Part 3 -- "Taking One For the Team" (El Bulli -- Roses, Spain)
Read Part 1, Part 2 or Part 4
So picking up where we left off, oh several months ago (I suck, I know, I'm sorry)...
Luis shows us to the dining room, which actually feels more like someone's house than a restaurant. The colors are all warm and in general, the whole shebang feels a fuckload more casual than I would have expected. I can see that there is another dining area off to the right, which seems a bit more like a "dining room" but still like someone's home nonetheless. I dig it. P.S. We have no idea who those people are in that picture -- they just happened to be in the dining room that night.
Now El Bulli is about to rack up some major brownie points because as they show us to our seat, they do what we like to call "our favorite." They seat us both side by side on the banquette. Now there are drawbacks to this, because we can't really look at each other as well, but we CAN grab the other person easily when something is particularly tasty or disgusting. And we can whisper about the things and/or people we don't like. And this allows our server to present our dishes very theatrically.
That last sentence aside, the lovely chiquita who was our server was anything but theatrical. In fact, I would almost use the word timid. No matter, she was nice and she was informed and that's about all that I give two shits about.
Since we passed the small bites portion with flying colors, we were feeling pretty darn smug about what was yet to come. It started with a tonic soup with cucumber and roses. This was lovely through and through. The tonic was an ice, and the cucumber and roses were each a gelee. And it was pretty. The flavor was scrumptious and the texture was downright silly. Super duper.
What came next was one of my most very favorite parts of the meal. This was because it a) had several things I very much enjoy and b) it was kind of like a present in that you had to dig through the foam to get to the substance. This dish was honey/flowers/pistachio. The honey was the foam, which (as you can see) was sprinkled with pretty leetle flowers. Underneath it all sat the freshest, smoothest pistachios I've ever had the pleasure of eating. The flavors paired nicely, and all in all, I'm thinking "OK, there has been a little weirdness so far, but really, not so scary." Famous last words.
We gets ourselves some plates of anchovies with "raisins." The "raisins" are various sweet wines all spherified and such. The anchovies were perfect and briny and I could have eaten the raisins all night long (can I get a little Lionel Richie going on?). Jon and I both despise actual (as opposed to virtual) raisins, but I was able to get past the association. Jon had a bit more trouble. Pussy.
I am a dumbass. Let's just establish that right now. I can't really tell you much about the next thing we ate, and you'll see why. It was gorgonzola pie/nuts/lyo. Now you may remember that in Part 2 (if you can remember that long ago) that I had no idea what lyo was. Well, the charming Alex e-mailed me the following:
"hello. i read your hystericall blog on el bulli, wich i loved and iam
waiting for pat 3, and saw that you are asking what is LYO. It is a
technique where you freeze food and then you put it in a lyofilzadora, (i
dont know the name in english), but what it does is that it takes the water
from food without it been liquid and you end up with a styrofoam like
texture.its what NASA does to ice cream sandwiches for the astronauts."
I see. OK. Now from the picture, you can see that the gorgonzola pie is what has received the lyo work up. And there are some pine nuts. And where would we be without foam? Sweet young thing instructs us to lift the foil like bit and use our index finger to slide the "pie" into our mouths. I slide it right into my lap. I try to save it and lick some off my fingers. Sweet young thing is horrified "Oh, ma'am, ma'am, it's OK!" (And, by the way, when did I become a fucking ma'am???? I mean, for fuck's sake, I got carded at Trader Joe's 2 months ago even in a visibly knocked up state, with my husband, and wedding rings. This was because I had the genius idea to try to save time by using my wallet to pay for the alcohol Jon was going to drink. TJ's thinks I'm an underage pregnant alcoholic apparently. But I digress.). I must confess, I don't really like bleu cheese, so it was just as well. Jon liked it. I thought the texture was fun. Lesson here? Listen to your mama and mind your manners by always putting a napkin in your lap. It was my saving grace with this little treat.
