With Ferran Adria’s announcement that he plans to close the venerable El Bulli after the 2011 season, I begin to wax rhapsodic about my dinner there 3 years ago on July 16, 2007. Just getting reservation there is a feat unto itself, especially one for 6 people.
Every year, two million people try to procure one of approximately 8,000 seats in the restaurant. So getting a reservation in what Restaurant Magazine has deemed “the best restaurant in the world” is indeed a momentous occasion. That we are able to get the reservation on the first try is quite an accomplishment.
As we enter the doors of El Bulli, the maitre d’ welcomes us and asks if we would like to take a tour of kitchen. How on earth can we turn down that offer? He was soon leading us into the stainless steel kitchen that seems out of place in the rustic setting of the restaurant. And there he was: the man who is responsible for this movement now known as “molecular gastronomy.” Ferran Adria was there to greet each and everyone of us and show off this amazing kitchen which looks more like a laboratory than anything else. Frankly, I was too busy taking pictures to even hear what everyone was saying. I was also in awe of that kitchen and of the man himself.
Ferran Adria Talks to Us in the Kitchen
Some friends have accused me that I went into El Bulli already liking the food without having tasted a single morsel. But when you schedule your vacation around a single restaurant reservation and travel halfway around the world just to eat one meal, a lot is at stake! It is one thing to drive an hour up to Napa to eat at French Laundry and not be impressed; it’s another to fly 6,000 miles to Spain in the middle of summer and have a flop of a dinner.
Chefs and Cooks at Work in the Kitchen
If getting to the restaurant would be portents of things to come, then already this dinner was starting to not look good. You see, before we even left from the US, everything had been planned including specific directions to the restaurant itself. While El Bulli is in the town of Roses, the restaurant itself is located 7 kilometers through a winding road within a national park on Cala Montjoi. And if you are not completely sure, after about halfway through the road, you wonder whether you are going the right way. We actually had to go back into town to ask whether this was the right road. Thank goodness we gave enough leeway to get to the restaurant at the appropriate time.
The Dining Room at El Bulli
Back at the restaurant, our party of 6 are soon escorted to our table. We notice that the restaurant can probably seat about 100 people at any one time, but they have thoughtfully given the diners enough breathing room so as not to feel cramped. During Anthony Bourdain’s visit to El Bulli as shown in his show “No Reservation,” it was mentioned that the restaurant seats about 50 diners at any one time, the same number as the cooks/chefs in the kitchen. Truly, a very high customer-to-cook ratio.
Chefs/Cooks at the Kitchen
It was soon very apparent that it is important to have an open mind when dining at El Bulli. This is probably the definitive dinner for the ultimate foodie, so you might as well check your preconceived notions of food at the door. So if you are one of the lucky few per year who were able to get a reservation, it would be to your best interest that you pick the right people to go there with: do not bring French traditionalists; those who do not like small plates; those who don’t like many courses; those who are not open to trying new things; or those not into any sort of fusion cuisine.
Here then is my assessment of our memorable evening at El Bulli, for all 30 courses. Thankfully, I’m happy to say that the experience definitely surpassed all my already high expectations.
Gin Fizz – Dinner begins with a welcome aperitif. For the four of us at the table who drink, we get gin fizz. The two non-drinkers get virgin pina coladas. A gin fizz is a cocktail made of gin, orange water, egg whites, cream, sugar, and lime and lemon juice. In this case, however, the gin is cold while the warm cream mixture of egg whites and cream sits in the middle of the martini glass. Oddly, the cold remains cold and warm cream remains warm until you sip it in your mouth. Really fascinating.
Spherical Olives – Our waitress comes to our table with a jar of what looks like olives in olive oil. She then takes these spoons with snubs for a holder and then fishes out orbs of “olives.” You are instructed that these should be taken in one bite. And in one bite, you discover that the “olives” are really olives in liquid form, but not olive oil. The liquid is kept intact by a film, not unlike that which covers an egg yolk.
LYO Fruits – LYO is short for lyophilized. What we got are sticks that look like pale French fries. They are in fact lyophilized, or freeze-dried, pineapple sticks.
Golden Nuggets – These nuggets that look like they are made of gold are actually parmesan cheese coated with an egg mixture that make them look like gold nuggets. Wonderful!
Beetroot and Yoghurt Meringue – If you don’t like beets, then this probably won’t be the best dish on the menu for you. I, for one, love beets and found these pillows made with beets encased in meringue really fantastic.
Beetroot and Yoghurt Meringue
Salty “Catanias” – Something was probably lost in translation, because the waitress called them chestnuts. They taste like chestnuts dipped in salted chocolate. But the menu had the catalan word for chestnuts, “catanias”, in quotes. Hmmm! Now I wonder if they are really chestnuts.
