We had appropriately fasted for the whole day, having nothing but an artery clogging breakfast at our hotel early that morning. It was 8:30pm, and nothing had been eaten for over 11 hours. We were well and truly prepared in anticipation for the 34 course extravaganza that awaited us when our waiter said:
“Ferran has prepared a special menu for you tonight” in his heavy Spanish accent. “Please let me know if you have any dietary requirements. We will be serving a large range of things, including razor clams, sea anemones… Is there anything you don’t eat?”
“Absolutely not.” I replied, “We will try anything!” (I am Chinese afterall)
The senses Ferran wants to engage with his diners is none than the usual: Sight, Hearing, Touch, Smell, Taste… but what makes him a stand out from the rest is his clear intention of stimulating The Sixth Sense. Before you try to say “I see dead people” in Spanish, his concept of the Sixth Sense is actually about the stimulation of the mind – provoking it for a deeper response or a desire to analyse a dish: whether it triggers memories of childhood, or makes a cultural connection to other styles of cooking, if it challenges you to overcome fears of new and strange things, or it’s cheeky and playful with the things you are used to. When you are presented with one dish, your senses always fail to initially predict the outcome as it significantly contrasts your own knowledge and experiences, which really makes every bite truly mind blowing – or mind boggling.
Eating involves the use of all the senses. Each sense can be seen as a separate creative method, but in many cases it is the interaction between different senses that produces the most interesting results. This can occur not just within one dish, but also over the course of a sequence of dishes that engages the senses in different ways. – A day at elBulli
The 34 course tasting menu is a theatrical affair. At times, Ferran’s humour will make you laugh; it will surprise you when the unexpected jumps at you; At other times, it will shock, questioning the norms you are once used to. The culinary journey you embark on is full of emotion and new experiences. The degustation is explained by some to consist of four main acts.
Act One usually consists of a welcoming cocktail, aperitifs and “snacks”, usually served on the terrace, all dishes served without cutlery and eaten by hand.
So the curtain opens with a cocktail…
(please click on images for enlarged gastronomic food porn view)
This was no ordinary cocktail, but a cocktail infused inside sticks of sugarcane – one flavoured with a mojito, the other with a caiprinha.
The gin fizz was a mixture of warm and cold liquids- the foam was warm, almost milky, and the liquid below was almost gelatinous. When you drink it, both layers combined in your mouth for a strange combination of temperatures and textures.
After our cocktails, we selected a 1996 Billecart Salmon for the reminder of the evening, one of our favorite vintages for Champagne.
This tomato biscuit reminded us of the red sprinkles you find on Arnott’s pizza shapes, but so much more decadent garnished with gold leaf. The flavour doesn’t taste artificial as it is derived from freshly dried tomatoes.
Averantos (I’m still unsure as to what it is) is somewhat like puffed sesame seeds and a smoky flavoured seasoning like bacon. It was very lightly held together and can only be picked up by holding the paper and consuming it in one bite.
The fluffiest, lightest sponge cake, made by siphoning batter with nitrous oxide into plastic cups, and microwaving them, as shown in one of Ferran’s presentations during the most recent book launch. He mentioned that this was a recipe that only took him “minutes to develop, but others – many years.”
The meringue with flavours of beetroot light as air, filled with a whipped yogurt centre. This is served with a spoonful of beetroot essence (seen in the background of the photo).
An intense shot of beetroot liquid in a measured spoon – all part of the “instruments” used in his kitchen.
This leaf had a remarkable resemblance to the taste of an oyster, so when served with red wine vinegar “beads” and some eshallots, it was indeed just like eating an oyster! Ferran has visited places like the Amazon during his off-months hoping to discover more fruits and vegetables with new flavours.
Unpictured: Gorgonzola Mochi (link to someone else’s photo here)
Looks just like a bocconcini, but was a liquid filled sac that was fragile like a small water balloon. The waiter presents it on a metal plate for us to carefully pick up, and it is to be eaten straight away. A very intense explosion of gorgonzola flavour lingers, made possible by a type of spherication (please correct me if I’m wrong) where liquid is encased in a membrane.
