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El Bulli 2005 Dining


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Doc-

Thank you for taking the time to post all these amazing pictures! Absolutly lovely.

How did your kids like the meal? If I remember correctly you had 2 teenagers with you. right?

Elie

Elie, Sorry to have not answered this sooner. I must have been distracted by Molto's photos :wink:

Thank you and everyone else for the compliments on the photos. It was truly a labor of love. While taking food photos may diminish a dinner experience for some, it enhances one for me, especially at arestaurant like El Bulli where the food is so plentiful, so unique and so fabulous.

We had two teenagers and a six year-old on the trip with us and were also in Roses with our friends from Catalunya who had their two sons, one a young man in University and the other a younger teenager. Unfortunately only their University son and our 15y/o eldest son were able to accompany the parents to El Bulli that night. The other two teenagers stayed back at the hotel to babysit. My 14y/o son was particularly disappointed to miss the dinner, especially after how much everyone raved about it afterwards. We thought we would make it up to him by taking him to Pierre Gagnaire in Paris, but I think that only increased his disappointment as that meal was less than stellar. Our 15yo absolutely loved El Bulli. He was as caught up in all the magic as we were.

Ideally I would like to go back next summer and take our 14yo. El Bulli was so much fun, I would almost consider taking our 6yo next year when he is seven. He actually did quite well in Paris. Well, maybe not next year, but I would love to take him when he is perhaps a little bit older yet.

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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Molto: Amazing pix and text.

Yours and docsconz reports and pictures have really refreshed my admiration for the team at El Bulli, not that I was bored or doubting their genius or anything like that.

The reports have a very distinct air of amazement and more importantly, profound enjoyment that's palpable, that's thrilling.

docsconz, I love that your family enjoys dining so much and yes, you folks always look GREAT!

2317/5000

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Have typed up my menu below. We were given ours in English as the other two in the party didn’t speak Spanish and none of us spoke Catalan.

Much is similar but we didn’t get the Caipirinha, Barbapapa que se va, muelle e aceite de oliva virgen, salicornia rebozada al azafran con emulsion de ostra, merengue seco, papillote de tomates al mastic, caracoles con necoras, espardenyes etc, not to mention the morphings. (BTW, why does the phrase “morphings” actually mean?) In fact, Docsconz’s menu contains another 10 items. (We said at the start we liked everything and had never been before). Ours does miss off two deserts, but in any case, we were hardly left wanting…

margarita 2005

spherical olives

parmesan cheese marshmallows

pop-corn of Reypencer-muscat nut

3D with Ras el Hanout spices and basil-lemon

mango disk and black olive

“cru” melon with herbs and fresh almonds

pumpkin oil caramel

cloud of popcorn

spherical mozarella

sea asparagus with safran and oyster emulsion

brioche by steam

thaw 2005 (based around pine nuts)

“crazy” salad

carrot-lyo foam - Marrakesh, hazelnut air foam

quinoa with tucipi soup, kaffir and chicken tripes (don’t remember any tripes)

sweet corn sufle/coulant

monk fish liver in fondue with sesam linquat

earthy

marinated mackerel belly – chicken and onion “escabeche”

fresh lobster (with passionfruit and lobster caviar/jus foam etc)

red cabbage with ham lentils (translucent, and quite large chick pea lentil shapes)

tandori chicken wings with germinated green shisho and oysters sauce

passion fruit marshmallow with fresh mint

peach liquid

Morphings…. (need to check these but all different from below photos)

Regarding “(dining?)”, I only meant that it wasn’t just other dining experiences that were overwhelmed by the El-Bulli evening, but many other favourite moments as well. However, off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything else I have enjoyed so much in a very long time. For me I think it’s the whole mystique of the restaurant being situated in such a lovely part of the world, at the end of a slightly treacherous road, tables being so hard to come by, so much having been written and said about it – so many superlatives, such huge expectations, a rare two night break from my (young, lovely but tiring) daughters……….

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Pranian Man, what were your favorites?

The amazing thing is that with expectations so high, it is so easy to have a huge letdown. That they surpassed my already sky high expectations is even more incredible. I also agree that this was not just a superlative dining experience, it was a superlative experience and one of the finest evenings - memories of my life so far.

Ted, thanks :wink:

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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. . . .

I'm intrigued at what Pedro thought of his experience......Pedro?

As it's been the case in my three visits to elBulli, I had a lot of fun and received many interesting dishes coming out of the kitchen. I had the unexpected pleasure of dining in the kitchen table, which added a whole new dimension to the dining.

