Travels

Dinner at El Bulli

El Bulli

I remember reading about El Bulli four or five years ago in the French newspaper Le Monde. I remember the yearning, and I remember the pang that followed closely: considering the small number of guests that the restaurant could accommodate each season, the dream seemed out of reach. But a few years later, I learned from a well-informed friend that getting a reservation was a bit like playing the lottery: the odds were low, but it didn’t cost much to try (see below).

And so I played, I won, and this is how Maxence and I found ourselves flying to Barcelona last weekend with three of our friends. My state of mind was a mix of excitement and circumspection: few restaurants have gotten as much press as this one, and I knew that the actual experience could fall short of my expectations. Fortunately, there was no need to brace myself for disappointment. The evening that we spent at El Bulli was every bit as extraordinary, surreal, and more important, joyful, as I’d hoped it to be.

We arrived at the restaurant in early evening, after a short curvy ride up and down the mountain road that leads to Cala Montjoi, and offers a striking view out to sea. A tiny parking lot, a small (and a bit scruffy) beach, a handsome tiled-roof house — we walked up the stairs and were greeted by the staff, who gave us a short tour of the kitchen and led us to our table by the window, nicely isolated from the rest of the room: the arrival of each dish offers a bit of a dramatic thrill, so we were happy not to get any spoilers from the other tables.

The tasting menu, which changes slightly every day, unfolds in three acts and thirty-five dishes: small snacks that you eat with your fingers, larger-sized tapas to be eaten with a fork and spoon (no knife, ever), and desserts. It is a fast-paced dining rollercoaster, with explosive flavors and textural surprises that await you at every turn — it is thus a good idea to take a break on the terrace every now and then. Each dish, or group of dishes, is brought to the table by a small squadron of waiters dressed in black, and while you are busy taking pictures of the new UFO that has just landed, the head waiter explains what it is (in our case, in excellent French), and how to eat it: start with this end or that, gobble it up in just one bite, or hurry before it melts.

There were recurring themes within the meal — seaweed, seeds, Parmesan, Thai flavors, clementine, peach, the cotton candy texture, and Adrià’s famous esferificación technique, in which liquids are trapped in a thin alginate casing that bursts open on your tongue. Not everything was successful, and not everything sent shivers of pure pleasure down your spine: some of the flavors were quite strong, and it took stamina to take them all in with fresh taste buds. But every single item managed to amaze and entertain, making the whole experience quite dazzling, both on an intellectual and sensory level.

And now, for your entertainment, let me offer a photographic account of the menu we were served (those with asterisks are the ones I enjoyed the most):

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US Roadtrip Highlights, A Directory

Roadtrip

As a post-scriptum to the notes from my roadtrip across the US, I have put together a list of the restaurants we enjoyed (plus a handful of non food-related stores/services), should you find yourself in the areas we visited.

~Florida~

Miami

Jerry’s Famous Deli
Huge diner-type deli — breakfast served all day.
1450 Collins Avenue – (305) 532-8030

Puerto Sagua
Old Cuban diner in South Beach.
700 Collins Avenue – (305) 673-1115

Versailles
Cuban restaurant-cum-bakery in Little Havana.
3555 SW 8th St – (305) 444-0240

Key Largo

The Crack’d Conch
The seafood shack of your dreams, with an alligator-shaped mailbox — if that doesn’t make you want to go, I don’t know what will.
105045 Overseas Highway – (305) 451-0732

~Alabama~

Mobile

The Brick Pit
Self-titled “The best d*** smoked bar-b-que in the great state of Alabama”. Everything expertly sloooooow-roasted (pulled pork, ribs, chicken), great coleslaw, superb banana pudding.
5456 Old Shell Road – (251) 343-0001

Satori Coffee House
A coffee shop and used record store in what used to be an individual house. Comfy porch, free wi-fi. (Right next door to the Brick Pit.)
5460 Old Shell Road – (251) 344-4575

~Louisiana~

New Orleans (Log on to nomenu.com to see which restaurants have reopened post-Katrina.)

Acme Oyster House
Oyster bar — also serves the usual suspects of Louisiana cuisine (&eacuteltouffée, gumbo, jambalaya, etc).
724 Iberville St – (504) 525-1160

Bon Ton Café
Louisiana dishes — generous crawfish jambalaya, service a bit curt.
401 Magazine Street – (504) 524-3386

Maison Bourbon
Jazz club — “for the preservation of jazz”.
641 Bourbon St – (504) 522-8818

Breaux Bridge

Café des Amis
Cajun cuisine with a sophisticated touch — loved the softshell crab and the stupendous cane syrup cake.
140 E. Bridge Street – (337) 332-5273

Mulate’s
Large bustling restaurant with a cosy bar area. Live Cajun music every night.
325 Mills Avenue – (337) 332-4648

Norbert Leblanc
Swamp tours on Lake Martin — incredible guy, just meeting him and listening to his delicious Cajun-French would be worth the price he charges ($20 per person).
(337) 654-1215

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US Roadtrip Highlights, Part II

Roadtrip

[You may want to read Part I first.]

Before I proceed with the second installment of notes from my roadtrip, I would like to respond to a question posted by Robin: how did we choose our food stops? The overall theme for this vacation was “improvisation” — no planned route, no schedule, just us, a car blissfully equipped with cruise control, and a Michelin road atlas — and this made it difficult to visit any of the fancier, reservations-needed establishments. Luckily this was the whole point, and even when we happened upon such a place and it seemed to have room to accommodate us, we would just look at the curlicued menu, the candles, the freshly ironed tablecloths, exchange a glance, and hop back into the car to search for something more basic, with less chichi and more ketchup.

