Dinner at El Bulli (#2)
We were very
lucky to get two reservations at Spain's El Bulli
restaurant for Scott's 50th
birthday; this was the second of the two. (The first is here
.) El Bulli, about 2 hours north of Barcelona on the Costa Brava, has been named the top restaurant in the world several times, and is considered to be one of the most creative. When we confirmed the reservation, El Bulli requested that we include allergy and food limitations. They were very gracious and accommodating. The group included friends who joined us from all over the world:
- Kristi (vegetarian) and Jim (no red wine) Wiley - former work colleagues and dear friends from Menlo Park, California
- Latha (vegetarian) and Suku (meatatarian) - foodie friends and frequent travel partners from Menlo Park, California
- Diana and Peter Knab (omnivores) - food photographers, former cook school hosts and friends from England / Provence
- Roswitha (omnivore) and Scott (allergic to fish)
This was Roswitha and Scott’s second time within 10 days. Scott was quickly recognized by Luis the Maitre d’. He did not seem pleased, and said something to the effect, “You are probably the only person to eat her twice this year. You must think that you are the luckiest person in the world.”
Scott replied, “We are so happy and excited to be here, and have brought many new friends. We are really looking forward to this evening.” (And yes, Scott and Roswitha did feel very lucky.) We received the kitchen tour and got our pictures taken with Ferran Adrià.
The 320 m2 kitchen is roughly one third cold preparation, starting with the deep freeze at the far right as you enter. This is also where the kitchen starts and ends the meals. Each evening El Bulli offers about 30 dishes for no more than 50 customers and so serves a total of about 1500 courses each night. About 70-80 % of our dishes were similar to those of 10 days earlier. We appreciated all of them as much or even more the second time we experienced them. We were able to catch a bit more of the subtlety in them, and some had clearly improved. The discussions in our second group of friends – while lively – were not quite as food centered as the first time, and there were not as many cameras at the table. That may be why our meal only lasted 5 hours.
Here I describe the meal and comment on the differences compared to the first time. So it may be good to read that first, if you haven’t already.
For wine Scott followed Charles’s method (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!) of leaving the choice up to the sommelier, and just providing the guidelines (i.e. minimize red wine to share with Jim, primarily local, and price range). Latha is not as fond of white wine, so she mostly went her own way.
Before we started, they confirmed the dietary limitations, and suggested that each course be a surprise. As before, they did ask, "Is everyone OK with lamb brains?" A moment of panic washed across Kristi's face until they explained that they had something else for the vegetarians.
A huge part of the fun was the “how to eat” instructions given with each morsel, the reactions to the tastes, the discussion about what we just experienced, how it may have been made, and what ingredients it contained.
I couldn’t type this up without actually “tasting” the food all over again. I had no idea my imagination for taste is so strong and lasts so long! I constantly had to stop writing because I just got too hungry (for good food)!
Please pardon our photos; although we had the brightest table in the room, it was still on the dark side. We also shot with two cameras, so characteristics vary quite a bit. You can click on each photo to see more food and restaurant photos.
1. Aperitif: Gin Fizz
The glasses were full of a cold liquid, and they dispensed hot foam from a Whip-It. Hot, sweet, vanilla-y, foamy cream over very cold Gin Fizz in very cold glass – a wonderful play of hot and cold, sweet and sour; it could be very addictive.
2. Spherical Green "Olive"
Served innocently (with our aperitifs) on a measuring spoon, this large green sphere results in a bursting explosion of essence of olive, causing surprised looks of pleasure on everyone’s face. It was a hard choice to make when to end this sensation by swallowing, because only after that one could really exclaim verbally what was going on. An exciting chatter of wows, "orgasmic," and so on followed.
This is one of El Bulli's signature dishes; an emulsion of perfect olive purée, encapsulated with the sodium alginate process, and then brined. When you bite into it, there is a little snap through the skin, and then your mouth floods with intense olive. This is what you hope that an olive could be.
