Dinner at El Bulli (#1)
We were very
lucky to get two reservations at Spain's El Bulli
restaurant for Scott's 50th
birthday. El Bulli, about 2 hours north of Barcelona on the Costa Brava, has been named the top restaurant in the world several times, and is considered to be one of the most creative. When we confirmed the reservation, El Bulli requested that we include allergy and food limitations. They were very gracious and accommodating. The group included friends who joined us from all over the world:
- Debbie Gross and Charles Haynes – serious foodies from San Francisco; they had just relocated to Bangalore in January
- Susan (our pregnant lady, not allowed to drink alcohol, eat raw fish or raw cheese) and Chris Mack
- Rosanne LaVoy (allergic to Mango), owner of the Coast Cafe in Bolinas, and a foodie and wine maven
- Tamar Loring, a caterer in Boston and a friend of Charles & Debbie's
- Roswitha (omnivore) and Scott (allergic to fish)
We arrived in two groups; each got a kitchen tour before being seated. The first group –
Roswitha, Tamar, Chris and Susan –
got to shake Ferran Adrià’s
hand as he stood at the end of his table, supervising each table's order sheets and commanding the kitchen.
That day El Bulli had 46 customers, 18 employees in the front of the house, and 40 chefs. Several wait staff had pins with "VI," which stands for Vino, indicating that they were sommeliers. The 320 m2 kitchen is roughly one third cold preparation, starting with the deep freeze at the far right as you enter. This is also where the kitchen starts and ends the meals. Each evening El Bulli offers about 30 dishes for no more than 50 customers and so serves a total of about 1500 courses each night.
Before we started, they confirmed the dietary limitations, and suggested that each course be a surprise. Except that they did ask, "Is everyone OK with lamb brains?" As we sat down, we had our first wine, a cava, Brut Nature Gran Reserva (2002), from Cava Agustí Torelló of Cava-Penedès to toast Scott's birthday, and to welcome everyone.
A huge part of the fun was the “how to eat” instructions given with each morsel, the reactions to the tastes, the discussion about what we just experienced, how it may have been made, and what ingredients it contained.
I couldn’t type this up without actually “tasting” the food all over again. I had no idea my imagination for taste is so strong and lasts so long! I constantly had to stop writing because I just got too hungry (for good food)!
Please pardon our photos; although we had the brightest table in the room, it was still on the dark side. We also shot with two cameras, so characteristics vary quite a bit. You can click on each photo to see more food and restaurant photos.
1. Aperitif: Gin Fizz / Virgin Piña Colada
All but Susan received the Gin Fizz. The glasses were full of a cold liquid, and they dispensed hot foam from a Whip-It. Hot, sweet, vanilla-y, foamy cream over very cold Gin Fizz in very cold glass – a wonderful play of hot and cold, sweet and sour; it could be very addictive.
Susan was served a Virgin Piña Colada - no alcohol for our pregnant lady. A martini glass held a puff of
coconut cotton candy. It was then showered with pineapple essence, melting the candy floss, thus creating the drink.
2. Spherical Green "Olive"
Served innocently (with our aperitifs) on a measuring spoon, this large green sphere results in a bursting explosion of essence of olive, causing surprised looks of pleasure on everyone’s face. It was a hard choice to make when to end this sensation by swallowing, because only after that one could really exclaim verbally what was going on. An exciting chatter of wows, "orgasmic," and so on followed.
This is one of El Bulli's signature dishes; an emulsion of perfect olive purée, encapsulated with the sodium alginate process, and then brined. When you bite into it, there is a little snap through the skin, and then your mouth floods with intense olive. This is what you hope that an olive could be.
3. Mango Leaf with Tagete Flower
A very thin and slightly dried slice of mango, sculpted to look like a leaf, served with a tiny (marygold-like) flower and a line of spice, maybe cumin.
It melts on the tongue, releasing an essence of mango.
Rosanne was served Golden Nuggets - "Pepina oro" - a gold leaf covered knobbly sphere.
The wine was a sherry, Fino Tio Pepe from Gonzáles Byass of Jerez-Manzanilla de Sanlúcar.
Dishes 4-8 were served at the same time
4. Pineapple Frits
Shaped like perfect French fries (but not caramelized), sprinkled with cumin and/or caraway. Eat them quickly to get the maximum crispiness; they seem to rapidly absorb humidity. Wonderful flavor combination and more pineappley than a fresh and ripe pineapple.
