"Be careful, it's delicate." "Smell the sachet first, and in two courses you will eat what is inside." "Two bites only."
A few of the instructions we were given while eating our 39 course meal at EL BULLI! I still have a huge smile on my face as I type it. My dream came true. After all, it was one of the top five reasons I was willing to move to Spain - the chance to be closer to dining at El Bulli. When I reported on its pending two-year closing, I thought it would never happen. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to eat at El Bulli.
Eating at El Bulli is no where near the right description for what someone does at El Bulli. Eating at El Bulli is a full body sensory experience. The smell, the texture, the color, the presentation, the service, the ambience. Every little detail is crafted and perfected. I am sure you have heard all the hype. And it is true. And it is worth it. Every little euro.
Entering the kitchen was a highlight. I was dying to put on an apron and walk over to one of the 70 chefs (!!!!) and watch closely as they prepared the "molecular gastronomy" we were about to experience. Instead, we were whisked over to meet Ferran Adrià, the man behind El Bulli and one of the world's best chefs.
The ambiance and decor of El Bulli really surprised me. I imagined a super sleek, ultra modern glass and steel restaurant. Instead, walking to our table for two, we found ourselves sitting in a pretty traditional Catalan-style restaurant. Heavy wood furniture, lots of artwork and upholstered chairs - often mismatched. Turns out, the decor is all original (probably minus the artwork) of the restaurant prior to El Bulli.
Two to three waiterstaff served us throughout the evening. It is amazing to watch the orchestration of the superb staff. Plates were whisked away at the perfect moment. Somehow they can tell the difference between, I am not enjoying this course and a long pause in-between bites without ever asking you a single word. At the beginning of each course, they would introduce the course and give us very specific instructions as to the proper way to eat the course.
As soon as we sat down they brought us two glasses of Jaume de Codorniu Brut Gran Reserva while we browsed the wine list (ahem, book). Selecting a well paired wine for a menu of 39 courses when you have no clue what the courses will be is quite daunting. We went with a Grand Cru Alsace Riesling from 1998 (Cuvée Sainte Catherine Schlossberg L'Inédit, Domaine Weinbach-Colette) and were quite pleased with our choice.
On to the long-awaited 39 courses. Unfortunately, I didn't take pictures of each course. The courses come at a quick pace and often have to be eaten quickly before their texture changes. And, whipping out a camera 39 times just ruins the magic of it all.
We started with three "cocktails." First, was a Strawberry Campari, which was a delightful way to kick off the meal. It was a frozen, strawberry shape that when you popped it in your mouth tasted like Campari. Next, we drank Warm Caipirinhas; a great way to warm up on a cold night. The cocktail was made as an infusion in a Bodum French Coffee Press and poured into glasses. Our final cocktail was an Almond-Fizz with Amaerna-LYO, the most traditional of all the cocktails, but with more of a foam/cream texture and a frozen berry similar to the Strawberry Campari.
After the cocktails, we moved into some starters that were so much fun. I loved the Nori Seaweed with Lemon - paper thin empanadas filled with a bit of lemon. The salty, crunchy nori provided a tasty contrast to the tart lemon. While the Gorgonzola Globe is gastronomic theatre at its best, I couldn't take more than a few bites, it was so much for two people. The waiter brought a cream-colored sphere to the table, cracked it at the top and then topped it with freshly grated nutmeg as he told us to eat it quickly because it is gorgonzola ice cream. Next, we had an Aperitive Ice Cream, which was a little foamish, crunchy cone with a aperitif sorbet inside. The Parmesan "Porra" was a flavorful bread stick. Next, we were told to eat our Hazelnut-Raspberries in one bite, lest, these frozen fusions would instantly melt.
I really loved the "compare and contrast" Shrimp Tortillas. A twist of the traditional Spanish tortilla served in two surprising approaches. One shrimp tortilla, which I don't have a picture of, but LuxEat has one, was a powdery-foam texture that melted in your mouth with the slightly sweet flavor of an egg tortilla and a sprinkling of dried shrimp. The other shrimp tortilla, pictured above, had a thin, crunchy egg tortilla base with the tiniest fresh shrimp I have ever seen. This tortilla contrasted with the first with its saltier taste and crunchier texture. The Coconut Sponge-Cake was an airy foam of two bites filled with the flavor of fresh coconut (scroll down on the Critical Couple's blog for a picture). One of my favorite courses, and of course, no picture (but check LuxEat, picture 14), was the Ham and Ginger Canapée. The translucent ginger shaving served with ham was out of this world.
We had another two shrimp dishes to compare and contrast... Boiled Shrimp and Shrimp Two Firings. Our waiter directed us to "suck the head, eat the tail," as he presented the simple boiled shrimp. Normally, I am not into sucking shrimp brains, but when you are eating at El Bulli, you do as your are ordered, and I am glad I tried it. I fell in love with Shrimp Two Firings. First, we drank the soup made from the shrimp head (I am guessing) and then ate the lightly grilled shrimp. I loved how the two dishes portrayed very different approaches to eating a shrimp and thoroughly experiencing the flavor of the shrimp.
