meal in many of the courses. Overall, flavors still tended to be bold, but I found more dimension. The parts to the “Nori Ravioli,” for example, seemed more distinct from each other this time. The crisp nori wrapper, the lemon wedge and black sesame paste within: I could taste each one, which helped me to better understand how they worked together, a sweet umami punctuated by a flash of acid and a crunchy texture.
A different day, a different season, a different mood, a different expectation, a different course order – relative memory? Perhaps. I can’t account for the differences, or be sure that there actually were differences. I can only tell you what I thought I perceived.
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Despite it being summer, the hare anthology reappeared. Both the Hare and Raspberry Cocktail and the Mimetic Chestnuts filled with hare liver puree from my first meal were missing. But everything else was the same.
Were the buñuelos fluffier, the filling more flavorful this time? Did the Hare Bolognese really taste cleaner, and was there truly more clarity among the different parts of the plate – the hare meat, the meat stew, and the packets of meat sauce? And was the Blackberry Risotto less cloying this time, the fruit buds sweeter and more fragrant?
Was it because they gave each of us a sachet of smokey, spicy potpourri to smell before the set commenced? They didn’t do that last time.
Was it because blackberries taste sweeter in the summer than in the winter?
Where does one get hare in the summer? If it’s fresh, does it taste different from hare that’s killed in the winter?
Or, was I just more lucid mid-afternoon, than late at night?
I guess I’ll never know.
But this internal dialogue was enriching.
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A few dishes arrived in the same spirit as before, but slightly tweaked in form.
That shingle of rummy sugar cane, flambeed and served with espresso powder as a nightcap last time was moved up to the front of the meal this time. It lost the flambe, the espresso powder, and, seemingly, half of the sweetness (it was awfully sweet last time). It picked up a mint leaf and lime zest, and arrived in a giant snow cone, one in an anthology of summery cocktails.
And that yeasty blini, filled with an oozing core of St. Felicien cheese last time, came as a dessert this time, filled with yogurt and drizzled with orange blossom honey. At both meals, the blini was, perhaps, my favorite course.
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A thought popped into my head this time. Maybe – just maybe – Adria doesn’t want his flavors to have much dimension. Maybe he purposefully makes them caricatures of themselves – exaggerated, distilled, unmistakable. If, as I believe, one of the hallmarks of Adria’s cooking is his ability to upend expectations visually, then why would he want to leave any room for doubt as to what you’re supposed to be tasting? The message is clear, the juxtaposition more powerful. It may not be the most refined food you’ll encounter – far from it. But you’re less likely to walk away missing the point of it all. Perhaps this is why elBullí has been so successful, so lauded, so universally understood and applauded.
Impact: that’s what a meal elBullí is all about.
So, chicken curry – even if it comes in the form of ice cream on top of gelatin and drizzled with a sauce that looks like caramel – must taste, unquestionably, like chicken curry. It did.
A snowy landscape ringed with a creamy sauce was undoubtedly gazpacho and ajo blanco. Garlicky, fresh, awesome.
And, blindfolded, a frozen bladder, cracked open at the table and showered with freshly shaved nutmeg, tasted just like blue cheese – creamy, funky, but cold.
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That blini, of course. And a rink of frozen sake too, across which skated mimetic raspberries and crunchy croquettes of black sesame. These two stood head and shoulders above the rest.
There was also a lusty plate of lobster, with all the gingery, star anisey, and beefy richness of China. And a curried “bone marrow tartare” with oyster froth served in an oyster shell, and succulent oyster plant leaves beside. Those were great too.
But I’ll tell you what was a highlight again – that “Box.” When we left our table – a cozy alcove (photo by A Life Worth Eating), a veritable light box sitting just off to the left off the entrance to the first dining room – we arrived on that patio by the sea to find it waiting for us.
Inside was a rock garden of chocolates, nestled on beds of cocoa nibs: dehydrated strawberries covered in white chocolate (my favorite); mint leaves framed in dark chocolate; tablets of white chocolate with matcha, strawberries, and soya; and dark chocolate “corral” coated in a tart raspberry powder; among many others.
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I wrote last time that I’d return in a heartbeat, if I could.
I could. And I’m so happy I did: diner 1,038 and 6,356 in the restaurant’s last year. Thank you, Adam, for making it possible. It was an amazing afternoon of eating.
We left nearer to eight o’clock at night, as the sun started to soften, marching towards the Mediterranean with confidence. Luis Garcia, the restaurant’s general manager, and, for the last few years, perhaps one of the most influential gatekeepers in the world, walked us out to our taxi, a gracious host to the end. I left with him a bottle of Boulevard Brewery “Tank 7,” which I had brought from Kansas City to thank him for sending my phone back to me after I mindlessly left it at the restaurant in February (he returned it to me in a Cuban cigar box).
The thoughts that I penned about elBullí earlier this year still stand. I wouldn’t change a word of it, so I’ll simply repeat them here:
“For me, the genius of elBullí 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 elBullí 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 look forward to seeing what Ferran Adria and his team make of elBullí in the coming years. As I understand it, it will become a “foundation” in name, but a think tank in nature. New anthologies will be created, I’m sure. But, in the meantime, chefs, eaters, and food writers the world around will marvel at the passing of a significant era in our world’s food history. I count myself entirely blessed to have been able to witness it in person.
Cala Montjoi, Spain
* From my post about elBullí in February, 2011: “There’s a patio. On it is a bevy of tables with a seaside soundtrack and a panorama of the Mediterranean framed in archways. I want to have lunch on that patio. I want to live on that patio. I fell in love with that patio.”
** The actual meal only lasted about three and a half hours, an incredible pace considering the number of courses we ran through. Service was like clockwork, with dishes landing and taking off from our table with the efficiency of O’Hare International.