August 4, 2011

Guest blog: The Ox at El Bulli

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Three of my friends had the opportunity separately to take their wives for a meal at El Bulli in its final month of operation, and all were dining there for the first time.  The last of   the three was the Ox, who wrote a very nice account of this very special experience.  He has very kindly allowed me to repost his thoughts here, as it would be very interesting for many people out there to read about the meal.

I have often said that although my birthday dinner at El Bulli still remains the most amazing meal I've ever had, I do have my regrets because 1) I foolishly chose to leave my DSLR in the hotel room, as I wasn't in the habit of taking pictures of food back then; and 2) I started this blog upon my return from Spain - a mere 10 days after the dinner at El Bulli - so I didn't take notes at dinner.  Despite having told myself to write down my thoughts about the meal immediately afterwards, it took me 4½ years to finally get off my ass to do it...

So here it is.  The Ox and his El Bulli experience.

July 17, 2011

El Bulli, Roses, Spain

My wife and I were intrigued when we received an invitation to dine at El Bulli from the American Express Centurion service early in 2011.  Knowing that the restaurant would be closed sometime after the summer of this year, we were eager to try out one of the hardest to reserve restaurants in the world.  The fact that it was located close to Barcelona, a city we had never visited before but which was universally praised by all our friends who had visited, made the trip even more attractive, so we quickly signed up for one of the tables.  The booking was for Sunday, July 17th, and we planned our trip to Barcelona via London, aiming to spend some time in the Spanish city before our trip to Roses about a 2 hour drive away and then a few more days in London.

Our car picked us up from the Mandarin Oriental hotel in the city at 10am on Sunday morning.  We prepared for a 2 and a half hour drive, but the driver told us that we would probably be able to get to Roses in an hour and a half given traffic was not bad.  He was indeed correct, and our journey from the city through the countryside was smooth and uneventful, giving us a beautiful view of the Spanish countryside on the way.  There was a bit of congestion as we arrived in Roses, as it is a popular resort destination of continental Europeans.  There were cars in the town from all over Europe — France, Germany, Belgium, Skandinavia, and even the UK. The restaurant itself was a drive away from the centre of town, and we had to traverse a very tricky winding single lane road which at times skirted the very edge of the cliffs above the ocean to get there.  We arrived at the restaurant just before noon, and after a quick wait at the door were ushered in to have a quick tour of the restaurant and kitchen before the meal.

Our first stop was the kitchen where we got a first hand glimpse of the massive amount of prepatory work going on and we were greeted by Ferran Adria, the head chef at El Bulli and who had made the concept of deconstructionist or molecular cuisine a global phenomenom.

After posing for a few quick photos in the outdoor deck area offering beautfiul views of the beach, we made our way to the table and prepared for a long lunch. The manger of the restaurant told us to expect a full 41 course lunch which would feature many of chef Ferran’s best known dishes. Our homework the night before online indicated that we should expect nothing less than a four hour experience to await us once we got started.

The staff at El Bulli was mostly made up of interns, hard at work prepping the courses before the meal.  There were more than 40 staff members, and they had been in the kitchen since 8am in the morning prepping for the day.

Mojito/Caipirinha sugar cane – One of each, basically the alcohol is infused into the sugar cane and the sugar explodes into your mouth once you bite into the stick. It actually does taste like a mojito and a caipirinha, but in a tiny intense dose.

Mojito and apple baguette – The “baguette” is a candified foam which basically tastes like a mojito. It was like an extra light macaron. The apple sauce was tart and offset the mojito well and had the icy texture of a slurpee. Nice to have 2 “welcome cocktails” in an unexpected manner.

Gin Fizz – This was unpleasant for me. The bottom of the glass was a fairly standard citric juice, and the waitstaff sprayed the white warm “fizz” on top to create a contrast of textures and tastes. Although I can understand the intent, the end result was not pleasant and neither my wife nor I finished ours.

Spherical Olives – This is a well known dish at El Bulli. The “olives” are basically olive flavoured liquid held in a very thin skin, like a very fine jello. Once you pop the outer layer of the “olive” when it’s in your mouth, the whole construct collapses and your tongue is coated with a wonderful intense sensation of olive flavours.

Mimetic Peanuts and Pistachio Ravioli – Wow, these were fantastic. The peanuts were pure essence of peanut flavour held together in a very thin crispy skin. Once you put it in your mouth, the whole thing collapses and releases intense peanut flavours. Pistachio ravioli is similar, pure essence of pistachio flavouring held in a thin crispy skin. Both sweet and a touch salty.

Parmasan Cheese “Macaron” – A bit mushy, like a fluffy marshmellow, but held the flavours of parmasan cheese in a fluffy macaron shape. Not memorable.

