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El Bulli

By Ezra Klein

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On Nov. 4, I had the good fortune to go to El Bulli with my fiancee. El Bulli is the Spanish temple of modernist cuisine that, for the past few decades, has usually been ranked as the greatest restaurant in the world. Next year, it's closing down to become a research institute.

Since then, friends and family -- and a lot of you readers -- have been asking me whether it's the best meal I've ever had. It was, and easily. But not in the way that you'd think. What follows is a post about a restaurant, with lots of pictures of food. It's very easy to skip, so if you're not into this sort of thing, scroll on by.

Eating at El Bulli is like eating in the year 2300. Nothing looks like it should, and very little tastes like it should. The meal's dominant flavors -- namely, the mineral tang of shellfish and abalone and the gamey flavors of wild rabbit and turtledove -- are not flavors that most people particularly like. The best bites -- a bilini filled with fresh cheese and topped with truffle, or a perfectly cooked sliver of quail breast -- are not the most technically astonishing, and serve mostly to remind you that food tastes best when beautiful ingredients are treated simply.

But it is simply the most remarkable, fun, and inventive meal I've ever had. Across 30-some courses, I never knew what would come next, and even when it was set in front of me, often was wrong about what I was biting into. Most of the really good meals I've had lead to satiety, and of course, pleasure. This was among the first that paused on wonder. Perhaps that was due to how it started: When you sit down at El Bulli, they begin by getting you drunk:

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You're looking at "mojito baguette." The concoction couldn't have weighed an ounce: The baguette tasted like it was made of spun sugar, and the mojito gel in the middle had a nice, rummy bite. It was our second course of the night, the first being a strawberry that tasted intensely of fruit before you bit down and revealed it to be a shot of campari, and the third being an almond-and-amaretto "fizz." Meanwhile, they just kept pouring the house cava. And remember: This is El Bulli. You haven't eaten yet that day. In fact, Annie and I hadn't eaten for about 24 hours.

That's when they brought out the egg:

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I don't even know how to explain this one. It's made of gorgonzola cheese. But the gorgonzola cheese has been made into a frozen skin of some sort. It was delicious, and perfectly unlike anything I've ever eaten before.

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The menu says that was "coconut sponge-cake." It tastes like what would've happened if a coconut fell in love with a cloud. It's soft, and it first falls apart, and then dissolves, in your mouth. One of the best bites of the night.

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That's hazelnut caviar -- no, I don't understand it either -- atop some sort of translucent cookie. It's really a setup to this mind-bender:

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"Guess what these are," the waitress instructed us. One side tasted like caviar. The other tasted horrible. It turned out to be caviar in a hazelnut sauce, and then hazelnut caviar in a caviar sauce. Clever, though I didn't like it.

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I would be interested to know how they cooked this shrimp's head without cooking its body. The two parts were, as far as I could tell, still attached.

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That's tuna belly atop a bubble of tuna marrow, and in the foreground, matchsticks made out of sweetened soy sauce.

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El Bulli is big on the bait-and-switch: That thing in the middle that looks like a scallop? That's bone marrow. Those guys on the side that look like meat? Those are oysters in, I think, a bone marrow sauce.

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Why yes, that's a game-meat cappuccino. Why wouldn't it be?

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Another bait-and-switch: Hare bolognese with a cup of, well, blood. But the blood is sweetened to taste like berries, and the bolognese is reduced and darkened to taste like blood.

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An apple rose, with little balls of apple gel.

I don't want to end with too much of a final gush, as I've probably done enough of that already, and there are plenty of other places to find people heaping adjectives on El Bulli. It was four hours of delightful disorientation. I was very lucky to get the reservation, and very lucky to be able to go.

Ferran Adria plans to turn the restaurant into a research institute that will share its techniques and findings openly and widely. That makes some sense: Eating at El Bulli is a bit of a guilty experience: That you're there means other people who'd like to be there aren't. According to Adria, running El Bulli is even more guilt-inducing: it means not serving a lot of people. As I understand his proposal, the idea is to constantly research and publish new techniques online, so other restaurants can steal them freely and more people will get to enjoy the fruits -- and shellfish, and hare cappuccinos -- of Adria's labors. I hope it works.

By Ezra Klein  | November 16, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Comments

For curiosity's sake, what does a meal at El Bulli cost?

Posted by: kmlb68 | November 16, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

thank you for sharing that beautiful experience!

always wonderful when a person who works so hard,can fulfill a dream, and enjoy life's pleasures with someone they love!
carpe diem!

Posted by: jkaren | November 16, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

insanely jealous.

Posted by: gonzosnose | November 16, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, I'm both delighted for you and disappointed all at the same time... I literally woke up this morning wondering if my siblings and I couldn't swing a reservation for my father and mother for my father's 65th birthday next year. Alas, you've answered that question for me without my having to do any further research.

Congrats. Count me as just one of the envious.

Posted by: shantyhag | November 16, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

The tasting menu is a shade under EUR 200 plus drinks, so you're talking about $330 per head... plus the cost of getting there.

Not cheap, obviously, but not significantly higher than DC's priciest restaurants, even accounting for exchange rates, and similar to, say, tickets to the Super Bowl or a music festival, which I think is the right kind of comparison.

What I love about El Bulli is the playfulness and inquisitiveness it adopts towards what we expect from food, and I hope that it continues to do that in its new guise.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 16, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

--*Eating at El Bulli is a bit of a guilty experience: That you're there means other people who'd like to be there aren't.*--

What a pathetic loser you are, Klein.

That you're living in your house means that other people aren't. That you're working at your job means that other people aren't. That you're sucking in air means there's air that other people can't breathe. The money in your bank account is money other people can't use to buy the things they need.

At what point does the guilt become too much and you decide to relinquish your monopoly on things for the greater collective good?

Posted by: msoja | November 16, 2010 9:08 PM | Report abuse

For God's sake man, do you not see the contradiction between your daily calls for others to "have skin in the game", sacrifice, live less well than they now do, and your own sybarite lifestyle? The money you spent on this fling could have bought a nice Thanksgiving meal for quite a few people in some D.C. soup kitchen.

Posted by: truck1 | November 16, 2010 9:41 PM | Report abuse

"What a pathetic loser you are, Klein."

What a bitter sloganeer you are, Soja.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 17, 2010 1:03 AM | Report abuse

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