A Family Affair at elBulli

Over the years a lot has been written about elBulli. I’ve written a few things myself and described previous meals there in detail on the eGullet Society forums here and here. Since those days coverage of elBulli meals and dishes has exploded and with this year being the last there has been more than ever. I had the incredible pleasure to have dined there for lunch with my family just over a month ago to celebrate my wife’s and my 25th wedding anniversary (which is actually today). While I will post photos and a brief description of each course for those who are interested, this will not be a blow by blow account. For a good description of a very similar meal see the discussion on Fat Guy’s meal with Nathan Myhrvold and others on eGullet. With this post, my objective is to take a more personal approach to offer an homage to the one restaurant that more than any other has marked my life as well as that of my family. I have asked each of my family members to write a brief description of their experience at elBulli and what it meant to them. I’ll start and we’ll continue by age.

The Father

This was my third and final time dining at elBulli and the first lunch. I’ve enjoyed a number of life-alteringly wonderful meals in my lifetime at such restaurants as noma, Alinea, Arzak, Osteria Francescana, Mugaritz and others. While it is exceedingly difficult to try to rank those meals in any particular order of significance or greatness, my three meals at elBulli were without a doubt the three greatest and most significant of my life. The food was, of course, sensational – creative, mind-blowing and with few exceptions over the 120 or so different courses I’ve experienced over those meals, profoundly delicious. Each course was at the very least “interesting” in the best of ways. The food was always intellectually stimulating and always fun. In addition, the service was always extraordinary – the waitstaff were more like adventure guides – and the setting sublime. Those elements were all givens, but each experience was special for its own reasons. The first time was the first time – need I say more? The second time was my birthday and we had the surreal experience of being filmed by a Spanish television crew reporting on elBulli’s repeat crown as “the best restaurant in the world” and enjoying a good portion of the meal at Ferran’s kitchen table. Until this meal, those had been the two most memorable, significant and yes, the greatest meals of my life. Somehow, this one trumped them both. There were a lot of factors. Getting in during the final season was exciting; lunch on a perfect sunny day, food as creative and wonderful as ever – all were major factors. The single biggest one (combined with the other factors) to make this likely the greatest meal I will ever enjoy in my life, however, was sharing it with my wife and our three sons to celebrate such a significant personal milestone for my wife and I and having it turn out as perfectly as it it did.

The Mother

My husband and I had hoped for the opportunity to eat at elBulli with our 3 sons for a very long time, probably since the very first time we had eaten there with our oldest son and some friends in 2005.  If it were possible to get a reservation for our family of 5, we decided, it would be the best way to celebrate our 25th anniversary (albeit a little early).  Unbelievably, we were granted that opportunity when we got a reservation during the time we planned to be in Barcelona.  Our plan was to visit our son, Andrew (who was studying there) during our youngest son’s spring break, while our eldest son, L.J., would take a few days off from college, joining us there for half a week, and to enjoy the dining experience with us, again, at elBulli.

L.J. ‘s plane landed right on time, and after waiting a short time, we met him and he changed into nicer clothes, and we were off to Cala Montjoi for our celebration. We arrived in Rosas early and meandered along the beautiful road leading to the restaurant.  Uncharacteristically for us we were running early and had time to stop along the road to enjoy the overlooks onto the Mediterranean and take some pictures.  We finally made our way to the locked gate of the restaurant and surprisingly we were the first ones there.  We are never the first ones anywhere! We enjoyed taking more photos and after about 20 minutes, the gate was unlocked and we drove into the parking lot of the restaurant.

Walking in I felt like we were greeting old friends… the staff has the ability to do this.  We were invited to come in and see the kitchen, the staff and meet Ferran Adriá (again!) and then to have a photo taken with him. It was fun as it built up the anticipation of a great meal!  Then, our family and I were escorted to a delightful table right by the old bar and French doors of the restaurant that looked out onto a sunny day and down onto an evergreen lined path for hikers. In the distance I could see the beach and people sunbathing and swimming. It was a glorious day and with the prospect of a very special meal ahead of us and with all of my immediate family with me I felt very, very happy.

After our 50 or so courses were complete I started to become a little wistful that our incredible meal was coming to an end, but Luis Garcia invited us to have our box of chocolates and coffees outside on the patio.  We all enjoyed our last course and basked in the sunlight and the beauty of the surrounding area.  The beach was uncrowded then, so we paid our bill, said our good byes and decided to go down to it.  We all walked down to the water, and our sons skipped some stones. We took more photos and I tried to imprint the memory of this afternoon as best I could into my being, for it was truly an amazing one for our family. We all enjoyed the fantastic feast together at elBulli and will remember it for the rest of our lives.

