A single blog post just wont do El Bulli full justice. Accordingly, we have broken up our visit to Spain into five chapters which can be seen by scrolling down or clicking on the links below. We have also now added a review of the recently published authorised biography of Ferran Adria and El Bulli.Chapter 1 - before the mealChapter 2 - courses 1-20Chapter 3 - courses 21-40Chapter 4 - reflections after the mealChapter 5 - the day after - dinner at Rafa'sFerran Adria: the man who changed the way we eat by Colman Andrews reviewed
Standing outside the locked front gates of El Bulli waiting to be admitted into the restaurant, we can’t really believe we’re here. We’re 20 minutes early for our 7:30 booking and the restaurant is not yet open so we’re standing on the edge of a dusty road looking down to the coastal restaurant and getting to know four of our fellow diners who have flown in from Sweden. We feel like Charlie in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, against all odds, golden ticket holders, and with the day having arrived and the time rapidly approaching, we wait for the doors to swing open on a magic kingdom of taste sensation overseen by an innovative genius.
Remarkably, the Swedish foursome we’re talking to know that El Bulli is a top restaurant but have no idea how difficult it is to get a booking. An email request secured a table for four on their first attempt and they thought no more of it. They are shocked, surprised and increasingly delighted to know the odds of getting a table are about 1000-1. We can’t help but feel though that they have missed out on something along the way for we’ve been excited for about a year now around this visit and the journey is surely part of the fun. If this is not a food pilgrimage, what is it?
The day before we left we were chatting to a black cab driver and said we were going to Spain. The cab driver enquired the purpose of our trip; I said we were going for dinner. The expression goes that it’s better to travel in hope than to arrive and at the end of the experience, you can have a valid view on the El Bulli experience and whether it’s worth the hype, but before you go there, you’ll probably know a couple of things about your destination (unless you’re Swedish).
First, El Bulli has dominated the Pellegrino Best Restaurants in the World list (winner in 2002, regaining top spot in 2006 and staying top in 2007, 2008 and 2009). Second, Ferran Adrià is a cook’s cook with for example Joel Robuchon declaring Adrià the best chef in the world, so this is not just marketing hype. Adrià also won Restaurant Magazine’s Chef of the Decade award. Third, especially with the restaurant closing, this is a once in a lifetime experience, you will never do this again and there’s no second chance. If as a foodie you are not in a perpetual buzz of excitement before you even sit down at the table, because perhaps you like to think of yourself as a contrarian, or perhaps because you read a blog that said it wasn’t it’s all cracked up to be, well, that’s sad, and I have to think wrong. On the night before we are due to eat, we feel like children on Christmas Eve counting down the hours and giving voice to the excitement in saying things like ‘this time tomorrow we’ll at El Bulli’ followed by giggles.
Walking up the drive to El Bulli
Because this is once in a lifetime, you plan the event with NASA like failsafes built in to the itinerary. It’s easy to take a wrong turning and find yourself heading in the wrong direction with no U-turn options and El Bulli is notoriously in the middle of nowhere. Our meal is Friday night but the one flight a day to Gerona (a Ryanair hub) doesn’t land till late in the evening. We don’t want to risk getting it wrong on the Friday drive so we elect to drive up on Thursday and therefore fly out Wednesday. We stay overnight at an airport hotel and pick up our Avis VW Golf the next morning and head to Roses where we’ll be staying.
The journey from Gerona to Roses is remarkably easy taking around an hour though if you fly to Barcelona proper, by all accounts, it’s longer and more complicated. Roses itself we had been told was run down and we thought there would be little to occupy us. Rather, we found Roses to be quite a charming little seaside town catering well for tourists of all nationalities and so we settled in to enjoy the still fine weather despite it now being out of season.
When the Friday came, what, foodwise should be our strategy? Knowing that we had 40 courses to come at dinner, should we starve ourselves during the day or nibble? We chose to eat breakfast and take a light lunch but nothing adventurous. The taxi to take us to El Bulli came at 6:45pm and as bundles of excitement, we got in. Driving into town before heading up through the national park, the taxi driver managed to drive his cab over the curb which is not great but for the most part not a cause to worry. However, as we climbed the mountains of the national park into the misty peaks, we found ourselves on single track highways with a sheer drop to a ravine below. The wheels of the car looked perilously close to the edge, and with legitimate questions around whether our cab driver could actually drive or not, both of us later agreed that this was one of the scariest car rides of our lives. This is not how we’re supposed to die, especially before we’ve eaten at El Bulli.