Salty Chocolate with Cassis, Yoghurt and Pistachio – This course is interesting, because you would expect the chocolates to be served at the end of the meal. But somehow the salty chocolates, each flavored with cassis, yoghurt and pistachio, work early in the meal.
Tangerine Bonbons, Peanut and Curry Wafers – We were told to eat the bonbons in two bites. These bonbons, each topped with solid gold flakes, are filled with tangerine liquid. The peanut and curry wafers are a bit disconcerting, however. What you would expect to be sweet is really quite savory and taste like something you would expect at a Thai Restaurant.
Tangerine Bonbons, Peanut and Curry Wafers
Pistachio Sponge Cake with Acid Milk Mousse – When we get the next 5 courses, we know that Ferran is really changing our preconceptions on food. Dessert is not in the order it is supposed to be in the menu. Or is this supposed to be dessert? The acid milk mousse looks and tastes like creme fraiche and is spooned on top of a wonderful cupcake-sized pistachio sponge cake.
Pistachio Sponge Cake with Acid Milk Mousse
Yemitas – A yema is a sweet concoction made with milk and egg yolks. These yemitas are small versions of yemas you fish out of a tray of maltodextrin. They taste like sweet creamy hard custard. You know that when a waitress brings out a tray of maltodextrin, you are not in just any restaurant. This is very otherworldly.
Sesame Sponge Cake with Miso – The sesame sponge cake looks like a sea urchin. They are made with black sesame seeds and taste sweet and salty at the same time but are quite light.
Sesame Sponge Cake with Miso
Raspberry Fondant and Raspberry Vinegar – If I were to rate all the courses, this would definitely be in the top five. Raspberries have been freeze-dried and topped with wasabi and dipped in powdered sugar (maltodextrin, perhaps?). They are then served with a spoonful of raspberry vinegar. You are supposed to pop the raspberry in your mouth and then immediately follow it with the vinegar. As soon as the sweet vinegar hits the raspberry, the fruit reconstitutes. The taste is incredible with a combination of sweet, sour, and spicy.
Raspberry Fondant and Raspberry Vinegar
Tiger Nut Milk Flowers – A tigernut, or chufa in Spanish, is a tuber that has a sweet nutty flavor. Here they are served in as tarts and has the consistency and taste of pecan pies.
Tiger Milk Nut Flowers
Mussels with Lemon and Fennel – Eating shellfish in months with no “R” would give some people hesitation, and these are raw mussels we are talking about. But wow! The mussels are fresh as can be and are served with 3 different “sauces”: lemon, orange, and fennel. The “sauce” is actually a small dollop of white liquid served at the top of each mussel.
Mussels with Lemon and Fennel
Haricot Beans with Joselito’s Iberian Pork Fat – Another of one of my favorite dishes. Haricot beans are liquefied and encased in a thin slice of Iberico ham fat. As you bite into the ham fat, the salty flavor of the ham mixes with the bean liquid (yes, liquid!) for an amazingly fresh taste of pork and beans without the heaviness.
Haricot Beans with Joselito's Iberian Pork Fat
Parmesan Frozen Air with Muesli – Then here it is! The style that put Ferran Adria on the culinary map: AIR! I’ve seen it on television and now here it is being served in front of me. The air comes in a styrofoam container the size of a Kleenex box and wrapped in a paper labeled “elBulliaire”. It also comes with a hermetically sealed cellophane envelope filled with “elBullisnacks”, freeze-dried fruits and nuts. When you open the styrofoam container, all you see are bubbles. You then sprinkle the dried fruits and nuts over the bubbles. A warning was also given not to inhale when you put the spoonful of bubbles in your mouth. So what does it taste like? PARMESAN! The pure taste of the parmesan without the calories. Interestingly enough, you start to feel full halfway through the container, even though all you’ve really had is air. Well, air and a bit of the snacks.
Parmesan Frozen Air with Muesli
Mar y Montaña (Anchovy and Ham with Yoghurt Yuba) – Yuba, known as tofu skin or dried beancurd, is the film that results when you boil soy milk on a shallow pan. Here the yuba is made from yoghurt and is served as part of Ferran Adria’s rendition of a Catalan classic, theMar y Montaña, literally Sea and Mountain or Surf and Turf. The anchovy represents the sea and is deboned and fresh; Mountain is represented by Iberico ham that has been pulverized. Why pulverize Iberico ham is beyond me, but I guess it’s because you can!
Mar y Montaña
Gorgonzola Shell, Walnut, Celery, and Apples – I wish I was able to take a picture of this dish after I had cracked the gorgonzola shell. What you get is a deconstructed Waldorf salad presented in a beautiful white dome made from gorgonzola cheese.
