I was unbelievably lucky enough to go to El Bulli two years ago, and wrote about it at the time. As it's about to shut I thought I'd post it here because it was such an extraordinary experience.
When my Dad managed to score a table at El Bulli, The Best Restaurant in the World, I was in two minds about going. Yes, food is my life, my three-hourly obsession, one of the greatest sources of joy in the universe. But I’m as happy eating a Corner Bistro cheeseburger as a girl can ever be, and I don’t hold much truck with jus and foam and truffles. I like simple stuff done well. But then again, 50 covers, a million applications for tables – yeah, I’d be an idiot not to say yes. Plus, I’d just finished writing my first novel and was heading back to a desk job and a summer of serious, sensible behaviour. I’d do my first day back at work, then fly to Spain for supper to console myself.
I apologise for the non-technical nature of this review. I don’t speak in the vocabulary of reductions and sous-vides. I’m just telling it like I tasted it – increasingly weirded out, a little bit drunk on amazing Cava and Albarino, and with the added oddness of thinking my Dad was going to have a medical incident from course 17 through to course 36 (more of that later.)
First things first – the setting: ridiculously picturesque, beautiful, dream-like. It smells of cedar and pine, it’s overlooking the deep blue sea, the sun is setting; it's awesome.
We had a look at the kitchen - more like a lab, with 45, yep, 45 chefs clustered round the counter, silently labouring. We met the boss, Ferran Adria - intense, polite, a genius. And then we're off:
You start with nibbles and cocktails on the terrace. In my house this is the hour of the Pringle, and if you're lucky a gin and tonic. In Casa Ferran, it's the start of the fireworks.
First, a mojito, and a caipirinha - in canape form. You take a 2 inch piece of sugar cane out of a glass of ice and suck it. The former has fresh mint, the latter, fresh lime zest. It's cool, fun, wouldn't get you drunk but hey. Then, on a wiggly, metallic silver freeform dish, is served a wiggly, translucent ‘crystal of parmegiano’ - looks like molten plastic, tastes totally delicious.
Then it's five things at once:
Mimetic peanuts - supermagic. Looks like a monkey nut, you delicately put it in your mouth and it explodes in a pure, thick, almost treacly peanut taste sensation.
Olives made of olive oil - spooned out of a jar, they're olive shaped, olive sized, and made of olive oil. They keep their shape, it's a great trick, not necessarily one worth repeating.
Cherries umeboshi – a perfect balance of sweet and sour - great.
Black and white sesame disc - Karl Lagerfield-y, tastes like a cloud.
Vanilla 'cellophane' - again with the translucence - see through sheets of vanilla, save for the black dots of the pods. Interesting, technically brilliant - slightly odd to have vanilla at this stage in the proceedings, but good.
Darn – and I forgot ‘Coniferous’ – they bring you a little pot plant, and a glass of what looks like milk. You take a sprig of the plant – I’m sure I’m wrong but I’m guessing it was pine from the title…. Anyway, you eat the sprig, then drink your milkshake – gin, yoghurt and honey, and the pine zings. It’s a bit like drinking Glade, but better, but not great.
Then we moved to the table, and it was just relentless. Mostly in a brilliant, beautiful, breathtaking, insane, magic, fun, clever and entirely creative way. A couple of things weren't to my taste - inevitably - but for the next 3 hours you're just dazzled and entertained by the ideas and the execution and the love that has gone into this experience.
I'll keep it brief, there's a lot of it.
Cornet of nori with raspberry and soya – mini seaweed cone filled with intense raspberry flavour. Beautiful, tasty, not as good as Ben & Jerry's Half Baked.
Black sesame sponge cake with miso – looks like a piece of fozzy bear’s head, with a yellow daub of miso. We’re instructed to eat it in two bites, but I think I crammed it in in one – looks more interesting than it tastes.
