I had considered renting a car, and in the end that would have been the easiest. It’s just not that difficult a drive from Barcelona to Roses. Instead, though, we took the Catalunya Express train to Figueres. Cost was ~ 10 euros apiece each way. A car wouldn’t have been more expensive overall, though, because of the cost of cabs – a good 40 euros each way to and from the train station into Roses. (I’d still take a cab to and from the restaurant, though, for reasons I’ll explain).
At the train station you stick your ticket in the machine to enter the area of the station with the tracks, but presumably any train ticket would work, no tickets were ever checked onboard in either direction, so why not buy the cheapest ticket and board whichever train you wish? On the return from Figueres there was no process to check for tickets at all, even entering the station to the tracks, and yet people buy them anyway. It’s not clear to me what sort of social norm enforces this. And yet I assume that most people actually bought their tickets as I did.
After checking into a non-descript hotel in Roses where we’d be staying for the night (I admit I underinvested in hotel choice research, but then I was really looking to scrimp a little), we changed for dinner and took a cab to the restaurant.
The drama of the approach is impressive – through the town of Roses and then up a long cliff with ocean on either side. Now I know what folks mean when they say they recommend against driving back from the restaurant late at night after the meal (and drinks). It’ll be dark, poorly lit, winding roads, and very dangerous. We had to take care to avoid two head-on collisions driving up in the daylight.
We arrived a few minutes early for our reservation which was perfect to take in the setting of the restaurant, right on the water. I highly recommend not turning up rushed, it doesn’t require a long time, but just wander around for a few minutes.
Our assigned arrival time was 8:30pm. It appears that each table has only one set of guests during the evening but they stagger arrival times.
Two women walked in ahead of us, they had been meandering around the grounds and then presented themselves (in sweatshirts and tennis shoes) and asked to be seated for dinner… without reservations. They were turned away in an exceptionally polite way.
We were greeted warmly, of course, and then offered a visit to the kitchen. The chef came over and took photos with us while he clearly managed to continue to oversee the kitchen staff while visiting and greeting us. Kitchen had several rooms and we noticed perhaps three dozen cooks.
On the whole El Bulli is much less formal than what one would expect from a Michelin 3* restaurant of any sort, let alone one as famous as this. Service is incredibly busy, the wait staff have a large role in presentation of dishes, they’re running around the whole time rather frenetically. Service is still good of course – there’s someone there to help you with your chair when you return from the restroom (and your napkin has been discretely replaced while you’re gone). But given the rush silverware isn’t placed perfectly and symmetrically. But then silverware is changed at least a dozen times during service.
Whenever food arrived at a table, everyone would go silent – awaiting instructions on how to eat the course just presented. Each dish is presented and then explained. In most cases all the ingredients are detailed, although in one case (the gorgonzola shell) things were left a bit of a mystery as we weren’t told what was underneath and left to discover the surprise. Roughly half the dishes also have a distinct order in which you’re supposed to eat each piece. Some might find this pretentious … but it’s executed in a fairly down-to-earth way, it’s hard to describe. It’s not “you must follow our instructions” rather it’s a description of how the chef believes, after much scientific testing, that the combination and ordering of flavors will be most interesting or fulfilling or demonstrate something about the ingredients that you might not have thought of before.
I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a meal where pieces of asparagus on my plate were purposely cooked to different degrees of finish in order to accentuate the texture and flavor in combination with different accompanying sauces.
Each set of courses appears to end with a very salty dish, with the salt feeling of your mouth serving as a clear demarcation (I can’t really call it a pallet cleanser but it did function as one).
We didn’t receive any meat courses (except bone marrow) which was rather interesting. No foie gras either. Lots of truffles and lots of sesame seeds and sesame seed oil. I was actually rather surprised that even a restaurant of this caliber could experiment with truffles the way that they do. A couple years ago at CityZen (the best restaurant in DC IMHO, at the Mandarin Oriental) I had risotto with shaved white truffles (this was an upcharge from the regular tasting menu)… the waiter snapped the truffle in half and dropped it in my risotto. More afraid of what the chef would do to him than anything else, he reached right in and pulled the truffles out of my food with his hands, right in front of me. Here they don’t seem nearly as concerned with the cost of truffles.