From Roses, the journey time to El Bulli is around 20 mins and as the taxi slows and we see the restaurant name plate, the excitement is taken to a new level. We have a ‘pinch me, I can’t believe it’s real’ moment.
The gates to El Bulli swing open at 7:25 and we walk down the driveway, ocean to our left and what looks like a sizeable charming villa nestling behind palm trees in front of us that is our ultimate destination. Through the front door, staff line the hallway and greet us as we enter. We’re asked ‘would you like to see the kitchen?’ Well, since we’re here... The first thing you notice in the kitchen is Ferran Adrià waiting to greet you standing in front of a giant bull’s head (not a real one, and El Bulli is actually a bull dog, not a bull). I fumble for the camera, lens cap off, I remember that I turned the flash off when I was outside (doh!), it’s all running away from me; I’m feeling the pressure of meeting genius. Having snapped my picture of Ferran, we then line up alongside Ferran for our picture with him. Normally, our food groupie pictures see us with a silly grin, often worse the wear for drink and are something of an embarrassment. We benefit here from not being drunk though I think we’ll still keep this picture for the family album only.
Ferran Adria in the kitchen
While we’re in the kitchen, we don’t really get to see the kitchen, though we do see a lot of industry. From the moment you walk through the door, you step into a well oiled machine, a phrase we would keep coming back to. The photograph with Ferran is part of the routine and the next part is for the staff to steer you back out again so that the next group of groupies can have their picture taken also. When you think of it though, this whole thing is pretty good of Ferran, over the evening, 50 guests will receive 40 courses, 2,000 dishes will leave that kitchen, and immediately before service, he’s taking time out so that you can have your picture taken with him.
Moving into the restaurant dining area, we take our seats and the first course is immediately upon us, really, it’s that quick, bam. It’s a cocktail of sorts, but in the El Bulli way – a frozen strawberry Campari. ‘Eat it now’ they urge us, ‘one bite’, we do as we’re told. They don’t have seat belts on the chairs but perhaps they should for you really do need to strap yourselves in, the pace will be unrelenting, faster than anything that you will have ever experienced in a restaurant. This is his house and his rules, you’re along for the ride with Ferran driving. The evening has begun. click for chapter 2, courses 1-20
The El Bulli meal traditionally starts with a 'deconstructed' cocktail, or in this case, three. As we noted in the last post, as soon as we took our seats at the table, the first course was upon us, a strawberry Campari, but not of course in a glass. This came so quickly we didn't even have our camera out the bag at this point and so is one of the few elements we were unable to photograph. The cocktail itself came like a frozen ice strawberry, itself on a bed of ice and we were forcefully told to eat it now (presumably before it melts) and to eat it in a single bite. Picking it up was a little tricky as it was effectively a spherical ice cube and in the mouth, nice, refreshing, not overly alcoholic and gone so soon.
This does highlight a number of aspects of eating at El Bulli though. First and foremost, it is about engaging with the food. Silverware is used only when strictly necessary, for the most part you are expected to touch the food with your hands to feel the textures of the food before you even put it in your mouth. The lights too are remarkably bright with a spotlight aimed over each table. You're expected to see what's presented - this is not a candlelight dinner, this is about the food and therefore the ambience is designed to highlight the food, not the mood. Furthermore, most dishes came with instructions on how to eat it jokingly leaving us lost on the occassions when it came with none. Finally, the frenetic pace of the service meant that as soon as the strawberry Campari was cleared away, we hardly had time to ask each other what we thought of it before a 'mojito and apple flute' arrived.
It's a mojito Jim but not as we know it
The flute here was we think a super light meringue with an iced mojito filling. The whole thing was so delicate it would break under its own weight making it a little tricky to eat as it crumbled through your fingers but the mojito flavours were strong and readily identifiable. Light and refreshing.
