Friday, September 25, 2009

El Bulli, Roses: 1/3 - Arrival, Snacks

September 1st, 2009. 8 PM.

It's hard to anticipate something for 10 months. It's even harder when it's The Best Restaurant In the World. You know I mean that ironically, right?  But it wasn't too long after Luis Garcia 'found a solution' in December 2008 for my friend Andre that El Bulli was voted into that title again for the 4th consecutive year and the 5th in total (2002). Every year the Top 50 list is peculiar (for example, it's unlikely that the best Japanese restaurant in the world is in New York, or that the list's only restaurant in Japan should be French and get tepid reviews domestically).  But it's still a list, and El Bulli is still #1. Again. And again. No one else has a list, not even Michelin. You have to respect the magazine for being bold enough to do something this silly, and you have to respect the restaurant for doing whatever it's doing to keep being #1. Even if it's just marketing.

Of course, El Bulli has been doing this at the same level for a long time. Many restaurants get tired, bored, old, after this many years. The chef moves on to other things, whether it's a different style or a different venue or an international chain of burger shops that cash in on his good name while providing a franchised version of the service and dishes that made him famous. In other cases, chefs reach fame and simply stop what they're doing - same menu, same dishes, same service, everything petrified (and in the worst case, Bernard Loiseau). Read a good essay about this by someone who knows much better than me here.  This is what was on my mind as we dressed for dinner, overlooking the Mediterranean. Did I mention how much I enjoyed staying in Cadaques? It's a 45-minute drive to El Bulli, but well worth it. No, the road through the national park is not drivable. We hiked some of it it in the morning, and it's a hiking trail.

The drive has distinct parts if you do it this way - back over the hills out of the sheltered Cadaques bay, down the mountain to Roses, a short tour of town that makes you glad you're not staying there, and then up another hill into scrubby brushland, exposed rock faces and pine trees. After twisting through this landscape, you start to see the ocean again, and then this is your first glimpse of the small bay where El Bulli lives. I'm glad it was still twilight so we could really appreciate it. Some reviewers describe the descent along the hills overlooking the bay as 'terrifying' or 'dangerous dirt roads'. They are wrong. It's really beautiful. The road is paved. Although it doesn't have guard rails...

It's quiet and pleasant - the only other things there are a hostel and some beachfront amenities. If you blow up this picture, you'll just be able to see the restaurant sign - the small lit patch in the middle. This sort of modesty can cut two ways - they're certainly under-promising and trying to reset your expectations by not having a more grand approach. But they can't reset you all the way - after 10 months (and maybe some previous failed attempts to get a booking) you come here expecting the Meal of Your Life at The Best Restaurant In the World. I wondered whether they were interested in delivering that experience.

The view from the parking lot is beautiful, no? While we contemplate this, a few points I'd like to mention.

Many people go to El Bulli in the wrong frame of mind. They expect to get bread with the food. They expect to get food with the food. It's not necessarily like that. You have to expect to be fed and surprised, and hopefully delighted, and you'll leave full.

But I say 'not neccessarily' advisedly - the dishes we ended up having are almost completely different from what I saw in reviews from previous years. I saw a TV piece that really decided my view of El Bulli. Anthony Bourdain visited the restaurant and sat at the kitchen table. As they ate together, (chef Ferran) Adria was beside himself with excitement over each dish - he wanted to see Bourdain eat it, and hopefully enjoy it, because he loved them so much. After seeing that, I no longer gave any credence to the idea that El Bulli is making stuff up for the sake of it, or, as other reviewers put it, 'chemistry experiment', 'emperor's new clothes', 'made me gag'. Those reviewers are wrong. I was convinced that the chefs were there to make things that taste good, and they really meant all of what they served. They've got different tongues from me, and I from you, so they might like something I found vile. I also suspect that, as consistently adventurous eaters, they're used to lots of things that freak out other people, but as long as the intention is there, why not give it a fair go? And a fair go is required, since the menu changes all the time and is probably never less than adventurous. If you manage to go, chances of you having any of the dishes that will follow are slim.

I hope that wasn't too pompous. It just pains me when people make confident blanket statements based solely on their own perceptions, like "The food was crap" or "Those reviewers are wrong."

These stairs are just to the right of the front door, but I never found out where they go. The lights you can see at the left are actually the kitchen. They do make food in the kitchen. It's not all chemically grown and brought in on flatbeds.

The greeting at the door was as muted as the sign. I don't actually recall them saying 'Welcome' or 'Hey, it's El Bulli!' or anything. It was more like "We all know why we're here, so let's skip the chitchat and get to work, OK?" Any excitement would be unseemly.