Oyster leaf with dew of vinegar – awesome Jedi mind trick. A sage coloured leaf with 4 or 5 perfect droplets of vinegar resting on it. It looks like a leaf, it tastes like an oyster. You think ‘hmm, is this an oyster coated leaf? Is this an oyster that looks like a leaf? Is this a leaf that’s been cross-fertilised with an oyster? WTF is going on?’ Whatever it was, it was cooool.
Then Gorgonzola Moshi – a perfect, plump, small ball of cheese and cream that bursts in your mouth. Awesome mouth-feel, and a perfect size – any bigger would have been overkill.
Grilled strawberry – a hot strawberry injected with gin, and topped with juniper. I once dated a man who was injected with gin. I digress. It was ok – at this stage in the meal you get blasé about the fact that the juniper enhances the sweetness – almost actually enhances the pinkness – of the fruit.
Truffle surprise – two leaves, filled with crazy, curly shaved truffles, and smooth shaved truffles. I don’t like truffles (yeah, I know you can’t take me seriously as a foodie now but I just don’t) – but these were good.
Haricot bean with Joselito’s Iberian pork fat – Joselito, your pork fat is awesome! Can I sample your other fats? The dish looked like two fat slugs in a drizzle of dishwater.
It put my sister off, but I’ve eaten worse. Anyway, these giant beans and ham combo were great – like a mini cassoulet, deeply satisfying and savoury.
Prawn two firings, named after that scene in Goodfellas, perhaps. You couldn’t find a prawnier prawn on this earth – perfectly, briefly cooked, yet with fabulously crispy, crunchy legs, and served alongside a tiny spoon of garlic sauce, with a lilac garlic flower. Fabulous, deconstructed and delicious.
Mimetic almonds - this and The Egg are my favourites. They were the best combination of pyrotechnics and wit and deliciousness. They just made me think: Ferran Adria is audacious and funny and clever and brilliant and fearless and driven, and I am so lucky to be alive, and here, and eating this.
The almonds: a dish of various pale brown, cream, invisible (yes, transparent), and toffee coloured almonds. It’s like the Saddam-Hussein-lookalikes of almond dishes. A few of the almonds are real almonds, and you’d better believe they’re the best almonds you ever tasted. And then some of the almonds are actually dead-ringers for almonds, but are made from sesame. And then the see-through almonds taste of almonds but are made of magic. And the white almonds taste intensely of cherry. I think this is the stage in the proceedings where I felt most delighted / on drugs. It was just utterly brilliant.
After this course, my father – a giant of a man (6 foot 6), who carries the various strains of ageing – asks the waitress for a breather, and takes himself off for a walk. In my mother’s head, this translates to ‘my husband is about to have a coronary.’ She starts having kniptions. Her anxiety immediately infects me, to the point where I start believing that at any bite he might now cark it. I’m happy to report he is still alive and well, but it did make the second half of the meal a slightly weird experience.
Back to the food: mushroom CRU with hazlenut. I don’t know what the CRU means, but the dish was intensely woody, but lightened with a froth of hazlenut. Tasty and odd – the mushroom texture was entirely solid and smooth – like eating room-temperature marble.
Pumpkin and almond sandwich – cute and gimmicky – a three inch simulacrum of a baguette. The ‘bread’ part had the texture of Styrofoam. It was very futuristic and visually cool, but at this stage of the meal, you're so spoilt, you become toxically blase about anything that doesn't taste as exceptional as it looks.
Then Sea Anemone with Te – delicious – lemon caviar, kombu – very Sea-like and beautiful to look at.
Pinenut shabu-shabu – another brilliant visual trick – three tiny see through pouches, with variations on a pinenut theme – you dip each bag into a cup of what tasted like Riesling, and you get an intense nutty payoff.
Razor clam with seaweed – perfect, amazing textured, super fresh razor clams.
Trout roe risotto – beautiful little peachy-pink eggs, with a sliver of gold on top. It’s that David Cross thing of eating gold being the ultimate ‘Fuck you’ to poor people that was front of mind when I looked at this dish, not in a good way.
