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.



JJ said...

I love the honesty.
For a while now I've wanted to visit El Bulli but was worried my food knowledge and palate wouldn't be up to the challenge, and I think this has shown I may have been right. Good that you enjoyed some of the dishes though & at least its an experience you'll never forget! Fab write up & love the Beatles comparisons.

Niamh said...

Wow, very detailed, as I guess the meal was. I love the comparison to the Beatles. It's a shame it was a disappointment.

gastrogeek said...

What an incredible experience. So good to read a review that isn't totally gushy about it too...although I must admit that I'd probably love a lot of the things you didn't, just because I do have quite a fucked up palate. Excellent write up.

P.S. I thought they reached their zenith with Rubber Soul, but then I'm more of a Stones fan so what would I know?

kate the bake said...

Wow. How incredibly refreshing to read a critical and honest review of El Bulli.
I wonder if it possible for anyone to sustain the level of innovative creativity required for a restaurant like El Bulli whilst making truly delicious foods.
Are we reaching a (hopefully temporary) plateau in terms of innovation? and if we are, what will cause the next break through?

Douglas Blyde said...

Level-headed, concise and refreshing.

It was interesting to read it, then head back to your piece towards the end of last year.


Fiona Beckett said...

Actually your experience was almost exactly mirrors mine about 6 or 7 years ago Chris. I would say of the 35 (36?) dishes I had on that occasion 5 were wonderful (though I can only remember one of them a deep fried cube of bread with cheese inside like an inverted cheese on toast), 5 were disgusting (including a repellent couple of egg 'yolks' made out of puréed peas) and the remaining 25 I couldn't have cared if I never ate again. Which I haven't as it happens.
Nice piece of writing!

Chris Pople said...

gastrogeek: Very little to choose between Rubber Soul and Revolver in my opinion. Pure, unfiltered genius.

Douglas: I know! As with lots of things, the idea of it was more seductive than the reality

Ollie said...

What a brilliant review. The Beatles were such an effective comparison. Very level-headed approach - yours is the least gushy write-up I've read of this place by miles.

Graphic Foodie said...

Very good write up Chris.

Nice to see an alternative view and actually look at it as food not just gush at the presentation or the unusual preparation or the fact that you think you SHOULD enjoy this experience. At the end of the day you are forking out €XXX for a dining experience and if you don't enjoy it what is the point?

I wont say I'm 100% put off but 98% of me thinks I would rather have a nice plate of pasta and a new pair of shoes.

Gastro1 said...

Great post and a most enjoyable read.

To follow your Beatles analogy I think Ferran Adrià and the El Bulli team are in terms of cusine composing Pet Sounds as a response to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I went several years ago whilst I was in Barcelona for a trade show and as a last minute sub for soeone so did not have the months of anticipation and expectation.

My rule is to try "great"restaurants at least 3 times before coming to a final conclusion.

I will try very hard to do so !

Andy Lynes said...

A very interesting read. However, under Rule 7, subsection 3 of the Laws of the Internet, this review is invalid as you have failed to post images of you grinning like an idiot next to the elBulli restaurant sign and making rabbit ears behind Ferran Adria's head while posing with him in his kitchen.

Chris Pople said...

Gastro1: Good luck visiting El Bulli 3 times!

Andy: I do have both of those pictures, they're just unfit for internet display. I also have one of me with my mouth full of black squid ink.

foodrambler said...

Brilliant review! Just like the food, didn't quite know what was coming next, which kept me glued to the end. I don't feel so bad about probably never getting to El Bulli now!

Douglas Blyde said...

Food Rambler: I agree with you. He's saved us all a small fortune...

Helen @ World Foodie Guide said...

I'm so glad I didn't go to El Bulli, and after reading about your experience, I now know I didn't miss out (I'll trust my instincts more in the future). Instead, I have more money to spend in Japan!

catty said...

Had a great time reading this post Chris and sorry it was such a disappointment of a meal! but I think you're right.. sometimes experimentation goes a bit far... :)

Ben said...

Excellent review, Chris. I don't think Adria expects you to like everything but it's a shame you found so much of it actively nasty. I'll still be putting in a request for a table next year but having read such an ambivalent review I'm gearing up to be less disappointed when the comedy rejection email inevitably arrives.

Boo said...

I too will be attempting to bag a table next year. Interesting post Chris, must have been a beast to write! It's a shame this was a mere 5/10, still definitely needs to be experienced by the looks of things though.

Patrick said...

An interesting an honest review Chris - not gushing nor did you say 'It was shit' because you didn't 'get it'.

