Tuesday, June 12, 2007

El Bulli!

Yes, I really went. And yes, it really was life-altering. It was like nothing else I'd ever experienced, and there's no hyperbole in that statement. I have, in fact, never seen, felt, heard, or tasted anything else like it.

First, the cast of characters. For purposes of (relative) anonymity, and because I don't have the participants' permission to use their real names here (with the exception of Katie, who comments here), we'll use the last initial. I was traveling, mostly, with my dear friend Katie and her family: Sister S., Mama S., and Papa S. Their good friends Mr. and Mrs. B. joined us for lunch at El Bulli.

We were staying in Barcelona and drove up to Roses the morning of June 3, to arrive at 1pm for a 1:30pm lunch reservation. Once we passed through the town of Roses (which appeared to be a beach town much like Santa Cruz, CA) the road got a bit more interesting. It was one lane (but two-way traffic) winding its way up and along a hillside. There were also a few bicyclists and hikers to contend with on the road. It was beautiful countryside, though, and reminded all of us of California. Lots of chaparral, with a few vineyards here and there. We were also right on the coast, so there were some lovely views:

We arrived early enough that we were able to take a peek into the kitchens and see the staff at work. Now, I haven't seen many kitchens at high-end restaurants (just the one at Chez Panisse), but the one at El Bulli was impeccably clean, calm, and orderly. I was impressed. The rest of the restaurant was beautiful. There was gorgeous stonework and ample natural light, and we had the pleasure of beginning our meal out on an idyllic little patio. Our table was sheltered from the wind, the star jasmine was blooming, and the weather was perfect.

Okay. Now the food, in the order in which we had it. For each item/course/dish I'll give what it was called on the written menu (which we received only at the end--everything was a surprise), some description, and whatever other thoughts I have. At the end I'll list the wines, which were also written up on the menu we received (good thing, 'cause my notes didn't write down all the vintages, etc.). We started out on the patio, and had the first several courses before going to our table inside.

1. "Cosmopolitan-mallow." Quite a start to the adventure. They put in front of each of us a small bowl with several little dollops of what looked like beaten egg whites. Each dollop had some lime zest on it. We were all about to pick up our spoons when someone came around with little carafes of slightly thick, reddish liquid and poured some into each bowl. We were informed that the dish was a cosmopolitan. And indeed, it was. The red liquid was cranberry puree with vodka, and quite possibly some orange liqueur as well. I have no idea what the white dollops actually were, but they were pretty cool, and it all tasted great. The vodka was quite strong, and we were already drinking champagne, so by the time we finished some of us were feeling a bit woozy.

2. "LYO fruits." These were actually freeze-dried Chinese gooseberries. Very light, very tart, and rather strange-looking. Some of us loved them; others didn't like them so much. Personally, I thought they were great.

3. "Golden nuggets." These were amazing. Definitely in the running for favorite dish of the afternoon. We were instructed (yes, they told us how to eat everything) that they must be eaten in one bite. They had a shiny, golden coating that looked a lot like (and actually was) caramelized sugar. I don't know what I was expecting to taste/feel when I bit into the "nugget," but it wasn't what I got. It was crunchy, but not uniformly so--it had little bits of something in it. And it tasted like--get this--cumin and coriander and other spices that go into curry powder. The sweetness of the caramelized sugar coating very nicely balanced the spice and slight saltiness of the inside. Awesome.

4. "'Tile' - sweet corn and banana." Essentially a very thin, lacy, rather crisp crepe that tasted like banana. Delicious.

5. "Beetroot and yogurt meringue." These things were very interesting. They were little magenta-colored, donut-shaped things dusted with powdered sugar. They looked like they'd probably be cakey (we didn't know about the "meringue" part of the name at the time), or maybe a bit gummy. Nope! They were very light, and when you put them in your mouth (whole, as instructed) they were the airiest, most delicate meringues I've ever tasted. There was sweetness and red flavor from the beets, and tanginess from the yogurt.

6. "Salta 'catanias.'" Mmm, chocolate. Little truffle-looking things dusted in cocoa powder. They had a solid shell, so they felt like truffles, but they weren't exactly truffle-like inside... they were liquid! With bits of walnut. Very, very surprising. And yummy.