The Eldest

I am tremendously lucky to have been given the opportunity to dine at elBulli even once; that I am fortunate enough to have been twice in 6 years is a fact which I can barely comprehend. As a student, it is not always easy for me to justify taking five days out of my schedule to travel. This case was different – classes be damned, I spent a good portion of my winter earnings on a plane ticket for a five-day sojourn to one of my favorite places on earth.

Arriving at the airport after my red-eye flight was a surreal experience that was made even more so once Mom, Pop, Andrew and Michael greeted me in the arrival terminal. Although I don’t sleep very well on planes, I powered through my exhaustion to share the most wonderful dining experience I can ever hope to enjoy with the people I love most on this world. Even the two-hour car trip was an adventure, but the real prize was our destination.

Despite its impending closure, elBulli remains the apex of fine dining; Ferran and his staff know how to entertain their guests through wit, through service, and most importantly, through the palate. There are respects in which it might be difficult to pick a mere few highlights from a 51-course meal, but then it seems natural that out of such an array there must be at least one stand-out. Although the overall quality of the meal was outstanding (as are the good feelings that came with sharing the meal with such special people), the latter case is true: I still find myself lusting after another bite of the texturally complex “Thai Prawn Brain”, with its rich, creamy/salty flavor and acidic broth. That was not the only true stand-out course, although it might have been my top.

Another favorite of mine was its immediate predecessor, the “Sea Urchin Niguiri”, which was presented as a generous helping of unimaginably sweet uni atop a pillow of sorts next to a morsel of bone marrow, similarly presented. Finally, although it was not my first non-cappuccino “cappuccino”, (I once had an eggplant version in Sicily) the “Game Meat Cappuccino” tasted as though it was found in the woods in the cup it came in, with a piney, gamey, almost sour composition that somehow managed to be decadent despite itself.

By the end of the meal, I found myself on the verge of sleep from my jetlag, but I was quite content to be in one of the most beautiful parts of the world with my family. After roaming the beach next door for a short period of time, I fell quickly asleep in the car on the way back to Barcelona. This day-long foray to the lord of all restaurants easily translates into one of the best days of my life.

The Middle

Finally my chance to eat at elBulli. I had heard so much about the place over the past 5 or so years that it had begun to develop a rather mystical aura for me, as with, I suppose, most of the rest of the world. After narrowly missing an opportunity to dine there in 2005 I had never really expected to be given another. When I heard this year was to be elBulli’s last I was naturally disappointed; I accepted that this would be one restaurant I would never have the pleasure of experiencing.

Shockingly, everything changed in March upon receiving the wondrous and incredibly welcome news from my father: we had a reservation… and the whole family would be in attendance. A couple weeks before game time I picked up Colman Andrews’ book Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food, to really prepare myself. This lunch was not something I wanted to half-ass.

And there was nothing remotely half-assed about it. The first course – a Piña Colada on a plate – had me laughing in disbelief. To imagine the perfect cocktail is one thing – to actually consume it, with your fingers, is another. The tone was set for the meal of a lifetime.

The Youngest

Today my family and I went to elBulli. (The best restaurant in the world). It was amazing!!! I loved how creative it was! Whenever you thought something was just regular (like a dark chocolate donut we had) turned out to be something all new (like when the chocolate donut had a liquid coconut filling). It was amazing how much food there was. I got full nearly halfway through because there were 51 COURSES!!! My favorites were the Pina Colada (non-alchohol for me) cotton candy dish, a seaweed dumpling, the dark chocolate donut, the olive oil chip, the bloody mary, and the box of treats at the end. They also had some really “interesting” to me dishes.  The two main ones were the prawn brain and the octupus shabu-shabu. We made the octupus shabu-shabu by dipping the octupus in hot water, oil, and then pimentón. (The head of the octupus exploded in my mouth from both of the two tiny octupi)! ElBulli was a fantastic restaurant! They created their own new styles of food and made creations that had never been done before. It was an awesome trip to elBulli.

Coming soon: elBulli – the courses. Watch for my next post with photos and brief descriptions of each of the 51 courses that we were served as well as a few additional photos from the last season of elBulli.

This entry was posted in Andrew Sconzo, Culinary Personalities, Family, Food and Drink, LJ Sconzo, Restaurants, Slow Food, Spain, Top Restaurant Meals, Travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A Family Affair at elBulli

  1. What a great read Doc, loved the family’s take on it.

  2. Marco says:

    A tour-de-force, Doc!

  3. Thank you for sharing the story of your family’s experience! It’s hard at times for me to describe to other’s what a meal at El Bulli was like. The best I can do is “A meal at El Bulli is like going to the Metropolitan Museum to view the works of a master, but one which can be experienced on so many levels-without pretense and grandeur.” I’ll be happy to share the stories to other’s so they may “get” what all the fuss is about. And most definitely answer why Ferran and Albert, and their team, rule.

  4. Ted Niceley says:

    A beautiful story, ‘doc!

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