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My last -- and anyone's best -- shot at elBulli


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Dinner at elBulli, 9 April 2011

(Nathan Myhrvold, Max Bilet, Tim Ryan, Thierry Rautureau, Johnny Iuzzini and Steven Shaw)

1. “Pillow like a cocktail.” The flavors were of pina colada. The dish was such a strong start by virtue of being better and better-executed than any cocktail I've had in the solid genre. This is one of a few dishes where the photographic image doesn't come close to capturing it, because so much of the drama involves tearing off pieces, exposing the interior and experiencing the varied textures and flavors.

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2. “Mojito and apple flute.” Nathan and Max understood exactly how the wafer/meringue/whatever was engineered. I did not. Throughout the meal they had insight into the techniques at play. I did not.

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3. “Almond fizz with Amarena-LYO.”

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4. “Nori seaweed with lemon.” This was the first of several Japanese-inflected items that appeared here and there throughout the menu.

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5. “Hibiscus and peanut.”

6. “Pistachio ravioli.”

7. “Parmesan cheese macaron.”

8. “Parmesan cheese porra.” These last four items arrived together in a wave. This would be a good place to note that the meal encompassed several sub-themes, where Adria explores an ingredient or cultural theme or both. Nathan M., who has been to elBulli quite a few times, reports that this started last season. I'm surprised it took that long, not that I thought of it or anything. But it made the meal much more of a composition to have “movements” of varying types and levels of coherence within the overarching structure.

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9. “Olive-oil chip.” This was one of a few that had the aim of having us taste a familiar ingredient in a new way. The chip was a super-thin sugar wafer, brushed with superior olive oil. The sweetness and texture of the wafer definitely succeeded in supporting and enhancing the olive oil.

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10. “Bloody mary.”

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11. “Codfish crust.” By crust they mean the skin of the cod.

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12. “Shrimps tortilla.”

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13. “Boiled shrimp.”

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14. “Sea urchin niguri.” There were actually two pieces of “sushi” here, one topped with urchin and the other with bone marrow. This was probably the most delicious of the first group of 17 courses, but I say that with some hesitation because the experience of elBulli happens so quickly and so much is going on that it's very difficult to remember the elements in isolation. It's like trying to remember individual frames of a motion picture.

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15. “Thai prawn brain.”

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16. “Prawn two firings.” The legs of the prawn were deep fried, the body was left raw – though there was probably some conduction as it didn't seem absolutely raw.

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17. “Roses with ham wonton and melon water.” The wonton skins were rose petals.

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All our dishes up to this point were served on the terrace and characterized as cocktails and snacks. We were then led to the kitchen table. The table is not in a room overlooking the kitchen. It's actually right in the kitchen. The elBulli kitchen is quiet enough to support that. It's not totally silent, but our table was on many occasions the loudest thing in the kitchen.

Once we got into the kitchen almost every course involved multiple elements or some kind of at-the-table finishing. One of our servers was one of the cooks, who not only worked on the final stages of our dishes but also made himself available to answer technical questions. A lot of them.

I should say, the service at elBulli is phenomenally good. There was never the slightest bit of downtime, except when someone would leave the table to use the rest room. Beverage service was impeccable, with the sommelier and his people always appearing at the exact right moment to discuss, suggest, open, pour, remove, etc. It's not really possible to pair wines with elBulli's food in the traditional sens of the word “pair,” but the sommelier guided us through five bottles each of which worked very well with the 7-12 courses it accompanied.

So, we're in the kitchen now. Time to get serious.

18. “Marrow and belly of tuna sushi.” The piece of suhi was constructed at the table. First a substrate of gooey stuff that Nathan and Max understood, then a top piece constructed of marrow and toro, and finally a brushing of soy and dollop of wasabi.

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19. “Soya matches.” Placed on the table at the same time as the sushi. We were instructed to eat them in three bites starting at the big end.

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20. “Soy cristal.” Another dish where the idea is to taste a familiar ingredient in a new way. Here they delivered ice chips and wasabi to the table and poured soy over them.

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21. “Tiramisu.” A savory tiramisu-like dish made from tofu foam and assorted other things.

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22. “Caviar cream with hazelnut caviar.” I think this was the most revelatory dish of the night, and that's saying a lot. I think the goal here was to use shape, color, texture and an unexpected coincidence of flavor notes to confuse the palate. On first taste of the actual caviar from fish you taste actual caviar from fish. Then on first taste of the engineered hazelnut “caviar” you taste hazelnut. Then as you go back and forth you notice surprising similarities – so much so that after four or five tastes of each they merge into one set of flavors. It is no longer possible to tell one from the other.

