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El Bulli--From wonderful to absurd


lizziee
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I have been very hesitant to talk about my El Bulli experiences as this is the one restaurant that not only seems to get more press than most, but also the one critics "fawn" over. I have shared it with a few egullet members, but am now opening it up for general discussion.

The first experience with El Bulli was in 2000 and the second in 2001. It is hard to explain what happened to Adria - he went from a culinary exciting, well-focused dining experience to a nightmare.

General comments on both trips:

1.  Is it as hard to get to as they say?

Harder--  You'd have to be nuts to drive in the evening.  In daylight on the way over it was bad enough.  The mountain roads in Montana look like paved freeways compared to the road to El Bulli. 

2.  Was it worth it?

In 2000 - Absolutely--somehow Juli Solter, the GM, and his team picked up on our unique perspective and appreciation for cuisine coupled with the joi de vivre that we bring to dining experiences.  From the start the feeling was that they "knew us!"…this spirit coupled with the most unique preparations of food we have ever experienced makes El Bulli one of the top dining adventures ever.

In 2001 - Never again. Although Juli was as wonderful as ever, the rest of the staff were going through the motions. At one point we asked how many plates were sent back to the kitchen barely touched - the answer, "no one really eats the food."

Our experiences in 2000 - these are a summary of our notes

What makes Adria different as a chef is not only his technique, but also his perspective, the way he approaches food. It is not just the use of foam or gelatin that sets him a part, but it is his using of these presentations in a wise,"make sense" manner.

Here is the list of some of the dishes from both nights with limited explanation.  

On the terrace…9:00 PM

Lime cocktail in martini glass, with foam and crushed almonds

Candied corn in a glassine sleeve…

Candied pistachio which looked like green chilis on a glass sheet

Tapioca in a jigger to look like selle de mer

Cube of apple jelly served on a spoon

Bacon like candy with pine nuts--another jigger-standing up

Foie gras-mango sandwich

Cornets standing in crushed sesame seeds with fish tartar and

quail yolk

Calvados w/apple foaming cocktail

Guacamole in a pastry tube

Deep fried pig trotter

Quinoa roasted in a paper cone,crunchy--eat like popcorn.

Tomato sorbet in a puff that exploded in your mouth

Parmesean cheese ice cream sandwich with parmesean toast

At the table: (first night - not entire list)

Cauliflower couscous with cumin, coriander and apple

Monk fish liver w/foam cap gelatin of tomato with orange

pieces  

Asparagus and parmigan cheese layered on bread

Mushroom sampler-bottom to top, jelly of mushroom and

mushroom water foam

7 different mushrooms in progression…

Escargot with bacon in a "wrap" with fennel jelly sauce and

snail boullion with butter ravoli, eaten individually

Barnacles with dargelling tea foam

Sardines rolled in bread served with aoli

Rabbit w/foie gras and apple jelly

At the table:(2nd night - not entire list)

Hot to cold pea soup in champagne flute

 Frozen polenta with parmesean gelatin with egg yolk--eat

polenta separately first.

tagletari with calamari

Egg/onion truffle ravoli

Broad beans with mint sauce

Coconut ravoli with soy sauce

Palate cleanser of beet foam, cauliflower mousse, tomato   yellow beet, basil, corn, almond and avacado sorbet.

Sole with ravoli

Foie gras with fennel jelly and apple sorbet accompanied by a very old sherry that was presented in bottle #2 of only 50 bottles made for the world about 200 years ago.

 Brioche soup with egg

 Sorbet stuffed with goat cheese and compari jelly.

Cost--believe it or not…the two meals with all the wine, armagnac and cigars, etc…was under $ 600.00 total (that's both nights combined)…oh, a little aside, my husband went to pay the check around 1:30 on Saturday night [sunday AM] and Juli said, "oh, forget it for now, I'd rather have you owe it to me.  We'll take care of the checks tomorrow night."  An absolutely impossible to believe value--the world's greatest!!!

Now to this year 2001.

How do you describe a culinary disaster? Last night we were served a bad joke that lacked in skill with bad flavor combinations. It is one thing to be creative, but it is another thing when you can't eat the food.

The problem is when you keep looking to surprise and surprise, you inevitably lose sight of the idea that food is meant to be eaten. There were 4 of us ( 2 very well-known chefs from the States who had made the trip on our recommendation, just to eat at El Bulli) None of us "got it." We kept looking at each other hoping that maybe one of us would understand, like and enjoy what was on the plate.

The culinary disasters were many:

1. A cuttlefish dish in cuttlefish ink that was so obnoxiously flavored that it was inedible.

2. Tobacco in wild black currant that should have come with the warning "don't eat if you like food" or "eat this with great risk."

