Thursday, October 1, 2009

El Bulli, Roses: 2/3 - Mains

At some point in the past, some wag must have offered the opinion that Ferran Adria has a persecution complex. That hypothetical (or apocryphal) person would have had a field day with the decor near where we were sitting - not only this sculpture high up in a niche in the wall, but also various art pieces that looked to have been donated by friends of El Bulli. These feature the restaurant logo, and in at least one case, Ferran's face. As I said before, I think this sort of criticism is misplaced, and the headshots probably shouldn't be taken for that kind of adoration, but it was a funny way to be greeted as we came into the body of the restaurant and sat down.

We were, unfortunately, in the inner room. This is a bit more formal, though not much - it has a separate area up 4 steps that contains several couches as well as the above artwork. I'll show you the main room later - it has a really cool Spanish-Rococco-beach-shack sort of decor. If you're lucky enough to go with a party of 4, I think you should ask for the sunken round table by the bar in that room. It's a little separate and looks the best.

The three tables for two across the room from us were occupied by couples of the young-and-handsome variety. One of our party described them as 'fund manager and trophy wife', if that helps you picture it. Two of them actually knew each other in advance. The big table at the front of this picture was empty until almost 10 PM when a group of Spaniards came in; since the restaurant assigns the start times, I can only imagine that they followed the 'locals eat late' philosophy. Their arrival also fortunately dispelled the idea that the inner room was only for English speakers...but if I ever go back, I'm still asking for the main room.

With that grumbling out of the way, we were off to the serious races...

...with flowers. Filled with nectar. Pick one up, pinch off the end, and suck the nectar out through the thin end. I'll spare you the picture of me with flower in mouth, OK? But this is fun. Sweet, tiny, cute...why not? I suppose this could be meant to confound expectations since the 'serious' part of the meal starts with something so manifestly playful, reminiscent of childhood honeysuckle (which I discovered was not part of anyone else's childhood!).

This coconut sponge was not appreciably less playful. I think I saw this texture described somewhere as a 'loofah', and that's pretty accurate (except really soft). It's coconut milk somehow softly frozen into this shape, yet pliable. It melted a little in your hands, then fully in your mouth. And tasted like coconut milk, but that's OK because it's about the texture (or the technical process, some would say. But those reviewers are...). Incidentally, it's another nut-based dish (loosely; coco-...+1).

Things got odder after that with this funny twist on Japanese food - nori-like sheets of raspberry, with wasabi. Cute, no?

And we continued in the raspberry vein with these actual nori handrolls, filled with raspberry sorbet. I wish I could remember the taste of these, because they were fun.

Even more fun when you've never had one before is an oyster leaf, in this case with a few drops of vinegarette 'dew'. I had never had one before, so this was fantastic! When you're in the El Bulli mindset, it's very tempting to think that they've done some kind of amazing process that makes this small, spinach-like leaf taste exactly like an oyster. My theory was that the faint white dusting on the leaf was dried oyster powder, which seems like the sort of technical foolishness they'd get up to. In fact, this is a completely natural ingredient - it's a plant that tastes for all the world like a nice, fresh oyster rolled up in a spinach leaf. It's uncanny. It was much less uncanny when we had them the next night at a different restaurant...(and I note that the next night's leaf was lower-quality, take that you El Bulli produce haterz).  Incidentally, note how instead of receiving an actual oyster with vinegar for an appetizer, you get...a leaf. On a very pretty plate.

Continuing to play with basic flavors in weird forms, this was a chicken canape that tasted like yakitori on a cracker. Only the meat was softened (very softened) chicken cartilege, and the cracker was crisply fried (very crisply-fried) chicken skin. The yakitori sauce was excellent. It would be nice to find a place using just that tare. The leaves looked kinda like pea sprouts, but I don't remember the taste. I was also worried about the sauce dripping through the plate onto the table, which seems to be a minor design flaw.

Things took a weird turn in the next two courses. This was Summer truffle two ways, and I think a play on the 'truffle' form, as in chocolates. They were 'one bite' concoctions because they had a truffled-flavored liquid inside that burst in your mouth. Different textures, with the farther one being wrapped in shaved truffle while the nearer one was in shredded truffle. Generally, no one found this cold, raw presentation to be that alluring; I suspect a bit of heat and some other flavor are needed to really get the truffle going.

