Describing every morsel of food I ate at el Bulli, like writing a book report on the Bible, would be one hell of an undertaking. Followers of any faith already know much of the plot. The protagonist is worshipped by some, misunderstood by others. The reservation system involves countless requests but only a chosen few are granted. (Those that think they have “a better chance at seeing God” probably do.) Miracles are performed on food and beverage. Don’t pretend you don’t see the similarities.
Actually since lunch at el Bulli lasted more than six hours, I don’t want it to take you that long to read about it. Instead consider the following timeline:
Tuesday October 14, 2008, 5:25 AM: I sent an innocent email to one Luis García, el Bulli gatekeeper, frequent bearer of bad news. I asked (okay, begged) for a reservation for two people, anytime in 2009. In exchange I may or may not have offered my second- and third-born children. The first-born is, of course, the minimum.
Thursday December 11, 2008, 7:42 AM: My brain hit Caps Lock; all my thoughts came punctuated with exclamation marks. I got exactly the booking I wanted — lunch nearly a full year later, two days before my 25th birthday. Within minutes, friends I never knew I had emerged to claim the other seat. First-, second-, and third-born children were offered to me all at once — a value pack, if you will. I saw a pattern emerging. I wondered if it were legal.
Wednesday May 20, 2009, 3:04 PM: To the delight of few and the consternation of many, a graduate degree was conferred on me by a university I attended primarily due to its proximity to a certain restaurant. That meant the academic research grant I had mainlined to fund my culinary travels was no more. Meanwhile my disenchantment with my would-be profession meant I hadn’t actively looked for a real job. Thus I was barely in a position to dine at el Burger King, much less el Bulli.
Thursday June 18, 2009, 2:10 PM: Still jobless (“building life experiences” as my friend likes to say) but ignorantly unfazed, I thought it the perfect time for a quick food-filled sojourn to New York, the city where I had cut my dining teeth. But after a particularly fine pizza lunch on the day before I was to leave, a cup of gelato introduced me to a particularly fine Sicilian girl, who we’ll call Sirena. I made my vacation a stay-cation. I moved back.
Monday November 9, 2009, 10:00 AM: To the interest of few and the amusement of many, I had pimped my résumé about town to restaurants high and low for months. This was the day someone finally humored me with a paying job, leaving me a one-man NPO no longer. Brashly, I asked permission to take a ten-day vacation to Italy and Spain ten days into my employment. Expected response? Immediate dismissal. Actual response? Enthusiastic high-five.
Saturday November 28, 2009, 1:05 PM: El Bulli’s website warns against using navigation systems to find the restaurant. The all-knowing Google maps can’t even help you. Sirena and I were guided by xuixos — fluffy, flaky little pastries native to Girona but also available, where we had them, in Barcelona. The shrapnel from one was still strewn across my lap as we wound up and down the hills around Roses, the nearest town to el Bulli. Water, land, and air mingled in a warm embrace here. And the restaurant, isolated as it is, isn’t so much guarded by this environment as it is held in its womb. This was all el Bulli — all of it.
Saturday November 28, 2009, 1:28 PM: Camarones. Head-on shrimp were the first of many new foods Sirena would be subjected introduced to that day. After an audience with the king in the kitchen — easily the most intently focused one I’ve ever set foot in — this was the fourth dish of nine that we took on the patio, with a glass of cava and plenty of sunlight. Steamed over green tea, the shrimp were small and sweet, nested among seaweed and sea beans, a bitter and briny counter-weight. Sirena, like a walking, talking guillotine, left me all of the heads. I did not complain.
Saturday November 28, 2009, 2:15 PM: Dramatization. The “Montjoi lentils,” tiny brown buoys in a pool of chicken broth, were like the food in TV commercials — an almost too-perfect version of themselves. Creamy, liquid-filled bursts with all the essential flavor of the legumes but none of the texture that often oscillates between grainy and mushy but rarely in-between. I’d seen this technique of spherification a thousand times before, but never employed so effectively — clearly Adrià had done this once or twice before.
