One of the most difficult reservations to get is a table at El Bulli. So what was I doing trying to get a reservation for twenty people? It’s a bit crazy don’t you think. But when you run a dining forum discussion group, and twenty members or more express interest in going to the restaurant, you do the best you can. And so it was that many, many months ago I started an email campaign to try and get a table at the restaurant. The first thing that happened was that my table for twenty got whittled down to a table for eight. Then the restaurant and I played a game of musical chairs regarding the date. But somewhere on the fifth or sixth try, it finally worked, and one morning I woke up to find the following in my inbox:
I am sorry for the delay. We are overwhelmed and without options to grant most requests for reservations. We are doing our best to try and move things around so we can accommodate as many people as possible, and we have found an option that satisfies your request.
With pleasure, I confirm your dinner reservation for April 30th for 8 people at 7:30-8:00 p.m. under the name Steven Plotnicki. I ask you to confirm your reservation a week in advance and to give us a contact telephone number.
Note: Ferran Adria will prepare for you a personalized tasting menu. It is important to know if there are allergies or products people do not eat so we can make sure we don't serve them.
The drive to El Bulli from the small seaside resort town of Roses is truly arduous. As if the process of getting a reservation and waiting months for the date to arrive doesn’t create enough anticipation, the drive to the area they call Montjul where the restaurant is located is along a mountain road with hairpin turns and no railings to protect the taxi from falling off the edge. But after a ride that seems to take forever, you finally descend back to sea level and are greeted by what is by then a truly welcoming sign.
El Bulli doesn’t look very different from other handsome, modern Spanish restaurants. In fact, I find the normality of the environment a little odd. Why isn't the decor as abstract as the food, and why isn’t the staff dressed in weird outfits? You know, as if your dinner was served by the pop group Devo. But it isn’t much different from a place like Mugaritz or Berasategui, and the staff is dressed in smart, dark suits. Oddly enough, they led us to the same table I sat at on my first visit. I wonder if this was a coincidence or if this is now my table, and they are going to put a plaque on it the way they would do it at the 21 Club or Antoine’s.
After getting settled, Luis Garcia (can I call him the number two man in the front of the house after co-owner Julie Salter?) greeted us and explained that Chef Adria had prepared a tasting menu especially for our table. Of course, this wasn't telling us very much. El Bulli is one of the few restaurants in the world where dinner is a complete crap shoot, and they can easily serve you food that is unrecognizable to those who subsist on a normal diet. Even those who have significant experience at restaurants specializing in modern cuisine can find Adria’s cooking a bit over the top. So although Luis passed out printed menus, who knew what “Olivas Sfericas” or “Tierra 2005” was going to be. They could have been just about anything. Then he asked us if we would like to visit the kitchen, but we declined, telling him that we would prefer to do it after our meal. Lucas, the young sommelier, then handed me the wine list and recommended that we order mostly white wines as they pair better with the cuisine. I took a moment to develop a strategy, placed my order, and within a few minutes wines were arriving and they started serving our dinner.
The first dish was a pellet of tarragon paste that they served on a silver spoon. It reminded me of taking medicine before surgery. Here you are sir, your special El Bulli pill to ready you for the meal. Just swallow and the rest won't hurt a bit. It had the taste of a savory candy, and by itself it did not make much of a culinary impact.
It was quickly followed by a nitrogen-infused caipirinha with concentrated tarragon. Very delicious and refreshing, and reminiscent of the deconstructed margarita they served on my last visit (the margarita came in a spray atomizer along with a slice of lime conserved in salt on the side).
Then they approached the table with what looked like a jar of fresh olives soaking in olive oil, red peppers, and herbs. But on closer inspection the olive had an agar agar skin, and was filled with a spiced and herbed olive oil, like a small balloon with an edible skin. When I bit into it, liquid exploded into my mouth. It tasted good and was sufficiently amusing, although there was something slightly artificial about it. But it coated my tongue with a luxurious texture, and had a nice spicy flavor with good acidity.
Parmesan marshmallows were next. They were as goofy as they sound. Nice texture, even though they were a bit aerated and they could have been a bit denser. But what they really needed was a more intense parmesan flavor. While eating them I imagined how they would taste cooked on a stick over a campfire. I can see it now. Veal cutlet roasting on another stick and a pot of faux tomato sauce on the fire: deconstructed veal parmigiano for campers.
The others at the table were served “Oreos” with black olive, yogurt, and butter, but I was served a quartet of beet and herb jellies which were quite tasty. Something you might find with the petits fours at the end of the meal since these days desserts often include a savory component.
Adria’s famous cheese popcorn ended the whimsical amuse portion of our meal. Fun stuff and good to munch on, I spent the next afternoon trying to find a large bag of it in the hypermarceto, but I came up empty.
