Fairfield County Reports: The El Bulli Experience

Multiple Eaters

Poised to close at the end of the season, El Bulli has been fielding millions of reservation requests for the relative few coveted tables that remain to experience Chef Ferran Adria's operatic meals in Roses, Spain. This mecca for molecular gastronomy has been in the sights of two regular CTbites readers, a professional chef, Matt Storch of Match Restaurant in Sono, and a professional eater, Chris Grimm, who recently visited El Bulli and have graciously shared their experiences with us. 

Matt Storch on El Bulli 

Extremely lucky to have experienced the magic of El Bulli. Here are the numbers: 2 million requests a year, only 8000 served, a staggering 40 to 50 courses for 50 diners each night, prepared and served by 70 employees. There is no other restaurant in the world like it.

This was a once in a lifetime dinner due to the fact the magician was closing down his show until a foundation is opened in 2014. My father and I flew to Barcelona Sunday night, landed Monday morning, drove to Roses, Spain, napped and headed to the treacherous road which lead to El Bulli. Hard to believe that one of the best restaurants in the world was all the way out in the middle of nowhere, but as you drive the 30 minutes to the restaurant you realize the road and the surroundings are truly setting the scene of what is to come.

We reach the end of the road and spot the El Bulli sign. For you foodies out there, you know the chill that runs through your blood, this time not only for the food about to be tasted but for the truly amazing setting that this restaurant sits within. Built on a hill on the side of a cove with the beach below and the sun just beginning to set over the hills on the other side of the ocean cove, you can only imagine what the original owners where thinking when they chose this spot 50 years ago.

Anisette Globe with fennel frond in the center

A warm welcome and an instant tour directly into the kitchen to meet Chef Ferran and his army of cooks. He was still a bit groggy from the last few nights when Chef Anthony Bourdain and Chef Jose Andres joined him in the kitchen to cook, film and eat. He welcomed us with open arms and was truly happy to chat with us for a few moments until his phone rang.

American'...Campari with orange

Being a chef I wanted to sit at the chefs table in the kitchen and watch every single moment of service but I had to settle for a few minutes of prolonging the tour. I could not help to notice that most of the cooks staging in the kitchen had their ‘home’ chef coats on, French Laundry, Daniel, and Robuchon to name a few, not a bad line up! From what our tour guide told me, only 20% of the employees at El Bulli are paid, the others are unpaid interns or stagiaires.

Mojito and Apple Flute with apple meringue bun

We were led to the patio and took our seats in front of the sunset, a captain came out holding our card for the night and double checked we were ok with eating game, brains, bone marrow, and oysters…”yes” to all please and thank you! The wine book was placed in front of us and we were told ‘cocktails and snacks’ were on the way. This was the beginning of the 51 course parade of amazing dish after amazing dish, some small, some 4 bites, mostly all eaten with our hands under the direction of Ferran and the floor army.

Olive Oil Chip

We drank a white wine produced up the road which was really only there to cleanse the palate, it was all about the food. The pace was perfect, the progression and lightness of the dishes were ingenious, and the service was fun with no stuffiness anywhere in sight, just pristine classic service meant to be helpful and part of the show. I of course peered through the window of the kitchen which is outside for a few minutes and was amazed at the precision and unison that the kitchen staff portrayed.

Dessert Box

The bites were put together faster than I have ever seen, as soon as the fire was called, at least 10 pairs of hands were at the pass constructing the over 1500 plates a night.

I am a lucky chef, man, and son to have had experienced this once in a lifetime show, I will never forget it.

Matt Storch is Chef and Partner of Match Restaurant in South Norwalk, CT.  

Chris Grimm on El Bulli

On May 19, I had the great fortune of dining, with my partner, Leslie, at El Bulli, in Roses, Spain. Arguably the most famous and acclaimed restaurant in the world, El Bulli is closing after service on July 31.

