The road winding above the rocky seaside had been so twisty and the night so endlessly black that Jonathan Harker himself may well have turned around, assuming that no good could be met at the end of such a journey. Yet there, in the warm salty air of a Costa Brava summer night, the spark for 12 Bottle Bar was lit as Lesley and I cozied up behind a table at what was the most unassuming, yet exclusive restaurant in the world. El Bulli. It’s been said that each year, somewhere between 800,000 and several million people (depending upon which source you believe) applied for the 8,000 reservations available annually; yet, despite all the clamor and all the accolades, El Bulli was a money loser, and, after 24 years, chef/owner Ferran Adria finally announced that he would be scuttling the restaurant in pursuit of new horizons. Well, the final weekend of the great El Bulli is here, and we couldn’t let it pass by without an appropriate salute of appreciation and gratitude.
When I read all of the “final days of El Bulli” articles that have recently flooded every publication with a food critic or all-too-willing journalist, I really can’t fathom that Lesley and I had the opportunity to partake in that highest-of-high foodie experiences. Over the course of several years, the date and time (mid-October) that El Bulli started accepting reservations for the following season (the restaurant opened only from roughly June to December each year) was posted on note cards around our home, and we would time our submissions down to the second, hoping to be one of the chosen few. Our first bit of luck came in 2004, but we were unable to make the trip that year. After we contacted the restaurant and offered our apologies, a chef friend told us that we should have auctioned off the reservation. Maybe so, but it seemed like we’d just be courting bad karma. Fortunately, karma was on our side, and in 2006, we were on that rocky, seaside road making the sacred pilgrimage.
Now, I could wax poetic for ages about what made El Bulli so special, but we’ve got a complicated drink to get to, so I’ll stick to the highlights. While most fancy meals top out at around 7 to 9 courses, dinner at El Bulli weighed in at something close to 30. Yes, that’s not a typo. And it could have been many, many more. In the off-season, when the restaurant was closed, Adria and his team would dream up ways to present food that had never before been conceived – spherical gelatin shells surrounding liquid centers, dirts, foams, airs – making every course something bewilderingly unique. And while some folks dislike and discredit the whole molecular gastronomy methodology, Adria found a way to not only make his restaurant about the science – call it alchemy, perhaps — but also about his own Catalan background and environs. Food science, exclusivity, and 30 courses aside, El Bulli was the most “local” restaurant at which I’ve ever eaten, with Adria carrying the very Catalan modernisme and surrealism torches lit by Antoni Gaudi and Joan Miro before him.
I fondly remember, as a boy, the first time I saw the movie “Deathtrap” — there were so many twists and turns that I had no idea what to expect next. Much like dinner at El Bulli. Over thirty courses, surprise after “Wow! “ after shock after “OMG!” – they just kept coming. Five years later, I can’t remember each and every dish, but here are some photographic highlights:
The evening started with Adria “recalibrating” our senses of perception by presenting us with two courses which weren’t what they seemed to be – his famous spherical olives (gelatin “balloons” filled with olive puree) and the Hot-Frozen Gin Fizz. At first blush, the fizz seems to be a garden variety cocktail, but we were through the looking glass and we should have known better. The initial sensation was warm gin-lemon foam — unexpected to say the least. Then, the body of the drink pierced through the foam, and a frozen slush joined its warm companion, providing a simultaneous sensation of polar opposites (okay, one polar, one equatorial – but you get the point). The look on Lesley’s face probably describes it best –
Earlier this week, we announced that we would be hosting August’s Mixology Monday and that the theme would be “Come to Your Senses,” drinks which inspire a sense other than taste. The Hot-Frozen Gin Fizz is a shining example of how a drink can be delicious, unexpected, and exciting all in one. Sure, there’s a bit of work that goes into making it, but as food science recipes go, it requires no chemistry set or special equipment outside of a whipped cream dispenser. And while purists may scoff, I believe that there’s as much room in this world for molecular mixology – done well, mind you – as there is for a straight ahead Manhattan.
Frozen Lemon Juice
5 oz Leopold’s Gin
1 Cup Fresh Lemon Juice, strained
5 oz Basic Simple Syrup
Mix all ingredients together and freeze
Blend the frozen mixture in a blender, and return to freezer
Hot Lemon Foam
5 oz Egg Whites
2.5 oz Leopold’s Gin
4.5 oz Fresh Lemon Juice, strained
5+ oz Basic Simple Syrup (to taste)
Whip egg whites to soft peaks
Fold in the remaining ingredients
Strain the mix into a whipped cream dispenser
Charge the canister with N2O and place in 176 degree water bath to keep warm
Stir (swish around) periodically
Fill cocktail glass ¾ full with frozen mixture, and top off with hot fizz.
Yield: Approximately 6 drinks.
In an article he did for the Travel Channel, Anthony Bourdain created one of the greatest love letters to Ferran Adria and the vanishing Mecca that is El Bulli. Bourdain’s piece looks beyond the snark of those complaining about the homogenized reports coming from the pilgrims who have been fortunate enough to visit the restaurant over the years – the windy road, the meal of a lifetime – to see the real truth in what made El Bulli deserving of its “best” accolades. Far from the fanciest or most expensive culinary destination on the planet, El Bulli made every guest, great or small, feel truly respected and admired – as if the whole of the Catalan people and the brightest young chefs of the world had all come together to (over)fill our experiences with delicious joy. Bourdain’s piece is entitled “Where the Road Ends,” and on a number of levels, I think no other description captures the El Bulli experience quite so aptly and succinctly.
When we arrived at the restaurant, we, like all guests, were escorted through the kitchen, where I happened to spy the containers for Adria’s famous “caviar” (like the spherical olives, a liquid trapped inside of a gelatin shell). Our host noticed my lingering gaze, and when Lesley told him that I had been making them at home, he seemed genuine in his delight and sincere in his apology that they would not be part of that evening’s menu. A few courses into the meal, however, the caviar was placed before me – a change had been made to my personal menu because the staff knew all too well that an opportunity existed to dazzle me even further.
We spent that night, now half a decade ago, seated next to another American couple, and once again, the restaurant surmised that, between bites, foodies love to share their experiences with friends and strangers alike – indeed, many friends (and blogs) are born over great meals. It’s not out of one-upmanship or pride (well, maybe a little pride) that we’re so loquacious; it’s our sheer love of the inspiration, passion, skill, and again, the absolute joy, that keeps our jaws keep wagging about experiences such as ours at El Bulli — especially when it comes time to say “good-bye” and “thank you”.
More: Here’s a very nice farewell message from Grant Achatz and family to everyone at El Bulli: