Most meals, with enough anticipation and fanfare, cannot possibly live up to expectations. This was not one of those meals.
I didn’t take pictures because this food has been so well documented, it seemed stupid for me to detract in any avoidable way from the experience just so I could post the 3,657th picture of the frozen cheese balloon. If you want to see pictures of this meal, I think every single fucking person at the restaurant was snapping away so go find theirs.
Instead, I’ve included images that best capture the emotions and thoughts generated by highlighted courses. I do this for two reasons. The first reason is that I didn’t take any pictures (are you thick?). The second is that Ferran Adrià achieved an exceptional number of things with El Bulli, but I suspect the one he is most proud of is his role as provocateur-in-chief for the culinary world. Since this meal is an homage to that guy, it makes sense to at least try and appreciate the meal through the lens of emotions stirred and thoughts provoked. Yeah, it’s meta.
Sitting down, they brought around water bottled in Spain. I think the urinal cakes in the bathroom were also from Spain. They are taking this kind of seriously. The server explains they are going to walk us through El Bulli’s history. Really, it was more of a steady jog. We had little time for idle conversation beyond discussing the food because 29 courses takes no small amount of time to serve, even over four hours. The booze flowed freely and at our own pace, allowing us to get as slithered as we wanted. Let’s roll.
1. Nitro caipirinha with tarragon concentrate. Big deal, right? Even this, though, brings questions at the table, “how is it this texture?” Beran uses cold stuff as a palate cleanser throughout the meal. It’s playful and a nice way to step into the nearly non-stop brain-hump that’s coming your way.
2. Hot-cold trout roe tempura. The server (one of about ten we got to meet throughout the night) was a bit like a meth-addled ferret in his description and nobody at the table caught more than every other word. So, we had no idea what this was. It was hot. It was cold. It was salty, savory and totally enjoyable.
3. Coca of avocado pear, anchovies and green onions. Ok, so this was the first of several dishes that was a delightfully tiny tease. It is an aged anchovy sandwich. Now, I know the Spanish are sluts for canned fish of extraordinary quality (CFEQ), but that still doesn’t sound exceptional. One bite, however, and I was ready to self-flagellate for another one. Beran pulled off the absolute most perfect balance of creamy and crunchy, salty and sweet, that I could have imagined. This was taste and texture nirvana. Are we peaking too soon?
4. Iberico sandwich. Ha-ha, so clever, ha. Hah. Somehow, this air sandwich did not piss me off completely. Probably because a) it had jamon Iberico, an unfuckablewith dimension of pig, b) I was starving, and c), somehow, the air contained within the sandwich tasted better than normal air. I realized at the time, that if money were no option, I would breath flavored air all the time. Perhaps a little bacon air in the morning, a nice martini air after lunch, and some gruyere air while I watch Real Housewives of Estonia.
5. Spherical olives. So, molecular gastronomy has really matured from being a ‘hey, look at this!’ to a perfectly legitimate set of techniques, among thousands, in a great chef’s arsenal. On one hand, this dish seems cliche, but on the other, it is a valuable history lesson akin to dicking around with LOGO on an Apple II. This one delicious little globule of olive oil was a heady reminder about formative days in Adria’s mental playground.
6. Golden Egg. Big deal chefs love screwing around with gold leaf because it is Caligula-like in its decadence and who doesn’t want to shit gold in these days of mega-dollar parachute rewards going to CEOs who figure out how to screw over the plebes without technically breaking the law? This is an indulgent little bite that is pretty spooky as it shimmies around on the serving spoon like the world’s most expensive jell-o. This dish’s actual mouthfeel was a mixture of whimsy and revulsion. Delicious, but upsetting. I am still not sure how I feel about it, but it definitely challenged the way I thought about gold leaf and raw eggs.
7. Chicken liquid croquettes. Another tiny bite with more flavor than entire meals I’ve had. This was a deep fried shot of chicken and cheese juice. If this sounds disgusting, you haven’t dined with Grant Achatz before.
