review: cooks turned curators… (next elbulli)
When I last left our hero, David Beran, he was in Belle Époque Paris rescuing Auguste Escoffier from growing obscurity. I never wrote about that meal at Next Restaurant in late May of 2011, which took my friends and me back to 1906 in a duck press. But I’ll tell you now: it was opulent.
We had caviar out of a crystal bowl, and warm, buttery blinis on a stack of period-piece china, each plate rimmed in gold, that had to be washed by hand, every one of them. There were egg custards on tulip stands, and turtle consommé, clear as a bell. And there was duck, served on a silver platter, like it was Christmas dinner on the Titanic, with civet sauce – freshly squeezed – on the side.
For an opening volley, that inaugural menu at Next, a restaurant that changes its concept every four months, was impressive.
But this post isn’t about that dinner. This one is about my latest meal at Next, one that took me to Cala Montjoi, a small inlet on the coast of Spain, home to Ferran Adrià’s elBulli.
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In an age when chefs and restaurants clamor to write the next culinary chapter, Next steps back. Its mission, so far, has not been to create, but to recreate and reconsider, with almost anthropologic scrutiny, what has already been written.
After reviving Escoffier, Next gave gastronauts a tour of Thailand, and, thereafter, a taste of the American childhood, collected in a multi-course meal that explored our wonder years.
I was wary of Next’s concept at first; a series of seemingly derivative meals. I was skeptical of its value.
But, based on the two menus I’ve had at the restaurant so far, I’d say that Next doesn’t just offer a second-hand experience, copied and pasted from afar into this West Loop warehouse. Next offers a reasoned glimpse into cooking. It is a museum, where food is the subject of study. Cooks turned curators, Beran and his team mount culinary exhibitions that examine the way cultures think and feel about food.*
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Instead of taking reservations, Next pre-sells tickets. For its latest menu, an ambitious retrospective of Ferran Adrià’s and his brother Albert’s cooking at elBulli, the demand was incredibly high. Understandably so: for those who weren’t able to eat at elBulli, and who now never will, this might be the closest they’ll ever get to experiencing the Adriàs’ food. Tickets for this dinner were bundled together with the restaurant’s two upcoming menus – Sicily (summer of 2012), and Kyoto (fall of 2012) – in a season ticket. They sold out in six hours.
If I doubted the public’s fascination with Next elBulli, my photos of this meal provided a good litmus of its popularity. In the first twenty-four hours the photos were posted to my Flickr account, they collective over 50,000 (that’s not a typo) views, outpacing the number of views that photos from both of my meals at elBulli received in the same amount of time.
And now, I must pause to type a few, unavoidable sentences that may or may not make me sound like the luckiest asshole of the decade.
Having been to elBulli twice last year, before it closed, I had very little interest in Beran’s version of Adrià’s food, especially given the difficulty and expense of getting a ticket (the elBulli dinner was valued at more than $450 a seat, inclusive of tax, tip, and beverage pairings). And, after having watched the video that Next issued as a teaser, I was concerned about the kitchen’s ability to reproduce, with convincing accuracy, the Adrià brothers’ food.
But, as it happened, I was heading to Chicago for a weekend with a few friends, one of whom was so keen on going to Next that she magically produced a table for the four of us. Despite my disinterest, how could I say no?
In full disclosure, the other three at my table were known to the house (and, as I later discovered, so was I, even though my name was not on the reservation). And, in full disclosure, since our table was secured before the tickets went on sale, we did not attempt to pay for our seats until after our dinner, when we were flatly refused a bill. Instead, we were whisked away to the kitchen by Grant Achatz himself, who showed up halfway through our meal, fresh from alinea, to give us a tour of The Office, an exclusive cocktail bar downstairs, and the Aviary next door.
Considering how royally we were treated, is it fair of me to write about my meal at Next? Of course it is. Because, given the disclaimers I’ve just made, you’re free to disregard everything I write.
Or, you can trust that I’ll give you an honest assessment.
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I’m no scholar of the Adriàs’ cooking. In fact, before February of last year, I had read very little about their restaurant and had refrained from looking at photos of their food, for reasons I explained here. For similar reasons, as soon as I was told I would be going to Next elBulli, I sequestered myself from all press surounding Beran’s version. I wanted to experience it with a clean slate. So, keep in mind that what I write here is an admittedly uneducated, but honest retelling of my experience and reaction.