5. Beet Root Yogurt Meringues
Freeze dried red airy and crunchy puffs, with powder on top which seems to be the yogurt flavor. I love beets, but I think everyone would like it this way - crunchy, sweet and powdery at the same time.
6. Salty Catanias
Walnut caramels, very airy, and salty/sweet at the same time. They looked like they were chocolate truffles, but went in another surprising direction.
7. Rice and Parmesan Cookies
A rectangular carrier that looked from the bottom like a hollow rice cracker, but seems to have been made completely from parmesan. It was topped with clear small semi spherical shells vaguely tasting like gooseberry or white currant jelly, topped with a rosemary flower and lemon zest. Salty, crunchy, fruity and juicy at the same time. Terrific!
8. False chocolate crisps
Two people each got to share three pieces of what looked like different types of chocolate.
- Yogurt – White - Texture somewhat like peanut butter, it tasted salty and good, if a little dry and mealy, but not in a bad way
- Cassis – Dark on light(?) - Fizzy with what seems to be a lot of citric acid (reminded me of crackle and pop)
- Pistachio– caramel colored (?) – nutty
All three were surprising and – at least for me – not as exciting as the other items we had at that time. Maybe I have had too much really good and pleasantly surprising chocolates in my life, so it was a little bit short of expectations.
9. Parmesan Cheese Tile
Two large lacy and crispy discs of parmesan “glued” together with a smaller square of Manchego cheese. I don’t mind if I never again eat a potato chip or French Fry, if I can get these! They take ordinary parmesan crisps to a new level. We were sitting there deconstructing the tiles to figure out how they they were put together.
The wine was Gran Veigadares (2002) from Adegas Galegas of Rías Baixas, a local Galician white. It was oaky, with a stony mineral quality. Only 600 Bottles are produced per year.
10. Candy Floss
Paper with different flowers - it looked delicately delicious and seemed a play on flowers pressed in tissue paper between the pages of a book.
The cotton candy was slightly sour tasting and quickly melted on the tongue.Each flower had a different flavor, but not necessarily related to the flower. They taste like orange, radish, rosemary, pepper, or bitter. There were pansy, geranium, marigold, and others.
11. Tangerine Bonbons, Peanut and Curry
A disk-like item with fleur de sel - “eat in two bites”
and a cube with gold leaf on top - “Eat in one bite. Do it now.”
Both are very cold when served. The disk tastes like peanuts and curry, with overtones of tahini. It melts and is slightly crunchy. The cube is an explosion of Tangerine (but fruitier) with an overtone of jasmine and/or lavender. We could not determine the material of the shell. Maybe white chocolate or ghee, it seems entirely tasteless, but gives the form. It becomes very slippery and can break when lifted if it's not completely cold; it could potentially melt in front of you. It has to be eaten quickly, although you would like to savour the flavor of the first one. Timing from freezer to mouth on this course must be very tricky. (Servers were standing by with replacements for when some of us did not successfully get them into our mouths.)
12. Raspberry fondant with wasabi and raspberry vinegar
“Eat in two bites, with vinegar in between” One perfect raspberry in a hard (sugary?) coating, topped with a tiny dollop of wasabi (I assume the real thing) and a measuring spoon with sweet vinegar. It was delightful in its combination, as was each individual ingredient. The raspberry is one thing I would love to learn how to make! The texture was very delicate.
13. Liquid Croquette / Flower Foam
"Eat in one big bite."
Similar in shape and construction to the olive, but ivory colored and slightly larger, it was sprinkled with small golden and delicious flakes. The croquettes smelled like small pieces of fried fat (Grammeln in Austria or griebenes in Jewish cooking), tasted very much like salty ham, and had a beautiful texture.
Susan got Flower Foam.
14. Horchata and truffle
"Do not mix!"
The opaque light liquid was somewhat sweet and nutty, with a little honey and citrus. The clear brown liquid is the truffle juice; it almost tastes like the (non-fatty) drippings of a pork loin (Austrian Schweinebraten) – slightly salty, very tasty, almost jellied. The nut in the middle tasted a little like coconut, but was a tiger nut, the traditional nut for Horchata in Spain (not rice, cinnamon and sugar as we are used to in California). It probably was also the nutty base for the opaque liquid. The only complaint was that the serving dish (it's hard to call it a bowl) was very flat and shallow, making it hard to get every last drop. This was the plate Scott and Chris could not resist licking.
