Sunday, July 08, 2007

Holiday in Spain - The Big Show: El Bulli

July 3rd, the day of our reservation, had finally arrived! Our reservation was for 8:30, but we left Mas de Torrent at around 6:00, intending to stop to see something touristy along the way. However, after three trips through the same roundabout near Pals, we gave up on seeing its medieval city. We arrived outside the Dali museum in Figueras at around the time (7:45) of the last entry, at which point we turned around and headed for Roses. While the directions on the El Bulli website were pretty useless (we never saw the street/location signs they indicated), we finally saw a few El Bulli signs that directed us the right way. We turned up a winding road just past the second El Bulli sign, whose few adjacent buildings quickly became farther apart, until the only buildings to be seen were across the water, on other mountain peaks. I wasn't prepared for this last leg of the drive, which, if Rhonda (what Adam inexplicably named the car's GPS) is to be believed, was a 7km mountainside climb that would its way up and then slightly down steep, curvy roads. The views of the opposing peaks and open water below were breathtaking, but from my seat, the road seemed to drop steeply off into nothing for much of the ride, making the view also a little nauseating. From a few minutes into the drive until we finally saw the El Bulli sign at the end, we were half convinced that we had made a wrong turn and would be late. I kept thinking that if we veered off the road, we would most definitely plunge to our deaths. Adam loved driving it, of course, and we arrived with five minutes to spare. Here's the view from outside restaurant...imagine it from high on railingless road.
After a quick trip to the kitchen (where Ferran was standing front and center - I've never seen such a clean, orderly kitchen), we were shown to our table against the back wall. We sat side by side, where we could see most of the other tables in the room. After verifying that they remembered out dietary request (no meat/juices), the courses quickly began arriving. Unfortunately, some of the pictures are kind of blurry - in my eagerness to eat, I often didn't pay that much attention to how the picture looked on the little camera screen. Oh, and in case it seems weird to be taking pictures in a restaurant, two of the three tables surrounding us also pulled out cameras!
The "gin fizz" looked normal enough, but the foam (which was squirted out of a whipper tableside) started steaming a bit when it was added. I assumed it was because it was so cold, but when I took a sip, it was warm! The bottom, liquid layer was cold, with tiny ice crystals. While the gin flavor was pretty standard, the texture and temperature contrasts made the starting cocktail one of my favorites of the night. I have no idea how they managed to make the foam warm, since my experience with nitrous canisters is that they turn the canister (and its contents) cold.

The "spherical olives," while delicious, were functionally identical to the "olives" we'd had at minibar last summer, except that minibar gave us both green and black olives. Because of that, they lacked the element of surprise that we'd felt at minibar when the sphere's thin skin exploded into liquid olive. I think our familiarity with the molecular gastronomy techniques made many parts of this meal less wowing than it otherwise might have been, and I think both Adam and I had tried to keep that in mind (essentially, we didn't want to be less impressed with Adria for the effects of other restaurants' imitating his style). Given that we still thought it was a great experience, despite few really surprising dishes, we seem to have done so successfully.
The "golden nuggets" were essentially crunchy parmesan croutons in some sort of shiny coating. In fact, they weren't described as golden nuggets when they were served, but as some sort of parmesan thing, but I'm assuming from the printed menu. I am a fan of anything made from cheese!
The next few little bites were served at the same time. The "salty 'catanias'" looked like chocolate bonbons dusted in cocoa powder, but collapsed into a liquid center. Kind of cool, but I don't love the taste of bitter cocoa powder. The "parmesan 'airbag'" was essentially a hollow cracker dusted in sesame seeds. Adam's reading of egullet forums seems to suggest that these were our vegetarian replacement for some sort of pork rind snack. I didn't love this one, especially after the nuggets, which had a much stronger parmesan flavor. The "beetroot and yoghurt meringues" were my favorite dish since the gin fizz, light and very crunchy, with a clear, slightly sweet beet flavor. The printed menu listed "LYO fruits" as the dish before the golden nuggets, but as we didn't receive anything at that point and googling seems to indicate that LYO refers to some sort of freeze-drying, I'm assuming that this is the name for the pineapple sticks (which otherwise weren't listed on our menu). They were crunchy, with an intense pineapple flavor, very delicious. The "salty chocolate with cassis, yoghurt and pistachio" weren't actually chocolate at all, although molded to look like mini chocolate bars. Intense flavor, a bit sour (especially the cassis), and I was left with the impression that they were a bit gritty in texture. The yoghurt was my favorite.