8. Black sesame sponge cake with miso. Apparently, they prepare this in a microwave because they can. It’s a nest of some sort of spun sweet black sesame with a little dollop of super-savory miso. We were instructed to pick it up, mush it into a ball and eat it. It was like snorting pure umami. Finger-licking good.
9. Smoked Foam with olive oil brioche. So this was an example of how Adrià straight fucks with people. They didn’t explain this dish to us, just set it out and told us to enjoy. It smelled like lox and tasted like…well…the smell of lox, which is weirdly not the same thing as tasting like lox. It was kind of good, kind of wtf, and the server came back when we finished and explained that Adria liked to introduce these confusing little amuses that aren’t supposed to make any sense. It was, in fact, smoked ice. First, I don’t know how to smoke ice, so that’s cool. Second, what? Seriously? I could almost sense Adria in the corner laughing at me. I would punch his fancy mouth if I wasn’t such a fanboy.
10. Carrot air with coconut milk and madras curry. So after toying with our sensibility and taste buds, they hit us with more foam. Oh, ha ha, jerks. Fool me once, won’t get fooled by two in the bush. But wait, this foam wrote checks it could cash. Sweet, sweet-ass carrots with unbelievably flavorful curried milk underneath. This dish further baffled my brain and I kept chewing on the foam because my mouth just refused to believe this wasn’t a more substantial foodstuff.
11. Cuttlefish Ravioli. Friends at the table next to us turned into slobbering juggalos when this arrived at our table. They were about 15 courses ahead and warned us that this dish was terrible, offering, magnanimously to take it off our hands before anyone got hurt. My friends are jerks and I wasn’t fooled for a second. Presented by one of the chefs, this was a pretty simple presentation, coquettishly hiding the intense mouth-gasm it held for us. The cuttlefish is an ugly little swimmer that bears no resemblance to the pearly white little pillow on the plate. It was one, beautiful, perfect, bite that exploded in my mouth. I heard trumpets and saw bursts of light in my peripheral vision. This was among the best things to ever happen to my tongue.
12. Savory tomato ice with oregano and almond milk pudding. Palate cleanser. Simple, straightforward, eminently forgettable, which is fine. It served its purpose.
13. Hot crab aspic with mini corn couscous. This was good. I might have been fatigued or drunk, but this didn’t make my tastebuds sit up and beg. I was in the minority at our table so I am willing to chalk this up to me. It’s cool, bro. We can still be friends.
14. Cauliflower couscous with solid aromatic herb sauce. Cauliflower is my crack and this was my favorite dish of the night. It’s some cauliflower, a little couscous surrounded by a fat grip of dry herbs and spices. Big deal, right? No, not right, knucklehead. To me, this, in a nutshell, is the magic of El Bulli. Visually, the dish was absolutely gorgeous. A frame-worthy quilt of colors and textures. Even fourteen gorgeous dishes in, I was slapped breathless. Next up, smell was something like dropping acid inside of a spice bazaar. Dozens of competing scents fought for supremacy of my noseholes. Instead of a cacophony, though, it was a symphony. Here’s the best part, every single bite of this dish was different due to the mixture of herbs and spices ringing the perfectly cooked vegetable. Literally, every bite. It was about thirty different dishes in a single course. Holy shit. Mind blown.
15. Suquet of prawns. Another jerk move in the loving tradition of the puckish Adria. A gigantic bowl arrives with three tiny little baby shrimps. It was completely delicious, but I wanted more. I wanted a lot more. Thanks, dick.
16. Potato tortilla. Liquified potato omelet. Ok, swell, next?
17. Trumpet mushroom carpaccio with rabbit kidney. Topsy-turvey, served with a big meatball-looking mushroom on a bed of razor-thin mushroom slices, accented by rabbit kidneys. I don’t seek out offal and I think I missed the part of the pre-course spiel about this containing rabbit kidneys. The mushrooms were delicious and the rabbit kidneys were tender little meat grenades that perfectly complemented the delicate fungus. I am no stranger to lupine abuse so, despite my organ aversion, I loved this meal even more after I understood it.
18. Mullet ‘gaudi’. This may have been my least favorite among the legit dishes. Not because it sucked in any conceivable way, but because it didn’t reduce me to tears of joy. It was also probably the biggest thing we ate, so I had a little resentment in my heart. Still better than almost every dish in almost every tight-assed restaurant in Chicago.