This thing that looks like a cocktail is in fact... a cocktail
With the mojito being cleared, the next cocktail was already on the way, an almond fizz with Amaretto and a vodka base. Oddly, this didn't look odd but looked exactly how cocktails often do. Whatever the twist here, it was I think lost on us; it would not be the last time that this would be the case. While we were drinking this, a nori seaweed parcel of lemon arrived taking us by surprise as we were now layering courses. Again, the instruction to eat it now with two bites resulted in this again escaping our camera though it would be the last course to do so.
but this is a cheese globe with walnuts
Course 5 was a gorgonzola globe with walnut shavings. The globe is brought to the table and then with a spoon, rather as if you were breaking a soft boiled egg for dipping soldiers, the top is knocked in. Walnut shavings are ground over the globe and then with fingers, you pull the cheese globe to pieces and eat. As the globe warms up, the cheese further melts and at this point, instead of breaking a bit off and eating it, the cheese doesn't so much snap off in your hands but melts all over your hands giving a finger lickin' moment. It's fun and its playful and of course messy, but again, you really do get involved with the food. We also noticed that a table for four got a cheese globe the same size as ours that was only for the two of us. This was in fact quite a lot of cheese for two people to eat and we tactically decided to leave some of it.
To give you a sense of the pace so far, the gorgonzola cheese ball (course 5) is being served exactly seven minutes after we've sat down!
Course 6 was an easier and smaller bite - hibiscus and peanut. This was one of those dishes that does elicit an audible wow and feels very El Bulli. At a single bite, it was just right and delicious. Delicate, incredible and so good were the words we used at the time.
hibiscus and peanut
This was followed by a parmesan macaron. The waiter notes were 'parmesan, marshmallow and pine nuts to eat in two bites. This was another really fun dish becasue the marshmallow was so light that it squeezed in as you tried to grip it as if you were trying to grip a balloon filled with water. We laughed our way through eating this and thought the texture was like those 'snowball' cakes though we doubt Ferran would be flattered by that comparison.
Also quite funny is that the napkin that they had given us was about 4 inches by 4 inches and all the food till now has been eaten with the fingers. This was already becoming a pretty dirty napkin.
We wondered throughout the evening at the order of the food (the light to heavy idea) and now we were being served hazelnut-rasberries to be 'eaten in one bite'. This could have easily been a dessert course. We noted that it was delicious. We also noted that this was not a hazelnut or a rasberry but something else with elements of both with a texture you weren't expecting.
hazlenut rasberries (but which is it?) we still don't know
Following this was the shrimp tortilla (omlette on the menu). Super thin, the first one sweet with a sort of sugary glaze, no instructions on how to eat it and the second one (the one on the left in picture three) with the smallest prawns you could imagine. Had they been smaller, they simply wouldn't have existed. They were so small, they were like foetus prawns and it seemed almost rude to eat them.
We had questions to ask and there was lots about the food that was a mystery but it didn't seem right or proper to ask, something like not asking a magician how he did that. What's more, the waiters who did an incredible job throughout the evening just didn't have time to chat, they were simply too busy.
Rounding out the first ten course was a coconut sponge cake. Again to be eaten with the fingers (in two bites), this really was like trying to pick up and eat snow. As soon as it hits your tongue too it was gone, crazy in a good way. More fun, more laughs.
coconut sponge with the texture of fresh snow
For course 11, we again returned to a flowery concoction with 'roses with ham won-ton and water melon' or put another way, ham and watermelon dumpling. Again, to be picked up with the fingers so the texture was apparent, this was another dish that elicited a wow. Such beauty too.
rose petal with ham and watermelon
it's so pretty, good enough to eat in fact
While we were still eating our rose petal dumplings, the next course arrived titled 'ham and ginger canapee' (to be eaten in two bites). We got wows, woos and 'good god' from this little dish. Time check, 29 minutes in, 11 courses down.
ham and ginger canapee
What followed next was one of the highlights of the meal. Titled 'caviar cream with hazlenut caviar', little explanation is given at the time of serving of this dish. As can be seen in the picture below, there are two sauces, the grey and the brown and two lines of caviar. The twist is that the grey sauce is a caviar sauce but on top is not 'real' caviar but hazelnut chocolate 'caviar', while the brown sauce is hazelnut chocolate with real caviar on top. On the plus side, this is the first dish for which we did not have to use our fingers - would have been a bit too messy even for them.
This was absolutely delicious, and as you got through the dish, the sauces would mix and the caviar would mix and so the taste of the dish changed as the balance changed in the process of consuming it. Definitely four thumbs up.
caviar... or is it?
