So then, a mega-post for a mega-restaurant (photos courtesy of Sebastian Sejer – to whom many, many thanks).
Perhaps if I stand here long enough, someone'll give me the keys to their car…
With Ferran Adria, who I had interviewed earlier in the day for a magazine assignment. A thoroughly genuine guy, with no airs of grandeur, just deeply committed to his work, shockingly inventive, endlessly curious, restless, a delight to interview, albeit hard to wrangle back to the question. And a role model for high-foreheaded men everywhere.
He'd lost 20kgs since we'd last met in Tokyo in 2009. Back then he'd been bursting out of his chef's whites, but he told me he had made a concerted effort to get a bit healthier.
Literally as we were talking about this, news came through of the death of his arch rival, three-starred Catalan chef Santi Santamaria, of a heart attack (he was a large man) at a conference in Singapore. Santamaria has in the past criticised Adria for his use of 'chemicals', accusing him of poisoning his guests, so this might have been a bit of a 'ding dong the witch is dead' moment, but Adria remained sombre and reflective.
Meanwhile, we talked about the Adria brothers' new ventures – the cocktail bar 41degrees and the contemporary tapas 'laboratory', Tickets, in Barcelona (more of which in a bit); his new foundation which opens in 2014; his plans for his time off (pretty much summed up as, 'what time off?'), and his thoughts on the locavore movement. Though he is a great friend and supporter of René Redzepi of Noma, Adria made the interesting point that Noma sources its ingredients from up to several thousand kilometres away from Copenhagen, which is hardly local. Adria, who has been criticised for his wide-ranging larder, pointed to the pine trees outside the window, which supply him with pine nuts, adding that – as you will see – the majority of the ingredients used at el bulli are actually from Catalonia. Basically, he summed up his approach to sourcing as 'you should always try to use the best of what grows nearby but don't be afraid to go a little further for the very best, and, besides, define "local".' Which seemed completely reasonable to me.
We talked about who might take his place, now that he is changing el bulli into a research foundation (they serve their last meal at the end of July). He refused to annoint an heir, saying that, in the Twitter age where information pings around the globe in an instant, the frenzy of interest would place intolerable pressure on the chef in question's shoulders. When I asked about the future of haute cuisine, he seemed to feel that things had been taken about as far as they could go with the 'sitting down at a table to eat a multi-course meal' scenario.
And having eaten 47 courses of his final season menu, I am inclined to agree. (Not all courses are detailed below: I'm nerdy, but not that nerdy).
'Pillow like a cocktail' – candy floss with frozen cocktail inside. An appropriately discombobulating way to start the 'meal'.
'Almond fizz with amarena' – you drink the drink and pick honey-drizzled blossom from the tree. Twee but undeniably pretty, rather Japanese. Note the chintzy curtains, artex walls and heavy wood furniture. Take away the food and the unconventional tableware, and this could easily be any rural, European Michelin starred restaurant from the last 30 years. Which is no bad thing.
Not on the menu, this was a bloody mary (left) and sugary disc with olive oil, the latter shimmering and golden like a miniature piece by Olafur Eliasson.
A parmesan macaron, some pistachio ravioli and parmesan 'porra'. One roundhouse flavour punch after the other. Incredible. The macaron virtually evaporated as it made its way to my mouth. The parmesan 'sticks' were the most parmesan-ey thing I have ever tasted, and as for the pistachio 'porra' (little green crunchy-snacky things with a liquid centre), they were absolutely staggering, the quintessence of pistachio flavour. Wanted a bag of them.
'Mohito and apple flute'. The 'bread' was light as air, meringue-like. Culinary conjuring.
'Cod fish crust' and 'shrimps "tortilla"'. The shrimps were part of a slightly eyebrow-raising foetus theme which recurred throughout the meal, but fabulously fishy-salty.
'boiled shrimp' – just a juicy, super fresh prawn, momentarily blanched.
'Sea urchin nigiri, and marrow bone nigiri'. The nigiri being some kind of spongified rice affair. Wonderous textures, seductive umami-meaty flavours. Frankly, I can eat sea urchin till the sea cows come home and their pairing with marrow was inspired.
'soya matches' – matches made out of soy sauce with edible gold leaf tips: just because they can.
'Marrow and belly of tune-sushi' – The sea-through gel beneath the otoro is tuna marrow. I didn't even know tuna had marrow, for god's sake.
'Soy crystal' – one of the more avant guarde or 'vanguardia' as Ferran has it, dishes: shards of ice with soy sauce and fresh wasabi presented in folded waxed paper wedged within folded, perforated gauze. Interesting, but not something I have especially pined for since and, rather troublingly, reminded me of an intimate part of the Ice Queen's anatomy (I don't mean 'reminded' as, obviously, I am not actually acquainted with the Ice Queen let alone her nether regions – perhaps 'evoked' might be better).
