Imagine it in Spanish: it's evening in Roses, and the French (because everyone here is French) are walking their tiny, well groomed dogs and plying their whingy kids with ice-cream cones. Outside the decent, but rather shabby Hotel Marina, is a taxi stand:
"Good evening! We're going to El Bulli, do you know where that is?" I ask.
"El Bulli? Ah, well, it's my first day actually..." The driver makes a quick and lispy phone call during which he is obviously being given directions. "Oh-ho! You meant El Boo-yee" He says, folding up his phone. And we begin the ten minute drive up that winding, narrow road along the ocean. It's beautiful here, but more importantly, you don't pronounce those l's in El Bulli--two l's make a y. Because it's Spanish, after all. And despite the French occupation of Roses, this is Spain. And not just Spain, but Catalunya, the graffittied ruins that whizz past remind me, and the revolution is coming.
El Bulli, which sits on some golden plot of land by the sea, is basically like my gran's house--flowery embroidered curtains, cabinets of trinket-y porcelain bulldogs, a tacky chandelier hovering above awfully printed chairs, a Jesus suspended on the wall with the cross missing behind him (OK there's no funky Jesus sans cross at my gran's). And come to think of it, there are no smiling women and men in slick black outfits, or a friendly Ferran Adrià with dry palms to greet me when I come over either.
At 9 o' clock, one of the 40 cooks working is shaking an apparatus like he hates it and he wants it to die. I am told by our guide that he's making the famous spherical melon (and spherical seems to be the word of choice on the menu to describe Adria's alginate technique). I've made these jelly shells of alginate with liquid centres before--under much more basic circumstances, using alginate, yogurt, a spoon measurer, disposable cups, and a timer. It's not easy to make them spherical for they oft come out like pictures in the dailies of early experiments in cloning--bad tempered, with funny looking bottoms and extra nipples.
El Bulli doesn't use the word spherical lightly--some of the liquids (and sometimes solids) they've submitted to the technique could be textbook spheres--and the meal is technically astounding before anything else. I noticed, from the one hundred spherical what-have-yous, only a single runt with a tail. But while there are liquid centred spherical olives, ham croquettes, moscatel raisins, and egg yolks, none are more impressive to me than the spherical mussels: five warm mussels in their sweet, briny juice, held in alginate like a cluster of strange, alien spawn. Not all the sphericals are delicious mind you--and in the bread soup with seaweed and spherical yolks, I was disappointed by a mere reference, watery in taste and texture, to a real egg yolk. But six out of seven ain't bad--and most kitchens playing around with the idea forget all about making their alginate what-have-yous delicious.
But while the El Bulli kitchen is serious (there's a bloody cotton candy machine! A machine for spherical melon, an anti-griddle) the dishes are more tongue-in-cheek. There are little quips told throughout the meal and then, in the same vein, there is the Mother Joke, the punchline.
First off, seeds came up a few times. There were the vinegar soaked basil seeds with olive oil emulsion on bread with clear tomato soup and virtual Iberian ham. Ha! I know. There was the zucchini risotto made actually of zucchini seeds and tiny peanut oil capsules that tasted of a South Indian peanut-y curry but had the texture of flying fish roe and soft arborio. There was the pine nut cake--an almost savoury, isle flottante style meringue served on the tacky silver cardboard of French patisseries, with pine nuts every tasty way imaginable. And then, the clincher: War of the Seeds. A plate of fifteen sorts of seeds huddled in camps, fulfilling their seed purposes by competing in taste and texture, armed only with basil oil and a creamy, tangy dollop or two of sauce.
