"If it were now to die, 'Twere now to be most happy;" (Othello)
I overheard a fellow foodie at work called James talking about his trip last year to El Bulli. He'd scoured the Egullet forums until he picked up enought clues to have a pop at booking a table. He deduced, having translated lots of "chatter" in Spanish that the best time to contact them was in the middle of October. Apparently this is when they take all of their bookings for the year. For every table 400 people desperately try to get in. The chances are very slim.
Thanks to James' success last year I took his advice and sent El Bulli a very nice email asking for a table for 2 on my birthday. Weeks passed. Maybe even a month. And then I got the best email of my entire life asking if a table at 8pm on April 6th would suit us! Sweet Jesus! A table at 10am for dinner would suit us!
When the sheer excitement and level of luck had sunk in we went about working out what to do either side of dinner! From what we had heard El Bulli was near Barcelona. Well it turns out that this was about as accurate as saying Birmingham is near London. So we booked an appartment in Roses with a legend called Wolf for 3 nights and decided to spend a further 2 nights in Barca itself.
Wolf turned out to be a very eccentric Germnan gentleman with one of the best located apartment building ever. If he had a few quid to spend on it he could turn it into an incredible Hip Hotels calibre boutique hotel. Given that he probably spends all of his pennies on sun cream, speedos and white paint I don't think this will happen any time soon.
To get an idea of the stunning view from our mamouth terrace have a look at this.
And here's the view once the sun has set.
The downside to the low cost of our appartment was a camp bed propped up against the French windows and a less than luxurious bathroom.
But what the hell, we had the best view you could possibly imagine from our bed! And we needed to save all of our pennies for the most expensive dinner you can imagine!
We drove from Roses to El Bulli the day before hand to do a reccie. We were so lucky with the weather which treated us like Gods for our entire stay. El Bulli is tucked away in the nook of a bay at the bottom of some beautiful hills so that it catches the evening sunlight.
The entrance is guarded with stylish rusted steel signs and an army of agarve plants, all shaded underneath towering euchalyptus trees. Very tropical. A bit like a baddy's layre in a Bond film. The headquarters to Spectre perhaps?
When we arrived for real we could barely contain our excitement as we parked up against the sea front and made our way nervously towards cooking's Mecca. A charming group of fellow diners took our photos in front of Feran Adria's kitchen which felt a bit naughty but had to be done. We could see all the chefs getting our food ready inside. A hive of serene activity with the maestro at the helm.
We were taken to see Feran Adria and his immaculate open plan kitchen and were honoured with a very warm handshake. We really weren't expecting such personal treatment. We were then led to our table through a very distinguished but not over the top dining room and were seated in the corner looking out at everybody else. It made for incredible people watching as we waited for the menu and some champagne to arrive.
The menu is 30 "courses" long and is completely choice free. We had been asked previously if there was anything we didn't eat and we had said we ate everything! Did this include sheep's brains and marrow? Of course! How could we not in El Bulli!
The sommelier did an incredible job of offering me a reasonably priced bottle of Spanish wine with the option of a more expensive bottle that he said was probably not as good. The very epitome of great service. He knew a 25 year old was already mortgaging his life to come here so why ruin the evening by making me buy a bottle of wine for hundreds of pounds. In fact we were so focused on our wine that it lasted for the entire 4 hour meal!
Our snacks arrived along with a molecular gin fiz which is icy gin with an orangey, warm yoghurt topping that did a great job of balancing acid and creamyness, warmth and cold. It cleansed our palette for the onslaught that was to come.
The snacks included some pineapple french fries, yoghurt, peanut butter and chocolate wafers, beetroot puffs, petal candyfloss, curried rice balls wrapped in gold and spherical olives. All a complete shock to the system and served in such style it knocks whatever you see in Sunday supplements into oblivion. We took a few photos but they don't really do it justice. We just wanted to enjoy the experience.
If you want to see the whole menu have a look at the English and Spanish version below signed by the great man himself.
The general theme was of deep, earthy, challening tastes and textures. This was experienced most intensely during the succession of courses which moved as follows:
Razor Clams Lamb Brain Mackerel sweatbreads Roast bone marrow Truffle with truffle oil and walnut Snails eggs And anchovy
Intense. Heavy on unami and more than anything else very slippery. It really challenged us and has left an indelible impression on my mouth. Everything was deliciious but you wouldn't necessarily order it normally! But then again this is no ordinary experience.
Hightlights included a sensational cheese ice cream meringue with a little corn kernel infused with passionfruit. You eat it with your fingers, using the meringue spikes for grip and then feel like a taster in Willie Wonker's factory as the taste explodes in your mouth.
Then you realise why the people on the next door table had been tonguing the back of their molars and talking about something happending in the back of their mouths. That little kernel of passion fruit infused corn got wedged in the back of our teeth. Just like a rogue bit of pop corn does. Then the more you tongue it the more of the passion fruit flavour annexes your mouth ripping the cheesy ice cream taste away and leaving your palette cleansed for the next course. Sheer genius.
This got us talking to the table next door to us. These were the guys who took our picture earlier. The guy in charge was a chap from Hong Kong who had been trying to get a table for 5 years and was shocked to hear what a fluke we'd managed! He had given up trying to book for himself and instead did a deal with his mate with the black book from heaven to sort something out. In return he paid for his business class flights over from HK and 5 star hotel for 2 and for some other friends to come over too. On top of this they had wines that you could buy a small flat in London for. To him this was a once in a life time experience. He was going for it. One of their 10 bottles of wine was a Chateau Pingus which I saw in duty free on the way home for over a grand... Lord knows what it and the other 10 bottles set them back! But this wasn't done in an ostentatious way. It was a sheer epicurean extravaganza. Why do things by halves?
Another highlight was a dish of utter brilliance. Billed as a "Quebean" egg, it was a yoke cooked at 65'c for ages so that it was runny but cooked surrounded by a dash of stiff cream and a smear of taragon vinagarette. At first it made no sense. Then as you started to mix things together it turned into first hollandaise and then bernaise sauce. All we needed were some muffins and some grilled ham! It brought a smile to our faces and made us realise that we were being cooked for by the best, most innovative, playful and imaginative chefs in the world. People tell you off for playing with food. Bollocks!
We finished with some warm sheep's cheese wrapped up in candy floss with a nugget of quince paste. It was a quirky take on the what it's like to be a sheep which was a good laugh after some seriously brilliant food.
It all ended with a whisper of wind. The last course was a stack of brittle sugar panels which shimmered in the gentle breeze of the restaurant. So delicate. So different. So light. And yet again so clever.
My birthday cake was a special cardboard variety that I don't think you'll find in any card shop!
After our 4 hour marathon we left in awe. Blown away by the best meal we will ever have.
We still love to go on trips around the UK, staying in BnBs or camping in search of a good meal or two - hence, Around Britain with a Paunch. Quite often the trips have been prompted by Diana Henry's Gastro Pub Cookbook. Here's where we've been to: