Wednesday, September 29, 2010

elBulli - Roses, Spain - September 15, 2010

It seems not even remotely coincidental that if you draw a line between Figueres and Cadaqués, the sites of two museums dedicated to the life and work of Salvador Dalí, you will come very close to going right through elBulli. There is more than a bit of surrealism going on at Chef Ferran Adrià's famous gastronomical outpost next to Cala Montjoi, along the Costa Brava. The stripping of objects of their normal significance, the incongruous, dreamlike juxtapositions, the subversion of expectations, the quest for a more vivid, superior "reality" - I don't mean to dive right into the debate of food as art vs. craft, and maybe I'm disproprotionately influenced by our visit to the Dalí Theatre-Museum on our way out to elBulli, but the parallels seem ineluctable.

There has been so much said and written about elBulli that it is daunting to try to add something meaningful.[1] A good place to start, which captures both the history and the current state of things, including the announcement earlier this year that the restaurant will be closing after next season, is Jay McInerney's recent piece in Vanity Fair, "It Was Delicious While It Lasted." But having been afforded the extraordinarily rare good fortune of securing a reservation there, I feel obligated to try.

It comes as no surprise to regular readers here that I am a committed advocate of contemporary cooking concepts and techniques like those that Chef Adrià has championed and sometimes even invented - not out of any loyalty to novelty for its own sake, but in the interest of good eating. A couple years ago, I said it this way:
As for my thinking generally about “molecular gastronomy” or “alta cocina” or “experimental cooking” or whatever you want to call it - I'm fascinated by the new techniques, love a clever presentation, am always open to new combinations of flavors, but in the end the ultimate test is, "Does it taste good?" In a truly successful dish, it goes beyond that - the technique or approach not only tastes good, but tastes BETTER than customary preps or ingredients. There’s an intellectual element to it, for sure – look, by the fact that we’re all here, reading [this], that tells you we’re probably thinking about food more, and perhaps more analytically, than the average bear – but in the end the clincher has got to be the pleasure of it.
Which puts me in a bit of a quandary when it comes to evaluating our dinner at elBulli. Because, having now had the opportunity to experience it first hand, it is abundantly clear that "delicious" is only one of many things that Ferran Adrià is looking to accomplish. This is food that looks to provoke, to confront, to test boundaries, and above all, to be like no other dining experience. It aims to be creative as much, if not more so, than to be delicious. In "A Day at El Bulli"[2] it is explained:

Creativity is what keeps elBulli open.[3] This is not only because it is central to the passion and commitment of every member of the team, but also because the creativity of the food is what makes people want to eat here. The restaurant is like a workshop where new dishes, concepts and techniques are developed and shared with the guests. Without an audience, the creations would have no meaning. The guests' enjoyment of the food is difficult to quantify because every person has their own views about cooking and the types of food they enjoy. Creativity, on the other hand, can be measured: it is possible to document a technique and to establish whether it is new. But to be truly creative, a dish must be interesting as well as new. The aim at elBulli is to create dishes and techniques that engage guests' sensory, emotional and intellectual facilities to the full, to surprise them and to encourage them to experience food in new and unexpected ways.
So do I judge by my own standards, or by those that the chef has set for himself? Perhaps let's table that question for now, have a run through the actual experience of our meal, and then see what answers present themselves.

The complete set of pictures from our meal is in this Flickr set: El Bulli - September 15, 2010.

The elBulli experience begins with the journey there, a journey that usually starts from the Costa Brava resort town of Roses and perhaps further encourages the surrealist analogies. Winding along the coast through rugged mountainous terrain, past vineyards, olive trees, and the relics of abandoned stone farmhouses, you begin to feel as if you are entering some dream world. A taxi is highly recommended. Also recommended: not arriving too early. The gates do not open until exactly 7:30pm, and if you arrive early for a 7:30 reservation, as we did, there's not much else to do but to kick pebbles.

Once those gates do open, a further dreamscape appears. The white-stuccoed, barrel-tile-roofed building that houses the restaurant and kitchen overlooks a small beach circled by rugged cliffs. The repetitive beat of the surf washing onto the beach can be clearly heard from the restaurant's terrace.

This is the menu that was posted in front of the restaurant on the day we were there. It is close, but not identical, to what we were actually served. After the meal we were given menus in English to take home.

After a tour of the (surprisingly small, extensively populated, and remarkably quiet) kitchen and the chance to meet Chef Adrià,[4] we returned to the terrace to begin our meal. While sipping glasses of the house Cava (Agusti Torelló Gran Reserva), we were presented with a quick succession of "cocktails" and "snacks":

René Magritte might say, "Ceci n'est pas une fraise." Rather, it is a representation of a strawberry, in semi-frozen form (frozen exterior giving way to a still-liquid center), infused with a bright sweet-sour strawberry flavor, bolstered with the bittersweet note of Campari - an edible cocktail.

