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. 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" it is explained:
Creativity is what keeps elBulli open. 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, 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":