Cocktails, which begin the meal like an amuse bouche, appeared several times in one boozy incarnation or another. First, the famous gin fizz, which is put together as elaborately as a dirty martini might still be at the grand, stuffy hotels that like their table service: a trolley is pulled out by a man in black. On it, what looks like a jar of olives and two martini glasses on a silver tray. Classic. A woman sets the table with plates and spoons, smiling knowingly. The handsome man shakes an iSi gun as if it were a shaker and squirts a bit of hot foam on your cocktail. Drink quickly, he orders, and who am I to argue? At El Bulli, one follows instruction. The next one is to spoon out a spherical olive into your measuring spoon, take it in one mouthful, and keep your mouth closed while you bite down--precise, aren't they? The olive is pale green and well, olive-shaped. But it coats your mouth after the warm, citrusy gin with an explosion of liquid brine and olive oil. Delicious. Your martini is ice cold and also hot and foamy. Headfuck! One might scream as the man with the trolley wheels quietly away.
The cocktail returns more modestly in the middle of the meal. Gin again, but this time it's a ridiculously smooth, frozen gin and tonic soup and sorbet with bitter, candied lemon zest, cucumber flower, cucumber, and pink pepper powder. Later, when you're invited after the first dessert course to take your coffee and petit fours out on the terrace, in the moonlight, the ocean lapping below, a piña colada cupcake arrives on a tray with the crunchy texture of caramel strands but the soft bite of cake, and filled with creamy booze to make you wonder: what it is about cucpcakes that makes people happy? (wait, is it booze?)
But things start to get confusing, because the themes and techniques do quite a bit of overlapping. Flowers are everywhere, from the crispy mango sugar leaf with tagete flowers and pepper to the deep fried crab roe with hibiscus and lemon foam.
And seaweed, which deserves its own category, elbows its way into the powder category as well. During the first fifteen courses, which come as little finger foods without utensils, seaweed pops up twice. First, as a powder on the monster munch like seaweed crisps shaped like funky sea creatures, then as a super light seaweed waffle. When the utensils arrive seaweed returns in bread soup with spherical yolks and then in its own starring dish: the sea. In the sea, 12 varieties of seaweed are to be eaten anti-clockwise, snailing your way to a large cube of watermelon. This was a challenge to eat as some were filled with gloop, some became stuck on the roof of my mouth, some were bitter, and some were painfully salty. And like I said, I listened to instructions. I didn't cheat. Watermelon has never tasted so sweet.
Oh, but back to powder! The powder that tasted of ocean but was melty like flavour-packed powdery monster munch. The powder that was compacted into tiny popcorn cakes and walnut cakes and broke apart into a smooth powder in my mouth that felt moist but not oily. Smooth powder I say! And there was the powder that coated the popcorn cloud, a cotton candy puff that tasted of salty, buttery caramel popcorn and melted away in one bite. And speaking of cotton candy, there was an only slightly sweet woolly tuft of the stuff over a pool of some very ripe sheep's cheese served with a wedge of cherry jelly. Hilariously titled, sheep, the wool and the cheese.
My two favourite courses came from the parmesan family. The parmesan wonton--which is actually a tender skin full of parmesan air floating in chicken stock that arrives in a cast-iron pot over a flame. This is removed with a slotted spoon and dropped into a bowl of light, but intensely flavoured basil foam. It's fucking fantastic. The second, parmesan air, is a delight: first, a styrofoam box is presented with a little plastic baggie of dried apple, raspberry, and walnuts. The paper seal is removed and rolled up--turns out it's a close up picture of what's inside! And what's inside is the ethereal stink of parmesan frozen air. Which tastes like wake-your-arse-up old, salty parmesan, but dissapears like magic on the roof of your mouth. And it's cold!
By the time we were invited out on the terrace, where we sat till nearly two in the morning receiving tray after tray of petit fours like mango ice-cream sandwiches, adult cupcake mentioned already, and to end it all coriander seed chocolate (seeds again!) shaped like a leaf, and held up in a plant pot of cocoa nibs, I was not just full but utterly satisfied. Full, I repeat for those that have seen my pictures already and declared, "ah yes but I prefer something with a little more substance than all these...foams and things. Give me a nice steak" etc. But full is beside the point. I was tickled pink! Curious about everything, laughing out loud at the written and edible jokes in a way I've only ever felt once before. For those I hold dear who "struggle to understand how great a meal can be that a booking needs to be made a year in advance," you're right, it is pretty ridiculous, but then, so's the meal.