15. Parmesan Won Ton
This was the understatement of the night! The airy, pillowy won ton was made from parmesan dough and floated in a communal bowl of chicken broth. We each had a little bowl with basil foam and a special “holey” spoon. “Scoop a wonton and eat in one big swoop with foam” was the instruction. It took some doing, and Chris inhaled as he tried to eat it, causing him to cough and spray green basil foam across the white tablecloth. His place at the table was covered with the napkin of shame for the rest of the evening.
“It was the best pesto I ever had” said someone at the table. Many of us could not resist also scooping up some of the broth (just not with the holey spoon), which was delicious.
I did not make a note of this wine, but Scott’s picture shows that we were served the
La Pena (2003) Dominio do Bibei from Ribera Sacra.
Most got the Fried Brioche Shanghai - a taco-shaped little burger made from buttery beignet dough in the shape of a croissant, and filled with crab and lots of cilantro. It was salty, garlicky, and seemed to have chervil and mustard, too.
Steamed pepper brioche with gooey mozzarella and rose perfume – for Scott, our non fish eater.
The second wine was served here! Very fruity
17. Parmesan Snow with muesli
The very elaborate presentation of this course reminded me of a Super First Class Service in an airplane (except that it was presented in styrofoam, not on china). First we were all simultaneously presented with a styrofoam box wrapped with a very decorative wrapper. Then the boxes were removed and returned without the paper wrapper; it was ceremoniously rolled up to take home as a souvenir.(Yippee.) We got the instructions to open it and “try some, then add the muesli and try it again”. Not knowing what to expect I tried a spoon full. It felt like dense snow, and tasted like intense parmesan. Lovely. It looked completely white. After adding the muesli, which consisted of dried fruit (apple shavings, raspberries, rosemary, and other spices, mostly savory), I just loved watching the room temperature morsels sink into the snow as it melted. They also added a new dimension of taste, even though the snow alone was already fascinating. I felt like I should finish the entire box, but found that the snow was getting very dense further down, and at times even liquid later on. (Two weeks later the snow was much lighter, but I think this was the dish where I decided that I did not have to finish every large dish. Up to now everything was very small bites, but some dishes are quite substantial. This was one of them; it was almost enough to freeze my tongue.)
18. Quebearn egg
Sometimes known as a 1 hour egg, the time it is kept at 60°C (approx. 140 °F). "Mix it all together and eat." Of course we had to taste the individual components first. The perfect consistency egg yoke was served with caramel honey, tarragon vinaigrette (slightly sour (maybe lemony) with shallots), heavy cream (almost like mascarpone with vanilla), and was sprinkled with chipotle pepper. Each component tasted wonderful, and the combination was simply delightful.
19. Raisins of PX with anchovy and cardamom brioche
PX seems to stand for some form of alcoholic drink (potentially fortified wine?). The raisins had the shape of very delicate small clear truffles that almost looked like little jewels, and were filled with three different kinds of sweet (fortified) alcoholic liquids - maybe Madeira, Port, Sherry or Muscatel. In addition there were little drops of sauces - green (basil), white (hazelnut or almond), orange (mandarin/tangerine), and of course the cardamom brioche, which was only announced as brioche and I am delighted to report that Tara and Roswitha did come up with the taste of cardamom. The anchovy was a perfect balance of salty and (olive?) oily, and – very unexpectedly – really went very well with each of the accompaniments. This was the plate Roswitha just simply had to lick clean; not a single molecule of the sauces could be sent back.
The non-fish eaters got milk skin in place of the anchovy, with many of the same accompaniments.
The next wine was served here, Chivite Colección 125 Aniversario (2004) from Julián Chivite, from Navarra. It was peppery, with vanilla and oak.
20. Tomato soup with virtual iberian ham
It was accompanied by bread with an oil infusion and basil seeds.
This dish was completely clear. A pool of liquid sat in the center of a very large bowl, and small clear sheets layered the rim. The smell of the dish was vaguely of chicken or ham broth. The taste of the clear liquid was essence of tomato, and the sheets were jamón. (I've since learned that the main taste of the tomatoes is actually in a clear liquid if one simply presses it.) I assume the sheets were either thinly cut fatty bits of Iberian ham (unlikely) or essence of ham processed in one of El Bulli’s unique ways (more likely). The texture of the sheets reminded us more of gelatin than meat.