I tried to consult the menu, but this course is just called 'Osmanthus', and employs El Bulli's 'single noodle spaghetti' technique, where they pipe some liquid into another and it sets there. Checking some other blogs, it looks like no one else really understood it either. I remember it as a spaghetti of hazelnuts in a soup of indeterminate oil (which must have been flavored with osmanthus flowers). I do remember that it was the grossest thing I ate all evening, and the rest of our table didn't finish it (I did, but only because...well, why not? Maybe it only gets good after you finish the whole bowl! Maybe it's a meditation on the aftertaste!)
Nuts, +1. This 'single noodle spaghetti' technique seems to get panned a lot in El Bulli reviews; I think it's too confronting for many people because of the texture. Another reviewer insists that it's 'reconstructed udon noodles', but I can't think of any reason why they'd serve a dish made from raw pasta dough.

Umeboshi on crackers. Tasted like umeboshi. Ferran, don't be gettin' all ninja on us...

Prawn, Two Firings was the subject of much enjoyment and discussion (actually someone remembers this as having been fired 3 times, but the name gives the lie to that; the review who thought it had 4 distinct temperature segments, from icy cold at one end to deep fried at the other, is also...). The point, I think, was to get the maximum value out of this lovely little prawn - best when the tail is barely cooked, but the legs are well cooked or even battered and fried. So this was batter on top and fried on a string or something, then the whole thing was dropped in briefly to finish (two firings?). Eat from the tail, you get the maximum benefit.

And after drink this spoonful of soup or sauce (Americaine) made from prawn heads. A whole prawn experience in optimized form, I think. If they could figure out how to get one segment of tail raw, maybe they would. Then you'd have raw, cooked and battered shrimp, and the best use of the heads (this replaces sucking the heads, which I'm not a huge fan of), all on one plate. If that's the intention, it was cute. If not, it still tasted great.

Like me, I'm sure you haven't been keeping track, so I'll point out that all courses until now have been finger-oriented. We received forks just before this dish. Which was almonds. Lots of almonds. Nuts ++++. But it's almonds different ways - fresh, gelled, frozen, re-formed almond butter. With a mound of tomato-water sorbet (in the back) and nut oil. And a slice of apricot (?), covered in red shiso (I sort of remember it as mango, but not the flavor, and I saw someone else call it apricot (could be) in olive powder (no). I'm also sure it's not a 'dehydrated and re-hydrated tangerine slice'.). Tomato, nuts, fruit...all added up to something a little disturbing, I think because of the contrast between the sorbet and the oil pool. I do love almonds.

Cockles with fennel and yuzu. The cockles are the brown bits; they were not at all the equals of those at Rias de Galicia (no crime in that, though). The fennel was soft and roasted, and obviously had some green oil on it. I would swear that the 2 and 8 o'clock bites on the plate were actually preserved lemon segments, but they were described as yuzu. I have no idea how this was supposed to fit together, but it didn't do a lot for me. I was also worried about cutting too close to the plates sloping edges; it was actually a raised platform with two sides having long legs bent from the same material as the top and rounding over to the table. Not much leakage protection, but we're not here for practicality!

This is, indeed, (steamed?) rose petals and artichoke petals with pesto, silver foil and some oil (I'd like to say nuts +1 but can't remember). Flowers make a thematic reappearance. I was disappointed at the sloppiness of the silver leaf applique, but this was unexpected and interesting, if not especially appetizing.

At our table this was the second-most disliked dish, after the single-strand spaghetti. While resembling a sandwich (cruel joke on cheesesteaks, the chosen sandwich of god), the bread is sort of pumpkin-flavored styrofoam, while the filling is mainly those summer truffles again, sliced thinly, topped with fresh almonds (again) and pumpkin oil. I'm not sure if it's thematic or repetitive when things appear in dishes multiple times (like nuts, +1), but I'd like them to be a bit elaborated. I got a spot of the bright-orange filling oil on my sleeve while eating. I thought for a couple days whether I should ever wash the shirt again, but in the end gave in, and mysteriously the stain came right out in water. Thus it probably wasn't oil in the way that I thought.

