Tuesday, 29 September 2009
El Bulli, Costa Brava
A lot of people will tell you that Ferran Adrià, head chef at El Bulli, is a genius. For what it's worth, I think he probably is, but being a mere mortal myself it's quite a hard call to make. You see, that's the problem with genius - you almost need to be a genius yourself to recognise it in others, at least before the ideas and innovations developed by said genius become mainstream, and until they do you're more likely to be baffled or frustrated (or even worse, cursed with jealousy, Salieri-like) than, well, really actually enjoy much of it.
Consider the Beatles. Widely accepted as the greatest rock and roll band of all time, in eight short years they grew from exciting and innovative rock performers to wildly inventive studio technicians through to assured and mature crafters of clever and literate pop albums. There would be few that would argue that The Beatles (or at least Lennon and McCartney, and towards the end Harrison) were geniuses in the traditional sense - they literally invented new ways of thinking about and performing music, and their songs are stamped into the world's musical consciousness in the same way as Mozart and Beethoven. But have you listened to the White Album recently? It's one third brilliant and listenable (Blackbird, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Dear Prudence), one third challenging and experimental, but still just about accessible (Happiness Is a Warm Gun, Julia, Glass Onion) and one third bizarre, unlistenable trash (Wild Honey Pie, Why Don't We Do It In The Road?, Revolution 9). Even today it's quite hard going; God knows what they made of it in 1968. I remember my father telling me the first time he heard I'm Only Sleeping (from the album Revolver) that it was so odd with its false endings and backwards cymbals and dreamy vocals that he couldn't believe anyone could ever enjoy it. Of course now it's a seminal moment in psychedelic pop and a thoroughly good listen. When you experiment so freely, some stand the test of time and some don't. I refer you to Revolution 9.
But back to the present, and to a small restaurant at the end of a precipitous coastal road 15 minutes out of the seaside resort of Rosas in north-east Spain. It is a lovely spot, in common with much of this stretch of coastline, and the restaurant makes the most of it by serving "canapés" and "cocktails" on a very attractive terrace overlooking the bay. I use the quotation marks deliberately, because these are not canapés or cocktails as you would know them. Our "Caipirinhas" and "Mojitos" were actually short stems of sugar cane soaked in alcohol and sprinkled with salt and sugared lime peel and mint - you chew on the cane and the liquid squeezes out into your mouth very satisfyingly. It was innovative and refreshing and very enjoyable. It was also probably the most normal thing we ate or drank all evening.
I won't go into detail on all the canapés but let me take just one initial example from the selection. In the foreground of the shot above are what look like normal, fresh, juicy strawberries. And indeed they were at one time, until El Bulli saw fit to inject the inside of them with something very very salty. So what we end up with is... salty strawberries. Which tasted pretty horrible, actually. Did I just not 'get' it? Will we all be eating salty fruit in a few years time and I'll look back on the time I thought they were horrible and laugh? Is salty fruit Adrià's I'm Only Sleeping or his Revolution 9?
And so the evening wore on, and we were reseated in the restaurant proper inside. After sucking on some flower heads (which contained a lovely hibiscus 'nectar' inside), we were presented with what looked like a big block of white soap. We were instructed to 'use the paper' to eat it, which turned out to be a largely useless bit of advice as it was so fragile it almost collapsed on contact. So I buried my face into it and came back with a mouthful of what tasted mostly like coconut soap. Not actively disgusting, and you have to admire the technical skill in making such a light 'sponge', but really, this was not a pleasant thing to eat. It was bland and soapy and weird.
Far better was the next course, a miso sponge which took what was presumably the same technique and applied it to a savoury ingredient. It was rich in umami and very prettily presented. As was a slice of fried chicken skin doused in a chicken stock reduced and concentrated so much it was like eating a stock cube. But in a good way.
Truffles presented two ways didn't do much for me - great big shavings of real truffle but they were cold and one had a strange gloopy mushroomy... thing inside it which was quite off-putting. And the next course was another pretty horrible one. Chervil 'tea' - which was as far as I can tell just liquidized chervil, served in a metal bowl and looking like drained bile in a hospital kidney dish. It was unseasoned and unsettling.
Next, a little bowl of very tasty sesame-flavoured raw (I think, or at least very very lightly cooked) prawns. These were actually really nice - fun to eat and with bags of seafood flavours, but they were accompanied by a mouthful of sea anemone and caviar which didn't really taste of much. Quite an achievement for caviar.
The next course was almonds presented a number of different ways - ice cream, jelly, whole, etc. They were fine, tasted like cold almond bits. But with it was a huge lump of incredibly salty mango. Now I'm not the biggest fan of mango at the best of times, but just like the salty strawberries this was inedible - unnecessarily, pointlessly experimental for the sake of experiment.
It may seem like I'm dwelling unnecessarily on the unpleasant items and skimming over the nice bits, but this was pretty much how it went all evening. A dish or an element of a dish that tasted great and looked attractive was very often accompanied or shortly followed by something bizarre or unpleasant. Take this one for example:
Here we have four gorgeous, fresh, raw cockles with a couple of slicks of vermouth reduction and beautifully cooked crispy fennel. And there, lurking in between the seafood, are two pieces of preserved kumquat which were so unbelievably sour it was like chomping down on a raw lemon. Why?