The last time, they had put out the brining jar and a spoon, but no one was bold enough to take more; it seemed to be a display. This time they explicitly told us we could help ourselves to another. We did. And wanted more.
For our first wine we had a Cava (the Spanish form of sparkling wine), Gran Claustro Brut Nature Reserva 2004, Castell de Perelada from Cava-Emporia (D.O.).
Golden Nuggets ("Pepina oro")
This was a new dish. Unfortunately, I did not yet decide to write my notes, so now – 6 months later – I simply cannot remember what it was. I know it looks pretty from the pictures, I imagine it was crispy on the outside, and I think I remember it was at room temperature. (Scott recalls that it was incredibly light and texturally fragile.) It may have been the same Rosanne got when we had the Mango leaves the first time; unfortunately, that description is a little hazy, too.
Dishes 4-8 were served at the same time
4. Pineapple Frits
Shaped like perfect French fries (but not caramelized), sprinkled with cumin and/or caraway. Eat them quickly to get the maximum crispiness; they seem to rapidly absorb humidity. Wonderful flavor combination and more pineappley than a fresh and ripe pineapple.
5. Beet Root Yogurt Meringues
Freeze dried red airy and crunchy puffs, with powder on top which seems to be the yogurt flavor. I love beets, but I think everyone would like it this way - crunchy, sweet and powdery at the same time.
6. Salty Catanias
Walnut caramels, very airy, and salty/sweet at the same time. They looked like they were chocolate truffles, but went in another surprising direction.
7. Rice and Parmesan Cookies
A rectangular carrier that looked from the bottom like a hollow rice cracker, but seems to have been made completely from parmesan. It was topped with clear small semi spherical shells vaguely tasting like gooseberry or white currant jelly, topped with a rosemary flower and lemon zest. Salty, crunchy, fruity and juicy at the same time. Terrific!
8. False chocolate crisps
Two people each got to share three pieces of what looked like different types of chocolate.
- Yogurt – White - Texture somewhat like peanut butter, it tasted salty and good, if a little dry and mealy, but not in a bad way
- Cassis – Dark on light(?) - Fizzy with what seems to be a lot of citric acid (reminded me of crackle and pop)
- this had a lot less fizz than what I remembered from the first time; it was much more pleasant this way.
- Pistachio– caramel colored (?) – nutty
All three were surprising and – at least for me – not as exciting as the other items we had at that time. Maybe I have had too much really good and pleasantly surprising chocolates in my life, so it was a little bit short of expectations.
9. Parmesan Cheese Tile
I can eat these anytime! (We spent even more time deconstructing them this time.)
Two large lacy and crispy discs of parmesan “glued” together with a smaller square of Manchego cheese. I don’t mind if I never again eat a potato chip or French Fry, if I can get these! They take ordinary parmesan crisps to a new level. We were sitting there deconstructing the tiles to figure out how they were put together.
Our second wine was served at this time, a very local Clos D’Agon 2004, Mas Gil from Catalunya (D.O.).
Cloud of Popcorn
This was sweet and airy like candy floss, but ever so much lighter. It barely seemed to exist, except as a taste with no substance. It was like air composed intensely of popcorn with some parmesan.
11. Tangerine Bonbons, Peanut and Curry
A disc-like item with fleur de sel - “eat in two bites”
and a cube with gold leaf on top - “Eat in one bite. Do it now.”
Both are very cold when served. The disk tastes like peanuts and curry, with overtones of tahini. It melts and is slightly crunchy. The cube is an explosion of Tangerine (but fruitier) with an overtone of jasmine and/or lavender. We could not determine the material of the shell. Maybe white chocolate or ghee, it seems entirely tasteless, but gives the form. It becomes very slippery and can break when lifted if it's not completely cold; it could potentially melt in front of you. It has to be eaten quickly, although you would like to savour the flavor of the first one. Timing from freezer to mouth on this course must be very tricky. (Servers were standing by with replacements for when some of us did not successfully get them into our mouths.)
