It has already been nearly seven years since the legendary restaurant, elBulli closed its doors to the dining public, doors that for the latter half of its existence were barely ajar, with, at its peak in its closing year of 2011, roughly 3 million requests made for approximately 3000 seats over the course of its dining season. It was, by far, the most coveted and the most difficult to get restaurant booking ever. elBulli closed that year, but, as evinced by those reservation request numbers, not because of a lack of demand. As the chef directly responsible what it had become, Ferran Adria, stated, he “closed el Bulli in order to open elBulli.”
That impossible demand for reservations wasn’t the case in its early years, when Ferran Adria was first recruited to come to the little beach front restaurant in Cala Montjoi on the Costa Brava of Catalunya by his rock music loving friend, Juli Soler. In those days, the out of the way restaurant was a very easy reservation to score. It took a while for Adria’s creativity to catch on, as it gradually evolved from what started as a relatively traditional coastal Spanish/French restaurant, to what eventually became the most creatively successful avant-garde restaurant ever, spawning in its wake, many of the world’s greatest chefs including Ferran’s own brother Albert, the Roca brothers, current World’s 50 Best Restaurants No. 1 – Massimo Bottura, Rene Redzepi and so many others. Most of the chefs who came from around the world had spent a season or so, “staiging” at elBulli (to get a great sense of what that experience was like, see Lisa Abend’s wonderful book, The Sorcerer’s Apprentices), but others, mostly local Catalans, were more permanent and had become integral, not only to the operation of the restaurant, but also to its creative energy. Amongst others, these included, Ferran’s brother, Albert, who for years was the pastry wizard of the restaurant, though his creativity was far from limited to pastry, Albert Raurich, Carles Abellan, Rafa Morales and for the latter part of its history the intertwined trio of Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas. Some of these chefs, including the Alberts, Adria and Raurich, Carles Abellan and Rafa Morales peeled off prior to the restaurant’s conclusion, opening their own restaurants, or in the case of Morales, running an elBulli satellite restaurant, the Hacienda Benasuza, in Andalusian Sevilla, where one could experience dishes from previous seasons menus. It was a veritable “Best of” menu, which at the time was the only other restaurant where one could experience elBulli dishes outside of elBulli itself. The trio of Castro, Xatruch and Casañas were essential until the end and continued doing the heavy research necessary to create even after the restaurant closed. But then, they too, eventually opened a restaurant in the nearby seaside town of Cadaques, followed by another a few years later in Barcelona. Those who had built elBulli and who had been nurtured by it, had now developed their own paths, mostly in or near the Catalan heart of Barcelona.
It was with the idea of exploring these disparate paths that through our gastronomic tour business, Rascal + Thorn, my business partner, Charles Grabitzky and I, with the help of all those involved, put together a weeklong tour of Barcelona and beyond. We wanted to get a sense, for those on the tour who had never been, of what the elBulli experience was like, to see what the major Barcelona based alumni were doing now and, perhaps most importantly, to learn what Ferran Adria meant when he said that he needed to “close elBulli in order to open elBulli.” We wanted to, as a living experience, tie together what we could of the past, present and future of elBulli. We wanted to understand the Legacy of elBulli, the greatest and most influential restaurant so far in the history of the world.
While elBulli became a global restaurant, featuring dishes that incorporated ideas, techniques and influences from around the world, it was always, at its heart, a Catalan restaurant, with much of its inspiration coming from the local cuisine. As elBulli grew in notoriety, so did traditional Catalan, and even Spanish cooking with the latter two benefitting from that enhanced level of international interest that elBulli engendered. As a result, it was important, in order to understand elBulli and its legacy, to understand from whence the restaurant came.