(continued ...)

mojito and apple flute
Another edible cocktail follows, this time a mojito: inside this "sandwich" was a bright green paste of lime, mint, and sugar - a different variation on the sweet-sour pairing of the first cocktail. But what I found most remarkable was the "bread," a wispy, light-as-air, meringue-like substance that quickly crumbled and then dissolved in your mouth, leaving behind a lingering hint of its apple flavor.

almond-fizz with amarena-LYO / nori crackers with lemon
Still another cocktail, this one actually in liquid form, and with a snack alongside. Almond milk, spiked with some sherry (a pairing of nutty flavors), given a frothy crown, and then topped with a freeze-dried amarena cherry, had a rather bitter, medicinal flavor to me that begged for something sweet (which the cherry ultimately delivered). It was brought out together with some crispy, salty nori crackers which encased within them some piercingly sour lemon.

gorgonzola globe / cherry umeboshi
This hollow globe of frozen gorgonzola cheese stood nearly six inches high. After it was brought out, our server cracked open the top, then showered it with a dusting of freshly grated nutmeg. We were instructed to tear off pieces with our hands (all of the "snacks" were served without utensils), and to eat the cheese globe first, before the cherry umeboshi. The cheese was salty with a touch of funky bitterness, and had an almost plastic-like texture - as it warmed it became more pliable, to the point of becoming drippy like melting wax. The cold temperature, though, seemed to render its flavor rather one-dimensional.[5] It was also way too much for two people to eat as a snack to start a meal. The cherry umeboshi which followed offered the same intensely salty-sour tang as the Japanese salt-cured plums that are their namesake.

parmesan "macaron"
Still more snacks followed: a parmesan "macaron," another visual and textural play. All of the components - the filling, the cookie casing, the sprinkles on top - seemed to taste purely of parmesan cheese. But I found that flavor again, like the gorgonzola globe, somewhat one-note, compared to the layered complexity of a good hunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano. What intrigued here again was the texture, actually more whoopie pie than macaron to me: soft, spongy, sticky, creamy, at once familiar and alien.

The snack served immediately before this, "hibiscus and peanut," was too delicate to await a photograph. It was in fact, though, exactly as advertised: a petal of a hibiscus flower (probably steamed or boiled), wrapped around crumbles of peanuts, giving a nice contrast of delicate floral-tangy and salty flavors. It seemed to me that a similar flavor composition was being played out in different forms in the hazelnut-raspberry snack which followed, pictured above, which featured a frozen, tart raspberry casing wrapped around a sticky, salty-sweet hazelnut filling.

These rapid-fire bounces between sweet, sour, salty and bitter (each of these snacks was brought out within a minute or two of each other, a remarkable feat of coordination from the kitchen), in accumulation, had an effect on the palate comparable to a pinball being bounced from bumper to bumper. This was no delicate phase-in, no subtle cleansing or priming of the palate; rather, it seemed that the purpose was to undermine expectations entirely: a sandwich could be a cocktail, a globe (the moon?) could be made of cheese, flavors could converge from unexpected angles.

dining room
As the sun began to set, we moved inside to continue our dinner. The dining room, for those who have never seen pictures before, is surprisingly humble and old-fashioned for a place so dedicated to the avant garde, with its tiled floors, wood-beamed ceilings, and rigidly upright chairs. But it is comfortable, homey even, and we settled in and ordered a bottle of wine[6] as the rest of the procession moved forward.

shrimp tortillita (1)

shrimp tortillita (2)
These two "tortillitas," or little omelettes, were presented seriatim, each on sheets of parchment paper, presumably so they could be brought to the plate without breaking. The first had a tender but meltingly crumbly texture (I know that sounds oxymoronic, but it's accurate) with little Chinese-style dried shrimp scattered throughout. The second was almost its converse, with a crisp, crunchy texture and tiny fresh whole shrimp over the top. Notwithstanding the morphed textures, the flavors here were not so distant from a traditional tortilla de gambas (and a good one at that). After eating these, we were given planks of sugarcane which we were told to bite down upon - expecting sweet sugar, we were instead met with the floral-spicy bite of ginger, with which the sugarcane had been infused (earlier iterations of this season's menu have featured caipirinha-infused sugarcane).

