El Bulli, Second Third

Although there wasn’t a chronological break, the experience changed its heading.  At this point in the meal we began a shift into more complex assemblages of textures and flavors.  This was our favorite phase of the meal because the courses started to tell stories, or at the least challenge one’s preconceptions about what and how we eat.

Course 11: Black Sesame Sponge Cake with Miso

A Savory Twinkie of Sesame Sponge Cake Filled and Topped with Miso Paste.

Black Sesame Sponge with Miso

This dish came with instructions to eat the end with the miso paste on the outside with the first bite.  The opposite end of the sponge is filled with the same paste, and it is intended to be eaten in the second bite.  I believe this order is suggested because the miso is a very strong taste, and the chef wants you to be able to wade into it gently.

Incidentally, this sponge is made in the same manner as the coconut sponge from Course 9.

Course 12: Oyster Leaf with Dew of Vinegar

A Leaf that Tastes Like an Oyster Topped with Gel of Champagne Vinegar and Minced Shallot.

Oyster Leaf (rotated)

The leaf is naturally occurring, and as the name suggests it tastes just like an oyster.  According to our server, they grow wild in Holland.  I’ve learned since our return that they grow in Scotland as well.  The orange beads are reduced champagne vinegar and at the base is a small portion of minced shallot; a deconstructed mignonette.  Bravo to Ferran for not only “discovering” this plant’s leaves but for having the courage to present it so simply.  This one really took us off guard and we would have gladly taken a 1/2 dozen!

Course 13: Chicken Skin Canape

Fried Chicken Skin and Keel Cartilage in Garlic Barbecue Glaze.

Chicken Skin (rotated)

If you even remotely share my taste in comedy you’ll remember Adam Corolla’s “Man Show”.  On one episode he presented “Man Ideas,” the biggest of which was a full bucket of KFC Original Recipe Chicken Skin (no chicken, just skin!).  Ferran Adrià clearly shares my taste in comedy!

This treatment is a bit of fried skin overlaid with two fried breast keels (cartilage) and topped with a subtle garlic glaze that did more to soften the texture than to alter the taste.  The sprouts, likewise, added a touch of texture more than they contributed in scent.

Course 14: Truffle Surprise

Two Treatments for White Truffles.

IMG_2412

The server advised us to eat the bite on the right first.  This is basically a fried wonton, only instead of rice dough and cream cheese it is a sheet of white truffle encasing a sphere of truffle essence.  To this point it may have been the richest thing I’ve ever eaten.  The second bite is shredded white truffle encasing a pocket of pepper and anise that is a stark contrast to the previous bite, and it serves to slowly bring one down off Mont Truffle.

Course 15: Osmanthus

Reconstructed Udon in Floral Broth.

Osmanthus

This dish lies somewhere between broth and tea.  As the title suggests, the liquid is infused with the Osmanthus blossom and it is extremely floral.  The “noodles” are essentially udon noodle dough that has been turned into an emulsion and is then die-pressed directly into the broth/tea where it “sets”.  When you sip, as your lips touch the “noodles”, they dissolve.  Challenging and creative as it was, this dish left us both wanting something extra.

Course 16: Prawn Two Firings

Prawn Gradient from Raw to Fried.

Prawn (rotated)

My favorite dish to this point. This humble prawn has been cooked to 4 different degrees.  While it is a remarkable technical acheivement, the progression of tastes left us speechless.  The server advised us to hold the shrimp by the head, and work our way from the tail all the way up.  The first bite is completely raw and cold.  This bite burst with the taste and smell of the ocean.  The second bite was cooked and chilled; essentially straight out of a shrimp cocktail.  The third bite was fully cooked and still hot, like a scampi without the garlic or butter.  The last bite was mostly head and the juxtaposition between the crispy claws and the juicy head was amazing.  We don’t eat many crustacean heads in the US (outside of Louisiana), so this was new taste for me.  I’m looking forward to my next Cajun restaurant experience. 

Prawn Essence with Edible Flower.

Prawn Essence (rotated)

Just in case we were clamoring for more, the second half of this course is a spoon full of prawn essence accompanied by a tiny edible flower.  Taken in one mouthful, this dish recounts the first part of the course with a concentration of prawn flavor as the flower mimics the fried claws.