3. Slices of raw shrimp that was accompanied by a hot dog shaped tube that looked like a suppository .. inside with shrimp stock that you were suppose to suck. Phillip (not the real name of the chef) had not mastered sucking and ended up sucking his stuff all over the plate. He had the right idea - it belonged more on the plate than the palate.

4. A wild asparagus bundle with brown butter black olives and milk foam. The asparagus was overcooked, the bread covering limp with oil and the milk foam useless in this preparation.

5.Pumpkin with almond powder that was accompanied by a card sprayed with orange. You were suppose to smll the paper card and then eat a sweet glob of pumpkin.

6. Pieces of crispy stone crab that tasted as if the stones were still there and a sauce from the "shit" of the crab.

7. another tube of sucking contained morel mushroom essence. You were suppose to eat a sweet morel cookie and then suck out your essence.

8. 3 spoons containing flavors of the world - not food, just liquid tastes of Thai, Japanese and Mexican flavors.

9. 6 strips of jellied vegetables that were the essence again. It was so drowned in sesame oil that the flvor was completely masked.

I could go on and on but you get the idea. By the middle of the meal we were literally refusing to put the food in our mouths. To be fair, there were 2 good dishes out of over 25. The ravioli of white truffles, ham and quail egg mollet was wonderful. Also he made a paella soup topped by rehydrated crunchy paella that was very good. Adria joined us after dinner - he had eaten in both of the chef's restaurants who were with us and had loved their food.

We were suppose to eat at El Bulli again and Adria had arranged for the chef's table in the kitchen. Phillip absolutely refused to eat there again. However, I decided to play a joke on him. We met in the lobby of our hotel and I said,"Oh, Phillip, Juli(GM at El Bulli) called and he insists that we come tonight, so I said we would be there. There is no way to describe Phillip's face .. he sat down, crossed his arms and said,"No ------- way! You can go. I'm not going." We had made up an excuse that we had an emergency and had to leave to go back to the States.

The cost. We were suppose to be 5 - one of the chefs, a 2 star Michelin chef, had to return to his restaurant. We were charged for 5 dinners, even though he wasn't there. The bill was very hefty! Also, the other 2 chefs with us, had comped Adria at their restaurants the year before.

I wish I could explain this as maybe just one bad night. But there was a very telling article by Anthony Dias Blue in December's issue of Wine Country Living. I will quote just a bit of his article.

" ....I am afraid that we might be sliding down that slippery slope to silly food - trivial food that satisfies neither the mind nor the palate. Let's hope that I'm wrong and that El Bulli really does mean 'bulldog' and not just plain bull."

For me, I think, you can guess which one I think.

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Juli Solter, the GM, and his team picked up on our unique perspective and appreciation for cuisine coupled with the joi de vivre that we bring to dining experiences

Thanks for a very interesting report, I'm glad you decided to post it in the end .

Can you explain the above quote a little as to why your perspective is unique and perhaps an example of how your joi de vivre manifests itself when dining?

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Lizziee--were the same chefs present on both visits? It seems they were with you only on the second one, right?

on the second (bad) experience--did you sense your meal reflected what was served to all other guests or perhaps that it was something created especially for your group with 2 known American chefs and a two-star Michelin chef, perhaps because of stated preferences toward being surprised or perhaps motivated by the knowledge that you've been there before and knew the tricks?  

Is the two-star in question known for an eclectic, experimental cuisine himself or for more traditional, classic presentations?  Had either of the American chefs ever eaten at El Bulli before or was this their first visit?

Is it possible you received a few (bonus) very experimental or daring dishes on the edge (even for Adria) because your group might have been better able to receive them--i.e. less culinarily inhibited?  

You presented the first 9 or so dishes from the 2nd visit in approximate order?  If not, could you re-order as close as you remember or possibly post the menu? In a 25 course meal, it would be logical to attempt to get some of the palate teased, some essences but not volume, some light gamesmanship out of the way early--did the latter courses continue in this vein--gimmicks like the smell card, liquid infusions?

Was there any discussion among your group of chefs at this second dinner that Ferran might have taken certain ingredients or combinations that one of those chefs might have been known for working with--and spinning it back at them?

And no mention of the desserts/petit fours/lollipops/chocolates?  Had you all mentally surrendered by that point?  Even on your positive first dinner you did not seem to mention many dessert courses--or were the savory/cheese/tomato "desserts" it?  I would have expected those as transitions with much more to follow.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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I suspect that Adría has reached the logical terminus of this particularly personal cul-de-sac he has chosen to explore. Adría's cooking never stands still and it should be no surprise if he makes another culinary U-turn in the near future and employs his great skill in the search for perfection in simplicity and leaves the techno-rococo to his imitators.

