The night before our first and final date,
I asked myself,
"Will I like her?
If so, how long will she linger on my tongue?"
I have never been so nervous about going to a particular restaurant, so a little background story here will help explain. El Bulli was deemed the best restaurant in the world by the Restaurant Magazine for a record 5 times, making it highly sought after by foodies around the world. To make matters worse, Ferran Adria announced that he would be closing El Bulli for good in July 2011, creating an unprecedented disequilibrium in supply and demand. The result: only 8000 lucky diners are served out of 2000000 in a given season. One may be wondering: how the heck did you get a reservation then? The connection goes: my dad's friend's (an orthopod) girlfriend's dad's (owner of a famous Hong Kong restaurant) colleague (a food critic for a major US newspaper) made the arrangements. I used up all 6 degrees of separation to reach El Bulli!
Finally reaching the food mecca! I rate the importance of the picture as on par with my high school and college graduation pictures.
Outside the restaurant, which is literally in the middle of nowhere.
Through a large window on the wall, one can peek into the semi-subterranean kitchen.
The entrance of the kitchen, which in its entirely was at least 3 times the size of this room.
Ferran's army of chefs. There were over 40 of them! The intensity and dedication was palpable.
1. Strawberry. The “strawberries” were actually frozen strawberry-flavored Campari with lemon essence. They burst of freshness and lingered with a long after-taste.
2. Mojito and apple flute. My teeth cut through the baguette effortlessly and were pleasantly surprised by the frozen texture of the mojito, which quickly melted and blended with the airy baguettes.
3. Almond-fizz with amarena-LYO. This one was OK. It reminded me of a blend between two Chinese entities: sour plum juice and sweet almond soup.
4. Nori seaweed with lemon. The "ravioli" was dipped in yuzu before being served. The sourness from the lemon and yuzu strengthened the flavor of the black sesame considerably.
5. Gorgonzola globe. This wasn’t an ostrich egg! It was an “egg shell” made of frozen Gorgonzola, sprinkled with nutmeg. The egg shell was savagely shattered by us and consumed, partly because we were starving and partly because it was softening up. As the individual pieces melted in my mouth, they coated my tongue with a thin film of intense Gorgonzola flavor, which was balanced beautifully by the sweetness of the crunchy beet-root chips. This dish was actually a tri-factor success: the sommelier picked the perfect wine to bring all the flavors together- Ossian Capitel 2008.
6. Hibiscus and peanuts. Peanuts wrapped in a crunchy hibiscus coat. The peanut was too overwhelming.
7. Pistachulines. Pistachios wrapped in an airy sugar mesh. Another sweet and savory combo. This one was a success.
8. Hazelnut raspberries. Frankly, I wasn't exactly sure what these were but they tasted like frozen raspberries with a hazelnut glaze. This was the biggest failure of the night. The two flavors simply didn’t go together well, and the glaze was too thick and bitter. Out of the three sweet and savory combo dishes, only one worked.
9. Parmesan macaron. It was soft and spongy like a marshmallow. A very creative way to present Parmesan.
10. Shrimp omelet. First, sweet crepe made from shrimps and their shells, scattered with whole dried salted shrimps. Second, crispy shrimp waffle. The waffle was razor-thin with a strong shrimp flavor, and the shrimps on top were fresh, mild and tiny- no more than 1 cm each. These two dishes posted a stark contrast to one another. Ferran showed that shrimps could either be the star or complement, depending on the context. Both dishes were influenced by Southeast Asian cuisine and reminded me of snacks that one could find in the streets of Macau.
11. Roses with ham won-ton and melon water. This was a deconstruction of a classic Spanish dish- jamon con melon. Tiny ham jellies were placed inside the wontons. We were instructed to take a sip of the melon water after tasting the first two wontons. As a whole, it was a successful deconstruction. However, I found the ham jellies a bit too salty. They would be a bit unbearable if the melon water wasn’t served together. From my experience, top-top quality Iberico ham should have an optimal level of savoriness that allows it to be enjoyed by itself alone.
12. Ham and ginger canapee. This was a better experimental rendition of a Spanish staple. The ham wasn’t too salty and carried a tint of sweetness which was complimented by the unique flavor of ginger in the form of a crunchy canapee.