We then moved to a heavier dish described on the menu as 'marchand du vin' but which in its elements was bone marrow, oyster and red wine sauce. This was a monster of a dish, hugely flavourful, amazing textures with massive depth. The bone marrow disintegrated in the mouth and would ooze all around while the salty oyster provided a taste contrast. We really liked this dish but it was quite a lot of food (especially as course 14) and we noticed that the table next to us had only one piece of bone marrow on their plates. We obviously looked fat enough to handle double portions!
bone marrow, oyster in red wine sauce
The first of two prawn dishes were up next. First, a very elegant perfect example of the kind, this was a boiled shrimp whereupon we should 'suck the brains and eat to the tail'.
a very straight prawn
The second shrimp presentation was termed 'prawn two firings'. The first 'firing' was the prawn juice which you can see on the spoon on the left of the picture, while the second 'firing' was a grilled prawn with an amazing textural quality alongside. Delicious.
a less straight prawn (especially the one in the spoon)
Quails with carrot 'escabeche' were next but this was a slightly problematic dish for us (escabeche means poached or fried). Here, the quails breasts were brought to the table and painted with the carrot emulsion in front of you. No silverware but a wooden pick to eat with and we were told to start at the top end and work down. The top quail was adorned with some sort of ground pepper, the second quail also had something shaved onto it. The final two quail breasts looked unadorned.
While the quail was done quite rare and was very strongly flavoured, our problem here is that we just didn't get the dish. The carrot didn't really come through and there was little discernable difference in taste between each of the breasts. Clearly Ferran has some reasoning behind this dish but we just couldn't figure it. What's more, for course 17, four quails breasts is quite a bit of food! Our verdict was 'underwhelming'.
Next up was a welcome change of taste and texture as a tomato tartar provided a palate cleanser. To add to the sense of freshness, the tartar came with shaved ice on top. As can be seen in the picture below, the colours were absolutely glorious on this dish (though admittedly helped by the bottom side of the dish being yellow).
Courses 19 and 20 are really one course but overall done very theatrically. First, we were served the wine, a 1981 Rioja with huge earthy forrest aromas. Then, a white truffle was brought to the table. Enormous in size and even more enormous in smell, this was a knockout of a truffle, almost overwhelming for me though Mrs CC was in truffle heaven.
Then they shaved the truffle (most generously) into a red wine glass. This is listed on the menu as a seperate course (tartufo glass) though you're not supposed to do anything here other than push your nose in the glass as if you were nosing a wine. That said, this truffle was so powerful you really didn't need the balloon effect of a wine glass to concentrate the smell any further.
After some one-on-one time with the truffle, a 'tagliatelle of consomme - carbonara' is served. The waiter then takes the truffle glass and with a pair of long tweezers, extracts the truffle shavings and places these on top of the tagliatelle and then you're good to go.
The wine paired fantastically with the dish, but also worth noting is that the tagliatelle is not ordinary pasta - it wouldn't be would it - but rather Ferran's special translucent pasta. The flavour combinations perfectly balanced and this dish was an absolute winner, even if a touch difficult to get the pasta to wrap around the fork.
This takes us to the end of the first 20 courses, 1 hour 15 mins into the meal. Click here to read part two of the meal - courses 21-40
Remaining on the truffle angle, our next dish, course 21, is 'gnocchis of parmesan with coffee and saffron yuba' with another generous shave of truffle on top. The gnocchi was the star of the show here and if you squeezed the gnocchi between your tongue and the top of your mouth, it would burst releasing its liquid filling into your mouth.
Endive in papillote was another visually appealing dish as they brought the wrapped endive to the table, unwrapped it with their tweasers and then add 'walnut caviar' on top. The endive was too bitter for my taste and there was a sizeable quantity of food here also but the caviar was good and Mrs CC who likes endives enjoyed the dish better than I.
Back to simplicity next with a 'marrow and belly of tuna sushi'. The best she's ever had said Mrs CC.
he's painting the tuna
but he's no van Gogh
The next couple of dishes presented me at least with a couple of problems, not least, 23 courses in, huge flavours and challenging textures. First up was the cold sea anemone. As can be seen in the picture below, this was a substantial plate of anemone and you don't have a knife with your fork so the anemone goes in whole. Foolishly, I put the largest piece in my mouth first and a combination of the strong flavour, a tough textural anemone and an already struggling diner, I did gag a little. This was not my dish.
sea anemone... pass
Accompanying this dish but as a seperate plate was a small crab anemone. This went down okay but I've had enough anemone for the time being.
Then came clams ceviche and kalanchoe cactus. The cactus, which was raw, was surprisingly pleasant.
he's feeding us cactus leaves!