'Tiramasu' – made from tofu, soy and miso. Not very nice, frankly.
I was quite prepared not to like some of the dishes, and actually the 'misses' were fewer than I expected, but I just don't think that, in Europe, even a restaurant of this quality and vision can properly understand Japanese ingredients to the extent where they can presume to play around with them like this.
And, climbing down off my high horse, and on to the next course.
'Caviar cream with hazelnut caviar' – the sauce was made out of caviar, the small spheres were hazelnut. Delicious, surprising, a flavour combination I have never tasted before and likely never will taste again. Exactly what I hoped for from a meal at el bulli.
'Liquid hazelnut "porra"' – or 'Nutella in a crispy tube. A false dessert dawn, this turned out to be a continuation of the savoury courses. Very, very odd to find it in the middle of a meal, although Adria had told me that the menu would contain various themed chapters, and I think this heralded a sweeter chapter. Lovely though – the crispy coating so diaphanous that it broke as you tried to lift it.
'Truffle cake' – also oddly sweet, perhaps too sweet, this was shaved Spanish black truffle drenched with honey. The truffle was nice, but not quite as punchy as you might find over the border in France.
'Foie cake' – Momofuku-esque shaved frozen foie gras on a sugary disc (or did David Chang get the idea from el bulli?).
'Germinated pine nuts' – this dish was not so interesting in terms of its flavour or texture, although those aspects were fine, instead it seemed more to be about demonstrating the masochistic commitment of el bulli's chefs more than anything else. Each pine nut had been opened and its germ removed. As you ate it, you couldn't help but think of the poor bugger whose task it was to do this all day.
They even gave you the husks of the pine nuts, just to ram the point home.
'Steamed eels' – more foetuses. Actually the baby eels are quite a common Catalan delicacy. You can buy them in the supermarkets. Delicious. Tasted vaguely of oysters, but a little crunchy. Loved the cheap working man's club ashtray it was served in.
'Octopus shabu shabu' – more ickle babies, in this case served with instructions to swish them in hot water for 'no more than five seconds', then dip in olive oil and pimenton. More disconcerting crunchiness as you chewed the beaks, but nice.
'Lulo ceviche and mollusk' – this was a half of a south American fruit, called a lulu, of which I had never heard. It was a kind of cross between a tomato and a sharon fruit, two of its four segments removed and replaced with a clam soup, the others still in situ, with some coriander. Fabulously refreshing, with a harmonic seafood counterpoint.
'Tomato tartar' – simply the greatest tomato, diced into immaculate brunoise, with a crisp honey bon bon on top.
'Peas 2011' – spherified on the left, real on the right. The 'plastic' is some kind of reconstituted ham fat, and there was also some tasty blood sausage thrown in. Familiar flavours, brilliantly deconstructed, Adria at his playful best.
'Hare "bunuelo"' – intense hare ragu inside a kind of mini doughnut. Very gamey; surprisingly substantial. Quite a shock, actually, in its earthiness.
'Woodcock with guanabana' – The king of game birds, if you ask me; barely cooked, with little parcels of jellified Brazilian paw paw.
'Hare ravioli with bolonesa and blood' – One of a few (perhaps a few too many) appearances by hare as a star ingredient. I like hare but… well, I get a fair bit of it at home, and its bloody, liverishness can be overpowering. This was undeniably well cooked, though.
'Wild strawberries with hare soup' – more a consommé really, but the only dish I was unable to finish. Odd, ill-conceived, not nice really. But one total duffer out of 47 is a pretty good score rate.
'Mimetic chestnuts' – as you might guess from the name, these weren't chestnuts, but… hare liver!
'San Felicienne dollar' – one of two scrumptious San Felicienne courses, this one with a little blob of honey atop. Very haute. Bit nouveau, perhaps. One for the Russian diners…
'Sugar cube with tea and lime' – actually, a kind of soft, lime-flavoured ice cube over which you squeeze some tea, and perhaps the most refreshing things I have tasted. Well timed after the hare OD.
'Coca de vidre and mini donuts' – the donuts being ingenious chocolate shells filled with coconut cream.
'Apple rose' – quite quaintly old fashioned showboating of knife skills, but, oh wait, what's that lurking within the icy apple crevices? Dill spheres. Transcendent.
'Box' – countless varieties of chocolate. Come on, they're only wafer thin. I think it is to my eternal credit that I damn well tried every last one of them. Well, it would have been rude not to.
Greatest meal ever?