I've never had a huge desire to go to El Bulli or, although I know different, The Fat Duck. The latter more because I've read so many in depth reviews and seen the pictures that I think there would be no element of surprise for me, and I think a lot of the FD stichk is predicated on an element of surprise.

As for El Bulli I think it's always been more of personal preference as to why I've never wanted to go - the food has never really appealed to me. I think for the money I'd just rather travel to Chez L’Ami Louis in Paris, Peter Luger in NYC or a blowout at Le Gavroche.

Mr Noodles said...

Shame the meal wasn't as good as your post ! It was a joy to read and I loved the Beatles references.

blue_ide1 said...

That is such a fantastic review. Sometimes good judgment gets clouded by "hype", no? I wonder, how would you compare El Bulli to the Fat Duck?

Miss Eva Lai said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hollow Legs said...

Eva, thanks for giving me the best laugh I've had in AGES!

Helen said...

Well I actually wanted to comment about El Bulli but Eva, you are too hard an act to follow. I give up.

Chris Pople said...

Right well! Leaving aside certain off-topic comments for the timebeing...

blue_ide1: I actually have no immediate desire to go to the Fat Duck. I think I've had enough shock-effect food to last me a good while (and I need to give my wallet a chance to recover too). Nope, give me a grouse at Rules any day.

meemalee said...

Oi. I like Revolution 9.

Unknown said...

Wow this is the only negative review I have read of El Bulli. Very brave. Based on your descriptions I can see why you have taken this view, but I must admit I would still love to go there and check it out for myself. Fingers crossed for this years ballot...

The Ample Cook said...

How refreshing.

I have neither the money nor the desire to visit this restaurant and find your review both excellent and a bit of a comfort really.

I have read quite a few reviews on El Bulli and even the ones who gushed still didn't sell it to me.
Yours however is both honest and brave. Well done you.

eatmynels said...

So interesting to read an ungushing response - I still have the urge to go however !!

Naimah said...

that looks so yummy! what a way to eat in style! Naimah


Melanie Seasons said...

When I think of just how much money it is to eat there... I know it's an 'experience', but for one month's rent in London, I better *love* every single thing I put in my mouth.

Jennifer said...

I'm going in 2 weeks. Maybe I'll enjoy it more now that my expectations are lowered, like the reverse of seeing a film that someone tells you is wonderful and then, for you, it's just... ok. I will live in hope!

I've eaten so many fine dining meals in the last few weeks that a bowl of decently-cooked chips has never held so much appeal. Maybe we can be thankful to El Bulli and similar restaurants for renewed appreciation of every day food that mere mortals can cook.

Great review - thanks for tackling it!

Andrew Webb said...

it takes a good pair of freeze-dried inverted sphericalized plums to go all that way, pay all that money, and still write an genuine review.

I enjoyed it


Anonymous said...

I appreciate the fact that for one of the rare times, an 'post' is very honest about the place. Everybody's taste is different and i'm sure, and hope for El Bulli, that a lot of people like his place but it's good to have a different point of view and an honest one.
Thanks for sharing your honest thoughts about this place.

Anonymous said...

Good to read an honest review. I've been to a number of fine dining venues (though not El Bulli) and have as a rule been disappointed, I suspect because I also do not have highly trained tastebuds. However, I would just like to point out, that salty fruit is not necessarily new, as salted unripe mangoes are seen quite often in India and I believe South America.

Lee Justin Collins said...

Well sadly, El Bulli is now going to close for good. Living only a couple of miles from this World Famous Restaurant, i always thought one day, when the children can feed themselves, i would be able to eat their, but sadly no.

Let's hope that things change, and i get my wish.
Empuriabrava Now

Quim Jardí said...

hi, just found your blog and i'm loving it. i loved the beatles-adrià comparison. it was a great way to make your point clear for the masses

i'm afraid it was most likely a visit to my country what gave adrià the ideas for what you didn't enjoy. we've been eating and loving very salty and very sour fruit for ages now (and sniggering at the expense of poor surprised tourists as well). it was only a few hours ago that my avant-garde-hating father-in-law was raving about the delicious green mango with salt, green lemon and red hot chili pepper he had for lunch

chicken breast with salty strawberry salsa is quite rapidly becoming a standard of traditional mexican cuisine as well

since i've only read two posts, i'm looking forward to what other delights your blog has to offer

Empuriabrava said...

I heard indeed a lot of people saying that they liked the food. But you can not discuss tastes and colors.

Empuriabrava said...

I heard indeed many people saying they liked it there. But you can not discuss colors and tastes. Thanks for the feedback