It is almost six years since I had the best dining experience of my life in elBulli restaurant. My friend Ciarán had won the gastronomic lottery and managed to get one of the 8,000 table bookings they offered a year. elBulli was a three Michelin star restaurant with head chef Ferran Adria at the helm until it closed a few years ago. The Godfather of molecular gastronomy’s cuisine was so sought after that the restaurant, on the Catalonian Costa Brava, received over two million requests a year for just 8,000 tables. Naturally, Ciarán and I thought we hadn’t a hope.
He rang me a week before Christmas in 2008 to tell me about the table and I’m probably still not over it.
Although it was over five years ago, I can still taste every dish. It was one of the most spectacular nights of my life.
Adrià closed the restaurant in 2011 because it was losing so much money. I was sad, but felt very lucky I had had the opportunity to go there.
Here are some words I wrote about it shortly after returning:
Some people are so determined to eat in Spain’s elBulli restaurant that they’ll book a table four years in advance – like a chap I met last year who planned a table for his wife’s 40th birthday. Others, like me, create 11 new email addresses and enter the annual lottery for reservations which opens for one day each year. Given the millions of applicants, my hopes are never too high.
But there is always the chance of a Christmas miracle. In late December 2008, my friend Ciarán called me, breathless. “Guess where we’re going next October 18th?” I had bullied him into entering the lottery too. The deal was, if either of us got in, we would take the other person.
elBulli is housed in a plain, unassuming stone building on what seems like the edge of the world, about two hours north of Barcelona outside the Spanish seaside town of Roses. The artist Salvador Dali had a house there. The British magazine ‘Restaurant’ named it the best restaurant in the world a record five times, most recently in 2009; it holds the highest Michelin rating of three stars; chef-owner Ferran Adrià was the subject of a case study by Harvard University, investigating artistic creativity. So almost a year after getting our table, we were feeling a little pressure and even more expectation on the long, winding trip up the hill.
Ironically, elBulli operates at a loss, although Adrià’s other ventures – books, kitchenwear, a hotel and fast-food outlets – do make money. It opens just from June to December; the rest of the year, the chefs research, experiment and travel for inspiration. Only about dozen of the kitchen staff are paid at elBulli – the rest work for free, for the experience.
Upon entering, we were warmly greeted by a troupe of staff and the maitre’d asked if we’d like to see the kitchen. Oh, I think we would. It was like seeing the Oompa-Loompas – only better looking and less orange – diligently working on each tiny dish. Scientific, harmonious, silent. It was gorgeous. I giggled like a schoolgirl on meeting Ferran himself. Overwhelmed and speechless.
Dragged back out, we took our seats in the admirably unponcey dining room, full of comfy chairs and whitewashed walls; little French bulldogs and prints from Dali’s back catalogue shone out from a cabinet.
We knew this was not going to be an ordinary meal. It would be a lesson in creative cooking, mathematics and chemistry. It would play with our concepts of what it means to eat. We weren’t given a menu. We salivated at what might lie ahead.
There were more than 30 courses, in a kind of in order: baby starters, slightly bigger dishes and sweet things. Most were on spoons or eaten with our fingers – there were no knives, just spoons or forks. And no dilly-dallying. The thought of 38 courses might seem overwhelming, but most were as light as air and carb-free, so we did not feel too full.
To try to decipher meaning from the menu is pointless; some of the combinations sound bonkers, and they were.
In fact, when I was handed an oyster leaf with dots of balsamic vinegar, I became convinced that the whole thing was going over my head. But Ferran always drew us back in with a cracking next course, like the pleas of a long-lost lover to return to their warm embrace. Eel with rhubarb, custard foam, sherry cream and capers.
Parmesan ravioli, sounded deceptively simple, but it was utterly brilliant. We were instructed to take two in our mouths and let them dissolve, then take the silver leaf balsamic, followed by a sip of concentrated basil water and then another ravioli. Sheer magic.
It is still difficult to put into words how elBulli was and is remembered. It was an experience in disarming theatre, the sublime and ridiculous in one evening.
On the drive home, we were delirious. Not crying, though we felt like it; speaking gibberish despite being sober. After almost missing the flight home, it was only when we got to Dublin Airport that we ate our first post-elBulli meal. From a fast-food stall. But please do not judge – we wanted to feel a smack of reality, and knew that no matter what we ate, it could never come close to that perfect little evening on the Costa Brava.
sugar cane: mojito – caipirinha
oyster leaf with dew of vinegar
”Joselito” ham and ginger canapé
truffle of truffle
soya milk with soya
sea anemone with te
roses / artichokes
prawn two firings
abalone with iberian ham fat
chicken skin canapé
kidney of goat with Jerez consommé, yoghurt and fennel leafs
sweet potato moshi with persimmon sorbet
puff pastry of pineapple