Upon announcing the planned closing of the restaurant after this season, Chef/Owner Ferran Adria was barraged with 4 million reservation requests for reservations at this 50-seat restaurant which serves only a single seating per night. Our reservation came about, more than anything else, due to some good fortune – in April we were contacted because of a cancelled reservation and were offered the table. Suddenly we had an impromptu trip to Catalonia on our hands.

With all of the attention that El Bulli has received over at least the last decade, I had some idea as to what to expect. Besides which, I’d dined on “molecular cuisine” at restaurants inspired by El Bulli, I’d bought one of the cookbooks, and had even tried some of the techniques at home (like making “caviar” from strawberries). But here was the opportunity to visit the source, before it closed.

So two evenings before the reservation we boarded a plane for Geneva, switched planes and flew to Barcelona, took the train to Figueres, and took a taxi to Roses, arriving 24-hours before our reservation. We dined on some extraordinarily fresh seafood at Rafa’s (Adria’s favorite restaurant, a tiny place in Roses) and then spent a day acclimating before our big dinner.

Gorgonzola Globe

Something that seems lost in the talk about El Bulli is the extraordinary location on the Costa Brava. It is a hilly and winding trip from Roses that leads one to a lovely cove, above which El Bulli is placed. The restaurant, for the modernist technique, is quite a warm place, constructed for natural materials and filled with wood tones. Notably, one feels like one is in a restaurant, not a laboratory.

Upon arrival we received a brief tour of the (shockingly quiet) kitchen, staffed by rows of stagieires, steadily working their stations. (It should be noted that the staff to diner ratio is one-to-one.) After a picture with Chef Adria, we were taken to a deck table where we were able to enjoy glasses of Cava and the first of our 45 courses.

Cod Fish Crust....like a pork rind.

Yes, 45 courses. Tending to consist of one, two, and, only occasionally, more bites, this wasn’t a typical meal by any measure. Each course had a strong emphasis on presentation – the visual and textural boundaries of the food were stretched beyond anything previously imaginable. This is no exaggeration. And while foams may have become clichés in recent years, self-contained ravioli and the like can only amaze. But the greatness of El Bulli is that, when one sets aside the wonderment over the presentation, the plates contain foods that are completely true to the flavor essences of their ingredients. The presentation largely serve to emphasize those essences.

Truffle and Foie Cake

On the lovely El Bulli porch, overlooking their cove on the Costa Brava, we began the courses that were less appetizers than aperitifs. Sugar cane in crushed ice tasted of mojito and caipirinha. A mojito and apple “baguette” used a mini-baguette of meringue to deliver the flavors. A “Gin Fizz” that was topped with warm foam at the table (more of a Ramos Gin Fizz) was a wonderful mix of warm and cold in each taste. This stretch of early courses would signal precisely why El Bulli “works.” The many courses allow for a somewhat leisurely exploration of aspects of individual flavors – where here it had been citrus and mint, later arcs would be taken with parmesan, miso, and hare.

Olive Oil Chip with "Bloody Mary"

Our al fresco experience continued with the famous spherical olives – juiced olives treated with calcic acid and then dropped in an algin solution, creating a ‘skin’ enclosing pure olive (juice). It bursts with olive flavor – completely true to the flavor essence of the ingredient but delivered in a unique form – though it looks totally like an olive. (Closer to home, Eleven Madison Park serves the olives as a tribute to Chef Adria.) A parmesan stick and a parmesan macaron (that was more like a marshmallow) wrapped-up our outdoor dining.

Once in the dining room, we were delivered one of the showstopper dishes of the meal – a gorgonzola “balloon,” a thin, frozen, ostrich egg sized globe of cheese that was cracked open at the table and quickly eaten before it melted. Like most of the other courses, this was half magic and half flavor.