It was a pretty whacky though fun way to start the meal, yet perfectly normal for El Bulli. I think something that gets overlooked because people focus on the weirdness factor is that over the course of these six dishes, Adria did a hell of a job moving our palates around with different flavors, textures, sweetness, saltiness, and acidity levels. Just look at the list of dishes— acid, citrus, and herbs in the caiprinha, viscosity and acidity in the olives, cheese and a cotton-like texture in the marshmallows (which dried my mouth), and cultured dairy products, saltiness, and the flavor of grains in the popcorn. I'm not trying to pass judgement on whether these dishes were good or bad, just pointing out an aspect of Adria's cuisine that often goes unnoticed. And regardless of whether you enjoyed these dishes or not, after you ate them, your palate was perfectly calibrated for the rest of the meal.
This was followed by a pumpkin oil candy with gold leaf. The candy had a think shell that shattered when you bit into it, and a warm satiny pumpkin oil exploded into your mouth and coated your tongue.
Then came spring rolls made out of cotton candy, stuffed with an Asian spice mixture similar to what an Indian restaurant might offer as an after-dinner treat. I thought it was too dessert-like for this point in the meal. It wouldhave been more appropriate to serve this near the beginning of the meal, or as a dessert amuse.
Next was Adria's famous melon caviar, served in a faux caviar tin, with a streak of passion fruit across the top. Whimsical in a way that reminded me of Thomas Keller, the dish was straightforward and mostly about technique and presentation. I understand that in the past they served the melon caviar as an accompaniment, but this time it was solo.
The final amuse, a nitrogen frozen pistachio truffle was more like a pistachio bon bon. It had an intense pistachio flavor, as if the sessence of a pistachio nut had been distilled into it. But it lacked a requisite sweetness which made it less enjoyable. I found this second round of amuse a bit redundant. I would have preferred it if Adria had held the amuse at five to seven courses and then kept to a more traditional progression for the meal. Serve the crisp and the ham and then go straight to the savory courses.
They moved us beyond amuse with a superb oyster with matching “pearl.” I'm not sure what type of oyster it was, but the flavor and texture were terrific—really meaty and steak-like. The “pearl,” while a clever idea, didn’t have a positive impact on the dish. I guess Adria was attempting to recreate the way a raw pearl would taste in your mouth, metallic and calciferous. But while the idea might work on an intellectual level (debatable), I thought it failed on a sensual level because the pearl didn’t add enough in terms of flavor, and as a result, the dish never delivered on its promise. Agreed that the concept has tremendous potential, but I disagree with the way Adria applied it. Somehow he needed to create the perception that this is the way a pearl would taste, while creating something that was also a delicious accompaniment for the oyster. He succeeded in one respect but not in the other.
Another famous Adria dish was next, the frozen parmesan bread topped with dried fruits. It is really frozen parmesan air, but it is served in a styrofoam container, and it gives the appearance of a bread. I have heard that the Spanish food critic Rafael Garcia Santos loves this dish, but for the life of me, I fail to see the point of it. First of all, it was redundant after the parmesan marshmallows. But on top of that, it tasted like a twenty-second century frozen TV dinner that someone’s mother would serve while dressed like Carrie-Ann Moss in the Matrix. It didn’t even taste good. Probably the worst dish of the evening.
Pea "ravioli," a delicious pea liquid in an agar agar ravioli, served with a chopped pea salad was very good, and more in line with the type of food I wish Adria served more o.f I know it is tame for him, but his tasting menu progression could stand a few more dishes like this one to better balance the meal.
"Tierra 2005" turned out to be soil with a foie gras flavor. Soil dishes are fashionable these days. I sort of like them, but I think chefs are too wrapped up in the showcasing of the technique, rather than serving dishes where the technique is applied to a secondary ingredient or used as a condiment. Take this particular soil. It was both powdery and crunchy the way a good soil should be (that makes me laugh,) but it was also quite creamy, almost like a dessert. In fact, in some ways it reminded me of Grant Achutz's pushed foie gras when he was cooking at Trio. But let's digress for a moment. Take a classic pairing of sole and foie gras. why not use foie gras soil instead? That would be a way to utilize the technique as a component of cuisine, rather than using it as the focus of the cuisine. Unfortunately, chefs today are content to serve a pile of flavored dirst as a primary ingredient. Maybe one can say that it is intellectually stimulating, but one can also say that it fails the test of being good cuisine.
We now entered the "real food" part of our meal, and I will tell you in advance that I found it quite enjoyable. First, a milk crepe canneloni with small strips of pancetta wrapped around it and served with anchovy caviar. Great dish, and I wish they had served me two of them. This is exactly what I want to eat at modern restaurants—great technique applied in a way that makes the food both interesting and delicious, while also demonstrating culinary technique that is distinct from what restaurant still relying on nouvelle cuisine technique will use to prepare your meal.