That said, if I compare my dinner in late July 2004 with the one I had this year in early June, I'd say that the former offered a weak start of the meal (weak by elBulli standards (elBulli and standards in the same sentence read quite weird)) where several of the snacks were more about the game than about the food, but once you got to the middle of the menu there were a series of dishes that would rank 10/10 on any scale. This year, the snacks were much better conceived (or so I think): the now famous olive, the ibérico arlette, the pumpkin oil caramel. But the 10 out of 10 dishes weren't there in the second part of the menu. Don't get me wrong, there were very good dishes, some excellent (oyster and pearl, noisette), but I believe that those were an inch behind those we had last year.

That and some comments from people I trust make me wonder if elBulli gains 'momentum' as the season moves on. I'm really curious to hear from Rogelio who will be dining there in a couple of weeks.

Have just arrived from El Bulli and my impressions are similars to Pedro's.

This was the third time that I was visiting El Bulli and to me the poorest, I left with the feeling that this year the menu was more a rollercoaster than ever with a very good starting and then a fall down to recover at the end of the meal.

Adrià seems to be creting a haute couture parade of dishes with prototypes that will be developed in future dishes and that we will be tasting in other restaurants the following years.

This year was the year of the spices and herbs: coriander, safron, morrochian spices, sechuan pepper and leaves, galangal... where part of the dishes trying to build a whole thing with the repetition of ingredients like olives, melon, hazelnuts, mató cheese on different dishes.

The starting was great and funnier than ever but after the snacks and aperitives the dishes started to lack something. They where technicalli perfect but something was missed only to recover at the end of the main courses when we were tired of chalenging pairings, textures and flavours. It could have been me, but I foud some of the flavour parings so chalenging that sometimes ended being odd.

In the end there were 12 to 15 dishes worth the trip but the overall impression is that previous years the experience was better.

The menu:

Margarita 2005

Aceitunas sfericas

Marshmallow de piñones

Avellana Merengada

Oreo de oliva negra con crema doble

Disco de mango-lyo y aceitunas negra

Melon cru/melon-lyo con hierbas frescas y almendras tiernas a la pimienta

Caramelo de aceite de calabaza

Ninfa thai de algodón

Melon con jamon 2005

Salicornia rebozada al azafran con emulsion de ostra

Brioche al vapor

Deshielo 2005

Ensala “folie”

Espuma de zanahoria/lyo-Marrakesh, espumaire de avellana

Quinoa germinada con sopa de tucupí, kaffir y callos de pollo

Sufle/coulant de maiz al maiz

Caracoles con necoras en escabeche y amaranto al hinojo

Papillote de tomates al mastic, estragon y sorbete de kumquat

Terroso

Ventresca de caballa en escabecche de pollo con cebolla

Bogavante al natural

alitas de pollo tandori con emulsión de ostra y mató aereo

Marshmallow de fruta de la passion con menta fresca

Liquid de melocoton

Puzle de mango

Morphings: Teppan nitro, merengue, polo de fresa y chocolate.

Rogelio Enríquez aka "Rogelio"
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Given that your menu, Rogelio was very similar to mine with a few exceptions, I am surprised about your response to the latter half of the meal. Nevertheless, if previous meals were so good as to inspire a ho-hum review for this meal, the previous meals must have been truly spectacular! Either that or with further dining experiences the sense of novelty and awe diminishes?

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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Either that or with further dining experiences the sense of novelty and awe diminishes?

If I remeber well I think that last year after my second visit I wrote here something like that I was not as shocked as I was on my first visit and that the surprise factor is very important, that's why I didn't wanted to know anything on this year's menu before dinning there.

Last year the progression was in crescendo from low to the top and this year was the other way round so at the end of the meal the sensation was we were flat down.

And in last year menu there were a few otstanding dishes like espardeñes with ham, oysters with habugo fat and oyster sauce, ñoquies with potato juice... that could be placed in any three star restaurant. This year thare was a lack of this 10 out of 10 dishes.

And there were a few dishes so chalenging on this year's menu that I didn't understood like the Papillote de tomates al mastic, estragon y sorbete de kumquat or the Terroso.

And others like the Espuma de zanahoria/lyo-Marrakesh, espumaire de avellana

or the Sufle/coulant de maiz al maiz that I didn't found to be up to other year's standards.

On the other hand, the Ensalada Folie and ventresca de caballa as well as the nécora were stunning dishes.

It could be my fault but at the end of the meal I was very tired of all those contrasts, bitter/sourness and marshmallows with peta zetas.

This are just a few dissapointments for a great meal that I found to be not as good as previous years.