When I was there last year Adría spoke of his interest in Noam Chomsky's writings so who knows a Generative Gastronomy could be the next big thing.

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lizziee, thank you for a very interesting report. If you could trouble to answer at least some of Steve's questions, I'd be grateful.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Oh, thanks. I'll be back then. :wink:

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Lizziee, that's a very interesting post. I don't have much information to add to this. We were there in May of 2000 and loved the experience. It was an exciting meal. Perhaps it was more exciting than satisfying, but I'd say that the overwhelming majority of dishes worked and appeared to be the product considerable reflection. The dishes may have been challenging, but they were not experiments. They were refined and made sense. This seems to match your appraisal of 2000.

Your 2001 reaction comes as a shock, but it was obviously a shock to you as well at the time. From my limited exposure to Adria's cooking, I'd have expected shock at the first visit, not the second. Thus your post is particularly interesting. After your first visit, I suspect you were prepared for further developments and innovation and were not expecting El Bulli to stand still. Steve raises a few interesting questions and I'm pleased you will take the time to address them. We're in no hurry for an answer, El Bulli is fully booked for the rest of the season.

:biggrin:

I'd be fascinated to learn the names of the chefs who accompanied you, but I wouldn't expect you to divulge such information. With the attention he's received and the clientele he's developed, it's not hard to wonder if he isn't pressured to push his cooking further than he should, but I've never had the impression he was driven by anything other than his own desire and interest. The most questionable aspect of our meal was when we were asked to smell a rosemary twig while tasting something else. This was not a direction I wanted to see dining head towards, but even so, I felt it was a sincere request. I am reminded of an article on Paul Liebrant in the NY Times not long ago in which dinner seemed more a cross between an interactive multimedia event and and an evening of S&M. I've eaten Liebrant's food and found him more experimental than Adria, or perhaps just less a master of his flavors. At any rate, when I cautioned someone else about the cutting edge of cooking, a Madrid food critic added that one can sometimes bleed at the cutting edge. Which reminds me that we have reservations to dine with friends at Papillon, Liebrandt's place. We shall see if my second visit brings me a better appreciation of his cooking or drives me away.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Steve,

I will do my best to answer all your questions.  The chefs that I mentioned were only with us on the second visit in 2001. They specifically made the trip on our recommendation. The two star chef from France could not join us (he was suppose to) but he had to return to his own restaurant. One of the American chefs had been to El Bulli also in 2000. He was equally impressed by his year 2000 meal as we had been.  Thank goodness or our credibility with the second American chef would have gone down the tube.

We were served the same meal as the rest of the room. Adria does only one menu per night for the entire room. We did not receive any "special treatment" as to preparation etc.  Again, we did not receive any experiemental or daring dishes just for us - that was one of the first things we checked. We were very careful to check the plates of other tables and everyone received the same treatment. The one difference at our table was the choice of wines. The sommelier chose each wine for every 3 or 4 courses - I don't have that list, but I must say the wines were definitely the hit of the evening - at least it put something in our stomachs that was "edible-drinkable." Again, Adria did not treat us any differently than the rest of the dining room. As I said in my earlier post, we were suppose to go back for a second meal that was to be at the chef's table in the kitchen. That probably would have been a special dinner just for us, but there was no way that I could persuade the others in our group to do it.

Below are the actual menus from all 3 visits. The first two were memorable - inventive but still food.  

First Night - 2000

Coktail de manzana al calvados

Palito de parmesano

Cortezas garrapinadas

Maiz con guacamole

Pan de aceitunas negras

Quinoa inflada

Pan con tomate

Huevo de cordorniz caramelizado

Corte de parmesano

Sopa de guisantes a la menta

Polenta helada al aceite de oliva

Tagliatelle a la carbonara

Trufa al carbon

Habitas a la menta

Chop suey de almejas "frio-caliente"

Raviolis de sepia y coco al jengibre

Menestra en texturas

Lenguado con raviolis de tomillo,laurel y romero

Foie gras con hinojo y pina

Sopa de levadura con canela y citricos

Sorbete de frambuesa al Campari

Falso bizcocho al cafe con amaretto

Pequenas locuras

Second Night - 2000

Hidromiel con lima

Bacon caramelizado con pinones

Crujiente de algas

Tapioca inflada

Pistachos

Crujientes de maiz

Vinagre de manzana al enebro

Corte de foie gras y mango

Almeja merengada

Cornet de huevas de trucha al wasabi

Sopa de pepino con menta y yogur

Cous cous de coliflor

Higado de rape con citricos y semillas de tomate

Parmesano con limon y esparragos verdes

Terrina de setas al aceite de pino

Cigales con "huevas" de huevas al romero

Caracoles a los aromaticos

Esparragos con mayonesa caliente y pomelo rosa

Arroz negro vegetal

Percebes al te

Sardinas con crujiente de pan

Civet de conejo con gelatina caliente de manzana

Pure de patatas a la vainilla

Bizcocho de Campari con vainilla helada

Coco-choco-curry

Pequenas locuras

Menu -2001

Whisky sour (actually this was fun - we had it in the kitchen with Adria - a frozen "pop" that was a whisky sour) We thought that we were in for a wonderful evening!