Sea cucumber with mentaiko and rhubarb – delicious, soft, beautiful flesh, sour, pungent rhubarb to compliment. I’m glad I googled sea cucumber after I ate it, cos man, that is one ugly holothuroidea.
Abalone – always reminds me of Roxy Music that word – with Iberian ham and enoki mushrooms – great textural combo of soft, solid, fat and salty.
Squid with foie fat and corn risotto – There is nothing I don’t love in this dish. Having said that, the finest foie gras / sweetcorn combo I ever had was at Mr Underhills – the awesome Ludlow restaurant that is one of the best experiences of food I’ve ever had.
Parmesan Ravioli – at this stage, you’re really going to have to work hard to impress the crowd – everything has tasted good, looked beautiful or cool, and you’re starting to feel like you need a new tummy. But Adria pulls it off, with another see-through dish, this time parmesan ravioli. The picture doesn’t do it justice, but it’s near invisible pockets of intense parmesan flavour. The best thing about the dish, apart from its party trick appearance, is the caper and coffee, that work brilliantly to intensify the flavour of the cheese. Who’d have thunk it.
Then on to suckling pig tail, three tiny little crispy crunchy pork treats, which come with a mini soup of ham and melon.
And then we’re in the final stretch, my dad is still breathing, and it’s pudding time.
We start with Pond. A mini ice-skating lake, covered in sugar crystals, and what lies beneath is a super-pepperminty pond, that you break the ice and dive in to.
Then mango ravioli – a perfect replica of an egg yolk – plump, juicy, and immediately dissolves in your mouth in a super-fruity celebratory burst.
Then Coco / aka The Egg, my other favourite, after the Saddam-Almonds. A giant, super-white egg arrives at the table. The waitress (staff were amazing, by the way) cracks the egg for you, and gives you a little shaker of curry powder, and you tuck into a frozen coconut milk egg, a bit like an Easter egg, but so much greater.
And then Puff Pastry of Pineapple – an ultra industrial looking wafer, like eating a computer ribbon that tastes of pineapple. Interesting, tasty, but more intellectual than enjoyable at this stage.
And then there's a honey bon bon like a giant amber pearl, and a pudding with snowflakes that I can't even work out what's in because I'm exhausted and overloaded.
And finally on to The Box. By this stage I'm totally over-full, and have no appetite left. However.
If you bring me a giant chest full of crazy chocolates, I'm going to eat a giant chest full of crazy chocolates. I think most diners maybe pick 2 or 3 of the 10+ options presented in the box, but hey, you're paying 230 euros for the meal, you might as well try everything, right? Twice they tried to take the box away, twice we held on to it. Chocolate that tastes like raspberries, chocolate that looks like blood red twigs, freeze dried fruits, weird discs with I don't even know anymore in the middle, beautiful tablets like a mini dime bar but better...I'm actually getting dizzy just recalling them. Anyway, next time I go, I'll try to exercise more restraint, as eating 10 chocolates after 36 courses is probably 'de trop' as they say, but what can you do.
I don’t do acid. I suffer from an over-active, over-anxious imagination at the best of times. But leaving El Bulli, I felt high and weirded out and amazed, as if I’d just been on a really great acid / cocaine / skunk trip. When I told my ex that the experience was almost spiritual, he mocked me – I’d mock me too. It’s a much-abused word – Trudie Styler - but truly, El Bulli is such a special, unique place, and the experience is so extraordinary - that I think the word is justified. It makes you feel extremely joyful and alive and exhilarated.
24 hours later I was eating a quarter pounder with cheese and fries at Girona airport. Truth of the matter was that tasted pretty darn good too....
(If you read the book when it comes out, you will spot that I have recycled the experience, and translated it into a date with the love interest in the book. I am at pains to point out that my dad is not my love interest in real life, and that my work is entirely fictional. But as my beloved Nora Ephron says, 'everything is material'... )