It's an understatement to say that getting a reservation at El Bulli is difficult. During the two and a half years that I lived in Paris, I emailed the restaurant on a nearly weekly basis during season asking for last-minute openings. And everytime I received the same semi-automated reply: No. When I learned of the restaurant's closing in 2011, I became even more anxious. Unfortunately, all I could do was pray. Counterintuitively, I decided this year to pick a specific date and time, instead of indicating my open availability for the entire season. Since El Bulli does their scheduling all by hand, this specificity actually may have facilitated my acceptance. Then one early morning in March, I received a pleasant surprise from the dining room manager:
We apologize for being late giving you an answer. The demand has been extraordinary and [it] is difficult to go on with the management. We have found a solution and If you wish we have a reservation option for you.
The date I was assigned would be nearly a year in the future. But the clouds parted, and I was officially etched into the book of heaven. Now I just had to figure out how to get there.
When we finally arrived, nearly a year later, the restaurant was not what I expected. It was calm, tranquil -- even rustic, for a place thought to be at the forefront of international molecular gastronomy. We walked through the garden and into the restaurant, where we were greeted by name. Was it that obvious? Perhaps. We wore suits and dresses while the other diners wore jeans and t-shirts. We were the only foreigners. My friend joked, "I bet these guys called and made the reservation the night before," referring to the restaurant's policy to allocate only 25% of available tables to first-time foreigners. We laughed.
Our meal started with a walk through the kitchen to say hello to chef Ferran Adrià and his team, noting the ordered chaos with which the kitchen operated. The clanking of pots and pans filled the air, but nobody shouted. The atmosphere was one of calculation and precision. After a brief conversation about the future plans of the restaurant, to which I really didn't get a clear answer, we took a few pictures and headed into the dining room.
Nervous, we started with a glass of local Cava to settle-in. Snacks were quickly on their way.
Agusti Torelio Mata, Gran Reserva 2006 - a sparkling wine from Catalonia with hints of citrus and stone fruits. Very light and refreshing.
Strawberry - frozen whole "strawberries" soaked in bitter Campari. The resemblance to the real fruit was remarkable, each seed perfectly etched. Tasted like a fresh ice pop with no additional sugar. Campari was bitter. When we bit into this, it didnt squeak like frozen ice, rather it fell apart like cold sand.
Mojito and Apple Flute - this was a four bite sandwich. It was incredibly light and delicate. It was difficult to pick up without breaking the sandwich. Again very light with the sweetness. It was indistinguishable from a fresh mojito once the flavors mixed in my mouth. I really liked this.
Almond-fizz with Amarena-LYO - almond foam with dehydrated raspberry. Again, no additional sugar in this dish. Chef Adrià was not pandering to anyone's palate. Instead, he tried to, as accurately as possible replicate the flavor of almond in an airy liquid form. This is nothing like the almond milk found in Italian espresso bars with five generous helpings of sugar. This was more subtle, like chewing on a whipped handful of raw almonds. There was even a slightly chlorinated flavor, likely from the acidulation of the foam from added carbon dioxide. It wasn't unpleasant, but it was noticeable.
Gorgonzola Globe - a hollow soccer-ball sized sphere of pure gorgonzola cheese, sprinkled with grated hazelnuts. Our waitress cracked the sphere with a spoon to get us started, and we continued breaking off pieces to eat. The cheese was frozen solid. In our mouths, it melted into a cheesy slush. The mixture of ice crystals and pungent cheese was interesting, but the portioning was tremendous, making this difficult to finish. Four bites was more than enough.
Nori seaweed with lemon - empanaditas of nori filled with lemon wedges. While not sweetened, there was a welcome sourness due to the lemon. Very acidic, in a good way. The salty seaweed actually made the citrus fruit sweeter, and added an overall crunchy texture. This was much better than I thought.
Parmesan "Macaron" - formed in the shape of macarons like little fluffy sandwiches. Tasted a bit like diluted Parmesan cheese. I didn't care much for these, as my favorite part of Parmesan cheese is the salty crystalized center that forms as the cheese ages. This had a texture and flavor that was not appealing.
Hibiscus and Peanut - hibiscus wrapper filled with pine nut butter. The butter was dry and chunky, similar to fresh Whole Foods ground peanut butter. The hibiscus wrapper added a slight astringency and cracked into each bite, adding textural contrast.
Hazelnut-raspberries - this tasted more like chocolate covered hazelnut butter - This was a "glorified Rocher," as my friend put it. Nothing wrong with that. The chocolate and hazelnut chunks added texture to the smooth butter. The only thing missing was more.
