El Bulli (Roses, Spain) – The Mad Scientist

El Bulli – I didn’t know what to expect. Our excitement at obtaining an El Bulli reservation for a Sunday lunch late in May led to the planning of a month-long European adventure. Many 2- and 3-star restaurants were added to the itinerary (as you’ve been reading hopefully) but El Bulli was the centerpiece and spark for it all. We knew it would succeed brilliantly or fail miserably.

Why the excitement? Ferran Adria is considered the father of “molecular gastronomy” – cooking that takes its nod from science (and some would say theater too.) Some of his techniques have become ubiquitous in today’s kitchens (can you say foam?) but Adria takes 6 months off each year to retreat to his lab in Barcelona and create new dishes. Some decry it the demise of great food because it relies on chemistry (some would say trickery) instead of great execution and grand ingredients. Nonetheless, El Bulli has spawned a renaissance in Spanish cooking where the Michelin stars are piling up quickly. In America, Alinea (Chicago), Moto (Chicago), WD-50 (NY), and Minibar (DC) take El Bulli as their influence (either directly or in spirit) and try to push the cuisine in explosive new directions.

El Bulli is located a few yards from the ocean in a small bay. The restaurant itself is in an old Spanish building that has been given a bulldog motif. Bulldogs are everywhere – paintings, pictures, sketches, and photographs. It has a charm, decidely Spanish, and the surroundings definitely bely what transpires in the kitchen.

1. Gin & Tonic Cocktail

Lemon w/ skin on ice, gin was syringed into the lemon table-side. Very refreshing way to begin the meal, not too acidic, and the carbonation (maybe it came w/ the gin?) takes off the sting of the acid. Very Good.

El Bulli - Gin & Tonic Cocktail

2. Green Olive

Olive gelee filled w/ olive oil. Take a bite, olive oil burst inside your mouth and coated it, and the oil slowly drains. What a fantastic sensation (mostly, the draining) as you keep re-living the taste for a good 2-3 minutes. A contender for best dish of the night. Awesome.

El Bulli - Green Olive

3a. Fruit Crisps

Passion fruit and passion fruit w/ parmesan cheese. Good.

El Bulli - Fruit Crisps

3b. Pineapple Meringue

Ephemeral. Very Good.

El Bulli - Pineapple Meringue

3c. Seaweed Wafer

Crunchy, salty, and seaweed. Very Good.

El Bulli - Seaweed Wafer

3d. The Animals

All sorts of tastes, none of them magical, but I still like the whimsy of this dish. If anything, it’s symbolic of the chef and his restaurant. Great Fun.

El Bulli - The Animals

4. Tangerine Flower Concentrate

Intense. Very Good.

El Bulli - Tangerine Flower Concentrate

5. Frozen Cookies

Kumquat & blood orange; good flavor, pasty texture. Good.

El Bulli - Frozen Cookies

6. Avocado Tempura 3 Ways

All were a touch too greasy. Avocado w/ coriander; avocado & mint w/ hints of wasabi had a very long cool finish; caipirinha (lime and aloe?) was a gooey mess. Good.

El Bulli - Avocado Tempura 3 Ways

7. Mozzerella Brioche w/ Rose Foam

Is Michel Bras’s aligot cheese or potato? Is this bread or cheese? A very satisfying gooey bread. The rose foam was intensely fragrant. Very Good.

El Bulli - Mozzerella Brioche w/ Rose Foam<

8. Parmesan Cheese Wonton w/ Apple Foam

Extremely light, one nearly tossed it across the room as you picked it up, an essence of a dish if there ever was one. Slight bite of parmesan foam inside; cut it with the apple foam accompaniment. A contender for best dish of the night. Ephemeral in the truest sense. Awesome.

El Bulli - Parmesan Cheese Wonton w/ Apple Foam

El Bulli - Parmesan Cheese Wonton w/ Apple Foam

9. Parmesan Cheese Bread

Served in a silly box, we were instructed to add the muesli slowly to get the right balance. The “bread” captured the essence of parmesan but it was a bit aloof, stuck in limbo. The muesli gave it some character, a point of reference, some dimension, and it improved immensely. The only complaint was the size of the portion – it’s huge – cut it down by 2/3. Very Good.

El Bulli - Parmesan Cheese Bread

10. Different Textures of Almond w/ Tomato

Almond powder and different almond foams. Whatever this dish may have been was marred by the substandard tomatoes. A restaurant of this caliber should refrain from such bad ingredients. Not Good.

El Bulli - Different Textures of Almond w/ Tomato

11. White Asparagus 4 Ways w/ Frozen Egg Pellets

The egg pellets melted as time passed. Virgin asparagus slightly overcooked; peanut butter version very good; lemon confit pretty good; and I can’t discern the last version.

El Bulli - White Asparagus 4 Ways w/ Frozen Egg Pellets

12. Mussels w/ Potato Soup

Our photographer was not feeling well and this dish didn’t make it into the camera. Mussels cooked inside their own gelee; a variation on the olive dish. As the waiter said at the beginning of the meal, “You must like mussels to order this dish.” Good.

12 Alternate. Zucchini Risotto

No rice, just tiny little specs of zucchini. The fluorescent bits were dried peas. Bright flavor, amazing texture, a table favorite, a contender for dish of the night. Awesome.