The places we ended up going to were a happy mix of:
~ Guidebook recommendations. We used the Roadfood guide and the Lonely Planet guide to the US. The former is excellent (and not just because the Sterns and I share the same editor and publisher); the latter we do not recommend. Save for a few exceptions, the restaurants they mentioned were either not tempting enough for us to look for them, or disappointing when we did — perhaps we just don’t share the authors’ tastes.
~ Serendipitous finds. An impressively speedy nerve connection seems to establish itself between the empty stomach, the eye, and the hand holding the steering wheel, and we had some of our best meals on such occasions.
~ Dining tips shared by people we met on the road, and advice from C&Z readers. There wasn’t nearly enough time (or meals) to check out even a fraction of these places, but I do want to thank those of you who took the time to share your favorites. I am certainly keeping these recommendations for another time.

And now, on to the notes…

– If you buy pecan pralines in Cajun country — 3-inch-wide disks of super-sweet pecan goodness that crumbles and melts on your tongue — you should definitely taste them before you get home. That way you’ll know you should have bought much, much more.

– You won’t regret spending a bit of time in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, one of our favorite spots of the whole trip. Walking around the pretty downtown, having an iced coffee at the Coffee Break, buying an old cake stand or a rusty roadsign from one of the American antique stores, then taking a boat tour of the swamps on Lake Martin to see the cypresses and the birds. Having dinner at Café des Amis (don’t miss their gâteau sirop, drippy with cane syrup and studded with pecans) and a drink at Mulate’s, to listen to the live Cajun band and marvel at the thousands of business cards pinned to the ceiling. Staying in one of the quaintly decorated Bayou Cabins (ours was called Miss Elise), indulging in fresh beignets for breakfast (closer to bugnes from Lyon than donuts), drinking your morning coffee on your very own back porch overlooking the Bayou Teche, and not forgetting your complimentary Cajun platter when you leave. Homemade boudin, cracklin (fried pork skin), and spicy headcheese — that should take care of lunch.

– When you rent a car, do check that there is not only a spare tire, but also a jack in the trunk. That will prove quite useful when you have a flat in the middle of nowhere, as there won’t always be a 70-year-old aligator hunter to lend you a hand and a jack.

– You might think you’re doing the reasonable thing by ordering a grilled chicken po’boy, but once you take a bite of your travelling companion’s variation, stuffed with extra-large fried oysters, you will sorely regret your choice (Le Café, Breaux Bridge, Louisiana).

– Perhaps I am the last one to be let in on this, but Mexican eateries make sandwiches called tortas, and the combo of avocado and chile rellenos (roasted peppers stuffed with cheese and fried) is a glorious filling for them (Tacos & Salsa in Alamogordo, New Mexico — their shredded beef tacos were just as splendid).

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US Roadtrip Highlights, Part I

Roadtrip

Maxence and I are back from our roadtrip across the US — still a bit jetlagged, but extremely pleased with how it went. 4,952 miles driven in 17 days through 7 states: in order of appearance, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Stupendous landscapes, extremely kind people along the way (except for that one tattooed psycho in a pick-up truck, but that was fun in retrospect), fabulous roadfood, all the ingredients were there to make our vacation precisely the kind of adventure-filled trip we were hoping for.

So, how does one write up such a journey, where does one begin? I could of course transcribe my moleskine notes here, but even I can’t quite make out what I wrote in some places, so I will just go with a collection of thoughts from the road and the table.

– Feed me a burger a day and I’m a happy girl. I didn’t eat a burger a day because quirkier food specialties beckoned, but I would have otherwise, and still managed to gobble up six of them — about six times more than I normally do in a year.

– Put jalapeño in anything and I’ll order it. Especially if it’s a burger, and especially if they add bacon so you can call it breakfast (Tecolote Café in Santa Fe, New Mexico).

– Put crawfish in anything and I’ll order it. Driving through Louisiana, I thought I might just turn into one. I would have become the world’s first crawfish who blogs.

Fresh boiled peanuts are good. They burn the tips of your fingers if you’re sitting on the passenger seat and are hence the appointed boiled peanut peeler, but their flavor, which comes closer to that of edamame (green soybeans) than that of dry roasted peanuts, will make it worth your while. We got ours from a roadside stand in Florida, where the lady’s eyes clouded with worry when we told her about the trip we were taking: she warned us against the many dangers of the road ahead (bandit hitch-hikers in particular) and gave us perfectly ripe Georgia peaches that made our hands smell like cotton candy afterwards.

Ice-cream always tastes better if someone crushes good stuff into it (say, cookie dough, peanut butter cups, Oreo cookies, or mini-marshmallows) on a cold stone while dancing to disco music (Amy’s ice-cream, Austin, Texas).

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San Francisco Get-Together: A Reminder

Left Turn Signal

We are still on the road — somewhere between Texas and California — but I wanted to remind you about the C&Z get-together in San Francisco this Monday. Here are the details, I hope you can join us!

When? Monday, July 10th.
Where? Place Pigalle in San Francisco, located at 520 Hayes Street (@ Octavia).
What time? We will be there from 7pm.

[Important note: The initial plan was to meet in Palo Alto, but the location has been changed to SF.]

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