I see through a bit of a browse that some people thought this was a great dish (although they were rapt at the 'generous shavings of white truffle', which is sad considering that these are black summer truffles. It's great to be colorblind and not prejudiced, but for me white is always going to be better than black when it comes to truffles). Other reviewers thought this was an adaptation of ravioli through the inclusion of ingredients somewhat like a pumpkin agnolotti with pine nuts and truffles, or an adaptation of traditional Spanish sandwiches with truffles acting as ham, or a meditation on the levels of the earth, with truffles being roots, pumpkin growing at ground level, and almonds growing on trees. I dunno. I just didn't like it that much. The styrofoamy bread is weird in a way that I couldn't forgive considering how the taste was also lacking.

Have you noticed how little foam there's been up to now? And how little liquid nitrogen? Maybe it was used in other ways (God only knows how they made the 'bread' above), but it's not obvious in every dish where the trickery comes in. I respect that - many of the dishes are straightforward juxtapositions of ingredients, perhaps one with a technical element. But there are rarely that many things going on (cf recent fine dining where meats have to be presented three ways or more to qualify for admission: chicken leg, wing-shaped nitro-foam which is actually a clever pun because it's made from egg, and caramelized cock's comb). It's almost like they have a rule about how much you can complicate a dish, with each ingredient and technique taking up a space.

Anyway, here's some foam! Thing is, this was one of the favorite dishes on the night. It's sea anemone (the green, tangled, strandy things) with caviar and seaweed jelly, and I think the foam was lemon-ish (grass or verbena or something). I'm still kinda excited that I ate sea anemone, and anyway it was a unique texture and a nice, subtle, gently-crunchy ocean taste. I would love to eat this again to confirm.

When the grand palace restaurants of Paris can serve TV dinners, El Bulli can serve pre-packaged condiments. These were two varieties of pine nuts and one of spiced oil, I think, to be eaten in order. It's funny that they served this playful, dare I say it, nutty (+1) course between two delicate fish items, but I think there must be an internal logic to it.

Especially when you consider that the condiment packages were technical items - they dissolved in water, so you had to dip quickly in this 'shabu shabu' liquid and then eat. This was playfully served in a cup with a rounded bottom, which required a ring-shaped base in order to stand up. I playfully failed to notice this, and barely saved the cup from draining onto my lap after I playfully placed it directly on the table. Perhaps the conceptual ephemerality of the packages was meant to offset the heaviness of the nut-ness within, leaving it balanced as an intermezzo between seafoods? Riiiiight.

That's especially believable when you consider that the next two seafood 'mains' were quite strong in flavor. This squid dish was excellent - again, anyone who tells you El Bulli can't source a good squid and cook it to perfection is just wrong. If you find something to ruined, it's very likely they wanted it to have that aspect (though presumably the chefs didn't find it gross like you), but I can't imagine anyone finding this dish to be ruined. It's Thai at heart; I think the brown pool was largely tamarind-flavored, but in any case we all agreed that it was a good use of standard Thai flavors. A little disappointing, actually, since the flavors were so standard, but the taste and cooking were wonderful. I especially liked the finely-sliced, noodley bits on the far right of the plate; they were served facing the diner and led down into the body of the squid (which was also topped by small cuttlefish that you can't really distinguish above). This was one of the best dishes for me, and I'm pleased to say that it doesn't show up in a lot of other reviews (I'm pleased because the others have a lot of things I wish I had eaten!).

This abalone presentation was nuts. I think the point is sort of to reconstruct an abalone in its shell on a rock with seaweed, don't you? The abalone was very well cooked and tasty (assuming you like abalone), sliced and reassambled. Around it, the oval 'shell' portion was made of shimeji mushrooms cooked in a thickened Chinese-style sauce, and the antler-like green bits were probably seaweed in addition to imitating seaweed conceptually. That's a good trick, conceptually imitating something that you actually are.

From this angle, the replay shows how the mollusc was cut and reassembled (someone else described it as 'raw abalone alternating with blocks of lardo', but ours was certainly cooked. I'm not sure what the light-colored blocks were, but solid lard?). One thing I can't show you is how salty this was. It was one of the other times on the trip when my ordinarily salt-loving tongue was stunned into submission and crawled whimpering into my throat.