Grated macadamia - made out of 100% pure macadamia nuts. The nuts were sliced thin and layered to form the thin and crunchy base. One half was topped with raw macadamia nuts and the other was topped with toasted macadamia nuts. The concept of this was awesome. In your mouth it tasted like a handful of Mauna Loa nuts. On the plate, it looked like a work of art.
Dried shrimp omelette - a pancake crafted from pure shrimps and their shells. Whole dried small shrimp, which are frequently added to Southeast Asian dishes, were scattered on top. My Sichuanese friend's mother used to keep a bag of dried shrimp in the refrigerator at all times. The smell still haunts me. These were odorless, and despite being aged, tasted fresh with little salting. The contrast of the slightly salty shrimp with the lightly sweetened pancake was a delicate balance of flavors that I loved.
Fresh shrimp omelette - a thin waffle-textured tuile topped with fresh small shrimp. The shells on these shrimp were so thin that the entire animal could be eaten in one bite. I know that sounds barbaric, but it sure tasted fantastic. The shrimp were fresh and sweet, the tuile lightly salted. This was a play on opposites from the previous course, where the shrimp were lightly salted and the pancake sweet. Ferran was showing that the flavor of shrimp can go both sweet and salty. With this course, everyone at the table closed their eyes in enjoyment.
Sugar cane - sugar cane soaked in raw ginger and speckled with salt. This tasted absolutely nothing like sugar cane. It wasn't even sweet! In fact, the raw ginger made this spicy, activating a part of our palates that had not yet been touched. The sugar cane added a hint of caramel, and was really only used as a sponge-like vehicle for the ginger. This was very refreshing and stimulating for my mouth.
Coconut Sponge-cake - a two-bite sized weightless cloud of coconut foam. Again, this was not sweetened and did not taste like the dried coconut I sometimes sprinkle on the top of my vanilla ice cream. It tasted like a bite of fresh coconut, even leaving behind the same coconut oil mouthfeel. This was neither good nor bad -- sort of neutral -- but a very unique way to play with this flavor only found in pieces of the whole fruit.
Pork and ginger canape - while this dish was called pork and Ginger, there was no meat here. Pure and shiny pig fat. The lard added a tremendous smoky flavor. And when contrasted against the crispy chip, a petrified solid shaving of Ginger, it tasted sweet, salty, and spicy all at once; three contrasting flavors that formed a cohesive flavor around the pork.
Caviar cream with hazelnut caviar - at first this dish looks like two types of caviar. But things are not what they seem. In fact, by looking at the picture, it's nearly impossible to guess which is the Serguva caviar and which is the spherified hazelnut beads. Heck, even with the dish in front of me I had no idea. Turned out the golden beads were the caviar, and the silver the hazelnut. The artificial caviar looked more realistic than the real one. To add to the complexity, the caviar was served atop a hazelnut cream, and the hazelnut beads atop a caviar cream. This dish was incredible, each bite a different combination of brine and earth.
Bone marrow and oysters royale - a wedge of bone marrow served with briny oysters. The oysters added a mineral element to the bone marrow, almost like smelling a copper penny. It was this combination that, ironically, made the bone marrow taste more like a land animal. This was Ferran's oysters and pearls.
Boiled langoustine - a simple langoustine thrown on the plancha for a few seconds at most. It was sweet and tasted like lobster. Sometimes fresh ingredients need nothing more than a second serving. This was a nice reminder of where we were: sitting atop a hill in a small seaside town, overlooking the sunny Mediterranean.
Prawn two firings - a local shrimp lightly fried and partly peeled, with the head and contents turned into a soup. Our waitress recommended that we drink the concdntrated soup first to accentuate the flavor of the shrimp. The consommé was salty, the shrimp was sweet, and the combination once again played off each other bringing out the other ingredient's best flavors. The sweet shrimp made the soup taste like shrimp brain -- one of my favorite flavors -- while the soup highlighted the sweetness of the raw shrimp. The legs of the shrimp were left on and remained lightly breaded to add textural contrast.
Quails with carrot "escabeche" - very rare slices of pigeon painted with jus. One slice was garnished with piment d'espelette, and the other with what seemed like tarragon. The pigeon was so lightly cooked that the interior was essentially raw; I'd guess no more than a few seconds on the grill. This made the pigeon snip in my mouth with each bite. The quality of this meat was phenomenal.
Parmesan ice cream with modena, basil, and strawberry-LYO - parmesan foam with dehydrated strawberries and matcha tea - this wad really the only dish I didn't like at all. The mouse tasted like diluted Parmesan cheese without the salt, and the addition of green tea really didn't add anything to the dish. This just seemed kind of random.