Carrying on the South American theme was 'ceviche' and clams cocktail. The dishes by this point were being brought out almost simultaneously so the courses are merging. This is not a front of house mistake, this is another way of showing contrasting expressions of similar ingredients. With this came an 'Oaxaca taco' (Oaxaca being a state of Mexico).
with a clam martini (i'm usually a gin man)
Moving away from the more robust South American food a "gazpacho" and "ajo blanco" followed and this was light and fluffy and even looked like snow on the plate. Just what was needed to get us back on track.
more fallen snow
Everybody's favourite pistachios next, in two presentations. Unfortunately, we didn't really like either. This is most likely part of the 'surprise' for the pistachios in the bowl do not have a nutty texture, infact, they're rather mushy. The 'long thin yellow one' is made up small parcels of pistachio like ravioli with a liquid centre. Sort of fun but didn't really work for us.
Course 30 is listed as 'turtledove with blackberrie risotto with cardamom turtledove'. To be honest, things are getting lost in the wash at this point, we're overwhelmed by the food and dare I say, we've not really got much of a memory of this dish.
we had blanked out by this dish, course 30 but only three quarters through
While listed on the menu as a single course, 'game meat macaron and foie gras', we received a plate of game meat followed seperately by a foie gras macaron. 31 courses in, the game meat (grouse I think) was just too much (too rich and too heavy) so we ate about half of the plate which under different circumstances we surely would have relished.
The foie gras macaron was kind of funny. You just don't expect to find foie gras as the filling on a macaron though a quick google search tells me it's not unheard of. Even so, this was amusing and enjoyable.
a nice light game bird for course 31
foie gras macaron (i first thought it was a mini quarter pounder)
We step up a gear now to the most challenging of all items to be placed before us: hare loin with its blood! Now, this is not blood like the blood you might get on cutting into a juicy rare steak, the blood here is served seperately in a red wine glass, to be sipped like a fine Bordeaux. We both tried it but neither of us drained our glass. The hare was topped with eel and was meaty and filling (which is not perhaps what you want at this stage). Two pieces each too. We have now reached the stage of eating only half the food in front of us, not so much a tactical decision but rather a practical necessity.
(three weeks later - an addition: we've just learnt at the Ferran Adria talk in London that this was not in fact hare's blood but beetroot juice and lemon. So much goes on during the meal and it's not all explained, actually, very little is explained. The continued mystery of the meal still challenges us.)
Sticking on the hare theme, we are then served hare consomme with strawberries. Cute, tiny squashy strawberries that dissolve in your mouth. The consomme itself is lovely, deep and flavourful and I can only manage it because it has no real volume. Would have made an amazing fifth course.
strawberries in hare soup (sorry consomme)
While eating the hare consomme, we are brought 'mimetic chestnuts'. Since mimetic means imitation (as in mimicry) or make believe, perhaps these were not real chestnuts. By this stage, we don't know and we little care, but we are appreciative that they are small and can be eaten in a single bite. We polish them off. I think they were nice.
On the home straight now but at the time, it's hard to know exactly where you are in the meal. "Marron glacee" with truffle is next, again, appreciatively small, two on a plate, one each. Marron glacee is a desert of candied chestnuts so having had mimic chestnuts, are we now getting the real thing? We just don't know and still don't care. The white flag is not far off, we are so struggling.
Finally a change in pace of the onslaught as we move into a fresher frutier mode. Grilled lulo, or 'little orange', this one seeped in Talisker whisky though this is not that obvious. The fruit in mine though seemed firmly connected to the peel so I couldn't really eat this. However, since nothing goes back to the kitchen at El Bulli, they brought me a fork to go with the spoon. I struggled, then I gave up, moreover, I really didn't mind.
'little orange' and whisky
Course 38 was a real winner though called 'pond'. The bowl is brought to you and it's unclear immediately what's going on. The bowl has depth but a flat surface. Sugar and tea are sprinkled on the surface of the bowl. You're then given a spoon to break the surface for the flat surface is in fact ice (hence pond though at the time we didn't know that much). A joyous moment follows of breaking the desert top till everything rests in the bottom of the bowl, all mixed up, and then it's time to eat. The extra twist is that the ice is mint ice and the tastes come through of refreshing mint but ice cold and crispy, with some sweet from the sugar. It's like the ultimate glacier mint. We loved this.