13. Caviar cream with hazelnut caviar. At first glance, I thought it was a dish with two kinds of caviar served over hazelnut and sesame sauce. I even commented that while the caviar on the sesame sauce physically blended into the sauce creating a very pleasant paste, it lacked flavor. On the other hand, the caviar on top of the hazelnut sauce was a lot more flavorful. In the blur of things, I didn’t give it a second thought but simply wondered why there was such a discrepancy between the two kinds of caviar. But after all, it was El Bulli and there was a reason to everything. It turned out that the “caviar” on top of the “sesame sauce” was in fact “hazelnut caviar” on top of “sesame-flavored caviar cream.” And the “caviar” on top of the hazelnut sauce was the real deal- Sevruga caviar.
14. Marchand du vin. Oyster-infused bone marrow with Marchand du Vin sauce. Oyster and bone marrow was one of those combos that were uniquely Ferran and exotically deliciously. The minerality of the oyster was thoroughly and uniformly infused into the bone marrow, and the Marchand du Vin sauce gave the dish yet a fuller body.
15. Steamed white strawberries. While the first bone marrow dish was fantastic, this one was the 2nd biggest failure of the night- both the bone marrow and white strawberries were flavorless and the two textures simply didn’t complement each other.
16. Boiled shrimps. The shrimp was extremely fresh, with a turgid texture and sweet flavor. Though simply prepared, it was perfectly executed and served as a appetizer for next dish.
17. Prawn two firings. We were advised to drink the soup, then taste the claws and finally the body in this particular order. The soup, made from prawn’s brain, was rich and tasted of cholesterol- the way I like it. The claws were lightly breaded, deep-fried and crunchy. The body, partially peeled, was mostly raw and remained delicately sweet. In quick succession, my taste bud was seduced by drastically different textures and flavors, all originating from the same prawn.
18. Quails with carrot escabeche. The quail breast, cooked medium rare, were exquisitely tender, plump and juicy. The smoked Spanish paprika and cumin added another level of exotic complexity to the gaminess. Moreover, the carrot sauce was brushed on. How cute! This was my favorite dish of the night.
19. Tomato tartar and frozen crystal. The name says it all--- refreshing.
20. Pinenuts shabu-shabu. Before this dish was served, we were given a few needles of pine, dipped in honey, to (for the lack of a more graceful word) suck on. After our taste buds were primed, we were asked to dip the three edible bags, each one containing a different version of pine nut oil, into a bowl of broth briefly. The broth had next to no flavor but served mainly to dissolve the bags, which released the pine nut oil into our mouths. Each bag was a burst of intense “taste of the forest”; each was a slight variation of one another; each was equally memorable. It wouldn’t surprise me that the pine nuts were harvested locally- Catalonia has good terroir for pine nuts afterall.
21. Tartufo (Truffle) glass. White truffle was in season. When they presented a whole plate of this majestic fungus, I went crazy like a female pig in heat.
The waiter started grating the white truffle into a wine glass. At this point, the aroma was so intoxicating that I wanted to tackle the waiter and grab the whole plate. Luckily, my self-control kicked in and I proceeded to take deep drags out of the wine glass as frequently as possible, just like a drug addict.
I asked one of my fellow diners how he felt. He simply said, “I am happy,” staring straight ahead into emptiness.
I myself thought I was in Heaven.
22. Tagliatelle of consomme- carbonara. The truffle in the wine glass was emptied onto this classic dish with a clever twist- the tagliatelle was made of consommé instead of starch. As a result, the dish tasted a lot lighter that it would have, especially given how rich the cream sauce was. Fantastic
23. Gnocchis of polenta with coffee and saffron yuba. When the three flavors of coffee, saffron and white truffle were brought together in one dish, the result was the most intense flavor-related experience I have ever had. The genius of this dish was making sure that the three very distinct and strong flavors were working with each other, not against each other.
24. Endive in papillote 50%. Caviars made from top-quality olive oil provided moisture and complemented the smokiness of the endives that were wrapped in paper and grilled.
25. Marrow and belly of tuna sushi. Tuna O’toro that was served on a thin layer of gelatinous tuna medula, infused with “taste of the sea.” The dish was served luke-warm, an interesting approach.
