Food/Wine: People: Postcard from El Bulli
Postcard from El Bulli
Rumors are rampant about the fate of renowned El Bulli restaurant, headed by Spanish star chef Ferran Adrià; it has been the ultimate foodie destination since the early 1990s. What can be confirmed: El Bulli will close its doors to the public in order to be restructured as a foundation (by 2013) that will focus on scientific studies in the field of gastronomy. Indagare contributor Elena Bowes also reports of a still hush-hush plan of Adrià’s to open a new restaurant-cum-tapas bar, where the genius chef will be back in the kitchen. In the meanwhile, Bowes snagged a much-coveted reservation to Ell Bulli and reports here on this meal of a lifetime.
“Driving along the picturesque, protected Catalan coastline with my beau the other week, I could not contain my excitement as I knew we were headed toward an incredible culinary experience. El Bulli has been voted the World’s Best Restaurant five times, and its chef Ferran Adrià lauded as Chef of the Decade, so just getting a reservation there is a coup in itself. Only able to seat 8,000 diners per season, the charmingly rustic restaurant, overlooking the pretty Cala Montjoi Bay, gets more than two million requests (and I’m sure the demand is even higher now that Adrià has announced El Bulli’s imminent closure). We were joining four good friends of mine for my birthday celebration.
“The evening was less about traditional gastronomic cuisine than about a chemistry experiment with our senses. The 35-course meal sped by, so that four-plus hours felt like a fraction of that time; each dish was so riveting that our conversation revolved entirely around what was on the table. First, we would look at the various dishes and marvel at the presentation. Then we would wonder what the dish was. Then we would taste what was on the plate and still wonder what it was. Confession One: I’m not a foodie. Confession Two: It doesn’t matter that I’m not a foodie. Like great art, everyone from the foie gras elite down to the cheese-baguette-loving proletariat, can appreciate the food at El Bulli. I became so attuned to trustingly popping curiosities into my mouth that I would have eaten my napkin if the waiter had directed me to. In fact, I did try to greedily eat a plastic green garnish, thinking it was yet another El Bulli concoction, but luckily our keen-eyed waiter stopped me just in time.
“The evening commenced with the ordering of cocktails, namely mojitos and caipirinhas. What arrived was a bowl of ice shavings decorated with rectangular slices of sugarcane, some with mint—the mojitos—and some without. The waiter directed us to bite and suck: liquid heaven. An El Bulli meal involves a lot of direction from the waiter on how to best eat a dish: from left to right, top to bottom, to chew or to melt or to inhale. While I don’t like Gorgonzola cheese, the frozen, cream-colored hollow globes that tasted of Gorgonzola were a clear culinary feat, especially when we alternated our bites, as directed, with some cool cherry umeboshi. (The next day, when we visited Salvador Dalí’s house in the nearby charming fishing village of Cadaques, I wondered if Adrià was inspired by Dalí’s egg sculptures.)
“Our group also loved the spherical olives, which looked and tasted like olives but were instead a clone of what the perfect olive should be, and filled with the essence of sublime olive oil. Ditto with the ‘mimetic peanuts’, which looked like hard-shelled peanuts until we bit into the creamiest, melt-in-your-mouth peanut butter interior. Our curiosity was fired up by the names of the courses as well: what on earth were roses/artichokes? The leaves had the texture and appearance of artichoke leaves, but were in fact fragrant rose petals from Ecuador. Our waiter listed countless countries where El Bulli will import just one ingredient that is judged to be the best in the world.
“And then of course, Adrià will enhance that ingredient to look like something else. This cheese-baguette-loving commoner loved being fooled so deliciously. Funnily, my birthday cake was the only letdown of this theatrical feast, as it was made out of paper. However, after 35 courses we welcomed some visual and abdominal relief. I may not be a foodie, but I was relieved to hear that Adrià will be opening a new eatery in Barcelona. And so it goes: the end of one legend will lead to the birth of another.”