Last week Next restaurant’s latest challenge began by taking on the theme el bulli. El bulli was the culinary mecca created by Ferran Adria and formerly rated one of the best, if not THE best restaurant on the planet. This past July Chef Adria closed the restaurant and ended an incredible run of culinary innovation! Menu elements like foams - hot and cold, liquid filled ravioli explosions that have become common in most kitchens across the world all began in Rosas, Spain and much earlier than many diners may think.
This isn’t the first time Next took on culinary genius as a theme. Their first menu, Paris: 1906, was an homage to Escoffier – he organized the kitchen and wrote the first culinary bible. One difference between Paris: 1906 and el bulli – Chef Ferran is still alive and he’s coming for dinner! He and his team also provided feedback for the menu – so uh, no pressure!
I was never lucky enough to eat at el bulli. Like the lucky few with reservations this was my chance, my only chance, to experience a restaurant I’d only read about. My meal began at 7pm and I was eager for all 29 courses! I didn’t watch the promo video or read much about the pre-hype so the experience wouldn’t be preempted.
The meal began with a nitro caipirinha and tarragon concentrate. A refreshing cocktail transformed with modern techniques in to an amazing start that woke up the taste buds. Oh and that cocktail was created in 2004! What were you drinking 7 years ago? The menu wasn’t designed as a progression through time or greatest hits. It was meant to celebrate the cuisine and make you think about food and flavor with the added element of “when was this dish created?” By placing the dish in time, you could enjoy a bite and realize this happened when I was eating what???
The second course was a bite that influenced Chef Achatz when he worked at Alinea – hot/cold trout roe tempura. The crunch of the tempura with the salty cool center one biter was surreal – made in 2000. I’ve yet to see anyone try this technique from 12 years ago. We then hurtled through time – spherical olive(2005), cocoa of avocado pear, anchovies and green onion(1991), iberico sandwich(2003) and the golden egg(2001). The bites came fast and furious. Meals at el bulli only took 3 hours over the many courses. The quick pacing was part of the experience.
Our next slingshot through time began with black sesame sponge cake and miso(2007), liquid chicken croquettes(1998) and smoke foam(1997). In 1997, I had just graduated college and knew NOTHING about food. The smoke foam was an iteration of thought, meant to get the diner to think not necessarily “enjoy” the flavor of the dish. El bulli typically had 4 of these courses throughout their menus. The smoke had a campfire/marshmallow browned or burnt flavor. It made me think and realize 1997, 1997! In American fine dining, we were still worried about height on a plate!
Next, came the carrot air with coconut milk(2003). This was the dish that made el bulli a global destination because of the NY Times article. When you eat a carrot, you expect a crunch, a bite, some kind of texture. The carrot air had all the flavor of a carrot that seemed to disappear the second it got in your mouth. The hint of coconut and curry was subtle but the actual act of eating this dish was trippy. I couldn’t get my mind to stopping thinking about chewing while enjoying this dish.
For those who bemoan the next ticketing process. When the NY Times article hit in 2003 – el bulli went from getting a few thousand reservation requests to a few million.
The next block of dishes were all over the map on flavor and technique – cuttlefish and coconut ravioli with soy, ginger and mint(1997), savory tomato ice with oregano and almond milk pudding(1992), hot crab aspic with mini corn cous cous(2001), cauliflower cous cous with solid aromatic herb sauce(2000) and suquet of prawns(1988). The prawns were the second oldest dish on the menu and delicious. The explosion of the cuttlefish and soy was a balance of savory and salty in a good way. Crab aspic??? I could eat two it was that good. The one that jumped out at me in this group was the cauliflower cous cous. The earthy richness and the gingerbread element with the herb were fantastic and paired PERFECTLY with the Chateau Ollieux Romanis ‘Cuvee Prestige’ Corbieres 2008.
El bulli didn’t do wine pairings. You enjoyed cava, white and red wine. There was no fuss or focus on the wine. The mantra was eat great food and drink the wine you enjoy. So the next time someone turns their nose at you for drinking what you want – tell them if it’s good enough for el bulli, its good enough for me!
We were beyond the halfway point of dinner and I wasn’t nearly full after 15 courses. The food was light and focused. You also began to realize the melting of old and new when it came to technique. This wasn’t a revolution that disregarded tradition it enhanced the old through creativity and refinement.
The next five courses took us to dessert – potato tortilla by marc singla(1998), trumpet Carpaccio(1989), red mullet Gaudi(1987), nasturtium with eel, bone marrow and cucumber(2007), civet of rabbit with hot apple jelly(2000). The potato was the first hot foam and was created by the research sous chef marc singla - delicious. I’m not a mushroom fan but the trumpet Carpaccio was enjoyable and a testament to knife skills and plating. The nasturtium was so minty and savory which led well in to the civet of rabbit. The red mullet Gaudi was the oldest dish on the menu. The presentation was a great way to update a classic. The brunoise of vegetables that was the Gaudi inspiration – perfection.
At this point, the savory portion of dinner ended. There was never a piece of red meat. The most substantial protein was the rabbit and even that was light. I still wasn’t overly full but enjoyed a pleasant calm. I’ll freely admit a pang of sadness hit when I realized I was on the home stretch.
Traditionally, the cheese course in Europe comes off a heavily laden cart. El bulli got rid of the trolley and presented composed courses. The gorgonzola balloon(2009) was surreal since you ate it with your hands. What looked like a hard sphere was cold to the touch and melted if you took too long to eat it. The cheese was still rich and vibrant and slowly deflated like a balloon to its original liquid state. The most whimsical cheese course I’ll probably ever eat.
The final courses maintained the journey through time elegantly – foie gras caramel custard(1999), spice plate(1996), mint pond(2009), chocolate in textures(1997), chocolate donuts(2010), crème flute(1993) and passion fruit marshmallow – the farewell(2004.) The foie gras was a creative take on crème Catalan. The mint pond was a visually, trippy presentation that gave you flavored ice better than any sorbet. Chocolate in textures from 1997 was the first example of a common dessert we see in every restaurant. You’ve eaten it today but it’s called chocolate 2, 3 or 4 ways. The donuts, flute and marshmallow were childlike in their goodness. The spice plate was an actual quiz of flavors complete with pen and paper to keep score.
About four and a half hours later, our meal was complete and I was speechless. Most restaurants you can go back to often and have that one amazing dish. I will never, ever have this experience at next or el bulli again. The menu is completely sold out except for a daily auction benefiting cancer research and that’s only for a 2 top. I wasn’t “stuffed” by any means but I wasn’t hungry either. I was blissfully walking on air thanking my lucky stars. I’ve always joked I’d love 7 lucky lottery numbers but I may have to amend that to 29 amazing courses.
Sunday as I reflected how to express the dinner I enjoyed in to words I kept going to a classic Aesop Fable, “The Rose and an Amaranth.
A Rose and an Amaranth blossomed side by side in a garden, and the Amaranth said to her neighbor, "How I envy you your beauty and your sweet scent! No wonder you are such a universal favorite." But the Rose replied with a shade of sadness in her voice, "Ah, my dear friend, I bloom but for a time: my petals soon wither and fall, and then I die. But your flowers never fade, even if they are cut; for they are everlasting."
Greatness in life is fleeting. El Bulli’s greatness ended and the celebration at Next will one day be complete, but the influence el bulli has made on the culinary footprint will be eternal.
Joe is a Chicago based food blogger who was a restaurant chef, server and manager. He can be found on twitter at @chifoodsnob. Joe also contributes to Eater.com Chicago.
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