Rolling up to the plate now is perhaps the most memorable dish of the evening. It wasn't the best, or the worst, but it was perhaps the most unusual. It's definitely the dish we always mention whenever we are asked about the El Bulli experience. This would be "seeds." And that's exactly what it was. Seeds. Lots of them. In pretty little piles on the plate. Cucumber seeds. Padron pepper seeds. Several kinds of tomato. Passion fruit. Sesame. Pumpkin. It was, hands down, the coolest thing I've ever been served. I liked it way more than Jon. Jon was kind of grossed out by the whole thing. I liked having to guess which seeds I was eating. As you can see, no El Bulli dish would be complete without a bunch of crap on the plate (foam, gelee, spherical balls, etc.).
It's a damn good thing for Jon, then, that the next thing was not only interesting and weird, but very, very tasty. Tomato soup with "virtual Iberian ham." Looks gross, right? Not at all. The jelly bits tasted just like the perfection that is jamon iberico, and the soup, well it tasted like tomatoes. Who doesn't like tomatoes and ham? Yummy, yummy in my tummy.
Oh yeah, we're still drinking. Bubbly. All the way through. Of course, the nice couple next to us, who hailed from LA, shared their exceptional Reynard with us as well. We love them.
Let's dig into some razor clams in vinegar sauce. For some reason, Jon is having more trouble dealing with some of these dishes than I am. Perhaps that's because I already pussied out by telling them in advance what I wouldn't eat. I do kind of get it. Razor clams in vinegar sauce with some peanut goop on the side isn't particularly interesting. I wouldn't kick it out of bed, but it didn't rock my world either.
Sometimes you just have to laugh. And that's what I did when I was presented with a plate of seaweed. Several different kinds fanned out around a chunk of watermelon. Now, I like seaweed, I do. But heading to the beach and grabbing a handful of crap to throw on a plate is not cooking. In fact, we happen to have one of the items on the plate in our fish tank. At home. I still ate it all, and it was fine, but I certainly wasn't enlightened to the wonders of "the sea" (the name of said dish). I will give this particular plate an A+ in the presentation department -- it was real purty to look at (then again, everything at El Bulli was nice to look at).
Story Time: At one point, Jon decided he had to pee so he excused himself and made his way to the loo. Now earlier in the meal we had noticed some boisterous young men (Spanish), clad in jeans, living it up at a table next to us. Rumor had it that it was Ferran's nephew and his friends, but we don't know this for sure. As Jon was relieving himself, he heard two of the young men in an adjacent stall, sniffing away. They returned to their table more animated than ever. Now I'm no prude, folks, but if you're going to be getting your substances on at El Bulli, I'd think something akin to a psychadelic would be a better choice than a stimulant. I'm just saying.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I was awaiting a plate of olives. Not real olives, but little green spheres that look and taste like olives. These were not intended for us. Everyone eating at El Bulli gets a unique meal. Some of it overlaps what other diners are eating, some does not. When Jon saw that our next door table neighbors were receiving the infamous olives, he HAD to have some. Um, OK....but, honey? Neither of us likes olives unless they are mushed up and mixed with other stuff. Chalk it up to our belief that we were tortured in the Mediterranean in a past life (we don't do raisins -- see previous, feta cheese or dates either). In any case, if you want something at El Bulli, you get it. Your wish is their command.
Of course you know how the rest of this goes. We get the olives. 4 of them. Jon just about puked after tasting the first one. I was not thrilled by them either, but since we had fussed about it, I took one, or rather THREE, for the team. I really, really love my husband.
Fortunately for me, this was followed by more seeds and more balls, which I hadn't quite grown bored of yet. We had a zuchhini risotto with curry-peanut capsules. The "risotto" was zuchhini seeds, and the capsules were just what they sounded like. The taste of this was oh-so-tasty, but the texture was what made it really remarkable. The gelatinous balls mixed with the zucchini seeds pleased my palate to no end. It's right about here where I start to feel ridiculously full. Anyone that tells you that you don't get full at El Bulli is a liar. Sure, the portions are small, but when you are dealing with 142 million courses that doesn't really matter now, does it?