El Bulli - Zucchini Risotto

13. Albahaca (Jamiacan Fruit)

Notes are not very good. Not Good.

El Bulli - Albahaca (Jamiacan Fruit)

14. Mushroom Carpaccio w/ Quail Egg + Pineapple Meringue

Great mushrooms, great egg, and sea salt. Nothing too crazy here. Very Good.

El Bulli - Mushroom Carpaccio w/ Quail Egg + Pineapple Meringue

15. Salmon Belly w/ Pickles

I am picky about my fish, and we were highly discouraged by the fish quality on our European adventure, but this was perfect fish. Skip the pickles, give me more fish. Excellent.

El Bulli - Salmon Belly w/ Pickles

16. Seafood Salad

A circle of seaweed that got progressively saltier as you made your way around. The sea foam was the essence of sea, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had run down to the beach minutes earlier. The seaweed at the end was *very* salty; the watermelon, hiding under the foam, was a very welcome treat by the end. Very Good.

El Bulli - Seafood Salad

17. Oyster w/ Oyster Sauce + Flower

We were instructed to eat the flower between oysters, presumably as a palette cleanser of some sort. My notes didn’t record the purpose; they only say “very oyster like.” The oysters themselves were large, warm, and cooked – yuck. Not Good.

El Bulli - Oyster w/ Oyster Sauce + Flowe

18. Bone Marrow w/ Wine “Burst”

The marrow was crispy on the outside and way too rich this far into the meal. The wine “burst” (my own words) employed the same technique as the olive earlier in the meal; eat it in one bite, close your mouth, and pop. It didn’t have the impact of the olive since olive oil was not coating your mouth. Good.

El Bulli - Bone Marrow with Wine Burst

18 Alternate. Ham w/ Potato Foam

I didn’t have much of this; notes say “salty but good.”

El Bulli - Ham with Potato Foam

19. Chicken Feet w/ Seaweed + Tea Foam

The chicken feet were very crispy; I’ve never had them but the table was amazed he could achieve such a texture. One table eater, the “alternate” eater who would never think of eating a chicken foot, loved them. The foam had the essence of tea. I’m not sure how everything was supposed to go together; neither here nor there. Good.

El Bulli - Chicken Feet w/ Seaweed + Tea Foam

20. Sheep Cheese w/ Cherry Gelee

Tangy, grassy

El Bulli - Sheep Cheese w/ Cherry Gelee

21. Red Pepper Gelee w/ Yogurt Tarragon

A simple but great dessert – sweet and savory. The sweetness of the gelee was balanced perfectly w/ the tang of the yogurt and the subtle cool of the tarragon. Awesome.

El Bulli - Red Pepper Gelee w/ Yogurt Tarragon

22. Chocolate TexturesEl Bulli - Chocolate Textures

23. Raspberry Cookies w/ Strawberry FillingEl Bulli - Raspberry Cookies w/ Strawberry Filling

24. Sugar BriocheEl Bulli - Sugar Brioche

25. Hollow Chocolate Balloon

A big hollow chocolate ball

El Bulli - Hollow Chocolate Balloon

Overall, it was an excellent meal; albeit, one that was not as experimental as I expected. I expected more fireworks, greater taste contrasts, more unusual ingredients, and a cuisine more focused on theater and tricks than execution. Instead, I got a chef that used excellent ingredients, cooked w/ precision, and happened to do a few different things. I also didn’t expect such an asian influence on the meal.

Was this the best restaurant on our trip? No, that honor would belong to Gagnaire or Bras.

Was is the most experimental meal on our trip? Again, no, that honor would belong to Mugaritz. As mentioned earlier, many of El Bulli’s innovations are now commonplace in haute (and not) restaurants across the world.

Would I go back again? Absolutely. This meal fell squarely in the middle of the excellent second tier of meals (Can Roca, Fat Duck, L’Arpege, and L’Astrance.) Given that Adria works in his lab for 6 months, it’s impossible to know what next year will bring.

Gastroville has done a great analysis of an El Bulli meal. Their meal in 2004 was different than mine but the same themes resonate. They also wrote another fascinating article where they compare El Bulli to Can Roca. Opinionated About has also written a nice post that captures the essence of El Bulli and raises the necessary questions of how to rate the meal.
- chuck

Official Site: http://www.elbulli.com/

  • Kurt

    amazing site.

    odd-ball question, did you happen to try the sparkling water whilst you were there?

  • ChuckEats

    The MO for most of the trip was Badoit or Chateldon but I have no recollection of what we drank @ El Bulli.

  • binary

    Where’s all the food?

    I’m sure some of it tastes good (fish parts excluded). It’s just not sustenance.

  • ChuckEats

    binary, el bulli is meant more as a collection of experiments instead of a traditional meal. yes, you wouldn’t eat here every other week; instead, you’d pop in every few years to see what his crazy mind has thought of. culinary r&d so to speak…

  • Pingback: ChuckEats blog » Manresa / Rene Redzepi (Noma) dinner - Complementary

  • meagan

    the food here looks amazing i am doing my senior project on molecular gastonomy so if anyone is willing to help it would be extremely helpful thanks

  • Pingback: Blogs? - Page 2 - kittyradio.com

  • Pingback: ChuckEats » Why David Kinch Deserved to Win the James Beard Award