ficoide glaciale, honey ice rocks
This item reflected one of the recurring thematic components of our meal: ice, in various forms. These were like small molded "snow-cones," one set with a sprig of ficoide glaciale (or ice plant) stuck within, the others infused throughout lightly with honey. Is there a word for a culinary play on words? Because that's what sticking ice plant into an ice ball would certainly be. Ironically, however, I found that the ice actually inhibited rather than enhanced the curious effect of the ficoide glaciale, which can offer a crunchy, slightly sour sensation that I've previously compared to a spray of cool water. Collectively, the ice, honey and ice plant seemed to provide a kind "palate reset" similar to that intended by the Nitro-Poached Green Tea and Lime Mousse served as an amuse bouche at Heston Blumenthal's restaurant, The Fat Duck.

coconut sponge
Another recurring ingredient: coconut. Four dishes of the 40+ we were served featured coconut in more or less prominent forms. Unlike, say, Thomas Keller, whose tasting menus at The French Laundry and Per Se aim to not duplicate any ingredients over their multiple courses, the elBulli menu seems to have motifs that weave their way throughout the meal, though not in any linear fashion. Why coconut? I don't know. Coconut is a curious thing, both in flavor and texture; perhaps that is answer enough. This sponge-cake, served on a piece of parchment so it could be picked up without disintegrating, seemed too big a piece to eat in one bite, but it was so fragile that it offered pretty much no other choice. It almost immediately melted down to nothing in the mouth, leaving just the pure taste of fresh coconut.[7]

roses with ham won-ton
This next dish I found fascinating: described as a "won-ton," it actually struck me as more comparable to a xiao long bao or soup dumpling, yet here the wrappers for the dumplings were rose petals, encasing an entirely liquid center of a broth redolent of jamon ibérico.[8] The fragrance of the rose petals was vivid and unmistakable, and curiously, this was one of the few dishes in which aroma played a prominent role. Though I enjoyed it (and was baffled as to how they held together long enough to be warmed and brought to the table), Mrs. F found the floral aroma overpowering.

melon water
The rose-petal "dumplings" were accompanied by a snifter of limpid, pale-yellow "melon water" (I'm guessing made with a gelatin clarification). Again, the aroma here jumped out of the glass, and then the connection was made: ham and melon, a classic pairing on which Adrià has riffed previously.

ham and ginger canapé
As if to stretch the note out for one more bar, another ham dish followed: this canapé of ham and ginger, a glass-like ginger-infused cracker with a bit of fatty, translucent ham perched on top, both with a candied quality to them, melting together to the point that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. And absolutely delicious to boot, one of the most hedonistically pleasurable bites of the meal.

white strawberries with bone marrow
Next, tiny white strawberries were capped with a thin disk of bone marrow and steamed, till the marrow was wilting but not melted. Still another variation on a theme? The steamer-basket presentation echoed the Chinese style of the rose petal "won-tons" almost immediately before, and the pairing of fruit and meat echoed the ham and melon pairing as well. Also: a delicious bite, at least for marrow fiends like myself.

caviar cream with hazelnut caviar
The next course was a great two-note composition. On one side of the plate, a grey caviar cream with faux hazelnut caviar. On the other side, real caviar with a hazelnut cream. It was a visually ugly dish, frankly, all greys and browns and blacks, and the pairing was unlikely. But it tasted genuinely delicious, and the contrast of textures between the faux and real caviars made for a great comparison (and if there's any question: good, real caviar handily wins over the spherified stuff). Another favorite dish for both of us.

boiled prawn

prawns two firings
The English menu listed "boiled prawns," and then "prawns two firings," whereas the Spanish menu out front simply listed "gambas dos cocciones." I'm thinking that the "boiled shrimp" represented the first of the two firings, or cooking methods, of the prawn: the first one boiled[9] and served whole, head-on; the second fried, peeled and beheaded, but still keeping its legs. The first picture above looks almost shockingly clinical, and the presentation was not much less so. But it was a fine specimen, warmed throughout but the flesh still tender and not bouncy, and the head (which I did not need our server's encouragement to suck on, though I was relieved to be given explicit notice that it was socially acceptable to do so) filled with magnificent crustacean juices. The second version was perhaps a bit firmer, but with equally good flavors and the added bonus of the crispy fried legs, reminiscent of the fried shrimp head presented as a special treat when ordering amaebi at the sushi bar - plus a spoonful of a rich elixir from those head juices, capable of being eaten in much less primitive fashion than sucking on the creature's head.[10]

quail with carrot escabeche
The next couse was a play on an old-school Spanish dish, and its presentation seemed like a self-deprecating joke over the whole "food as art" debate. "Codornices en escabeche" is an ancient dish in which quails are soused in a vinegar-based marinade and then stewed with carrots and other vegetables. Here, barely cooked little nubbins of quail meat were presented on a gilded platter shaped like a picture frame, and then literally painted tableside by our server, using a paintbrush, with a carrot escabeche sauce. A toothpick was provided as utensil. They were alternately sprinkled with cumin or pimentón, providing some variety from bite to bite. The presentation could have been over-the-top pretentious if not for the good humor of our server, who, when I commented that she needed a steady hand to do her job, responded that she'd had eight coffees earlier in the day.[11]

