Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Food as theatre: el Bulli

I have always loved the theatre – the anticipation, the excitement, crowds of passionate people behind the scenes, a few star performers, surprises, intellectual engagement, emotional tugs, dramatic flourishes, and at the end the pleasant exhaustion from a vaguely religious experience. That was lunch at elBulli, the famous Costa Brava restaurant of Chef Ferran Adrià.

The restaurant has three Michelin stars and has for many years been considered one of, and often the, best restaurant in the world: certainly a big reputation.

El Bulli won the S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurant Award no less than 5 times in the last decade. This achievement earnt Ferran Adria the accolade of Chef of the Decade in 2010.  http://www.theworlds50best.com/awards/1-50-winners/el-bulli

Cala Montjoi from the terrace of elBulli

Locator: that little square top right
Adding to the anticipation – and audience participation – elBulli is not an easy place to reach. In my case, it involved a flight to Barcelona and a drive of 185 km, the last 35 km over winding and precipitous mountain roads to Cadaqués, an attractive fishing village on the rugged coast of the Costa Brava, near the strange rocky formation of Cap Creus, the easternmost point of the Iberian Peninsula (you’re in Catalan country here, so have to be careful about the sobriquet ‘Spanish’). 

I lodged in Cadaqués (and had a few pleasant adventures too, but you won’t be interested in those at the moment), and then hired an intrepid local taxi driver for the journey from Cadaqués to Roses, the town which is closest to elBulli – the restaurant is past Roses, over a similar precipitous road (with wonderful views of the Mediterranean), on a small bay called Cala (Cape) Montjoi (the Catalan language includes lots of French influence).

Just to prove I was there...
My Dining Companion and I arrived at the restaurant at 1.15 pm. The car park already had a few Jaguars, BMWs and Mercedes in it, with their attendant drivers. Our Catalan taxi man was going to come back later. An obligatory photograph by the restaurant sign was taken, and then we went in to find a very pleasantly relaxed atmosphere. No hi-falutin’ waiters here, but dozens of young people in stylish black suits buzzing about greeting people as if it were a family reunion. Although the lunch was a private event, it was in no sense formally arranged – we were allocated to a group of five other diners (three other Australians, an Irishman from Geneva and an Indian lady from Amsterdam, all of whom turned out to be interesting people and pleasant companions for the adventure), and lunch proceeded whenever the various small groups were ready.

We gathered on the terrace overlooking the little bay and were served a succession of extraordinary cocktails, 1999 Grosset champagne and the first of the amazing food creations. Most of these involved an alcohol flavour, like the mint covered sugar cane sticks to chew, served in caipirinha-flavoured ice; or – my personal favourite – the ‘mojito sandwich’: a minty, appley, rum flavoured filling in a light something-or-other that I couldn’t identify. The combination of hot and cold temperatures was a theme – one lemon and gin cocktail had a warm froth on an ice cold base.

Beetroot ribbons in vinegar dust

The place was full of well-dressed women looking fabulous, but I was pleased to see that they were all taking photographs of the food, so I was able to take mine without feeling out of place. One of the friendly local waiters came to ask about anyone’s food allergies or other reasons to reject certain foods. I took the opportunity to reject oysters (I wasn’t the only one) but nothing else (*proud of myself*).

Chef Ferran Adria meets fans in his kitchen
Following the delightful ‘aperitifs’, our small group was ushered into the hallowed sanctuary of the elBulli kitchen, and the equally hallowed presence of Chef Ferran Adrià himself. He turned out to be a very engaging character, clearly good at PR and seeming to enjoy welcoming all the adoring acolytes to his kitchen. Photos were being taken, and although my Dining Companion usually doesn’t like that sort of thing, Chef Ferran ebulliently insisted, and we were duly snapped. The Dining Companion then proved his worth, and engaged Chef Ferran in a long and lively discussion in Spanish. On the terrace our table (and others) had been discussing the rumours about the closing of el Bulli – would it be for two years? What would Chef Ferran be doing? – but now we had the scoop from the Chef’s mouth, through the simple expedient of asking him. It seems elBulli will be closing after this year ‘forever’ – that is, it will not continue as a restaurant taking bookings, but will be available for event meals such as the one we were enjoying. Meanwhile, Chef Ferran would be conducting more of his gastronomic experiments, using the internet to advise of his discoveries (and to sell: see http://www.elbulli.com/menu.php?lang=en

Backstage at elBulli
The kitchen was rather smaller than I expected, though by no means tiny. There are 45 chefs working there from all over the world. Unexpected sights included the quantities of dry ice, and the ‘fairy floss’ (spun sugar) machine, presided over by a large statue of a bull’s head. A note on the name: ‘bulli’ is not a Spanish word, and apparently derives from German, and from the nickname of a bulldog owned by the first owners of the establishment many years ago (whose portrait is on one wall). Its pronunciation is therefore problematic, if you want to get worried about such things; even Spanish speakers don’t necessarily reduce the double-ll to the sound ‘Y’ (as in ‘yacht’).

After inspecting the kitchen we were back to the terrace for a few more delicacies and that excellent champagne; and soon after we were conducted to our table, situated in one of several interconnected rooms of the main restaurant. We were sitting in an older part, with a low-beamed ceiling and a pleasant rural-Catalan style. The building is clearly one of those which has grown organically from an original small cottage.

Then the food began – in total, 40 courses dégustation style (“degustation: a culinary term meaning ‘a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods’ and focusing on the gustatory system, the senses, high culinary art and good company” – according to Wikipedia). The menu lists 40 dishes – we were given a copy at the end - but there are a few I don’t remember and some I remember but don’t recognise on the list. But after an afternoon like that, it would be amazing if I could remember everything! The important thing is that I remember my favourites, and there were many. More about some of the food, with some pictures, below with a copy of the menu.