Another piece of evidence in Adria's favor - he's in the kitchen every night. Wearing an apron. I'll always remember how I went to Charlie Trotter in 1997 and Chef was there, stopping by our table to say a tweed jacket and obviously on his way out the door. I don't require a chef to be sweating it out every night, but I certainly appreciate the passion or obsessiveness of one who does. On this night, when we walked through the kitchen (as everyone is required to do before eating; it's part of the ritual), he was right there (on the right), looking pensive and a bit distracted. We shook hands. As everyone is required to do.

And here, the view from the first table. As with the other elements of service, I felt like there wasn't much interactivity. We weren't going to say no to taking our aperitifs and snacks on the terrace, overlooking the Mediterranean, but there wasn't really an option. Like the greeting, like the kitchen tour, it's a bit perfunctory. Maybe Basques are like that. Maybe you shouldn't expect to have the Best Meal of Your Life anywhere, just be happy if you get it. (I should say up front that I really enjoyed the experience, so any grumpiness is minor in the overall picture.)

Another thing, I didn't take any notes. I take too many pictures as it is, so I resolved early in the trip that I'd just take the pictures, and if a dish wasn't memorable enough for me to remember what was in it, that would be fine.

Everyone starts with cocktails. Previous years have included much more dramatic things, like carved ice blocks filled with margarita foam onto which rock salt is freshly grated. Ours was pleasantly understated - mojitos and caipirinhas. In stick form. These are made by soaking fresh sugarcane in the appropriate liquor; you bite and suck, then discard the pulp. I think it's a play on the fact that sugarcane becomes sugar, and then rum, and then mojitos, but I don't like reading that much into things. Good.

And snacks started at the same time. This 'handkerchief' was an eat-with-your-hands sheet of corn-flavored paper. Sweet, nutty and delicious, a favorite of everyone. Very good.

Did I say nutty? One of the oddest surprises of this meal was the way the menu revolved around nuts. I haven't noticed this single-theme bias in other people's reviews, so I can conclude only that we were a little unlucky in what happened to be on offer this year. This month. Today.

The second batch of cocktails was a gin fizz, I believe. It was really another quick burst of surprise, since the gin mixture was topped by a hot foam.

Which had the consistency of real shaving cream, if you've ever had a shave from a barber who uses a foam dispenser. Hot foam on top of a cold drink was neat. There was too much happening on the table as the snacks below arrived, so it was lukewarm by the time I got close to the bottom. Part of the difficulty is that they serve so many things so quickly here; if you're OK snacking on them, it's cool, but I suspect many people try to eat everything as it comes, which is tough. You're all keyed up for the meal of Your Life, it's natural to gobble a little.

With little ado, they serve what may be El Bulli's signature dish - olives. There were actually people at our table who had not read about these, and I think that's great. Makes it all the more surprising. Also a good introduction to the 'specific eating techniques' portion of the evening - you'll be in serious trouble if you try to nibble.

Because they're not olives, they're gelatinous spheres filled with olive oil and concentrated olive flavor. They're good. Many people think they're a-MAZ-ing. I DO think the concept and execution are excellent, and a perfect illustration of the restaurant's philosophy. I love how they serve them in jars filled with oil and herbs, and they look mostly like the olives you expect, but they're different and in some ways better. They're not olives, they're their own great thing. If you were to say "I had olives at Cal Pep for 1 Euro that blew these away!", you'd be stating your preference for traditionally-constituted things, not invalidating the existence of El Bulli. Don't lay your trip on them, maaaaaan.

These peanuts were another technical dish, since they were thin, frozen shells filled with peanut butter. Clever, nutty (did someone say nutty?), eat-in-two-seconds-or-else...I tried and failed to perform the necessary, and ended up with peanut butter on my hands when the shell flash-melted and sort of exploded. Fortunately not on my pants.

Someone said 'nuts' again. These are sesame with sesame. I don't remember the technical details or texture; they weren't outstanding, but were a nice snack.

And this is vanilla film. The play between salty and sweet continues throughout the night, and is a bit unsettling for normal eaters (including me). Come to think of it, this may not actually have been sweet, and I may just be confused in memoriam by the fact that it was vanilla.

This was the first of several 'Asian moments', most of which were slightly disappointing to those at our table who are or who live in Asia. Which was everyone. Thankfully the course was not the unmitigated Japanese-fest of some prior years, and these nuggets were also a good idea. They're actually cherries, pickled like umeboshi. More sweet, less sour, refreshing (it was actually getting a bit hot on the terrace already)...would be worth trying at home if you could get ready access to a lot of cherries. And these cool bent-metal plates.

So that's it for the 'approach shots'. I'm not counting courses, but I think those were about 35% nut-oriented. Most people who are expecting the Meal of Their Life start keeping score around this point; the corn paper handkerchief was a terrific combination of flavor and technique, while the drinks were fun and the cherries were a neat twist. I didn't like the vanilla film, but others did. And that's fine - those are the expectations you should have.

Some people will be puzzled...
While others will be overjoyed.
At any rate, we were having plenty of fun, and more than ready to get into the serious food.

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