parmesan ice cream
Cheese in frozen form made another appearance with this parmesan ice cream, drizzled with modena vinegar and basil, and then sprinkled table-side with freeze-dried strawberries (strawberries, like coconut, made multiple appearances in various forms throughout the dinner). I am usually a big fan of savory ice creams, but as with the couple earlier iterations, I found that the flavor of the cheese in this one was one-dimensional and overpowering.[12]

tomato tartare with frozen cristal
Frozen textures made yet another appearance in the next dish. This tomato tartare mimicked its beefier namesake visually and even texturally (maybe closer to a tuna tartare, actually), and then was topped tableside with flaky shards of ice. It was a very tasty but otherwise unremarkable tomato tartare, and I was frankly skeptical about the the ice shards making much difference. But I was genuinely wowed by their transformative effect. Though tasting of nothing but water with just the barest hint of salt on their own, their addition to the tartare, with a fine crunch that then literally melted away, seemed to stretch and enhance the flavors of the rest of the dish.

pine nuts shabu-shabu
Before this "shabu-shabu" of pine nuts was served, we were first presented with a small metal pot filled with pine needles that had been slathered in honey, and told to pluck one and eat it first. Our palates appropriately primed, we then moved on to the shabu-shabu, which featured three transparent, triangular packages (presented on a plank of pine bark) filled with pine nuts in various textures and formats: one like a nut butter, a second with nuts encased in oil, and a third with a deeper-colored (toasted?) butter or paste. These were then briefly dipped in the warm broth where they further softened before eating. Pleasing, nutty flavors, interesting textures.

endive in papillote 50%

This dish was another of my favorites for flavor, concept and technique. Our server first presented an envelope of charred paper. Then, (using some rather unwieldy long chopsticks/tongs), this was flipped and unfolded, revealing a row of baby endive heads, lined up like sardines, interspersed with walnuts. These were napped with a creamy walnut sauce, then topped with a generous dollop of glistening olive oil caviar. Half the endives were fully tender and entirely cooked through, while the other half were only partially cooked and still retained a bit of snap. Especially at points where the paper had charred, the smoky flavor had permeated its way into the endive, as had the perfume of the bay leaf which had been tucked into the package. The dish did a wonderful job of bringing out multiple flavors and textures from a simple vegetable.

marrow and belly of tuna sushi
The next dish was served on a heated, pedestal-shaped bowl, into which were placed a disk of tuna marrow (extracted from the spine of the fish) and then a slab of tuna belly, which were briefly heated by the warmth of the bowl. I enjoyed the tuna marrow, which was slightly more substantial than beef marrow in texture, more oceanic in flavor, but has a similar lush mouth-feel; the fine tuna belly, though, suffered a bit from the heating. Perhaps we should have eaten it quicker, when it had received only a flash of warmth from the bowl.
Continuing the Japanese motif, our server then began a table-side katsuodashi preparation. First, bowls of kombu (seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried, smoked, shaved bonito) were brought to the table. These were placed in turn into a coffee press-pot with heated water, and allowed to steep while we were served the next course. Now, there's actually a huge amount of investigation and research that's gone into determining the best methods to extract maximum umami in the making of a dashi broth (for just a couple examples, check out "Umami Nation: Kombu Dashi Smackdown" at Cooking Issues, or this less scientific accounting at Japanese Food Report). While I'm no expert myself, I'm dubious that the ideal method is simply squeezing down the kombu and katsuobushi in a press-pot, simultaneously and at the same temperature. This seemed an example of ideal flavor being sacrificed for the novelty of the presentation.

Osaka monkfish liver
As the dashi steeped, another little Japanese-influenced bite was presented, on a wire mesh plate similar to the one that brought the ham and ginger canapé. This was another of the most hedonistically pleasing dishes of the evening: an almost transcluently thin cracker, topped with a thin tranche of ankimo (monkfish liver), with dabs of creamy coconut, jellied ginger, and a bit of wasabi. I'm already a fan of ankimo (often referred to as "foie gras of the seas"), and this was a preparation that elevated an already wonderful product.

