Last Supper at El Bulli - 2011
Our excitement at being invited by chef-patron Ferran Adrià to enjoy a final dinner at El Bulli before it closes for ever as a restaurant later this year mounted even further when we saw the taxi driver who was going to drive us along the tortuous coastal road from nearby Roses to the restaurant. Neither of his arms was in plaster.
On the last occasion we had made this journey, our taxi driver had one arm in plaster and she had insisted on using her one good arm to sound her horn on every possible occasion (because those returning from the beach which El Bulli overlooks are driving into the sun they are invariably on the wrong side of the road). As I was travelling with two female MWs back then I gallantly took the front seat, but I was extremely relieved to eventually reach the car park of El Bullli, a car park I had first driven into in the early 1990s.
That had been one summer lunchtime thanks to a tip off from the food writer Simon Hopkinson. The sunlight was brilliant and the beach and water equally crowded, all stunningly offset by the verdant mountains beyond. Since then we had been back together at least five times. On the evening of Saturday 30 April 2011 at 8.15 pm there was one lonely canoeist in the sea (see above) and he was significantly outnumbered by the chauffeurs who would be waiting patiently for the next four hours for their customers to finish their meal of a lifetime.
We climbed the stairs and took a look to the right into the kitchen, where at least 50 chefs were pirouetting around the most modern kitchen stage, at the centre of which was the animated, quick-footed, mad professor, Ferran Adrià. We noted the signature bull's head statue close to where the waiters collect the food. We made our way along the dark wooden corridor that opens out onto the terrace overlooking the bay and the Mediterranean. There was a small group of waiting staff to receive Jancis - whom Adrià had once described as 'the pope of wine' - which gave me the opportunity to watch Juli Soler, who was at this establishment in its previous incarnation as general manager even before Adrià arrived, glide effortlessly from table to table before coming to greet us.
The terrace was full, which allowed this experienced team to put into practice a crucial element of restaurant management. When you are serving 40 courses to 50 customers, that equates to 2,000 plates of food, or the equivalent of a thre-course dinner for 666. The kitchen has to be in charge of the timing of when the customers are asked to take their seats or else the service is a disaster. The specific challenges here are to space out the timing, to avoid too many sitting down at once while ensuring that the service is not so drawn out that it exhausts the staff - and customers. The main reason El Bulli closed at lunch some time in the late 1990s was that Anglo-Saxons were arriving for lunch at 12.30 and leaving when the Spanish customers were arriving at 15.30, while they, in turn, were only leaving the lunch table when the Americans were arriving for dinner. And then it went on until the early hours!
With the terrace full, we were taken immediately into the kitchen to meet Ferran, who looked relaxed and sun tanned. When we spoke of our sadness at this being our last visit, he responded in a mixture of the machine-gun-like Catalan and French that is his linguistic speciality about just how excited he is at the prospect of the El Bulli Foundation, which will be the restaurant's reincarnation in 2014. There was just time to shake hands with Oriol Castro, Adria's right-hand man at El Bulli for years, and to spot quite how unusually busy the pastry section was at such an early stage in the service, when we were politely ushered out towards our table. A final embrace with Soler followed, before we found ourselves where most people involved with this website like to be: with their feet under the table and a couple of empty wine glasses to hand.
This gave us both ample time to take in the incongruity of our setting. While we were about to embark on 40 of the world's most modern culinary creations, this was against a physical background of dark-stained wooden columns supporting the low white-washed ceiling; orange velvet curtains; a wooden cupboard that opened into the wall that the waiters use to replenish the tables with clean glassware or relay the table with new cloths every time the table of three Italian men and one woman decided that it was time for a cigarette; and heavy wooden armoires that act as waiter stations throughout. The interior of this room does not seem to have changed internally significantly since it opened in 1963 as a grill room with a bar, apartments and mini golf (it took its name then from the bulldogs that belonged to the original German owner's wife). Many of the people who make a piligrimage to this gastronomic shrine from around the globe must get the shock of their lives at the relatively kitschy surroundings.
When, at the end of the meal, just after midnight, we received a printed menu with the 53 dishes Ferran had planned to serve us (halfway through we asked for this to be cut down by over a dozen on grounds of self-preservation), the wines we had enjoyed were noted in the bottom left hand corner. On the other side, from top left to bottom right, were images of El Bulli's evolution over the past 50 years, with the bull dog motif featuring prominently. The last one reads elBulliFoundation, is stamped 2014, and authenticated with Ferran's signature.
Dinner got under way with the ritual question, 'We just want to check that you're not allergic to anything? Shrimps, oysters, game, sea cucumbers, brains?'
The singular change here was the inclusion of the word game. This has been a staple since Ferran decided two years ago to stay open later than usual in the season to allow his vivid imagination to cook the birds that are a feature of autumn. One stunning dish we were served included three small triangles of hare with a hare bolognaise and a glass of 'hare blood' (nothing of the sort, it turned out). But that was three hours in the future.
The meal got off to an alcoholic start. Spaniards are great gin drinkers and in the past Ferran has cleverly adapted this obsession into liquid 'gin fizzes', the memory of which immediately brought an even bigger smile to my wife's face. But here we had to chew batons of sugar cane impregnated with both mojito and caipirinha liquid served in a bowl of crushed ice, before a crisp meringue in the shape of a small baguette filled with a compound of meringue and apple, and then an airy concoction, to be eaten with our fingers, described as a 'pillow like a cocktail' that was laced with rum. And then along came the charming Catalan sommelier, Ferran Centelles, to ask us what we would like to choose from the wine list!