Rogelio Enríquez aka "Rogelio"
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Either that or with further dining experiences the sense of novelty and awe diminishes?

If I remeber well I think that last year after my second visit I wrote here something like that I was not as shocked as I was on my first visit and that the surprise factor is very important, that's why I didn't wanted to know anything on this year's menu before dinning there.

Last year the progression was in crescendo from low to the top and this year was the other way round so at the end of the meal the sensation was we were flat down.

And in last year menu there were a few otstanding dishes like espardeñes with ham, oysters with habugo fat and oyster sauce, ñoquies with potato juice... that could be placed in any three star restaurant. This year thare was a lack of this 10 out of 10 dishes.

And there were a few dishes so chalenging on this year's menu that I didn't understood like the Papillote de tomates al mastic, estragon y sorbete de kumquat or the Terroso.

And others like the Espuma de zanahoria/lyo-Marrakesh, espumaire de avellana

or the Sufle/coulant de maiz al maiz that I didn't found to be up to other year's standards.

On the other hand, the Ensalada Folie and ventresca de caballa as well as the nécora were stunning dishes.

It could be my fault but at the end of the meal I was very tired of all those contrasts, bitter/sourness and marshmallows with peta zetas.

This are just a few dissapointments for a great meal that I found to be not as good as previous years.

Interesting contrasts, Rogelio. I particularly liked the papillote and the sufle/coulant de maiz and was less thrilled with the Ensalada Folie. I thought the least successful dish was the marshmallow de pinones.

Someday I hope to be experienced enough with El Bulli to be able to critique from year to year :wink: No matter how this dinner stacks up to any future ones I may have, this will always occupy a special place in my heart.

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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Have found this article where Rafael García Santos explains the changes on this year's menu, saying that Adrià has moved from excentricity revolutionary technicals to plurality and reflexion, and ends saying that not even 1% of the dinners will understand the whole menu and I agree with that, I didn't understood some of the dishes that I had.

Rogelio Enríquez aka "Rogelio"
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Understand? I couldn't say that I necessarily "understood" anything about the menu in a culinary, intellectual or philosophical sense. I certainly was not able to connect it with a chronological history or progression of the cuisine. I can not place it in any context other than that evening. I can only take it on the terms offered to me then. It was gracious, beautiful, delicious (even the less compelling dishes) and most of all, great fun.

On the one hand I wish I was able to understand it and in the future I hope to be able to to a greater degree. On the other hand, I am very happy to have taken that evening on its own terms.

Thank you for the link, Rogelio, and your perspective.

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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Have found this article where Rafael García Santos explains the changes on this year's menu, saying that Adrià has moved from excentricity revolutionary technicals to plurality and reflexion, and ends saying that not even 1% of the dinners will understand the whole menu and I agree with that, I didn't understood some of the dishes that I had.

It doesn't bother me a bit that I don't get everything Adrià is doing. I don't get MacDonalds' at all. :biggrin:

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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Once, last year in Michigan, or was it Indiana, to change the baby's diaper. The mother insisted it was the only place we were guaranteed to find a clean facility. It's not often that I'm in a car with a baby whose diaper needs changing.

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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we just had the rare and fortuitous opportunity to eat at el bulli two times within two weeks.

[i requested a res. to surprise my partner for his birthday, and he requested one for our anniversary...through an odd stroke of fate- we both received our table...yes, an embarrassment of riches...]

the coverage of the food here has been so thorough, and the photographs so detailed... so i won't belabor it...

but there are a couple of things that i would mention:

one thing that struck us was how much the food reminded us of real catalan home cooking.

the presentation and the techniques were completely modern, and many of the ingredients were foreign, but when you closed your eyes and swallowed, the ballast of the dish was pure catalan... just the essence of home cooking.

the staff was incredibly gracious and did their best to make sure that our meal was as different as possible for the second dinner. our waiter informed us of the few dishes that would be the same...but of course we were more than happy to taste them a second time. the dinner can be such a barrage to the senses, so it was like watching a great film again...you had the opportunity to see things that you missed the first time.

other people have written about how the different tables receive a variety of different courses in the evening, (different cocktails, snacks and morphings) and i really enjoyed that, as it seems very fluid and spontaneous.

