October 24, 2015

elBulli : A Tribute by Amber

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About a month ago, I returned from a long roadtrip in the US, fired up my computer, and saw a tweet about Richard Ekkebus getting Ferran Adrià to come to the Landmark Mandarin Oriental.  Being a HUGE fan of Ferran's, I immediately fired off a tweet to Richard, jokingly asking him "who do I hv 2 kill 4 a seat?"  Richard rather cleverly suggested that I "shoot" an email to him, and so I did as I was told.  Soon I had myself a table, and went about recruiting partners in crime.

There was some debate among my friends about whether the price of the dinner was "worth it" or "reasonable".  I gotta admit that when I first found out about the cost of dinner - which was, admittedly, AFTER I had asked for a table - I experienced a little sticker shock myself.  First of all... this was a book tour by Ferran.  Everyone gets a set of the massive elBulli 2005-2011, the seven-volume compendium published by Phaidon that weighs a whopping 18kg...  This presents a problem for some couples, who don't need 2 sets of books at home... and has led at least one couple to decline my invitation.

Stripping out the list price of the books makes the cost of the 12-course dinner, wine-pairing included, somewhat more palatable.  But here we run into another objection from some people : for the not-inconsiderable price, what's on the plate isn't actually cooked by Ferran or his team.  It's a menu put together by Richard and Amber Chef de Cuisine Maxime Gilbert - in consultation with (and obviously "approved by") Ferran.  So it's not exactly equivalent to a "guest chef" performance.  What you get comes 100% from Team Amber (with all due respect from this very fine team).

Comparisons were immediately made with the time Thomas Keller flew in with his team for a guest chef program at the Mandarin Oriental, and how diners experienced sticker shock back then (including myself, before later being told how much free-flowing wine was being poured at those dinners).  People scoffed this time just as they did back then.

But plenty of people wanted in on this.  Richard was jokingly being compared to Willy Wonka - holding the "golden ticket".  Lots of people were more than happy to pay, only to be left empty-handed and upset.  That's what you call "star power", and only a few people in the culinary world today command that kind of power.

As for me... even though I knew the cost of the dinner defied normal logic, but having been a huge fan of Ferran for the last 10 years (and having become an even bigger fan after having dinner with him two years ago), I dutifully bit the bullet and paid up.  I wasn't gonna miss this!

In retrospect I kinda regret not going to the press event yesterday.  It would have given me a chance to greet him a day earlier, but I didn't really think about spending my lunch hour at the event.  And I'm sure his speech was a little different from the one he gave tonight, judging from friends' posts on social media.

After a round of Champagne and snacks, Richard made a short speech to introduce Ferran.  He explained that each dish tonight was inspired by techniques developed by elBulli during a certain year (and was marked as such), and that tonight's dinner was by no means a copy of the dishes at elBulli.

We were shown a video introducing the work of elBullifoundation, after which Ferran delivered an inspiration talk.  Other than explaining that he wanted to be disruptive force to challenge thinking in the culinary world, and to collect and disseminate knowledge - which I already knew from his visit 2 years ago - there were a couple of points I found noteworthy:

- an interesting analogy was made between going to a restaurant and watching a movie.  When a diner orders à la carte at a restaurant based on the diner's own preferences, sometimes one ends up "watching the wrong movie" and leaves without the full experience.  When the diner is served an entire tasting menu designed by the chef, he/she is able to experience the story as the chef/director had intended.

- there are few, if any, scholarships for talented young people wishing to pursue a career in gastronomy.  Ferran wishes to change that, to encourage young people to enter this field, and introduced a young girl present who expressed her wish to work for him.

- the rationale behind publishing the compendium was to document the creative process as well as the inspiration behind the dishes.  He was approached one night by diners who enjoyed the dishes, but wanted to understand the "why".  Ferran proceeded to ask the room to guess the rationale behind the dish where the diner is asked to suckle on a flower to extract nectar, before explaining that he wanted diners to experience what it feels like to be a bee.

- Ferran also made the point that, when one looks at a masterpiece, frame of reference is lost if one does not know the year or era that the art was created.  Hence the importance of dating their culinary creations.

Anyway... after everyone has had a chance to pose for pics with Ferran and Richard, we all took our seats and waited for dinner to be served...  As it turns out, I've had a number of the dishes before.

First, the snacks that came with the first bubbly:

Watermelon and blood orange sangria / inspiration technique EB98 - something I first enjoyed at this lunch in 2013.  Loved starting with something sweet and refreshing.

Fennel and tomato macaroon / inspiration technique EB02 - unfortunately I didn't manage to catch this snack tonight, but I have had it a few times starting with this lunch in 2015.

Fish skin chicharon with lemon peel and pith / inspiration technique EB03 - very, very delish.  Love the citrus flavors together with that crunchy fish skin.  I would happily keep snacking on this non-stop.

Liquid 'nose to tail' and mustard croquette / inspiration technique EB98 - something I first enjoyed at this dinner in 2013.  What's not to love about a deep-fried ball of liquid pig?!

Belotta air baguette / inspiration technique EB03 -  first enjoyed at this lunch in 2013.  Amazing how the baguette just seems to crumble and disappear with a poof!

2005 Moët et Chandon Cuvée Dom Pérignon - toasty nose.  Very nice on the palate.

Now the 12-course onslaught:

Oyster, chipolata, fruit tomato espuma / inspiration technique EB95 - first enjoyed at this dinner in 2014.