26. Clams ceviche and kalanchoe cactus. The Kalanchoe cactus leaf was extremely sour. One bite into it made me and my taste buds wide awake, ready for the clam ceviche with pea sauce.
27. Ceviche and clams cocktail. We were asked to first drink the cocktail, made from clams, mint, coriander and lime. The cocktail tasted, and especially smelled, very refreshing. Its purpose was analogous to that of the cactus leaf in the previously dish- to prime our taste buds for the Oaxaca taco, made from avocado, curry and corn powder. The skin of the taco was airy and soft, while curry and avocado made another surprising yet fantastic combo. I am not an expert on Mexican food, but I think Ferran paid a beautiful tribute to the region through these two dishes.
28. Gazpacho and ajo blanco. Ferran’s reinterpretation of a classic Spanish soup. The gazpacho was made from iced tomatoes, while the surrounding Ajo Blanco was creamy and garlicky. We were asked not to mix the two, which contrasted each other in terms of intensity in flavor.
29. Blackberries risotto and cardamom paper. For every bite of the “risotto” that was accompanied by a rich, blood-sauce like gravy, we were instructed to take a sniff at the bag of earthy, smoky cardamom. The result- two senses pampered at the same time.
30. Turtledove. Slices of hare served with black sesame caviar, raspberry sauce and hazelnut sauce. The meat was cooked medium rare and perfectly executed. I thought the two sauces were great complements to the hare already, and the black sesame caviar was a bit extraneous.
31. Game meat macaron. A paste made from hare and foie gras was sandwiched between the airy macaron. Heavenly.
32. Hare loin with its blood. The layer of eel skin on top provided the tender loin meat with a buttery but not greasy mouth-feel. The accompanying sauce was rich and extremely gamy, fitting for this exotic re-interpretation of surf-and-turf. I didn’t find the glass of blood, made from beet roots and Szechuan pepper, scary, but it tasted like rosemary infused cough syrup. Now, that’s not for the faint of heart.
33. Hot strawberries with hare soup. This dish wasn’t particularly interesting. In fact, I found it a bit too salty for my liking.
34 and 35. Mimetic chestnuts and marron glacee. Apparently, one was a fake chestnut and one was real, but both were candied. Can you tell the difference? I couldn’t, since at that point, my taste buds were already sufficiently fatigued.
36. Grilled lulo. This was my first time tasting lulo, a Colombian fruit, which was also soaked in whiskey to give it a smoky flavor. The cream, the acidity and the smokiness created a very interesting dynamic.
37. Pond. A frozen lake made of crystal-clear, mint-flavored ice, topped with brown sugar powder and yet more mint flakes. The mass of ice was critical in keeping this dish cold. The coldness together with the intense mint flavors made this the most refreshing dish of the night.
38. Sugar cube with tea and lime. The “sugar cubes” packed a powerful, sour punch of lime and green tea, while the “tea and lime” in the pipettes was actually sugar syrup. Another double-fake from Ferran!
39. Cristal coca. Toasted pine nuts wrapped in a layer of light, sugar crystal. Interestingly, the taste of this dish reminded me of Chinese roast duck.
40. Apple rose. Thin strips of apple were soaped in apple liquor, chilled and shaped into a rose. Besides being aesthetically impeccable, this dish also had a serious kick- each flower jelly ball was an explosion with alcohol in waiting.
41. Box. Heaven for chocoholics. It was one box per table! The options were bewildering and I didn’t have enough appetite left to try all of them. Only pictures could do it justice.
These were real mint leaves. The white globes in the right upper hand corner were frozen strawberries coated in white chocolate.
Although Catalonia was fascinating and the food that I had along the way was amazing, I would have given up everything else just to visit El Bulli. Not every dish was perfectly executed. In fact, there were some spectacular mishaps. However, considering there were 41 dishes in total, the overall cooking was still excellent. I realized El Bulli was meant to be an intellectually-stimulating food experience, one that challenges the very notion of what food really is. It has fundamentally changed the way I think about food and my own personal relationship with food. I feel blessed to have met Ferran Adria, experienced his culinary ingeniousness and lived through the age of molecular gastronomy.