Again, this was one of the most memorable dishes and it was definitely my favorite to this point.

Course 17: Mimetic Almond

A Variety of Cold Almond Treatments.

Almonds

Up until this point the preparations had been novel but none of the courses seemed to actively attempt to trick the diner.  Enter the almonds.  From the right, there is a portion of shaved ice that tastes of concentrated tomato.  In the middle are a variety of reconstructed almonds.  The clear ones are almond ice, the white and brown ones are either frozen almond ice cream or tepid almond butter.  Concealed at the far end of the plate are two real almonds that interestingly enough were 2 of the last 3 “nuts” to be eaten.  At left is a section of tangerine that had been dehydrated and then rehydrated with concentrated tangerine juice.  The entire dish is a masterpiece that challenges your expectations about what and how we eat.  The inclusion of actual nuts simultaneously grounds the dish in reality and throws you a wink to let you know that Ferran is firmly in control of this experience (down to the plating).

Course 18: Cockles with Yuzu

Raw Cockles with Chinese Citrus and Fennel Root.

Cockles

This dish hearkens back to Spanish tavern food.  The focus is the arrangement of raw cockles in their own juice.  In between them is a pickled and sliced section of fennel root as well as a segment of candied Yuzu (a Chinese citrus fruit).  The cockles are a tavern staple and I suspect the fennel is a nod to the pastis drunk in said taverns.  While the treatment of the yuzu was where the chef’s attention was paid, the citrus taste was overpowering to me and I only had one full bite.  For the remaining cockels, I just dabbed the mollusk in the yuzu sauce.

Course 19: Mushroom-CRU with Hazelnut

Mushroom Caps, Nopales and Coral Mushrooms in a Hazelnut Foam.

Mushrooms

This is the one dish that didn’t really speak to me, and I think it was because it tried to do too many things at once.  In the middle are three sections of poached mushroom cap which are surrounded by two nopale petals in a mushroom broth with a hazelnut foam.  In the broth are some smaller mushrooms and there are two cranberries(?) as well.

Course 20: Pumpkin and Almond Sandwich

A Bocadillo of Pumpkin Brioche Filled with Shaved White Truffle and Reconstructed White Almonds.

Pumpkin Bocadillo

As you would expect, this wasn’t a cheap meal to make or to eat.  I think a full 15% of the price was due to this course.  Some of you may remember my Las Vegas Nobu story about the $100 truffle to top my Kobe filet.  That single truffle was about 30% of what is included on this sandwich, and Liz and I each had our own!

Again, this dish plays with the diner and reinterprets the humble boccadillo.  The roll tastes of pumpkin and is airier than brioche; just touching it caused it to fall apart.  Hence the paper to cradle it while you eat.  Inside is the aforementioned surplus of shaved white truffle and two of the reconstructed white almond butter amonds from the previous almond course.  This was a magnificent course and I’ve very rarely felt more decadent at the dinner table.

Course 21: Sea Anemone with Tea

Sea Anemone, Served Three Ways.

Sea Anemone

Ferran’s on a roll now!  This course takes three sea anemone and treats them all differently.  The bottom one is topped with Osetra, while one at right is topped with caviar foam and the last is topped with black tea foam.  In between are two gelatin ravioli stuffed with powdered black tea (an incredibly miniscule amount; the picture makes it seem much bigger) and one with more Osetra.  This is my first experince with anemone, but I hope not my last!  The texture is incredibly delicate and the taste is huge like conentrated oysters.  Its as if you swallowed half the Pacific in one bite of past-al denti capellini.  The bottom of the plate is gold leaf, and as intended its appearance actually accentuates the dish.

Course 22: Pinenut Shabu-Shabu

Three Pinenut Preparations in Water Soluble Bags.

Pinenuts

Time to bring it back to the land.  This dish is a bowl of pine-water accompanied by three gelatin bags filled with three treatments of pine nut, from bottom: roasted, essence and toasted.  The diner is advised to try the three treatments in any order they choose, but to hold each bag in the water for two seconds and then eat it.  The bags disolve and you’re left with the concentrated pine nut.  Also, we were advised, the pine-water will cleanse the pallete before tasting the next packet.  My favorite was the roasted as it was the lightest and least concentrated.  Liz liked the essence best.