The grilled strawberry was served in a contrast of temperature with the gorgonzola mochi. It is rather unexpected that it was filled with a warm liquid, salted and somewhat alcoholic in flavour.
After the selection of snacks, the waiter began to set our table with cutlery, in preparation for the next act. Act Two is the most substantial part of the meal which consists of savoury, tapas-styled dishes. It flows uninterruptedly one after another, at times a little too quickly. There was a moment between the 20th and the 21st course where I really just needed a gastronomic breather, so my brain could catch up with the information my stomach was trying to process. Naturally, the waiter seamlessly organised for each course to be brought out slower.
The haricot bean was reconstructed using the same spherication technique as the mochi, only this time hot liquid is encased in the membrane. The thin translucent layer with paprika floating on top actually a slice of ham fat, all submerged in a smokey ham broth.
Baby cuttlefish, served withpesto “ravioli”s, which were also liquid contained insidea membrane that bursts in the mouth.
We were presented with a white styrofoambox, just like ones you find in takeaway ice cream stores. Our waiter lifted the lid and revealed something that looked like a frozen white cloud. In the plastic bag we were given sprinkles of berries and other dried ingredients that have a crunchy texture, and we were told to scatter it on the “air” a little at a time. The frozen air was cold, but as soon as it enters the mouth it melts into almost nothing, leaving behind the salty bite of parmesean cheese, just like it was freshly grated from the block. The museligave it another depth in texture and a citrus sweetness to it. Highly enjoyable experience.
This was one of my favorites of the night: reconstructed egg yolk (shaped like mini-bullets in the photo), egg whites, floating in tiny fish caviar with different flavoured Japanese seasoning around the plate, such as shiso, yuzu, wasabi and white sesame. Each seasoning gives a different perspective to the dish which was a phenomenal fusion of Japanese flavours.
This dish was served with spoons that were frozen in liquid nitrogen and steaming like dry ice, a truly fascinating spectacle. The plate was presented to us with three segments of a fruit called lulo, a very acidic Columbian fruit (texture like peach, but extremely sour), and it is topped with shaved foie gras fat. The only way to shave the yellow fat like chocolate curls is to do so at a very low temperature and served frozen. As soon as you eat it, it melts back to its original oily consistency, much like butter.
Garlic with coco probably wasn’t one of my favorites, (perhaps I felt a little disappointed as the usual version is presented with caviar) three cloves of garlic cooked in three stages of temperatures (firm, roasted, charcoaled) in a coconut soup reminiscent of Chinese desserts. The flavours were very intense and different textures were integrated.
Roasted cherry tomatoes in a black olive (?) sauce, topped with a dried basil leaf, which was strongly seasoned with basil powder, intensifying the flavour ten-fold.
Another personal favorite: extremely fresh, juicy and sweet raw razor clams on foam served with a mixed seaweed salad. Very well balanced and truly fantastic beyond words!
White asparagus on whipped miso cream, wrapped in clear rice paper and garnished with fresh edible flowers. This dish reminded me of the Chinese white rabbit candies my grandmother gave me when I was young. This was eaten by hand as a whole mouthful.
Ferran, an avid fan of Chinese cuisine, mentioned that his favorite restaurant in Sydney was Golden Century, he liked it so much he paid a return visit for dinner. I can see the heavy Chinese influences in this abalone dish. Served on a bed of enoki mushrooms, black seaweed stems, with layers of ham fat in between slices, and topped with baby shimeji mushrooms.
The texture of the sea cucumber was different to those found in regular Chinese restaurants and was more similar to shellfish such as clams. It is served with rhubarb, which balanced out the flavour of sea water, and topped with mentaiko, which is a spicy Japanese cod roe.
