First, what is El Bulli?
In a word, and to quote, Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother fame – “Legen...and I hope you're not lactose intolerant...dary"
I’m fortunately no longer lactose‐intolerant so was able to enjoy El Bulli in proper style. But before I dive into the description of the experience, I should offer some evidence in response to those friends who thought I was nuts to fly around the world to enjoy one meal, albeit legendary.
According to the Los Angeles Times:
"The El Bulli experience seems to rob at least some diners of all restraint. Chilean artist Juan Dávila wrote that his dinner "produced in me a Stendhal effect of dissociation, a surreal dream state and regression to childhood as if I was receiving heavenly drops from the mother's breast."
The Barcelona journalist Pau Arenòs once described the multi‐course tasting menu as "the black stone of Mecca. Mona Lisa's smile. The nucleus of the atom, the bank vault. The oval office of the White House. Love and sex ...."
Andreas Viestad of the Washington Post told readers that when he got home after his dinner at El Bulli, "I had a reaction similar to mourning, as if I had been allowed into an enchanted garden for one evening and had then seen the iron gate close irrevocably behind me when I left." Giles Coren, restaurant critic for the Times in London, warned that to describe what he had eaten, "I may have to go all Joycean … and sing songs of the pinkysounding sugarprawn and flightybumblecheese of porkfish."
French journalist Jean‐François Chaigrean announced in Paris Match in 2001 that, having eaten at El Bulli, "I will never come back down to earth … I shall never dare to eat again in my life." (I have been unable to find Chaigrean's obituary, so I assume that he eventually changed his mind.)"
A few data points (mostly courtesy of Wikipedia):
· El Bulli – a 3-star Michelin restaurant near Roses, Spain and run by Ferran Adria
· Known as one of the leading progenitors of molecular gastronomy
· Judged by Restaurant Magazine to be the #1 restaurant in the world a record five times — in 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009
· Open just 6 months a year with off‐season spent on intensive R&D
· Only 50 seatings in a night served by 50 chefs in the kitchen from 20 different countries
· Only 8000 diners a season and more than 2 million reservation requests per year
· This season will be its last forever - El Bulli will shut down permanently (not temporarily as reported) in July 2011
How did I get a reservation?
Reservations are requested over email and there is notoriously little rhyme or reason behind the evaluation process.
· My first email was sent in 2008. Result: Decline.
· My second email in 2009. Result: Decline.
· My third email in 2010 (midseason). Result: Decline.
· My fourth email was sent on its desperate way in Jan 2011 after I missed the reservation cutoff: Result: A day of jubilee.
"We are trying to find the most possible of solutions before we finish as a restaurant next July. We have received a change and there is an opportunity to full fill your request. If you wish we have a reservation option for you on Sunday February 6th of 2011, table for 4 people at 7.30 pm."
What was it like?
After a 6000-mile flight, 160 km drive, 5 km careening through winding mountain roads and sheer cliffs with a mad Spanish taxi driver to meet 50 chefs and one Ferran Adria and experience 44 dishes paired with 3 bottles of wine in 4–1/2 hours?
They say a picture’s worth a thousand words: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2167645&id=2910078&l=d6606dcfc1
Was it worth it?
This is a hard question to answer. I drink tap water, I like hole‐in‐the‐wall restaurants, and drive a 2001 Honda Civic with 115K miles on it. But I also flew to Spain from San Francisco at 7am on Saturday arriving the next day to have dinner that evening before flying out a few hours later at 6am on Monday. To spend 300 euros on a meal.
Was it frivolous? Yes, if you consider it a meal. That’s hard to argue with. It’s completely silly. No meal is worth that much.
But I’ll tell you what, it was more than a meal. It felt like a pilgrimage, an immersive artform, even a drug (truly, we were so dizzy at one point we had to stop the food parade and go outside for some air). Food is such a normal part of our everyday lives and there’s so little real innovation – when was the last time something as major as pasta was invented – we forget the possibilities inherent in the experience of food. It seems lately the conversation has been about taking away possibilities – getting back to basics, local‐grown, homegrown, gluten‐free, organic, no‐carb. Why can’t we go the other direction – add possibilities, innovate in a way that adds to the substance of the human condition, see food as a story on par with a movie or orchestral score, create and celebrate the intriguing and never‐before‐seen.
As I uncharacteristically wax poetic, I think maybe it was a drug. But you never see heroin addicts debating whether it’s worth the 20 bucks – they already know the answer. And as an artform, still cheaper than a Renoir.