Modern Restaurant in Roses, Spain: El Bulli

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Review
 
El Bulli HeartHeartHeart
Restaurants and bars
Roses
Open: Lunch and dinner Wed - Sun
Price: Expensive
Score (/20): 17.5

Reviewed By

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane
Phone Number: +34 972 150 457
Address: en Cala Montjoi
Roses, Girona, 17480
Country: Spain
E-Mail: bulli@elbulli.com
Food Style: Modern

El Bulli has closed its doors. The last dish was served at the end of July 2011. We loved this restaurant but we also love the fact that it closed at the end of the natural cycle.
We will keep our review here for people to see what the restaurant was like at a moment in time!
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A visit to El Bulli requires a willingness to suspend the reality that eating is a basic fundamental of life, something we do in order to survive. There is little about a meal here that bears any relationship to notions of eating for living. It's an experience that will give you sensual and intellectual pleasure, as far removed from eating to live as reading Kafka is to following a set of instructions on how to program a video recorder. The connection is there but it's not immediately obvious.
In a world where too many people struggle to get the calories they need just to survive, it is a luxury to eat just for the pleasure of a series of tantalising games, where the satisfaction of hunger doesn't seem to have any part in the motivation for preparing and offering the meal.
Once you accept all that, and it doesn't take long because from the moment you arrive it's so beguiling, then you're in for a memorable experience, one which the restaurant staff appear to enjoy as much as the diners. If you choose the degustation menu, and on a first visit almost everyone does, you'll experience some 25 different tastes, each one memorable and some exquisite.
Take up the suggestion to begin your meal on the terrace overlooking a piercingly blue, sheltered bay. We were offered a welcome, a refreshing ‘cocktail' of orange juice and grenadine with a tiny ball of carrot sorbet and then five ‘cracklings', including fish skin, thin shreds of pizza dough, and pine nuts with caramelised beetroot. All memorable, the curry, chocolate and caramel peanuts were extraordinary. And the proffered house Manzanilla sherry is the right accompaniment.
This collection was followed by two jellies. One was a spoon of apple jelly drizzled with a highly concentrated balsamic vinegar. A rich, intense flavour balanced by the lightness of the jelly; the other strawberries and Campari. Our prejudices said all this should not have worked. We were wrong. The second-last dish in this, El Bulli's version of tapas, was a cornet of creamy quail egg yolks topped with salmon caviar. Served perched in a bowl of sesame seeds, these stuck to the outside of the cone. Its twin, for many dishes are served quite deliberately in brackets, was a cold tempura, coating grape, orange and salmon caviar. You've got to be joking but, again, it works!
Eventually, you're asked to move inside, something we did a little unwillingly. The restaurant itself, which is perfectly lovely, although noticeably dark on a cool spring day, cannot compete with that beguiling terrace. However, it was a later arriving party's turn out there and, once we started eating, we were sufficiently distracted by the food not to mind.
Perhaps the fact that inside you get little sense of the physical beauty just beyond is deliberate to make sure that you concentrate on what's on your plate. For this is definitely food you're meant to pay attention to.
The meal is progression of some eleven courses. Some are a single dish. Others are a collection of three or four exquisite tastes. In all, you'll eat about 25 different dishes. Sometimes, you're given strict instructions on how to eat something, for example the famous pea soup, served in thin cone-shaped glass. Drink it all in one go is the advice. While the texture and colour remain constant, as you drink the temperature changes, starting hot and finishing cold. It's a fascinating education as the flavour changes along with the temperature, its ‘peaishness' more obvious as the temperature lowers.
Every dish is served with purpose-designed crockery. In fact every element of this place appears purpose-designed, not least the streamlined and beautiful kitchen, where each small masterpiece is constructed, and which chef Ferran Adriá's partner and master of the front of house, Juli Soler, shows off proudly.
Highlights? Although famous for his ethereal foams, which aim to capture the essence of a flavour, and which have now crossed the Atlantic and have even been sighted in Singapore, for us two of the most memorable flavours were ravioli. One, sea-urchin ravioli, served with a sea-urchin jelly, had a rich, creamy intensity. It was served with pineapple and mango jelly, a fennel jus, and a raspberry-coloured foam made from aromatic herbs! Another ravioli was almost transparent, revealing ahead of the first bite, small bright-green broad beans and just a hint of a strong ham. A later ravioli was filled with oysters, served with oyster jelly, with seaweed and tea foam. Hidden inside this were two tiny, invisible, pieces of extraordinary-intense lemon zest, revealed only in the mouth.