Frozen gorgonzola globe
There were of course matched wines: eight, including the champagne and the dessert wine, all Spanish or French. The Dining Companion, who knows what he likes, was underwhelmed with one or two of these wines (“eet ees a tiring wine, I theenk”); personally I was in no real state to be overly discerning, and they all tasted wonderful to me. They were served to us in small quantities, replenished as we chose. The Dining Companion again proved his worth by requesting, about halfway through proceedings, further issue of the excellent champagne, which lovely stuff then accompanied us gently through the rest of the afternoon.
The young people serving us were a delightful combination of high professionalism and disarming friendliness, and always seemed pleased to announce the surprising nature of the amazing creations they were setting in front of us: a frozen globe of gorgonzola with fresh grated nutmeg! The first white truffles of the season direct from Italy! (shaved into a wine glass for the purpose of inhaling their aroma – which turned out to be a more heightened and pleasurable experience than actually eating them). Each course came with helpful instructions: ‘eat that one in one bite, or no more than two’; ‘sprinkle the flower muesli on the frozen-air parmesan little by little’; ‘eat the sprig of pine and then dip the pinenut parcel in the pine juice and eat’. That kind of thing. It made the whole experience into almost an art class.

shrimps omlette
Certainly there were visually spectacular offerings. But many were merely interesting to look at. However all were extraordinary to taste. Now, I know there are a lot of sceptics amongst my readers, since I am well-known for my aversion to eating any ‘strange’ foods. But I can report that (apart from the oyster and bone marrow tartare, rejected before proceedings got underway and replaced with a small brioche), I tasted every single thing and ate all of 90% of them. Before I get to my favourites, I will mention those I couldn’t finish: a tartare of fresh tomato (I feel I’m never going to get over my tomato prejudice), barnacles with caviar (just a little too fishy), and the fresh pistachios (although the deconstructed ‘pistachulines’ were divine and I had seconds). Possibly I did not eat all the turtle dove, but that was late in the day, and there had been a lot of food.

mimetic peanuts - divine!
The deconstruction approach was evident in many dishes: ‘mimetic peanuts’ were the size and shape of peanuts, with a lightly crispy outside shell of something-or-other (you’ll excuse the technical terms) and inside an extraordinary cream made of peanut, so smooth and silkily textured that everyone’s faces lit up with surprise. The deconstruction technique seems to involve processing the food in peculiar ways unknown to the family kitchen, but rarely involves adding additional ingredients. The ‘mimetic peanut’ is all peanut, just reinvented.

My personal favourites: nori seaweed with lemon, mojito and apple flute, said mimetic peanuts, the gorgonzola globe, tagliatelle of consommé carbonara, wood pigeon consommé (served in a wine glass and involving Armagnac), the apple rose and the candy floss tree.

'flowers paper' - unexpectedly delicious!
My absolute favourites: a close call between the pinenut shabu-shabu (described a little above) and the ‘flowers paper’, which makes it to the top of the list because of the tingle the flowers left in the mouth, which I can taste even now. Apart from the deliciousness and surprise of these two, they also deserve top ranking because of unexpectedness and the fact that I could have lived the rest of my life never having eaten – and enjoyed – such things, if not for Chef Ferran and elBulli.

Did I mention that I enjoyed myself?

In the whole meal there was nothing not ‘worked upon’ – no fresh raw foods, no cheese that hadn’t had something peculiar done to it, no lettuce leaves. Of course, we did not come for such things, we came for the ‘art food’ and elBulli did not disappoint - though I should mention that the Dining Companion, who is a chocolate connoisseur, did comment that the enormous red ‘box’ full of chocolates which was placed on the table as a finale did not reach the chocolate heights he might have expected. But that was a minor quibble. We went back to the lovely terrace and had more champagne, with Chef Ferran buzzing about saying goodbyes, before calling our taxi driver around 7 pm for the long and winding road back to Cadaqués, replete and content – and loaded down with signed copies of a very heavy set of books, elBulli chocolates, and red wine especially bottled for elBulli. I deferred worrying about how to get that lot in the suitcase until the next day.

elBulli menú

sugar cane mojito – caipirinha
mojito and apple flute

'mojito and apple flute'

almond-fizz with amarena-LYO
nori seaweed with lemon
beetroot ribbons in vinegar dust

'pistachulines' - extremely delicious!

spherical olives
mimetic peanuts
shrimps omelette
gorgonzola globe
flower in nectar
flowers paper
gold egg

'gold egg'

caviar cream with hazelnut caviar
barnacle with caviar
boiled shrimps
prawn two firings
tartufo glass
A little extra shaved truffle, ma'm?

parmesan frozen-air with muesli
tagliatelle of consommé – carbonara
gnocchis of polenta with coffee and saffron yuba
tomate tartar and frozen cristal
pinenuts shabu-shabu
pinenuts 'shabu-shabu', eaten with a sprig of pine

endive in papillote 50%
fresh pistachios
clams ‘ceviche’ and kalanchoe cactus
natural scampi
'natural scampi.' Or possibly 'prawn two firings'. But good.

wood pigeon consommé
game meat ‘macaron’
blackberries risotto and cardamom paper

'apple rose'

mimetic chestnuts
cristal ‘coca’
'box' - the chocolate finale

apple rose
candy floss tree

a happy-looking pair who seem to be well fed
and to have had sufficient good champagne

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