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11/10/2009

El Bulli, Roses, Spain [Review]

El Bulli

5/5

We went up smelling of Roses. You shoelace up the hill, past rock, scrub and dirt, the heaving sea, and the tapas-and-sangria town shrinking beneath. This is a destination in both senses: worth a journey on its own, and you'd always travel to get here - you'd never just pop in, even if you could.

And you really couldn't. In specific foodie circles, in the interorbital centre of that little Venn diagram, a table at El Bulli is easily the most coveted in the world. It's the reservation grail, it’s Dorsia. A typical goggle-eyed statistic states that two million people apply every year for 8000 covers - a figure that either makes you fear for our species (it's only a bloody restaurant, after all) or, if you're of a more curious bent, increases the draw and mystique of the place.


So when I announced to my chirpy clique of food-loving friends that a gorgeous miracle of a human being - a reader of this blog, to boot - had offered me his table, behind the rictus smiles and hollow congratulations was the seething stench of ill-masked fury: you lucky, lucky sod.


And Jack, once again, thank you.


Criticism thrives on similarities and differences, chugs along on oppositions, syncopates on links and gaps between As and Bs. Relation is all. Restaurant reviews often come to life when they answer two questions: what’s this like, and what’s it not like? But that's impossible with El Bulli. I can't tell you what it resembles: it doesn't resemble anything. If I say it serves food, that only increases the chasmic distance between reality and definition: often, it doesn't even register as food, and certainly doesn't look like it. It's rootlessly unwieldy, sprawlingly unmanageable, slippery as a Cussons in a tub of glycerin.


Of course, it's spawned acolytes, and you can eat pallid approximations of its food from chefs who’ve done a stage here, you can see apings of technique and experiment, the pervading, brass-rubbed influence. Every cuckoo-spit foam swamping every ponced-up plate in every self-regarding restaurant on earth frothed ultimately from this mothership. But nobody, including Heston Blumenthal, creates - I can't say 'cooks' - with the rubber-necking aplomb of Ferran AdriĆ , or shares the same wilful difference, the pathological desire to be relentlessly, exorbitantly, obtusely unique. (And a brisk tsk to anyone who says that 'unique' is an either-or word - I think you know what I mean.)


You don't expect it to be here, though. The location of the 'best restaurant in the world', as it's usually called, is as unexpected and strange as its food. I hadn't been to the Costa Brava before, and I don't know when I'll be back. Most of the late-summer tourists were French, and every English or American voice we heard, we heard again in the restaurant.


But in a sense, El Bulli could be anywhere. Its dinners follow no pattern, have no basis in region or style, no comfort zone. Across 38 courses, most of them eaten with our fingers in a bite or two, we swung from sweet to savoury and back, the dishes oscillating from ambient to frozen to hot to frozen again, in a geographically scattergun parade, a mad method. Sometimes there were Asiatic notes of yuzu and soy (as in the above dish of raw cockles); sometimes there were variations on a single ingredient - almond or soy; sometimes there were reworkings of traditional things. For example, a submarine roll stuffed with egg and beef turned out to be a savoury meringue sandwiching truffle shavings, almonds and spots of egg yolk. The double-take, the opposition between eye and tongue, were clever and delicious - and not some party trick or silly gimmick. It was a skilled and lovely dish, an adroit assembly of harmonious ingredients in a form that hooked and drew several senses.


The famous 'spherical olives' did something similar. They're balls of agar jelly, a bit bigger than broad beans, encasing olive oil. You put one in your mouth and it gloops and blobs across your tongue; there's a gentle, Freudian pleasure in passing this round the palate, the sensation of sliding it into the gaps between jaw and cheek, the liquid loll across the tastebuds. They have a whispering fragrance of olives, but really they're just playful bubbles - the pleasure is in the soft, ovoid texture more than the flavour. But then you press one gently against the roof of your mouth - there's no urge to bite or chew - and it bursts. And fills and swamps your palate, drenches your tongue and soaks your grinning gob in the sheerest essence of olive, the smooth, oozing bitterness of the fat green fruit, the grassy, ancient flavours lingering, lingering, lingering. And though you've tasted olives, this is pure olive, ur-olive, better than God's olives, and simply incredible.


