Dinner at El Bulli

As most of you know, I've put off this post for awhile. 47 days to be exact.

Would it make you feel better to know that I've barely given my friends and family the full scoop? I haven't even sent out the online album from our trip, and no, not because it takes for-freakin-EVER to upload 600 photos one by one on Kodak Gallery. I didn't want to give any El Bulli sneak peeks.

The thing is, it's hard enough remembering a meal you had back in May. But writing about a 30 course meal at what many believe is the best restaurant in the world? Much more difficult than I imagined.

I thought about all the ways I could share my El Bulli story. A part of me just wanted to let the pictures do the talking, but that seemed too easy. (However, if I ever eat at a restaurant like this again, I might just go that route).

Daniel suggested an interview-style post and even used a tape recorder to ask me a bunch of questions. Halfway through our discussion, I worried that it was too weird. A poem crossed my mind, but truly seemed to be the only word that rhymed with El Bulli. When I really had no idea where to begin, I tried to come up with a rap.

How about if I start at the very beginning and tell you that we almost didn't even make it to the dinner.

For those of you who don't remember, I went to El Bulli with my Mom, Daniel, Daniel's Dad Andreas and his step-mom Guida. Daniel and I built an entire trip around the dinner, my Mom flew from NY for the weekend, Andreas arrived from a business trip in Barcelona and Guida came from Portugal (where she and Andreas live).

Daniel and I were the first to arrive on the day of our dinner, and Roses, the town that's closest to El Bulli, looked overcrowded and dingy.

But from the Almadraba Park, our swanky hotel with lush gardens, a nice pool and panoramic views, run-down Roses looked pretty good. Good pick, Mom!

At 8:30pm that night, we all squished into one rental car and prepared for the 30 minute drive to El Bulli. After a few wrong turns, we finally found one sign for the restaurant and continued on a long, winding road (a road I remembered reading about on Chocolate & Zucchini). But after driving for awhile without another sign in sight, it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Everyone started to worry that we'd gone the wrong way.

We had a 9pm reservation and it was right about then that we decided to turn around. My Mom was starting to look flushed, but remained silent. Daniel's Dad was nervous and franctic. Daniel was trying to keep everyone calm and I just kept referring to the Chocolate & Zucchini post over and over saying that based on Clotilde's description, we had to be going the right way. Everyone worried that we wouldn't make it. I remember wondering how I would address the situation on this very site. This Little Piglet DID NOT go to El Bulli. How pathetic!

We flashed our lights at the first car we saw and pulled up alongside a group of tan teenagers, fresh from the beach. They confirmed that El Bulli was back the way we came. We did yet another frightening three-point turn on a steep mountain road and quickly sped away.

We arrived more than half an hour late. Waiting for us was Luiz Garcia, the man who had made our day (not once, but twice!) five months ago. He assured us that we still had our table, then took us on a quick tour of the kitchen.

Lab-like and full of stainless steel, it was immaculate. We watched in awe as gourmet oompa loompas diligenty prepared a dizzying array of dishes.

And sitting in the corner was Ferran Adria, El Bulli's very own Willy Wonka, and perhaps one of the most influential chefs of all time. I'm easily starstruck, so yes, you better believe I stared. He looked up for a second when we walked in, then went back to flipping through a book that had his name in emblazoned on the cover.

I was fine just admiring from a distance, but Daniel made sure to call him over for a picture (while my Mom stood by BEAMING).

Call me crazy, but I think he's kinda cute.

After our tour, we were led to a terrace that overlooks the beach. When a swarm of servers surrounded us, some mixed welcome cocktails while others set out a selection of snacks.

This was, without a doubt, my favorite part of the entire evening. The sun was setting, I could hear the ocean in the distance, I had just wrapped my arm around Ferran Adria's back and it was still the beginning, the very first few moments of a night I never wanted to end.

Our cocktails -- cold blackberry cosmos poured on top of tangy, lime-flavored foam -- were served in silver bowls and we each got a big spoon for easier sipping.

The snacks, a mix of hand-held nibbles, were all unusual, but the faux olives were one of my favorites.

Made with a thin, yellowish green casing, they were delicate and wobbly. We ate each one whole and they popped like balloons to reveal an olive oil filled center. There must have been a good teaspoon or so in there, and it was intense, fruity and the type you'd want to drink directly from the bottle.

These are beet and yogurt meringues that I could have eaten by the dozen. They were delicate and slightly sweet and I loved how one bite turned them to dust.