"Tangerine bombons [sic], peanut and curry": the little disk tasted like a tiny peanut butter wafer with a hint of curry powder, very tasty. The bonbon exploded into a liquid tangerine center. Delicious.

The "pistachios sponge cake with acid milk mousse" seems to be a bit misnamed. The cake was crunchy, with an almost biscuity taste under the pistachio flavor, and not at all spongy. The mousse tasted like a sour yoghurt (and I believe might have been described as such). We were instructed to put a dollop on top of the cake. While delicious, it crumbled immediately on the first bite. Might have been better as a smaller, single-bite dish, to make it less messy. Still ate (almost) every crumb.

The "sesame sponge cake with miso," unlike the pistachio cake, was extremely spongy and light. I have no idea how they gave it such an interesting texture, which made this dish very interesting despite an as-advertised flavor.

The "flowers paper" was essentially tangy, edible flavors in a flattened layer of slightly sweet cotton candy. Not baffling as to how to was made (as some of our favorite dishes were), but very beautiful.
I really enjoyed the "rasberries [sic] fondant with wasabi and rasberries vinegar." The sweet raspberry was warm inside its sugar coating, and melted in my mouth. We had been advised to eat half of the raspberry, drink the spoonful of vinegar, and then eat the rest of the berry. The first bite was very sweet, and the second bite (after the sourish vinegar) less so. I don't remember really tasting the wasabi, and I'm generally very sensitive to spicy flavors. My one complaint is that I think this dish might have seemed better placed as one of the dessert courses.

The "tiger nut milk flowers" came out on a beautiful metal platter with rippled edges (they sell the platter, we bought two as gifts), with a layer of ice on the bottom to keep the flowers from melting. They begin melting almost as soon as you touch them (I transferred the photographed one to my plate, and it appears a bit melted along the edge from my touch). The flowers had a bit of a nutty flavor, but were actually kind of bland. They brought out the nuts for us to see, as well.

The "oysters yoghurt with px in tempura" was probably my favorite dish up until that point in the meal. The glass mug contained a creamy, slightly seafoody soup. The "px" stands for Pedro Ximenez, the varietal commonly used to make sherry. The tempura essentially tasted like a deep-fried sip of sherry, very surprising (I was expecting a more solid grape) and very delicious.
I was not a fan of the "mussels with lemon and fennel." The tiny balls (at the top of the picture) each tasted different (fennel, lemon, maybe something else?), and we were advised to eat an oyster and then a ball. While the balls were surprisingly strongly flavored, the raw mussels were stronger. In fairness, I don't really like raw shellfish, especially since my first raw mussel experience (at an old, well-regarded Boston restaurant, no less) gave me the worst food poisoning I've ever had. I imagine people who do like raw shellfish would have liked this one.

The "Fever-Tree tonic meringue with strawberries and lemon" was lovely to look at, but the tonic taste (of which I'm not really a fan, without vodka or gin to cut it) was very strong. The bottom of the dish had bits of what tasted like icy lemon sorbet, which made the bites that included it much better. The freeze dried strawberries taste like what comes out of my cereal box. The best bites included bits of everything (including the micro mint).