Tomato tartar and frozen crystal - very difficult to distinguish the texture of this tomato from real tuna. The tomatoes were skinless which was the secret to mimicking the textures. The thick sauce added a bit of coherency making this convincingly taste like a fish. Shattered ice crystals sat on top, futher stimulating all the senses associated with fresh seafood. This was delicious.
Pine - lightly sugared pine needles. Apparently not all of these were edible, and with a keen eye and subtle power of suggestion, our waitress made sure we picked the right ones. A lot of the harsh sappy flavor was taken out during the blanching, leaving behind a sweetness I'd never tasted before. It tasted like the smell of pine. The concept was great, reminiscent of hiking through the woods and pulling off pine needles.
Endive in papillote 50% - much of the endive's bitterness was removed during the cooking process. This was served in a paper bag. The boiled walnuts were incredibly brittle and added crunch to the smooth endives. This was garnished with olive oil caviar.
Pinenuts shabu-shabu - three variations of pine nuts were placed in edible bags. We were asked to dip the bag in a konbu broth for two seconds before eating. I thought this was not only delicious, but a brilliant use of a french press to make dashi. The flavor profile of this dish was straight from Japan: not sweet, clear and pure, and slightly fishy. The wetness of the dashi broth began melting the soybean satchels, so the pine nut liquid poured into our mouths.
Marrow and belly of tuna sashimi - a thin slice of medium fatty tunna atop a slice of gelatinatinous tuna medula. It was interesting how this relatively lean slice of tuna became more like fatty toro when eaten in one bite with tuna medula. I really liked the simplicity of this course, and the dollop of fresh wasabi and soy sauce made this taste like a prime slice of fatty tuna sashimi. It complimented the dashi broth and furthered the Japanese experience.
Tiramisu - a deconstructed miso soup with whipped tofu and smears of miso paste garnishing the plate. This indicated the end of our brief trip to Japan. The miso paste was sour and salty causing us to pucker our mouthes. But when eaten in combination with the relatively mild tofu, the combination was balanced. I thought this dish was missing something, as the only dominate flavor was one I did not like: sour miso.
Clams "ceviche" and kalanchoe cactus - fresh, bright, and sweet. Garnished with a dehydrated cactus leaf. The leaf was bright and astringent, but I didn't really understand how it fit in with the clam. They were both individually tasty.
Sea Anemone with barnacles - this dish tasted like liking the pillars of a saltwater dock. I loved it! It was extremely fresh and intensely briny with no minerality. The goose-neck barnacles had a texture like squid. My girlfriend didn't care for this dish, saying it tasted too fishy, which she associates with not fresh. I quickly helped her out. That's precisely why I liked this dish. It brought me back to swimming in the ocean as a child, and accidentally swallowing a little saltwater. The creamy shrimp brain sauce brought everything together.
Small crab anemone - a hollowed out crab filled with crab brain soup. We drank this directly from the shell. It tasted like liquified shrimp heads. I'd never drank from a crab before, so to speak.
"Ceviche" and clams cocktail - oyster and clam juice in a martini glass, with lime and grapefruit. This was nearly indistinguishable from Baja Mexico's "campechanas," a mix of the freshest shellfish in a glass with some lime for acidity. It also happens to be one of my favorite flavors when exceptionally fresh as it was here. It's part salty, part briny, with a hint of ocean and no sweetness. This was really reminiscent of Mexico.
Oaxaca "taco" - corn tortilla filled with avocado, grapefruit, and greens. The paper-thin sweet corn wrap with creamy avocado chunks blended in harmony. This was the first grease-free taco I'd ever had. This may have been my favorite course of the afternoon in terms of flavor.
Roses / Artichoke - edible yellow rose petals cooked to emulate artichoke leaves. The sauce was an artichoke reduction. When I asked why the silver, our waitress told us that Ferran's grandmother used to serve beautiful artichokes on her silver dishes, and once in a while shavings of silver would end up in the food. So for him, this was particularly nostalgic. This confirmed that every addition to the plate was carefully calculated. This really tasted like artichoke.
"Gazpacho" and "ajo blanco" - iced tomato shavings atop a thin layer of white garlic cream. This tasted identical to gazpacho, with a texture like snow. The strength of the garlic was toned down by the temperature, which highlighted the water content of the tomato making it taste really earthy, instead of sweet.
Blackberry risotto - thanksgiving on a plate. Except here the meat came from the sauce, and the main texture from the cranberry purée. This tasted like a fine piece of succulent turkey with a generous helping of gravy and cranberry sauce. Each bite revealed more of a gold plate beneath, contrasting beautifully against the red cranberry. Absolutely delicious.