Calling the next dish "tiramesu" would seem to signal a shift away from the Japanese theme of the preceding dishes, as well as a transition to the sweet world. Of course, nothing is at it seems at elBulli. Rather, what we had here - I think (this was the only dish where our server did not offer any further explanation) - is a severely deconstructed miso soup: the fluffy mascarpone actually tofu, smears of miso paste standing in for espresso, and a teacup of dashi for the broth (not sure about the ladyfingers). Which made for a great visual play, but not for great eating. The tofu was as bland in flavor and texture as tofu can be; the miso, completely undiluted, was overpoweringly pungent and salty. The dashi, unsurprisingly given the preparation method, was far from the best I've tried. (Should I have poured the teacup of dashi over the tiramesu to reconstruct the soup?)

percebes and sea anemone

small crab anemone
Some magnificent sea creatures inhabited the next dish. Percebes, or goose-neck barnacles (one of the great treats of Spanish seafood exotica), were nestled over some frilly sea anemones, all swimming in a verdant green broth, capped with foam like that rolling off the waves outside (those whose pat rejection of contemporary cooking invariably involves a "foam" joke should note that this was the only iteration of the technique over our 40+ courses). Though I enjoyed this oceanic composition, I felt somewhat deprived of the fun of bursting the percebes out of their little casings, even with the consequent peril of squirting oneself with their juices. The flavors of the sauce were then duplicated, in a different vessel and at a warmer temperature, nestled in the back of a river crab.

clams "ceviche" with kalanchoe cactus
The packaging and appearance of the next item was similar, but the flavor profiles were Latin American. Within a clamshell, little nubs of clam floated in an herbacious, frothy green pool with hints of lime, chile and cilantro. Alongside was a leaf of kalanchoe cactus, and nestled within it was some slushy ice. The kalanchoe had a nice crunch (like barely blanched zucchini) and a subtle vegetal flavor.[13]

"ceviche" and clams cocktail
Oaxaca "taco"
The ceviche flavors were echoed in a "cocktail" using the same elements, presented in a salt-rimmed glass like a margarita. The conversion of a ceviche to a cocktail would seem a reference to the soupy "vuelve la vida" style of ceviche found in Mexcio and throughout Latin America. Continuing the theme, the next arrival, the Oaxaca "taco," had a golden corn-colored (and flavored?), fuzzy, friable wrapper enrobing slices of avocado and I'm not sure what else. This was another great texture, almost crystalline, and by this point I had given up any hope of even hazarding guesses at how it was accomplished.

corn balls with tucupi and coconut
The next dish stayed with the Latin American motif and looked to Brazil for inspiration, with three "corn balls" (mounds of rubbery little nubbins with a faint corn taste) in a broth of tucupi, which is a sauce extracted from manioc (cassava) root, along with squares of coconut tofu. Other than the coconut tofu, however, it just didn't taste like much and the texture of the little corn nubbins was unappealing.

"gazpacho" and "ajo blanco"
Things made a triumphant return to Spain with this next dish, a combination of two classic soups, gazpacho and ajo blanco. The ajo blanco took the form of a lightly creamy but richly flavored broth at the base of the bowl, while the shaved ice that topped it was the gazpacho, with both given a tableside drizzle of olive oil. Great flavors and lovely refreshing textures. Also amusing was that because of the extremely shallow bowls, it was impossible to eat this without scraping your spoon along the bottom of the bowl - a sound that could be heard throughout the restaurant as this course hit each table.

sea cucumbers sashimi with kalix
We seemed to run into sea cucumbers, or espardenyes, everywhere on this Spain trip, including elBulli. These were the only ones we had sashimi style (and when I see "we," I mean "me" - Mrs. F is not a fan), where they have a tender, slippery texture. I believe these had been marinated in yuzu, whose flowery citrus notes I detected, and then topped with kalix caviar, a special fish roe that comes from only one particular spot in Sweden. The kalix caviar - with a texture somewhat similar to mentaiko, or pollack roe, but with more distinct eggs and a pleasingly prounounced briney minerality - complimented the more subtle espardenyes and the citric punch of their marinade.

chicken nem - Thai
This transparent, lightly crunchy wrapper encasing chicken, herbs, greens, chiles and other Thai flavors tasted just like a nice, fresh summer roll.

hare macaron

hot strawberries with hare soup
Not listed on the English menu at all, this was described as a "macaron de caza" (macaron of the hunt?) on the Spanish menu. The filling's pleasingly rich, iron-y bite strongly suggested the liver (and perhaps other offal) of the hare[14] whose broth contributed to the next course, "hot strawberries with hare soup." The strawberries (their fourth appearance on the menu), warmed in the dark broth, quickly collapsed on themselves, though their tartness overwhelmed rather than complimented the savory broth.

coconut shoot with tomato
And another appearance for coconut as well, this time as little, crisp balls along with some peeled cherry tomatoes. Though coconuts can indeed have shoots (like bamboo), I think the menu description may have been a misspelling, and that this intended to refer to "shot" (as in birdshot), which is how our server said it. I didn't particularly find that the tomato or the coconut did much for each other, and found the tomatoes more sour than sweet (tartness being another recurring motif in our meal).

grilled lulo
Speaking of tart - this grilled lulo (a South American member of the nightshade family, with a flavor reminiscent to me of passion fruit) was puckeringly sour. Though the interplay of fruit and smoke could have been an interesting one as we made the transition into desserts, particularly with the addition of a whiskey-infused whipped cream, the sourness simply overwhelmed here.