Despite my initial disinterest and skepticism about Next elBulli, I walked away from my dinner pleasantly surprised. Here is why:
1. There was no way that Next could even come close to recreating the elBulli experience in total. Beran and his team knew this. So, beyond a few superficial nods to the Costa Brava – like piping sounds of the ocean into the dining room; pouring Vichy Catalan (that briny bubbly that the Spaniards so love to drink); and hanging a rose above each table, a figurative tribute to the seaside resort town nearest to the restaurant (named Roses) made Mecca by the Adriàs to culinary pilgrims from around the world – Next decided to focus on something far deeper. In twenty-nine courses, roughly one dish for each year the restaurant was open**, Next condensed the Adriàs’ expansive anthology into an abbreviated tour of their achievements and contributions to the culinary world, showing that, above all, elBulli was not about deliciousness, or technique, or showmanship. Rather, Next showed that elBulli was a way of thinking about food. This was an ambitious feat. For those unfamiliar with the Adrias’ cooking, this was, perhaps, the most authentic and meaningful way of being introduced to their food. For those who have been to elBulli, Next’s menu affords a wider look at the Adriàs’ repertoire, a vertical flight of dishes that would not have been served together at one meal in Cala Montjoi. (You’ll find the entire menu, translated into English, at the bottom of this post, hyperlinked to the photos)
2. As I said in my posts about my meals at elBulli (in February of 2011 and July of 2011), the food was not necessarily delicious. In fact, I wouldn’t want to eat most of it again. Flavors were caricatured, often exaggerated to distasteful extremes (doubtless, this is probably partially due to different cultural expectations and norms). I don’t know whether Beran adjusted the seasonings and flavors of his version of the Adriàs’ food for an American audience. But, overall, I found this dinner much more palatable – delicious in parts, even – than my two meals at elBulli. Only three courses at Next were identical to dishes I had at elBulli: the “Spherical Olives” from 2005, the “Gorgonzola Balloon” from 2009, and “Chocolate Donuts” from 2010, which you see at the top of my blog. All three seemed faithful to the flavor of the originals, down to the blunt bitterness of the couverture on those donuts, even though they didn’t look nearly as black in color (which makes me wonder if Adrià dyed his chocolate darker, perhaps to make them appear as Michelin tires, I joke).
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Of course, I had my favorites. Not surprisingly, they tended to be the older dishes on the menu. Actually, the three earliest recipes were my favorite.
The tenth recipe in the Adrias’ anthology, from 1987, was a filet of red mullet – its skin so thin that it seemed sprayed on with an iridescent pink paint – set on a mattress of warm water filled with shells and sea pebbles. The fish – which was so soft, so delicate – was covered in a mosaic of vegetables to evoke the style of Catalan artist Antoni Gaudì. It was a beautiful and delicious tribute to Adrià’s coastal region.
From 1988, a suquet of prawns. I’ve had quite a few suquets in Spain, a seafood stew that, in my experience, has been extremely briny and salty. This one was much less so, more balanced in flavor, in my opinion. The shrimp was taut and tender, the potato, waxy and lovely, a simple but spectacular revision of this traditional, Catalan dish.
From the following year, 1989, a strangely fussy plate that looked like something out of Marco Pierre White’s book, with its radial pattern and symmetrically arranged garnishes. This was carpaccio of wild mushrooms (I believe king trumpets), with toasted pine nuts and rabbit kidneys. This was a hunter’s plate, with the toasty, earthy flavors of the woods. I loved it.
I also loved the flavors of the cuttlefish and coconut raviolo dish from 1997. It was beautiful too, an alabaster packet filled with warm, coconut broth. I only wished that the cuttlefish wrapper had been thinner. Not knowing how it is made, I’m not sure it’s possible.
And the spice plate from 1996, I particularly appreciated because I thought it best represented, in simple terms, the purpose of elBulli: to throw a speed bump amidst a frantic flood of food, to make one really consider, and reconsider, what they are eating, what they are tasting. We were each given a card. On the left column were listed the twelve hours of a clock. On the right were listed the twelve spices that arrived on a pool of green apple gelatin, arranged along the rim of the circular plate, as if points on a clock. We were asked to taste each spice, and match the spices on the card with the hour at which it appeared on the plate. You’d be surprised how much your tongue can extract from even the smallest pinch of spice, if you pay close attention.
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There were two courses that I truly disliked.
The “Golden Egg” from 2001, clever and witty as it may be, tasted metallic. And, whatever was used to gild the quail eggs (they appeared to be sprayed with edible gold paint) collected around the frilly base of the egg, drying into a slightly leathery skirt.
And, although the foie gras caramel custard from 1999 sounded like a dream, I found it bland. I will note, however, that this dish followed the gorgonzola balloon, which was not exactly short on flavor. (I’ve had something similar at Manresa, spiced with cumin, which, if anything, had the opposite problem. Though delicious, I thought Kinch’s foie gras custard was a bit too punchy with sweetness and spice.)