The others were served a ravioli with butter, malt and lime, and a "garagouillou" of vegetables prepared in an oriental style. I tasted the garagouillou and it was interesting to compare it to Michel Bras' famous version of the dish that I enjoyed three nights earlier. Instead I had "Walnuts," which were mock walnuts and I never quite worked out what they were made of. But they tasted just like walnuts. How did they manage to get that shape?
Then a Thai soup, like a Tom Yum Kung but without the shrimp. It was too heavily flavored with galangal (fortunately, one of the most famous Thai bloggers was at our table and she was able to nail that the galangal was a problem in one sip.) Otherwise it would have been a good version of the soup. Adria seems to be interested in Asian dishes and techniques these days; later in the evening he served a Chinese-inspired dish.
A dish of delicious white asparagus with asparagus "stem," that turned out to be filled with asparagus-flavored oil came next. Conceptually this was very good, but the stems were too large and when you bit into one, the amount of liquid they released overpowered the asparagus. Smaller stems next time please.
I liked the cigale with green tea foam. On my last visit to the restaurant, I noticed that it was served to other tables and I was sort of pining for it. So I was happy to see it being served to our table on this visit. I ate most of the foam by itself first, and then used the remainder as a condiment. That turned out to be a good strategy. The tannin in the green tea calibrated my palate in a way that eliminated the metallic taste of the sea that you can get when you eat shellfish, and I found that intensified the crustacean flavor of the cigale (sea cricket or sort of a large langouste for those who have never seen one.) Others at the table thought the combination was strange but it reminded me of the green tea-dusted shrimp at Sushi Yasuda.
A very delicious and succulent dish of crab with pork fat came next. As good as it was, I thought the dish clashed with the austerity of the green tea foam. But aside from the issue of where this dish came in the progression, the pork fat had the most amazing texture, soft and firm at the same time. A wonderfully savory dish for this restaurant; the trruth is, I wish Adria would prepare a meal where all of the dishes were similar to this one.
The finale was a crispy lamb belly, also very delicious and not gamey at all, although the portion was a bit small. I would have found a larger portion more satisfying. Maybe Adria should serve a small steak at the end of the meal. Abstraction followed by something comforting and harmonious. And lastly, filling.
Desserts started with something called "Liquid de Melotocon" which was sort of an iced pudding served with a spoonful of sweet jelly. Then what they called a creme brulee with citrus, but which was really milk skin with citrus underneath. This was probably my favorite dessert. Then more soil, this time coffee flavored. And the big finale was chocolate caviar served on top of a cream that was frozen by placing a liquid substance on a stone slab that was 196 degrees below.
We drank really well. El Bulli has a well-stocked wine list that extends well beyond selections of Spanish wines. That includes many well-priced items. We drank the following list of wines for something like 680 euros
Billecart-Salmon Rose N.V. – Typically lovely and easy to drink
1998 Domaine Ostertag Riesling Monchsburg – Wonderfully extracted and intense on the palate. Possibly as good as the wonderful 2000 bottling.
1996 Beaucastel Roussane V.V. – Like drinking Grand Cru white Burgundy although this was about five years short of mature.
La Rioja Alta Rioja Gran Reserva 904 – We spent three days on the Costa Brava and drank this wine at four different meals. This was the best bottle of the bunch for some reason, maybe because it cost 65 euros instead of 57 which is what it cost at the other restaurants. But a great Rioja in the classic style. This will drink for the next 30 years
1990 Marquis D'Angerville Volnay Champans – Big wine and still not mature, but you could see that the primary fruit is starting to fade. Delicious but it really needs a good five years or more, or a very long decant.
1992 Jean Thevenet Macon-Clesse Cuvee Speciale Botrytis – Very tasty and not too sweet. A good dessert wine as it is sweet enough to accompany the food, but not overpowering.
Overall, I enjoyed this meal and preferred it to the meal I had on my first visit. Though to be honest, rating this type of meal is difficult because how does one measure a parmesan marshmallow? Do you rate it for deliciousness, creativity, how much thought it provoked? What if it deserves high scores for being thought provoking but it doesn’t taste particularly good? What rating would you give it then? So taking this dichotomy into account, and adding my own enjoyment factor into the rating, I will happily pronounce El Bulli A-. But to be honest, the difference between A- and A+ in this instance is in that second round of redundant amuse, and the shortage of real food dishes. I guess what it comes down to is that although I appreciate all of the interesting technique at work here, I wish the meal was more heavily balanced in favor of deliciousness. But I don’t think that is where Adria’s interest currently lies. So until he comes around to agreeing with my point of view (which he might never do), the reason to eat at El Bulli is to keep track of his creativity, while experiencing his restlessness as an artist. It’s a worthwhile experience for those with an open mind, and if you are the type of person who is inclined to try it, I think you will have a lot of fun there.