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 Adrià, 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. Adrià’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
Reservations via email only, usually in October for the subsequent season: firstname.lastname@example.org