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.
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.
3a. Fruit Crisps
Passion fruit and passion fruit w/ parmesan cheese. Good.
3b. Pineapple Meringue
Ephemeral. Very Good.
3c. Seaweed Wafer
Crunchy, salty, and seaweed. Very Good.
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.
4. Tangerine Flower Concentrate
Intense. Very Good.
5. Frozen Cookies
Kumquat & blood orange; good flavor, pasty texture. Good.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
13. Albahaca (Jamiacan Fruit)
Notes are not very good. Not Good.
14. Mushroom Carpaccio w/ Quail Egg + Pineapple Meringue
Great mushrooms, great egg, and sea salt. Nothing too crazy here. Very Good.
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.
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.
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.
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.
18 Alternate. Ham w/ Potato Foam
I didn’t have much of this; notes say “salty but good.”
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.
20. 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.
22. Chocolate Textures
23. Raspberry Cookies w/ Strawberry Filling
24. Sugar Brioche
25. Hollow Chocolate Balloon
A big hollow chocolate ball
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.
Official Site: http://www.elbulli.com/