Good games? The almost translucent tagliatelle made with chicken stock and gelatine, and served with raw egg and intensely-flavoured small pieces of diced ham and cheese. Not quite your average carbonara but, at the same time, not a world away. In fact, the raw egg means the sauce is much closer to the traditions of this dish. It's just the transparent tagliatelle that is a surprising take.
Beyond belief? Caramelised olives, a remarkable flavour, and the condiment to sea cucumber wrapped in cuttlefish.
The final savoury course allows you to judge Adriá against more conventional cooking. Until this point, it was almost impossible to do that because the dishes are so different. But, here was a thigh of rabbit, robustly-flavoured and cooked such that the flesh was so soft that it almost dissolved in your mouth. It was served with fennel and mascarpone flavoured with lemon, each a contrast to the earthy richness of the main player. This was as close as the meal made it to real food, and interestingly, was one of the few dishes where you could clearly say that one component held centre-stage and the remaining elements were designed to complement. In what had come before, the parts did not vie with one another, but they all played a near-equal role.
To us, this dish teased. It seemed a statement from the kitchen saying that you've worked through the many whims and fancies in our degustation menu but you do need to come back another time and try our other menu, where more of these robust flavours might lurk.
After this, three desserts, each more challenging than the next. Egg, in a cinnamon-flavoured soup, with a ‘hard-boiled' egg of lemon sorbet, followed by wasabi ice cream, with a wafer flavoured with Sancho (it's also known as Szechwan or Sichuan peppercorns), carrot, and lemon ice cream. In Australia, we've been fairly-seriously fusioned and so wasabi ice cream doesn't seem too strange a menu prospect, although serving it with carrot is a little less likely. What was extraordinary about this, apart from the seriously-blue glass bowl it was served in, was that it was so successful. This is the sort of thing we've trained to watch out for and treat with caution, a bit like running into an unmuzzled Rottweiler who may or may not be friendly. But, the lingering, fresh, cut-through flavour of this ice cream, was an antidote to all that had gone before. Finally, the ‘falso bizcocho', the false biscuit. Now, reading the notes, I can't believe we would fall for this but, there it is, in black and white ‘we loved it'. A square of what-looked amaretto-flavoured biscuit, literally dissolved. The last foam joke.
And, so, after 25 or more remarkable flavours, we made our way back to the terrace for great coffee and, a plate of pequeñas locuras (which we think translates as ‘little mad things'), served in their own beautiful stainless steel purpose-designed structure, based on the same principles as the stands which hold ice cream cones. Rich chocolates, but also shards of white chocolate sprinkled with sancho, and dried apple, curled into a cigar shape. Too often after a three star Michelin meal, this plate of rich, small morsels is disturbing, so beautiful, so much effort in its construction, but a body which says ‘No - I don't want or need any more'. Not here. We ate it all, and several coffees, too. Not just because they were good but also because we did not want to leave that terrace.
The only part of this whole experience we found difficult was how to make a choice of wine. It's a good wine list, although we were hampered in making a selection by our own incompetence because we had forgotten to find out the exchange rate and had no idea how much anything cost and our knowledge of Spanish wines is limited. Our real problem, though, was that, not knowing what we were going to eat, it was difficult to choose two suitable wines. Perhaps wines by the glass, matched to the degustation menu would work well. As it was, our robust Catalan Clos Martinet 1997, produced by the Pérez y Ovejero family, a blend of grenache, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah (shiraz to Australians like us), worked well with some dishes, especially the rabbit, but was too powerful for many of the more delicate flavours. The first wine, a 1996 Martín Códax, was intense and fruity, its Albariño grape a much more successful complement to this multitude of flavours. A degustation wine selection, matched to each course, while challenging for any sommelier, would have been the perfect solution.
Getting to El Bulli isn't easy. Most people approach it from the direction of Barcelona, which is about 160 kilometres to the south. However, we were staying in Collioure, in France, a pretty fishing village surrounded by steep hills planted with grapes, most of which are destined for making Banyuls. From Collioure, it is about an hour's drive on the main road or a two and a half hour drive on the winding, but breathtaking, coastal road. If you want to stay nearer, Hostal de La Gavina is highly recommended. You should also allow time to visit the Museu Dalí in nearby Figueres. Of all painters, Dalí is the one who springs to mind when you eat Ferran Adriá's food and it's probably no coincidence that he was born nearby.
We know that it is almost impossible to get into El Bulli these days due to its current popularity. If you like the sound of the food experience and can't secure a booking then there is another option, namely to stay at Adrià's first elBullihotel hotel, Hacienda Benazuza, and eat at two star La Alquería, which features dishes originally created at El Bulli.
 
     
         
     


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