Tuesday 25 November 2008

An Evening with Ferran Adrià, Southbank Centre

"You take a fairly straightforward tomato sauce", explained Ferran Adrià (via translator), on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London's South Bank last night, "and inject it using a syringe into a child's balloon". The sell-out audience of nearly 1,000 people, expecting nothing less weird and wonderful from someone generally regarded as the world's greatest living chef, watched in fascinated awe. Adrià had been at pains to point out that the food cooked at El Bulli wasn't "science-y", wasn't "molecular gastronomy" and wasn't elitist, and yet these are clearly techniques and processes far beyond the reach of most professional kitchens, never mind your average home chef. And this being El Bulli, nothing is as straightforward as it seems. The tomato sauce, for example, contained two different types of thickening agent ("because just using gelatine doesn't produce the right consistency"), and the next stage of the process involved rolling the tomato-filled balloon in a bath of liquid nitrogen.

The thickened tomato sauce "cooks", you see, on the inside of the balloon when it comes into contact with the extremely cold liquid nitrogen, the rolling helping to produce an even coating. And then the magic - the balloon is pierced and peeled away, revealing an impossibly delicate sphere of tomato. The end of this fragile translucent frame is carefully broken and injected (using something called an Isi Whip) with a light tomato mousse. The end result is at once beautifully simple and yet touched with childlike wonder - a fake tomato made of real tomato, if you like, a dance of textures and techniques that is like no other food stuff served at no other restaurant on earth. And should you be lucky enough to be served this at El Bulli in 2009 (when this dish makes its debut), it will be only one course out of more than thirty.

"To describe El Bulli as 'a restaurant' is like calling Shakespeare 'a writer'" - technically correct on one level, and falling far short so many others. El Bulli is the restaurant - a fairytale God-like palace of delights, a cross between Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory and The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe, and Adrià has spent the best part of 25 years developing and re-imagining the food served there to the point where it's not only far and away the most influential kitchen on the planet but also the most in-demand. Every year over 2,000,000 emails chase 8,000 seats, turning securing a reservation into something like winning the food lottery (or perhaps Wonka's golden ticket), and helping to elevate the experience into the realm of myth.

I made my own pilgrimage on Sunday as part of a weekend break to the Costa Brava. The car park gates were closed and there was little sign of life from inside El Bulli's curtained windows, but I have a feeling the Oompa Loompas were in there somewhere, chopping and blending and preparing for June 2009 when the doors open next. I don't know if I'll ever get to eat there - certainly the odds are stacked against it - but it won't be for want of trying. For the last six years I have dutifully sent off my reservation request on the 16th October, and around 14 days later each year receive the same polite reply - "La demanda recibida en el primer momento ha superado de nuevo nuestras limitadas posibilidades para una temporada y sentimos no poder complacer más peticiones de reserva." So, that's a no, then. Oh well, here's to next year.

Back in the Southbank Centre, Jay Rayner (the evening's host) has asked how many people in the audience have not yet eaten at El Bulli. Predictably, nearly everyone puts their hands up. But touchingly, rather than being pleased his restaurant is in such demand, Adrià puts his head in his hands, crestfallen. "It's so sad", he says, "If I could give everyone in the world who wanted one a meal at El Bulli, I would". Such is the burden of a great chef. Picasso and Mozart can have their works reprinted and replayed and toured the world over, but the dialogue between a restaurant and its guests is ephemeral - different from one day to the next, even one hour to the next, a slave to human inconsistencies, technical variations, ingredients, the changing of the seasons and the passing of time. And despite how often Adrià was at pains to point out last night that his food wasn't elitist, the reality is that unless you're either very lucky or very rich, you will never eat at El Bulli, and instead you will learn of the twists and swirls and foams of El Bulli second or third hand, becoming part of the myth without ever tasting the experience first-hand. Adrià knows this, and it hurts.

But then, maybe the myth of El Bulli is part of what has made it so powerfully influential after all. Like the gaggle of dysfunctional children gorging on chocolate in the hope of winning a golden ticket to the Wonka factory, we all want a piece of the magic and live in hope of being "chosen", and the more torturous the journey and longer the wait, the more we want it. From time to time, at events like last night's, glimpses of the wonders inside the whitewashed walls leak out, and the excitement increases even more. Perhaps one day I will revisit El Bulli, not as a geeky food tourist taking holiday snaps out of season, but as a paying guest, and I will walk up to that unassuming front door and make it inside. But if not, at least I'll be in good company. And anyway, what kind of world would this be if they were giving away the taste of paradise to every kid gathered at the factory gates?

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There's nothing to it

"Pure Imagination"
Lyrics and Music by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley
Performed by Gene Wilder

Monday 17 November 2008

One City Road, The City

Last week I had a completely non-descript meal in One City Road, a new bar/brasserie place catering for the business lunch crowd just off Finsbury Square. Like the dutiful little blogger I am, I started off taking pictures and making notes of the atmosphere and service and I made sure I recorded any details that would help in the later review. Then, halfway through a bog standard Rueben sandwich and chips, I made the decision that I would not, in fact, write this meal up. Not because the experience was so dispiriting and soulless that it would depress me too much to write about it - in fact the service was rather charming and the chips were quite nice. But it was the conversation I was having with my chum over my salt beef and rye that made my mind up. We were talking about the US election.