I also seemed to get a hint of passion fruit and jasmine in the box shaped bonbon that I did not remember the last time. We think the outer shell may be rapidly deep frozen butter or cocoa butter, although it had no discernable taste on its own. (But, wait – if the inside cube of tangerine was formed by freezing, and then coated, how could they defrost the inside and leave the outside frozen? It was not a cold item, although it did melt at body temperature.)
12. Raspberry fondant with wasabi and raspberry vinegar
“Eat in two bites, with vinegar in between” One perfect raspberry in a hard (sugary?) coating, topped with a tiny dollop of wasabi (I assume the real thing) and a measuring spoon with sweet vinegar. It was delightful in its combination, as was each individual ingredient. The raspberry is one thing I would love to learn how to make! The texture was very delicate.
13. Oysters yogurt
/ Pistachios with Yuzu and buttermilk
Oysters yogurt – almost a Japanese custard covered with essence of oyster liquor
For Latha, Kristi, and Scott: Pistachios with Yuzu and buttermilk – 3D pistachio crisp, hollow inside. A separate container held a buttermilk creme which we added on top with a special spoon.
14. Liquid Croquette 2006
/ Icy Truffle of Meringue
a) The Liquid Croquette 2006 - a perfect combo of liquid and crunch - "Eat in one big bite." Similar in shape and construction to the olive, but ivory colored and slightly larger, it was sprinkled with small golden and delicious flakes. The croquettes smelled like small pieces of fried fat (Grammeln in Austria or griebenes in Jewish cooking), tasted very much like salty ham, and had a beautiful texture.
b) For Kristi and Latha: Meringue with gorgonzola ice cream; it looked like a puffy grape cluster made of marshmallows.
15. Crab Anemone
/ Morilles with cream
a) Crab anemone
b) Morilles with cream – beautiful morel mushrooms were skewered on plastic bulb pipettes. As Scott pulled off a morel with his teeth, he could squeeze the bulb, squirting a bit of the cream-based sauce into his mouth. (Please ignore any of the multi-layered potential symbolism present here.) While the morels appeared to have been cooked in the same cream sauce, this gave a stronger blast of the sauce than just sopping them up with the morels could deliver.
a) Most got the Fried Brioche Shanghai - a taco-shaped little burger made from buttery beignet dough in the shape of a croissant, and filled with crab and lots of cilantro. It was salty, garlicky, and seemed to have chervil and mustard, too.
b) Steamed pepper brioche with gooey mozzarella and rose perfume – for Scott, Kristi, and Latha.
Our next wine was Milmanda 2001, from Miguel Torres of Conca de Barberà. We enjoyed it so much that we had a second bottle.
17. Parmesan frozen air with muesli
The very elaborate presentation of this course reminded me of a Super First Class Service in an airplane (except that it was presented in styrofoam, not on china). First we were all simultaneously presented with a styrofoam box wrapped with a very decorative wrapper. Then the boxes were removed and returned without the paper wrapper; it was ceremoniously rolled up to take home as a souvenir.( Yippee.) We got the instructions to open it and “try some, then add the muesli and try it again”. Not knowing what to expect I tried a spoon full. It felt like dense snow, and tasted like intense parmesan. Lovely. It looked completely white. After adding the muesli, which consisted of dried fruit (apple shavings, raspberries, rosemary, and other spices, mostly savory), I just loved watching the room temperature morsels sink into the snow as it melted. They also added a new dimension of taste, even though the snow alone was already fascinating. I felt like I should finish the entire box, but found that the snow was getting very dense further down, and at times even liquid later on. This time, the snow was much lighter than the prior meal, but I had decided that I did not have to finish every large dish. Up to now everything was very small bites, but some dishes are quite substantial. This was one of them; it was almost enough to freeze my tongue.
