Throughout history, legendary trips to see wise men have often included scaling a mountain. So it felt appropriate that the trip to El Bulli involved driving straight up one of those one-lane European mountain roads that possess many switch backs, and coming to a full stop every time a car approached in the opposing direction. After about fifteen minutes driving away from a very small town, there was still nothing on the horizon that could have been the building that houses what many consider the most creative chef in the world. Once the mountain was crested, going down the other side, about half the distance you traveled up on the way out of the small beach town of Roses, a cove set deep into the mountainside on the vast gulf of Roses you have been traversing is revealed. At the center of the shore of this horseshoe-shaped inlet sits El Bulli.
I first became aware of Ferran Adria's existence about eight years ago, while listening to two chefs discuss the best chef in the world. Between that and El Bulli receiving the somewhat ubiquitous honor of being Restaurant Magazine's number one restaurant in the world early in April, I had built up some pretty ridiculously mythic expectations for my meal there, if it ever took place. Rather than do the same for you I will simply tell you what happened when I got out of the cab at the bottom of that hill, walked in, and sat down at a table for eight in the deepest room of a humble restaurant built near a seaside town in the 1950's.
While we waited for our other six diners we were served a Piña Colada. A simple up glass was set in front of us with about eight inches of spun white sugar piled high in it. Into this, our waiter poured a blend of pineapple and coconut purees, melting the sugar. After the second or third sip we discovered that there where three of Ferran's spheres hidden under the cotton candy. When you gulped one into your mouth and pierced it with your tongue you realized it was full of rum, adding the alcoholic bite the virgin drink was missing up to this point.
At this point our dining companions joined us and we started the planned menu for the evening with a palate cleanser of tarragon: a simple small dollop of pureed tarragon leaves that had had their moisture removed to leave the concentrated green flavors of light licorice and hints of mint, a rather firm-handed primer.
We started off with a magnum of Cava.
caipirinha-nitro con concetrado de estragón
While we were experiencing the somewhat numbing effect of pure herbal essence on the center of our tongues, the waiters started preparing the solid caipirinhas. Limejuice, caracha and simple syrup were placed in a bowl with liquid nitrogen and whisked until solid. This concoction was then spooned into a frozen shell of lime and served with a gelato shovel. It had the beauty of a frozen drink without all that pulverized ice to bruise its integrity.
aceitunas verdes sféricas-1
Next up were the green olive spheres – truly the essence of marinated green olive, trapped in a very thin alginate skin and served on a spoon. (The spoon appeared again throughout the meal. A snub-handled version with measurement lines etched on it, it harkens you to remember that this chef is the scientist behind all the food science you hear about these days). The olives are presented in a mason jar, floating in olive oil with orange zest, rosemary, thyme, garlic and shallots; they actually taste of all these ingredients and also have a slight, cheesy bite. I am not sure how permeable the membrane of the sphere is, but my suspicion is that this is all affect for presentation and that the liquid inside was made to taste of these common marinade flavors long before the olives were put in the jar.
marshmallow de piñones
oreo de aceituna negra con crema doble
"croquanter" de guanábana
Cheese popcorn. Pieces of popcorn fitted with hats made from a crisped aged cheese (maybe Gouda). There was a bite of what tasted like nutmeg that I never quite put my finger on... until I got home to America, translated the title from Spanish and found that it was nutmeg.
palomita con Reypenaer a la nuez moscada
pan de gambas
Next, a simple shrimp toast. This tasted like a shrimp stock had been slowly cooked down till it was completely dry with nothing left but the essence of shrimp, powdered, then turned into dust and sprinkled onto a shrimp toast.
caramelo de aceite de calabaza
Pumpkin oil caramel (garnished with a piece of gold leaf). Pumpkin oil had been poured through a tube with hard crack caramel on the end so that the oil pulled the sugar to form a bon-bon. The shell was actually far thicker than I expected, with quite a lot of burnt sugar in the ratio.
esencia de mandarina
Essence of mandarin. Remember trying to mix Tang into a thick paste rather than a thin liquid as a kid, only to be frustrated by its granular nature? Well Ferran has made something with that flavor but none of the icky crystals. You are directed by the server to hold this in your mouth for 30 seconds. It tastes as orange water smells but feels similar to papaya nectar in your mouth.
bocadillo ibérico 2003
Iberian ham baguette. El Bulli is a Spanish restaurant and Spanish restaurants serve ham on bread. I'm pretty sure it's a law. Ferran's is somehow just the crust of a standard white baguette, magically hollow on the inside. His Iberian ham is cooked, with a note of sweetness in the cure similar to a maple sugar rub.