These are listed as snacks on the menu

Palomitas

Madeja de parmesano

Chanquete frito

Chicharrones de pollo

pistacho-yogurt

sashimi de gamba

kellog's-paella

paises

Next items are listed as tapas

Granizado de moras al tabaco

parrillada de verduras

trufa de macadamia

raviolis de trufa

quinoa de foie gras con consome

esparragos con crujiente de pan

sepia a la brutesca

calabaza a los aromaticos

necoras con maiz

Next items are listed as platos

"espardenyes" con crujiente de pan

raya meuniere

conejo en civet con gelatina caliente de manzana

ravioli helado de anisados y toffe

Last are listed as Postres

coco a la thailandesa

choco - pipas - cafe

pequenas locuras

My Spanish is terrible, so I am unable to translate exactly. But even so, I don't think the actual menu describes what we were eating. For example sashimi of gamba was the dish I described with the suppository. The calabaza a los aromaticos was the pumpkin with almond powder and the card sprayed with orange. The espardenyes was the asparagus bundles. The sepia was the cuttlefish ink dish.  As you can see the menu doesn't actually reflect what the actual dish was.  My palate was so far gone by the end of the evening, I have no clear recollection of "desserts." Also, we had dessert on the terrace with Adria and the other chefs. They spent most of the time talking in a mixture of French, Italian and Spanish. At that point, I was more interested in the conversation than the food.  Also you are right when you say we had mentally surrendered.

The first time around the desserts emphasized savory as much as sweet - tomato ice cream cornet, chocolate milk soup, sorbet stuffed with goat cheese and compari jelly, coffee foam and almond ice cream. Even though these sound weird they really did "work" in 2000. There were petits fours much later with coffee and a 45 Argmanac and for my husband a Bolivar Gigante Cabinet.

I wish I could say that only the beginning courses in 2001 reflected the gimmicks and gamemanship. But that just was not the case.

Bux, yes it was a shock. I had conjoled a chef I respect and admire to travel all the way to Spain to taste first hand what I had raved about the year before. To say I was embarassed is an understatement. However, as I said earlier the other chef in our group had eaten at El Bulli and had loved it also the year before so my credibility wasn't completely gone. Adria used to be the master of his flavors, but it seems as if he is a scientist gone mad doing culinary chemistry experiments. One other thing, Pierre Gagnaire's menu in Paris never reflects what is actually on the plate, but I am a huge fan of Gagnaire and am not at all uncomfortable with the inventive. I just want to be able to "eat" something.

Andy,

I will answer your question in another post.It deserves full attention and not just a passing thought.

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What extraordinary care you've taken in analyzing the experience, and what a sad story. I had a similarly enthusiastic report on the previous year from a friend and food writer whose knowledge and integrity I respect completely.

I am more and more convinced that there is an essential corruption in our society which demands that originality be subsumed into mere novelty.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Thank you Lizziee--you've given alot of yourself, more so than many chefs give preparing a meal, and your effort is appreciated.  One very small thing I picked up on is that you had the sommelier choose all your wines on the second visit, perhaps accounting for a sense of sticker shock at the resulting bill.  (This is not meant to mitigate the fact that chefs usually comp other chefs, especially when they themselves have been comped previously.)

My wife and I, both pastry chefs, once dined with three other Beard award-winning chefs and two top sommeliers from elite NYC restaurants at Michel Richard Citronelle.  He greeted us at the table, wanted to cook a special tasting menu for us, which we all agreed to heartily.  We asked the sommelier, a known colleague of the two NY somms, to choose wines.  My wife actually worked in Richard's pastry kitchen for a time but he did not recognize her when they met before the meal.  (Should have been a harbinger of things to come.)  We got the "regular" tasting menu other diners got, excellent wines, and each couple left $400. poorer--which would not have been so bad if the meal was at a high level, which it was not.  I have no doubt Michel would have been comped at every one of their restaurants as a matter of course.

From reading the Anthony Dias Blue article in December's issue of Wine Country Living--did it appear he had a similar menu to yours?  did he get into descriptions of certain dishes and you found yourself going "yes" or "right on" (not that you would necessarily ever use the term "right on" but you know what I mean.)  I have not read any other reports of the 2001 season but remain extremely grateful for your followup Lizziee.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Andy,

I will answer your question in another post.It deserves full attention and not just a passing thought.