On a separate note, I’ve finally decided that I simply don’t like the snotty texture (or flavor) of Versawhip, which I’m fairly certain was used to make the balsamic “cloud” that enveloped the raspberry kebab, one of many lollies that came out on a whimsical tree of petits fours at the end.
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Our server, John Schafer, was a gem, rolling with my party’s irreverent punches like a champ. We were naughty, and he was so forgiving. And I loved that he conferred the dreaded napkin of shame upon my dining companions for soiling their corners, but left me unmarked. Thank you, John.
At the end, he presented us with a few “hands,” with which he waved farewell to us, thanking us for our visit. It was lovely.
Beran and his team managed to overcome my reservations about their elBulli menu. They exceeded my expectations by going beyond the superficial into the meaningful, curating a four-hour experience that got me closer to Cala Montjoi than I imagined was possible. To the entire team at Next, thank you for your hospitality and your unwarranted generosity.
Next has been nominated for this year’s James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant and David Beran has been nominated for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Award. Based on what I’ve seen – for the thought, the care, and detail that they’ve put into the two menus I’ve had – I won’t be surprised if I see him mount that stage twice at Avery Fisher Hall in May.
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Although the Next elBulli menu has twenty-nine courses, Beran book-ended our meal with two extra ones, normally only served as snacks at Aviary, Next’s specialty cocktail bar (at the beginning, a bowl of “Dry Snacks” – chips of all shapes, colors, and flavors; and “The Morphings,” a tree of petit four lollies at the end). The number that precedes each course is the year that dish debuted at elBulli. The number that follows each course notes the recipe’s order as it appears in the elBulli catalog.
Next offered three beverage pairings for this meal. One was strictly wine. Another was non-alcoholic. The third included a mix of alcoholic drinks, ranging from beer to sake. I chose the mixed pairing; those are the drinks you’ll see on this menu.
1998 Puffed Rice Black Pudding 461
1998 Nori Cracker 463
1999 Black Olive Butterflies 537
2000 Puffed Saffron Tapioca 626
2001 Parmesan Crackers 728
1999 Lotus Flower Chips 538
2003 Pork Rinds 838
2000 Hot/Cold Trout Roe Tempure 644
Jané Ventura “Brut Nature” Cava Reserva, Pénedes 2008
2005 Spherical Olives 1095
2003 Ibérico Sandwich 859
2007 Black Sesame Spongecake and Miso 1361
1998 Chicken Liquid Croquettes 474
2003 Carrot Air with Coconut Milk 878
2001 Hot Crab Aspic with Mini Corn Cous Cous 781
Domaine Bordatto “Basa Jaun” Cidre, Irouléguy 2010
1988 Suquet of Prawns 28
Emilio Hedalgo “Marqués de Rodil” Especial Palo Cortado, Jerez
1998 Potato tortilla by Marc Singla 491
Cune “Viña Real” Rioja Gran Reserva, 2004
1989 Trumpet Carpaccio 52
1987 Red Mullet Gaudi 10
Francesc Sanchez Bas “Montgarnatx,” Priorat 2005
2000 Civet of Rabbit with Hot Apple Jelly 686
2009 Gorgonzola Balloon 1570
1996 Spice Plate 367
Pommeau de Normandie with White Tea, Lychee, and Mandarin
2009 Mint Pond 1647
1997 Chocolate in Textures 439
Casa de la Ermita Dulce Monastrell, Jumilla 2006
2010 Chocolate Donuts 1820
1993 Creme Flute 225
1989 Puff Pastry Web 66
2004 Passionfruit Marshmallow – “The Farewell” 1089
1996 Joules verne Lollipops 385
1997 Chocolate and Puffed Rice 449
2000 Yogurt Croquant and Raspberry Lolly 712
1999 White Chocolate, Lemon, Coffee Lolly 609
1996 Star Anise and Mandarin Lolly 393
2001 Raspberry Kebab with Balsamic Caramel Cloud 813
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* Perhaps my last meal at alinea, before plans for Next were made public, was a preview of this project. I won’t claim to be Delphic, but the title that I assigned to my last meal at alinea certainly suggests that I was seeing a retrospective aspect to Achatz’s menu.
** Ferran Adrià took over elBulli in 1987 and closed it in July of 2011. With the exception of the years 1990, 1994, 1995, 2002, 2006, and 2008, there was at least one dish from every year that the restaurant was open.
*** Thanks, Mango in the Sun, for arranging this wonderful birthday dinner. And, thanks Piña Colada and Pipsqueak for flying out to join me. I will not forget thirty-four.