This next dish started as a glass bowl that was covered only with a fine sheet of ice. The server then sprinkled the ice with crystallized brown sugar and mint-infused matcha green tea powder. The diner is then invited to use a spoon to break through the "pond" and shatter the ice into shards intermixed with the other flavors. This was an extreme dose of clean, bright, cool flavors, with a sensation chewing gum or toothpaste producers would envy - more of a palate-cleanser than a dessert.

sugar cube with tea and lime
The server next brought a box with sugar cubes in it, though of course, nothing is quite what it seems. These "sugar cubes" were in fact yet another form of ice, in small soft flakes that had been compacted together, and which were drizzled tableside with a tea and lime gel.

cristal "coca"
These cystalline, transparent cookies had a wonderful, crispy crackly crunch, and were flavored purely of sweetness combined with the pine nuts studded throughout.

sake snow ball with green tea and yuzu
In something of a reiteration of the "pond" flavors, this dessert included sake "snow balls," green tea powder, mint leaves in varous stages of candying, and as an additional note, yuzu, both its rind and segments of the fresh fruit. Though the rind of the yuzu (presumably somewhat candied as well) holds much of its lovely perfume and oils, the flesh itself has an eye-popping acidity that was out of whack with the rest of this dish. The other flavors - mint, green tea, sake - were less pronounced than they were in the "pond," but again the effect was more of a palate cleanser than a traditional dessert.

We were invited to finish our meal on the terrace where it began, with "the box," an incredible assembly of chocolates and other mignardises (which Chef Adrià also refers to as "morphings"), where we settled in with glasses of Bodegas Tradición Pedro Ximenez sherry in tow. They like to keep the flavors of these as surprises, so I won't disclose much other than to say that if you have the good fortune to go, look for the chocolates with soy. And with that, around midnight, with the sounds of the surf rolling in below us, our adventure was concluded.

So, having come full circle, let's return to the question I started with: how does one evaluate a meal like this? It is a complicated question for me for this reason: while it was undoubtedly one of the most thought-provoking and interesting meals I've ever had, it was, frankly, far from the most delicious. "Delicious" is a word that is derided among food writers for lacking any real meaning - and when used as just a generic positive descriptor without any further detail, that criticism is fair. Yet it clearly means something.

There was not a single course out of the 40+ we were served that was boring, that didn't provoke some reaction. For any chef or curious diner, it would serve as a springboard for literally hundreds of new ideas for things that can be done with food, plus wonderment in many cases as to how they were done. Indeed, the surrealist analogy I posed at the start is really not so far off base: elBulli's food is something of an alternate reality, one whose textures, temperatures and appearances subvert expectations, whose combinations and juxtapositions refuse to obey the logic of culinary traditions even as they occasionally reference them or toy with them. But for the most part, dishes were interesting for their textures, or for their concepts, moreso than for their flavors: the frozen/liquid strawberry that started our meal, the mojito "sandwich," the parmesan "macaron," the coconut sponge, the repeated use of ice in various forms, and several others triggered fascination, but the number of dishes that I actually hanker to eat again now would be a shorter list.[15]

Does that matter? Perhaps to some more than to others, but it is not a sympton of culinary Luddism to think so. In his most recent review (a four-star for Del Posto), Sam Sifton said:

And of course an extraordinary restaurant serves food that leads to gasps and laughter, to serious discussion and demands for more of that, please, now. The point of fine dining is intense pleasure. For the customer, at any rate, an extraordinary restaurant should never be work.
In fact, Mrs. F and I had a pretty heated argument on this very point, on that terrace as we finished our meal. Her position was pretty much identical to Sifton's: that dining is pleasure, and a meal that doesn't focus on delivering pleasure above all is a failure. To which I responded that if we can make the leap from "food as sustenance" to "food as pleasure," then why can't we make the further leap to "food as entertainment" or, indeed, "food as art"?[16] Can't a meal engage the diner intellectually as well as hedonistically? It can, and it did. But the level of satisfaction that provides depends much on the diner. This was a meal that led to gasps and laughter, and to serious discussion; but not so many demands for "more of that, please, now." To put it another way: I would happily go back to Etxebarri and eat the exact same meal we had a few weeks ago; if I were to return to elBulli, having the exact same meal would invariably be something of a letdown, though experiencing a new menu would probably be an equally exciting experience for me.

