A magical lunch at El Bulli

Thanksgiving Lunch at El Bulli 9in

Touted as the world’s best restaurant, El Bulli, located in Roses, Spain, shuttered its doors on Sunday. It was indisputably, the toughest reservation to obtain at any restaurant, with over a million requests for tables each year. International renown surrounding El Bulli is such that even the media coverage on it is getting media coverage – see the mocking and derision from the NYTimes, The UK Guardian, and from Salon.com.

Well, I’m afraid I am going to add to the plethora of blog coverage and write ups.

Why write about a shuttered restaurant? It’s about recollections of a dining experience so extraordinary as to be dreamlike in character. Yet, it was real and this is my personal journal entry about one of the most magical dining experience of my life.

My fellow food adventurer, Gareth and I decided to plan a trip to Spain last year – this meant targeting restaurants as a central planning component. We talked (err, IM’d) about El Bulli, though neither of us entertained serious expectations of actually dining there. But we are dreamers, so we entered the reservation lottery (for the third year in a row), but our trip planning proceeded.  Traveling during American Thanksgiving we made reservations to visit wineries and restaurants in Penedes, south of Barcelona, and up in Girona, north of Barcelona.

web Torres Winery Vilafranca del Penedes

Our travel plans incorporated two free days to insure the ability to give us some flexibility in our final itinerary.  Before departure, our respective email inboxes registered with emails from El Bulli confirming that we were in the majority of those who would NOT be granted mythical dining experience. To soften the rejection, the El Bulli email informed us that we could check back in the event of any cancellations they might get, closer to the date. As the month approached, we both sent requests for reservations in the event of cancellations and “Senor No” (as the reservationist is called)  informed us in the nicest possible way that we were not to be among the lucky few.  I even asked my father, who speaks Spanish fluently, to send an email on our behalf requesting a reservation, thinking that perhaps a letter from a Spanish speaking father in California on behalf of a food-loving daughter in New York, planning a trip to Spain would be the trick. Nope, that ploy didn’t work either. Though it was a very nice email, thanks for trying, Dad.

web Jamon Iberico

Disappointed that El Bulli was not part of our itinerary, we maintained much excitement about the variety of plans we did have for our trip to Spain that week in November, and the amount of Spanish jamon we planned on eating.  Our general enthusiasm hit a little snag when we checked into our less than desirable hotel in Penedes. We usually look for deals on hotels to conserve money for food, but this was bad even for us – our room over looked a trash heap and there were stains on our sheets and towels ewww.  We decided to leave after only one night and head to Girona a day early.

web Agusti Torello Mata Cava (4)

The wineries offered very appealing tours and general excitement and appreciative manner resulted in the owner of one of the wineries giving us a private tour. This was totally cool, fascinating and unexpectedly fortuitous!

Our new best friend was chatting with us about various restaurants when we shared our “losing attempts” to snare a seat at El Bulli. A devilish smile alighted on our friend’s face as he suggested that he would share with us an email of his friend who is well-connected at El Bulli. Incredulous, we scooped up the email. The next day, our new contact not only got us a seating at El Bulli, but he even apologized that he could only get us into lunch! To add to this amazing turn of events, he asked if we had any allergies, which was music to my gluten-free ears.

Gareth at El Bulli Restaurant Roses Spain

At the appointed hour, we arrived at the restaurant and Gareth forced me to take a photo in front of the El Bulli sign, which I initially resisted, but now I thank Gareth for his foresight. We were not alone, and soon a line began to form behind us of people ready for their own photo op. As we crossed the threshold into this oft-dreamed-of food heaven, the maitre d’ greeted us and immediately sent us on a tour of the most impressive kitchen I have ever seen.

The Kitchen at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (5)

The Kitchen at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (4)

Then we were afforded the ultimate photo op as the maitre d’ introduced us to Chef Ferran Adria himself. Life can be wonderful.

Catherine and Gareth with Ferran Adria at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (6)

We were then seated at our table, giggling with awe that we were actually there. We quickly regained our composure as the server approached and immediately showered us with a level of service and attentiveness that escapes my ability to describe in words. Sometimes hype is just that – hype, and reality can never match the unrealistic expectations generated by the hype.

A Reservation at El Bulli Restaurant (86)

At El Bulli, Gareth and I both found the atmosphere and exquisite experience of this culinary palace unmatchable. So what about the food? What did we actually eat?

They started service with three cocktails. A frozen strawberry bellini:

Frozen Strawberry Bellini at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (10)

Then a warm capi-mojito:

Warm Caipi-mojito cocktail

Followed by an almond-fizz with amarena-LYO:

Almond-fizz with amarena-LYO at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (15)

The cocktails were followed by an individual grapefruit and seaweed “ravioli”

Grapefruit and Seaweed ravioli at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (16)

It was then we were served the dish I most wish I could experience again. A frozen gorgonzola cheese dome, topped with fresh nutmeg. The way the dome quickly transformed from cold and solid to warm and melting in our hands and on our tongues with layers of flavor coating our mouths, I would fly back to Spain just for that.

