5 July 2007

El Bulli


A year ago when we learned we would be in Barcelona for the summer, Dan fixed (and fixated) on the idea of trying to have dinner at El Bulli. El Bulli and its lead chef Ferran Adria are frequently billed as the best in the world. El Bulli is only open for six months of each year; the other six months he runs a food science laboratory in Barcelona, where his team develops new ways of preparing food based in scientific processes. (He's big on foam and gas, which really concerned Bethany. She doesn't think people should be eating foam and gas!)

Dan requested a reservation in late Fall by email, adding our request to hundreds of thousands of others. I've seen articles that say they get 300,000 requests a year! No small amount of luck and our two month window of availability surely contributed to our successful request, with the fine date of Thursday, July 5 at 8pm. As preparation, we arranged the timing of my sister Janet's visit to Barcelona to span the El Bulli date so we'd have a trusted babysitter back in Barcelona. (Thanks, Aunt Janet!) We also responded to frequent email inquiries checking if we were allergic to any ingredients. We always said "no", but we still got asked again (and again). Dan made hotel reservations in Roses, the town closest to El Bulli, and we rented a car for the week of the trip.

We drove to Roses by way of Figuera on Thursday morning, July 5. Figuera is home to the Dali museum, a spectacular collection of this incredible artist's work. We arrived in Roses at the Hotel Almadraba Park about 4pm. The hotel was right on the water, next to a lovely beach in a cove. We spent the next few hours on the beach then dressed for dinner.

We confirmed directions with the front desk at the hotel, fortunately, since the route we planned on evidently goes through a military area. While the concierge seemed to think we could give it a try, he also chuckled in a way that was not inspiring. In any event, we decided to take the "safe" and longer route back into the center of Roses and then to the north and (back) east. It turns out even the safe route involves a winding two-lane road through a deserted mountain road that falls off precipitously down the mountain and eventually to the sea. Guard rails were spotty, and despite the remote location, there was occasional oncoming traffic, as well as a crazed bicyclist doing wheelies up the mountain. The good news is that one gets to hug the mountain on the return (post meal) trip.

We arrived about 15 minutes ahead of our reservation time. The hotel is situated overlooking an isolated cove. There were children playing on the beach, but otherwise the area was peaceful and quiet. We were immediately welcomed and invited to tour the kitchen. Ferran himself was running the show, and we shook his hand as we were guided through the cold prep area, hot prep area, and assembly space. An army of assistant chefs were hard at work in the kitchen, matched only by an army of wait staff attending to our every need. This is a high touch operation!

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We were invited to start on the patio overlooking the cove for initial drinks and "snacks". First on the menu were what appeared to be olives, paired with ramos gin fizzes. (For the last five years or so of his life, Ramos gin fizzes were a traditional drink served by Dan's grandfather during our family gathering over Labor Day in Maine. He had trouble getting the required orange flower water, so he dubbed me "the orange flower water fairy" since I could obtain it in Atlanta and bring it on the trip. So...a special drink for us.) These were no ordinary olives; we were instructed to eat them in one bite, and discovered when we did so. The inside was liquified. The olives were followed by the collection you see on the right, accompanied by cava (champagne).

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After our snacks, we were welcomed into the dining room. The restaurant has seating for perhaps 40 people, over three rooms. Three or four other parties arrived about the same time we did, just the right head count so that all could enjoy the patio before coming into the dining room. These early parties were mostly small – 2-4 people. Later several larger groups arrived, including one with some Spain celebrity who was applauded by the wait staff.

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