caviar sférico de melon
Cantaloupe caviar. Probably the dish I saw photographed most, and read most about prior to my journey. The presentation is fabulous. A mock oesetra tin is filled with orange balls only slightly larger than, and looking just like, salmon roe, but made of cantaloupe. There are some passion fruit seeds on top bringing tanginess to the equation (along with their look, reminiscent of a developing tadpole back in grade school science class). The truth is the "caviar" tastes exactly like cantaloupe tastes in April, kind of dull, especially next to the fresh mint and tangy seeds. Ferran often explains he wants to make food taste more like itself. Here, he has succeeded. Sadly, long ago I decided that the flavor of cantaloupe only holds my interest at the end of a very hot summer. I wonder what this dish tastes like in August.
We moved to a magnum of Sauvignon Blanc blend.
brioche al vapor de mozzarella al perfume de rosas
Steamed brioche with mozzarella and rose air was our first espuma sighting. A brioche, soft and chewy like a Chinese bun but as buttery and light as any brioche, was topped with a fresh mozzarella that was like the innards of a burrata, soft, loose and creamy as result of a steaming. On top of all this was a very light, white foam that literally tasted just like roses smell, disappearing the moment any part of you came in contact with it and leaving just the waft of rose buds.
I am a devout follower of the new cuisine and seek out chefs dabbling in it at every opportunity. The hard truth is that at this point in its fruition everyone is doing either versions of techniques Ferran played a key role in developing or that they learned at his side (be it in his kitchen or at one of the many gatherings he attends, like Madrid Fusion). You can't get away from them. Orbs, espumas, powders and decompositions are all out there and, up to this point in our meal, we were sampling things from the repertoire of El Bulli's past. To be sure, El Bulli's spheres were better for their thinner skins; its espumas held their shape longer and their density varied with the desired impact of their flavors; whatever made the popcorn taste like nutmeg was so imperceptible I wasn't sure it had actually happened. But honestly I started feeling like I had done this Picasso of the new modern art a disservice by one, going to too many of his acolytes' restaurants, and two, believing the hype about this mad scientist auteur (like Restaurant Magazine’s "best restaurant in the world" grade). Then came:
aire helado de parmesano con muesli
Parmesan cheese bread with nuts and fruit muesli. You are presented with a closed Styrofoam coffin about the size of a school lunchbox, with a beautiful image of the hills of Parma wrapped around it and sealed with a sticker that reads elbulliaire. Sometimes the most profound things in cuisine are born of simplicity, like how well aged cheese pairs with fruit and toasted nuts. In the little white box is a translucent plastic liner that has been filled with Parmesan air and submerged in liquid nitrogen, setting it as a solid (in effect freeze-drying it). Remember the first time you had the sensation of the creaminess of astronaut ice cream melting on your tongue and you were ecstatic that it was exactly like ice cream? This is that for the undisputed king of all cheeses. In a small, plastic zip-lock presented alongside are dried walnuts, raspberries and almonds, to be sprinkled over the top as you dig through the air and discover the textural differences of the parts that were closer to the freezing agent. Before discovering the plastic liner, I decided at some point as I dug into the densest part at the bottom that I might actually be digging out Styrofoam and consuming it, and I decided that was ok. It was so much fun I wasn't going to stop till I hit table.
migas de almendra, tomate raff, saúco y gelé de almendruco
Tomato salad with elderflowers and almond powder (to be eaten separately). Here Ferran has decided to make a salad, leaving the door open to combine many ingredients. In the bowl part of the bowl were peeled sections of tomato (crunchy even for this season), a section of a large-celled citrus fruit with a very light flavor (maybe a pomello) dusted with bitter dried citric oil, tiny elderflowers, basil oil, and a tamarind syrup, all dressed with an elderflower foam. On the edge of the bowl was a white powder, a dust really. It was like it had been dried, put in a blender, pulverized, and then put in an atom smasher just to make sure it was as fine as could be. In your mouth, it re-hydrated to taste milky, with a finishing aroma of that taste right after your first bite of marzipan before it moves to sickly sweet because you overdo it by chewing.
nueces tiernas", té ahumado y wasabi
This culinary movement Ferran has clearly settled at the head of is often called molecular gastronomy, a title I bristle at for two reasons: one, because as far as I know, as much as science is a contributing factor (along with culinary expertise and creative vision), I know of no science these chefs are doing on a molecular level; and two, because I think it allows the old school devotees of Haute Cuisine to trivialize this as a fad, discouraging people from spending their hard-earned money on the childish toying of ambitious, but possibly misguided, precocious youth, and thus convincing folks to pay for the same old experience over and over.