18. Quebearn egg
Sometimes known as a 1 hour egg, the time it is kept at 60°C (approx. 140 °F). "Mix it all together and eat." Of course we had to taste the individual components first. The perfect consistency egg yoke was served with caramel honey, tarragon vinaigrette (slightly sour (maybe lemony) with shallots), heavy cream (almost like mascarpone with vanilla), and was sprinkled with chipotle pepper. Each component tasted wonderful, and the combination was simply delightful.
19. Raisins of PX with anchovy and cardamom brioche
/ Milk Crêpe
a) PX stands for Pedro-Ximenez, a very high quality and rare wine made from vine-dried grapes which is used to fortify Sherry. (source) The raisins had the shape of very delicate small clear truffles that almost looked like little jewels, and were filled with three different kinds of sweet (fortified) alcoholic liquids – maybe Madeira, Port, Sherry or Muscatel. In addition there were little drops of green (basil), white (hazelnut or almond), orange (mandarin/tangerine), and of course the cardamom brioche. The anchovy was perfect in balance of salty and (olive?) oily, and – very unexpectedly – really went very well with each of the accompaniments.
b) The non-fish eaters got a milk crêpe with truffle oil, milk skin with truffle and crunchy salt underneath. (The last time, Scott got it in place of the anchovy, but still got the PX raisins. Not so this time.)
20. Tomato soup with virtual iberian ham
/ Tonic Soup with cucumber and roses
a) The soup was accompanied by bread with an oil infusion and basil seeds.
This dish was completely clear. A pool of liquid sat in the center of a very large bowl, and small clear sheets layered the rim. The smell of the dish was vaguely of chicken or ham broth. The taste of the clear liquid was essence of tomato, and the sheets were jamón. (I've since learned that the main taste of the tomatoes is actually in a clear liquid if one simply presses it.) I assume the sheets were either thinly cut fatty bits of Iberian ham (unlikely) or essence of ham processed in one of El Bulli’s unique ways (more likely). The texture of the sheets reminded us more of gelatin than meat.
I could not figure out the oil infusion on the bread, except that it tasted like good olive oil, but I really wondered about the basil seeds. I have grown basil for a long time and the seeds are round, whereas here they were oblong and tasted to me like a hefty dose of chlorophyll and not at all like basil. (I since came across a basil seed drink in Asian supermarkets and that was exactly the taste and form I remember from El Bulli.) The bread had fleur de sel flakes sprinkled on top, providing extra crunch and flavor.
The vegetarian offering was some green and white stuff in a bowl, tonic soup with cucumber and roses
21. Asparagus in different cooking times
Five meaty white asparagus tips were served with different white sauces, a brown sauce, and powder. Just before we ate, tiny spheres of frozen egg yolk were scattered over each dish; these slowly melted into puddles of yolk. Only a few of us realized while eating that the texture of the asparagus was ranging widely. The brown powder was shaved tuna, and the brown sauce peanut tahini. The white sauces tasted of lemon, parmesan, cream (over pickled or barely cooked asparagus), and rice wine vinegar. Was this a deconstructed hollandaise?
22. Snails a la llauna
/ Almond shell
a) Snails a la llauna – these were little spherical caviar of snail floating in a thin layer of oil of some sort. Not snail eggs, but encapsulated snail purée. If we had not been told what they were, we’d never have known. They tasted great, slightly of the sea, and the little balls popped as you bit into them.
b) Almond shell
– a rapidly melting shell (we did not capture what it was made from) with poached green almonds, a fresh cheese, and tiny white flowers (elder flowers?).
23. Razor Clams
/ Ackees with veal juice (?) soup and basil and cucumber
This was another divided dish
a) Razor clams in vinegar sauce.
