Chef Ferran Adria served up 40 courses of culinary magic when I last ate at El Bulli in 2007, from the gin-fizz aperitif where the froth was hot and thick to raspberries that dissolved on contact with a spoon.
He has ramped things up a bit since then at El Bulli, which has won the World’s Best Restaurant title five times and where some diners have tried for years to get a reservation.
“You will eat 48 dishes tonight,” Adria said in a March 10 interview at the restaurant, which sits on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean, sun glinting on the water. “It’s the maximum. It’s impossible to get more.”
El Bulli, in northern Spain, closes for good on July 30 and will open in 2014 as an institute of culinary creativity. Meals will be served to outsiders only when the chefs need guinea pigs and those piggies will be there by invitation.
Until now, Adria has spent half the year creating dishes at his workshop in Barcelona and the other half serving them to customers at El Bulli, which is reached by a winding road from the town of Roses. He’s dispensing with the restaurant because he wants to spend more time being creative, like an artist abandoning exhibitions to focus on making art. Does he feel sorry to disappoint people who want to try his food?
“We can’t do anything,” he said. “Only a few people can come here. You are here because we have been in contact for many years but a person I don’t have a relationship with, it’s different. I’m going to New York this month and everyone will be telling me they want to come to El Bulli and I’ll be suffering. I’m tired of people telling me this. My life is a table. In the foundation, no one will tell me that.”
(Adria will be in New York as global brand ambassador for Madrid-based Telefonica SA, Europe’s second-largest phone company. Telefonica will provide the technology and research-and-development capacity for the El Bulli Foundation.)
“We won’t have reservations,” Adria, 48, said. “Who will come? It doesn’t matter. Everybody will want to come and every year we will have different guests. If we need feedback, we will get it. If we don’t, we don’t have to have it. Our priority is creativity. That is our challenge.”
I’ve interviewed Adria four times over the years: He is softly spoken, polite and watches your reaction closely when he speaks to you. He simultaneously projects a personal modesty and a pride in what he has achieved with his team. I’ve long known not to ask him for a table, so I was happy that he invited me to El Bulli when we previously met in London on Oct. 25. Even with an invitation, the first available table was for March 10.
(While it’s Bloomberg’s policy to pay for meals, El Bulli refused to accept payment from guests of the chef.)
“The last two or three years, we’ve got the idea to express ourselves through the whole menu, not certain dishes,” Adria said. “The most important thing is the sequences: five or six dishes that are about the same product or culture that make up a mini-menu. We’re sure this will become a trend in the gastronomic world. The problem is that you have to have a very, very long menu. If you don’t, it won’t make sense.”
The menu started with pina colada, only instead of being a drink in a glass, it was cotton candy with freeze-dried pineapple and spheres of rum that exploded in your mouth. It was followed by a mojito in the form of a baguette and then a martini glass of fizzy almond foam.
Highlights included a cookie oozing olive oil; ham and rose wonton; and a dish of “caviar” that was made from hazelnut and hazelnut paste made with caviar. There was a macaroon that was made of parmesan, and cod that was in fact just the crispy skin. Blackberry risotto with game-meat sauce anyone? The squeamish probably wouldn’t have wanted the glass of crimson liquid described as “hare’s blood” that was served with hare.
The sequences included seafood, truffles, game and Japanese cuisine. (Adria said he first traveled to Japan in 2002 although diners told him his style was Japanese long before then.)
You end the meal sipping coffee or drinks on an outdoor terrace overlooking the sea, which is handy for smokers. Most of the other diners were Spanish. While the dining room was quiet, the atmosphere wasn’t reverential. Eating is about enjoyment.
That’s why it’s so hard to say if a meal at El Bulli is the best in your life: Your most memorable meal is likely to be when you are happiest. At El Bulli, you are dazzled by Adria’s creativity and daring, impressed by his command of flavors and technical mastery and seduced by his spirit of adventure and fun.
Even if Adria never cooks for you, you are likely to eat dishes that show his influence. In the U.K., he’s friends with Heston Blumenthal of the Fat Duck and he also mentioned Nuno Mendes at Viajante and Jason Atherton of Pollen Street Social.
“It’s a shame more people couldn’t come here,” Adria said. “In the future, when you eat a long tasting menu, you will remember El Bulli. We’re sad and we’re happy. We’re sad because it’s not going to continue and we’re happy because we’ve changed ideas. The most important thing is the philosophy and the world has to recognize that is El Bulli, not Ferran Adria.”
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)