Tuesday, 9 March 2010

El Bulli Discovered

We are back in 1997 and this is where we establish our food credentials - we discovered El Bulli  just before news of Ferran Adrià's culinary genius was unleashed on the gastronomic world.

The Gault Millau guide has always been our favoured restaurant reference for France being much more in tune with our way of food thinking than the Michelin.  We had been subscribing to the Gault Millau's monthly magazine, the interesting food articles and recommendations providing a great way to improve our French.  An article about El Bulli had caught my eye, the Gault Millau guide had awarded it 19/20 - an outstanding achievement and one of only a handful of restaurants outside of France to gain a mention (although the fact that it is only just over the border made us feel the French were somehow taking credit for it!) Details of the intriguing and creative cuisine were enough for us to factor a visit to the restaurant into our holiday plans.

For those of you who are wondering what I am rambling on about here comes 'the science bit'.  El Bulli has been voted 'World's Best Restaurant' by the prestigious Restaurant magazine a record five times.  Ferran Adrià has brought a whole new concept in creative cuisine to the world inspiring chefs like Heston Blumenthal in this so-called 'molecular gastronomy'.  El Bulli is only open for part of the year and now, if you want a reservation, you need to join millions of others in a lottery for 8000 places.  The most recent news is that El Bulli will be closing for two years so no-one will get a table before 2014.

But here we are in 1997, slightly bad-tempered and hungover having motored down from Collioure (see previous post) on a hot and sunny morning. We are rather pleased that R is driving a company car as the road out to El Bulli  from Rosas, winding around a scrubby headland, is not much more than a disintegrating track and the jolt to my hangover every time we hit a pothole isn't improving my mood.  All irritation evaporates, however, when we catch our first sight of Cala Montjoi where El Bulli is situated, a small, quiet, beautiful, blue-sea'd bay with just a glimpse of the white walled restaurant through the mediterranean trees and shrubs to the side of the bay.  We pull into the car-park, unstick ourselves from the sweaty car seats and change into our cool clean finery in the back of the car.

When I made our reservation, a month or so previously, I had asked for a table in the courtyard overlooking the bay if the weather permitted.  We were escorted to the best table we could possibly have hoped for - a cool corner where we could observe the rest of the courtyard and views out to the hills and bay beyond. We always love restaurants where they have thought to arrange the seating so that both of us can see what is going on and this is perfection.

Aperitifs are ordered and the menus bought - a tasting menu of more than twenty tapas style dishes for our delectation. (Clic on the menu picture below to enlarge.)

The charming waiter asks us if we would prefer to have any of the dishes substituted for something else. We look at him quizzically and he explains that not all the British like the large clams that form one dish, nor the sheep's brains that are quintessential to another.  We assure him that if the chef believes this to be the best combination of dishes then we would entirely trust his judgement (although I mentally reassure myself that these will be the best sheep's brains ever and not like those my mother served in a mucilaginous sauce!).  In any event with a meal comprising so many courses we can afford to take some chances.

Dish after tiny dish arrives each one a work of art in presentation and taste - some more Daliesque than others but each one exquisite, or exciting, or encapsulating the very essence of each ingredient for us to experience.  Even the presentation is an act of theatre with the waiter advising us how to eat each dish in order to get the most out of the unexpected contrasts of  flavour and texture.   Yet another treat is in store for us when we realise that Ferran Adrià himself is sat in the courtyard at a long table with a group of his students, explaining various dishes to them, how they are composed and what the expectations of each dish should be.  R and I are torn between totally devoting all our senses to the food or diverting some of our attention to listening in on his talk.  As we come to the end of our first set of courses we are presented with La espuma de homo, a small cup containing a white froth.  We are wondering what this can be,  perhaps some sort of delicate foam with a taste of smoked eel... when we hear Ferran Adrià quizzing his students on it.   Finally he solves the conundrum by explaining "It is a joke, a gift, it is just smoked water... it is nothing..".  The idea is to provoke, surprise and delight the diner and in this it has succeeded.

We spend some happy hours grazing leisurely over the succession of dishes.  I remember the kikos con guacamole served on spoons, the paquetitos de sepia al coco et jengibre, the sesos al aceite de carbon, sheep's brains which we didn't really care for although unlike R, I did eat all of mine.  Most of all I remember the selection of desserts pictured below a triumph of tastes and techniques and best of all loads of them!

At the end of our meal we asked our waiter if Ferran Adrià would sign a copy of the menu for us as a souvenir. As we had shown such interest in the food the waiter asked if we would like to view the kitchen. The work area was completely immaculate, not a speck of food or grease or dirt anywhere just the stainless metal surfaces, lots of prep boxes and the sculpture of a ferocious looking bulls head at the front of it. The waiter laughed at our astonishment and explained that every dish was designed to be constructed and heated in only a few minutes. Total efficiency in the kitchen meant that everything was already spotless and ready for the next service.

We had had an extraordinary and unique experience.  It is easy to forget that this was in the days before Heston Blumenthal's kitchen chemistry, dramatic theatricals, and snail porridge, before every would be chef from Brighton to Lands End was producing soapy scummy spumes like the bubbles whipped off the top of the washing up bowl, before the possibility of food being amusing and witty had been introduced into our gastronomic psyche.  Ferran Adrià was the forefather of all these culinary concepts.   Was it the best meal we have ever eaten? Overall perhaps not, we have since eaten fantastic food at some other extraordinary places.  Certainly it was the first meal we had eaten of its kind and one we will never forget.

A year or so later news reached Britain of this 'new' culinary genius and the world was beginning to wend its way to the culinary mecca at Cala Montjoi.  A reporter in one of the better Sunday papers had been given an assignment to write about El Bulli.  Our hearts sank when we read the first paragraph, the woman was complaining that amongst the 'overly adventurous' dishes was a cherry dipped in lard! Another was rabbit and the reporter couldn't possibly eat "fluffy little bunnies".  Why this ridiculous woman was sent to El Bulli rather than MacDonald's has always puzzled us, her review being cliched, facile and unhilarious.  Had Ferran Adrià presented us with a cherry dipped in lard I would have been prepared to believe, that unappetizing though it might sound, he had found some fantastic unexpected taste relationship between the two ingredients.  If it proved not to be to my taste then I would have been glad that I had had the opportunity to try something I was unlikely to be presented with ever again.



  1. Envious doesn't go halfway to describe my emotions. To misquote Monty P. "You lucky, lucky b*****d".

    So having "discovered" El Bulli before the rest of us where are you & should we be going next ?

  2. Not a discovery but top of R's list of restaurant destinations is The French Laundry in the Napa Valley.

    Given that there is pretty much no chance of getting a table at El Bulli ever again I would point people to

    Arzak in San Sebastian where we had a fantastic meal a few years ago in similar "tapas" cuisine-style. I would say as a meal (rather than as an experience) Arzak was better than El Bulli and more affordable than The Fat Duck. In fact for the price of a meal at The Fat Duck you could probably get a cheap flight down to San Sebastian and spend a couple of nights doing the tapas trail in the bars there plus a meal at Arzak.

    R. just said he wants to go to L'Enclume in the Lake District next!!!! I shouldn't have asked him he will be making a list of places now!