We sampled eight different snacks, although we forgot to take photos of them all. I remember thinking that this one -- a rice and parmesan cookie topped with edible flowers -- was so cute and frilly.

And that these freeze-dried pineapples that had a styrofoam-like consistency were the most bland of the bunch.

There were also cocoa-dusted chocolates that melted with one bite, golden rice balls and something with pistachio and gorgonzola, but it's hard to remember everything.

After we polished off the snacks and cocktails, we were led into the restaurant, an eclectic space that felt like an artist's home.

Bulldog paintings lined the wall (El Bulli means bulldog in Catalan) and there were all sorts of unusual trinkets, and a vase with one long stem rose topped our table.

The almost 5-hour meal was just as smooth and relaxing as our time on the terrace and the unbelievably attentive staff made us feel like we were the only people in the place. Many of the dishes came with eating instructions -- "Have one bite of this, a sip of this, eat the whole thing at once! Immediately! It will melt!"-- and you really feel like you're on a rollercoaster ride of textures and flavors from the very beginning. Below is the list of our other 22 courses, in the order they arrived.

Sesame sponge cake with miso and pistachio sponge cake with acid milk mousse: When eaten in one bite as our servers instructed, the pistachio sponge cake (on the right) was a sweet, melt-in-your-mouth creation. When my Mom Mom insisted on biting into hers, the whole thing crumbled onto her lap.

Tiger nut milk flowers: Tiger nuts are a type of plant that's used in Spain to make horchata, a refreshing summer drink. At El Bulli, the tiger nuts were frozen and served as a palate cleanser.

They melted quickly and had a slightly sour flavor. Oh and Daniel believes they have a similar pee-altering effect as asparagus.

Tangerine bon bons with peanut and curry: At El Bulli, sweet and salty flavors seemed to always overlap as they did with this chewy peanut curry caramel which we were instructed to eat first, followed by a tangerine-flavored candy.

Raspberries fondant with wasabi and raspberry vinegar: A definite favorite. A frozen, sugar-coated raspberry topped with wasabi, followed by a sip of sweet, ice-cold raspberry vinegar. We were told to alternate between the two which helped enhance the flavors.

Spherical mussels: Mussels encased in seawater. They were a strange, squishy texture and each spoonful tasted like a sip of the ocean.

Haricot bean with Joselito's iberian pork fat: Certainly not the prettiest dish but definitely one of the most memorable. The big blob in the center is a super smooth white bean puree encased in some of Spain's most delicious ham and the whole thing is floating in a rich, delicious broth. Pure heaven.

Fever-Tree tonic merinque with strawberries and lemon: A refreshing, puckery palate cleanser served with freeze-dried strawberries. I liked the flashy gold plate.

Tomato cous-cous with oil-olives, basil and parmesan cheese water: I absolutely loved this dish. The presentation was striking and although we were told to taste each thing separately, I liked mixing the highly concentrated tomato cous cous with the chilly basil sorbet.

And to wash it all down? A glass of parmesan water!

Anchovy with ham and yogurt yuba: Call me a baby, but I thought this was too fishy. The yuba, a thin casing filled with sour yogurt helped a bit. And yes, a waiter really did pluck teensy flowers (using tweezers) onto our plates.

Gnocchi of polenta with coffee: Dishes at El Bulli aren't really craveable. Except for this one. Dusted with coffee and nestled next to capers and some lightly cooked egg, the gnocchi was soft, not doughy, and eating them whole revealed a silky center.

Asparagus in different cooking times: This is one of the few dishes we forgot to photograph. There were a group of asparagus tips, all of which had been cooked at different temperatures for various times. One steamed till it was almost mushy, another only partially cooked so it remained almost crunchy, and one that was was practically raw. Draped on top were frozen egg yolks that had been injected with liquid nitrogen. They looked like those bizarre Dippin' Dots. Very cool.

Razor clams "escabeche": An impressive dish and quite a hefty serving, don't you think? Each clam was draped over a cloud of coconut foam and that's a streak of sesame paste on the side.

Liquid won-ton of mushrooms: Another favorite. Won-tons plump with mushroom-flavored water and seaweed sprigs on the side.

Snails "A La Lluana": What you see below are snail eggs, and in my opinion, I would have gotten the gist with just a small scoop of them. They had a blister-like consistency and were way too salty for my taste. Fun to try, but I could live without them.

Marinated mackerel belly: There wasn't anything unusual about this dish, and I would have been fine with just one piece. After all, this was our 25th course!