One of the things you have to keep while dining at elBulli is an open mind. This dish consists of raw rabbit’s brains and sea anemone, both ingredients I’ve never tried before. It is also served at room temperature, which proved a little more challenging for me to process mentally.
I love how there’s a red vein popping out of the brain on my plate, how else would you know it’s fresh? I felt like a child trying something for the first time, and I playfully giggled to Aaron and made him try it first. We both recorded our reactions to the dish on video (click for the youtube link). While many of you may think this to be a horrible experience, it certainly is our most memorable and most talked about part of the meal, which I think was the Chef’s intention. All I could describe from this dish was “a lukewarm taste of the ocean”, yes, it was slimy but it wasn’t all that bad. If only there was more seasoning to the dish that just the flavours of the fresh anemone!
We breathed out a small sigh of relief when a vegetarian dish was served after the previous dish. The gnocchis are actually polenta encased in a membrane in a creamy sauce, and is surprisingly complementary with the coffee powder on top. It is served with capers, and a saffron infused egg.
The suckling pig tails were very similar to crispy Chinese roast pig, with a sweet sauce. It is served with a ham consomme containing tiny cubes of silken white tofu and rockmelon (cantaloupe) and petals. The soup itself was very salty, but with the rockmelon, it was perfect.
Act Three opens with a transition towards the sweet notes. Avant desserts are served, followed by the desserts. The first avant dessert looked like a classic Monet painting.
This was a beautifully presented palate cleanser which looks like a lily pond, with edible flowers submerged in a floral, perfumed cold soup. Refreshing and full of spring flavours, sprinkled with aforementioned “averantos” seeds. A visual delight and a nice beginning after the savoury performers.
By now, we are no stranger to the explosion-in-the-mouth sensation, and the mango ravioli delivers just that - but we are never tired of it! It was spherized to look just like a raw egg yolk, so the mango flavour was a surprise.
But just as we thought nothing could surprise us, a giant white shell was brought to the table – which I thought was something like an ostrich egg. The shell was then cracked with a spoon and sprinkled with curry powder. We were to break pieces off and eat it with our hands – and tasted just like the flesh of young green coconut on a tropical island, frozen, but creamy.
Amber is a honey jelly which encases a single floret of Elderflower, just like a large crystal marble. It is visually stunning and almost rolled off the table when we tried to pick it up with the leaf.
Ices was a watermelon dessert served with syrup and yogurt ice cream, topped with a snowflake shaped sugar icing layer, with a thin sheet of ice that rested on top. The sheet of ice is cracked with your spoon and gives a sorbet effect.
By now, the word gluttony doesn’t do any justice to the way we were feeling. To our surprise, Act Four (named “morphings”) was served in a theater of its own, and “lasts as long as the after-dinner conversation”.
Every table gets their own box of hand made chocolates, and being a table of two – this was a lot of sweets considering the 8PAX next to us received the same offering. Chocolate mint leaf, eucalyptus chocolate, cinnamon slices, peanut brittles, chocolate raspberries, chocolate truffles, pistachio chocolate slices, strawberry chocolate… we were overwhelmed with selection and determined to try every single one, despite the fact that we were on the verge of bursting! Every single piece were infused with only the freshest of flavours, and so carefully handcrafted by each Chef.
My two personal favorites were the pumice-like white chocolate which crumbled in the mouth but melted like chocolate, the “coral”, which were hand made chocolates covered in sour cherry powder. LOVED it!
We proceeded to finish our champagne outdoors, it was almost 1am by now, the air was balmy and stars glittered across the clear sky on the night of St John’s festival.
But alas, all good things come to an end… Many of you have asked me what the bill came to at the end, well, you can see for yourself:
It was certainly the most expensive meal I’ve ever had so far in my life, but nothing that 30 odd hours of waiting tables didn’t take care of. The beauty with making a reservation 15 months ahead is that there’s always plenty of time to work towards that memorable trip - and it was worth every cent.