...it is a true credit to the kitchen that a menu that is so studied and perfected can appear spontaneous in the dining room.

the first night we started out on the patio for the cocktails and snacks, then after our dessert they moved us back outside to enjoy the breeze for coffee and digestives. the second night the patio was closed and we went straight to our table...(we had a big storm here and the weather was a bit cooler...) i did notice the second night that they started a few tables in the kitchen for their cocktails and nibbles, which would have been great, i imagine. (but i'm a bit of a klutz; if there is a pan somewhere-- i'll knock it over, if there is someone within 5 feet of me-- i'll bump into him...so perhaps it was better for everyone that they took us directly to our little table in the corner!)

between the two nights the majority of the dishes were different, and yet the dishes that were the same were actually some of my favorite ones: the corn soufflé with corn broth and tallarina clams, the mackerel belly 'escabeche' in chicken broth, and that perfect 'terroso' dish. the first night, we got the goodbye hands with the white chocolate/wild strawberry candies...the second night we didn't. i really appreciated the variance...it made it feel like each table had it's own intimacy or individuality.

it was a lovely, professional touch.

i can't say enough about the staff, their professionalism was balanced perfectly with their human-ness.

3 star michelin service is always efficient, but it can often feel antiseptic or impersonal. dining at ell bulli makes you feel as if you are at a friend's home. (albeit a gorgeous home on a secluded cove, filled with art and good smells...)

on the hotel note, we stayed both nights at cala montjoi (city of vacations!) ...which is slightly strange, glorified camping...but you cannot beat walking home in the sea air by moonlight, and then waking up in the morning only to drag some towels to the beach and lie in the sun...the water in the cove is perfect swimming temperature.

thanks to luisa chu for her reservation warning ... and to everyone who posted their photos and impressions.

until next year? [with luck]

tanya

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We have dined in El Bulli this year after the long hiatus since 98 (when we had had some great meals). My overall conclusions are:

1. The staff is better than ever. Now the level of service approximates the very best in France. Signor Garcia is a gem.

2. Overall the meal lacks balance and harmony. The repeated use of similar techniques (freezing thru liquid nitrogen) and ingredients (especially salty--greasy flavors of sesame oil, brown butter and seaweed and similar spices) spoiled the overall experience. Most dishes lacked finessed and subtlety and there was undue emphasis on primal tastes (which makes fast food such a success).

3. There has been no well thought out crescendo over the course of the meal. It was rather a non rigorous pluralistic approach characterized by endless ramifications of the same theme. It is as if too many talented interns created dishes using similar techniques and ingredients and then most of them were included in the menu without a rigorous process of selection.

4. Some dishes were inedible. But most others gave the impression that they are unfinished dishes, or rather concept of dishes ("like ideal types" or "prototypes") which are haphazardly executed. By the same token, there are great potential in some of the dishes--whose ramifications are yet to unfold( I was glancing other reviews and have seen that Rogelio made this point).

5. There are some great dishes. Especially I found 3 of them (oyster and pearl; mackerel belly; lamb brain and sea urchin) memorable. The last came close to equalling bone marrow with caviar which I include in my top 10 list or so. Bravo.

6. In general Adria uses ingredients in pristine form(with some exceptions such as preserved white asparagus). However, there was so much artificial construct(those created by the use of agar agar or other gelatines) that one suspects whether Adria is aiming for a mass market for frozen fast food and that he tested some of his ideas in 2005 in his main restaurant. If so, I suspect that the US market is very important to him as he had some nods towards it (Orea cookies, marshmellow).

These said, Catalunya has still some of the best cooking anywhere but the flag seems to have passed on to the 3 Roca brothers: the eldest Juan who is the chef, the middle Josep who is the equal of any top French sommelier and simply the best in Spain and the very talented 25 years Jordi whose desserts are sublime.

I want to thank Pedro for insisting that I try Can Roca. I actually cancelled another reservation and tried it twice in 4 days and am looking forward to a return visit very soon.

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Pranian Man, what were your favorites?

I wish I could remember more about them now, but my favourites were Ensalada “folie”; Quinoa germinada con sopa de tucupí, kaffir y callos de pollo; Ventresca de caballa en escabecche de pollo con cebolla and Bogavante al natural.

The Ensalada “folie” seemed to me to be the essence of what El Bulli is all about and one of my favourities for sheer, downright cleverness. It was hard to work out what most of it was and when we did recognise something, it wasn't what it seemed. At least half of it escaped me, but there was probably some celery(?) with the texture of apple, bread (?) with the texture of sponge, baby artichokes like no others I have come across, and the whole thing had additionally taken up the flavours of the surrounding foam (dressing).

I thought the Santos article was interesting and put our evening into the context of the evolution of the restaurant, but still don't see why his removal of unsolicited bread from the menu means that (or is symbolic of the fact that) he has calmed down and set off on this new path?