There were a whole bunch of cameras flashing throughout dinner. Usually we’re the only ones taking pictures of our dinner (we’re sorta geeky that way), although we never use flash. And in this case the dining room was more than sufficiently lit so a flash wasn’t necessary. But it was telling – about half the guests were sufficiently in awe of being there that they wanted to capture each moment on film. Usually my photo taking gets the occasional odd look. Here it was normal.
Also interesting was that we were the youngest there, except a couple of approximately the same age who were dining there with their parents.
My favorites on the evening were the oyster shot glass with tempura raisin wine, and also the crab sandwich on foccacia. Rabbit ears were displayed as though they were still on the head of a bunny, so I was a bit uncomfortable with that.
We had their welcome cocktail and we drank cava, but as heretical as this sounds we didn’t really drink beyond that. It’s so difficult to pair each bite of food together in the right order for best effect, to combine this with just the right glass of wine to enhance the taste rather than merely provide refreshment would seem impossible. So we enjoyed the food for its own sake, without pairing or a bottle of wine. The Spanish cava, though… mrs. gleff says she preferred it over vintage dom (though not over krug or bolliner). Really lovely.
Here’s our menu for the evening, with photos. The menu is going to be slightly different for each table, since they ask for preferences, allergies, and avoidances. There’s a somewhat larger menu off of which the kitchen chooses your dishes. So these are simply what was prepared for us. If you want to see the list of items we didn’t have, let me know and I can dig that up (as they gave us a copy both of our menu and their working copy for the evening, presented in a nice small folder).
El Bulli Menu
pine kernel and chocolate bombons
beetroot and yoghurt meringue
rabbit ear crunchy
sisho flexia caramel with its own soft candy
black sesame sponge cake with miso
fried brioche Shangai
“horchata” – truffle
oysters yoghurt with px in tempura
haricot bean with Joselito’s iberian pork fat
tangerine flower/pumpkin oil with mandarin seeds
almonds jelly with cocktail of fresh almonds “Umeboshi”
tomate soup with virtual iberian ham
grape fruit Thai risotto
asparagus in different cooking times
peeled pea / sphericals pea
gnocchi of polenta with coffee and saffron yuba
razor clam with seaweed
capuchina leaf with eel and veal marrow
hare juise with apple jelly-cru with black currant marinated
truffle ice cream
Alas, after an obscene number of courses and more than four hours, it was time to say goodbye. Much of the restaurant had already departed, but there was no sense in which we were being rushed. We wanted to buy a cookbook, they have Ferran Adria’s books on display, but it only occurred to us to mention this at the end of the meal and we wanted the book signed. Alas, the chef had left for the evening, but they told we could make the purchase online and ask for him to sign it and they’d take care of it. So we will.
There was no problem having the restaurant call us a cab at the end of the meal. Others have posted on food discussion forums that they needed to arrange for a car to return in advance, but that wasn’t our experience.
Overall this was an amazing experience. I’ve been to minibar in DC, which is derivative of what El Bulli offers, and that’s a fun meal and interesting and different. But it isn’t the extreme explosion of tastes with every bite. There, some dishes are surprising but fail as cuisine. Here everything I tasted made me think and delight. The service is good, not perfect, everything is about the food and the staff rushing to ensure that the food is perfectly presented. Thus it’s not an evening to mellow and enter deep conversations. The conversations become secondary in importance to the food. So don’t go expecting a typical French michelin experience. And don’t expect to find your favorite comfortable restaurant that you’ll return to year after year. You probably couldn’t get reservations that often, anyway. (Although the restaurant says they hold back 50% of their tables for returning guests so they can see how the experience has progressed after a few years.) The meal cost 500 euros for two (again, very limited alcohol). The basic dinner was 218 euros per person, though I think it’s somewhat less on other nights of the week. If it weren’t for the weakness of the dollar, I’d have regarded this as a real value — I’ve spent US$500 for two on far inferior dinners here in the states. Alas, at current exchange rates this was an $800 dinner… leaving aside the transportation costs. Nonetheless, my bottom-line: Go.