Monday, October 5, 2009

El Bulli, Roses: 3/3 - Sweets

The switch to sweets is unclear at El Bulli (as is the nature of the whole dinner and many of the courses). Our meal had already been underway for hours at this point. You would be flagging too, I promise. I keep thinking about this, and even if I look at the pictures and think critically, I can't understand the thematic development. It's hard for me to believe that they serve you 30+ things with no effort to connect between them though. As I said before with some of the weirder courses, I believe that the chefs mean everything they're doing. It just may be that they're more used to the challenging stuff than the diners are, and similarly that transitions that look clever on paper are too complex for someone to grasp when they're eating. 'Cuz it's eating, after all.

So here's something simple, technically clever, immensely refreshing, and just plain neat to start the sweet portion. It's a 'pond', which is a frozen glass bowl filled with a layer of ice. Just a layer, mind you. Under that layer the bowl is empty! Except possibly for some menthol flavor, which is either in the bowl or in the ice. I say menthol advisedly, because it was stronger than mints that you're used to. Curiously strong (R)?

Onto the surface of the pond they sprinkle brown sugar crystals...

And then green tea powder. And then you're allowed to crack the ice, which is fun and childlike, and then it's all minty and refreshing. Ready to go back for more courses!

Which is funny, because the first dessert kinda takes you back to the beginning of the meal - still refreshing, and in fact a cocktail. The orange bar is a slightly-slushy frozen passion fruit whisky sour. It was ridiculously refreshingly, errrrr, sour. The white thing, I dunno.

Then another technical item, refreshing and cooling but in a soothing and non-sharp way. This 10-inch ball of frozen coconut milk comes to the table whole, and after a brief pause while you admire the technical craftsmanship, the server cracks into it with a spoon.

And sprinkles curry powder on it, leaving you the shaker. It's weird - very pure flavor of coconut (because there's nothing else in it, I presume), with the flavor of curry, which usually indicates savory, while being cold and giving you the expectation of dessert-ness. No way to finish this, and it's funny to watch yours or the ones on other tables melt and devolve - homage to Dali?! Let's not overthink.

I believe the menu calls this 'puff pastry of pineapple'. We all found it to be verily void of value.

'Roses' was a funny dessert - again with the intense, sour flavors. I guess that's a refreshing theme for September 1st when it's still hot? What I remember about this was that the rose on the left was a very strong cassis puree, while the white stuff under the foam was yogurt-based. I don't remember any of it having any sugar to speak of. It was a bit much, but the technique was lovely, especially on the rose. Other than that, it looks a bit like many of the blobby plates that I've seen from prior years. I think I understand the blobbiness now though - El Bulli is less focused on presentation than I thought. It's more conceptual - "two flavors + 1 technique" - and if the result doesn't look like much, who cares?

There's a lot of speculation about how different the menu is between days and between tables. I'll tell you, our menu was very different from the others I've seen from 2009 - half or so compared to people who ate only a month apart (I think that's a lot, don't you?). I wasn't sure if other tables were getting different things on the night, but when I went to the bathroom at one point I saw another table eating this shellfish platter, and I was bummed. It looked so fresh and inviting...that I had to laugh when it showed up at our table and I realized I had been fully tricked and it was really the last dessert. Nice one. Great twist to finish!

Again, I saw another writer talking about how this giant lemon had been dehydrated and rehydrated. I'm not sure if that's true - at all. It's awfully juicy for that to be the case. The fact is, the skin was processed in some way such that it was completely edible and in fact sweet, while the flesh wasn't especially sour. I think part of both of those aspects was due to the type of lemon it is; I've read about these big Mediterannean lemons, and don't really know what to expect from them. But this piece that I ate, procesed or natural, was delicious. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd make up something like "cooked at low temperature in sugar solution, and maybe injected with more sugar". Who cares. Loved it.

And the shellfish! So cute! Don't let anyone tell you otherwise - this is a lychee (jelly, I think) pressed into the mussel shell. Nothing fancy beyond the presentation, really.

In the cockles was a star anise ice cream or the like. Again, a funny Asian twist on things, but very edible and enjoyable.

It's normal to get 'morphings' after these desserts, which are...well, I dunno, because we didn't get them. I think they're just more little surprises. Instead we got a humidor, packed to the absolute gills with chocolate-based petit fours (which could qualify as a big surprise). Looking at this is making me feel a little sick. I didn't even have room to try them all. Oog. The craziest thing is that it was all chocolate. The gravelly stuff under the individual nuggets is in fact chocolate gravel. The red plastic was only red plastic. I think. I didn't bite it.

Freeze-dried strawberries dipped in white chocolate. On the right are these odd spidery, rooty red things (blow up the picture) that were chocolate with a red powder coating (rasperry or beets, I have no memory).

The sponge technique made another appearance, this time (I think) with white chocolate. Actually I don't mind it reappearing here, because for a number of other diners it showed up as a black sesame sponge with miso paste earlier in the meal. That would have been +1 Nuts, -1 Japanese Influence.

Mini chocolate bars in various colors. No idea about flavors. Ooog. It's a rarity for me to see candy and not want to eat more, but oy my oog.

Finally, the far side of the humidor was filled with these rows of herbal chocolate leaves. Note that there is a third row under the mint leaves. Oog. Note also that we were a table of 4, and there are at least 10 of each of these. Oog. After a series of bite-sized plates, this was a sledgehammer of chocolate. It was sort of like the bottomless rice and soup at the end of a Japanese meal - 'fill up the cracks'.

Somehow, we had managed to be among the last patrons to leave the restaurant, so this is what we saw on the way out. I love this decor, and I especially like it like this, with the lights a little dim. Considering the sated, braindead frame of mind we were in, it was wonderful to feel like we were the last people, and that we were closing the restaurant down with the staff. Mellow. Chillaxed.

Would I go back? Sure, I guess. I love the fact that the menu was completely different than anything I had seen from previous years. Some of the techniques persisted, some of the flavors were similar, but it was all new. I got no sense, none at all, that the kitchen is past its prime or that the chefs are repeating past glories (the skeptic says "because they had none!" haha). Look at the lack of nitro use, the judicious application of foam, the limited quantities of LYO or whatever other processes and chemicals have been reviled in the past. I don't know what it's growing and evolving into, but the experience is certainly growing and evolving.

Also, I dispute the oft-muttered statement that the produce is low-quality. Where there was produce in its natural form (the shellfish and cephalopods being prime examples, except when they were filled with frozen sweets), the quality was excellent. Most of the produce is remodeled so extensively that you can't tell what it was like originally, and I think that's the real problem for people in our terroir-driven, locally-sourced, 'cut the nuts off the bull myself' high-end restaurant culture. I really don't care if the vegetable or mineral was free range, battery-raised or chemically grown; I just want it to taste good.

But you can tell from the above that I had no great love for the taste. The experience, sure. But the food had too much nuttiness and too much Asian-ness for me, and I missed the traditional arc of a grand dinner through cold, hot, veg, fish, meat and sweet. I guess if I could have understood what they were trying to do it might have been better, but the fact remains that if the food doesn't connect with the diner, the experience will miss something. As this did, for me.

But it wasn't missing enough to make me unhappy or bitter, and you know why? Because it was fascinating! I don't think there's a rule that says a restaurant is a place that offers things that taste great according to a certain set of criteria. I got to eat things I've never eaten before - ingredients, tastes, textures, the whole lot. Couple that with the joy of the unexpected and the occasional straight-up delicious item, and you've got a world-beating proposition.

That's why I plan to...well, probably give it a year or two before even trying to apply again. There's still a lotta foie and sashimi I'd like to eat.

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