Is 2011 real?
I pinch myself. Over and over again.
Since quitting my job in January, I’ve been blessed with a nonstop feast that has taken me around the world: London, Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg, Crissier, St. Mortiz, Barcelona, Miami, Charleston, Chilhowie, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, the Italian Alps, San Diego, Los Angeles. In the first half of this year, I was away more days than I was at home. And looking ahead, I’m not done yet.
But just when I thought I had reached a clearing to catch my breath in late June, I got a call from A Life Worth Eating: he had an extra seat at his table at elBulli. Would I go with him?
What would you do? Faced with the opportunity to have been twice to elBulli in its last season, once in its last month?
Unmoored, un-hitched, have miles, will travel: Yes.
So, I booked a last-minute flight to Barcelona, padding elBulli on either side with a few extra days of eating up and down the Costa Brava.
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Spain ticks to a different tock, doesn’t it?
A week there seemed a month, a leisurely nap stretched out in the sun.
I swam in the sea and walked the strand; strolled La Rambla and drove The Diagonal (one too many times).
And I marveled at the ideas that have sprung from this lisping land. This was the country of Picasso, Miró, Dalí. Adrià.
We slept little (or, at least I did), and ate incredibly well.
Saffron and the sea, these are the flavors of Catalunya that infused our days under the striped Senyera. Gambas, espardenyes, langostas, arroz, caricols. Gambas. Gambas. Gambas.
Through the filter of my lens, this trip, more than any other, shimmered like a chimera, a slow-moving picture that I wish I could suspend and hold in the palm of my hand forever. The food, the place, the people: I fell in love.
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Fresh off the plane, I headed straight for la Boqueria for an early morning bite at Pinotxo Bar, before grazing on afield at El Quim, returning to that wooden counter just to have that fat slab of caramelized foie gras perched atop a fried egg and a bed of wild mushrooms again. Delicious.
We rented a car and outlined the eastern coast of Spain, first overshooting Valencia (bah-LEN-thia!) to the south by an hour, arriving in Denia, a seaside resort town overrun by Germans, oddly.
There, we had three meals at Quique Dacosta’s eponymous restaurant (formerly El Poblet), one of which was a breathtaking opus that ranks among the very best meals I’ve ever had.
Thereafter, we headed back up to Barcelona to pick up our friend, Peter the Great, on our way to Roses, where we dallied a while near the French frontier.
We had dinner at Rafa’s, an unassuming little plancha that has become a worthy appendage to any visit to elBulli. Gambas, espardenyes, caricols. And a small turbot the size of a sheet of paper. Simply grilled, a little olive oil, and a dash of salt.
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Our friend Google arrived early in the morning, fresh from Berlin for the day, completing our foursome. Together we mounted that rocky road toward Cala Montjoi for an unforgettable afternoon of eating and drinking at a quickly expiring institution. Forty-four courses arrived at our table this time at elBulli.
There were gambas. There were barnacles. There was hare – again, and again, and again. And there were bottles of Lucien le Moine.
We visited Mexico, Japan, and China.
And to end it all: chocolates, a whole box of them waiting for us on a veranda by the sea, where we sipped the afternoon away watching the sun drop towards the ocean.
We pinched ourselves before turning back down the mountain.
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Google left, back to Berlin he went.
And the three of us returned to Barcelona, where a failed attempt at la Boqueria (both El Quim and Pinotxo Bar were closed) landed us at a Basque restaurant around the corner. No gambas here. Instead, we had whole anchovies fried table-side in a casuela of screeching hot garlic oil. We had salted cod cheeks, pil-pil. And delicious chorizo pintxos, skewered, dripping with peppery oil.
Since it was Monday, Abac was closed for dinner. And Alkimia was fully booked.
Gaig? Ca l’Isidre?
We found ourselves at Hisop instead, a newly minted one Michelin-starred restaurant serving modern Catalan cuisine: foie gras with chocolate and mint; squab with armagnac and lavender ice cream; and strawberries in beef broth with orange ice cream – a dessert. I bet you can’t wait to read about this one.
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Our dream ended with a dream.
For our last meal, we drove back up the coast into the claustrophobically narrow streets of Sant Pol de Mar to visit Sant Pau, Carme Ruscalleda’s three Michelin-starred restaurant by the sea. As if our trip hadn’t been littered with enough charms, this meal rose out of the night like a fairytale, a rare instance when fact became lovelier than fiction.
We had delicate filets of parrotfish, dusted and lightly fried. We saw Piet Mondrian on a plate. We had foal (young horse) from the Pyrenees. And we pushed a coconut moon down a river across a glimmering field of lapis into a valley of chocolate. It sounds surreal, doesn’t it? It was.
And afterward, we wished away our cares in a garden under a canopy of green, with the waves lapping at our backs.
I didn’t want to leave.
What a cruel awakening commercial air travel can be.
So, now I’m back at home in Kansas City, facing a mountain of catch-up before my next trip. And to my growing heap, I add the following:
elBulli (Cala Montjoi)
El Quim de la Boqueria (Barcelona)
Irati Taverna Basca (Barcelona)
Pinotxo Bar (Barcelona)
Quique Dacosta (Denia) (once, twice, thrice)
Sant Pau (Sant Pol de Mar)
Photos: Roses, Spain, early in the morning; Roses, Spain, at dawn; elBulli in Cala Montjoi, Spain; anchovies frying in hot garlic oil, Irati Taverna Basca; and the garden at Sant Pua in Sant Pol de Mar.