Thanks. I feel like I'm part a team of interrogators!

As you may have realised, those of us that have not made the trip to El Bulli are as interested in your reaction to your meals as those who have.

I wonder if the reaction of the chefs to the food had any bearing on your own that second time around. The only reason I say this is that I find that my experience of a restaurant can be directly affected by the reactions of those dining with me. I may not enjoy a restaurant as much as I have previously or I may pick up faults I hadn't before if there are negative vibes around me. (Is that stating the bleeding obvious?)  

At any rate, thanks for all the time, effort and thought you have put into your postings, really interesting stuff!

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Adria does only one menu per night for the entire room.
There is, or was, an a la carte menu, but why would one order a la carte. More to the point, we were with a friend who cannot eat fish or seafood and notified the restaurant when making our reservation and again when confirming. When we ordered, the waiter noted that he was aware of our friend's problem and that it was no a problem for the kitchen. Out came a completely fishless meal matching our tasting menu course for course and at times I was almost envious. No small feat when you know that the stard tasting menu is heavily into seafood and that I love seafood.

Lizziee, I'm really glad you took the time and trouble to give us your positive and negative reports. I am most appreciative, and as you can see, so are others here. I hope the real reward is participating with those who share your insight and committment. This a tough group, but they're not so likely to attack as they are to demand more information.

:biggrin:

"espardenyes"
When we first had that, and I think it was at Santamaria's in San Celoni, it was translated as sea cucumber for us, but I think that was inaccurate and I forget what it is. You mentioned it as the wild asparagus dish, but unless I'm confused I though it was a seafood. I shall try and find my own menus, but can anyone clear up my confusion?

Steve, in my reading of Lizziee's posts, I didn't see any sticker shock. In fact, I thought she commented on the relative inexpensiveness of the first meal and just noted that she was surprised that the visiting chefs were not comped on the second. The buisness of comping is an interesting subject, but one that may only infuriate those who never dined with a chef and reaped some of the benfits.  

I am looking forward to reports of meals at El Bulli this year, but almost everyone I know has been unable to get a reservation. :sad:

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Andy,

As to why Juli Solter picked up on "our unique perspective and joie de vivre", this is something we experience in most restaurants. I do not think it is because we are that much more knowledgeable (although after years and years of fine dining experiences and almost as many years in the kitchen, we do understand food). I think we approach each dining experience with excitement. I am never jaded or give the impression of "show me what you can do." I really want to have a wonderful time and love and respect the profession to the utmost. I do not expect the "last meal on earth" experience every time we go out. Instead I so appreciate the effort of both the front and back of the house that I think this sense of "I am ready to enjoy myself and truly love what is served" conveys itself to the staff. Because we are so willing to let ourselves be willing participants in a restaurant, the restaurant willingly tries to give us their best. Also, if one dish doesn't live up to expectations or there are missteps along the way, I am willing to chalk it up to experience. We try not to put a staff on edge or give the impression that you had better "wow" us. I think because we are so enthusiastic that enthusiasm generates even more enthusiasm from the staff. At one restaurant we go to frequently, the chef commented to us, "we love seeing your name on the reservation list." I think the reason he feels that way as we are ready to try whatever is offered. Sometimes this can be very difficult as when I am served a dish I really don't like, I know that the chef inspects my plate and I have been known to tell the waiter, busser to somehow "bury" the uneaten portion.

In France, we try to go to a restaurant, particularly in the provinces for at least 3 meals. The first one is sort of a "what kind of diner are you?" The next meal is much more relaxed. By the third, it is fun, I hope, for all of us. Of course if the first meal is a disaster, we do alter plans.

A perfect example of this is at Puymirol, Trama's restaurant. We had been there in 2000 for 2 wonderful meals, wrote him a note when we returned home and planned a second visit in 2001.(This was sort of on the way to El Bulli.) When we arrived this year, he did remember us and took us for a tour of the new facilities, kitchen, dining room and salon de fume. That night we ordered his degustation menu. About 20 minutes into the course of the dinner, he came to our table and said,"eat lightly at lunch tomorrow, I'm making your dinner tomorrow night." The next day, I happened to run into Michel Trama at the Tabac and he said,"I've decided to devise your lunch menu as well." I will post those notes on the France thread - suffice it to say all meals were wonderful. Again, we were nothing special except enthusiastic.

This has been a very long-winded answer. But I truly feel that a diner can do so much to help make the dining experience memorable.

I hope this answers your question.