7. "Salty chocolate with cassis, yoghurt, and pistachio." These were little tile-like things, with dots on the top that made them look like oversized flat Lego pieces. I don't think I tried the pistachio one, but the yogurt and cassis ones were quite tart, especially the cassis one.

8. "Parmesan 'airbag.'" I loved this one. It was, essentially, a large, smooth, ultra-refined cousin of a Cheeto (without the weird cheesy dusting). Crispy on the outside and hollow on the inside, with a fantastic flavor of Parmigiano Reggiano.

(At this point we headed to our table inside. A number of us commented on how nicely things were spaced out inside the restaurant. Nothing was cramped, and there were only a few tables in our room.)

9. "Pistachio sponge cake with acid milk mousse." We were instructed, again, to put it in our mouth in one piece. It looked soft and squishy, but when we bit into it, it crumbled and was quite dry. The acid milk mousse was spooned on top and eventually made it less dry. Pretty good, but I think this one was heavier on the interesting texture than the intense flavor.

10. "Sesame brioche with miso." This looked like a greyish brown sea sponge, and had a dollop of miso paste on top. It was soft and spongy, and had a great toasted sesame flavor to it.

11. Grapefruit sections. This didn't end up on the written menu, so I don't know what they were called. But they were grapefruit slices, frozen on the inside and dry (but starting to melt) on the outside. They still held their shape and definition (even the little vesicles inside), so I sort of wonder if they weren't frozen by being dunked in liquid nitrogen or something. I certainly wouldn't put it past them to use that sort of method!

12. "Fresh pine-cone and pinions dacquoise." If I remember correctly, the pine nuts were locally grown. The dacquoise was more like a meringue, and it was piped into two large disks that sandwiched a layer of pine nut butter. Pretty tasty.

13. "Flowers paper." This was quite possibly my favorite item. When we went into the kitchens before we began lunch, Mama S. and I both noticed what we thought looked like a cotton candy machine. Sure enough.... a large folded piece of beautiful paper was placed on each of our plates. We were told to eat what was inside right away. What was it? Two sheets of cotton candy, with edible flowers in between. Amazing.

14. "Tiger nut milk flowers." Mr. B.'s guess was that these were done with a pacojet, and I think that's pretty plausible. It was some sort of liquid (hmm, maybe tiger nut milk???) that had been frozen, but not entirely frozen solid. It seemed like it had been frozen, shaven into tiny bits (hence the pacojet speculation), and then pressed into a little flower-shaped mold. It melted pretty much as soon as you put it in your mouth. I was a little so-so on the taste, but the concept was cool.

15. "Tangerine bonbons, peanut and curry." If I remember correctly, this consisted of two little bonbon-type things, one peanut & curry flavored and one tangerine flavored. Excellent pairing.

16. "Raspberries fondant with wasabi and raspberry vinegar." These raspberries were frosted in some way and had wasabi bits on top. Again, an excellent pairing. The raspberry vinegar was drizzled over the top by the staff.

17. "Oysters yoghurt with px in tempura." I'm proud of myself for finishing this one. I am finicky, and often often squeamish, about seafood, and I've always shied away from oysters as the sort of thing that I would really dislike. But my policy at fabulous restaurants is to eat (or at least try) whatever they put in front of me. There were two parts to the oysters: the first was three oysters on a mini skewer, grilled with elderberry juice. Those were actually not half bad. A bit gummy in texture, but the flavor wasn't very fishy. The oyster yogurt, which came in a little espresso cup, was a different story. It was definitely a stretch to finish it, but finish I did. And then I gladly moved on to the little tempura bite, which despite saying "px in tempura" was actually, according to what they said when they put it in front of us, sherry tempura. I quite liked it--but then again, just about anything would have tasted good after oyster yogurt.

18. "Haricot bean with Joselito's iberian pork fat." Wow, this was good. This got many people's vote for best dish of the day. The texture was incredible. The "bean" couldn't possibly have been individual beans. There were two bean-shaped things, but they had to have been formed in the kitchen (rather than in the pod). They were larger (2"?) than any beans I've ever seen, and very smooth and soft. The pork was in thin slices on top of the beans, and added a nice saltiness.

