Bulli for me

Sat, Sep 26, 2009, 01:00

GASTRONOMIC ADVENTURE: Such is the demand to eat at el Bulli – the Spanish restaurant voted the best in the world – that diners are chosen by lottery. Irish Timesweb designer Chris Carpenter got lucky, and invited his colleague Kilian Doyle to accompany him. They were blown away by Ferran Adrià’s 35 magical courses – as much a crash course in chemistry as a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience

ON A ROCKY outcrop in a wild, rugged corner of Spain’s Costa Brava lies el Bulli, widely acknowledged as the greatest restaurant in the world.

It is a Mecca for foodies, receiving a couple of million requests each year, from every corner of the globe, for just 8,000 places.

So, why all the fuss? Simply put, because el Bulli is much, much more than somewhere to stuff your face. It has three Michelin stars, has been voted best restaurant in the world four years in a row by a panel of chefs and critics, and its head chef and co-owner Ferran Adrià is regarded by his peers as the most creative, innovative and inspired cook of his generation. He is at the vanguard of what has lazily become known as “molecular gastronomy” – a term he despises – which employs methods and equipment more at home in laboratories than kitchens to deconstruct and redefine food.

El Bulli is situated in Cala Montjoi, up a dusty, winding track north of Roses, an unremarkable Costa Brava resort populated by mahogany-skinned tourists in thongs guzzling jugs of sickly sangria and eating industrial-strength paella. The restaurant opens for just six months of the year. Adrià  spends the rest of the time holed up in his hideaways in Barcelona and Cala Montjoi surrounded by Pacojets, freeze-dryers and bubbling jars of liquid nitrogen, devising fresh means of blowing people’s minds.

Adrià’s goal, as stated in his book A Day at el Bulli,is “to create dishes and techniques that engage guests’ sensory, emotional and intellectual facilities to the full, to surprise them and to encourage them to experience food in new and unexpected ways.”

He has defined eating at el Bulli as a night out at the theatre. There is a beginning, a middle and an end, although he’s prone to blurring the edges. He is an illusionist, and very little is as it appears.

While his food is delicate and considered, he delights in teasing palates, warping and bending perceptions of what dining should be. His cuisine is neither ostentatious nor faddish. His approach is restrained, minimalist, anarchic, playful and – most of all – focused on pure, clean flavours. It is tinged with Spanish influences, but no more so than it is with inspirations from France, Japan, Africa, Brazil, Thailand and possibly Mars.

El Bulli – which seats just 40 people – operates at a loss, the shortfall being made up through book sales and lectures given by Adrià, who refuses to expand it to fit in more guests, arguing that this would dilute his philosophy.

My e-mail last October was therefore sent more in hope than expectation. What realistic chance had I of securing a reservation, considering the odds? Predictably, the answer was negative. El Bulli operates a lottery system, and my number hadn’t come up. Ah well, I sighed. Next year, eh? Several months later, my colleague Chris Carpenter breathlessly informed me that he’d received a response to his own application. “We’re sorry,” it began.

Crestfallen, he nearly deleted it. But he read on. It apologised profusely for the delay. Those millions of emails don’t answer themselves, you understand. Would he still be interested in a table in September? Bulli for him. I congratulated him through gritted teeth.

He reappeared at my desk in July. His wife, mother of their four children, including a newborn, had decided against going. Would I like to go in her stead? If ever there was a rhetorical question.

When we arrived at el Bulli, we were as giddy as cowboys in a gun shop. So addled with anticipation were we that we nearly drove right past it. The restaurant is understatement personified. A whitewashed hacienda nestled among cacti and cork trees on a headland overlooking a quiet azure bay; it could be mistaken for any of a hundred similar houses in the region. Only the humble wooden sign at the gate gives the game away to pilgrims.

Before being seated, we were invited to view the kitchen, where – weak-kneed – we were greeted by Adrià, who motioned us to survey his battalion of 50 chefs, busily tweaking and tuning in the background, like an orchestra readying themselves to be conducted by a maestro.

I slaved away as a chef in a past life. I have plied my trade in many a quality kitchen, but this awe-inspiring silent and spotless clinical space of steel, stone and wood was leagues beyond my experience. It’s no wonder thousands of budding Adriàs scramble over each other every year for the honour of working there for free.

Gently but firmly ushered out, we were taken to our table in the second of two rooms under low-beamed ceilings. Unsullied by any soul- sucking touch of gaudy interior design, the decor is entirely devoid of pretension. The walls were festooned with a disarmingly casual hotchpotch of adornments – Picasso prints, a golden Buddha, a bulldog’s head. Similarly, the furniture looks like it has been salvaged from a dozen different dusty shops. The atmosphere, while relaxed, is hushed, almost reverential. Other than the army of black-clad waiters thronging about, it could be a wealthy Catalan eccentric’s rural idyll.

Our hearts beating fast as hummingbirds’, we settled down to embark on a five-hour odyssey that would leave us ecstatic, drained and overcome with emotion by time it ended.

It seems pointless to describe each dish. Without seeing, touching or tasting it, one cannot possibly comprehend how astonishingly other-worldly and spectacular the food is. It’s like explaining the guitar-slaying majesty of Jimi Hendrix to his deaf cousin. But I’ll give it a go.

First things first. There is no menu. After a few cursory questions from a waiter about our likes and dislikes, the performance kicked off. The 35 “elaborations” or courses, arrived one after another at a relentless pace dictated by how fast we were eating them rather than how quickly the kitchen – which was producing 1,600 dishes a night – could churn them out. Most were tiny mouthfuls, with only a handful requiring cutlery. Many came with instructions on how and in what order to eat their various components.