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Bux--I reacted to "The bill was very hefty!"  because I know from first hand experience how delegated wine choices can add "dealer markup."  Of course, being charged for the missing fifth meal in full was not the most gracious and we've already wondered about the comping aspect.

Then again, travelling chefs can deduct all of this anyway.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Steve,

Our reaction to the bill was prompted by the fact that we were charged for 5 "menu de degustacion" when we were only 4 people. Our fifth person ( the Michelin chef, I had mentioned previously) could not make it. By US and Paris standards the bill was not "out of sight," but as I said both chefs had comped Adria the year before. The wine portion represented about 18% of the total bill.

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Lizziee,

I would love to read your reports of meals at Trama. I had one of the most disappointing lunches of all time there: tiny portions, dull flavour combinations, passé desserts and chipped glasses and china -- traumatic to say the least!

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lizziee, I didn't want to just add a "Gosh, great, thanks" to the rest on Sunday because it wouldn't be a contribution. But today I just have to.

Gosh, great, thanks.

I'd love to see many more posts by you.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Lizziee,

Thank you very much for a wonderful report.  I was at El Bulli in April 2000 and had a menu that is very similar to the one you had on the "first day, 2000".  I was also quite "blown away" by that sequence of dishes and by the whole experience.  I dream often of making it back but have not found the time, so it was wonderful to hear news from someone who has been able to.

My visit was completely unplanned: I did not even have a reservation.  I had just spent 5 days at the annual wine fair in Verona (Vinitaly) and had driven with a sommelier-colleague to the wine region of Friuli (virtually on the border of Slovenia) when I was suddenly possessed with this all-consuming desire to GO THERE at once to dine.  I made a mad rush in one day from Cormons to Nice (stopping in Genoa just long enough for farinata at my favorite joint), had a wonderful lunch at Louis XV the next day, slept on the night train from Marseilles and at 20 minutes to 1 (El Bulli starts lunch service, Spanish-style, at 1) was tapping on the big picture-window of the kitchen and looking into the staff at their company meal.  Ferran looks up, comes to the main door with Juli Soler (not Solter) and I explained that I was a sommelier at X and that I was hoping that they could squeeze me in for lunch.  Without blinking an eye, he smiled and said in a most quaint and charming way: "Ah yes, but we would like to welcome you properly, not like this (i.e. not completely dressed and prepared).  Take a little walk and at 1, we will open the door to welcome you."  I did so with a pounding heart, trying to let this amazing seascape sink in (perhaps the most breathtaking in the world), while trying (vainly) to avoid getting mud on my just-polished dress shoes.  And they did as they promised, giving a junior-sommelier from what was then a newly-opened and relatively unknown restaurant the most lavish of welcomes that he will never forget.  Ferran himself took me on a tour, introduced me to Alberto (the brother/pastry chef), explained the whole organization of his "laboratorio" which seemed to me at first not even like a kitchen but more like groups of men huddling around different tables...I speak idiomatic Spanish and maybe there is something about men speaking the same language (and therefore, presumably, sharing the same perspective) that makes them put down their guards: without crossing any lines, Juli spoke with me with a quite warm chumminess, offering at one point a very perceptive...and ahem...quite frank assessment of the state of the restaurant in France (as in: you may be from the US, but you speak our language so you see what I am talking about).  I spent several hours with Eloi, the sommelier, exchanging notes about winemakers, wine people in Spain, about the profession (to be accredited, a sommelier in Spain must know his cheeses and jamon as well), learning about their buying strategies at El Bulli, their plans for a new cellar etc.  It wasn't until nearly 6 that I left, laden with an armful of Ferran's books (some of them gifts from Eloi) and with a huge blissful smile on my face.

Bux,

Espardenyes (Stichopus regalis) IS sea cucumber or sea slug but a completely different species from the more familiar Chinese black sea-cucumber, which is sun-dried, smoked and reconstituted before being used for cooking.  Apparently there are several hundred species, only very few of which are known to gastronomy.  Espardenyes is found only on the Costa Brava (the very waters where El Bulli is set) is supposedly not similar even to the sea-cucumber found south from here, on the coast of Valencia.   It used to be harvested accidentally by fishing nets and the fishermen would then simply throw it away until it showed up one day on the menu of some fancy restaurant in Barcelona during the 80s (?) and became all the rage.  It has of course become very very expensive, quite rare and may even eventually be protected.  Out of the water, it is (flat; deflated) oblong is shape, has some reddish mottling on the outside and has some of the limp sliminess-of-feel of, say, a squid.  Before cooking, it is usually cut into thin translucent strips-oh say-3 inches long, which makes it look remarkably like the meat of the very succulent local razor clams (which can be ordered in the food stalls at the back of La Boqueria market, where they will grill it right there for you).  A "sheaf" of these strips, "tied" together with a long piece of mango, was served to me at that meal at El Bulli.   In Lizziee's case, I'm just wondering if it were not a case of another one of Ferran's visual puns:  young tender young ASPARAGUS in "drag": disguised as sea-cucumber.  This would explain Lizziee's criticism of the asparagus as "overcooked."  I note that Ferran is very fond of these little games of words: for instance, the "couscous" on Lizziee's first menu (and mine) was actually "crumbled" cauliflower, attempting an approximation of the texture of "real" couscous.  I was also served a so-called "paella" which had no rice in it but instead some kind of vegetable stalk (I never found out what it was) cut and shaped to look like little grains,