That being said, I have no explanation for walnuts in textures with smoked tea air. What I suspect is that somewhere in the kitchen is a mold in the shape of walnuts which re-forms purees to resemble walnuts. What I know is that on a plate are a warm walnut dust, three dark brown (as if roasted) walnut halves and three white (as if blanched) walnut halves that have dots of wasabi on them. Both types are held in place by a walnut cream and around that is a golden liquid redolent of a wonderfully rich chicken soup.
Now the molecular part: the best comparison I have come up with to describe the textures of these walnuts is the lupini bean. If you brine raw lupini beans in their shells you get what the Portuguese call tremoços. The white walnuts, which looked completely raw and as if their skin had been stripped, had the almost synthetic crunch of these Portuguese bar snacks. I can't actually tell you what they tasted like other than walnuts with a tiny dot of wasabi and a creaminess on the bottom, because all I could do was be captivated by this totally alien feeling. Having almost wrapped my head around the white ones, I was happy to move to the familiar-looking brown ones, which clearly appeared to be the same kind of walnuts I like to brine and slow roast for 48 hours at home (for snacking). Then, of course, I put one in my mouth, bit down, and it disappeared. Going back to the lupini analogy, it was as if the bean had been steamed to a point where it had no structural integrity left, as if the minute it touched something solid it dematerialized, leaving behind only the impression of a walnut.
Ferran's ability to transmogrify things into finer powder than I have ever felt appears in a walnut version here. It is literally as fine as cornstarch, and this one tastes of roasted walnuts and burnt sugar.
Exciting and stimulating on so many levels, I decided it best to stop trying to figure this dish out and just accept that there is a machine in the kitchen that I had missed on my tour that had probably been used to make the walnuts right after it turned Jeff Goldblum into a fly in 1986 and move on to:
espárragos en escabeche
Asparagus and asparagus escabeche. Asparagus tips (so perfectly pared I could not find a flat side where the cylindrical stalks had been touched by either a knife or a peeler) were awash in an asparagus and saffron espuma reminiscent, to this provincial palate, of hollandaise. Grated over the entire dish was tuna bottarga. The dried roe of the tuna permeated the dish so bites of the espuma were not unlike a tuna salad, and taking all three components together the re-composition was strikingly reminiscent of a niçoise salad.
guisantes al jamócon ravioli cremoso a menta fresca y aire de eucalipto
Ok I am sick of apologizing for it, pork fat tastes good. So I don't want to hear any guff when I explain that this was a viscous, opaque soup of pig fat that contained spring peas, cubes of ham fat, and clear raviolis filled with mint cream, with eucalyptus air and pea flowers on top. It's spring and you are going to go to restaurants and hear all kinds of things about English spring peas, mint, and bacon or ham. It is just a great group of flavors. By stripping it down like this you are left with a dish that doesn't cover up these beautifully delicate flavors with smoking, salt-curing, or anything else. Revel in the joy and, if you are a person with some kind of guilt fetish, go for a jog.
Mejilones sfericados con sopa de patata al bacón y crema doble
Mussels with potato and bacon consommé and cream. The mussels were encapsulated in a gel of either their liquor or the liquor of one of their bivalve friends, each one bursting with moist brininess while still possessing the denser texture of a properly cooked mussel. There were little cubes of pine-infused apple as a garnish and somewhere about halfway through this course you remind yourself that there are bacon-based, cream of mussel soups in America and it's the apple and pine that spruce this one up so nicely. And the fact that what the sphere holds is a perfectly cooked mussel that feels and tastes like a nonexistent thing: a mussel that could be eaten on the half shell, uncooked, at a raw bar.
ventresca de salmón con encurtidos
Salmon and pickled vegetables. The striation of fat in the salmon combined with its opaqueness made me assume it was from the belly/collar area of the fish. There was a white discoloration around the corners of the cubes of salmon that led me to believe it had been cooked in some way, but I can't imagine how. It felt and tasted profoundly of raw salmon. Accompanying it were cucumber centers, alfalfa sprouts, capers, shaved garlic, chives, all kinds of sprouts, pickled ginger, pickled flower buds (mini-daisies, cat tails), a black olive sphere, and caper berries.