It's audience participation time next in a dish called 'sugar cube with tea and lime'. Three sugar cubes each and a syringe of tea and lime and it's up to you how much solution you want to inject onto the cube. Go on, knock yourself out! With this came a pine nut brittle though the brittle never made it onto the 'official' menu. The brittle was really tasty and the sugar cube a nice bit of fun.
time to shoot up
pine nut brittle
Dish 40 is called cristal cocoa gold leaves. The fun here is that as the bowl is brought to the table, it is rippling like quicksand. The reason for this is that the bowl is actually full of espresso on which the cocoa powder has then been placed giving it the appearance of a solid when it is in fact a liquid at heart. Chocolate, sugar and gold leaf give some extra surface texture and taste and overall, this was another bowl full of fun.
chocolate powder on espresso with gold leaf
You lose count of the course and you're never quite sure if you've really finished. With the waiter saying we only had 'the box' left, we retired to the terrace. The box is perhaps one of the best box of chocolates you'll ever have put in front of you in your life, it's El Bulli style after all. And it's not just a case of take two and the box is whisked away, the box stays with you till you leave so if you have any capacity at all you can graze away till your heart's content. There were few if any surprises in the chocs (but the quality and variety is exceptional) and that made them an ideal end to the meal - course 41, something relatively ordinary, back to familiar territory. I tried a few till I could face nothing more.
the best box of chocs ever
We rolled out of El Bulli around 12:15, very very full but not very drunk as the focus here is so much more on food than drink. Ferran came out to say goodbye to us which was nice and since he only speaks Spanish and French, I dusted down the 'O' level and tried to effuse about the experience. But I hardly know what to say in English let alone schoolboy French so made a few noises and relied on the international symbol of grinning inanely.It's impossible to know what to make of the meal while you're eating it, there's too much sensory overload, and even when we left the restaurant and discussed it the following day, we had no firm conclusions. In the next post therefore, with the benefit of more time and more drink, we'll try to put a few thoughts down on what the El Bulli experience now means to us. Click for chapter 4 post meal reflections
'Best' is a word that carries a lot of connotations, too many to pin down. While Pellegrino list the ‘50 Best Restaurants’ they wisely do not try to define it, rather, they note that ‘The list is the result of an extensive poll of the world’s most celebrated chefs, renowned food critics, leading restaurateurs and well-travelled gourmands.’ Topping the list also generates much expectation and that can be the enemy of experience. Indeed, knocking El Bulli seems ever popular, though I suspect that theme mostly resonates with those who will never get to go there, understandably perhaps to cushion the blow.
Nevertheless, some things can be said as fact about what El Bulli achieves night after night. First, the sheer output of the kitchen is phenomenal. 50 guests receiving 40 dishes is 2,000 plates that leave the kitchen every single night, nor are these simple dishes.
Second, not every table has the same. In order to accommodate food preferences and allergies, each table is getting a unique menu. This adds a new layer of complexity to the service.
Third, the co-ordination of front of house with the kitchen was incredible, we’ve never seen waiters move so much or work so hard in our lives. Logistically, they pulled off a stunning service. They do that every night.
Fourth, this restaurant won the world’s Best Restaurant at the awards inauguration in 2002 and has won it over 50% of the years since then. Clearly it is neither just lucky nor a flash in the pan.
Fifth, the menu changes up year after year. True, he closes for six months of the year to develop new concepts, but to constantly rework such an extensive menu when he could rest on his laurels, open for longer and make more money, that is impressive. And after all, it’s not like he’s catering to repeat diners.
El Bulli is undoubtedly a hugely impressive restaurant from a technical, logistical and industrial standpoint. But that doesn’t answer the question how we feel about it? Lets do pros and cons and see where we get to.
Pro: you get involved with the food. Of the five senses, sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, El Bulli continually uses four of them, only hearing gets left out (Heston is one of the few who has used this with his Sounds of the Sea dish). The fact that you don’t get silverware unless absolutely necessary highlights the interaction the restaurant expects people to have with their food. The lighting too is arguably extreme.
Their Moo in the kitchen
Pro: innovation. We think no one could doubt how much innovation takes place at El Bulli. It’s in every dish, nothing we were served there have we been served anywhere else in that way, everything is original. Granted this might upset traditionalists but so be it. Only a handful of chefs can claim to have pushed the boundaries of cooking like Adria. We want to be challenged like that.
Pro: giggles. This is kind of geeky but we took a Dictaphone to El Bulli and placed it on the table so we could record our thoughts as the meal progressed rather than make written notes (turned out to be a smart move given the pace of the meal). I listened to it again while I wrote the earlier blog and was amazed how much we laughed through the meal as we discovered things and played with the food (in the way it’s supposed to be played with). The food genuinely delighted us.
