July 15, 2008

Dinner at el Bulli: The Experience (Part 2 of 3)

Buitrón and Logan Loiter

In our last episode (where I describe how I got a reservation and the trip to Roses), the gates had just opened and the four of us made our way down the hill. We were about a half an hour by taxi from town and a handful of people were making use of the small beach in the cove.
Reflection into the Kitchen
We made our way across the crunchy gravel to the entrance where the host asked if we would like to see the kitchen. It was an open and well-furnished space, as nicely decorated as the rest of the restaurant. Ferran Adrià got up from a small desk to the side, and greeted us all warmly.

The Pastry Kitchen
Michael Logan, Michael Buitrón, Ferran Adrià, Diane Calder, and Robert Kojima
The View From the Lanai
Next we were led out to an outdoor patio, a bit jumpy with anticipation. The view from the patio and the breeze off the Mediterranean does help one relax.

Aperitif: Yuzu/Sake/Kyoto
Like any good host, the cocktails were quickly brought out. A foamy yuzu (a bitter Japanese citrus) slush floats on top of some sake with a splash of tonic. Very refreshing with a hint of alcohol. The proportions were perfect so the last bit of citrusy slush held out to the last gulp.

Michael Covets His Neighbor's Cocktail
Logan Susses the Wine Tome
Some blogger's account of an el Bulli experience mentioned that they started with a bottle of Cava. This seemed like a brilliant idea for several reasons; we were in Spain, and dinner at el Bulli with your friends is reason enough to celebrate! The specific beverage choices worked out between Logan and the sommelier are at the bottom of this post.

This came out with the aperitif. Like the crunchy salty snack mix at a Japanese bar, but rather than a mish-mash of flavors, this deconstructs and pulls out texture (crunch) and salty seaweed. Robert's notes called in an assault by MSG, which gave something so light a moment of unctuousness. I also expect that the residual flavors help bring out the citrus and tonic in our cocktail.

Snacks - Clockwise, starting with the plate of cocktail napkins:
  • Shiso Soft Candy
  • Averantos
  • Spherical Olives (in jar and on spoons)
  • Parmesan Crisp and Tomato Biscuit
  • Pine Nut and Chocolate Bonbons
  • More Averantos
Several of these snacks so far are presenting a Japanese influence, but they cut through the cuisine in many possible ways. The "Averantos" look very much like Japanese sesame candy, but instead of being chewy and bland, the insides are a mixture of soft and nutty, melting away in your mouth.

Where the cocktail and seaweed touched on flavors, the Shiso Soft Candy (Robert called it Ume JuJu) seemed to take Umeboshi as a starting point (somewhat like a Mexican salted plum, but instead of being dried, it's stewed). In it were the same elements--the sweetness of the plum, a touch of bitter from a shiso leaf--and though it's hard to see in the picture--a few grains of sea salt are perched on top. Unlike umeboshi, the volume on all the knobs is turned down, and something completely different emerges on the tongue.

Robert's Ratatouille Moment
Spherical Olives
It's easy to see why the olives have become a signature dish. Lore has it that every year in their laboratory in Barcelona the chefs taste and pick the best olive they can find. The olive's "essence" is removed and encased in a thin sphere of gelatin. To my taste buds it seems that all the cellulose--the woodiness of the olive eating experience--is removed. Either way, what you have left is a POW! of pure olive flavor, and since there are no solid bits, there's nothing to carry the taste away: it just lingers and lingers even though your mouth is empty!

Parmesan Crisp and Tomato Biscuit
The flavors are from Tuscany even though we're still munching on bar snacks. The sun dried tomato (garnished with a fleck of gold leaf) hangs on for quite a while.

I should say something about the serving pieces. I love the stainless steel (gold-plated under the olive jar) that looks like rumpled fabric. Like a sushi place, the dishes change with each course. This makes sense, since like a sushi restaurant, a greater number of smaller courses are being served. The screen under the cookies follows this theme by looking like a bit of unfolded origami. Under the bonbons what looks like a vacu-formed plastic tray from a box of candies is actually ceramic.

The bonbons are filled with a hazelnut foam with a nicely bitter chocolate to contrast on the outside. Mmmmmm......

Peking Crêpes
Two kinds; a sesame foam wrapped in a won ton skin and a seaweed "taco" with peppery sprouts and a touch of hoisin(?). Goes well with the cava! They look like mom and dad sitting on a love seat.

At this point we're feeling happy and relaxed. Would anything else be possible? We're on vacation, by the beach, and it's a beautiful evening. Enough of the cava has entered our bloodstream so we're relaxed, and feeling well-taken-care-of. The service is both professional and friendly, and not stuffy. We ask for a second round of the olives as we finish off the cava.

