The legendary elBulli has passed into history. It is almost four years since the last meal was served there. With elBulli gone, its Vanguardist style of cooking has become largely overshadowed by the New Naturalism movement led by Rene Redzepi and others. A big reason for the eclipse is that the elBulli style of Vanguardism is very, very difficult to do well. It incorporates a special blend of technical wizardry, skill, culinary insight, creativity and perhaps most importantly, whimsy. A number of chefs who have developed their own Vanguardist styles still follow the path, but when it comes to the elBulli style, the field is very narrow when it comes to who does it and even narrower for who does it well. It should come as no surprise that Albert Adriá’s restaurants in Barcelona, especially Tickets and 41º do a great job of evoking the culinary spirit of elBulli and they make great substitutes for that experience. It should also not be a surprise that the new Barcelona restaurant owned and run by Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas, called Disfrutar (to enjoy), does it just as well. This is no surprise because this trio, along with Albert Raurich were, for years, the main men in the kitchen of elBulli along with the Adriá brothers. This trio of Casañas, Castro and Xatruch have done an outstanding job of not just keeping the past of elBulli alive, but in creating a whole new canon of dishes and techniques to extend the future of the movement and have done so with great style.
So many restaurants today are so dark that it is difficult to enjoy the design of the space and to see one’s food at the table. Not so at Disfrutar. The space is airy, bright, colorful and designed to elevate one’s mood. It is also designed to be able to appreciate every aspect that contributes to the enjoyment of a well thought out and beautifully crafted plate of food.
On warmer days there is also a beautiful back yard patio for dining and drinks. On cooler nights, like this one, it is still a great place to catch a breath of air. To have a space like this was a lesson learned well at elBulli, where the patio was a great spot to either start or finish a meal.
Dinner is served via a tasting menu format with two choices for the table. The first at a very reasonable €68 was the Menu Disfrutar with seventeen listed items. The second and larger, Menú Festival, at a totally respectable €98, listed 25 different items. We chose the latter.
When Spaniards get into an adult beverage, they really get into it and a wide variety of choices pops up seemingly overnight. This is particularly true when it comes to Gin & Tonics, which has become the Spanish National Cocktail with an infinite number of gins, tonics and variations, and more recently, with Vermouth, which has seemingly become the national aperitif. Neither is a development that I look upon with disfavor, as I love variety and I love both G&T’s and Vermouths. I started my meal here with a delicious Spanish Vermouth on the rocks. Just a touch sweet with plenty of spice and depth, I love starting a meal with this.
Another great Spanish meal starter is Cava, made using the Methode Champenoise, but in nearby Catalunya rather than Champagne. This one, a Brut Natural from Bruel in Alta Alella was made with Xarel-lo grapes, to arrive at a crisp, clean flavor profile, perfect for the opening of this meal.
The meal opened with a classic elBulli touch – a high concept, gastronomic “cocktail” – this time a Caiprinha with melon. As always, this was not a simple Caipirinha, a lovely cocktail when well made. This one was an infusion abetted by the melon and served with both a foam and gelee. Like other well-made Caipirinhas, it was delicious, but with a significant fun factor addition.
Talk about fun factors, nothing displayed the sense of whimsy and magic more than the two beet meringues that appeared out of the soil as if by magic. This was elBulli-style snack fantasy at its finest with the beet meringues happily as light, airy and delicious as the presentation was delightful.
The next set of snacks were also creative and delicious. One was crispy loop of sweet potato with some Ibérico cured panceta draped over it in a fashion reminiscent of Dali’s clock draped over a tree branch in his Persistence of Memory, perhaps the Catalan’s most famous painting. That elBulli and the trio’s first restaurant, Compartir, are so close to where Dali lived in Cadaques, I believe this is not just a coincidence.
The panceta was followed by a sweet savory bite of sugared hazelnuts with elderberry. It was a tasty morsel appropriate to the moment, but without the clear whimsy associated with the previous dishes. Both bites in this flight were finger foods.
The next few bites were trickier to eat with one’s fingers. The first was a small, savory butter cake made of tomato. We were instructed to eat it in two bites. The first bite was from the bare side of the cake with the follow-up bite the side with the olive oil “caviar.” The tomato flavor was brilliant and delicious, while the olive oil finish complete the resemblance to the classic Catalan “pa amb tomaquet” or pan con tomate.
elBulli used the term “ravioli” quite loosely and Disfrutar continues that tradition, on this night with pesto wrapped in a transparent shell to create the “raviolo.” With it came a finishing draft of parmegiano liquid. Wonderful!
The spherical olives of elBulli are a personal favorite and perhaps my all-time favorite Vanguardist dish. I never tire of them and recently had a variety of outstanding iterations at Albert Adria’s restaurants, including Hoja Santa and Bodega 1900 and previously at 41º and Tickets. Jose Andres also does a great job with these in The US. I was expecting something similar here, but wound up with something totally unexpected – a real surprise! If you plan to go to Disfrutar soon and don’t wish to have the surprise spoiled, don’t read this paragraph any further. These olives, while spiritually related to the spherical olives of elBulli, were something altogether different with a different technique. Where the elBulli olives simply pop in the mouth, these had more texture with a harder shell that provided a distinct crunch! There were two types of “olives” and both were outstanding in flavor and texture. While I would not say that they are inherently more enjoyable than the elBulli olives, the surprise factor gave these an additional boost, another case where technical wizardry elevates a dish beyond the norm.
The next set of snacks started with a cracker made of Parmiggianoi topped with an ice cream of smoked Idiazabal cheese served with a short quaff of apple and celery juice. The crackers were designed to resemble an iconic commercial Spanish cracker, Artiach, in much the same way, a restaurant in another country might evoke a similar national product. The idea is to trigger memories and associations while providing quality. Not being a native, I could not assess the associations, but the product was tasty nevertheless. I was also amazed by the cracker’s texture and ability to withstand shattering upon being bitten. The juice afforded a lovely finish.