Other things: deep-fried tuna roe: hot, sweet and maternally milky, comforting as an old quilt. A single langoustine severed down the middle (presumably while still alive), then cooked to lie straight as Franco's architecture, with variations on sesame for its head-meat. Raw rose petals laid out like artichokes with an artichoke sauce: like old lady's perfume, and bordering on unpleasant. 'Pond': a dank briney puddle of sea anenome and caviar, tasting of the stinking, slippery things that lurk in lagoons. Or 'Roots': chocolate and dark fruits assembled to look like a tree yanked from the earth and then inverted, the soily powders falling to the plate in dark dusty heaps of cocoa.


Some of it was perfect. A deep-fried chicken skin smeared in a slick of concentrated chicken sauce; abalone with pork fat and shimeji mushrooms; 'cherries' metamorphosed into miniature balls filled with kirsch. A dish of lamb kidney with camomile made little sense to me, but it was a rarity, and doesn't dim the triumphs of this meal.


People tie themselves in irrelevant knots debating whether El Bulli counts as art or craft. It's both, of course: and science, and more. Its unworldliness provides the encouragement and perspective necessary to ask fundamental questions about the act of eating. The restaurant challenges almost every assumption we lazily swallow about food, queries every apathetically inherited kitchen tradition, every ragged culinary hand-me-down. Food is so often petrified in deferential custom that we never pause to ask why method or technique or recipe are as they are. AdriĆ 's obsessive innovation makes anyone with a passing interest in what they eat wonder why sweet food should necessarily appear at the end of a meal; it lets them question the merits of a eugenic belief in terroir. The food here combines the familiar and the unfamiliar in stunning synchrony, but though there's a palpable delight in surprise and pleasure, it's never about showing-off or wizards and curtains. Dinner at El Bulli reminds us plainly and honestly that eating is as much emotional and intellectual as it's physical - and that's a hell of a lesson to take back home.



El Bulli, Caja Montjoi, Nr. Roses, Spain


See on the Map


Reservations via email only, usually in October for the subsequent season: bulli@elbulli.com


http://www.elbulli.com/


All pictures mine except the first shot, courtesy of TripAdvisor, and the second shot, courtesy of About.com


18 comments:

  1. Beautifully written, as ever, and at least you seemed to enjoy most of what you were served. We had some dishes in common - the rose petal 'artichoke' which I didn't like either, the 'pond', which didn't do much for me, and the chicken skin with concentrated stock, which I also loved.

    And I do understand the points you're making - this is important food from an important restaurant, that questions the very nature of what can be considered restaurant dining, and I also got the impression that every element of everything was thought about and analysed a lot. Too much, very often, in fact.

    But I can't say that behind the technical and innovative wizardry we are very often left with anything that is actually - you know - nice to eat. Some of it, served anywhere else, you'd actually send back. More than 3 or 4 times I caught the eye of a fellow diner after a particularly 'challenging' mouthful and the thought that passed wordlessly between us was the same - 'Is it just me, or was that horrible?'.

    There is, as you say, a delight in surprise. All of it was at the very least surprising. But when food is more surprising than tasty then I consider that a problem. Maybe they don't - in fact I'm sure they don't. But I do.

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  2. what a gorgeous, gorgeous write up - you've completely captured the experience. I especially love the description of those olive spherification things. Easily the best review of El Bulli I've read!

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  3. Extremely well written review Oliver. Obviously, given the lottery of actually getting a table in the first place, it's a once in a lifetime experience. But if you had the chance - would you go back?

    It's also interesting to compare your's and Chris's views on the experience, your visits falling so close to each other. It seems that the El Builli experience divides opinion, and unless you've actually experienced it yourself it's impossible to offer any real comment.
    Hopefully, I'll get to try it myself one day.

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  4. I was trying to explain something similar to someone recently: about how the enjoyment of a meal depends on many variables. They didn't get it. Strange to have such a one dimensional approach to an experience I think.