I could not figure out the oil infusion on the bread, except that it tasted like good olive oil, but I really wondered about the basil seeds. I have grown basil for a long time and the seeds are round, whereas here they were oblong and tasted to me like a hefty dose of chlorophyll and not at all like basil. (I since came across a basil seed drink in Asian supermarkets and that was exactly the taste and form I remember from El Bulli.) The bread had fleur de sel flakes sprinkled on top, providing extra crunch and flavor.
21. White asparagus
(in different cooking times – which was only confirmed at the very end when we got the menu)
Five meaty white asparagus tips were served with different white sauces, a brown sauce, and powder. Just before we ate, tiny spheres of frozen egg yolk were scattered over each dish; these slowly melted into puddles of yolk. Only a few of us realized while eating that the texture of the asparagus was ranging widely. The brown powder was shaved tuna, and the brown sauce peanut tahini. The white sauces tasted of lemon, parmesan, cream (over pickled or barely cooked asparagus), and rice wine vinegar. Was this a deconstructed hollandaise?
22. Zucchini Risotto with curry and capsule oil
The green Risotto almost looked like Zucchini seeds, and was sprinkled with little blobs of tangerine, peanut, curry, parmesan, and probably other tastes. The capsule oil tasted of peanut or walnut. This dish was warm.
Here the next bottle of wine was served, Finca Dofí (1994) Alvaro Palacios from Priorat, the only red and the 6th one on the list. It was minerally.
23. Razor Clams/Truffle gelatin omelette
This was another divided dish
A) Razor clams in vinegar sauce.
Three razor clams are presented as if the (shaving cream like) sauces were identical and the fourth streak is tahini and sesame seeds. But the white foams are covering different white creamy sauces underneath that taste of coconut, ginger, and lemon. Fleur de sel flakes add texture and taste on top.
B) Truffle gelatin omelette - a milk crepe (similar to skin on milk when cooking it) with truffle and crunchy salt underneath
24. The Sea
Yet another division.
a) The sea – “Start on the outside and work your way in”
This spiral salad of the sea presented many different strongly flavored (briny, green, and so on) and uniquely textured sea vegetables like seaweed, kelp, sea grapes, etc. It then transitioned through Mache and borage flowers and leaves to the perfectly refreshing and sweet piece of watermelon with salt and sorrel foam
b) A (slightly boring) little salad - Almond crumbs, raff tomato, elder flower and fresh almond gelée. It also featured the sorrel foam
25. Crab Marrakech/Ackees with veal juice
One more divided dish
Spider crab with buckwheat couscous, orange flower water, radish seeds, and the perfect gelatin medallions encapsulating cilantro leaves. The plate is sprinkled with shaved pepper (cumin, and smoked spicy pepper).
b) Ackees with veal juice/soup, plus basil and cucumber
The consommé also included shallots, mushroom, red wine and maybe some bone marrow. A milk crepe was included.
26. Meat Pita
Pita of Iberian ham fat and veal bone marrow. This dish almost looked like a little burrito or strudel, but the outside shell was made of meat (though it almost looked like a dough with flour), inside were three cherry sized globules probably with fat and marrow. It also included onions and shallots. Served with it were sugar coated currants, which I would love to learn how to make. They were the perfect contrast of crunch and liquid, sweet and sour.
27. Spherical lamb brains
Lamb brains with their own juice which probably included marrow. There were also hints of lemon, pepper, mint, and oregano as well as little flowers that might have been calendula.
Here we got our last wine,
Gra a Gra (2002) Gramona from Penedès.
28. "Sheep" – the cheese and the wool / Yuzu ice cream with carrot puffs
A divided dish for our pregnant lady, who could not have raw cheese.
Very good young sheep’s cheese with candy floss and a sherry petit four.
Susan was very jealous; she really wanted to taste this one.
b) Susan got a puff of carrot and yuzu ice cream
Scott was jealous; he wanted Susan’s
(although the Sheep was still excellent).
29. Piquillo pepper and banana tatin with tarragon yogurt
(with white pepper). This came in two parts - what looked like a solid gel cake on a pastry, and a small cubic dish of the yogurt that you could put onto the pepper preparation. It weighed less that you'd anticipate. When you bit into it, you discovered that both the red gel and the pastry were shells, with the banana inside of the red part. Very subtle and tasty.