It turns out that we had both stayed up until the early hours of the morning, flicking between the coverage on various channels, increasingly addicted to the numbers and percentages, rumours and results. The evening played out like a euphoric symphony, starting slowly with some teasing exit polls and predictable safe states, the melody building through crucial swing wins like Pennsylvania and Virginia to the final climactic announcements around 2am, accompanied by sweeping shots of cheering multitudes in Illinois and Times Square, the crashing of cymbals and a full horn section (metaphorically speaking).

I wasn't awake for the Grant Park speech, but caught much of it the next morning. Gracious and sincere, flanked by his family and before an ecstatic crowd of close to a quarter of a million, it was a genuinely world-changing moment. And to those who will say that the reality of the Obama presidency will surely struggle to live up to the expectation his soaring rhetoric has created, well you may be right. But just for now, and for as long as this moment lasts, his victory has united the entire world in the hope that things may just be on the up.

Then, a couple of days later, I went for a Rueben sandwich on City Road. It was OK. But who cares? Barack Obama is the President of the United States.


Tuesday 11 November 2008

Le Bouchon Breton, Spitalfields

The Bouchon Bordelais has been a fixture on Battersea Rise for as long as I've been living in the area, and I walk past its front doors almost every weekend on the way to the shops and stalls on Northcote Road. I went once, a few years ago, for lunch. It wasn't bad - they served nice skinny chips and I quite enjoyed my steak (this being before the time I really knew what good steak was) - but a friend's mullet was nasty (the fish, not his hairdo) and for the price I paid I decided it wasn't worth the outlay so I've never been back.

But a week or so ago I noticed a new menu posted outside the Bordelais. Kind of a cross between a French bistro and Corbin and King (the brains behind the Wolseley, the Ivy and others), it now has a larger selection of more varied dishes, from a simple bowl of soup to a 500g steak frites, much of it quite affordable and all of it, I have to say, very tempting. Turns out the Bouchon brand had been revamped by none other than M. Roux of Le Gavroche fame, and even has a sister restaurant newly opened in Spitalfields Market in the East End. And it was this new branch, named Le Bouchon Breton, that I visited for lunch Friday last week.

If first impressions were all that counted, Le Bouchon Breton wouldn't be at all bad. The room is airy and pleasant, having done the best they can with what is essentially a goldfish bowl on the first floor of a brand new office development. It's perhaps best described as a Parisien bistro reimagined by Norman Foster, but I liked the fresh seafood counter out the front and the atmosphere was buzzy without being oppressively loud. It's populated by an impressive number of smart "French" (more of that later) waiters with a ready smile and competent manner, and after being seated and presented with those exciting menus, I was on a high. I should have left there and then.

The first sign of trouble was that after our initial meet and greet it took us a good fifteen minutes to flag down a waiter to order, and when we asked for a bottle of house white he insisted we waited for the sommelier. We only wanted house white, and the intervention of the sommelier would hardly have convinced us otherwise, but procedures are procedures and pointless pretentious flummery is pointless pretentious flummery I suppose. After another five or ten minutes and the sommelier had steadfastly refused to appear, we managed to grab another waiter who took our order for wine without complaint.

There was yet more time for the hapless service to flounder during the food order. "Madame, s'il vous plait?" one began to a member of our party who happened to be French. Instantly she rattled off her order in her mother tongue, only to be interrupted mid-flow by the blushing waiter who quietly explained that he was, in fact, Russian and couldn't speak French. A sweet, and rather humorous incident you might think, but it just reinforced the impression that in the effort for that elusive notion of authenticity the management may have inadvertently just created a French theme restaurant. "Go up to people and introduce yourself in French", you can imagine the management saying. "They'll be too stupid to understand or reply, but they'll forgive all kinds of horrors with the food if they think this is how the French do it". Kind of a Gallic TGI Fridays, but with more expensive wine.

The food, when it eventually arrived, was only OK. My French Onion Soup had a great big crouton dissolving soggily inside it and had clearly been standing under a heat lamp for a while. It also had no toasted cheesy crust on the top, although the actual broth was satisfyingly beefy. It was no better than the £2.50 example you can get from the Eat sandwich chains on Mondays though. And my main course of lamb cutlets in rosemary jus would have been a whole lot nicer had they used decent meat - Hawksmoor, just around the corner on Commercial Street, serves the tastiest cuts of lamb in London for exactly the same price. Here they were fatty and tasteless and drowned by the strong sauce. Opinions around the table from my fellow diners were similarly mixed; a steak baguette was dry and uninteresting, the lobster bisque was overly creamy and didn't contain enough lobster. The overall impression was of a restaurant trying to increase its margins by cooking smaller amounts of inferior ingredients, and you have to have real skill in the kitchen to pull this off successfully. Le Bouchon Breton may have culinary genius M. Roux on its management team, but it's only with him in the kitchen that it would stand a chance turning out food worth paying for.

Perhaps it's silly to criticize a French restaurant in London for not being authentic, but the tragedy is that I can see what they are trying to do. Affordable bistro style food covering all bases, recognisably French and served in an informal setting - it sounds like most people's idea of a perfect dining spot. The fact that Le Bouchon Breton falls so short just shows how difficult it is to get that balance right. This may not be the last I see of the Bouchons - the £12.50 lunch menu is still generously priced and of course there's the revamped Battersea Branch that might yet win me back - but the experience on Friday lunchtime was summed up quite neatly by a fellow diner as she peered miserably into her insipid lobster bisque - "We should have just gone to the Fox again".


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