Hare juice: This was one of just two meat dishes the entire meal, and the funny thing is that there wasn't even a piece of meat, but rather "hare juice", a very rich rabbit stock. That thing in the middle is a red jelly and it tasted as weird as it looks. If I had to pick, this would be my least favorite dish.

Noisette butter with rabbit brains: Yes, bunny brains for our last course (before dessert). They tasted like a cross between sweetbreads and foie gras. Good, but not worth the guilt.

For someone who loves dessert as much as I do, I'm embarrassed to admit that the end of my El Bulli meal is kind of a blur. In my defense, we were in the place for almost five hours and the wine just kept coming! And to think I was complaining on the ride home that there weren't enough sweets. As I sit here typing, I see that there was plenty.

The Wool 2007: This snow white cotton candy, piled on top of caramel sauce, was so good and very fun to eat.

Sweet frost fruits: This dessert is a bit more fuzzy. According to Daniel, these are blackberries encased in foam and syringes filled with a blackberry liquid. I'm sure I enjoyed it immensely!

Mango with black olive and smoking tea: Let's face it. By this point, I was long gone, so I'm not even going to try and act like I remember this one. Sorry!

So there you have it, 47 days after the fact, my experience at El Bulli. A part of me wishes I had taken notes throughout the entire meal. It would have made it much easier to write this post, that's for sure. But to be honest, I'm glad I didn't. Who cares if I can't perfectly explain exactly how every dish tasted or how I felt the minute they touched my lips.

What I can say is that I will remember my dinner at El Bulli and all the fun Daniel and I had traveling in France before our big meal, forever. The setting was magical, the service impeccable and even though El Bulli's been called the best restaurant in the world many times, it was refreshingly laid-back and not overly fussy. At what other top-notch restaurant do you eat with just a fork, spoon or your hands? Daniel thinks I'm crazy, but I would definitely consider going back. Anyone care to join me?

For those of you who are interested in going (and if you're passionate about food and travel, I highly recommend a visit), the tasting menu costs 185 euros (which is apparently reasonable considering El Bulli has three Michelin stars), and Roses is about 1 1/2 hours from Barcelona.

The restaurant is only open from May-September (Ferran spends the rest of the year in his Barcelona lab experimenting with new dishes), and reservation requests can be sent to bulli@elbulli.com starting around October 15. When we wrote, we said we'd be willing to come any time they had available, so it's best to be as flexible as you can. And if you really, really want to go, make sure to send requests from a few different email addresses to ensure that at least one gets accepted.

For a hotel, I highly recommend the Almadraba Park. Single rooms cost 101 euros and doubles were 137. All come with balconies and offer very pretty views.

El Bulli
Cala Montjoi
Roses, Spain
34 972 150 457

Almadraba Park Hotel
Platja de l'Almadraba
Roses, Spain
34 972 256 750

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Anonymous said...

I'm still grinning, and that's only from reading and looking at the pictures!

Thank you :)

Anonymous said...

Yi, you have brought back a night we will always remember so well, and Dani the pictures are superb. The odd thing is, the evening went on so long, and to read about it now is really only a brief peak. The pace of the evening was so smooth and peaceful, with ongoing attention to detail, from the kitchen and the gorgeous wait staff. For anyone to really experience an El Bulli evening, and to fully grasp the magnitude of flavor, texture and visual, they must try to hit the lottery, and snag a table, as we did. Mom

Unknown said...

I loved reading about your experience at El Bulli...it sounds absolutely amazing!! I love food and trying new resturants and your posting sounds like the ultimate experience. Great Blog...I really enjoy reading it. Hope to see you soon around Brooklyn!

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful review - kudos for getting pics of each dish.

Anonymous said...

Great great post! I love it!

Anonymous said...

This goes in my must try list, atleast once in my life time. thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

And I thought the chef menu at Morimoto sounded adventurous. Thank you for sharing your experience. I now have a new goal in life, to dine at El Bulli.

Anonymous said...

At last! The hotly-anticipated El Bulli post! Lia, you've elicited my first blog comment ever with this one. What an incredible meal, and you brought us along for the ride with such awesome detail. Ha, and sweet frost fruits complete with a syringe... That might inspire something interesting for my next dinner party. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Wow Lia, these pictures and descriptions were awesome! I loved reliving your food adventure. Your family shot is adorable and I would love to visit such a picturesque town on the coast of Spain. I instantly thought of Josh when reading about the spherical mussels. And the gnocchi dish looks to die for. Thanks for finally sharing -- it was quite an enjoyable read!

Judith said...