19. "Dashi with miso caviar." Apparently "dashi" is a kelp-based broth that's used in miso soup. The "caviar" were not, in fact, caviar... but you wouldn't have known it based on how it was served, and how it felt in the mouth. They served it out of a caviar tin with an ivory spoon, and I have no idea how they did this, but it really did feel like caviar. Pretty amazing.

20. "2m parmesan spaghetto." This. Was. Awesome. It was part of the repertoire some years back, and despite the fact that they never repeat dishes from year to year, Papa S. (who had had it when it was on the menu) managed to get them to bring it back for our meal. It was fantastic. A 2 meter long noodle made of Parmigiano Reggiano! I found an archived picture on their website:

21. "Anchovy and ham with yoghurt yuba." Not a huge fan of this one, I have to admit. Anchovies are really not my thing--I suspected as much before I tried them here, and this dish confirmed it. I remember not being sure where the ham was in the dish, but the yogurt "yuba" (which is a soy product) was kind of interesting.

22. "Tomato couscous with oil-olives, basil, and parmesan cheese." Pretty cool. The "couscous" was a little dry, but intensely flavored. The basil element was actually something frozen and partially melted... no idea what it was, but it was delicious. And the parmesan? That was the most puzzling element of the entire meal. It was parmesan water. A little flute of pale, cloudy liquid that tasted like Parmigiano Reggiano. Wow. None of us could figure out how they did it, but it was very impressive.

23. "Risotto of citrics." It seemed to me that the "risotto" wasn't a true risotto at all (there wasn't even any rice in it) but rather a small puddle of the little vesicles that make up a section of a citrus fruit (in this case, mostly grapefruit. They must have been meticulously separated one by one, and then heated so that they were warm, but not to the point of breaking. And there was also some coconut mash dabbed along the edge of the plate, along with some sesame seeds. Very interesting combination of flavors.

24. "Gnocchi of polenta with coffee, safran yuba and daisy buds." I loved these. The gnocchi were excellent--a fantastic texture--and the bits of coffee sprinkled on top worked very well.

25. "Asparagus in different cooking times." Very interesting. Five little white asparagus tips (~2" long) all cooked to different degrees, and all with different flavors/sauces. In my notes I only wrote down the three flavors I could readily identify: lemon, anchovy, and peanut. The peanut one was actually my favorite!

26. "Liquid won-ton of mushrooms." The best part about these, aside from the interesting texture of ravioli-type things that were actually liquid inside, was the tiny mushrooms that were scattered on top. They were baby Basque mushrooms that were no more than a quarter inch in diameter. Very cool, and very tasty.

27. "Almonds ravioli." The ravioli (which none of us could say really tasted a lot like almond) were accompanied by a single half cherry with a dab of hot mustard where the pit would be. Yum.

28. "Sea cucumbers with kalix - sea lettuce and salicornia." I was surprised by how much I liked (or rather, didn't dislike) the sea cucumber. It was probably the most random food I've ever eaten.

29. "Shark fin with shimensi." If I remember correctly, it wasn't actual shark fin, but something made out of chicken stock.

30. "Eel-beef marrow with mustard leaf." Wasn't such a huge fan of the eel, but the beef marrow was interesting, and the accompanying cucumber seeds wrapped in mustard leaf made for a nice pairing.

31. "Hare juice." Salty, earthy, gamey, and yummy. There was an apple gelée in the center that went nicely with the hare flavor.

32. "'Torta Canarejal' with red fruits." I had to consult my notes to remember which one this was, because there was little that was torta-like about it. There was kirsch air (yes, air--it was very foamy), warm sheep's milk cheese that was spooned onto the plate at the table, raspberries, and little bits of fennel paste at opposite sides of the plate. Yum.

33. "Sweet frost fruits." I quite liked this one. It was blackberries in a light, soft, meringue-like pillow that had been cut open to reveal the fruit. Then at the side there was a little eyedropper of blackberry alcohol that we were meant to drizzle over the rest of the dish. The blackberry flavor was lovely, and the texture of the meringue was great.

34. "Moon." Another one of my favorites. It was a 4x4" square of what looked like chocolate mousse, but it was dusted with cocoa powder and had an imprint in it... that looked like it came from a moon boot! And off in a corner there was something that looked like moon rocks, etc. It was delicious. And at various points underneath the mousse there were different flavor enhancements, like raspberry, mint, peanut, and cardamom (my favorite). Cardamom + chocolate = awesome combination. I am totally going to make cardamom truffles.