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23. “Liquid hazelnut porra.”

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24. “Only truffle.” Apparently this is the first season during which elBulli has served truffles. This makes me feel a little better about waiting so long to come to elBulli. The series of truffle courses were almost overwhelming, in a good way.

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25. “Truffle cake.”

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26. “Endive in papillote 50%.” Each pair of endive pieces consisted of one raw and one cooked, in an elaborate tableside preparation. With truffle grated on top for good measure.

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27. “Fir/truffle/pine.”

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28. “Germinated pine nuts.” In other words the hearts of pine nuts. To say this must be a labor-intensive dish seems like an understatement. They also presented a couple of in-progress specimens to illustrate.

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29. “Steamed eels.” These baby eels were reinforced with a sauce that amplified their inherent flavor several-fold. A good thing if you like that flavor, which I don't. Others did.

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30. “Octopus shabu-shabu.”

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31. “Lulo ceviche and mollusk.” Lulo is some kind of fruit I've never heard of. Two of the sections had the fruit itself prepared as sort of a ceviche, and the other two had creamy stuff and a little oyster.

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32. “Oaxaca taco.” This was one of a handful of dishes that Nathan M. reports were “greatest hits,” in other words he had them in previous elBulli meals over the years.

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33. “Gazpacho and ajo blanco.”

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34. “Tomato tartare.”

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35. “Hare bunuelo.” Here we were asked to smell a pouch of toasted cardamon while eating the bonbons filled with hare. This kicked off a game-meat progression that was totally not what I expected to see at elBulli and totally wonderful. I speculated at one point that Ferran Adria was channeling a little bit of the spirit of Santi Santamaria in this series of dishes. Nobody thought it was a particularly apt observation.

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36. “Thrush.” This was one of a few courses that presented challenges for our counting-and-numbering system. Was this one or two courses? Is “course” even the right word for the unit of food served at elBulli? I'm counting it as one.

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37. “Game meat cappuccino.”

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38. “Oyster with woodcock.”

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39. “Blackberry risotto with game meat sauce.”

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40. “Hare ravioli with bolonesa and blood.” Yes, a glass of blood on the side.

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41. “Wild strawberries with hare soup.”

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42. “Mimetic chestnuts.”

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Somewhere around here we've made the transition into the the pastry progression.

43. “Yogurt blini.”

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44. “St.-Felicien dollar.”

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45. “Gruyere with kirsch.”

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46. “Sugar cube with tea and lime.” Frozen cubes of sugar with pipettes of tea-lime oil meant to be squeezed over. Another new way to taste familiar ingredients.

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47. “Coca-de-vidre – crystal cake.”

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48. “Mini donuts.” A frozen bitter-coconut filling is coated in bitter chocolate and then the filling is allowed to melt. So when you pop a donut in your mouth the liquid center gushes out. It's surprising not only for that but also for emphasizing the bitter rather than the sweet aspects of the chocolate and coconut.

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49. “Apple rose.” That's a very thin slice of apple coiled around there. One of the best desserts I've had. Johnny Iuzzini seemed on the verge of tears.

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Back out to the terrace for

50. “Box.” A tour de force of avant-garde candy making. First you think it's a pretty impressive assortment.

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Then they pull out a side drawer.

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Then they pull out the other side drawer.

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There were at least six and often more of each thing. I ate my share of every one. We then had a discussion of one of the wrapped chocolate bars but they were all eaten. Our server offered to bring more for us to try. He returned with a whole additional “box.”

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Most everyone else had coffee but I asked for tea. The tea service involved herbs from the garden, dried herbs and honey. Ducasse does this too, though not on the terrace of elBulli.

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Eventually there were no more excuses to stay at the restaurant. We said our goodbyes to Adria and everyone else. As we left and drove away I felt a profound mixture of euphoria and sorrow. I'd been shown the pinnacle of dining in our time, yet I knew I'd never visit it again. Perhaps after 2014 the elBulli Foundation will do something that allows a few lucky people to have Adria's food, and maybe I'll be lucky enough to have friends with access. I can hope. But on 3 July 2011 elBulli will close its doors forever.

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Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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How unbelieveably wonderful through your words and photos. How many courses did you have versus the others in the restaurant that night? Did the others know there were 'hitters' in the kitchen?

Thank you for sharing!

"A cloud o' dust! Could be most anything. Even a whirling dervish.