Tickets has, so far, been the most successful and popular of the restaurants of the elBarri Group, that had been started and is run by Albert Adria. The atmosphere is similar to that of a carnival, such that immediately upon entering, one gets a sense of whimsy and fun that tears away at any pretension. The food, a collaboration between Albert Adria, Tickets head chef, Fran Agudo and others, shares that same sense of whimsy, a throwback to much of the food at elBulli. Not all of the dishes astound with pure creativity, but whether creatively conceived, or of a more traditional nature, all of the dishes amaze with product and execution. We feasted on elBulli-esque classics like spherical olives and the jamon iberico wrapped Air Baguettes, to a most ingenious ring-shaped pa amb tomaquet, king crab, chuleta, oysters and much more, ending in the dessert den (formerly elBarri’s wonderful bar cum tasting menu restaurant, 41º, which later led to The Enigma Concept in an entirely new space). It was there that the tour officially started, which was a perfect gateway both to Albert’s style and the whimsey and creativity of elBulli.
Our first full day was dedicated to getting a feel for the city and area that gave birth to the creativity of elBulli – Barcelona and Catalunya. Simply walking through the city, one cannot help but notice the astounding breadth of architectural creativity that abounds. One name resounds more than that of anyone else – Antonio Gaudi. Our guests were encouraged to explore some of Gaudi’s most famous works on their free time, but on this morning, our local guide, American ex-pat writer and Barcelona resident, George Semler, brought us to a couple of lesser known, recently opened to the public, Gaudi masterpieces – the Casa Vicens in Gracia and the highly unusual Gaudi renovation of Bellesguard overlooking much of the city. As both came from early in Gaudi’s career, they provided insights into the development and maturation of his style, while also providing an interesting context for the same kind of progression at elBulli.
Catalunya is a place that reveres its culture whole-heartedly. On our way back to the center of the city, we encountered teams of Castellers or human castle teams. These uniformed teams would climb on top of each other like ants rising from the ground to secure a leaf. The largest, of course would remain at the base, building a foundation for younger and smaller people of both sexes to climb upon, stretching well into the sky with the youngest, smallest and most daring eventually reaching the top and standing upon the shoulders of his or her community in a very literal sense. It is this very kind of team work that allowed elBulli to thrive with each member of the team, Catalan grown, or not, striving to do their parts to build the entire project up to great heights. From the Castellers we continued our interest in great heights by proceeding to lunch.
Almost all of our meals had some direct tie to elBulli, but a couple that didn’t were chosen for very specific reasons. The first, Marea Alta, run by the Madrid-born chef, Enrique Valenti was chosen for two very specific reasons. First it has, what may very well be the most amazing 360º view of Barcelona, as it sits high atop one of the largest office buildings right off the harbor area within a stone’s throw of Las Ramblas. As fantastic as the view is, we would not have gone for lunch there if that was all that recommended it. Marea Alta and its sister Sangria Bar, Marea Baja, one level below, could easily just rely on the views that they provide and still be busy, but the food is actually amongst the best seafood that I have found in Barcelona, one of the best locations for seafood in the world. It is product driven and the top quality product simply, but exquisitely prepared. Most of the product served is from Spanish waters, such as the local shellfish called “caxeitas” or little boxes, though we were treated to the spectacle of a live Norwegian king crab that ultimately became part of our lunch and proved to be as perfect a dish of king crab as I’ve had. It had been simply prepared, but the texture was precisely on point and the meat was as generous and sweet as any that I’ve ever tasted. A whole fire grilled turbot was as great as any that I’ve had outside of Getaria. Meanwhile, Marea Baja has redefined the Sangria, elevating in the same way that Spain has elevated the “Gintonic.” Marea Alta was chosen in order to introduce our guests to both incredible Spanish seafood product, a major reason that Spanish gastronomy has excelled, and for a beautiful broad visual overview of the expanse of the city below. It was an ideal introduction.
After some free time explorations that had been shortened by the depth of our lunch, we continued exploring the roots of Mediterranean cuisine with a dinner visit to Dos Pebrots, the second restaurant from elBulli alum, Albert Raurich. His first restaurant, Dos Palillos, now 10 years old, follows a Japanese theme, which was an important one to elBulli, but Dos Pebrots, was more pertinent to the day’s mission. At Dos Pebrots, the food is a travelogue through the ages featuring interpretations of ancient, Greek, Arab and Roman cooking and products. It is as much a history lesson (for those interested) as it is a meal, giving our group a sense of the origins of all of the region’s food.
