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My Dinner at El Bulli

Ferran us - Hunter Valley Gourmet Food & Wine Tasting - Two Fat Blokes

Let me start by saying how blessed I am to live in Australia’s regional gourmet paradise; the Hunter Valley. Aside from its world famous reputation as a superb wine growing region, it also boasts the highest concentration and a wonderful diversity of top quality restaurants in regional Australia.

My life has revolved around wine and food (and yes, it does show!) having worked in hospitality for over 35 years in most aspects of food & beverage, as a publisher for 10 years of a food magazine and a wine magazine, having published 2 sell-out cook books and since 2008, as one of the ‘Two Fat Blokes’ Gourmet Tours, a wonderful job, being able to show visitors to our region some outstanding food and great wine adventures. However, I do not profess to be a food critic or a professional reviewer, yet, my experience of my night at El Bulli, accompanied by the woman I love, is one that compels me to put pen on paper, once again.

Much has been written about the restaurant, voted the world’s best from 2006 – 2009 and its legendary chef / owner Ferran Adria (voted Chef of the decade 2010) and not anything I will say has not been written by others far more qualified than me. Yet, the very fond memories we treasure from our ‘Night at El Bulli’ will stay with us forever.  Scoring a table in itself is a near miracle, so when the email arrived to advise us that we had a reservation, I needed to read it 3 times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming and kept thinking at first that it must be spam, but since it didn’t ask me for any credit card or my bank account details and it wasn’t signed: by the Esteemed Honourable Dr. Winston Ngama from Nigeria, the reality had finally sunk in that it was all true it dawned on me that there was now another hurdle to consider. We will have to pay for our flights halfway around the world and make sure we can afford the time away from our respective businesses to be able to attend. Saying NO was not an option. Ever since hearing about El Bulli, I have wanted to go there. We decided  to bring forward by a couple of years some holiday plans and  we build a decent holiday around our reservation and meandered around Europe for 3 weeks prior and 3 weeks after our reservation date.

When we arrived at the town of Roses, close to the restaurant, we felt a little disappointed. The week before, we lived in a section of a church, built in the 12th century and all the charm associated with it, and Roses, a typical seaside resort town, developed in the 1970s is in desperate need of a revamp. We shouldn’t have worried, our reservation was the day after our arrival, which gave us time to explore the region and came across the village Salvador Dali used to spend his summer days; Cadeques,  a gorgeous sleepy small resort town, south of Roses, it’s sun-bleached houses built around a half moon shaped bay, so far, relatively untouched by high-rise developers.  Upon our return to the hotel we went on to enjoy a reasonable meal at a restaurant which was recommended by our host. But the next day was D-Day, the day that couldn’t come around quick enough; Dinner at El Bulli! Like a 4 year-old on Christmas day I woke up with the birds and really didn’t have any plans until 7.30 pm that night. A simple breakfast followed by an average lunch, by the afternoon we decided to take the drive to the restaurant so we could have a look at it in daylight hours. I think even the dreary voice of our sat nav sounded chirpy when we typed in the name El Bulli. The road to the restaurant is a typical 2-way narrow Mediterranean windy track where in some parts nothing separates the edge of the road from the Ocean some 1,500 feet below you. I drove and my wife kept saying; Oh, it is so beautiful here, don’t look! I did park the car on a couple of occasions and took in the breathtaking views of the rugged Costa Brava. I went on to drive past the restaurant, which is marked by its famous sign posts, but from the road it doesn’t give you much of a glimpse of the restaurant itself. Well, being the true tragic I am, I wasn’t going to let that stop me, so I paid kept following the road until I arrived at the tiny beach that boarders the back of the restaurant and did get some great shots.

