For those of you who don’t know the name Ferran Adria, you may’ve heard of the famed El Bulli; perhaps one of, if not the foodie destination in the world. He considers his food “deconstructionist” and his stated goal is to “provide unexpected contrasts of flavor, temperature and texture. Nothing is what it seems. The idea is to provoke, surprise and delight the diner.” As he likes to say, “the ideal customer doesn’t come to El Bulli to eat but to have an experience.” El Bulli recently closed, not due to lack of demand, but so the team could pursue other projects. He ran El Bulli with his brother, Albert.
Together, they have opened a Tapas restaurant in Barcelona: Tickets. Although they worked together on the build and menu, Albert runs this kitchen and was expediting tonight. Reservations are very difficult and I was lucky enough to have my good friend Jason Angel point the restaurant out to me months ago at opening. Unfortunately, I reserved a table for 2 before Alan had planned his trip and neither of us were able to extend another reservation later on, try as we might. The place is booked solid for months. Instead, Alan scored a table at the cocktail bar next door, 41 degrees, and figured he’d at least try to talk his way in.
Dressed rather casually, Jamie and I arrived to find a sufficiently Catalonian interior. After passing through the velvet rope, we were told that there was no way we could have 4 people at our table, even though the restaurant was empty. A minute later Alan and Michele roll up. I walk out front to greet them, Alan takes one look at me and asks “What the fuck are you wearing?” Perhaps it was my lack of sartorial sophistication that landed them in the cocktail bar next door or mayhaps that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.
I was a bit nervous that they might be upset that we were separated but decided to make the most of the evening. Jamie and I went to town on that menu! I tried to take pictures as each course was served, but sometimes didn’t remember until we’d taken a few bites. If you’re not wild about food, then skip this post or just look at the pictures, if not–enjoy.
“The olives by Tickets” are a classic example of ‘nothing as it seems’. Each ‘olive’ has a consistency similar to a raw egg yolk. It slides off the spoon and bursts in your mouth on first bite; leaving you with a mouthful of olive oil. Clever and inventive, but with a flavor overwhelming. Jamie made her famous ‘I’m trying to like it, but it’s just too weird face.’
“Mini airbags stuffed with Manchego cheese” Exactly what it seems, damned good. Each puff was like an inflated cracker and you can’t really go wrong with Manchego. Each bite was crunchy, with a little hint of liquid from the pearls on top. On the side you see the “crystal bread with spread tomato.” Jamie was slowly starting to understand what all the hoopla was about.
“Avocado Galician crab cannelloni with sour cream and light romesco sauce” What looked like a Spanish version of the veritable american sushi classic caterpillar roll was anything but. I wouldn’t think to use sour cream with the crab, but it worked. Our meal was rapidly turning into an all-star tasting menu with each course eclipsing the one it followed.
“Mojado of avocado with spicy loin of cod” Prepared table side, this dish consisted of a take on guacamole made with seawater, served under raw cod. If this was our ‘sashimi’ course, then I wanted more, more, more. It was barely even spicy, with just a hint of paprika. They also served this with a crust of bread to balance the saltiness of the seawater. Everything is so well thought out.
“Tepid Gallician style oyster” This was MY personal course. First I had one raw. Just a classic, large perfect oyster. The next was definitely unique as it was neither hot nor cold and bathed in some sort of tasty oil. I almost felt lazy ordering oysters with so much haute cuisine on the menu, but I was happy to sample the local mollusks.
“Razor clam with ginger sauce, cayenne pepper and lemon air” I think this was my first experience with true razor clams and it was love at first bite. However, there is a certain way this dish is supposed to be eaten, and it was served with directions in Catalan. I just nodded and did my best not to drop it in my lap. Who cares though? It was freaking delicious and b/c Jamie didn’t like the texture I got to have 4.5 of them.
