Sunday, July 02, 2006

El Bulli

We did it. We ate at last week at El Bulli and it was without a doubt the most wonderful eating experience of our lives.

Actually make that one of the best experiences of any type in our lives.

At a time when so much hype is given over to that which disappoints so much (I think he’s talking about England in the World Cup – ed), El Bulli was the real thing.

The best, most innovative, most exciting, most extraordinary food in the world, prepared by the smartest chefs and delivered to the table with real passion, precision and knowledge. The key phrases of the evening were ‘eat this now please’, ‘all down in one bite’ or ‘start from the centre and work outwards’.

Getting there in style added to the huge fun of the evening. We were staying in Cadaques and hired a Zodiac speedboat to take us across the sea, around the caves and cliffs of the Cap de Creus coast, to the bay of Montjoi where El Bulli is sited. The sea was still and the evening clear and short of helicoptering on to your yacht, it has to be the way to arrive.

The restaurant is a set of tiny buildings perched above the bay. Aside from the ultra high tech kitchen, it looks like a hundred other country Catalan restaurants. Too much dark wood, unremarkable furniture and mismatched overhead lights. The money it says, is in the food not the d├ęcor.

And how. The menu degustacion – 16 snacks and 16 courses – is a fairy tale ride of sensual tastes, flavours, scents, that sing, dance and explode in your mouth. Each one seems more remarkable than the previous one. It’s a little like going into the most luxurious hotel and every 10 minutes finding a new gadget or feature that makes you gasp.

To list everything we ate seems almost too mundane, reducing the six months that Ferran Adria and his team spend each year concocting these dishes to a mere line up. But first and last deserve their own billing. Both tasted exquisite and both bear the El Bulli trademark, being so weird and imaginative that you couldn’t help but eat them with a huge grin on your face.

The first snack on the terrace was a Nitrogen Gin and Tonic granita. I can tell you the recipe for this one. Mix Gordons’ gin, Schweppes and lemon syrup in a chilled bowl. Oh yes, then pour in pints of liquid nitrogen and stir madly until a granita is formed. It looks dangerous to do and I am sure many chefs were harmed in the perfecting of this dish. And it tasted wonderful.

The final dish was a fried egg. Or rather it looked like a fried egg. It was in fact a mango, surrounded by the lightest coconut mousse. Now, you say, any mug could do that. Well yes, until you pierced the apricot and it flowed like the yolk of a fried egg …

Ok, I’ll mention one more. A paperback book-sized polystyrene box that was full of frozen parmesan (more nitrogen here I think) and accompanied by a tiny bag of dried fruit and nuts to sprinkle on. So you sprinkled and ate and ate what seemed to be air of parmesan. But the ice seemed to disappear as it entered your mouth. There was magic involved here. By the end you had eaten everything and nothing. It was an illusion, much like the entire evening.

So to those who got us the table, thank you. And to the wonderful staff front of house and in the kitchen at El Bulli, even more thanks. Volveremos!

ps. for an exhaustive and fun account of eating at El Bulli (with many of the dishes we ate) with photos, click here. I have no idea who the guy is, but he likes the place.

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