Bulli for Adria, in a league of his own
THE journey to the best restaurant in the world, as voted in this year’s S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, is one that requires extreme patience and persistence.
For me, after trying for a year to get a reservation, it involves an earlymorning flight from Milan to Barcelona, where I meet up with Sydney chef Greg Doyle and his team from Pier. From there we drive the two hours north to Roses on Spain’s Costa Brava, followed by a 20-minute taxi ride north along a winding road and over the crest of a hill.
We reach the top and are suddenly exposed to a wonderful coastline, replete with tiny coves and the occasional moored yacht. The reflection of the sun slowly sinking on the horizon seems to set the tone for what we hope is going to be a great meal.
When I finally received the confirmation of our El Bulli reservation I was surprised to see the table had been booked for 7.30pm, as no one eats in Spain before 10pm. But keen to be on time, we arrive to find the large gates to the restaurant closed, and join the queue of eager diners waiting for admittance.
When we enter the restaurant, we are welcomed and asked if we would like to meet the chef and take a look around the kitchen. Yes, we would, and it’s a feast for the eyes. The kitchen is alive with chefs finishing the miseenplace before the evening service begins. It is such a welcome change to be invited to see a kitchen in full flight rather than meeting the chef at the end of service, when all one sees is the clean-down process and buckets of soapy water being thrown around.
We meet Ferran Adria (pictured), and a translator explains that the famous chef has prepared a tasting menu and that his team will look after us. We are taken to our table and as we walk through the restaurant, we remark on its simplicity: a tiled floor and white walls with a few select pieces of contemporary art lead on to a terrace that overlooks the bay. It is a tranquil setting, and we are now ready to see what the chef has in mind for our party of five.
We are in for a treat. A tasting menu of more than 30 double bite-sized dishes has been well thought through; each dish is sent to our table in a sequence that not only surprises but enlightens the senses.
We are amazed. The food is intelligently and skilfully executed and every detail, starting with the plate on which the dish is served, is an intricate part of the experience. All dishes are matched with wines that our sommelier helps us select from a huge list that is fitting for one of the world’s best restaurants.
The courses are served in groups and arrive at the table without delay, possibly even a little too quickly so that at times we feel it would be good to take a little breather.
Among the first series of dishes to arrive, spherical olives, tomato cookie, beetroot and yoghurt meringue, and crunchy rabbit ears are my favourites.
Soon a new group of dishes arrives, including mint leaves, strawberries and a creation called gorgonzola moshi, which at first seem out of context but lead us on to a delightful black sesame sponge cake with miso, light and delicate but packed with flavour.
So-called flower papers arrive sandwiched between a large sheet of folded rice paper. On lifting the sheet, a delicate fairy floss of wild spring flowers is revealed. It simply melts on the tongue, leaving an intense flavour of their essence. Two more dishes — asparagus with miso and razor clams laurencia — follow.
The offerings move on, becoming more complex, and include haricot beans with Joselito’s Iberian pork fat, a tangerine flower dish with pumpkin oil and mandarin seeds, anchovy and ham with yoghurt yuba (yuba is a dried tofu skin), water lily and sea anemone, which takes me back to my childhood playing in coastal rock pools.
These are followed by sea cucumber with mentaiko (marinated fish roe) and rhubarb, cooked to perfection and impossibly delicate and balanced. Then comes negrito 2008, a wonderful fish course and the only dish served with foam. Then game meat canape and hare juice with apple jelly-cru and black currant marinade.
The cheese course of brie stuffed with truffles I could do without. I’d be happier with a wonderful piece of hard sheep’s cheese from the local region, but I guess that is being a little picky.
To finish, we are presented with pistachio honey and trufitas, followed by autumn landscape, which is a visual masterpiece and, as the name suggests, a plate filled with autumn leaves the colour of the changing seasons and a fitting way to complete an extraordinary meal.
Back from my trip, I receive a phone call from Doyle asking if we will be able to get a table next year to see the continuing evolution of this great restaurant. My sources tell me that once you’ve been, it’s a little easier to get in a second time. Let’s hope so. Simon Johnson is a leading Australian food providore. More: www.simonjohnson.com.au.