That, gentlemen, is the whirlingest dervish of them all." - The Professionals by Richard Brooks

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Did you get any new insight into what the elBulli Foundation plans to do?

Ferran Adria is going to ascend to the ultimate expression of the culinary arts: he's going to become a food blogger. Actually he's going to become more like Nathan M.: head of a kitchen lab and creator of dishes, without a restaurant. The foundation will foster creativity, host chef-fellows, publish lots of stuff on the internet, produce books, etc. They may serve some meals, but far fewer than they do now. That's what the word is at this point.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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How many courses did you have versus the others in the restaurant that night? Did the others know there were 'hitters' in the kitchen?

I think most people were having in the high 40s. We only got a couple of extra things.

Most people dining there took a tour of the kitchen at some point, so they saw our table. I think some thought it was cool and others were happier to be in the dining room.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Out of the 50 courses, how many did you NOT like? You made a comment about the eels.

That was the only course where I actually didn't enjoy the food. There were two or three others -- the ice chips with soy come to mind -- where I thought the dish wasn't so amazing. But the dishes were almost all great.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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2. “Mojito and apple flute.” Nathan and Max understood exactly how the wafer/meringue/whatever was engineered. I did not. Throughout the meal they had insight into the techniques at play. I did not.

So this was a "set" foam? How dense was it? Finely textured? I'm wondering if, based on the "Best Bets for Set Foams" table on Modernist Cuisine p. 4•288, it's an albumin/glucose/maltodextrin/xanthan thing, perhaps?

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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As someone who cooks for a living, this is almost more humbling than inspiring. It feels kinda like I imagine it would feel to look at a bowl of fruit I painted after a visit to the Sistine Chapel. I'd be very interested in hearing more about that apple dessert though.

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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So this was a "set" foam? How dense was it? Finely textured? I'm wondering if, based on the "Best Bets for Set Foams" table on Modernist Cuisine p. 4•288, it's an albumin/glucose/maltodextrin/xanthan thing, perhaps?

Finely textured, not dense at all. I'll see if I can get one of the MC guys to elaborate.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'd be very interested in hearing more about that apple dessert though.

Me too. I'm assembling a list of items for follow-up. Everything came so fast and furious there wasn't sufficient opportunity to gather the kinds of details I wish I had.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Out of the 50 courses, how many did you NOT like? You made a comment about the eels.

That was the only course where I actually didn't enjoy the food. There were two or three others -- the ice chips with soy come to mind -- where I thought the dish wasn't so amazing. But the dishes were almost all great.

The eel was the only one that didn't look great to me.

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Out of the 50 courses, how many did you NOT like? You made a comment about the eels.

That was the only course where I actually didn't enjoy the food. There were two or three others -- the ice chips with soy come to mind -- where I thought the dish wasn't so amazing. But the dishes were almost all great.

What about the glass of blood? I think I might have had a hard time even attempting to try it.

Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"

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Out of the 50 courses, how many did you NOT like? You made a comment about the eels.

That was the only course where I actually didn't enjoy the food. There were two or three others -- the ice chips with soy come to mind -- where I thought the dish wasn't so amazing. But the dishes were almost all great.

What about the glass of blood? I think I might have had a hard time even attempting to try it.

I was thinking that too. And the prawn brains.

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I'm going to wait a little while before I go through your comments and photos on the meal, although I'm excited that you appear to be as excited after the fact as before. Welcome home!

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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It's the stuff from inside the head of the prawn. Probably not technically brains. But delicious.

The blood was seasoned and sweetened -- it wasn't straight blood. It was quite tasty.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I figured it was only called prawn brains, in that it sort of resembled brains. Was it, in actuality, prawn brains?

Good question.

Oops. FG answered before my post. As long as it tasted good...

Edited by Country (log)
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I just checked Johnny Iuzzini's site, he hasn't started posting yet. I think it'll be fun reading his thoughts along with yours.

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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FG

Are you going to stay up late tonight regaling us with stories of your journey? Seriously, when you have time I would be interested in your take on the experiences of your other dining partners. Besides Nathanm, had anyone else dined at elBulli or in Barcelona (you infered that Johnny was familiar with the city)? From your perch in the kitchen, could you see the dishes for the evening being assembled? Are the items of kitchen equipment Nathanm grade and beyond or did they appear somewhat normal as one would find in other top end restaurants such as Keller's or Achatz'?

"A cloud o' dust! Could be most anything. Even a whirling dervish.

That, gentlemen, is the whirlingest dervish of them all." - The Professionals by Richard Brooks

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