At this point, we're seeing the first of the next round of guests being seated on the patio. I'm guessing the restaurant has a little over 20 tables, and about a third as many outside. It's time for us to move inside to our table.

Patiently Waiting While the Moment is Documented
The View From Our Window
I didn't walk around and scope the whole place out, but it felt like we got the best table in the restaurant. To my right was this view (above) of the trees and the rocks and the sea. Behind me was a wall that separated us from the rest of the dining room. To my left, behind Diane was a short wall and a step up to a row of banquets that could look over us and out to the view. Behind Robert (and in front of me) was an old credenza that was used as a side station for our table.

Logan, Diane, and I were poured agua sin gas, and Robert ordered Vichy Catalan. Did you know that the carbon dioxide in fizzy water interacts with the H2O to form carbonic acid? That what gives water with bubbles a slightly acidic taste.

This is the kind of stuff you hear when you have dinner with a chemist.

Amuse Bouche
This wasn't on the final menu we were presented with, so I don't know it's name. Our server told us to pick up the paper and quickly lick it off. It started off tasting like eggs (but creamy) and finished with curry.

To go with the first courses we asked for a white from the area, and the sommelier recommended the Clos d'Agon, similar to a white Rhone. It was a great food wine, with fruit and not too dry. We wound up getting a second bottle partway through our dinner.

Mint Leaf with Coconut
Like sushi, you pick it up with your fingers and pop it in your mouth. Interestingly, the coconut brought back the curry flavor from the amuse bouche back on the tongue, and came together in a way reminiscent of a Thai coconut curry with mint. I wonder if the coconut outsides were coconut shavings, or some kind of essence. After crunching the mint wafer on the bottom, the whole thing seemed to disappear in your mouth.

Black Sesame Sponge Cake with Miso
Another gossamer food moment. I wonder how they got so much air and still got the sponge cake to hold together; super fluffy! This was a nice balance of savory and sweet.

"Brazo de Gitano"
When we first sat down, our server told us that when we left, each of us would be getting a copy of the menu with everything we ate and all the wines we ordered. They didn't want however, to bring out the menu ahead of time, so that there would be surprises along the way.

That being said, I didn't know this as a "Gypsy's Arm" when I popped it into my mouth. A super thin candy shell over a beetroot concoction and a yogurt tibia. Does this mean that gypsies arms are easy to break, and soft and red inside? I don't know, but this was a very delicate balance of flavor and texture. You pop the whole thing in your mouth and chew to blend.

Gorgonzola Mochi
Creamy flavor for days! Followed by a sip of the Clos d'Agon, it totally accentuated all the fruit characteristics of the wine. And even after the alcohol, the Gorgonzola lingered. Wonderful!

Grilled Strawberry
This was one of the few dishes where the name added something to the experience. A grilled strawberry? WTF? You can easily imagine something greasy and mushy that falls through the grill onto the coals, but what is presented is perfectly intact. I think that this dish best showed how they incorporate the element of surprise into their cooking.

So how does a grilled strawberry perform in your mouth?

It had the texture of a very ripe, sweet strawberry. Biting in gave off a juice with strawberry flavor, but not overly sweet; it was probably injected with a bit of gin. The first surprise was that it was hot, and second that it finished with a smoky flavor.

Brilliant after the Gorgonzola; it cleared the palate and brought back the herbaceous character to the wine.

At this point we all commented on how much we liked the wine. It was like Ginger Rogers: in perfect compliment with the various flavors, and doing backwards and in heels.

LYO-Cream, Part I
A freeze-dried meringue.

LYO-Cream, Part II
You eat them together. The meringue has a surprising amount of texture, a sip of the spoon tastes like olive oil, then bacon, then tiny cubes of Parmesan release their flavor. A little more chewing and then all this strangeness becomes suddenly familiar: it's pasta with a carbonara sauce!

Razor Clam/Laurencia
Now we move on to solid food. A fresh raw razor clam (one slurp, briny and fresh) is followed by an agar packet filled with a liquid and bits of seaweed (second slurp). It was like walking out into the surf and getting wet from a wave, followed by a salty spray. Nice. And there's just enough acidity in the wine to pair well with this.

Buffalo Milk
Logan is allergic to shellfish, so there were a couple of places in the evening when his meal took a divergent course. This is buffalo milk with freeze-dried strawberries and a layer of honey at the bottom. I didn't get a taste, but he said "It had everything:" liquid/solid, sweet/savory, chewy/crunchy. There were some herbaceous flavors and the flavor of the milk changed as the alpine strawberries reconstituted and the honey dissolved. He was very happy, and not missing the razor clams at all.

