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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
"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.
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.
That's tuna belly atop a bubble of tuna marrow, and in the foreground, matchsticks made out of sweetened soy sauce.
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.
Why yes, that's a game-meat cappuccino. Why wouldn't it be?
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.
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.
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