    It does sounds like an incredible evening; I am jealous all over again. I keep thinking about applying then freak at the thought I might not able to afford it if I did get a place. Then again, if I couldn't go, I could be that person that makes someone else absolutely ecstatic by giving away my place as your reader did for you. I rather like the idea of that.

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  5. Excelent review Ollie I think you have captured the essence of this restaurant , beautifully written , considered and balanced !

    Bravo

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  6. Good stuff Ollie. Having heard from both you and Chris now I'm really not sure how I'm going to react to this year's rejection...

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  7. Brilliant review: succinctly, concisely & beautifully written.

    I will definitely go should I be given the chance, though am really not sure what I will make of it at this point :)

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  8. Worth the wait - excellent review, Ollie.

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  9. About time! I've seen people get table reservations at El Bulli in less time than you took to get this out!

    That being said, it was completely worth the wait. The points you make - which Chris flagged above - are very well observed and, of course, delightfully put. The olive section was positively poetic.

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  10. As always Ollie, a very good lunchtime read. As I spooned in my lentil and smoked bacon soup I tried to imagine the exploding olive, practising with a lentil instead. It wasn't brilliant...

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  11. What a wonderful article - very well written - if serious - but then it sounds like this is an experience than can only be taken seriously.

    Vaut bien l'attente!

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  12. Fantastic ,beautiful. Thank you for putting into words what so many, find so hard to describe.I never wanted the story to end.

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  13. Wow, this is fabulous. So beautifully written and so much more evocative than the many many other El Bulli reviews I've read. And more thought-provoking too.

    Chris encapsulates my worry about trying to go - whilst I am certainly open to being challenged, having utterly new and unique eating experiences - I also want to enjoy what I eat and I'm not sure what the balance would be at El Bulli.

    Anyway, a fabulous, fabulous review! Ta!

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  14. Oliver, reading this is such sheer and unrivalled pleasure - the power of words is totally undeniable, it's just brilliant. This is an awesome piece of writing, as ever.

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  15. Beautifully written post,as always.
    But is what is served at EB food?
    Seems that there is an accomplished team of chemists at work there ,recreating tastes and textures in a playful but chemical based fashion.But food????
    Perhaps this is another "fad" that will surely pass.

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  16. Chris - I take your point. Some of the dishes are so 'out there', so challenging, that you're not sure whether they're necessarily any good to eat. But I stand by my main point: this is an exceptionally interesting restaurant serving exceptionally creative food. And when it works, I hope you'd agree, it really, really works.

    Gastrogeek - Thanks very much for saying so.

    Dan - I would go back, definitely - not least because the menu changes almost entirely every year. I do hope you make it there some day: keep blogging!

    Helen - That's exactly it. Strange as it may sound, how the food tastes is always only a part (a very large part) of the success of a meal. Most of what we ate was delicious, and when it wasn't, it was at least thought-provoking. I'd say that for what you get, for the experience, dinner at El Bulli is very reasonable - and the wine list too.

    Gastro1 - Thank you :)

    Ben - Ah, you may not be rejected! Will keep my fingers crossed.

    Laissez Fare: Thank you. You must go if you get the chance.

    Lizzie - Appreciate it. Sorry to have kept you waiting :)

    Thomas - Sorry! And thanks: I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Dan - What a shame! It's all in the imagination, I think...

    Snowoman - Thank you. And yes, a meal at EB definitely lends itself to more reflection than a typical review.

    Old Chef Dude - That's very kind. Thank you.

    Kavey - Thanks. I'm glad it made sense to you. Ultimately, though, as you say, a review like this is only an insight: it's no substitute for visiting the restaurant yourself.

    Mark - That's really generous of you. Thank you.

    Paul - Yes, this is food. If you look at, say, the langoustine, it was a simple, perfectly executed, comparatively familiar dish. Pairing it with sesame is probably more unusual, but nobody could claim that scampi and tahini aren't food. I know what you mean when you say this is all a fad, but I think the worldwide influence of EB runs deeper than that. Thanks for commenting.

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  17. A beautifully constructed and written review, you certainly do have a way with words.

    You are so lucky to have had the opportunity to visit such a restaurant.

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  18. Can't say anything else except "I'm jealous".

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