Also, fascinating report from Vmilor (and trsierra) - thanks. We ate at Can Roca the day before and left wondering how El Bulli could be any better. In the end we left El Bulli with the feeling that it was another step up again. Maybe it's because we had been to CR before or just that we were carried away by the mystique of El Bulli? Also, I can't help being impressed by the fact that at El-Bulli we didn't really know what we were eating, but I know that shouldn't really count. Maybe they shouldn't be compared as really they are very different styles despite having the same foundations? Looks like a controversial year for El Bulli, even amonst the Catalans and Spanish.....?

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  • 5 months later...

Here are my thoughts on El Bulli, which have been percolating for nearly a year, now disgorged by my reading vmilor’s treatise on El Bulli vs Can Roca - A lesson learned and visiting José’s MiniBar a few weeks ago. Though this writing predates my having read the several current El Bulli discussions on the board, it seems particularly appropriate to post it here and now.

---------------------------------------------

Gagnaire, L’Arpege, L’Ambrosie, Ducasse, The Fat Duck – these provoke heated debates on their contributions to contemporary gastronomy, significance in the culinary world, individuality, consistency of performance, successful concept or clear stylistic expression, yet none of the restaurants seems to be submitted to the same level of vehement pronouncements, ranging from “bad and inedible” to “exceptional and sublime,” as El Bulli. There are as many knowledgeable diners loving Adrià’s cuisine as there are those hating it, and presenting one or another view may cost either side credibility in the eyes of the opposition: the advocates of Adrià’s modernism are accused of disregarding the importance of central ingredients and defending the onslaught of kitsch, while the opposing camp is said to just “not get it.” The inherent contradiction of the debate is so intense that maintaining neutrality even for those who never tried Adrià’s cuisine becomes almost impossible, and I was not an exception.

While wondering whether the reactionary sarcasm expressed by the detractors was not a mere representation of their fading enthusiasm for culinary innovation and that it was their detachment from the avant-garde movement – viewed as an antithesis of ingredient-driven gastronomy, inevitably leading toward an assembly-line model – that failed to develop into perspective, I couldn’t help questioning whether, on the other hand, the cult of celebrity had encouraged critics to “embalm” Adrià, obscuring the meaning of his culinary achievements, especially considering that nowadays the compulsion to keep up (the need to create a new fashion, new market each year) has became a common vice.

Indeed, how could Adrià’s emphasis on the element of surprise not raise a question whether he was guilty of borrowing the effect of another discipline, such as theatre, merely to distract the diner from concentrating on the gastronomic value of what was on the plate? Besides, the idea that an essence isolated from the ingredient can be of the same worth as the ingredient itself was as foreign to me as Cage’s radical concept that there is no need for the composer to give preference to sounds over silence. How could I not have doubts that potato infusion in gelatin would not taste like a counterfeit of real potato, proving the chef’s eccentricity rather than having any culinary significance? To imagine myself as an Adrià “convert” was unthinkable, and I was prepared to sigh deeply, just as the public did in 1913 with regard to Malevich’s “Black Square,” saying that "[e]verything which we loved is lost. We are in a desert . . . . Before us is nothing but a black square on a white background!"

Then the unthinkable happened: I liked it. We had a meal at El Bulli in May, 2005, and I liked it. Any attempt to fit the meal into my predefined criteria – which invariably started with the quality and refinement of ingredients, followed by their skillful application in the dish so as to bring out their inherent qualities – failed so miserably that I couldn’t think of a single reason why I enjoyed the food so much other than to blame it on some subjective factor.

I decided to delay expressing any opinion publicly until having at least one more meal at El Bulli to confirm my previous impressions, since, without the guidance of objective standards, my reflections might either have sunk into reverie or become a mechanical registration, an inventory of meaningless details.

Meanwhile, Vedat Milor (also known as vmilor and the “Sultan of dining” [Robert Brown]), whose analytical approach I admire, wrote a convincing report on El Bulli on his blog (El Bulli vs Can Roca - A lesson learned), criticizing Adrià for a lack of real ingredients, repetitive concepts, overutilization of auxiliary ingredients (specifically Asian), unpleasantly stark contrasts (dominating over delectableness), constriction of technical diversity (“perfecting a single method”), and failed attempts to equate real ingredients to their derived metaphorical substitutes.