Underneath the tomato espuma lay a steamed oyster, and the fruity, acidic flavors of the espuma balanced out the slightly briny flavors of the oyster.  The finely diced potato was surprisingly crunchy while showing just the slightest bit of starchiness, well-complemented by the seaweed and shallots.  Not surprisingly it was the crunchy cubes of chipolata that made my heart sing...

2012 Cloudy Bay Te Koko - really big nose of Muscat grapes, definitely green notes here, with some minerality.  Nice acidity on the palate and perfectly balanced with ripeness and sweetness.  A lovely wine.

Raw amber jack, kyuri cucumber juice and Granny Smith snow / inspiration technique EB99 - I mixed the Granny Smith snow with the slices of raw amberjack, which kinda covered up the natural flavors of the fish but I didn't mind.  The medallion of cucumber jelly embedded with cucumber cubes was really clean and refreshing.

2013 Héritiers du Comte Lafon Mâcon-Villages - toasty nose.  Easy to drink but the least interesting wine of the evening.

Cep mushrooms and textures / inspiration technique EB01 - a delicious pile of powder, mousse, and crispy pearls of mushroom, herbs, and (green peas?).  Love the paper-thin cep wafer.

Beetroot, raspberry and foie gras Chupa Chup / inspiration technique EB96 - first enjoyed at this dinner in 2007, and one of Amber's signatures which has been taken off the menu.  My Favorite Cousin declared that she wished she could be served one of these every half-hour...

1998 Moët et Chandon Cuvée Dom Pérignon P2 - nice and ripe on the palate with a little acidity on the finish.  A little floral and a little yeasty on the nose.  Yum.

Raw blue lobster, pig head and cauliflower couscous / inspiration technique EB00 - what a beautiful dish!  A wafer-thin layer of crunchy head cheese sits at the very bottom, topped with a layer of homard bleu carpaccio and a "couscous" of cauliflower... garnished with radish, sorrel, and flowers.  The pearls provided some citrus flavors.  So delicate and fine.  Makes one wish the serving were three times as large!

2011 Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay Cuvée Alexandre - grassy and sweet, very ripe and buttery on the nose.  Very ripe on the palate.

Black autumn truffle omelette surprise with artichoke / inspiration technique EB03 - lovely presentation with bands of truffle mash.

Underneath the layer of "skin" was artichoke purée, topped with black truffle.

2011 Maison de la Cabotte Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes - a little fruity, some forest notes with dried herbs on the nose.  Some acidity on the palate here.

Black/white cod under a squid veil / inspiration technique EB04 - this came looking like a bloc of black lava...

Lifting the layer of squid ink gel revealed a foamy and mushy mix of bacalhau and cod, along with caviar.  Not sure what the white strands were, but they had the kick of raw garlic.  Very yum.

2010 Nevis Bluff Pinot Noir - wonderful nose of sweet fruit here.

Cuttlefish tagliatelle, Parmesan foam and white Alba truffle / inspiration technique EB03 - first enjoyed at this lunch in 2014.  Absolutely loooooove both the texture and bite of the cuttlefish "noodles", along with the "carbonara" sauce.  Of course the white truffle shavings didn't hurt, either!

2012 Ca'Marcanda 'Promis' - lots of dried herbs, sweet fruit, with medicinal notes alongside a little smokiness.  Loved that this was served at a cool temperature.

Bloody duck / inspiration technique EB10 - not liking the "splatter" but this was one delicious dish!  Loved the beetroot crisp.

The duck was melt-in-your-mouth, with very rich flavors which I assumed to come from the blood sauce.  I would have loved another serving of this...

2010 Numanthia Toro Numanthia - really nice and fruity, really ripe on the nose, a little exotic coconut, with cool fruit and slightly metallic notes.  A great pairing of a big wine with the big, bold flavors of the duck.

Pineapple, aloe vera, banana, lime and olive oil / inspiration technique EB04 - thin slices of pineapple with banana sorbet, cubes of aloe vera, with olive oil pearls and shavings of lime zest.

2004 Moët et Chandon Cuvée Dom Pérignon Rosé - toasty with strawberries and a nice and yeasty nose.

Dulcey chocolate, crispy microwave cake and peanut butter ice cream / inspiration technique EB04 - first enjoyed at this dinner in 2014.  Just loooove the texture and the flavors of the chocolate sphere and mousse.  The peanut butter ice cream on the side was pretty delish, too!

2013 Domaine des Forges Coteaux du Layon Saint-Aubin - very sweet with some acidity.

Coconut, rice crispy and bitter chocolate mini-magnum / inspiration technique EB03 - first enjoyed at this lunch in 2010.

Cool and refreshing coconut sorbet in the middle, with rice crispies in the chocolate coating.  Always a nice way to finish a meal here.

A truly special dinner tonight.  I was glad to have shared the evening with a couple of friends (and of course My Favorite Cousin), and it was certainly a nice tribute to Ferran and the team at elBulli who - as Richard said at the start of the evening - changed the way we cook and therefore also the way we eat.  Unlike the last time I saw Ferran, I didn't get to spend any time with him tonight, but that didn't matter.  I am, after all, not as privileged as the Great One... but I'm just happy to have had a seat tonight and bask in his aura.

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