At this point there's a brief (and well-needed) pause in the food coming out of the kitchen. From the beginning to the end the pace became slower as more time was needed to process and chew. Overall the cadence of the evening was very similar to having friends over for dinner. The restaurant felt like a beach house, modernized but not contemporary in style. You start on the patio with cocktails and snacks, watching the sun set. As the cool evening air rolls in, folks move indoors for dinner. As everyone becomes sated, the courses come out slower, until you linger over an espresso and sweets. In the end, everyone rolls out the door happy, tipsy, and full.

Mandarin Flower/Pumpkin Oil with Mandarin Seeds
Like a tangerine sorbet with pumpkin seed oil. Robert said it was the best thing all night; a perfect balance with the pumpkin seed holding it all in place. Unlike most intermezzos, this did not just clear the palate. The richness of the oil foreshadowed the more solid food to follow. A perfect nexus for the change in tone.

This is course number 18, the numerical half-way point. We're now getting normal place settings that are changed with each course.

Savory/Spun Egg with Egg Yolk Gnocchi
Almost roe-like yolks floating in dashi-like whites. This dish accentuated the differences between each part of the egg. The sesame seeds and spices around the edge gave very different tastes to each bite, accentuating salty/not salty parts of the ingredients.

Veal Tendon
The veal tendon reminds me of really good Chinese BBQ Pork or really good slow-cooked ribs, except more chewy (not tough) and much much richer. It's placed in a tarragon soup and the spoon off to the side holds a bone marrow soup. It makes me think that when you cut the muscle tissue off an animal and cook it (a boneless chicken breast for example) you're removing it from all the parts with the really good flavor. This was a personal highlight of the evening.

Marrow Soup (detail)
Mushroom Canapé
You pick up the nasturtium leaf and pop the whole thing in your mouth. I thought the outside was slivered almonds, but it's thinly sliced mushrooms. The pepper of the leaf makes for a nice finish.

Diane's Canapé Meets it's Demise
Water Lily
A peppery, fruity soup. Robert called it, "A dish about pepper without salt." Logan said, "Spring meets summer." The wine tasted even more fruity with this dish.

My Lotus Flower Gazes into the Water Lily
And desperately searches for salt.

Game Meat Canapé
With cacao; starts with a sweetness (liver?) then finishes with chocolate. The complexity of the wine returns.

Suckling Pigtail
I love the presentation on this. The pigtails look like Sumi-e brushwork. The liquid on the left has bits of melon, tofu, and flower petals. Logan called it "Barbie's Miso Soup." The ham flavor and melon makes me think of prosciutto and melon, but the textures and volumes of the flavors are all different. With this dish the wine became bracing and helped accentuate the salt in the pig.

This was a big favorite all around the table.

Asparagus with Miso
Not a great photo. It's a big honkin' white asparagus tip with miso butter and a nasturtium flower propeller on the end. It reminded Robert of botan (Japanese rice "candy").

Eating Asparagus
Peas 2008
This dish was a personal favorite. On the left was a pure pea essence, similar to the treatment with the spherical olives. A really wonderful intense pea flavor. The divider was fresh pea leaves which brought back the crunchy cellulose and took you right out to the garden, on your knees in the dirt with your nose in the vines, searching out those last elusive green-on-green pods. On the right are dried split peas which brought out a third distinct flavor profile and texture. I believe on the right is a touch of Catalan sausage, giving it a hint of meaty unctuousness. Superb!

Robert in Pea Bliss
Pea Documentation
Gnocchi of Polenta with Coffee and Saffron
Robert called it a food speedball. Creamy/starchy/familiar explodes in your mouth, ending with spicy slaps of coffee, capers and piles of saffron.

"Negrito" 2008
At course number 28 and the end of our third bottle of wine, I've become so enthralled by each new dish that I started eating before photographing. My frontal lobe has been pleasured into submission. This is probably the best cooked piece of fish I have ever eaten. No tricks, no gimmicks, just chef being a great chef.

The fish (prepared sous-vide?) comes with amaretto risotto and a cucumber/ginger jelly. This was definitely an OMG moment all around the table.

Diane's Unblemished Negrito
We are now nearing the end of our savory courses, and Diane is all wined out, so we settle on a half bottle of Rioja. It's well balanced with a nice musty note.

Abalone with tiny shitake mushrooms and a ginger consommé. Sorry for the crappy picture. There's a better one here.

Logan got a fruit soup with pumpkin and mango.
This was the perfect ending to our savory courses. Lightly seared sweetbreads with a shitake soup. A nice meaty-marrow richness to the soup which makes the thymus gland seem less rich than it is. A nice combination of textures, fragrance, and flavor.