To begin, cocktails. Chris was presented with a silver goblet of crushed ice whence two sticks of sugar cane sprouted. Warned to suck rather than chew them, he greedily tucked in. The first, a mojito, had him in tears of delight. After the second – a caipirinha – I thought I’d have to bring him home, he was so aquiver. Being the designated driver, I was presented with a virgin piña colada dressed with chunks of freeze-dried pineapple. It was magnificent. Then came a gin fizz for Chris, a splodge of crushed booze-soaked ice topped with a dollop of warm froth. I, meanwhile, was guzzling a tantalising juice of lulo, a South American fruit with notes of mint and pineapple.

These were accompanied by “snacks”, a series of dishes composed of just a handful of ingredients, prepared using techniques mere mortals couldn’t begin to fathom. They started with sheets of Parmesan, thin as cellophane, tiny nibbles of which unleashed an avalanche of taste. Cunningly, the last corner was dabbed with a few salt crystals, which brought the flavour on and on. It was supremely clever and left us grinning like gibbons in a tent full of laughing gas.

Spherical olives, possibly Adrià’s most famous creation, followed. These look like plump green berries, yet when chewed are revealed to be algin-cloaked jellies that explode, filling the mouth with intense burst of olive juice. They had us reeling and squealing with joy.

Then came vanilla crisps with a flavour reminiscent of corn flakes, tiny discs of sesame paste and “mimetic peanuts”, whose brittle exteriors dissolved on the tongue, releasing a gush of the peanuttiest flavour ever, which left me laughing out loud. Better still were the cherries marinated in umeboshi, a Japanese pickling agent traditionally used on plums. The sensation began with cherry, then moved in an identifiable shift into salt, followed by sour and bitter and back to cherry again. It was Willy Wonka-esque. “Brilliant. Just brilliant,” I swooned. “How does he do it?” It wouldn’t be the last time that question was asked.

Highlights – a somewhat redundant term considering the context – included a black sesame sponge cake that was light as dandelion fluff, its subtle flavour accentuated by a rough splodge of miso paste. It was utterly outlandish and utterly brilliant. It was preceded by a cube of aerated, frozen coconut that disappeared in a puff of wizardry in my mouth, and was followed by the biggest surprise of the evening: oyster leaf with “dew” of red wine vinegar and finely diced shallots.

The leaf tasted exactly – and I mean exactly – like a bivalve. Despite the waiter’s protestations to the contrary, such was our respect for Adrià’s abilities at this stage that we genuinely believed he’d somehow squeezed in an oyster or perhaps even force-fed shellfish extract to a bush in a secret greenhouse out the back.

Google later informed us the plant grows wild in the west of Scotland. The crafty devil. Adrià must have been chortling himself silly the day he discovered that joke.

There followed tiny slivers of ham fat, doused with juniper and ginger, which had me shuddering with pleasure, and a pumpkin meringue “sandwich” – which resembled a Lilliputian breakfast roll – filled with almonds, truffle and tangerine. It was decidedly potty. We wolfed the fresh walnut risotto with baby endives and cubes of Roquefort essence, and the sea cucumber with ginger and soy as if we’d never see food again.

Adrià’s creations kept on coming, among them spheres wrapped in shaved white truffle that burst to release a flood of deep, woody fungus essence; tiny globules of lentil purée floating in a delicate stock that smelled like curried Pot Noodle; a mini-portion of bacon and cabbage with tofu and red miso paste; a single immaculate prawn, its head deep-fried, its tail cooked yet translucent; a trio of Parmesan ravioli accompanied by a dollop of balsamic vinegar wrapped in gold leaf and basil water, which was like chewing on Italy; scampi “tongs” with white sesame-seed sauce; pigeon breast with oyster; sea anemone dabbed with caviar and seaweed jelly; and a gloriously deconstructed Thai squid curry.

Then came “Pond” – a micro-thin sheet of ice that a waiter dusted with brown sugar, peppermint and Matcha green tea powder, before inviting us to smash it and snaffle up the shards. It was as refreshing as dunking your head in a bucket of toothpaste. A giant ovoid of nitrous- oxide-zapped coconut milk was next plonked on the table, cracked with a spoon, doused with curry powder and eaten like an Easter egg.

With a finale of candied lemon and clam and mussel shells stuffed with Szechuan pepper ice-cream and lychee jelly, it was all over. We retired to the terrace, woozy with post-prandial bliss, for coffee, Cuban cigars and morphings, el Bulli’s unique take on petits fours. We could barely speak, our synapses were tingling and fizzing so much.

Did it meet expectations? No. It blew them away. It was light years beyond what we’d imagined. I couldn’t say if it’s the best restaurant in the world, not having eaten in them all, but if it’s not, I’ll eat my hat. After, of course, handing it over to Adrià to allow him weave his magic upon it. I have faith that doughty little alchemist could make it the most delicious thing to ever pass a man’s lips.

Much of what we ate was barely comprehensible. It was magic. It was art. It was a crash course in physics and chemistry. It was frequently hilarious. It turned my idea of what it is to eat completely on its head. At €230 a head without drinks, it wasn’t cheap. But it was worth every cent. I can safely say that dining at el Bulli was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Hyperbolic? Perhaps. It’s only food, after all. Then again, what is a diamond only a lump of squashed coal?

To apply for a reservation at el Bulli in 2010, see www.elbulli.com (reservations) in December.