20. Civet of rabbit with hot apple jelly and foie. This was straightforward, hot-buttered awesome. Also, does every fine dining chef harbor some kind of Elmer Fudd complex?
21. Gorgonzola globe. This is a balloon made out of really cold cheese. Perfectly, stupidly, delicious. The best thing about this dish is that it shouldn’t reasonably exist in the physical plane. You dig?
22. Foie gras carmel custard. Most people at my table choked one bite of this down on before waving the white flag. Me? No, sir. I am eating every goddamn bite of food or pseudo food that comes my way. While I cannot say this was my favorite dish of the night, it was up there and I didn’t even particularly enjoy it in the conventional sense. In fact, I was mildly, and repeatedly, repulsed by it because I don’t like foie gras and this was the consistency of flan complete with caramel sauce. I will wait for just a moment while this sinks in. These evil bastards made foie flan and it was flawlessly executed. Bite after cringing bite, I wrestled with this until it was gone. I felt a little like I was being forced to hit myself in the face with my own hand by Dave Beran. I kissed a goose liver and I liked it.
23. A spice plate. This came with a quiz. It was a nice diversion and I failed miserably, my palate still reeling after the foie flan. Let’s just move on.
24. Mind Pond with with mint, turbado sugar, and matcha powder. Another slap across the forebrain. We ate ice with some stuff on it and it was enjoyable. We were sitting there in our fancy clothes, big deals every one of us, chewing on extraordinarily expensive ice. We didn’t feel particularly stupid doing it (you may disagree) and liked it. This doesn’t make sense.
25. Chocolate in textures. You know the scene in Trainspotting where Renton dives into the toilet bowl in rabid pursuit of his heroin suppository? Yeah, child’s play. This dish is essentially the gastronomical equivalent of plunging a hypo filled with china white directly into your heart. First, the faintest prick as the needle passes flesh. Then, a rushing noise fills your ears like a Japanese bullet train. This is followed by a pregnant pause where all senses go numb and then every nerve ending dances the dougie as you explode on an atomic level into a billion little pieces of energy. This dish left me convulsing in a puddle of my own chocolate-stained drool.
26. Chocolate donut. So, take some fine chocolate icing about 5mm thick in the shape of a donut and fill it with hyper-concentrated liquid chocolate cake. Then put that in your mouth. Then change your underwear. They should have handed out diapers at the door.
27. Puff pastry web. I am pretty incoherent at this point.
28. Creme flute. So’s your mom.
29. Goodbye hands. Three roly-poly steel bowls topped with inflated rubber gloves that wave to you. Only one of them has dehydrated passionfruit marshmallows in it. The rest have a heaping serving of “ROFL.” I am starting to think Adrià is a complete asshole. Get me to a hospital.
A note about the servers… They were absurdly good, almost without exception (see: meth-addled ferret comment above) and had me convinced they were as excited, if not more, about serving this food than I was to be eating it. Special props to our main man who blew our minds by knowing, among other errata, how far El Bulli was from Barcelona by car, and helicopter, in miles, kilometers, and time. I am not exaggerating. It was like the dude got a college degree from a prestigious institution in presenting this meal. Also props to having a chef present his favorite dish. He was one stop shy of a tittering Bieber-obsessed teenage girl in his excitement about the cuttlefish ravioli and that shit is contagious. Every bite perfectly narrated, every glass perpetually full, and the invite back to the kitchen for a tour at 1:30AM after what must have been a hilariously long day was the icing on the cake.
Stumbling outside, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. My wife asked me if this meal (nay, any meal) can justify such a high cost (full disclosure: I didn’t pay for this dinner) and she wasn’t digging on our experience (we were both blissed out), but it was more of a philosophical query. I answered in the affirmative because this was more than a fancy meal. Ultimately, this was a sensually and mentally engaging tour through recent culinary history by some of the most qualified docents on earth. Traveling through time and space to the big bang and evolution of molecular gastronomy was pretty fucking awesome.