Below is the recount of the entire El Bulli experience, including a course-by-course review of our August 13, 2009, lunch at El Bulli. There were two courses in which we didn’t get photos, but we’ll do our best to describe them in detail.
As we entered the restaurant we were greeted as if we were long-lost family. The Maître d’, Sr. Luis Garcia, deftly asked for the name on the reservation without breaking the illusion that we were home for dinner. When our legitimacy was confirmed he offered us a tour of the kitchen. They showed us the 4 primary sections: preparation, cold dishes, hot dishes and assembly/plating.
When we visited The French Laundry, Thomas Keller wasn’t there (we found out later that he was opening Per Se in New York at the time). Based on this experience we didn’t expect to see Ferran Adrià. However, not only was he there, but he played the perfect host. He took the time to meet every guest and even take pictures with them. While we did meet the man, we didn’t take a photo because we didn’t want to impose while he was still preparing for the afternoon’s service. Thinking that we’d have the opportunity to thank him at the close of the meal, it turns out that Elvis leaves the building once the last (35th in our case) course has been delivered to the last guest. At this point we were still knee deep in the chocolate box and we didn’t realize that he had left until it was too late.
Without further ado, here is the meal as we ate it:
Course 1: Roses
Frozen Whiskey Sour
What would normally be referred to as an amuse-bouche, this was the first of dish brought to the table. A cocktail, if you will. The white pedestal is frozen marble, with a cylindrical cutout in the middle filled with ice, and the leaf is from a rose bush. The “rose” flower is a frozen whiskey sour. The variations in color didn’t seem to affect the taste, but were seemingly formed by adding the cocktail with some <gasp> food coloring a bit at a time which is allowed to slowly freeze before the next “color” is added. The rose leaf serves as a utensil, and it was welcome because by the third (last) bite the flower was getting soft.
Course 2: Crystal of Parmegiano
This was the most basic course of the meal, and it completely disarmed me. I’d had treatments similar to this in the past and I remember thinking at this point that what we had in store for the next few hours was wasn’t going to be so impressive. As it turns out, this was the last time I would feel this way.
Course 3: Coniferous
Pine Needles and Gin Fizz cocktail
This is the first of 2 dishes that we forgot to photograph, so this image was “sampled” from elsewhere. What you see here is an aperitif glass filled with a yogurt-based Gin Fizz, which typically is made with gin, lemon juice, sugar, and carbonated water. While this version had the yogurt, gin, sugar and seltzer, it substituted pine essence for the lemon. Served on the side (the plate to the right) is a sprig of very plump, perhaps artificially hydrated, pine needles. The suggested sequence is to suckle to the sprig, and then take a sip of the cocktail. I miss gin, since I developed an allergy to it 14 years ago. I didn’t develop a migraine, so the amount was seemingly small enough. This was just a taste and it was extremely welcome. The play of the juniper and pine was complementary, and just a foreshadowing of what we had in store.
Course 4: Spherical Olives
This is the one dish that Ferran serves year after year since it so succinctly sums up what he has brought to the discipline. It is also one of the things to which I was most looking forward. Essentially, this green you see is a very thin puree of olives encased in a sphere of tasteless gelatin. When you place the olive in your mouth it explodes on your tongue giving you the taste of 10 olives in 1 bite. It is so beloved that it’s also the only dish in which you are offered seconds.
Course 5: Mimetics Peanuts
This dish is essentially a reconstructed peanut. The interior of the peanut shell is filled with a concentrated peanut butter whose consistency is somewhere between the “peanut butter” found in a candy bar (like a PB Twix) and creamy Jiff. The shell is the consistency a thin chocolate shell. In fact, it was impossible to eat these in less than one bite because the shell, once broken, wouldn’t hold the remains together. And topping off the peanut is an extremely flaky sea salt. Together they form a brilliant interplay between salt and sweet that was really delightful.
Course 6: Sesame Cracker
As it sounds, but not how it looks
This dish was an amazing technical achievement. Ferran and Albert turned sesame seeds into the consistency of powdered sugar yet were somehow able to keep it together long enough for you to eat it. The white part just dissolves when it hits your tongue, and the block dots (black sesame) follow just shortly after.
Course 7: Vanilla Chips
Crisp Sheets of Concentrated Vanilla
These were absolutely amazing. Done basically in the same manner as the Parmesan crisps earlier in the meal, these were done with Vanilla. The black dots in the thin, crystallized membrane appear to have been flakes of vanilla bean. They didn’t dissolve on the tongue as we expected; rather they crackled until fully macerated. Clearly there was more preparation involved than pouring vanilla imbued simple sugar over a Silpat.
Also notable was the serving dish. As you can see, it looks unmistakably like a fried egg. This is the first course in which Ferran plays with your notions of what you’ll expect to taste and what you actually do taste.
Course 8: Cherry Umeboshi
This dish had us confused. We couldn’t tell if they were simply Chinese cherries, split and pitted, and topped with rice vinegar reduction, or a frozen, reconstructed cherry. The server for this course indicated that they were reconstructed, but I’m not entirely sure he understood our question.
Course 9: Coconut Sponge
As it sounds.
This was the second in a string of three disarmingly simple ideas that nonetheless challenged your preconceptions. If you saw Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” from Spain last year, you saw the creation of this dish. The piece of coconut sponge cake is made by pouring the cake batter into a CO2 (Seltzer) bottle and then charging it. The batter is then poured/shot/expelled into a perforated paper cup and then the cup is microwaved for 30 seconds. The cake is then refrigerated, but it maintains its shape. Enough about how it’s made; how does it taste? Think of the richest buttercream frosting you’ve ever had…the kind that dissolves on your tongue. That’s what this was like: Looks like cake, tastes like frosting.
Course 10: Flower Nectar
Inedible Flower Filled with Nectar
This is the second of the courses for which I didn’t get my own photo. The reason we didn’t get this one is that the server asks you take it off the plate, suck the nectar and then replace the flower. I didn’t have time to process all of this and take the photograph. The flower was fragrant but relatively tasteless. The nectar, on the other hand, was like concentrated honey. It was probably the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted in my life.