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):