I therefore had time to take in the interior, to watch the dishes going to other tables and to marvel at the waiters' speed around the room because, predictably, Jancis had had her nose in the wine list, discussing all options and more with Ferran. It was at this junction that he mentioned how frequently customers expect to find the entire El Bulli menu complete with wine pairings at each course, something no sommelier could ever manage. We settled for three different finos (Piedro Luenga from Bodegas Robles in Montilla; La Panesa from Emilio Hidalgo; and the Antique Fino from Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla), which they kindly kept topped up, together with a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Henri Bonneau for 85.60 euros (second choice would have been a 1998 Fonsalette Syrah at the bargain price of 54 euros, but it is particularly difficult to get Bonneau wines in the UK so we chose the former).
More solid food promptly followed: a crescent of crisp codfish with honey; an ultra-thin tortilla with the tiniest shrimps (the first of Ferran's nods to the cooking of South America); and then a Parmesan macaroon and cheese straw that was both light as air but with a far more interesting texture. A whole langoustine sashimi, the head cooked only in boiling water; then the langoustine brain cooked in a Thai sauce; and rose-petal wontons served in a dim-sum basket were the Chinese prelude to eight courses described as 'travel through Japan'.
Highlights of this passage included a slice of tuna, tuna marrow (the first time I had ever tasted this and described by our waiter as 'extremely difficult to extricate') topped with the finest slice of tuna and soya – a small spoon containing what looked like a large olive but was the concentration of miso and absolutely stunning (this dish our waiter described as a 'new, new release and that you are two of the first to enjoy'); and an infusion of bonito and dashi made at the table in a cafetière. This section ended with a 'tiramisu of soya' that Jancis didn't enjoy, an opinion shared by others according to our waiter.
A short journey to Latin America involved a section of lulo, a bitter fruit from Colombia; a taco from Oaxaca, Mexico; and clam ceviche, before two stunning, soothing and more Spanish dishes. The first called peas 2011 involved two servings of peas side by side, one light and the other dark green, one real and the other faux involving the same alginating process as the miso soup and a dazzling combination of real caviar and a copy of it based on hazelnuts. Then there was their version of the classic gazpacho with ajo blanco and olive oil, here served on a flat plate and whose flavours were so intense that I confess I licked the plate clean with my fingers. My notebook reveals that both these dishes were very, very cleansing, that it was now 11.20 pm and we still had not used a knife!
That was about to change with the hare dish and the glass of 'hare blood' served in a wine glass. While this was viscous enough to be the real thing, it did not have a strong gamey smell at all and, it turned out, the 'blood' was the juice of beetroot, citronelle and ginger with the addition of pepper oil. As chestnuts are the traditional accompaniment to hare, the next dish was, naturally, described on the menu as a mimetic chestnut, this time a 'chestnut' made from the puree of hare liver. Very rich indeed.
The choice of two dessert wines, a sweet Oloroso Matusalem from Gonzalez Byass and a delicious Estela Solera from Mas Estela from the surrounding Empordà region, marked what one might call the onset of dessert and the only appearance of the syringes that used to be so common here. They contained a tea and lime liquid to be injected onto frozen sugar cubes, followed by frozen mini chocolate doughnuts with a delicious coconut milk centre and then a stunning rose petal made from apple and ice laced with Moscatel.
The copiousness and inventiveness of the chocolate box that followed would have been enough to make the entire meal unforgettable as it is not just one of the best but also the most magnanimous I have ever seen offered anywhere. One large, lacquered box is placed on the table, the top opened up and out spread four layers of very different chocolates with more along the top. When I asked whether I could take a few for some friends we would be seeing the following evening (for therapeutic grilled rabbit, almond mayonnaise from the Moro cookbook, salad and goats' cheese), out came a sheet of silver foil, a paper bag and the injunction to eat them as soon as possible as they were all made with such fresh ingredients. Our friends pronounced them 'excellent' even 48 hours later.
We thanked Ferran, staggered out and stood by the window that looks into the kitchen (see this video). Several chefs were mopping down, cleaning their stoves and fridges, while he was still in animated conversation with his key chefs. It would be several hours before he calmed down, I felt. The journey back was perhaps even more poignant than the one we had taken in the fading sunset several hours earlier.
The journey also allowed me to reflect on quite how lucky we had been to eat at Noma in Copenhagen and El Bulli in the space of eight days. They share numerous common ingredients: the drive, vision and imagination of their inspirational chefs; the passion of youth, particularly the stagiaires that are in both kitchens; the pursuit of excellence both ideologically and in terms of produce; their proximity to the sea; the absence of protein from a large proportion of their respective menus; the exuberance of both sets of waiting staff (our main waiter at El Bulli is from Mexico City and will be going back there after three years at the restaurant); and the almost bloody-minded determination to push back the frontiers, in the main part, very, very successfully.
But what links El Bulli, Noma and The Fat Duck, and distinguishes these three restaurants from many others I have eaten at, is a sense of wit. I can look at their menus long after I have eaten there and they will make me smile. That is one frequently ignored aspect of this whole business - restaurants and chefs like these exist to make their customers feel much happier and the world a better place.