One gets a good sense of an area’s food culture by examining how and where its people shop for food. There is no better place to do this than at Barcelona’s food markets. The Boqueria is the most famous, but it has also become the most tourist driven. Nevertheless, it remains a vital market with outstanding seafood, mushroom and vegetable stalls, especially. Perhaps the best reason to visit the Boqueria, though, is to eat. We did just that on our second full day, arriving in time to snag seats at the counter at the famous El Quim de la Boqueria, which is as good a place as any to sample classic Catalan cooking and ingredient combinations such as squid and fried eggs, croquetas, escalivada, tortilla and more.
We would also explore the newly re-opened, beautifully renovated, pristine Sant Antoni market and return to the Boqueria again the next day for lunch at the brand new, 8 seat restaurant from two elBarri alumni, Direkte. This was a wonderful, Asian influenced cuisine that was creative, but accessible with extraordinary dishes like Tsukiji style octopus. This should be a must for any visitor to the market, though reservations are likely to become very, very difficult to come by, given its size and quality.
elBulli approached all aspects of the dining experience including beverages, with a creative inquisitiveness. Wines typically remained classic, though pairings were always interesting. Cocktails, on the other hand, always received the full elBulli creative treatment, most often becoming edible “snacks” as opposed to beverages. Though we did not have an opportunity to have a first-hand demonstration of the production of the edible elBulli cocktail, we were thrilled to have been invited by the top-flight Catalan gin producers, Gin Mare, to come to the distillery for a creative, gin-based cocktail workshop. Led by Gin Mare International Sales Manager and master cocktailian, Jorge Balbontin, we achieved three beverage goals of this itinerary in one fell swoop. Jorge’s cocktails included one of the most delicious Gintonics that I’ve had, the Triple Orange G&T. His explanation of the history of the cocktail was as fascinating as it was delicious and refreshing. His other cocktails featured such elements as a Parmiggiano-Reggiano tincture in an Onion Gimlet, and fully compostable plastic bags for a Mexican influenced cocktail amongst a number of other brilliant and delicious concoctions that would not have been out of place at elBulli.
Rias de Galicia is another product driven restaurant related to elBulli. The owners, Grupo Iglesias also have a significant stake in the elBarri Group of restaurants run by Albert Adria. In addition, the Executive Chef of the restaurant group, which also includes Lionel Messi’s Bellavista Jardins del Norte, is Rafa Morales, the former chef of Hacienda Benasuza, the elBulli “Best of” restaurant that was in Sevilla. Upstairs from Rias is Espai Kru, an outstanding seafood restaurant with a strong Japanese influence. Unfortunately, it could not fit into the itinerary. What did fit, quite nicely at Rias was product such as perfectly prepared cockles.
Suculent, from elBulli alumni Carles Abellan and Antonio Romero was another excellent post-Bulli restaurant that we explored with Romero serving a cuisine based on traditional Catalan ingredients and approaches, but with the requisite touch of creativity that one would expect from alumni of that special place. With dishes like the gelatinous cockscomb on crispy chicken skin, Romero captures the delicious essence of chicken, while still being creative and edgy.