At this point we switched to a magnum of red from Ribera del Duero.
colmenillas a la crema
Morels in cream with a pine tree jelly. The morels have to have been prepared in a rosemary flavored beef stock of some kind. This was the first truly rich dish of the evening – there were notes of butter, demi-glace, and some kind of lemon in a pine tree cube. The coolness of this dish lies in how it pairs to red wine. The mushrooms may as well be beef essence and the resin-y pine cubes draw so many herbs out of the wine it ends up tasting like a retsina.
We were presented with forceps and then a dish they simply titled "the sea" showed up. Five little letters describing the most involved dish of the evening. On a square plate, woven into ribbons of tuna espuma, were all kinds of shapes and colors: aquatic life laid at a jaunty angle, flowing towards a pool of viscous purple liquid. There were about ten types of sea vegetation, flowers in purples, reds, and greens, as well as parts of seaweed leaves bunched in little piles.
Interspersed between each specimen were other aspects of flavor. The sea creatures were primarily bivalves. I clearly identified a percebes, a clam, an oyster, another gelled mussel, along with orange roe (about the size of steelhead salmon's) and a square of watermelon. Luckily for me there was a person at the table who did not like fish so I got two attempts at this dish.
The first time, I started with the flower at the corner opposite the liquid and worked my way in columns, top to bottom, towards it. It was as if an archeologist had done a bisection in rock of the strata of flavors of the sea – starting at the top where the tuna air was light, foamy and slightly salty, and finishing at the purple pool that was culinarily evocative of the primordial ooze (deep, dark, thick, bitter and most aquatic). As the flavors move from sweeter to more severe you come across the watermelon square about two thirds of the way through and are revitalized before making the plunge into the dark bottom of the sea.
The second time through I put each plant with the next item down the line from it and dipped them in the fluid. Interestingly, as I progressed the flowerage moved from being the lighter side of the paring to the stronger.
Cintas con kalix
In the center of the plate was a clear liquid with a darker liquid in its center which sunk to the bottom. Together they tasted like burnt lemon oil and clarified butter. The taste was biting, as if the oils of lemon zest had been scorched and added later. Reaching out from this pool appeared three white tentacles with an orange vein running up their centers. The tentacles were actually long, thin fillets of a very tightly-ribbed white-fleshed fish (it reminded me of fresh water eel, but our servers said it translated to belt fish). In the cooking process, its thinner edges had tightened around the thicker center of the fillet to make a channel that had been filled with a very small bead roe of kalix.
patas de pollo
Ever sit eating nicely crisp chicken skin and declare you would happily just eat this all day if it weren't so wasteful to go through the effort of roasting a whole bird just to eat the skin? Well, on this plate was the perfectly browned and crisp skin of a chicken thigh, a little pickled seaweed, and milk air. There was a slight bite to it, with the flavors of cayenne and black pepper just strong enough to play off the slightly sour milk air. All the best flavors of good southern fried chicken dish, except for the mac-n-cheese.
tatin de pimiento del piquillo y platano
Banana tarte tatin with red pepper and a tarragon yogurt topping. A red pepper-like lacquer formed a skin around a cooked piece of banana, which was completely soft. The red lacquer, slightly piquant, was too pliant to have been put on the cooked banana but too moist to have been on the banana while it cooked. The tarragon yogurt, served on the side, was just slightly sweet and was actually the sweetest part of the dish. This all was served on a phyllo crisp so you could eat it in one or two bites (any more and the banana would have spread all over the place).
liquid de melocotón
Chocolate in textures. A minty chocolate gelato, dehydrated raspberries, candied ginger jelly, dried chocolate cookies (like big versions of the crunchies in a Cookiepuss) and a square like a gelatinized mousse.
Is El Bulli the best restaurant in the world? Depends what you are into. If, like me, you believe the strongest attributes a chef can have are creativity and a deep understanding of the interplays between color, flavor, texture, temperature, and aroma, and have spent your lifetime developing a reference base that presupposes many things about cuisine but are happiest when those assumptions are completely shattered... If you eat for the effect it has on all of your senses rather than because your body requires food, and you have learned that there is an endorphin rush from eating past satiety... If you are suspicious that learning a million variations of the mother sauces may actually be an exercise to compensate for the lack of genius required to truly be great... then yes, go through the process, get yourself to El Bulli and put yourself in Ferran's hands. In the long run, it costs less than making an extravagant night of a Madonna show at MSG. This man is a genius. Many people played guitar before and after Hendrix, but don't you wish you had seen him live?