Surely, I could argue that aside from several overlapping dishes my meal seemed to differ from Vedat’s, and that the alliance of flavors between the courses was more complex and subtle, varying if not in the manner of technical execution then in the delivery of final sensation. I could also say that Adrià vivified assemblages of flavors through stark contrasts between dishes rather than within them, and that through the entire meal there was no reference to Asian flavors, other than his variation on the Tom Yum Koong soup (though not an offensive interpretation, one that suffers from the same superficial use of exotic ingredients as some Asian-inspired dishes by Gagnaire, Troisgros and Beck). However, the paradox of my agreeing with Vedat on other points, yet overall receiving the meal with great enthusiasm, made me question whether my standard criteria, predicated on placing ingredients in their pure form at the center of the plate and the evaluation process, were no longer applicable to this type of cuisine.

I agree that even if a chef claims to express the “spirit of the times” (especially modernity and technology), there are no axioms about style, and the expression alone doesn’t make a cuisine meaningful – since changes in style reflect mere changes in hypotheses, not in the bases for quality judgments. However, historically, judgments always reflected the peculiarities of the individual style: that is, the particular fusion of light and color found in the Impressionists, for instance, could not be realized by any other technique any more than the chiaroscuro designs of Rembrandt could be rendered impressionistically. Stop the action of Henry V by an interlude of Sartre’s prose and something humorous or annoying may indeed be created; it may even heighten the action, yet the original mood of Henry V disappears as fully as when Duchamp satirized the Mona Lisa by adding a mustache and goatee – so are the dynamics of Adrià’s cuisine when evaluation criteria more appropriate to the opposing genre are applied.

In other words, if, when discussing Pacaud and Passard, expressing ingredients’ intrinsic qualities, with minimal change to their native structure, is at the center of the evaluation, the same reasoning may not be pertinent to assessing Adrià, who is more concerned with modifying ingredients to create their derivatives and give them new “identities.” That is, Adrià’ s use of ingredients is broad and free: simplification and distortion are often carried to such a point that the particular ingredients can be identified vaguely or not at all by their form or texture; therefore, the core analysis should be adjusted to reflect primarily how effectively these indistinct masses function in the ensembles.

With such a premise for evaluation, the criticism of Adrià’s much discussed "pan de queso" (cheese bread) based on the qualitative comparison of Gruyère cheese versus cheese air (a cheese derivative made through the process of liquefying, emulsifying and freezing) – a light and fluffy substance that completely lacks texture and literally evaporates in the mouth, while leaving behind a residual taste of Gruyère – is as justified as a comparison of roasted chicken with chicken bouillon. Despite the name of the dish, the cheese air is not the main element: it is the outstanding dry berries with nuts that are the focus of the dish, their quality suggesting the use of the most exemplary fresh products as their base. The cheese air plays merely a decorative, illustrative, rather than expressive role, enveloping the berries in a delayed, lingering, and secondary aroma. Had the dish been awarded a different name (“raspberry muesli,” for instance), perhaps the controversy would never have arisen in the first place. As to its gastronomic value, it is indeed perfectly suited to be served as a snack, a palate awakener similar to the lovely snack of caramelized nuts served at the very conventional Regis Marcon at the beginning of the meal.

To define my new standards, however, I still needed to identify objective criteria of quality that would not only be essential but also common to all genres. In other words, I needed to find the primary “ingredients” of quality that referred to design, not to style, because style is the product of time, the expression of what people considered to be choice, whereas design is independent and refers to the organization of the elements on the plate. To paraphrase, two dishes in the same style may be differently valued as to their quality as compositions, while two dishes in different styles may both be fine compositions. These fundamental characteristics of fine design in all artistic spheres are unity, balance and rhythm.

Unity

Unity insists that a work of art be consistent within itself and have a dominant theme. A dish may be eminently self-consistent or it may be filled with jarring oppositions and surprising violations so that it disquiets and provokes. The former is the classical sort of unity, which is employed by Passard, Pacaud, Troisgros, Bras, Westermann, Rochat and many other starred chefs in France and Switzerland who use order in diminishing hierarchy with the main ingredient in its native form at the top.

A contrasting sort of unity – a newer principle of design equally productive of consistency though with a different premise – occurs when different elements struggle against integration, rebelling and breaking loose as each of them strives to dominate through contrast, as in “cigala con quinoa” (langoustines with quinoa in three ways), where quinoa variations not only add textural and flavor nuances to exceptional langoustines, but are also strong enough to modify the langoustines’ native characteristics without any direct manipulation of the ingredient itself.

Finally, deconstruction itself or juxtaposition of two deconstructed elements having similar textures, though violating classical design principles, can achieve unity, as in "ñoquis sféricos de patata con consommé de piel de patata asada" (“spherical potato gnocchi with consommé of roasted potato skin”), a wonderful dish, where compositional unification is accomplished through the unidimensional interplay of nothing but liquids. (Despite perfect unity, however, this may prevent some dishes from seeming to be complete in themselves, except when they are related through a common theme to other dishes.)