Pro: wow factor. The word most recorded on the Dictaphone was ‘wow’ rapidly followed by the word ‘full’ as in ‘I’m really full up’. To have so many wow dishes in a single service is truly special. Most restaurants will go a lifetime without serving a single wow dish.
Pro: think factor. It was of course Bertrand Russell who said that ‘most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so.’ El Bulli challenges you on food and some people wont like that. In fact, El Bulli challenges you on so many levels and makes you think about food in ways that again, almost no other restaurant could match. You never have to think about steak and chips, there’s no debate; every dish here though evokes discussion.
Our Moo in the dining room
Con: too much food. 40 courses is arguably too much food. The quail breasts for example were course 17, so less than half way through and there were four each! The issue here is that we simply didn’t enjoy the latter courses as much as we should have because we were already saturated by taste and volume. Does a restaurant diminish itself by serving too much food? Behind the volume though is the passion of Ferran, he’s got a lot of things he wants to showcase so he keeps going. You dine with his genius.
Con: the pace. This is a natural consequence of serving a forty course menu. The first 20 course were also a lot quicker than the second 20 course for various reasons, not least, our insistence on taking a break. While we appreciate that that’s what they have to do to fit it in, it again devalued some of the dishes; so much effort, over in one bite, the next dish already on its way before you can even compare notes on whether you liked it.
A word on taste. I have neither included taste as a positive nor negative because it is too amorphous to label. Should a restaurant only be about taste? Is that the yard stick to judge? The answer must surely be no or we should spend our lives eating only comfort food. As well as taste, we want to be shocked, surprised and awed. El Bulli delivers here. For the most part, El Bulli does deliver on taste, exceptionally so. Can I criticise the sea anemone dish because I discover I don’t really like sea anemone? No. Did any dish lack taste, hardly. In a forty course menu based around innovation, should someone expect everything to be to their taste? Of course not.
Restaurants that offer more than just taste need to be given credit for the full spread of what they do offer. Those who judge El Bulli harshest we suspect will most often come back to ‘I didn’t like this dish’ and ‘I didn’t like that’. Put another way, they judge El Bulli on a single axis of achievement.
Perhaps that leads to the real conclusion. While many restaurants understandably aim for achievement across the single dimension of taste, El Bulli operates across dimensions, and not just two or three, but every conceivable dimension available within the constraint that EL Bulli is currently a restaurant (maybe why El Bulli is transforming into a research foundation). For the customer, it can be disorientating and confusing and some will inevitably elect the safer ground of a more traditional stance. A willingness to accept food and theatre, food and science, food and giggles, food and thought as well as food and taste all in a single course, or even a single bite, takes you some way to the EL Bulli experience.
To eat at El Bulli is to eat Ferran’s food vision and food genius. It’s been asked time and again in blogs whether you need to be a genius to ‘get’ his genius. I don’t understand every word of Shakespeare but I enjoy his plays and Beethoven can certainly carry a tune. I appreciate their genius without being one and I enjoy their genius without being one. Brighter people than me understand more of both. We didn’t ‘get’ everything that was put in front of us that night at El Bulli, but nor should we expect to. And nor does it matter. Take what you get out of it, the occasion, the laughter, the joy of surprise, or simply the taste, and enjoy those dimensions. The fact about genius is more often than not, it’s so large that there’s something for everyone, in as much quantity as you need, and still some left over.
When asked about the historical effect of the 1789 French Revolution, Chinese Premier Chou En-lai said, “it is too soon to say”. At every level, something like this applies to El Bulli. What’s our ultimate verdict on El Bulli? Too soon to say. What’s the ultimate impact of EL Bulli on the restaurant world at large? Too soon to say. With El Bulli closing, what will be its legacy? Definitely too soon to say.
What we can say now is that El Bulli was a unique experience. While often held to be similar to The Fat Duck, we found it totally different. Having never had an experience like eating at El Bulli before, nor can we imagine that we’ll ever have an experience like that again. It was worth the wait, worth the travel and worth the money. The bottom line is that if you ever get a chance to spend up close time with a genius take it, for that’s a moment you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
And don’t worry, he (or she) will have enough genius for both of you.
We thought we might need a recovery day following our dinner at El Bulli so we had booked Saturday night in Roses also. Where though for dinner? Mrs CC hit on the brilliant idea of Rafa's for two very decent reasons. First, after the complexity of the El Bulli dinner, simple seafood well cooked is exactly what we suspected we would want. Second, this is Ferran Adria's favourite restaurant in the region and that can't be a bad recommendation. We made a booking through the hotel but were warned that if the weather was bad and the fisherman had not been out, Rafa's might not open. Put another way, he wont sell yesterday's fish. We like this guy already.