(For the rest of the meal we were back outside on the patio. These last two dishes weren't on the menu, but they're in my notes so I thought I'd include them.)

35. Tangerine jelly square with green tea and mint. This was a green tea biscuit-like piece (I mean biscuit the way Brits mean it, not the way folks from the South mean it--it was sort of a thick wafer type thing). It had a little tangerine gummy/jelly square on top, and a bit of mint. Delicious. I do love tangerine...

36. Hands. Little stainless steel bowls with chocolate-covered dried fruit inside, and with inflated latex gloves fitted over the rims. When the bowls rocked from side to side, the hands waved "goodbye." Very cute.

And that, after about five hours, was it! Now for the wine list:

Clos du Mesnil 1992
Krug @ Champagne-Reims

Que bonito Cacareaba 2005
Benjamin Romeo @ Rioja

S le Mesnil 1982
Salon @ Champagne-Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger

Corton-Charlemagne 2000
Jean-Francois Coche-Dury @ Corton-Charlemagne

Meursault Les Perrieres 2000
Jean-Francois Coche-Dury @ Meursault

Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva 1987
Bodegas y Vinedos Vega Sicilia @ Ribera del Duero

PX Solera 1830
Alvear @ Montilla-Moriles

Each and every one of the wines was fantastic, as they always are when Papa S. (and I assume Mr. B.) has anything to do with it. Katie and I were fortunate enough to be born in what was a very good year for wine, and although Sister S. has a less wine-friendly birth year, Papa S. was still able to find a fantastic wine in honor of that year. I should note that the year on the Solera is not, in fact, the vintage. There really isn't a "vintage," per se, for that one. According to Papa S. and Mr. B., the 1830 really only has a minute amount of the actual 1830 in it. They've been adding to it every year since then, so it's largely made up of more recent years. But it was like no other wine I've ever had. It tasted like very rich raisins, and was very thick, sort of the consistency of chilled maple syrup. Delicious.)


Brave Sir Robin said...

Wow, just freaking wow.

I am not given covetousness, but I officially am in a deep state of covet.

Wow. The wines alone.

I will go off and whimper in the corner now.

Do you have any more pictures?

Anne said...

Sadly, no more pictures. At least not of the food. I have a couple of people in front of the restaurant, but without their permission I'm not going to post them.

You can go to El Bulli's website and look under "General Catalogue" for pictures of previous years' dishes, but I didn't take any of ours (I already felt self-conscious taking notes).

And yes, the wines were awesome. Each one was amazing, from the Krug to the Solera.

I'm well aware that I'm one lucky foodie.

Supersaps said...

How did you make a reservation? And how far in advance?

Were you full after the courses? How much did it cost?


Anne said...

Papa S. made the reservation sometime in early February. I don't know how he did it, as I believe they're usually completely booked long before then, but he managed it. And knowing him, I'm not surprised. He also got us our table at l'Ami Louis one night in advance and was able to customize our flights like nobody's business. The man's a force to be reckoned with.

The courses were small, but they came fairly quickly one after the other. At several points Mama S. looked across the table at Papa S. and said, "Papa S., I'm done! I can't eat any more!" and then proceeded to keep eating along with the rest of us for another hour. Evidently the training that Katie and I did paid off, because at no point was I uncomfortable from the amount of food. Satisfied, yes, but not uncomfortable. We finished our meal around 6:30pm, and didn't feel the need to eat anything else that evening (though Papa S. did try to get us to go out to Cal Pep around 10pm).

I don't know how much the meal cost, but I've read recently that the tasting menu (which is, I believe, what everyone does) is 165 Euros. At the current exchange rate, that's about $250, and it's worth every penny.

(wife.) said...

I'm going to email you later with all my head-shaking, dropped-jaw thoughts, but I just wanted to say that I read #21 as "yoghurt tuba."

RachelB said...

I just followed a link from a food thread at Shakesville. Thank you for posting your write-up! It's lovely.

The Partner and I went in May 2005. He had the tasting menu. Because I'm vegetarian but had gotten temporarily acclimated to seafood in order to experience more of northern Spain than potatoes, I had a seafood and vegetable tasting menu. He has a write-up with photos posted here if you are interested.