Frozen Gorgonzola Cheese Dome

This was followed with a completely different texture, in the form of an olive oil crisp:

Olive Oil Crisp at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (21)

And a sweeter bite of hazelnut raspberries:

Hazelnut Raspberries at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (22)

Back to olive oil with a “bread stick” (made without a speck of flour):

Parmesan "breadstick" at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (23)

Then a coconut sponge:

Coconut Sponge at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (24)

I was given beetroot and yogurt “profiteroles” (a type of meringue):

Beetroot and yoghurt meringue at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (25)

While Gareth was served a gluten-ous shrimp tortilla:

Shrimps Tortilla at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (26)

We both received the ham and ginger canapes:

ham and ginger canapee at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (28)

And one of Gareth’s favorites, soy matches with yuzu and miso (the flavor in the matches so concentrated in such a small delivery device)

Yuzu and miso (with soy matches) at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (31)

Soy matches with yuzu and miso at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (30)

The only bite that fell flat for us, boiled shrimp, really that’s all it was, a boiled shrimp:

Boiled Shrimp at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (32)

Quails with carrot escabeche (we considered this our Thanksgiving “turkey”):

Quails with carrot escabeche at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (35)

And pumpkin “sea urchin” to round out the Thanksgiving offerings:

pumpkin sea urchin at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (37)

The texture and flavor of the soy tiramisu inspires a sense memory so vivid, I can almost experience the mouthfeel when I think about it today:

Soy Tiramisu at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (38)

Then came a dish of caviar cream and hazelnut caviar – sweet, savory, smooth and briny:

caviar cream and hazelnut caviar at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (41)

The cheese blini that accompanied Gareth’s “truffle drap” were one of two times during the evening, I was thoroughly envious of his ability to conquer gluten:

Truffle "drap" with cheese blini

While the truffles were delicious, the tomato carpaccio that came with mine, didn’t exactly seem on par with blini oozing with melting cheese:

Truffles with tomato carpaccio at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (51)

Luckily I was distracted by the parmesan porra – a spongey, cheese-flavored dish that looked like a meringue but tasted far from it. The expression on Gareth’s face will tell you more than I could possibly explain with words:

Parmesan "porra"

Cold sea anemone with bernacles (I ate them and am still unsure what they are):

Cold sea anemone with bernacles El Bulli Restaurant Menu (54)

The sea anemones were then heated for a scallop with anemone risotto:

Scallop with anemone risotto at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (55)

Oysters Gillardeau with black sand and bone marrow – this may be the closest to “food porn” we’ll get here…

Oysters Gillardeau with black sand and bone marrow at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (58)

My envy was green once again, when Gareth was served a Oaxaca taco with a side of flavors including cilantro:

Oaxaca "taco" at El Bulli

And I received roses artichoke – I mean I love artichokes, but the simple artichoke petals didn’t shine compared to Gareth’s taco…

roses artichoke at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (60)

But I quickly forgot my envy as we witnessed the presentation of endive en papillote with walnuts and ‘slow motion caviar’ (our waiter, coined that term, did I mention how much we loved him?)

Endive in Papillote with slow motion caviar and walnuts 9in

Then a gazpacho and ajo blanco – I could eat 4 of those in a sitting if given another opportunity….

"gazpacho" and "ajo blanco" at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (69)

Next we received a satchel of cardamom to accompany our turtledove with blackberry risotto:

Turtledove with blackberries risotto and toasted cardamom

Hare bolognese with ‘blood’

Hare with bolognese and "blood" 9in

(don’t worry, it wasn’t actually a glass of blood, just a sauce that bore a striking resemblance)

The hare continued with a wild strawberry and hare soup:

Wild Strawberries with Hare Soup at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (79)

And with that the savory course came to a close. A final mimetic chestnut to begin our transition to a sweeter spectrum:

Mimetic Chestnuts at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (80)

A sweet cube topped with a sauce of black tea and lime:

Sugar Cube with Black Tea and Lime

And a final palate cleanser – a frozen “pond” with brown sugar and mint

"The Pond" frozen with brown sugar and mint

The sweets began in earnest with mini donuts, which were actually ice cream ensconced in chocolate:

Mini "donuts" at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (87)

Another texture shift with Catalan pine nut candies:

Catalan Pine Nut Candies at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (90)

And finally, floating profiteroles with gin-soup, frozen raspberries and the return of the cardamom satchel:

Floating profiteroles with gin-soup and frozen raspberries and cardamom at El Bulli

There wasn’t a set wine pairing option at El Bulli, as the seemingly unlimited dishes defy a simple pairing. But at El Bulli, the superb wine takes a back seat to the celestial food. El Bulli’s sommelier proffered periodic recommendations for particular wines over the course of the evening. To start, Gareth selected the cava, the classic Spanish sparking wine while I sampled sherry, having already reached my cava threshold after 5 days in Spain. The sommelier assisted our selections of a bottle of white, followed by a bottle of red and two glasses of dessert wine.

wine at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (67)

Red wine at El Bulli Restaurant Menu (74)

At the close of the meal, an exceptionally large box of exquisite chocolates and confections was presented to us, adding yet another chapter to this incredible real-life fairy tale. Four hours of dining, yes, the experience consumed that much time, resulted in a sense of camaraderie with our server and our sommelier, who, pointing to the box of chocolates, informed us that the only time they had ever seen anyone finish the entire box was a table of SIX German men.

The end of the best Thanksgiving Ever

Gareth doesn’t speak German but he knows how to eat and I was his wingman on this chocolate trip, though he deserves the real credit for this final feat of chocolate consumption. The box of chocolates was empty when we left! Six German men were tied by Gareth and one New York girl.

I had to write about my lunch because the memory will stay with me as a reminder of the rich tapestry of life and what the world has to offer when you go for it and get a little lucky.

Here is a video from Chef Rene Redzepi, showing Chef Adria serving the last dish of the last service, bringing the era of El Bulli to an end: http://www.twitvid.com/WQMZS

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August 18, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

[…] a interrupting my Chicago write-ups to relate the magical tale of my El Bulli experience, we return to our Midwest eating adventure with the main course – Alinea. Currently ranked the […]

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