To summarize, unity is achieved either by joining various compatible parts or by skillfully combining apparently discordant features according to the intended purpose, which brings us to balance.

Balance

“Intention” indeed is a chief aspect of any cuisine when balance is examined. Even when a dish fails to achieve palatability, a realized intention should not be dismissed in the overall evaluation of the cuisine. Perhaps the presence of intention on its own in a dish would not justify the failings of an end-result, but it would prevent the cuisine from being easily dismissed. In other words, a chef’s ability to realize his intentions must be graded not only from a sensual perspective, but also from the intellectual and technical.

Take "ravioli de malta con mantequilla, erizos y lima” (malt ravioli with butter, sea urchin and lime), for instance, the dish Vedat described as having “bordered on outright inedibility.” Indeed, the abrasive, artificial, nearly metallic bitterness of the ravioli’s skin made of malt was virtually apocalyptic. Yet, the idea of sensitizing diners to the flavors of sea urchin through a bristling metaphor of malt and sweet butter was intellectually stimulating: the taste of malt simulated the iodinated and bitter taste of sea urchin almost precisely. In other words, despite the taste’s crudeness and the failure to achieve palatability, the integration of malt and butter to create a parallel taste to sea urchin was technically triumphant. The problem with the dish might have been conceptual; that is, the gross emphasis on the bitter aspect of sea urchin appeared exaggerated, suppressing the ingredient’s sweetness and giving the dish more symbolic than sensual meaning. This may have been predicated on the ingredient’s quality: Adrià probably used the Mediterranean variety of sea urchin, Paracentrotus lividus, which in our case was of a very dark orange-brown color and sharp, abrasively metallic taste, contrary to the mild, sweet “green sea urchin” from the Gulf of Maine or more common “red sea urchin” from Southern California.

The dish clearly represents a technical success in realizing the chef’s intention, while retaining an intense detachment from the classical formulation of delectableness. However, despite the fact that no intellectual maneuvering could undermine the fact that the dish tasted poor, one could not help but remember Stravinsky’s reflection on his nine-minute Symphonies of Wind Instruments, ironically called “symphonies of flavors,” full of dissonances and tension. He said, “This music is not meant ‘to please’ an audience or to rouse its passions . . . I did not, and indeed I could not, count on any immediate success for this work. It is devoid of all the elements, which infallibly appeal to the ordinary listener and to which he is accustomed. It would be futile to look in it for any passionate impulse or dynamic brilliance. It is an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments.”

How often I listen to this piece of music, you may ask. I do prefer “Petrushka,” yet dismissing Stravinsky as a composer or this work as being merely “unpalatable” would be a mistake.

Interestingly, I remember that Steve Klc once said that Adrià had a great palate. I’d rather say that Adrià has the most precise palate. He is indeed able to achieve perfection in creating an organic fusion of elements to fulfill his original intention, which either has no rivals and pleases tremendously – when he manages to maintain an essential relationship to the aspect of nourishing the palate – or unpleasantly shocks – when he attempts to imitate sensations so excessively alien that their points of contact with actual perception of food are so slight that they lack recognizable identities of edible items and bear no association to those universal interests that, however generalized, underlie all our feelings and tastes. Besides the aforementioned ravioli, I would cite “electric milk,” where Adrià quite successfully imitates the sensation of licking a battery, which is similar to the metallic aftertaste and numbness, left in the mouth by a large overdose of Novocain injected into the gums!

Rhythm

Unless a chef has achieved unity for the major elements in a dish, or, in the case of Adrià, the flow of dishes – since I believe that Adrià’s cuisine displays sequential references between dishes and each meal can be viewed as single entity rather than a collection of small dishes – he can never repair the disaster by polishing the details. Imposing interesting internal rhythms or decoration (subordinate elements of a design) cannot supply what is missing, but they surely can destroy the unity. In our meal, Adrià achieved near perfection in manipulating the four basic tastes, if not always gently than certainly persuasively, touching every dish with a spark of individuality, while reserving its place in one large puzzle.

Resuming the general discussion, the term “avant-garde” seems to be applied to nearly all chefs creating in the spirit of modernism, despite their clear stylistic differences. Though technically correct, avant-garde is not a definition of style per se but rather a roof under which different progressive styles are gathered. In fact, even the term “nouvelle cuisine” was nothing but a representation of “avant-garde” during a particular time. Art has the advantage of having a much clearer definition of avant-garde styles, such as Surrealism, Cubism, etc., but I don’t believe anyone has tried to characterize the work of modern chefs with the same diligence.

