Madman or genius?
Securing a table at El Bulli, Ferran Adrià's temple of molecular gastronomy, is quite a feat, but Corinna Hardgrave cracked the code to sample the 25-course tasting menu
El Bulli, which has been voted the world's best restaurant for 2006 by an international panel of food critics and chefs, is run by a madman or a genius. His name is Ferran Adrià. He opens his restaurant for just six months of the year, even though he receives almost a million reservation requests. He serves only a 25-course "surprise menu", featuring food from the avant-garde side of the culinary fence. So sauces foam, ice cream is salty, sweets explode and lollipops glow. It sounds like a giant experiment, with paying guests as the guinea pigs.
By a stroke of luck I have got a table for two, so I pack my sceptical taste buds and set off to discover if the emperor of food has a stitch of clothing to his name.
Two hours north of Barcelona, buried in the hills of the Costa Brava, a modernist glass cube filled with white-clad chefs and stainless-steel work surfaces sits at right angles to an inauspicious whitewashed building. This is El Bulli.
When we arrive we are offered a tour of the kitchen, a high-tech space that wouldn't look out of place in a James Bond film; up to 45 chefs use it to cook for just 50 diners a night. We move to the rustic diningroom, start with a refreshing gin and mandarin cocktail, and wait for our first surprise.
Exhibit A is a shiny green olive, served on a spoon, to be eaten in one bite. But it isn't an olive at all. The gushing sphere bursts into a mouthful of intense olive juice.
Five more "snacks" are brought to the table: a wisp of Parmesan marshmallow; a gossamer wafer that dissolves in an instant; an olive waffle with smooth sour cream; a curried peanut mound with a dot of garlicky kimchi; and light corn scampi crackers that taste like grown-up Snax. Each of these bites counts as a course, so we are making good progress.
Next up is a golden egg. Encased in delicate caramel, it dissolves and releases a mouthful of tangerine-bloom essence, assaulting our senses. We are beginning to get the idea. A light tempura of avocado is followed by a tin of melon caviar (right), tiny beads of melon juice that look like salmon eggs and burst into flavour. A mozzarella brioche, topped with a drift of rose air, finishes this wonderful wave of snacks.
Next, three small vegetable dishes are served with El Bulli's famous foams - light frothy sauces - before we move on to a wave of fish courses. Plump mussels are wrapped in a seawater jelly, served with tiny cubes of apple and finished with an intense consomme of potatoes and ham. An inspired burst of sea and land, perfectly resolved. The mood continues with lightly poached salmon served with a sprinkling of pickled vegetables and foraged wild flowers from the hillside. Fine slivers of oyster in a frothy foie-gras sauce follow, before our palates are cleansed with slivers of mushrooms in a delicate consomme.
As we move on to red wine, the big guns appear. A cast-iron pan, filled with a deep-brown onion soup, is brought to the table. Floating on top are delicate balloons of puffed-up wontons, half-filled with the lightest herb mousse. We also have a bowl of Parmesan foam, and we are told to lift out the wontons with a perforated spoon, and eat the two together, before finishing off the deliciously concentrated soup. After a dish of morels, the savoury crescendo continues with a spoon of bone marrow, topped with a delicate sphere of marchand de vin sauce.
We breathe a sigh of relief when our waiter tells us that we are moving on to the pre-desserts. We have made it through a maze of techno food. We are giddy with excitement, and we are enthralled. We dip honey meringues into a soft round of sheep's cheese before moving on to a refreshing reward in the shape of a frozen bonbon, which we hold in our mouths until it dissolves and drenches our tongues with a fragrant peach liqueur. We wash it down with a spoon of fresh peach essence.
Then on to dessert - and what joy. A beautifully crafted hummingbird shape is draped across the plate. Its long beak, formed from caramel, extends from a bubble head filled with sweet liquid sesame. We crack the head and spill its contents over the fruit sorbets, ice creams and jellies that form its body and wings, then eat it with the drifts of crunchy sesame and mandarin-flower powder that pepper the plate.
So is El Bulli the world's best restaurant? Is it worth the wait? Is it worth the journey? The answers have to be yes. Because, despite how it sounds, El Bulli is not at all pretentious. Yes, it pushes culinary boundaries to extraordinary degrees, but it never loses sight of the fundamental elements of taste. The food is accessible, delicious and fun. And the people are friendly, dedicated and unbelievably sincere.
WHAT DOES IT COST?
The degustation menu, of about 25 courses, costs €165. This may sound expensive, but the rule of thumb for a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Paris is €100 a star - so it's worth it as a one-off treat.
HOW DO YOU GET A RESERVATION?
El Bulli is completely egalitarian about bookings. If you're serious, log on to www.egullet.com, browse the eG Forums Spain and Portugal site, and you will catch a post some time in October, telling you that reservations are open. The accepted wisdom is that it is best not to specify a number of people or a date, as you could quickly rule yourself out. Keep your note short, and don't pester them.