Turtledove - slices of hare with hazelnut sauces. This dish was straight forward, the succulent meat cooked just a bit more than rare. The dish came with a bag of toasted cardamom, a warm winter scent reminiscent of sitting next to a wood-burning fireplace.
Game meat macaron - not a real macaron, this was lightly and fluffy with creamy liver inside. It was lightly dressed with aged balsamic vinegar, very similar to the specials edition macarons Pierre Herém released during Christmas 2008. The beet juice looked like blood, but aside from staining the glass, didn't really taste or add anything intellectual to the dish.
Hare loin - tender hare medallions topped with a hazelnut reduction and thin strips of what appeared to be fat. This dish was not for the faint of heart as it came with a glass of "blood."
Blood - a small glass of beet juice and ginger to remind us that we are indeed omnivores. The raw ginger added a hint of spice. This must be what vampires feel.
Fraises des bois in hare soup - the astringency of the strawberries cut through the fatty but thin broth. This dish was not what I expected. The strawberries were not sweet. They appeared to have been blanched thus removing much of the sugars. I didn't really like this dish, I think mostly because my expectations were so different from the actual flavor.
Mimetic chestnuts and marron glacé - mimetic chestnuts and real chestnuts, both were candied. It was truly amazing how similar the flavors were. The mimetic chestnuts had a liquid center, which gave them away quickly. But texture aside, they were almost identical.
Pond - a crystal-clear layer of mint flavored ice with match tea and brown sugar atop. This was perhaps the most creative course of the night. Its concept was both functional, and cool. Our waitress instructed us to break the ice, and hold the dish with our two hands close to our face while eating it. My girlfriend thought this was glass and double-checked if it was ok: that's how clear the ice layer was. This was a beautiful concept, cool and fresh. Really not that sweet, the flavors were intense and true. Holding it near my face felt like a cool gust of arctic air. It really felt refreshing.
Grilled lulo - a sweet variety tomato, similar to a tomatillo. I wasn't really sure if this was a fruit or a vegetable. It was sweet and acidic. The fresh cream helped to temper the acidic sourness. Overall this was a very balanced dish. We were served a separate plate with some of the skin grilled with sea salt.
Sugar cube with lime - another play on two ingredients. The lime flavor was actually the sugar cube, and the pipette the sugar. Cool concept.
Crystal "cocoa" - sweet crisps of razor-thin sugar speckled with toasted pine nuts. This was crispy and sweet. It almost felt like I was eating an icicle at room temperature.
Apple rose - a beautiful rose made from apple skins. This was different from Alain Passard's "rosette" which is a collection of smaller red apples wrapped to form roses. In contrast, this was a single large rose with green apple and gorgeous edible marbles of basil. Again, only lightly sweetened with lime for a touch of acidity.
Chocolates - this was without a doubt the best tasting box of chocolates I have ever had. I am not kidding when I say that this box was empty. The box had yogurt covered dehydrated strawberries, chocolate-covered gooseberries, chocolate-covered mandarin wedges, strawberry dusted chocolate "corals," and a tremendous variety of other bite-sized pieces.
We took this box outside onto the terrace with us, where we relaxed in the late afternoon sun, finished our drinks, and spoke for hours.
This was the most fun I have ever had at a restaurant. It is also the most intellectually stimulating meal I've ever had. Each course forced me to think about what I was eating, and presented the food I was used to in a new light, making me re-evaluate how I typically tasted it. That was an amazing experience. Was every course absolutely delicious? No. But most of them were, and with 46-courses there are bound to be some that I didn't like. Many of the dishes that I didn't like, others at my table did, and vice-versa.
I really only have one complaint about the meal, and it is that there was no apparent cohesion between the dishes. The progression jumped back and forth between fish, and meat, and vegetables, and sweet courses. It was almost like a collection of individual dishes, rather than a meal linked by a common concept. It would have been nice if the meal told a story, like at Quique DaCosta. But I suppose that is how Chef Adrià operates, his thoughts racing through his genius mind, his hands the slow mediator between concept and plate.
What is also striking to me is the sheer number of unique dishes Chef Adrià prepared. When I discussed my meal with friends who had been there, we had no overlapping courses. This explains why the restaurant is closed for nearly six months every year: research. Every season the restaurant invents a completely new menu. That means that visiting El Bulli more than once a year really serves little purpose, not that a reservation more than once in a lifetime is possible.
I really hope that I have an opporunity to experience more of Chef Adrià's cuisine. El Bulli announced that it is closing in 2011, so a return visit is unlikely. But I am hopeful that Chef Adrià can use his upcoming respite to share his knowledge with aspiring chefs, infecting the culinary world with a creativity and artistry that can propel the next decade of culinary adventures.