One more general thought. I had already heard and read so much about elBulli that my capacity to be surprised by the experience had perhaps been somewhat diminished as a result. Nonetheless, one of the things that did surprise was the minimalist approach that prevailed throughout almost all of the courses of our menu. In contrast to, say, the astonishing multiplicity of ingredients in dishes like the "chestnut with too many garnishes to list" done by Grant Achatz at Alinea, the overwhelming majority of the dishes on our menu at elBulli featured only two or three predominant flavors. Indeed, at some points the meal treaded remarkably close to "figs on a plate" territory, with the two prawn preparations, involving nothing other than the crustacean itself, being the best example. This is neither good nor bad, just curious.[17]

Dining at elBulli is an experience like no other, one I feel tremendously fortunate to have had. The place is a culinary idea factory, the legacy of which is incredibly broad. But unlike those who mourn the announced closing of the restaurant, or alternatively those who see it as a harbinger of the decline of "modern cooking," I actually look forward to the next phase, to the exclusive dedication of its resources as a think tank for gastronomic creativity. Ferran Adrià is, after all, someone who has lived by the maxim "Creativity means not copying." Which to me raises another question: can creativity be taught? It will be a fascinating experiment.

Cala Montjoi Ap. 30
Roses, Spain
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[1]There are so many intriguing details which I'd read of, in the books, articles and blogs, and finally got to observe first hand: the white-knuckle drive out there, the fifty cooks and fifty servers on hand to serve a total of fifty diners, the contrast between the hyper-modern food and the old-fashioned venue.

[2]A fascinating book which, in the course of recapping a "24"-like glimpse into the inner workings of the restaurant over a one-day period, provides much insight into the creative processes behind the restaurant as well.

[3]Some may find irony in this statement in light of the more recently announced news that elBulli will be closing as a restaurant after next season. I suspect that the commitment to creativity and the closing of the restaurant are in fact not mutually exclusive. In light of Adrià's comments about using elBulli as a foundation or "think tank," I actually believe the next step will involve an even greater focus on the creative exploration that has been the restaurant's hallmark, freed from the burdens of actually running a restaurant.

[4]As if I were not star-struck enough already, Chef Adrià has a particularly piercing intensity to his presence. I think I said something really smart, though, like "Ghaaa...."

[5]Here I should confess that despite being a near-complete omnivore - there is pretty much nothing I refuse to eat - I'm just not that big a fan of most blue cheeses. In saying this, I feel a bit like Nigel Powers: "There are only two things I can't stand in this world: people who are intolerant of other people's cultures ... and the Dutch."

[6]The prospect of successfully pairing one wine, or even several, with roughly 40 wildly divergent courses is a fool's errand, and I immediately abandoned any notion of doing so. Rather, we simply looked for something we wanted to drink, and happily settled on a 1999 Numanthia from the Toro region of Spain.

[7]I think it was at exactly this point in the meal when Mrs. F asked "When are we going to get some ... you know ... food?" Which, as I'll expand upon later, is a perfectly fair question.

[8]I am reasonably certain Chef Adrià was not using Arrested Development's Lindsay Bluth Fünke's "Hot Ham Water" recipe.

[9]Actually I'm a bit dubious that "boiled" is an accurate description of the cooking method. They were perfectly warmed throughout but not at all overcooked, and I suspect that some more delicate heat than a full-on 100°C boiling, either through immersion circulation or a steam oven, was applied.

[10]Though I do need to note here that these were not the finest gambas we had on this trip, and we had many gambas indeed. That honor goes to the fantastic Gambas de Palamós a la Brasa we had at Asador Etxebarri a few days earlier.

[11]This has to be one of the most challenging restaurants for waitstaff in the world. The fact that there are 40+ courses is just the starting point. Many of those courses are phenomenally temperature-sensitive or incredibly fragile and have to move from kitchen to table immediately. A number of the dishes involved last-minute tableside additions. Add on top of that the need to explain each of the dishes (in multiple languages, though I assume they attempt to calibrate the service staff to the languages of the diners), respond to questions from inquisitive and sometimes suspicious diners, try to help diners feel comfortable and at ease even as their expectations are constantly being challenged, and perform all this high theater without coming off as snooty or ridiculous ... it is a performance that in many ways rival's the kitchen's for degree of difficulty. I recall thinking at the time that while there must be tremendous turnover in the kitchen at elBulli, judging by the number of cooks who have staged there for a season, the waitstaff must be a more veteran crew.