The elBulli legacy is not just about Spanish product or Catalan tradition. It was a very international restaurant that took elements from a variety of cuisines. One of those cuisines was Mexican, which later came back to Barcelona, first via Niño Viejo, the Taqueria run by Albert Adria and Mexico native and elBulli alumnus Paco Mendez. This was followed a short time later by the opening of Hoja Santa, a fine dining Mexican restaurant, that in my opinion rivals the very best in the world, including in Mexico. Both Niño Viejo and Hoja Santa use a combination of Mexican products when needed and Spanish when appropriate to craft a best-of-both worlds fusion that is primarily and clearly Mexican, but with Spanish influence. The food is beautiful, the Mezcal is varied and everything is delicious, including classic Adria-style creativity and a profound Mexican culinary sensibility that includes a variety of outstanding moles, suckling pig, ceviches, Gambas Rojas and so much more. We started our meal at Niño Viejo before moving to Hoja Santa for the full tasting menu. Considering the ingredient specificity of quality Mexican cooking, it would seem to be a particularly difficult cuisine to interpret outside of Mexico, but Niño Viejo and Hoja Santa do it so well that it isn’t just a great Mexican restaurant for Europe, nor even simply a great Mexican restaurant. Those qualifiers can be discarded, as the simplest and most accurate sobriquet is that individually and together, they are both great restaurants, period.
The same can be applied to Pakta, the Peruvian Nikkei restaurant helmed by Peruvian native, Jorge Muñoz. Once again, the formula of Adria-style creativity, great foreign and domestic product and exquisite execution of a specific cultural cuisine scores a World Cup level goal that would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve on this level by anyone else other than Albert Adria and the elBarri Group.
Though both Niño Viejo/Hoja Santa and Pakta are very highly regarded internationally, they don’t get quite the recognition that food, beverage and service of their caliber should garner. That may be because none of these restaurants, though with extremely ambitious and focused culinary programs, aspire to awards and the restaurant interiors and locations support that. All of the elBarri restaurants, exclusive of Heart on Ibiza, are within a few block radius of each other in a decidedly middle class urban neighborhood. They are not in a particularly scenic or noteworthy area (other than the fact that anywhere in Barcelona is pretty noteworthy). Their mere presence, however, has elevated the area to dining destination status. The same approach applies to the restaurant interiors, which are quite lovely and very comfortable, but clearly not the main focus of the restaurant, which is as it should be. They are warm and inviting, well designed, without being glitzy or pretentious. In short, these are nice, comfortable spaces designed so that the service, food and drink are clearly the main focus.
Bodega 1900, the 1900’s era vermuteria from elBarri, run by head chef Ferran Soler, carries the same approach, though it’s design, as might be expected, fits the restaurant to a tee. It is natural, traditional, and as the elBarri homage to Spanish product and Catalan tradition, entirely appropriate. It is an essential restaurant for exploring those products and traditions, but hasn’t left out the Adria touches, including the ever-delicious Adria olives, which can actually be purchased jarred, for an amazing, albeit fragile souvenir. That said, this is the elBarri restaurant to go to for Catalan and Spanish classics including wonderful Cecina (cured beef), a spicy fried squid “mollete”, teeny baby clams or “tallarinas”, gambas rojas or plancha grilled clams from Carril up in Galicia, arguably the finest in the world. It is a place that I always return to in Barcelona for a thorough re-introduction to the best of traditional Spanish cuisine with a twist.
The two restaurants that buck the tide of relatively simple décor in the elBarri universe are Tickets, already described, and Enigma, the newest and most elaborate restaurant of the group. Enigma provides a very intimate, and exquisite dining experience, that transports one away from anywhere but there. Involving a multi-dimensional space through which the diners move for a sequential menu, it leaves a feeling that this is indeed a private, or semi-private restaurant, with attention devoted entirely on the diners present. The food is pure elBulli and the dynamic most representative of the elBulli sensory experience, albeit without the magical location of Cala Montjoi. Reflecting the total involvement both restaurants provide, they both have landed within the top 100 of the 2018 World’s 50 Best Restaurants List with the still brand new Enigma coming in at No. 95 and the established Tickets at No. 32.
There were a number of things that made elBulli as special a restaurant as it was. Its location on the edge of Cala Montjoi in the Costa Brava near the resort town of Roses and not far from the French border, was certainly one of them. Pure magic, it was almost as difficult a place to get to as it was to secure a reservation in the first place. To drive there over a narrow, winding road was, and still is, an adventure in and of itself, that added to the romance of the restaurant and provided that real “destination” feel. Once arrived, the restaurant situated on one end of the half-moon shaped beach, provided shelter and a perch. That it was of classic Mediterranean styling along its exterior and within the dining room, was charming, especially when offset by its state of the art, modern kitchen and beyond state of the art food. The setting gave it both a sense of magic as well as a feeling of contrast, an edge that was both exciting, yet still comforting. It provided a feeling that could not be reproduced anywhere else, no matter the quality and style of the food.