Next, soy done a number of different ways, which we were instructed to eat from left to right. This was really interesting actually, and on the whole fairly tasty - kind of like a journey through the land of soy. I liked the crunchy beany and sprouty bits and I liked the slicks of umami-rich paste. Didn't think much of the ice cream, which was pretty bland and there was too much of it, but other than that I was happy.
The next course was very nearly successful. A gorgeous looking arrangement of rose petals was described as an 'artichoke heart', and did indeed taste a little bit like that vegetable. But it was too bitter for my liking - these were after all raw rose petals - and underwhelming all said and done.
This cute little 'apple sandwich' was a highlight. The fruit was twisted and pulled in all different directions, forming a crunchy salsa and a gloopy jus as well as the 'bread' of the sandwich itself (presumably some sort of clever freeze-drying method). It may seem a bit too clever for its own good but this one went down really well. I don't mind them messing about too much if it actually tastes any good. Fun, too.
Next was another very strong dish. We were told to dip these three little bags filled with different presentations of pine nuts into the bowl of passion fruit soup and eat it immediately. The flavours and textures here were lovely - the soft, earthy nuts and rich sweet fruit matched perfectly and it was again great fun to eat.
This shell was filled with raw chopped oysters, mushrooms and God knows what else but tasted fantastic - in fact I'd say this was probably my favourite course of them all. I wouldn't normally like anyone messing with oysters but the mushrooms added an interesting earthy extra dimension to the briny shellfish and was incredibly successful.
These huge local prawns were very cleverly presented - raw bodies but with the legs and head somehow drawn up to the top and deep-fried. You could eat the whole thing, and the crunchy legs contrasted with the squishy flesh of the body.
Parmesan Ravioli was not entirely unpleasant, just a bit pointless. The flavour combinations were, for a change, subtle and the textures pleasantly balanced - the ravioli themselves contained a creamy parmesan sauce and burst in the mouth. Nice plate, too.
The next course was one I'd been dreading - Rabbit Offals - but turned out to be almost verging on conventional. At least the bits of rabbit were all cooked - very well too, I might add - and all slipped down very well like a very meaty bruschetta. Ironically, two of my friends on the same table had at the start of the meal opted not to go down the offal route and were instead served a genuinely disgusting course of baby squids ballooned with squid ink served with a foie gras foam. They were bitter and repellent, the ink coating your mouth like thick black bile.
Fortunately, the mysteriously titled 'Hunt' was far more straightforward. Juicy, tasty and well-cooked venison in a thick jus was served alongside a few little jellied sour berries (cranberries?) covered in gold leaf. It looked and tasted delicious.
Our next course was a small glass bowl with a thin layer of ice that somehow cleverly floated inside the rim of the bowl. It was sprinkled with green tea powder and brown sugar, and you ate it by cracking off bits of the ice with your spoon. I'm also pretty sure the ice itself was flavoured with peppermint. Technically impressive, and great fun to eat.
And then, just as it seemed the meal was settling down and being consistently if not great than at least edible, a giant dinosaur egg arrived. It turned out to be coconut milk 'cooked' on the inside of a balloon using liquid nitrogen, and was certainly a sight to behold. But - much like the coconut soap at the start of the meal - it didn't really taste of anything other than unsweetened coconut ice-cream, which is not something I'd normally choose to eat. I didn't eat much of it.
This dish of freeze-dried summer berries wrapped in a sort of flavoured rice paper was really great - bursting with fruity flavours and containing a bewildering array of textures that still managed to combine well. But that was swiftly followed by:
...this supposedly 'humorous' course of cockle shells filled with fruit ice cream served with yet more inedibly sour preserved fruit.
And that, more or less, was it. We were ushered out onto the beautiful front terrace for a final time and listened to the waves crashing onto Cala Montjoi as we stuffed as many of the house chocolates down our necks as we could. It was a meal that is almost impossible to make sense of, or make any decisions about. I was fretting about writing it up from the moment, during the canapés, that it became obvious that I would not enjoy everything put in front of me that evening. Some of it was great, certainly. And the service was sparkling - all evening attentive and discreet, friendly without being matey and pitch-perfect in every regard. But it seems that now, little under a week later, it's the really nasty moments that I remember rather than the highlights. If Adrià is a genius, then perhaps this meal was his White Album, mixing in equal parts the sublime, the experimental and the downright wrong. The Beatles made that album shortly after the death of their manager Brian Epstein, and it is a body of work that exists largely due to the absence of his sensible, commercial sensibilities. If I could have taken out the dishes I hated and left in the ones I liked, perhaps I would have enjoyed the evening more. But then, that's not my decision to make. I'm not the genius.
I'll leave you with one final thought. One of our canapés at the start of the meal was the famous Spherical Olives. Sort of an olive made of olive, a delicate membrane containing a thin sauce, they burst delicately in the mouth and give forth the most incredible concentrated olive flavour. Just the right mix of technical know-how, playful innovation and command of flavour, they have become a symbol of the kind of food El Bulli is lauded for creating. But they were first served a few years ago now, and it's hard to imagine anything else we were served this visit becoming a classic in the El Bulli canon. The Spherical Olives were perhaps being served at a time when the ambitions of the kitchen and the conventions of Western cuisine met at just the right time to produce food which was not only technically stunning but also accessible and, most importantly, tasty. If the White Album marked the point where the Beatles' cohesion and self-discipline were breaking down, then perhaps the same can be true of El Bulli today. But then, perhaps this is a necessary transition. After all, the Beatles went on to make Abbey Road. Will I be back to El Bulli? It's almost a relief to say I probably won't get the chance.