An olive oil chip was a minor masterpiece. “Flowers Paper” consisted of a sheet of paper (resembling a flattened sheet of cotton candy) embedded with peppery, colorful flowers. What I suppose I could call an umami arc began with one of my favorite bites of the evening, “Japanese Ravioli,” a spherical miso soup (similar presentation to the olives) topped with a bit of soy (which was followed by “soy matches,” nori ravioli, and asparagus with miso. The floral theme was revisited with a plated rose made from artichoke petals. And a larger arc seemed to conclude with the delivery of a small Styrofoam cooler containing “parmesan air” (think parm-flavored snow) and a small packet of dried fruits and nuts. As with the gorgonzola balloon, one had to be a bit hasty to avoid eating slush. And maybe this was stretching the boundary from magic toward pure whimsy – but a unique vision and dedication to flavor remained.

'Coca de Vidre' or crystal cake

Service throughout at El Bulli was helpful without being stuffy, and the place runs like a fine watch. Plates arrive at the table and are hardly finished before they are replaced with the next course. While I understand the need for serious choreography, it does impose some discipline upon the diner and, at a certain point, one needs a break (a built-in intermission at El Bulli wouldn’t be the worst idea). So at about 20 courses, I bolted out of my seat and headed for the one place where I knew I could loiter outside of the watchful eyes of the staff – the restroom. There I encountered another diner in the same boat. Although we didn’t speak the same language, we just sort of stood there and decompressed - straightening our collars, listening to the surf, and killing about as much time as seemed allowable, before heading back to our respective tables, for a couple of dozen more courses.

With this, we headed into the most substantial part of the meal. Carbonara tagliatelle seemed simple, but the pasta was actually strips of jellyfish. Small spheres of hazelnut “caviar” were served with a caviar cream – so the flavors were as expected, if reordered. Another favorite was pinenuts shabu-shabu, in which one dipped three different packets of variations on pinenuts into dashi before eating. Perrochico “cake” was a small wafer made from the delicate Spanish mushroom. Polenta gnocchi was another highpoint. And mimetic almonds once again combined whimsy and flavor dedication, with a plate of almonds, reconstituted almonds, and recreated almonds.

Apple ice petals

Sea anemone, while tasty, was admittedly not a pleasant thing to look at on the plate. But a seafood arc continued with such things as a wonderful clam ceviche (which also signaled a smaller ‘cilantro’ arc) and prawn two ways – one being a shot of soup of (basically) prawn brains and the other being a crispy prawn.

We moved on to game meat courses which all consisted of variations on hare. Hare fritters were served with a sachet of toasted cardamom that was to be smelled between bites. Hare “cappuccino” followed. Then blackberry risotto with hare sauce and, finally, hare ravioli with Bolognese. With that, the savories were complete.

Desserts reached similar heights. My favorite was the wintry snow (think “snow cone on a plate”) with yuzu and sweet beans. And things concluded with a glorious box (about the size and configuration of a toolbox) of chocolates – ganache, mints, nuts. A white chocolate that resembled, in crunch, a beer-nut best reflected the fun of the place – the whimsy at its best.

Of course, the burden that a meal at El Bulli carries is this: “if this is the “finest restaurant in the world” was this the finest meal of my life?” While I can confidently say “yes,” I would qualify that by saying that it is so completely different from any other dining experience that it isn’t fair to compare either direction. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is no less great for our having had this meal at El Bulli. But El Bulli is no less great just because we didn’t have anything resembling traditional courses.

I suppose that the closest meal that it recalls was the fourteen course meal at Joel Robuchon. But even that comparison isn’t because the meals were similar, but because both were near-impossible to compare with others, including the other. (Robuchon was the ultimate “anti-locovore” meal, with each course consisting of the finest main ingredients flown in from around the world. While the quality of the preparation was undeniable – certainly one of the finest meals of my life – I couldn’t help but wonder what my other favorite chefs might have done with the same mind-blowing shopping list.)

In the end, while I will remember the half of the meal that is dedicated to art, magic, and whimsy, I’ll more strongly remember the dedication to flavor that we found at El Bulli. It’s too bad its closing – because I’d go again on a moment’s notice.

Chris Grimm lives in Westport, CT.

[Photography c/o Matt Storch]