The "dashi with miso caviar" was the only dish to use the fake caviar technique that I've read about. It's a very cool technique, but tasted like a bland miso soup with interesting texture. Yet another example of Spanish restaurants seeming newly-enamored of Japanese ingredients (see description of tartar at Bar Mut). I would much preferred to have gotten to try a fruit caviar, but am looking forward to attempting our own with the Texturas chemicals I bought for Adam for his birthday.
The "fresh pine-cone and pinions dacquoise" tasted like a very fancy, crunchy, slightly different peanut butter sandwich on white bread. The table next to us got this dish shaped like a large ring, which was sliced into wedges tableside.

The "pine-nut shell" was edible and cold, and started to melt as I ate it. The pine nuts inside were very soft, and sat in a clear gel. Basically, it was pine nuts in textures. A bit bland in flavor, and we'd had so many nut-flavored things already that it lost some of its effect.
The "tomato cous-cous with oil-olives, basil and parmesan cheese" was a mostly excellent dish. The glass of clear liquid was richly parmesan flavored. I would love to know how it's made. Parmesan stock reduced and filtered? The red "cous-cous" tasted like little chilled crystals of Campbell's tomato soup concentrate. While very good, I think it would have been amazing if it tasted like fresh tomatoes. The oil-olives looked like regular olive oil, but had the intense olive flavor of the fruit. We were told not to mix the ingredients, but they tasted even better together (not sure if the instruction was a mistake?). The only disappointment was that the basil sorbet, which I've had many times on appetizers or desserts, was actually pretty bad. It didn't have a strong, fresh basil taste, and marred an otherwise outstanding dish. Beautiful, rich colors.

The "gnocchi of polenta with coffee, safran yuba and daisy buds" was one of my two favorite dishes. The gnocchi was very soft and light, sitting in a rich sauce containing capers and bits of egg. My only complaint (well, besides the fact that the serving wasn't huge) was the sprinkling of coffee powder on top, but that's just because I don't like coffee at all. Even with the subtle coffee flavor and the capers (which I often don't love), I still savored every bite. I recognize that most people would love it even more. However, this didn't seem like a very technically complicated dish...it could have been on any creative Italian menu.
The "Padron ravioli" were another great dish, like a variation on classic fried, salty tapa. The thin, clear skin contained a course filling that tasted like a dice of peppers and seeds. Bits of sea salt brought the dish alive. I could have taken or left little dots of licorice flavor (another food I don't like). Another egullet poster described this dish as very spicy, but ours wasn't, a product, I assume, of the variation in the spiciness of the peppers themselves.
The "razor clam with seaweed" was by far my least favorite dish (didn't even bother to eat more than one). Perhaps if I liked raw shellfish more, I would have finished this dish. It reminded me of swallowing too much salt water at the beach. Very fishy/seaweedy/salty. However, the very vocal American at a nearby table (who told a waiter to call him "Big Jim") loved it. I overheard the following: "We all love to eat the ocean. . . . I on [didn't catch the name] beach, looking out. I love it!" At which point, I'm pretty sure someone at the table shushed him. When the waiter returned, Big Jim said "I feel like I am a whale, riding in the ocean, dreaming of mermaids." It took a great deal of self control not to laugh out loud.

The printed menu indicates a course called "enokis to cream" at this point, but nothing like that was served. Very disappointing, since sounds like it would have been delicious. I'm not sure what happened to this dish, but very weird.
The "codfish with 'topinambour'" was the other of my two favorite dishes. Chunks of sunchoke and a luxurious layer of shaved white truffles sat on the cod skin (no actually cod meat). I don't remember what the cream on the side tasted like, but I remember this entire combination was rich and absolutely delicious.
The "skate" wing was accompanied by a hazelnut foam and some noodles of either soy or seaweed (I can't remember which - definitely salty). I'm not sure this combination worked all that well together. The feta noodles at minibar were a far better use of the flavored noodle technique. The skate dish was fine, I certainly ate it all, but wasn't a standout. Pretty sick of nut flavors by now.