Parmasean Cheese “Porra” – Intense parmasean flavour in bread stick form. Just a tiny crumb contained the full blast of a generous slice of parmasean cheese.

Gorgonzola Balloon – Fascinating presentation. The waitstaff came over with what appeared to be an ostrich egg, but when they broke the “egg” it revealed itself to be a very thin layer of iced gorgonzola infused liquid.

A bit of nutmeg and the dish was ready to go. Intense flavours of gorgonzola and complemented by the cool temperature. Size was a big big though, think a chicken egg could have done.

Olive Oil Chip – Intense flavours of olive in the crispy chip. Went very well with the Gorgonzola Balloon above.

Flowers Paper – A bit of an odd dish. The “paper” is cotton candy with bits of fresh flowers petals pressed flat in it. Sweet and interesting textures, but was not keen on the overall presentation and/or flavour.

Roses with ham won-ton and melon water – The won-ton skins were very thin and delicate, and contained a ham flavoured infusion laced with rose flavouring. It was paired with a tiny glass of melon juice. In a sense, this evoked the style of parma ham and melon, but I was a bit put off by the scent of roses. Thought there were too many things going on to make it a cohesive statement, but I understood the intent of the dish.

Ham and ginger canape – The jelly on top was ham flavoured, and the crisp canape below carried the ginger element. Good offset of spice and saltiness, the combination of textures and tastes worked well.

Japanese ravioli – Similar to the spherical olives, the thin jelly like skin held a flavour infused liquid inside. In this case it was pure miso which exploded on the palate once the skin broke. Short and intense, I thought it would have been more impactful if we weren’t so used to miso flavouring already.

Soy Matches – This was an interesting dish. It was a match with the Japanese ravioli and the “stick” was entirely edible and soy sauce flavoured. The gold foil at the end created a nice visual effect but had not impact on the taste. My only comment was that soy sauce and miso don’t traditionally tend to be complimentary elements didn’t feel the combination necessarily worked well together.

Nori ravioli with lemon – The skin of the crisp dumplings were nori flavoured, and the bed of sesame was just for display. There is a lemon burst to offset the saltiness of the nori, but not a very memorable dish.

Two cooking prawn – Vere well done prawn dish. The prawn essence was distilled into the small spoon and the sensation is not dissimilar to sucking the head of a juicy prawn. The prawn itself was well executed, juicy, with a crispy deep fried head which went nicely with the suppleness of the prawn meat.

Oysters and bone marrow tartar – The side was a small collection of oyster leaves. The oyster was cooked, diced and re-served in its shell with a bone marrow sauce. We ate the oyster on the oyster leaves, and the flavour was intense. Bone marrow sauce was good. Taste was delicious!

Parmesan frozen air with muesli – The “frozen air” came in a styrofoam box. Parmesan flavour came out strongly, and the muesli, when mixed in, created an interesting texture contrast and nuttiness to complement the cheese. Interesting presentation.

Carbonara tagliatelle – We saw the kitchen staff preparing this when we first arrived at the restaurant. The tagliatelle was hand made with agar agar to give it the appearance of pasta, and the carbonara sauce was fairly traditional. The texture was a big soggy, and both my wife and I felt that it lacked the “al dente” feel of traditional pasta.

Caviar cream with hazelnut caviar – This was a playful dish as both sides looked like caviar. The one on the right was real caviar while the hazelnut caviar was made from the nut and served in hazelnut sauce. Upon tasting though, the difference is very obvious. The real thing is much better, while the hazelnut was oily and a bit mushy.

Liquid hazelnut “porra” – This was very similar to the mimetic peanuts. The hazelnut essence lay behind a thin brittle skin and had an intense taste to it.

Pinenuts shabu-shabu – Was not a good combination. Everything was too oily, and I felt a bit nauseated after eating it. The pine nuts came in little edible sachets in a paste form. The “shabu-shabu” tasted like a bowl of oil. Was our least favourite dish of the entire meal.

Curry chicken – A small smattering of curry taste. The essense was held in the broth at the bottom of the bowl. Interesting textures, and very authentic curry chicken flavour, but not too memorable.

At this point, they started to serve the Flor de Pingus, 2000. Very exuberant, and quite young. It had lots of power and features excellent aging potential. Although the structure was reminiscent of a classic right bank Pomerol, the fruit was definitely more forward almost in the fashion of a new world wine.

Mimetic almond – Again, the mimetic style with the almond flavour inside the thin almond shaped shells. It was paired with truffle flavoured shaved ice and apricots with plum flower sprinkles. The combination didn’t work too well as there were too many flavours in one dish.

At this point, my wife and I decided to take a break and wandered out to the deck area to get some fresh air and to rest up a bit after a pretty hectic round of dishes. We took our wine with us and sat outside for a bit. Although the weather was not bad, there was quite a bit of wind, so we headed back in once we felt ready to challenge the rest of the courses!