A little square area of chocolate mousse sprinkled with small and larger rocks, and imprinted with a tiny moon boot. “A molecular step for one man, a huge step for mankind." Each rock is a different chocolate (including a larger rock of a brownie) and nuts. A purée of passion fruit and darker chocolate lies under the surface layer, and there's a mint leaf crockant. If only we could find this on the moon!
At this point we got our menus. Scott got Adrià's menu with his notes and specials for the nonmainstream diners. While we sorted out the bill we had espresso and
These were three more delicious morsels.
a) Palomita (little white dove), a passion fruit popcorn, sprinkled with ascorbic acid and pop-rock-like areas. Sour, salty, and sweet at the same time and in sequence.
b) Ningyouyaki (Japanese elaboration), a chocolate cream cinnamon yaki ball. It was crumbly and mealy outside, and very, very light.
c) Sable (pictured), a tangerine covered sugar cookie with radish sprout and citrus zest.
Reflecting back we were wondering what the theme of the evening’s meal may have been (besides the wonderful world of Ferran Adrià and his team), and we found a string of recurring tastes of parmesan and tangerine, all of which were truly wonderful.
Needless to say with all the tasting, discussing, photographing, whooping, and wowing about all the food and being the largest group by far (the next largest group I saw was 4 people) we took the longest to finish our meal. It took us a total of 5 ½ hours (330 minutes!) and we closed the place down when we left at 2 am. A wonderful time was had by all, except maybe for the small crew that was waiting for us to leave.
But we thanked them profusely.
Numerous people have asked us specific things about El Bulli. We'll attempt to answer those here.
How do you get a reservation at El Bulli?
This is challenging. When we decided to go, El Bulli was only accepting reservations by email, and doing it in October for the following year. The best thing to do is to check El Bulli's website for instructions.
What is the best way to get there?
(This assumes that you are going from far away.)
The largest airport in the area is Barcelona (BCN), but Girona (GRO) is closer, and Perpignan, France (PGF) is actually the closest. You can take a train from any of these airports to Figueres and then a bus to Roses. Buses also run from Barcelona to Roses.
From Roses, you'll need to either take a taxi or rent a car to get over the hill to Cala Montjoi, which is where El Bulli sits on the beach.
Alternately, you can rent a car from Barcelona (or any other airport) and drive. It takes about two easy hours to get from Barcelona to Roses.
We came from Barcelona. We found that renting a car cost about the same as four people taking the train and bus, not including the taxi to and from El Bulli. We've heard that Roses taxis can charge exhorbitant fees for El Bulli clients. So, having a car (which is what we decided upon) was the best, and allowed us to drive ourselves to El Bulli, as well as to do some other sightseeing.
Driving from Roses to El Bulli only takes about 15 minutes. The hardest challenges are finding the right road to take from Eastern Roses (it is marked with a small sign for El Bulli on a main road in Roses), and driving carefully over the winding road (especially if you've enjoyed the restaurant's wonderful wine selection). We did have a designated driver.
While El Bulli is on a lovely beach, it is not really set up to easily welcome you by boat.
Where should I stay?
Roses is a resort beach town, and has many hotels in all price ranges. Just check your favorite hotel travel site to find a hotel there. You can also stay in Cadaques, although it is a bit farther away, and has fewer options. There is a campground right next to El Bulli, but we did not even consider staying there. The El Bulli website has some links to recommended hotels.
What is the dress code at El Bulli?
We cannot speak for the restaurant, but it could be described as smart casual. While we did see people in jeans, most were dressed nicely, with many men in sport coats, and a few with ties. Women were fashionably dressed, but comfortable.
What else is there to do in the area?
What are we, travel guides?
This is the Costa Brava, with many beach and water sport options, including sailing, boating, snorkeling, and SCUBA.
The area is inside the Salvador Dalí triangle of Figueres (Theatre Museu Dalí), Cadaques (Casa Museu Salvador Dalí), and Púbol (Casa Museu Castell Gala Dalí), all well within a half day's drive. Each can get busy (especially Figueres), so it is worth investigating the best way to get tickets, starting at the Foundation's web site.
There is also resort town type shopping in Roses and Cadaques, and hiking in the hills.
Finally, if you're there for the food, there are many great choices, including one which has been said to be Ferran Adrià’s favorite, Rafa's. (We hope to soon post stories of some of the local restaurants, including Rafa's.)