Course 23: Abalone

Sections of Raw Abalone and Bacon Fat Over a Bed of Mushrooms.

Abalone

And back to the sea.  This course features alternating thinly sliced sections of raw abalone and lardo (cured bacon fat).  The combination is laid over a bed of enoki mushrooms and surrounded by coral mushrooms.  I’ve only had abalone once before and it was pounded and fried and completely different than this.  This meat is not exactly tender, but it’s easy enough to chew:  much like tako (octopus tentacle nigiri sushi).  In contrast, the lardo absolutely melted in our mouths.  This time the mushrooms were complimentary and in my opinion this is where they belong.  They added a little umami that completed the whole dish.

Course 24: Scampi Tongs

Langostillo Claws Over Two Sesame Sauces with Garlic Butter Foam.

Langostillo Claws

This is an interesting dish that brings back the sesame seed in whole and in tahini (sesame paste commonly used in Middle Eastern food), and then adds langostillo claws topped with butter foam.  I suspect that there’s a back story to this dish that neither of us was culturally programmed to get.  It was interesting but not outstanding.  I think the whole sesame seeds detracted from the rest of the constituent parts.

Course 25: Squid with Foie Fat and Corn Risotto

Baby Cuttlefish with Ink Sacks Intact on a Bed of Corn Risotto and Reduced Foie Gras.

Cuttlefish

Back in the description for Course 14 (Truffle Surprise) I mentioned that at that point it was the richest thing I’d ever eaten.  In hindsight, that dish was an 8 on a scale of 1-10.  Course 25 turns it up to 11.  The focus of this dish is on the 5 baby cuttlefish that have been lightly grilled.  Arranged around them are a corn risotto and a foie gras reduction.  I assumed that the risotto and foie gras would provide the richness in contrast to an austere cephalopod taste like calamari.  On the contrary, on the first bite the ink sack breaks and your mouth is flooded with more nautical essence than I have the words to describe.  Taken with a dab of the foie gras reduction, a single bite of one of these (the whole fish) has as more flavor going on than almost any entire meal I’ve ever eaten.  And then you get to take a break before the next bite with a spoonful of the richest risotto ever.  He’s not pulling any punches on this one.  And one last bit: while this is the best single dish I’ve ever had, it’s a shame that it came so late because by this point I was only able to eat three fish.

Black Tongue (rotated)

Course 26: Parmesan Ravioli

As it Sounds.

Parm Ravioli

Time to take it back down again.  This course, which would have been the highlight of a lesser meal, consisted of a relatively simple ravioli of liquefied Parmesan in a lemon butter sauce with capers.  Instead of pasta to contain the Parmesan, we have the gelatin bags.  Again, this is a simple dish, but it’s absolutely bursting with flavor.

Course 27: Rabbit Canapé with Its Giblets

Fried Rabbit Ears with Rabbit Brains and Kidneys topped with Snail Eggs.

Rabbit Ears

As you would imagine, this was the most challenging dish to eat.  Mig thoroughly enjoyed the fried ear, as it tasted like a slightly chewier chicharon (fried pig skin).  Although this was the only dish in which I knew we would be served, I had some trepidation about the offals.  Once I tasted them, though, they weren’t too disturbing and I was able to enjoy the dish for what it was.  What was disturbing were the snail eggs.  Liz had the opposite experience.  She didn’t mind the eggs, but didn’t enjoy any of the rabbit bits.

It should be noted that this dish didn’t just appear from the ether.  In Catalunya a popular tavern dish is a stew of Rabbit and Snails.  This is yet another of Ferran’s reinterpretations of dishes that are familiar but are reassembled in a novel way.

Course 28: Kidney of Lamb with Jerez Consommé, Yogurt and Fennel

As it sounds.

Lamb Kidney

Wow!  This is another dish that would have been the highlight of a lesser meal.  Relatively simple and straightforward, but prepared perfectly.  The balance of flavors is so perfect it makes me wonder why (if?) no one else has thought to put these ingredients together before.  This is also probably the only dish that would make sense on the menu of The French Laundry.

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