“Joselito’s Gran Reserva Iberian Ham” This artisanal ham looked too good to pass up. C’mon, Gran Reserva?? It was a little bit more buttery/creamy than the usual fare and gave us a good reference point for premium Iberico. I’m not sure my palate is up to the challenge of differentiating the subtleties as of yet. A few more weeks here, and maybe…
As the restaurant started to fill up, we noticed quite a mix of colorful characters. There was a rather garish European family consisting of two teenage boys, a father who was pushing 60 and a mother dressed and “modified” to look like a porn star. On another side of us, was a couple with their toddler. Who brings a toddler out like this? Catalan’s do. It was adorable. The chefs were also more visible as all kitchen areas are open plan giving the diner the chance to watch the exacting detail work that goes into the cuisine.
“Stuffed calamari in it’s own ink” was for me, the quintessential Spanish dining experience. I remember my high school spanish teacher, Mrs. Rumore, telling exotic stories about eating ‘squid in it’s own ink’ and feeling vaguely curious. The dish arrived as 4 mounds covered in a black creamy sauce. This was absolutely to-die-for, possibly one of the highlights of the entire evening. Jamie even got over the disconcerting hue of the sauce and dipped some bread in. I wiped the plate clean.
“Confit potatoes in olive oil with pork rib sauce and Iberian boiled ham” If the squid was my dish, this was Jamie’s. Melt-in-your mouth goodness. Everything on the plate was cooked to perfection and the whole combo was a perfect greasy oily harmony. Hello comfort food, so nice to meet you.
“Sapple of rabbit Salmorejo style” I’ve ordered rabbit before, but never quite enjoyed it so. The meat was perfectly tender and it was food that I could eat with my hands. There were actually two on the plate, and we both picked the bones clean. I don’t like carrots, so swing and a miss there, but add points for style.
Dessert anyone? No, no, wait, that can’t be the end of the savory courses. I’m almost full, but I can eat more, I want more. I have to try that dish I saw at the other table. I want to start over again. Please. PLEASE. Okay, dessertS it is.
Alan popped in before desert to let us know what a great time he and Michelle were having next door at 41 degrees. [Thank God!] I was afraid he would be eating nuts and drinking fancy cocktails the whole time. Apparently the room was smaller, more exclusive and sported menu items that I did not have access to. I was jealous to hear tales of foie gras so good he ordered four portions and sushi nigiri made with marshmallows.
“Chocolate and hazelnuts cake tribute to Antoni Escriba” was a delicious and beautifully conceived, albeit somewhat predictable take on a chocolate mouse cake over a hazel nut crust. To prevent us from demolishing it too quickly, I requested a butter knife to split the portions in two.
“Cold-hot chocolate fritters” followed and replaced the high bar set and met throughout the evening. Each bite was gently fried on the outside, warm and gooey inside and cold in the middle. The interplay of flavor, temperature and texture made this the star of our three sweet courses. Jamie wanted to order another serving. I should’ve agreed.
Count it off: thirteen courses. Holy shit that was good. And Jamie loved it, too. The bill wasn’t that bad either, considering the experience. I purchased Alan a souvenir copy of the menu and had it personally inscribed by chef Adria.
Then I noticed a man walking by with an El Bulli t-shirt and introduced myself. I was hoping to buy one, perhaps as a souvenir or at least make a connection. Freddy, it turns out, was the Sommelier of El Bulli for 14 years and wanted to ‘present’ [introduce] his wife to us who was headed to California. They were both very nice and friendly. I suggested that I might introduce him to the Sommelier from the Ritz Carlton in New York, next door and he was very excited. I soon entered 41 degrees with an entourage and Alan was beaming from ear to ear talking Spanish wine and food with such a seasoned industry vet. If I felt any guilt over the evening, it was now gone having made such a fine introduction.
What? Michelle, wants us to share a few dessert courses? If you insist. Unfortunately, I don’t have the course names to do an official review and by this time I was half passed full but, we had a sort of cheese puff, macaroons, a marshmallow confection and then the mother of all desserts.
“The forrest floor” was a massive plate where everything except the cherry stems were edible. There were all sorts of different flavors and funky confections on the table. The tree branches were chocolate as was the dirt. The Cherries tasted like cherries, but had pistachios in place of the pits. The leaves where “honey air.” The whole thing was surreal, also very Catalan.
How do you rate an experience like this? You don’t. You just smile and say Gracias.