I was lucky enough to hear about some of this adventure a couple weeks ago. Now that I see the types of things you were served in photos, I'm not sure I could do it! Guess I'm not such an adventurous eater. I'll stick to cooking the meat I don't eat for now, I think. :) Also, I think this post might get the record for longest ever. El Bulli was obviously a true culinary EXPERIENCE. Glad you enjoyed it -- it looks and sounds like it was great.

Unknown said...

El Bulli looks more like science class than dinner. Is anyone else craving parmesan water and snail eggs?

Anonymous said...

Lia - wow! What an amazing post, I feel like you really captured the essence of the little piglet's identity - a new yorker who loves to eat and travel. So enjoyable to read!

Anne Stesney said...

I felt like I was there! What a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Anonymous said...

I am curious ... were there many other patrons? Did they seem to be foodies as well? Did many of them also shoot their food?

I have this image of a dozen or so people oohing and ahhing as they eat and also shoot pics. It might almost seem like performance art, an extension of his mission to get people to enter the eating experience in a new way .. the patrons become part of the entire experience... or is it all quiet and subdued and not at all like I imagine it?

Anonymous said...

An EPIC post! Great job. Thanks from those of us who will ony eat at El Bulli vicariously. - CD

Mama Cissy said...

Hi there! Although I truly love the idea of going to the "best" restaurant in the world - I can't say that I would put any of the things that you ate in my mouth! Hare juice? Bunny brains? Mackerel belly? Snail eggs? Good Grief. I don't even like the sound of the desserts and I live to try new ones!! Your pictures are great tho and the descriptions are wonderful - your husband is gorgeous!! Looks like you had a great time!

Jimmy said...

Thanks for your post, I just found your blog while searching for hotel for my upcoming trip to El Bulli.
Believe it or not, I am in the same situation as you, well almost - we haven't been yet!
I also read Clotide's post on Chocolate and Zucchini, I found it only 2 days before the reservations book opened.
We also received two reservations. One rejection, followed by another rejection, followed by two acceptances.

Now if we only had hotel reservations...

Lia said...

Peter: You would love it there. Plan a trip and go!

Mom: I couldn't have said it better.

Jennifer: It really was amazing. Hope to see you in Brooklyn too!

Rrrobot: Thanks! I have to credit Daniel for all the fabulous photos. He's my photographer extraordinaire.

Anonymous: I'm glad!

This Little Mainyacha: It's definitely a once in a lifetime place that I think anyone who loves food and travel would truly appreciate.

Stuart Reb Donald: It's a good goal to have! I was lucky enough to eat at Morimoto last summer and it too is a very adventurous, exciting place. Keep that one on your list too.

Dria: Your first blog post comment, woo hoo! I'm not sure if I'm ready to tackle dinner party syringes yet, but let me know if you do.

April: I thought of you and Josh a few times while we were at El Bulli. You guys would, without a doubt, absolutely love this place. Let's all go together some day!

Judith: I think you're right about this being my longest post ever. It was not an easy one to write, but I'm glad I finally did it. And just so you know, El Bulli does ask you at the beginning of the meal if there are things that you don't want to eat and they would have done an all vegetarian menu for you, so I think you could do it!

Karlyn: You're right, the dishes at El Bulli aren't exactly craveable. But many of them do taste so good, plus it's fun to be surprised with 30 different courses.

Kellie: It really was an ideal trip for me. A beautiful town in Spain and an unbelievable dinner. What more could I ask for?

Anne: You're welcome! It felt good to finally write about it.

Nika: El Bulli seats 50 people per night and from what I've read and been told, each table gets a different 30-course tasting menu. I didn't notice other people taking pictures of their food. In many ways, it felt like a regular restaurant. Some people looked totally nonchalant as if it was no big deal that they were at such a world renowned restaurant, while other larger groups were livelier and loud.

Corkdork: It was my pleasure!

Mama Cissy: As strange as they sound, most of the dishes were delicious. And I'll tell Daniel what you said! I agree :)

Jimmy: Have you looked into the Almadraba Park Hotel where we stayed? It's a pretty big place and we were all really happy with our rooms and the hotel itself. They have a GREAT breakfast in the morning. Sadly, I was hurting too much from the night before to fully enjoy it!

Anonymous said...

You should definately try Restaurante Arzak in San Sebastian. Mr. Arzak was a mentor to Ferran Adrià.

Chaden said...

wow...this sounds fantastic! thanks for the detailed descriptions. the only thing better than going to the world's best restaurant is hearing about it from you. i think i could die a happy woman if i dined on beet and yogurt meringues every day.

is it wrong that i have a crush on ferran adria?

keep the excellent posts coming. looking forward to sweet lily.