Steve,

Yes, that last "board" of sweets (which Ferran calls "Pequenas locuras": silly little things) is quite amazing isn't it?  All those little stainless steels sculptures (looking like origami or like the early works of the great Brazilian artist Lygia Clark: the "bichos")...on which all kinds of cones, lollipops etc are perched.  That presentation really left me quite speechless...  

***

I really doubt that Eloi would deliberately bring expensive bottles for matching.  First of all, this is not the kind of wine list that emphasizes huge pointless verticals just for the sake of it and it is not the kind of place where they push Petrus on you the moment you walk in.  In fact, the cellar is a quite wonderful treasury of lesser-known/up-and-coming Spanish wine regions.  And although wine people bitch day-in and day-out about how Spanish wines have become SO expensive, the fact of the matter is that, from a global perspective, Spanish wines are still relatively underpriced, which means that (unless your taste runs towards Vega Sicilia) you can have stunning, stunning bottles for a fraction of the price of yet-another California chardonnay.  I had Eloi choose my wines and he brought out for me a breathtaking Mencia (the grape variety of the Bierzo appellation), the Rueda from Jose Pariente, the Gran Ambar and a most intriguing wine: the then virtually-unknown Anima Negra from Majorca, made from 50/50 Callet (rare variety)/Cab Sauvignon.  I ended with a suite of Pedro-Ximenez/Montilla-Morileses from progressively more ancient soleras (the oldest from 1830).  He must have comped off a few things here and there bec the wine part of my bill came out to only about $30.  Although wine is not really the main priority for most of those who make the trek (dare I say: pilgrimage?), I would suggest that reading up a little about some of the many new developments in the world of Spanish wines before going would pay off in many big ways.  By the way, I spent quite a while discussing with Juli (who is the main wine man) and Eloi how you even pair wines for this cornucopia, for this wild tumble of flavors, textures...We all agreed that you just don't: you maintain the dignity and the integrity of the wine apart, without subscribing to this misguided, naive and hubristic ideology of the chef/sommelier holding the magic key to PERFECT sips with PERFECT mouthfuls.  We agreed that the art of wine pairing as it has evolved in 20th c gastronomy is really travestied by this late-century practice of the tasting-pour-in-the-degustation, which assumes perfect non-variability (of temperature, of the dining situation, of individual taste), which does not account for individual quirks/palates but instead seeks to legislate WHAT-IS-PERFECT, which does not allow wine to evolve and change through the course of a meal but imprisons it in its small window of opportunity within the sequence etc etc etc but then all of this stuff is for another thread...

Richard

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Richard--thank you so much for this wonderful gift of a post--what a nice way to wake up!  Completely coincidentally I had dinner last night with Jose Andres (a true protege of Ferran, not a media construct or a chef who made the pilgrimmage to stage at El Bulli for a week) and I am unsure which caused me to pause and appreciate more--his home-cooked meal or your thoughtful reflection.

One dish from last night holds special interest regarding your post--a composed salad that Jose described as "very Bras by way of Adria with a little Jose," of various fruits laid down first on the plate--mostly citrus--blood orange, ugli, grapefruit--peeled, sectioned, atop were placed various lightly poached vegetables, all poached separately--among them green and white asparagus, brussel sprout leaves, leaves the shape of a "Belgian endive" but that had the reddish color of radicchio, tiny fresh herb leaves like dill, purple basil, oregano, an odd raspberry, peeled grape--a few peanuts--all dressed sparingly with a simple (Spanish) olive oil and vinegar dressing.

I am not a good enough writer to convey how incredibly varied and beautiful this jumble of ingredients looked on the plate or tasted.  He used the angled sides of the citrus sections to "prop" up the vegetables and leaves slightly, in effect giving height and interest to an essentially flat salad plate. The two highlights of this dish for me were 1) that Jose included several intact clumps of the gelled seed sections of the tomato as well--the juicy mucilaginous part of the tomato that is usually thrown out, and 2) over the entire salad Jose grated fresh raw cauliflower with a microplane zester.  Simultaneously parmesan and cous-cous-like and utterly revelatory.