Fortunately, the weather was good, Rafa's was open and first to arrive, we had our choice of table. Rafa's is a very unassuming place with no gimmicks to pull in the punters, it hardly has a name above the door. Nor are you going to get sides with your fish - don't even think about asking for fries. And there's not a vegetarian option. None of this we mind and by the looks of things, nor do other people in the know. By October, Roses has entered 'the low season' and many restaurants sit empty, and there are a lot of restaurants in Roses so make that a lot of empty restaurants. While Rafa's is small (though it appears bigger than it was reported some years ago, we think he acquired the place next door also, it's still not above a dozen tables), not only were all the tables full, he was turning people away and was running out of fish to cook. Locals know where to go for the best seafood it seems.
We chose gurnard in the bottom right...
...and baby monkfish (also bottom right)
The kitchen, if you can call it that for it is little bigger than the desk I'm sitting at right now to pen this blog, is fronted by a glass refrigeration unit with the catch of the day. We asked what was good but broadly, if Rafa has it and Rafa cooks it, it's good. We chose a mix of stuff with some ham to start and sat down outside.
Rafa tending to our meal
While waiting for our food to come, Mrs CC notices Albert Adria across the road and we say hello. Lovely fella, really friendly and as you might know, El Bulli's (former) pastry chef. We didn't know he had moved on from El Bulli and we're guessing that starting a family took priority over the madness that must be the daily ritual of being in El Bulli's kitchen. Funnily, he said that he ate at El Bulli for the first time last year. Of Rafas, he said 'you're in good hands. It's a temple of seafood'. We like.
Albert Adria, pastry chef and brother of Ferran
The food then began to arrive, though at an altogether more leisurely pace than El Bulli. Jamon to start, very nice too. We found that overseasoning was prevalent throughout food we were served during our stay in Roses - perhaps its the local way - but at Rafa's, everything was seasoned just right.
Clams followed. Fresh, perfectly cooked (as everything else served here would be) and in a beautiful cooking sauce that we would mop up with our bread. After that squid, the best squid either of us had ever had. Not a single trace of any rubberiness, beautifully tender and with a lovely char on the body. The arms meanwhile were crispy. Rafa took care to cook both parts to perfection rather than cook it as a single lot.
The final starter was a couple of prawns and a couple of langoustine. No complaints here.
For the main courses, we had monkfish and gurnard, we thought it would make a nice change from sea bass and sea bream which were also on offer. The monkfish itself was a small monkfish so we had the whole fish. While we agree that presentationally, this fish is not going to win any awards on the plate, and the photograph above makes it look more like a dog's dinner than our dinner, presentation has nothing to do with taste. This was fantastically meaty and flavourful and if monkfish is known as the poor man's lobster, this was as good as any lobster.
Our second fish was gurnard. Back in 2008, The Independent ran a story titled Ugly fish, tasty dish: the virtues of the gurnard. Not an obvious choice in the good look stakes then but we were glad we ordered it and it delivered plenty of tasty quality meat. To be honest, I think it was my first gurnard but I wouldn't hesitate to order another.
Overall then, this was a great meal, but not necessarily the opposite of El Bulli despite its simplicity for the simplicity here is 'forgiven' if that is the right word by its quality. Both El Bulli and Rafas seek the best ingredients. Both seek to cook these ingredients to perfection. It is here we get the departure, Rafas is traditional, El Bulli of course pretty much defines the avant garde. If Rafas is a circle, that would make El Bulli a non recurring fractal; both have a place. We should also point out that despite the simplicity, and absence of sides and the like, Rafa was cooking his butt off in the kitchen, to ensure that everything that came out was perfect.
Oliver Wendell Homes said 'I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity'. I wouldn't quite give my life for Rafa's monkfish but it was pretty damned good. You get the idea.
Here at critical couple headquarters, we spend some time enjoying a healthy debate around the merits of the Michelin system. One star of course means 'a very good restaurant in its category, worth a stop' while two stars means 'excellent cooking worth a detour'. Rafas doesn't have a Michelin star and will likely never get one, however, it would be a fool who said this restaurant was not 'worth a stop', and there's a perfectly reasonable case for a 'detour' too; both Adria brothers clearly think so. In other words, visit to El Bulli or otherwise, if you're in the area, Rafas should definitely be on any foodies itinerary.