[12]This dish reminded me of a sweet caprese that local pastry chef Fabian di Paolo prepared at a dinner a couple years ago with goat cheese ice cream, tomato marmalade, micro basil and a chocolate balsamic sauce (the same dinner, incidentally, which inspired the comment I quoted earlier at the start of this post). I'm going to sound like the ultimate homer when I say this, but I thought that was a much more successful dish.

[13]Should I be concerned that the Wikipedia entry for kalanchoe says that several varieties are toxic and can cause cardiac poisoning? Consistent with the "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" school of thought, it apparently also is commonly used in traditional medicines as well.

[14]One of the tenets underlying Chef Adrià's culinary approach is to operate lower on the food chain, and other than the couple earlier dishes that used pork, this was the only appearance of a mammal on the menu. As he puts it in his "Synthesis of elBulli Cuisine" (a manifesto of sorts which helps explain much of his approach to food): "Preference is given to vegetables and seafood, with a key role also being played by dairy products, nuts and other products that make up a light form of cooking. In recent years red meat and large cuts of poultry have been very sparingly used."

[15]That list? The hibiscus and peanut; the shrimp tortillitas; the rose and ham wontons with the melon water; the ham and ginger canapé; the marrow and strawberries; the hazelnut and caviar; the prawns; the tomato tartare; the endive in papillote; the ankimo cracker; the Oaxaca taco; the ajo blanco and gazpacho; the sea cucumbers; the hare macaron.

[16]Certainly not a novel idea; perhaps credit is due here to the Futurist Cookbook published by F.T. Marinetti in 1932, even though Adrià has said that he formulated elBulli's "culinary language" before he was ever familiar with the book. And indeed, there is an entire book which explores the question of elBulli's food as art, the title of which I certainly appreciate: "Food for Thought: Thought for Food."

[17]It shouldn't really surprise that Adrià would not shy away from highlighting a high quality product. This is, after all, someone who has wisely said that a good sardine is always better than a mediocre lobster.


  1. I can only assume that the method of preparation for the corn balls involved the use of The Cornballer ( Presumably two Arrested Development references in one write-up would have been overkill, however.

  2. Great call. But my approach to YouTube clips is more Keller than Adria. Only one from a particular source in each post.

  3. DUDE!!!

    That was an epic post! I need a nap after reading that and I'm sure you probably dozed off once or twice writing it. Phenomenal recap and thanks for sharing. I'd always wondered what El Bulli was like and if you were allowed to even take pics there. Did you feel like a dork doing so?

    Awesome post, man. Stuff like this is why blogs rule.

  4. I always feel like a dork taking pictures. But it was very common in the higher end restaurants we went to in Spain. At Arzak, practically every table had someone taking pictures. Toughest part at elBulli is that the courses come out you so fast and furious, and some are so delicate, that it's difficult to keep up.

  5. Bravo! Great post, Frod, very thoughtful and detailed. Thanks for doing it!

  6. I used to frequent El Bulli in the days when there was not even a road to go there. There was a dirt track above the hills of Rosas, or you could drive into the cove by boat.

    It's interesting to hear someone today have exactly the same impressions as I had all those years ago have the same impressions as I had.

    Our likes and dislikes of food are not all that different from that of people. Just as you like every person for a different set of reasons, you like different cooks for different reasons.

    Adria can be likened to Picasso. He wasn't afraid to break down the walls and explore what was out there. Some people appreciate that, some people don't. I for one do

    He opened my eyes and my taste buds to a world I'd never known. Eating there the first time was rather like going snorkeling in the Red Sea for the first time. I never knew a whole 'nother world like that could exist. I felt like I'd been walking around with blinders for most of my life.

  7. 1 - i thought i used a lot of footnotes!

    2 - extra credit for mentioning the Futurist cookbook and

    3 - i agree completely w/ you on this point: "To which I responded that if we can make the leap from "food as sustenance" to "food as pleasure," then why can't we make the further leap to "food as entertainment" or, indeed, "food as art"?

  8. At last, done with your Sisyphean task. A very nice tour of that particular gastronomic landscape. The deeper philosphical question about the pleasure value of food is much like any such question in aesthetic theory: potentially lacking anything more coherent and defensible than a purely subjective answer.

  9. I've wanted to go to El Bulli since I first heard of it -- now I feel like I did. This is best accounting of a diner's experience I've ever read. Thanks for sharing it.

  10. A great review of your experience at El Bulli. I dined there on 16 October 2010. My menu was similar, but with less asian influences. How wonderful to dine on the patio for the "cocktails" and "box." It was too cold for dining al fresco, although after dinner, I did see many diners having cigars on the patio.

    I wrote about my experience here on my blog,
    My pictures aren't that great, but gives the general idea, if you are interested in seeing the menu changes.

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