Lia said...

Anonymous: I've never been to Arzak, but my Mom went with her sister a few years ago. She kept a journal during that trip and here's what she had to say:

We took a cab to Arzak at 9:30, a famous restaurant run by a father and daughter team. The food was served by women, and the drinks and wine were served by men. We did not go with the offered tasting menu for $100E. Instead, we both ordered a la carte, two courses each, but each ended up as NINE courses anyway!!

We both had four tasters to start, leeks grilled in butter, pineapple cube with tomato on top, beans with sardine and ham, another leek puree in a shot glass – they’re big on the shot glass serving sizes.

We each ordered one appetizer and one entrée, and the head waitress offered us both two half portions of each – four courses right there. We thought because we were from New York, and had reserved the table so far in advance, perhaps they thought we should have something really special, which we did.

We both had mango with foie gras, chives and tomatoes. Then I had a poached egg, with something else and Laurie had an assortment of veggies. For our main courses, I had smoked tuna followed by lamb. Laurie had veal followed by fillet of sole. All of them were excellent. For wine we had a 1998 CVNE Campagna Vinicola del Norte de Espana Imperial Reserva Rioja for $42.91E. The same wine at Alkimia was $29E, but maybe the Imperial Reserva meant this one is better.

Lia said...

Chaden: Wrong? No way. I have one too!

Anonymous said...

Absolutely amazing post. Since this is surely the closest I'll ever get to a meal at El Bulli, I thank you for sharing it with me.

Right now I'm munching on some freeze-dried pineapple from Trader Joe's and trying to convince myself that it is almost like having a snack at El Bulli.

Lia said...

Thanks, Annulla!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for Part 3. I have been waiting! I went to El Bulli in July and had some of the same dishes and seem to agree with you on the favs! Love seeing someone else's pictures and descriptions!
Even the hotel. Stayed there too and loved it! I hope (and pray a little) for a chance to go back to El Bulli too!

Lia said...

I'm glad you had a great time at El Bulli too! And it's nice to hear that I'm not the only one who secretly dreams of going back some day.

Mai said...

thank you so much for sharing this, i've had a smile on my face all day because of this post...
i do have a question, how did you manage to get a table? i work as a chef and my head chef told me it is IMPOSSIBLE to get a table there...im confused.
but thanks again for this wonderful post, it made me feel like i was there!

ashleigh said...

I enjoyed reading about your experience very much! It sounds like an amazing meal! I am doing a speech on the best restaurants in the world and I was wondering if you wouldn't mind answering a couple questions?
What was your favorite course? What made it so good?
Also, what was the course that was the weirdest to eat?
What was the kitchen like?
What was your favorite part of the evening?
Thank you so much for your help! I really appreciate it!

Lia said...

Ashleigh: Sorry for the delay! Hope you can still use my answers.

Here they are:

1. My favorite course was the tomato cous-cous with oil-olives, basil and parmesan cheese water. I thought the presentation was beautiful and the flavors were intense and delicious. It was a unique way to present flavors that are prevalent in Italian cuisine.

2. Snail eggs, hands down, were the strangest to eat.

3. The kitchen was sleek and immaculate. It's been awhile, but for some reason, I think I remember it being oddly quiet, which you wouldn't expect at a restaurant that's churning out 30-course meals. It seemed so orderly and organized. I was incredibly impressed and in awe of everyone who worked there, from the chefs to the waitstaff.

4. Hard to say my favorite part of the evening, since the whole experience was so amazing. But I really loved how they greet you upon arrival, take you through the kitchen and then bring you out to this little terrace for cocktailsa and snacks before your meal begins in the main dining area.

Karachi Hotel said...

Its really great to see your blog. It have lots of nice information and interesting tour which you had and specially those picture i like it very much and i wish to be there.

Karachi Hotel said...

Its really great to see your blog. It have lots of nice information and interesting tour which you had and specially those picture i like it very much and i wish to be there.

Anonymous said...


Just one correction: "El Bulli" doesn't mean Bulldog in catalan, neither in spanish!

The name of "El Bulli" comes from the first owners of the restaurant, a german couple, who created and opened the restaurant in 1962 and who had several Bulldogs. They called them bully since it is the common french word to call this dog breed. People started to know the restaurant by "El Bulli" until the restaurant finally acquired this name for ever.

In catalan and in spanish the name Bulldog is never translated so in spanish and in catalan the word used for this kind of dog breed is the same as in english so: Bulldog.

It is just a correction but one necessary since it is a big mistake! Thank you very much!


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