Three razor clams are presented as if the (shaving cream like) sauces were identical; the fourth streak is tahini and sesame seeds. But the white foams are covering different white creamy sauces underneath that taste of coconut, ginger, and lemon. Fleur de sel flakes add texture and taste on top.
b) Ackees with veal juice/soup – basil and cucumber - The consommé also included shallots, mushroom, red wine and maybe some bone marrow. (The vegetarians also had ackee, but with different components. This was the one that had Kristi licking the platter.)
24. The Sea
Yet another division.
a) The sea – “Start on the outside and work your way in”
This spiral salad of the sea presented many different strongly flavored (briny, green, and so on) and uniquely textured sea vegetables like seaweed, kelp, sea grapes, etc. It then transitioned through Mache and borage flowers and leaves to the perfectly refreshing and sweet piece of watermelon with salt and sorrel foam
25. Crab Marrakech
/ Sliced Iberian ham with potato purée
/ Almond crumbs, raff tomato, elder flower and fresh almond gelée
One more divided dish
Spider crab with buckwheat couscous, orange flower water, radish seeds, and the perfect gelatin medallions encapsulating cilantro leaves. The plate is sprinkled with shaved pepper (cumin, and smoked spicy pepper).
b) Sliced Iberian ham with potato purée - very thinly sliced excellent jamón
c) A (slightly boring) little salad - Almond crumbs, raff tomato, elder flower and fresh almond gelée. It also featured the sorrel foam
The next wine was served here, Doix 2001 from Celler Mas Doix of Priorat.
26. Spherical lamb brains
/ Liquid won-ton of mushrooms
a) Lamb brains with their own juice which probably included marrow. There were also hints of lemon, pepper, mint, and oregano as well as little flowers that might have been calendula.
b) For the vegetarians, mushrooms and liquid ravioli, with long beans
27. Pita of Iberian ham fat and veal bone marrow
/ Pita of Mushrooms
Sugar coated currants accompanied the pita, which I would love to learn how to make. They were the perfect contrast of crunch and liquid, sweet and sour, and the tartness cut the richness of the pita.
a) Pita of Iberian ham fat and veal bone marrow. This dish almost looked like a little burrito or strudel, but the outside shell was made of meat (though it almost looked like a dough with flour), inside were three cherry sized globules probably with fat and marrow. It also included onions and shallots.
b) Pita of mushrooms - just like the ham pita, but filled with mushrooms. The shell was not made of meat, but it was not identified.
28. "Sheep" – the cheese and the wool
Very good young sheep’s cheese with candy floss and a sherry petit four.
29. Spicy tomato cake
Spicy tomato cake – the tomatoes were caramelized in orange, and sat on a pastry. This was sticky goodness. They were accompanied by a spherical kumquat with orange.
A little square area of chocolate mousse sprinkled with small and larger rocks, and imprinted with a tiny moon boot. “A molecular step for one man, a huge step for mankind." Each rock is a different chocolate (including a larger rock of a brownie) and nuts. A purée of passion fruit and darker chocolate lies under the surface layer, and there's a mint leaf crockant. If only we could find this on the moon!
At this point we got our menus. While we sorted out the bill we had espresso and
These were three more delicious morsels.
Strawberry yogurt cakes (pictured); these just melted on the tongue, leaving a perfect strawberry flavor
32) Ningyouyaki (Japanese elaboration), a chocolate cream cinnamon yaki ball. It was crumbly and mealy outside, and very, very light.
Sable - Tangerine gelée on shortbread with a radish sprout and a pinch of citrus zest
We appreciated the new dishes, but it was great to have many of the same dishes again. This gave us a chance to really pay attention and better note the artistry, creativity, and great flavors.
It was such a great pleasure to share this evening with good friends, and to reconnect with friends we'd not seen in a while.
We were photographing a bit less this time, and the actual professional photographer among us shot very few photos. It took us a total of 5 hours, but we were not the last ones to leave this time. Everyone was satisfied and happy.
Jim made a video of the dinner.
Since people have asked, here are some logistics for visiting El Bulli.