The "sea cucumbers with 'roes' - sea lettuce and salicornia," however, was a outstanding. I've never had sea cucumbers before (and A suggests that they are endangered, which makes me iffy on eating them in future), but they were delicious! The roe stuffed inside them looked like salmon roe, but without the overwhelming saltiness that makes me less than enthused about it. While a waiter we asked said that it was, in fact, roe, the menu quotation marks suggests that they were another synthetic caviar. The "lettuce" was some sort of thin green layer (couldn't tell if it was an actual cooked green or some sort of jellied layer) wrapped around individual pieces of sea bream. Whatever was in this one, we loved it.

At this point, we transitioned into sweet courses with "eggplant to the honey," which served as a sort of bridge between savory and dessert. It was very interesting, but I didn't love it. The chunk of deep red eggplant tasted sweet (as though marinated/poached in honey), and looked vaguely (unappetizingly) like a chunk of meat. Light yoghurt and a smear of sesame paste finished the dish. For some reason, the contrasts didn't quite work for me.

The "sweet frost fruits" were blackberries in a crisp meringue, accompanied by a pipette of berry juice. We were instructed to squirt the juice into the meringue before eating, which didn't work so well. The juice kept dripping out, no matter how centered I positioned the pipette. In the end, I ate the meringues and squirted the pipette directly into my mouth. Very tasty, not overwhelmingly sweet.


The "orchid" was an amazing dessert, but unfortunately I can't remember many specifics beyond my lingering impression of amazement. I had expected the trail of chocolate to be bittersweet, but it was surprisingly fudgy. I loved it! I believe there was a saffron ice cream, some sort of moist bite of cake, plus the orchid itself. I can see some other bits in my photograph, but can't remember what they are! Very frustrating.

At this point, we were asked if we wanted to move to the terrace for coffee and the remaining desserts, which we did. We hadn't sat outside before dinner as some diners had, so it was a nice change of scenery. In the dark, we could only hear the waves lapping against the beach below. The weather was perfect. An absolutely lovely setting to end the evening.

The first of our "Morphings...." was a strawberry with vinegar: a wonderfully ripe strawberry with a little round of vinegar (same technique as the olives) that exploded in my mouth. Or, in Adam's case, slid off the top of his strawberry to splat on the table. Luckily, the waiter graciously fetched a replacement.

The final offering was a sleeve of styrofone containing "paper candy," which was essentially a wafer-thin, sugary confection. Very sweet, cool technique, but not as amazing in flavor as many of the other things we ate.

In terms of wine, we started with a Remelluri Blanco 04, which was fine but unremarkable. Looking for something a little more exciting (and eyeing the golden white on Big Jim's table), Adam then ordered a bottle of Batard-Montrachet Lemoine 02, which was very big and apricoty. Really lovely, but unfortunately, we had to drive back, so Adam couldn't drink that much, and I figured he'd rather a soberish navagator. We took the remaining half of the bottle to go, but other than Adam's one glass nightcap later that evening, we didn't get a chance to finish it. Sadly, thanks to no liquid security regulations, we had to abandon it when we left.
Overall, we had a great time, and would definitely go back (though preferably with more people - I imagine it's more fun with a group, especially with friends who haven't eaten this sort of food before). In terms of pure food enjoyment, we probably liked minibar more, thanks to the novelty and some really outstanding dishes. However, the El Bulli food, location, and the effect of knowing we got a sought-after, almost-impossible-to-get experience all made the night great. Unlike some stories I've heard, we didn't leave hungry (nor stuffed, which is also good). The service couldn't have been better, and the drive is certainly a fitting dramatic prelude. Luckily, the return trip was a lot less scary in the dark!

1 Comments:

Anonymous Alexis said...

I should not have read this on day 8 of my diet (I have lost 3lbs go me!).

Glad you had fun, pictures are preee---ttttyyy

8:01 AM  

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