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

tangerine
spherical Olives
non-trias
pine kernel and chocolate bombons
tomato cookie
beetroot and yoghurt meringue
rabbit ear crunchy
“coquito” 2008
sisho flexia caramel with its own soft candy
black sesame sponge cake with miso
flowers paper
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
abalone
capuchina leaf with eel and veal marrow
hare juise with apple jelly-cru with black currant marinated
gorgonzola shell
truffle ice cream
charcoal
Morphings…

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.

  1. David said,

    In response to your question about “what social norms” enforce ticket purchase, I’m going to guess that the deal in Spain is just like that in most other European countries (Germany, Italy, France) where tickets aren’t always checked: steep fines.

    On some of the train systems in Europe, these fines run as high as 20 times the cost of a standard ticket. I was once caught without a ticket on a train in Italy (I had purchased one, but it either fell out of my bag or was stolen) and had to pay a fine roughly 5 times the cost of the *most expensive* routing on that train. This isn’t true on all trains in Italy — some do have conductors who come through every time, and then the penalty is closer to 10 or 25 euros for not having purchased before getting on.

    It also works this way for local public transit across much of Europe (the U-Bahn in Berlin and the bus system in Florence come to mind): get caught without a ticket on the U-Bahn, the transit agent will walk with you to an ATM so that you pay your 80 or 100 Euro fine. Since tickets are usually around 2 euro, and you can pretty much count on being checked around 1 time in 50, it’s a good idea (economically speaking) to buy the ticket.

  2. Ken said,

    Gary, Been following with interest your El Bulli posts and previous Asia trip report. You mention never using flash — excellent. What other photo tips can you offer for food photography? Yours always look good, especially in challenging lighting like airplanes and restaurants.

  3. a said,

    Thanks very much for the write-up; I tried in vain to get reservations in 2006 and so I greatly appreciate the photos!

    “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? [...] It’s not clear to me what sort of social norm enforces this.”

    honesty, sure, but mostly an understanding of the common good.

    the thinking is that the train service is (at least partly) funded by the riders, and so if one uses the service then one should be honest and pay for it, even if nobody is checking.

    i would love to see this in the US, to prove wrong the Europeans who say we’re self-centered and greedy– except we kind of are self-centered and greedy :(

    Ah, well.

  4. Laura said,

    Great description of El Bulli – you really made the experience come alive. We would love to go someday, but the experience isn’t in the cards for us right now – with two small children, it’s just too complicated to arrange 5-6 days of overnight childcare, and far too expensive to take them with us (and then hire a babysitter in Spain).

    You compared the El Bulli experience with minibar in DC. Have you been to Alinea in Chicago or WD-50 in NYC? If so, how would you compare it to them?

    (Btw, I think you are from Cleveland, no? A new molecular gastronomy restaurant by Kevin Sousa will be opening a few hours down the road in Pittsburgh late this summer. Any other food like this is probably like ashes after El Bulli, but it is a lot closer and cheaper!)

  5. andrew said,

    i believe i saw a piece on food network featuring el bulli. if it’s the same restaurant, they’re very experimental and view food preparation as much science as art. very cool that you were able to share this report.

  6. Lillie said,

    I actually rode that same train up to Girona and back last Friday…and was visited by the conductor both directions.

    If David’s experience with steep European fines is the same in Spain, it might not be worth purchasing anything but the proper ticket. :)

  7. Marcial said,

    It is not the ocean. It is the Mediterranean sea.

  8. Lisa said,

    Thanks for the wonderful vicarious trip!

    What was under the Gorgonzola shell?

    also–the LA Metro is on the “honor system”

  9. Michael said,

    As suggested above: occasional on-board inspections by conductors, with high fines for missing or incorrect tickets, are a great way to motivate people to buy their tickets properly.

  10. Oana said,

    We went about this time last year and had some of the same dishes. It was such an experience! I’ve tried to explain it to people back home but haven’t done nearly as good of a job as you.

  11. Whiskas said,

    Having lived in Catalunya, I can tell you that no self-resepecting Catalan would be motivated by “the common good”. It’s all about the steep fines.

  12. Allison said,

    Thanks for this great write-up. Do you know when reservations will be accepted for 2009? Any advice for getting through?

    We recently dined at Alinea in Chicago and were blown away – we are eager to experience elBulli.

    Best,
    Allison

  13. Simon Evans said,

    I had thought of gong there but will avoid it now I know that ill-mannered people like you go there and take photographs of everything they eat. What an insult to the restaurant and the other diners. I am surprised you were not escorted out of the place.

  14. Gary said,

    At least half the tables were taking photographs. How do I know? Because they were using the flash. I take photos often, so am well-practiced at being discrete. I don’t use the flash.

    No one seemed to object or was uncomfortable, it wasn’t distracting to anyone. The tables aren’t bunched closely together as at so many restaurants.

    Sorry you are offended…

  15. Michael Buitron said,

    Thanks for a great post! It’s interesting to see some seasonal changes, and subtle variations in the dishes. Thanks to your post I asked for the cookbook to be signed early in the meal!

    http://imoralist.blogspot.com/2008/07/dinner-at-el-bulli-experience-part-2-of.html

  16. Colin Andrews said,

    Hi,

    What is the situation regarding children, I’ve seen a few photos of ElBulli with children sitting down to dinner is that allowed?

    I ask because (should we get a reservation) we are planning on taking our 2 who are 7 and 9. They know how to behave in such places (having been to the Fat duck/Gordon Ramsays etc). but some restaurants have a no child policy.

  17. Lucy said,

    Hello – Our son was 18 months at the time of our trip to Spain when we were lucky enough to secure a last minute lunch reservation at El Bulli. Given the timing, we were not sure if we would be able to find a babysitter for our son. The restaurant said that many children have a tough time given the length of the meal, but if we needed to bring him with us, it would not be a problem.

    We did get a sitter at our hotel for our son, but when we arrived at the restaurant, they very graciously had put us at a table that would have accommodated our son had we had him with us. So… this is my roundabout way of saying that if your kids are ok with upscale restaurants and long meals, the restaurant would likely be ok with it.

    The service was fantastic and the meal memorable. Given the unique nature of the dishes, most patrons take photos. However, the tables are quite spread out and most don’t use flash, so it isn’t distracting.

    It really is a wonderful experience!

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  21. S.reeis said,

    Simon said ..”I had thought of gong there but will avoid it now I know that ill-mannered people like you go there and take photographs of everything they eat. What an insult to the restaurant and the other diners. I am surprised you were not escorted out of the place.”

    – actually simon, places like el bulli are not only food, and not only science but they are also considered to be an art form… and therefore they encourage photographs. I have not dined at el bulli yet, but my experiences at other restaurants like Alinea have opened my eye’s to gastro food as an art, and every person i KNOW or have SEEN in my experiences at these places has opted for the photo. how else will anyone be able to remember the amazing detail of the most unique dining experience they have ever had.

    Gary, thank you for your great description of el bulli i can’t wait to get there and experience it. and take PLENTY of pictures!!!!

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