As I think about it, the overall appeal of this dish was indeed a bit Chinese, which lines up with the use of the popular luxury ingredient.

Not sure why this was called Natural Scampi, but there's nothing very natural about being split in two down your tail! Poor scampi... I thought this was an excellent-quality scampi, and the presentation was beautiful, what with the salt and the elaborate silver serving tray and all. The bummer of it was the sesame sauces (nuts +1; one a sweetened whole sesame and the other ground sesame/tahini), which totally overpowered the taste of the scampi. Poor little guy, going to waste like that. I'm now wondering if I missed the eating directions on this, because eating any of the sesame before any of the scampi would have guaranteed destruction of shrimpy flavors.

Sea cucumber? This was actually very pleasant, soft and yielding, much like a...the only issue was that the flavor was based on XO sauce, which didn't impress our Chinese member very much. Like the Thai dish before, it was viewed as a somewhat obvious take on ethnic flavor. But a great surprise since it was an ingredient that I think of as being gross, but the taste and texture were pleasant (or better).

This is one of the dishes that they're referring to when they ask you to confirm your dislikes and allergies before arrival. And also why they ask you that question before the food starts. And also why they specifically say "Can you eat rabbit brains and kidneys? And snail eggs?"  The crackers here seem in my memory to be like the fried chicken skin earlier, but I think they were just crackers. This was pretty great, actually - on the bounds of textural and flavoral acceptability, but on the right side of them and pushing outward a bit. The plate is cool too, isn't it? Reminds me of some of the sea creatures we ate earlier.

Snail eggs. Something like two Euros per gram. Difficult to harvest, somewhat innocuous of taste (the harvester even says that, not me), inferior to salmon eggs in texture...

I have one regret about our whole evening, and we've now come to it. After course after course of complete weirdness, one member of our party started to crack (I tried to get everyone ready for dinner with pep talks, but the food exceeded my expectations). Some normalcy was required. She ordered a coke. They were very nice about it, and promptly brought a coke in a glass bottle, and this glass of ice and lemon. But they left it on the sideboard, because the sommelier is evidently meant to serve all drinks on the first pour or something. He picked up the bottle, examined it, looked around in a horrified, quizzical way until he found the waitress, confirmed visually that this foul thing had in fact been ordered, and then looked at it in a quizzical and horrified way for a while.
And I didn't manage to take a picture. Shit.

Going from memory, this was lamb kidneys with ham soup and chamomille oil. The lamb kidneys were confronting - I don't think they were even sous vide, they were just barely cooked. Taste and texture was aggressive. The ham soup sounds nice but was lost or overpowered by the weirdness of nearly-raw kidneys. The chamomille oil, an invisible slick to the left of the meat, was an odd touch. No idea how this fit together. I'd have to eat it again and see if I could get used to it!

At this point we were pretty eager for another break and were happy to realize that the main dishes had finished. The first break we took was a little weirder. I had been led to believe by other reviewers that dining here was a luxurious and high-service affair, and if you got tired at some point during the onslaught of confronting dishes, you could raise your hand and ask for a couple minutes, at the convenience of the kitchen. When I tried this, the waitress seemed taken aback by the request. I know all the dishes are served with pinpoint timing, so I tried to make it clear that we would do it at the convenience of the kitchen, but she still seemed harried. Eventually someone else came over and told us to "Go right now!" It's a lot to take in, and you're paying for it, so I still think it's worth stepping out when you're tired.

Interestingly, here's what the kitchen looked like at this point - practically shut down. This is from the stairs that I showed in the first post. I guess the 'sweet' side of the kitchen, which I think is in a different room, is pulling the heavy duty at this stage of the night, and that's where we'll turn in the third post.
As you've noticed if you read through everything above (and are still reading), 2009 is clearly the breakout year for food blogging. There are tons of exhaustive treatments of the El Bulli experience online from this season (half of which seem to be written by gay men; I especially liked the comic book-style one). I'm a little sad that all of this writing is less special as a result but, like the El Bulli service experience, it's a good reminder that there really isn't anything that special about going to an expensive restaurant and eating a load of food. The epiphany is only in your head. I hope you liked the pictures at least!

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