Moving on. Crab -- marrakech. I have to be honest. I suck really bad. It took me so long to write this that I remember nothing about this at all. Which means it was probably unremarkable in either a good way or a bad way. Or it means that I'd had my fair share of wine at that point. As I wrote this, I desperately called out to Jon to come and help save me from admitting that I'm a hack who can't remember one of her courses from EL BULLI for fuck's sake, so he came in to help rescue me. I showed him the picture. His response? "Oh we liked it. It was yummy." So there you have it. I remember that the crab was delicate and lovely and that the spices were well balanced but that's about all I remember from this. I think it scored pretty low on the weird scale, which may explain my foggy memory.
The next course was different for the two of us. Mostly because there was no way I was going to be eating no lamb brains. Jon's lamb brains "in their own juice" (brains have juice????), actually looked really cool. And he was a super trooper wolfing them down and, *gasp*, enjoying them. "The sauce was particularly good" is his recollection. Sauce? You mean the brain juice, honey?
I was blessed to receive a plate of potato mounds that had been whipped into an airy, delicate puree, topped with thin slices of Iberian ham and surrounded by liquid parmesan. This was so lip-lickin' that I wanted to go and punch the kitchen staff for serving it so late in the meal when my stomach was already so full that I thought I might need it pumped before dessert.
Praise be to Jesus, then, that we were actually moving on to "cheese" and "dessert." Notice the quotes.
Cheese was "sheep -- the cheese and the wool". Excellent on all fronts. A gooey pecorino was topped with a cotton-like incarnation of the same cheese and paired with some fruity paste. The cheese I remember, the paste I do not. It was a good foible but not nearly as memorable as the cheese itself.
Our first dessert was a piquillo pepper and banana tatin. The banana goo was on top of a pastry rectangle and covered in frozen piquillo pepper stuff. It was actually very, very good. The temperature and texture contrasts were what really stood out here, and I was so grateful that it was not a filling dessert as I was already busting out of my pants.
The same cannot be said for the next dessert. Freeze dried carrots with coconut cream and some other grossness (and I love carrots and coconut, but maybe not together, and maybe not like this). I'm all for adventure, but this simply did not taste good. Weirdness for weirdness sake does not a yummy dinner make. Now I appreciate this -- I like that El Bulli basically uses it's diners as guinea pigs to test the limits of cuisine. Still, it doesn't mean that I'm going to pretend that I liked the results of each of those experiments.
Fortunately, my palate was cleansed with a chunk of peach drenched in a peach syrup/gelee type thing. It was refreshing and we got to eat it with the coolest utensil I've ever seen (tuning fork is what comes to mind here).
We finished up with "morphings," which were little freeze dried bits of peanuts and chocolate covered in gold. No complaints there. Jon enjoyed a perfect espresso alongside these little morsels.
And then we were done. How is that possible? How is it that something we'd waited for for so long could be over so fast? And how was it that I was actually grateful that it was over? Partly because I was full, and partly because I felt relieved to have finally experienced what I'd anticipated for so long.
We thanked everyone in the restaurant -- up, down and sideways -- before paying our check. And while it was not cheap, it's a steal for what some consider to be the "best restaurant in the world."
We made our way back to our car and cursed all the fucking taxis waiting outside. And we made our way back down "that road," wondering if and when we'd get to return.
Now for the million dollar question: Do *I* think it's the best restaurant in the world? Well, I think you can probably figure that out on your own. If you need me to tell you, though, you'll have to wait for Part 4.
You knew I was a bitch when you took me on.
"To eat is a necessity. To eat intelligently is an art."
-- La Rochefoucauld