In fact, if I were to compare Adrià‘s to any existing artistic style, I would say that what he seems to reflect in his cuisine is Cubism, best seen in his distortions in which a single ingredient is exaggerated through the dissociation from its physical form and its recombination in a new form, which, though different in appearance from the original, constitutes a more forceful embodiment of its intensified flavor. Several dishes in our meal involved some measure of this emphasis. In some of Adrià’s dishes, the process departs so far from naturalism that what is shown is of little or no assistance in visually identifying the original ingredient. There was no doubt during our meal that such a resolution of ingredients into their derivatives can produce a pattern that, if not much better than a naturalistic rendering, is still equally interesting and quite tasty – as in "caviar sférico de melón" ("spherical melon caviar") or "olivas sféricas" ("spherical olives"), concentrated melon or olive juice in a thin gelatinized membrane (created by combining olive water, already rich in calcium chloride, or adding calcium chloride to melon water, with a sodium alginate solution). Indeed, we can argue that a perfect olive can provide a double satisfaction, indulging our palates with both an olive’s texture and its juice at the same time. Yet, the level of flavor concentration in one olive will never be able to match that of its derivative, so long as olives of excellent quality are used in the process of extracting their essence.

I don’t believe that Adrià stigmatizes real ingredients in favor of their imitations, to make meaningless distortions as an end in itself. Rather, he advocates the conscious “refinement” of ingredients using distortion as a necessary means to achieve their evolutionary “perfection,” so that one olive would be able to carry the essence of hundreds. This idea is not even new, having existed for centuries: sauces, veloutés, purées, all represent distortions of ingredients to one or another degree. It is only that these processed ingredients were never placed at the center of a dish’s design, playing instead an auxiliary, supportive role. Similarly, Passard broke from the classical plate arrangement, placing vegetables (normally a garnish) on the same pedestal as meats and fish, and quite persuasively so – dramatic, but far less radical.

Does Adrià’s cuisine represent anti-Classical, anti-conventional, anti-rational modern reductionism? Probably, but where some see one single catastrophe, I simply perceive a natural chain of events. I don’t see Adrià as a threat to pure-ingredient-based gastronomy. I see him as a chef who created a new style in parallel to the existing cuisine models. Perhaps Adrià is indeed “contemplating a new brand of … goods which will be mass marketed,” as Vedat said, and little bonbons of caramel candies, filled with olive or pumpkin oils, will be sold on the streets as “oil-pills” for kids. This will inevitably moderate the sense of Adrià’s special status – that is, the cultural value attached to the concept of “uniqueness” will insidiously be eroded by the commodity production of Adrià-like goods. But so what? The importance of any chef depends largely upon the value that his work has for those who come after him. Just as his predecessors, by leaving a record of their perceptions, enabled Adrià to see vividly and penetratingly for himself, so his techniques provide an instrument for his successors, by which they in turn may broaden, sharpen and deepen their own vision.

Does this mean that Adrià creates laboratory experiments, prototypes, the only purpose of which is to assist Aduriz, Arola, Roca, Achatz, Andrés, Dufresne and other chefs to enhance their own cuisines? Judging by the meal we had, not at all. Surely, if taken in isolation, a dish, consisting of practically nothing but liquid, could, on the surface, look like a fragment, a sauce to which a real ingredient was forgotten to be added. However, some clever textural contrasts, such as creating a jellified membrane around a liquid content, do allow the dish to sustain its autonomy, if not to the extent of a stand-alone entrée, then as a perfect intermediary among the other courses of the meal.

To be sure, I was as bored by the repetitive patterns of jellified essences (each delivering such a clear and spectacular difference in flavor, despite their being organized in the same way thematically and having nearly identical presentation) as I would be by Beethoven's 32 Variations in C minor, where every variation is 8 measures, is the same length, with the same harmonic scheme – but each has its own character within one motivic unity.

Perhaps we were lucky indeed, and the meal we had in late May 2005 was the most successful representation of Adrià’s achievements over a period of time, as he himself stated during our conversation. Perhaps his interest in China and the Amazon (which, he said, he is looking forward to exploring next) will negatively affect his creations, as apparently did his interest in Japan in Vedat’s meal, and he’ll fail to make the exotic ingredients his own, unlike his use of seaweed gelatin, for instance. However, no one can argue that Adrià has not expanded the horizon of the culinary arts and developed a new genre, which, while it continues to influence many chefs, I thought was unique to its creator and absolutely and undeniably not transportable… until I visited MiniBar in Café Atlántico in Washington, DC.

(to be continued…)

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