Barnacle with caviar – This was my favourite dish of the meal. In the background, you can see a little barnacle shell which held “barnacle juice”. Intense flavours of the sea, rich, and very tasty. The actual barnacle meat itself was very fresh, sweet and a bit chewy, and the caviar was wonderful. Yum!

Lobster “ceviche” – There were freeze dried kernels of corn as well as nuggets of pommegranate. The lobster itself was unmemorable, although the corn was quite sweet in its frozen format.

Clam “ceviche” – The greenish sauce was sweet, and the clam was alright, although smothered by the sauce. Also not a memorable dish.

Oaxaca “taco” – The taco “shell” was made with candified floss, and the inside was avocado plus a few other Tex-Mex style ingredients. Flavours didn’t go too well.

“Gazpacho” and “ajo blanco” – The waiter served this and asked us to guess what it was. I said “gazpacho!” upon the first spoonful. Although very tiny in portion size, it gave the impression of a full bowl of gazpacho soup. The olive oil garnish offset it quite well, and overall, the sensation was refreshing and palate cleansing.

Vega Sicilia Unico 1990 – Beautiful wine. The 1990 vintage is drinking beautifully right now. Classic structure, delicate bouquet, I think that this actually felt a bit more French in style to me than the more typically robust style of Vega Sicilia we have tasted in the past.

Sea-cucumber sea cucumber – This was actually jelly fish, so from an Asian perspective, something quite common. They sliced it thinly in strips and served it with tobiko. We were asked to eat it strip by strip with the tweezers. It tasted like jelly fish, so was not that surprising.

Hare fritter – This picture is actually of the Cardera that went with the fritter. It wasn’t for eating, but just for us to sniff and cleanse our palates. The fritter itself looked like bread with some sauce on it. There was a layer of cheese on the bread, and the hare sauce was gamey. Not too memorable.

Game meat cappucino – Game essence with cocoa powder sprinkled on top. A bit bitter from the cocoa.

Blackberry risotto with game meat sauce, and hare ravioli with bolognese and blood – A fairly straightfoward dish. The hare raviolis went well with the Vega Sicilia. The “blood” in the wine glass was actually beet juice with a bit of ginger.

Pond – The “pond” was suspended on the glass surface, and could be chipped and eaten in cool shards as it cracked away. It was sprinkled with mint, green tea, and sugar. Very refreshing and palate cleansing.

Yoghurt blini – Very light, layered with a honey taste. The honey went well with the yoghurt.

“Coca de vidre” – crystal cake and mini donuts – The donuts were chocolate and coconut. Not very sweet, they had the rich bitterness of cocoa and the aroma of coconut. The crystal cake was sweet and crispy, and offset with pine nuts.

Apple rose – Although the apple was thinly sliced to resemble a rose, there was also a rose flavouring to the dish as well. The heart of the “rose” was an ice granita with muscadet poured into it, giving it a bit of a feel of a cool mojito, offset by the tartness of the apple.

Box – The dessert box. Wow… too many things to describe, but lots of chocolates and assorted sweets. I sampled about a third of them, but couldn’t go any further. Was just too full!

No, this wasn’t a dish. I took this picture upside down from inside the restaurant as we were leaving. It was a dish of free cigarettes for diners to smoke on the deck outside.

So what did we think? Personally, I thought that there was a lot of innovation and thought that went into the preparation and design of each of the dishes. Strictly speaking, purely on the basis of taste, I would not have rated this as the best meal I’ve ever had. There were quite a few dishes which I felt didn’t go so well on the palate, but made some sort of point with the ingredients, preparation, or presentation. As a form of edible performance art, I thought that the experience was well worth the trip and much food for thought (pun intended). There were quite a few genuine surprises in the lineup, although I think that Chef Adria’s techniques have been copied so extensively in the culinary world that some of the surprise has become muted as we might have seen similar techniques used elsewhere.

I felt that the point of challenging the diner to think about what the food represented, or how a traditional dish could be re-served in a non-traditional manner was quite clever. In terms of taste though, in my opinion the best tasting dishes were actually those that played more to the freshness and taste of the ingredients as opposed to those that were more intricately prepared. In reviewing my notes, my two favourite dishes were the two shrimps and the barnacles, where the quality of the seafood shone through.

The one area I did feel wasn’t necessary was repeating several of the techniques throughout the course of the meal. The candified floss, the mimetic style, and the use of alginates all featured several times. Although one could make the point that each application of an individual technique was different, it could also be argued that the repeated use made the next dish a bit less of a surprise.

Overall, my wife and I had a wonderful trip, and it was a thought provoking and fun experience. We’ll miss El Bulli after Chef Adria closes it down after July 2011!

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