day 2 :
monday, 12 september
This was the big day of the trip, the day we were so looking forward to, the day that Dawn arranged a year earlier, when she suggested we try to get reservations at El Bulli, a restaurant that is considered by many to be the "best restaurant in the world." Eric told Dawn that she was just setting herself up for disappointment - we had heard that the restaurant was expecting nearly 500,000 reservation requests for a mere 8,000 seats for the six months that they're open in 2005. But, there was nothing to lose in just sending an email request, so she did, asking if they had any openings in August, September, or October. (We hadn't even begun to plan our trip to Spain, so we figured we'd give El Bulli all the flexibility we could, and then see how it went - we didn't realize at the time that October is one of the six months in which they are closed.) Four weeks later, they asked us if September 12th at 8:00PM would work for us. Yee-haw!
We picked up our Renault Scenic rental car from AutoEurope, and headed up the Costa Brava. We stopped in a pretty town called Tossa de Mar, strolled the beachfront and had lunch by the water. The town had a beautiful medieval section that we wandered through for bit, but we could have easily spent a half-day seeing the sites there if we had had the time. But alas, we didn't want to risk being late for dinner that night (it's not like we could reschedule for the next day!), so we got back on the road and headed to our hotel in Roses.
Along the drive, we noticed that many drivers had bull or donkey stickers on the back of their car (the latter being more common on the roads we traveled). We wondered: was this common across Spain and what do the stickers mean? It was only later in our trip that we found this trend was unique to this particular area - the Catalan region of Spain. Apparently, these stickers reflect the owner's nationalistic attitude, with the Spanish Bull (toro) being the choice of nationalists that are in favor of the single, unified nation-state of Spain, whereas the Catalan Donkey (burro) is favored by the pro-Catalan independents who place Catalan regional distinction above all else. Then there are the interesting variations on the stickers: a rhinoceros, burros mating toros, and so on.
We had a bit over an hour to settle in at our hotel before dinner. As was recommended by numerous people on eGullet.org, we took a taxi to El Bulli, and were thankful that we did. The narrow road wound along cliffs for 15-20 minutes, not something we'd want to drive in the dark after a long meal!
We arrived at the idyllic setting overlooking the sea, but even before we stepped out of the taxi, a photographer was taking pictures of our arrival. Someone from the restaurant greeted us, explaining that their photographer was taking pictures of all of the guests' arrival that evening for the next El Bulli book, and would we mind if she took photos of us? "No, not at all," we said, although being photographed as we took every step towards the restaurant made us feel a little self-conscious.
We entered the restaurant and were greeted by several staff members, one of whom asked us if we'd like to tour the kitchen. Next thing we know we're shaking hands with Ferran Adrià, and getting a brief overview of how things work in the kitchen. Although the kitchen was full of people preparing innumerable dishes for the evening, the room was incredibly quiet, no one looked rushed, and everything was simply orderly and relaxed - reminiscent of what we witnessed in the kitchen at The French Laundry.
We were led to the beautiful open-air terrace overlooking the nearby bay, and embarked on the most creative and memorable meal we've ever had. We went in with nothing but high expectations, and somehow the experience even surpassed our expectations - incredible, given all that we had been told beforehand.
El Bulli is not a conventional restaurant. As mentioned earlier, it is only open six months of the year. During the other half of the year, Adrià is a food scientist, inventing and testing new recipes in his laboratory in Barcelona. A meal at El Bulli showcases these inventions, and is an experience that alters your perceptions of food.
You don't receive a menu until the end of the meal so as to not spoil any surprises during the evening, and there certainly were many pleasant surprises. When we sat down, we were presented with a margarita. This had to be explained to us, though, because it looked nothing like the traditional drink. Instead, it was presented in a square block of ice with a hole in the top and a tower of white foam on top. The waiter grated fine salt over the foam, causing it to fizzle and collapse into the margarita, which was frozen and similar in texture to a granita.
Offered with the margaritas were green olives: you ate one, and realized that you had been fooled, it wasn't an olive at all. It was a delicate gelatinous olive-colored ball that burst in your mouth coating your tongue with incredibly intense olive-flavored oil - an artificial olive that was more impressive than the real thing.
Olives were one of the ingredients that were repeated throughout the meal. An early amusement was tiny "Oreo" cookies, which weren't Oreo-flavored at all, but rather, olive cookies surrounding a light sour cream filling. Other ingredients often repeated were melon, spices, and peanuts. There were also techniques that were frequently repeated, such as the foams that Adrià is so renowned for, along with dehydrated foams and marshmallows. Dawn's favorite dish was a dessert (of course!) of passion fruit marshmallows with coconut soup.
Melon was part of a drink called "Melón con Jamon 2005" which was a twist on the classic combination of ham and melon. Tiny melon balls made like the olives we'd had earlier were suspended in a ham gelatin drink. Somehow, the balls were suspended so that every sip had the perfect balance of melon and ham. Each little ball of melon exploded in your mouth and combined with the ham - this was unlike anything we'd had before.
Another dish we enjoyed was "ensalada folie," or as the waiter translated, "crazy salad." We never did figure out all that was in this salad, but there were a number of textures and flavors, including perfect baby artichokes, spongy bread, something which might have been lettuce but had the texture of an apple (seriously), pickled garlic, a pile of light-as-air shaved hazelnut, all surrounded by a foam "dressing."
"Terroso" is Spanish for "of the earth" and was a favorite course for both of us. It was a plate with a parade of little tastes made of earthy ingredients, including a potato consommé over a mushroom ravioli, a dehydrated beet foam, black truffle peanut paste, an olive-filling sandwiched between two wafer-thin sheets, and finely diced potatoes. We were instructed to eat each one independently of the others.
The simplest dish was exquisite: "higado de rape en fondue con kumquat al sésamo." Very thinly sliced monkfish liver was presented with a hot broth, which we used to briefly cook the liver before dipping it into a foamed soy sauce (so good!). The photographer wandered by our table during this course and took photos of us eating, which added to the entertainment of dipping and eating the fish. We finished the course with a single bite of kumquat with a juicy filling.
We already mentioned Dawn's favorite dessert. Eric's was the passion fruit mochi, which you may be familiar with as a Japanese dessert of ice cream wrapped in a sweetened rice confection. El Bulli's version was delicate with a creamy, soft interior and nothing like the frozen aisle versions we buy in Seattle from Uwajimaya.
Near the end, a waiter wheeled over a cart with a metal box containing liquid nitrogen. After scraping off the frost that had formed on the surface, he squeezed two dollops of whipped cream onto the surface. After allowing a frozen crust to form, he gently flipped them over, pressing them slightly to flatten, then topped each with a fruity caviar and presented one to each of us on a spoon.
As memorable as the food, the service was the best that we've ever experienced, and not at all impersonal. The staff kept a watchful eye on everyone, made sure everyone was taken care of, and yet you never felt like you were being watched. You just knew that every time you returned to your table after taking a break, someone would magically appear and help push in your chair. It was noticeably impressive.
After some 30-odd courses, our meal was sadly over. We wandered outside to peer into the huge kitchen window while waiting for our taxi to arrive. Adrià was entertaining a table of guests sitting off to the side inside the kitchen and waved to Dawn. In the background, chefs were busily preparing the last courses for the remaining diners. An amazing meal, indeed. Perhaps we'll be lucky enough to return again someday.