Not requiring specific corporate associations, the next course was actually two in one. The initial appearance was that of a fried object, perhaps a form of a Scotch egg, set atop an egg-shell pedestal. The actuality was much cooler than a Scotch egg, as cool as that may be. This was an egg yolk that had been fried tempura style, yet remained runny and soft on the inside. The shell underneath contained a umami-rich gelatin of mushrooms. This combination played on rich flavors and gelatinous textures. It was outstanding.
The air baguette with Jamon Ibérico de Joselito is an elBulli classic and other little sandwiches popped up there every now and again and they continue to do so at Tickets and the other Adriá restaurants too. Here was yet another example. This one, containing lobster and avocado with a meringue roll made from apple, reminded me of Matthew Lightner’s lobster roll at Atera in NYC.
Mató is a fresh Catalan cheese typically made from either cow’s or goat’s milk and served as a dessert with honey (mel i mató). At Disfrutar, they put their own spin on the Catalan classic. They made their mató with almond milk and served it with a syrup of black truffles, pine honey and pine nuts, constructed at the table. On the side were some lovely salted anchovies from L’Escala in the Costa Brava, the anchovy capital of the western Mediterranean. We were instructed to eat some of the sweet and creamy mató and alternate withe salty and savory anchovies. While not an intuitive combination to this American, it worked quite well.
Mackerel, called pescado azul here, had been marinated and served with a taboulee made from cauliflower and porcinis. The fish could have been overpowering, but wasn’t. The quality was exquisite and the combination creative and satisfying.
I now try to limit my carbohydrate load for health reasons and avoid them unless truly worthwhile. With taboulee made from cauliflower and the in the next dish, carb-less pasta, I was in good shape. This was especially true, because both preparations were superb. While the texture of the Ibérico bone broth flavored gelatin based macaronis was unusual, it wasn’t displeasing and the overall carbonara flavor was outstanding. The dish was completed with bacon, a cream foam and grated Parmeggiano. I would be happy to eat this any time! This too had been finished table-side.
The one dish that I found to be a bit of a let down was the vegetable sashimi, which contained a variety of high quality raw vegetables served with a side of radish and pickled ginger and onion. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the dish, it just failed to excite. The vegetables were good, but not so good as to justify their inclusion in a menu like this in a fashion like this.
The meal got back on track with the next dish, scallop “marrow” with Osetra caviar and sorrel sprouts. This was rich and creamy with a touch of cleansing sourness from the sorrel and a variety of pleasing textures.
When peas are in season in Spain and they are now, they are as good as anywhere. Here they were paired with mussels in a green sauce. These peas were actually spherifications, but resembled the real things in an uncanny fashion. It was a brilliant dish!
On the menu it was listed a “Plato del Dia.” It turned out to be an exquisite preparation of a razor clam with a fennel based meuniere sauce.
Salmonetes are a very popular fish in Spain and rightly so. Papadas are gills, which I’m not sure that I have ever eaten before. Here, they must have been part of the sauce. The fish was paired with gnocchis made from eggplant. This wasn’t my favorite dish of the evening, but it was still good.
Korean food is one of the hottest cuisines in the world at the moment and an example of its influence made it it to the menu here. Monkfish was sandwiched in a lettuce wrap. The flavoring was not particularly Korean, however. Regardless, it was quite tasty and one of my favorite bites of the night.
With the exception of the little bit of panceta Ibérica (some Ibérico is almost a requirement in a top end Spanish restaurant) served early in the meal, meat was essentially non-existent until the last savory bite. This was Wagyu carpaccio with a royale of foie gras and a light layer of sauce Perigord, that was to be rolled up with forceps and eaten. It was rich and worth the wait.
Moving on to desserts, the first was a refreshing palate cleanser with a base of rose gelatin under an orange granita topped by a mandarin foam.
Faux ice cream cones appear to be popular in Spain at the moment and when done as well as the ones I’ve had, including this at Disfrutar, that isn’t a problem. The cone was made from a raspberry base with a cheesecake ice cream and raspberry sorbet along with some mint microgreens.
Next was a totally delicious, not too sweet combination dessert. The first was a sort of crema catalana ice cream supported by some nicely tart blood orange “cous-cous.” This was dangerously good for one not wanting to engage too many carbs.
The next dessert was a clever take on another Catalan classic dessert of chocolate on toast with olive oil and salt. This is a delicious combination that proved all the more fun with the artful and whimsically effective forms of beautiful peppers.
The final dessert combined cooffe and orange creams with an amaretto cookie to leave a solid last impression.
The techniques developed at elBulli live on, even if they are now most often used in the background. The techniques are certainly useful in just about any modern kitchen and remain frequently used even when not obvious. That is partly because so few are truly expert at using the techniques in the foreground, highlighting them, while also making dishes that are not just about technical wizardry, but delicious to boot. The truth is that there were never many who could do that well. There was never more than a few who could showcase a technique with wit, beauty and true creativity, all while making a dish that was even more delicious than ever, and most of them walked the beach at Cala Montjoi at some point or another in their careers. Those who were the very best at it stayed in Cala Montjoi for years with a number of them doing so up until the closing of elBulli. That short list includes Casañas, Castro and Xatruch, the trio behind this magical restaurant as well as their first, Compartir in Cadaques, suitably a place where Salvador Dali, the patron saint of Vanguardist Cuisine, once lived and worked. elBulli is dead! Long live elBulli! Long live Disfrutar!
c/Villarroel nº 163
Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain
93 348 68 96