Gorgonzola Shell, Walnut, Celery, and Apples
“Risotto” of Citrics – I feel sorry for the intern cook who was given the task of making this “risotto,” another of the quote-unquote foodstuffs in the menu. It really isn’t risotto; it is grapefruit pulp which gives one the impression of pink risotto. So someone was given the task of opening each section of a grapefruit and carefully preserving the pulp so that they are intact and not popped. They are then served with a peanut sauce and yoghurt cream. Very interesting combination.
"Risotto" of Citrics
Gnocchi of Polenta with Coffee and Saffron Yuba – Traditionally, gnocchis are made from potatoes. Of course, that is much too plain and easy, so polenta (cornmeal) takes the place of the potato and are made into these creamy dumplings. They are served with coffee shavings and saffron yuba.
Gnocchi of Polenta with Coffee and Saffron Yuba
Padrón Ravioli – Padrón peppers are small green peppers that come from the town of Padrón in Galicia, Spain. The seeds collected and are used as filling for the raviolis that are made from the peppers.
Razor Clams with Seaweed – This was the first time I’ve ever tried razor clams. They are served here fresh with sea beans. I love the flavor and the texture of the clams in its purest form, without any flavoring, just the flavor of the sea.
Razor Clams with Seaweed
Snails “a la Llauna” – I had to google what llauna means. It means tin, as in tin can. While a la llauna is the one that is in quotes in the menu, it really should be the word “snails” that should be in quotes. These are really snail EGGS served in a tin container, or snail caviar. Once you get over the fact that they are snail eggs, you will notice that they really taste like caviar with the consistency of very small tapioca pearls.
Snails "a la Llauna"
Sea Cucumbers with “Roes” – Sea Lettuce and Salicornia – This is, down pat, my favorite course out of the 30 courses. The sea cucumbers come white, not at all like the gelatinous sea cucumbers that is a staple at Chinese banquets. For one thing, the consistency is not jelly-like and more meaty. I don’t know how they do it, but the cukes are then stuffed with calyx roe. As you cut into the cucumber, the golden roe spills out onto the plate. With the sea lettuce and salicornia, the taste is just seafood heaven.
Sea Cucumbers with "Roes" - Sea Lettuce and Salicornia
Lamb Tail with Yoghurt, Cantonese Style – The lamb tail is braised and served deboned with yoghurt gelee and yoghurt foam and squash blossoms. The lamb is not at all gamey with delicate flavors which combines with the acidity of the yoghurt.
Lamb Tail with Yoghurt, Cantonese Style
Poached Apple with Hare Jus – Apple is poached and a hunter sauce made from hare is poured over it. Poaching the apple gives it a translucency and with the hare jus, a very earthy taste. Very nice!
Poached Apple with Hare Jus
The Wool 2007 – Because the menu includes the year, I guess that every year there is a different type of wool. In that case, this year, the wool is included in dessert. It is actually cotton candy made from maltodextrin (there goes that maltodextrin again!). Under the wool is dessert made with bananas, cold cream, and coffee sauce. Of all the desserts, this was my favorite. In fact, this dessert was so liked by one member of our table that he finished his plate before the other plates were placed in front of the rest of us. No kidding!
The Wool 2007
Sweet Frost Fruits – Warm blackberries are encased in meringue. This comes with a plastic pipette filled with blackberry liqueur.
Sweet Frost Fruits
Mango with Black Olives and Smoking Tea – A meringue pastry is piped with passionfruit hard sauce and mango cream. A pool of mango sauce with chopped black olives also comes on the dish. Another personal favorite, this dessert is revelatory because who would think that black olives would go well as part of dessert. Fantastic!
Mango with Black Olives and Smoking Tea
Morphings – Morphings come in the form of chocolate wafers, chocolate pyramids, and something called Strawberries and Pearls. Stawberries are dipped in powdered sugar (maltodextrin, perhaps?) and a “pearl” is placed carefully where the stems would be. The “pearl,” like the spherical olives, is soft and is filled with white balsamic vinegar. While in the raspberry fondant, you chase the raspberry with the vinegar. Here, the vinegar comes directly with the bite of the sweet strawberry. What you get is the taste of macerated strawberries without it being cloyingly sweet.
Strawberries and Pearls
So there you have it, our El Bulli experience! Dinner ended at approximately 1am, about 5 hours after it started. One comment though is that with all the sensory overload, the staff does not give you a breather. You really have to ask for it. Halfway through the dinner, we had to force them to give us a break. This was given to us just before the lamb dish, so that we can enjoy the wonderful nighttime and the Mediterranean air.
Restaurant: El Bulli
Address: Cala Montjoi, Roses, Spain
Phone: 972 15 04 57
Date of Dinner: July 16, 2007
Other Details: 3 Michelin Stars, 2010 Best Restaurant in the World (Restaurant Magazine)