I asked him about that particular, to me unique, technique--and he said that yes, it was something he himself started doing but that completely unbeknownst to him and simultaneously, Ferran and Alberto had started doing the same thing at the same time.

Jose is, for those abroad or unfamiliar, at 32 a known, significant Beard award-winning chef here in the States, with the most significant portion of his career and influence still to come, yet whenever he is interviewed or asked about his thought process, techniques or his creations he says that everything he does is infused with and made possible by the spirit of Ferran and El Bulli--and that he is, modestly, a vehicle for suffusing that spirit.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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Richard, thank you for all of that that enlightening post, but especially for the word on espardenyes. I now have a recollection of seeing it described, apparently mistakenly, as razor clams in print, which led further to my confusion as when I had it served, it bore little resemblance to sea cucumber. As best I can remember at the moment, the texture seemed much like tender fine sea food and clam, squid or even shrimp if at the proper point of cooking. Your detailed post is most appreciated.

I also enjoyed reading those last comments of yours on the practice of pairing wines with a menu. I'm of mixed feelings on this. I think it's brought a new appreciation for the variety that wine has to offer by incorporating several whites and/or reds in a single meal. You are correct however, in pointing out the negative influence and the loss of experiencing a full bottle as the wine develops. I believe this has already been the subject of a thread here and I hope it will be discussed again. Surely the last word is not out and I'm all for keeping the practice a part of our options as long as it doesn't become the only option. It should also be noted that a couple will have a very different experience with a single bottle than will a table of eight, or even six, where a bottle with each course is the same as pairing wines.

Your attitude towards wine is interesting, as indeed, a sommelier's should be. May I ask where you work? We don't need a restaurant, just as narrow a region as you care to define.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Richard,

The reason I was so very hesitant to report on El Bulli was the fact that I also was "blown-away" by the whole experience. Juli Soler (no t - good thing I'm not a typist by profession) was incredible - genuine, sincere, the most gracious host. We spent at least 1 1/2 hours on the terrace after dinner and talked food, experiences etc with Juli using his decent French and my lousy high school French as I do not speak Spanish at all. My experience was absolutely the same as yours regarding "putting down guards" and being able to compare perceptives concerning restaurant and diners differences.

Richard,

My guess is that espardenyes was a visual pun as "espardenyes" was in quotes on the menu. You are right the  couscous was cauliflower flavored with cumin, coriander and apple giving the appearance and taste of couscous. To be perfectly honest, my notes are not as thorough as I would have liked in retrospect, but we were so overwhelmed and excited by the entire experience that my note-taking suffered.

Also, as I had mentioned earlier the wine portion of our bill was comparatively small. Moreover, on our first two visits the bill was very very small. I don't remember if I mentioned this in an earlier post, but when my husband went to pay the check after our first meal, Juli said," oh, forget it for now, I'd rather have you owe it to me. We'll take care of the checks tomorrow night." As for the wine, my husband is the one with the greater knowledge. Richard are you familar with the wines we were served? (we also had Eloi pick) -

First Night

Remelluri 1996

Clos Martinet 1996

1945 Armagnac

Second night

Augustus 1998

Finca Villacreces 1996

1954 Armagnac

Also included in both meals were glasses of very old sherry (we had bottle #2 out of 50).

The fact that both evenings were so perfect made the next year that much worse. I was so excited to return plus we had numerous faxes from Juli over the year and we truly felt like "friends." That is another reason why I was so hesitant about posting our experience of 2001. I only hope that Adria returns to his culinary footing and continues to astound, but also to produce food that you can actually eat.

Steve,

Where is Jose Andres the chef? His cooking sounds amazing.

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Lizziee--he's the chef and partner of Jaleo in DC and in Bethesda, MD.  Calling it a tapas place doesn't quite do it justice, but it is a tapas place.  Though the salad I described is not representative of his work there.  He let a little more of his adventurous, inventive spirit loose at Cafe Atlantico, and ran both kitchens of Cafe and Jaleo for a few years, but then handed the Cafe reins over to his sous chefs at the time.

At the moment he's readying his modern take on Greek cuisine for the Jaleo ownership group--I think that place is planned to open in the Fall 2002.

Otherwise he saves his best stuff for magazine work, consulting, charity chef events, Beard dinners and friends that impose and ask to get married in his restaurant--like me, last May he wove 10 traditional tapas off the menu with about 10 of his modern Ferran-style dishes for our reception.  It was kind of like the joint Arzak/Adria book from a year or two ago. (A really nice book, by the way, very interesting to try to guess which chef did which course throughout the menus.)

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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