Robert Enjoys his Organ Meat
Logan Savors the Offal Moment
Cypress Honey with Fresh Mozzarella and Blueberry Ganache
There's a pause while we switch to a dessert wine. A much needed breather after 30 courses. The sommelier brings us a Spanish white in the style of port, a golden Don PX Gran Reserva 1971. Very complex (like me). Our first dessert was very nice, and wonderful compliment to the wine.

This was an amazing bit of pastry chef prestidigitation. Our server came around with a Lucite box filled with cocoa powder and four chocolate truffles. You're supposed to pick it out, pop the whole thing in your mouth, and bite down. Crisp and cool on the outside, you crack it with your teeth and out pours (surprise!!) warm truffle oil with the hint of an overripe cheese. The flavors finish on a salty note.

It was like having someone break into your house while your asleep and giving you a blow job. You're not quite sure what's going on, but it feels incredible nonetheless.

Autumn Countryside
Chocolate formed into various bits of forest floor detritus. A light dusting of cocoa powder concealed creamy insides. An enjoyable play of textures and sweet to bittersweet notes. A happy ending to our dessert courses.

Robert thought the spoon warranted a picture.

Herb Tea
Diane ordered herbal tea, and this garden-covered trolley was wheeled to the table. After Logan saw this he switched from espresso to tea. The herbs are clipped into a glass infuser which was filled with hot water.

Diane is Explained her Botanical Choices
After espresso, the last three courses are called morphings. Does this mean we are all close to turning into pumpkins?

These are strawberry and mint filled chocolate bars. It's just a wauffer thin mint...it's wauffer thin...

Biscuit with Amaretto
Mango jelly with almond oil on a cookie. Robert said it was like eating a marriage counselor, meaning it met with both our approvals despite our dissimilar sweetness preferences.

Honey Pearl with Elderflower
Our last course. The server put them down, and then she chimed, "Good-bye!" We were nearly the last ones left in the restaurant. Five hours, thirty-six courses, and four-and-a-half bottles of wine later, we ambled out into the cool night air. Thoughts and conclusions to follow in my next post.

Dead Soldiers
Outside we started with a bottle of Cava:
Brut Nature Gran Reserva 2004
Augusti Torelló @ Cava-Penedès (D.O.)
Inside we told the sommelier that we were interested in trying wines from the region. The first was a Catalan white in the style of a Rhone:
Clos d’Agon 2006
Mas Gil @ Catalunya (D.O.)
At this point, he very cordially suggested that we stay with a white at this point in our meal. I asked if he thought it would be OK to stick with what we were drinking. He said yes and brought us another bottle. As the second bottle evaporated (volatile fluids, you know) We asked for a half bottle of something a little more dramatic. Diane isn't a red wine drinker, so a short pour for the three of us with the last two savory courses (the abalone and the sweetbreads) was fine:
Pagos Viejos 2004
Artadi @ Rioja (D.O.Ca. (Cosecha))
Robert thought it had the bouquet of a urinal, so I asked, "Good urinal or bad urinal?" and he said good urinal. For the pre-deserts and morphings the sommelier suggested a fortified white from Andalucia (say it with a lisp):
Don PX Gran Reserva 1971
Toro Albalá @ Montilla-Moriles (D.O.)
Beautiful golden color, raisiny, sweet with a nice touch of acid to balance it out.

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  1. I wouldn't have eaten everything there but your descriptions with the chimes from Robert and Logan made it a great meal here.

  2. One of the things I find very impressive is that all of the visits to El Bulli written up over a fairly short time period actually have quite a wide variation in the dishes served. Compare that with the Fat Duck where the menu is virtually constant albeit evolving slowly over time.

    You said that most of your pictures didn't come out too great, but I think you've done a better job than most of catching the human element in a lot of them: it can be too easy just to end up with a succession of close ups of the dishes.

    Tribble Tasting by Arrangement: El Bulli, 14th June, 2008

  3. What an amazing experience that must have been.
    I thought the water lily dish was absolutely stunning, without a doubt the most delicate dish I've ever seen.
    Although the Autumn countryside was a true work of art in appearance, it seems odd that they would serve something like that at the start of summer.
    Glad I checked out your blog-- thanks for visiting mine-- and I do agree with you about the taste of childhood/memory. It's powerful stuff.

  4. Michael,
    Thanks so much for your wonderfully detailed account of an unforgettable visit. I particularly enjoyed your comments on the Japanese influences on your meal. Regards, Anya

  5. Thank you for this! I have drooled all over my keyboard and enjoyed every moment.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your El Bulli experience... What a pleasure to read about it! You are so lucky to have dined there!

  7. I'm Diane's neighbor up the street and this journey of yours just thrilled my heart...what a great time .thanks for sharing .Christy Botkin Reeves,artist.


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