We both thought that if you are going to eat at the best restaurant in the world you should put in at least a little effort in your appearance, an opinion which we found was not shared by all diners. My wife looked beautiful in her specially bought Camilla Frank kaftan, it is a little harder to make me look good. We jumped in the taxi and (surprisingly?) were the first to arrive at about 7pm. Our reservation was for 7.30 and the gates do not open until then. People started to arrive from L.A., Japan, Switzerland and the buzz was terrific, like getting a dozen or so people together who had all won the lotto and had travelled great distances and all shared a passion for and had a great love of food. Negotiating the steep cobblestone driveway in high heels is something I am glad I will never have to master, but it was hilarious to watch the girls struggling with it. The wooden boardwalk up through the manicured gardens leads past a big glass window which allows you to look into the kitchen and there he was, looking like a maestro directing an orchestra, busy delegating jobs to the 35 kitchen staff, putting the final touches to the 40-course feast that was about to be enjoyed by the 50 guests booked in that night. You are warmly welcomed by Mr. charming himself, joint owner and Maitre ‘d; Juli Soler, who has been welcoming Kings & Queens, pop stars, rock legends, billionaires and mere mortals like myself to his restaurant for more years than he cares to remember and still has the gift of making each guests feel special. You are given the opportunity to visit the kitchen before dinner and meet Ferran in person, have a photo opportunity and shake hands. I had also asked for and was granted permission to present some bottles of outstanding wines from the Hunter Valley and felt proud to present them. They were warmly accepted and genuinely appreciated. Some members of the El Bulli team had travelled on a fact finding mission to the Hunter Valley some 2 years ago and were familiar with our wines and the high quality of them. We were led to our table and the feast was about to begin: A glass of delicious Spanish Cava arrived nearly instantaneously and the first of our dishes was served by our delightful, attentive, friendly, smiling waitress, who became our friend and sounding board for the next 5 ½ hours. The opening dish looked like a strawberry, it tasted like a strawberry, but it wasn’t a strawberry, it was a strawberry and Campari flavoured gelato, beautifully presented on crushed ice crystals and some minted herbs. It set the tone for the night.

You cannot have preconceived expectations of what you will be served, the order it is served in or how it is cooked or what you have to do with it! The master has his own thoughts and ideas and has developed new ways to highlight flavours and apply new techniques to the world of ingredients. I believe that if you are going to sit there and try and make sense of the amazing surprises you will be served you will not enjoy yourself. Even if at first you try, very soon you will be seduced by the ambience, food and service and become a willing participant in this restaurant experience  – the holy grail of dining. You must allow yourself to be swept away and be entranced like having a massage on a beach in Bali, with the warmth of the sun on your back and the sound of the waves in the ever further distance or feel enchanted by the astounding sounds of your favourite music. 40 courses in 4 hours means a new dish is served every 6 minutes and it is not just a matter of a waitress putting a plate in front of you. They present each dish to you, explain what the contents are, give you a little information about how it’s prepared and finish off with instructions on how it should be consumed, (thank goodness for the last bit). And sometimes a second waiter will paint a sauce onto your dish and a third waiter will finish off the presentation by adding another ingredient to the dish. Nearly every dish is presented on a different type of plate made from crockery or a stainless steel piece of art.

It is impossible to recollect now exactly how every one of the 40 dishes tasted and I will not go into detail with the exception of a few which I thought were highlights. What I will say is that the main emphases, which is to highlight the flavours of and staying true to the ingredients and fuse them together so they balance each other was an achievement that was well accomplished. There were surprises, challenges (The hare fillet, served with a glass of the hare’s blood!) there were humorous dishes and absolutely astounding flavours and exquisitely presented dishes. Did all dishes have all these components?
No, but they were always interesting and every 6 minutes another dish would arrive and bring the biggest smile to your face.   Some of the more amazing dishes were the Gorgonzola Ball, a seamless ball the size of a small soccer ball, which was cracked open and dusted with fresh nutmeg. You broke of pieces with your hands and they were a waxy substance you had to get to your mouth quickly, otherwise it would melt in your hand. As soon as it hits your mouth it would melt and the Gorgonzola flavour would dribble on your tongue. Another favourite was the Gazpacho snow served with drizzled extra virgin olive oil. I noticed it was described on the menu, handed to you after the meal as “Ajo Blanco” a dish I was not familiar with. Once you ate the snow (made from amongst other things, white almonds) an intense gazpacho flavour would freshen your palate.
Some were simple like the blinis with fresh truffle or the tomato tartar, which seemed to have shards of iced basil broken on it. Others were complicated, like the soy (Toledo) swords, gold leaf and all or the quails with carrot escabeche or the wild strawberries with hare soup, served with something that resembled a brain. Very crisp to the touch with a gooey soft centre (like brains).

It was a wonderful dining experience and one that I will never forget, even watching the staff move around the restaurant I felt like an extra at a fine ballet performance.
And after 40 courses? Well, after champagne, a bottle of white and a bottle of red, we were ready for some coffee and ports and I won’t spoil the surprise for the lucky few who have a reservation for this, the final year of operations. You will have to come on a tour and look at the photos if you want to find out about the Wow factor that finished an amazing night.

Thank you so much to Ferran, Juli and their team, they have created a dining experience that can only be described as magic! You have enriched my life and many others food lovers lives by believing in your talents and generously sharing them with those around you. I will follow the careers of some of the many professionals hat have been trained and have been touched by your magic and hope to dine in the places they choose to work in the future. The world of dining has an exciting future and I can’t wait or the next chapter, which will be invented by you!

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