Saturday November 28, 2009: 2:45 PM: AT&T. Sirena held her wine glass out in front of her, just above eye level, considering its contents carefully. A combined look of hope and confusion was on her face, the look of a New Yorker watching their iPhone signal fluctuate. “Pichón?“, she half-whispered, baffled by the disparity between what she heard and what she was seeing. But she had heard right — our Burgundy glasses got an armagnac rinse before the pigeon consommé flew in. An accompanying chocolate leaf came smeared with ganache, powdered with cocoa and orange zest. A revelatory combination, the chocolate bark and the booze seemed to replenish the deeper, darker flavors that had been clarified out of the consommé. These bittersweet bass notes relayed the taste of the internal organs, of November, of game season.
Saturday November 28, 2009: 3:05 PM: CNBC. Looking at the plate, I felt like I was watching the news channel, unable to find the focal point among all the crap scrolling across the top and bottom. Raw cockles. Fresh fennel. Yuzu confit. Green olive. Kimchi. Maple. A potluck at the UN gone horribly, horribly wrong. World War III on a plate — every country was fighting. There was no winner.
Saturday November 28, 2009: 3:21 PM: Vegan nose-to-tail. “Leche de soja con soja” explored the soybean in its many guises: yuba, miso, sprouts, seeds, beans, oil, milk, ice cream, and soy sauce powder. This was an elegant, nuanced dish sandwiched by two that knocked us over the head (those cockles, and a deceptively bitter persimmon salad). Adrià’s symphony is anything but monotonous.
Saturday November 28, 2009: 3:56 PM: Royal flush. Adrià played his strongest hand — wild hare in four services, the most memorable of which was à la royale reworked à la Ferran. Now Sirena is a trooper 99% of the time, but she simply cannot deal with hare brains. (Don’t ask why she still hangs out with me.) And maybe it didn’t help that I had described the animals as “psycho, lawless rabbits” when she asked what they were. Regardless, she politely asked for the brains to be substituted. Expecting a tamer alternative, she got sea cucumber. She was thrilled. My brains, meanwhile came floating in a murky broth. Entrails followed, grilled on a bone skewer, like a cute little hare lollipop. Hare jelly came with sea urchin, but not before the royale, which was somehow even sexier than I’d imagined it would be. The most tender medallions of roasted loin wore chocolate ravioli filled with creamy hare liver and bathed in dark sauce redolent of blood and wine. Just out of control.
Saturday November 28, 2009: 5:07 PM: Thanksgiving tuber. I heard earlier in the year that Ferran Adrià would be playing with white Alba truffles this season, and I was very happy we got to play, too. First they were shaved into a Bordeaux glass, a funky facial to enjoy while we had some parmesan ravioli sprinkled with coffee grounds and accompanied by an exquisite little balsamic caramel. With a surgeon’s precision, a silent waiter used forceps to remove the truffle shavings from our glasses and pile them onto the creamiest sweet potato gnocchi you can imagine. Nearly 4,000 miles from home, we were still able to get our yams for Thanksgiving. Unfortunately now I might not want them any other way.
Saturday November 28, 2009: 5:25 PM: Ice fishing. Just water, brown sugar, green tea powder and mint — a MacGyver dessert if there ever was one. A thin layer of ice was magically suspended over a thick blue glass bowl. We broke through it gingerly at first, ice fishers unsure of what lay beneath. The same motions were made with more gusto once we realized there was nothing. Just this split-second refreshing, almost effervescent chill with every shard of ice we ate.
Saturday November 28, 2009: 5:47 PM: Little Miss Sunshine. Refreshing, sour, cold, crunchy, creamy, sweet, and fresh — that’s what Otoño was. Quite possibly the best dessert I’ve ever had, this citrus miracle seemed to have every taste, temperature, and texture possible. It shined like the sun.
Saturday November 28, 2009: 6:17 PM: Morphings. That’s what they called the monstrous box of chocolates at the end. We attacked it outside on the same patio where we’d started the meal. Seven hours had passed since then. A chill was in the air as we listened to the waves, sipped our coffees, and pounced on the chocolates. There were seventeen different types, each one of them better than the last. If life is like this box of chocolates, life is great.
El Bulli, to me, was not a meal. It was an experience seamlessly reflective of both time and place. After having gone even just this once, the accolades and the acolytes, the fame and the legend all make sense to me now. I get it. Ferran Adrià is an ambassador for Catalonia today. Food is just his metaphor.