Quails with Carrot "Escabeche" consisted of four quail breasts that were painted with a carrot sauce at the table. Fortunately, after we ate the course, the waitress told us that the breasts were from four-day-old quails. So, that is why the quail breasts were so tiny! The course of Tomato Tartar was one of the best tomato dishes I have ever eaten (check A Life Worth Eating for a picture). Tomato was finely diced and topped with thin ice shavings. Our next course we were told was a Tiramisu, without any further information. I wonder if this was done purposely to juxtapose the flavors of what we would be eating with our mental image of tiramisu. The two had nothing to do with each other.
The Caviar Cream with Hazelnut Caviar was another study in contrasts. My picture was taken after a few bites, so the color contrast is not so obvious. The grey sauce is a caviar sauce topped with hazelnut caviar. While the brown sauce is a hazelnut sauce topped with real caviar. I really loved this course, especially the real caviar with the hazelnut sauce. After a few bites, I found the hazelnut caviar a bit rich for my taste.
Mushroom season is huge in Catalunya and we were delighted to have a course of mushrooms with the Cold/Warm "Oronja Mushroom. The dishes were essentially the same, except that one was served cold and the other warm. We preferred the warm dish. For the following course, the Truffle "Drap," we were instructed to open a cloth package and smell the aroma of the truffles, but to not eat the truffles. Next came a Parmesan "Macaron," which had the shape of a macaron but was more of a soft, creamy foam. When the next course was brought to the table, Truffled Blini, we were told to place the truffles from the "drap" on top of the blini. Delicious!
The Cold Sea Anemone with Bernacles or Scallop with Anemone Risotto were not my favorite dishes, but that is probably due to my inexperience or timidness with shellfish and seafood. I did however enjoy the Oysters Guillardeau with Black Sand and Bone Marrow.
The course in the picture above, Roses/Artichokes was fascinating. The outer circles are real, edible rose petals. The inner circle are artichoke leaves and a dash of silver. A sensory delight.
As a huge fan of Mexican cuisine, I loved Ferran Adrià's take on the taco and ceviche with the Lulo Ceviche and Oaxaca Taco. The taco was a thin, powdery tortilla with thinly sliced contents of avocado and grapefruit.
The Endive in Papillote 50% course was theatrically presented with the waiter unwrapping the papillote carefully with tweezers. The endives were topped with olive oil caviar.
I loved the gazpacho portion of the Gazpacho and Ajo Blanco course, but found the ajo blanco a tad too strong and creamy for my taste. In the picture above, the gazpacho is the white snow-like inside part, and the ajo blanco is the creamier sauce on the outside. I had to laugh a little when I heard the man of obnoxious couple dining nearby say, "gazpacho, what the heck is that!" This course was followed by Turtledove with Blackberries Risotto with Cardamon with perfect fall flavors. I don't really remember the Hare Raviolli with "Bolonesa" and Blood.
The Mimetic Chestnuts was pure fantasy. Faux chestnuts that appeared to be floating on top of the protective layer of a real chestnut. Amazing, delightful and delicious.
A flavor combination that is totally unexpected, but totally works Wild Strawberries with Hare Soup.
From there, we moved onto the palate cleansing and then dessert portion of the meal. This, along with the beginning cocktail section were my favorites. Our waitress delivered a wooden box to our table, Sugar Cube with Tea and Lime. Inside, we found frozen, lime-flavored sugar cubes that we drizzled with a tea oil. Fabulous!
Catalans love to eat sandwiches called "flautas," (flute in English) that are little baguette breads filled with jamon or cheese. I love how Ferran Adrià gave a Catalan mainstay a cocktail twist - the Mojito and Apple Flute. The "bread" was a light foarm with apple flavor. The inside of the sandwich was an icy, blended mojito. I could eat many of these! This was one of my favorite courses!
Not your typical donuts. These Mini-Donuts were bitter, dark chocolate filled with a maiz paste. Can you see a South American/ Mexican theme running throughout?
Another twist on a typical Catalan specialty - Coca Vidre. The traditional coca vidre is an extremely thin flatbread dusted with sugar and pine nuts (here is a recipe). Ferran Adrià's coca vidre was a crunchy, glass-like hard sugar with pine nuts that tasted exactly like a traditional coca vidre. Loved it!
Not your typical cup of espresso. Gold Leaves was a small bowl filled with espresso, a dusting of cocoa powder, gold leaves and mint leaves. Fantastic!
The grand finale, the 39th course... the Box. An amazing array of handmade chocolates and confections in a huge box. The box is placed upon your table and you can nibble away. Ferran Adrià put heaven in a box! The woman pair of the obnoxious dining guests near us, loudly asked for a "to go box." As the waiter was packaging a few chocolates for the road for her, she loudly told the waiter, "oh don't worry about packaging them, I flew on my own plane." This, by the woman when chatting with me in the bathroom replied, "Yes. I have a show," when I asked if she was from the United States.
So, there you have it... my 39 courses at El Bulli. It is really hard to put into words how dining at El Bulli feels. You experience it on so many different levels. It is like a fusion between a haute cuisine restaurant, a science lab and an art gallery. Ferran Adrià's is pure genius. With each course, you are delighted, amazed, bewildered, surprised and even perplexed. When dining at El Bulli you are able to decipher flavors, question assumptions and experience new possibilities. I am so thankful for the opportunity to go to El Bulli.