To get a sense of this, we spent a day traveling up to Cala Montjoi, where we met Lluis Garcia, the former gatekeeper for elBulli Reservations and Service Director for elBulli, and now General Manager of the elBulli Foundation, who took us on a tour of the construction site of what was elBulli and what will soon be elBulli1846, named for the number of dishes created and served at elBulli over the years. elBulli as a restaurant is truly done. What is coming in its place, while not a food service destination, will likely be even more important. It will serve as an exposition and cross-fertilization place across any number of disciplines, including gastronomy as a central component. Meals will likely be served, though not on a public, or large-scale basis. Revisiting the site, I was able to once again feel its magic, while most of guests felt it for the first time. The guts of elBulli remain, with the kitchen being expanded and outdoor space provided for expositions, as well as a completely new structure enwrapped in vegetation that will serve as the primary spot for the interaction of ideas across a variety of spectra.
As special and even critical as the location at Cala Montjoi was to elBulli’s ultimate (but not beginning) success, it would have been for naught had the food not been special. To get people to make the trek to Cala Montjoi, the food had to be very special indeed. There would always have been some to traverse the mountain just for a tasty meal, but to achieve the demand that it did, it had to be more than tasty. What it turned out to be was simply the most creative, boundary stretching restaurant ever. Much of that creativity came through Ferran and his brother Albert, but just as vital were the stalwarts, Oriol Castro, Mateu Casañas and Eduard Xatruch.
To examine their work, we left elBulli1846 to head over to nearby Cadaques, where Mateu Casañas runs Compartir, the first restaurant from the trio of Casañas, Xatruch and Castro. For them, this was a chance to step away from the pressures of elBulli, catch their collective breaths and get back to their roots. As such, Compartir, which means “to share,” is a very Mediterranean restaurant, more basic than elBulli and also Compartir’s later arriving sister restaurant, Disfrutar. The delicious food is entirely recognizable as what it is, though artfully arranged and beautiful. Our lunch was light and thoroughly enjoyable, dining en plein aire on what was a gorgeous day. Everything was of the utmost quality and totally satisfying, though in a more elemental way than either elBulli or Disfrutar. In this sense, it was very much of its place, much like Albert’s Bodega 1900.
After lunch we returned to Barcelona for dinner at Disfrutar. Prior to dinner, Chefs Xatruch and Castro engaged with our group in a discussion of the “creative process” while touring the restaurant. elBulli closed for several months each year in order to explore ingredients and dishes for the following season. Xatruch and Castro don’t have that luxury any longer, but they continued examining and creating through the elBulli taller in Barcelona and with the elBulli Foundation, and have honed their process with a fount of organization, knowledge, experience and a lot of hard work that allows them to continue creating incredible new dishes even while operating a full time restaurant, recently reaching number 18 on the newly announced World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 List. The restaurant design is well thought out and somewhere between the relaxed comfort of Pakta and Hoja Santa, and the elaborate décor of Enigma. It works to create a very enjoyable experience, which is to the point of the name of the restaurant, which means “to enjoy.” The food is visually beautiful with accessible, delicious and complex flavors, but rarely is anything recognizable in its original form, and when things appear to be, it often serves as an illusion. At the least the experience is fun and delicious and at the best, it is truly mind-blowing.
One of the main aspects of the elBulli culture that allowed them to do what they did was and remains an incredible ability to organize. The fact that they know that over the course of the history of the restaurant that they created and served exactly 1846 different dishes is mind-boggling and previously unheard of in a restaurant. It is that level of attention to details that allowed them to be as creative as they were and still are. Organization and documentation served them from the beginning and does so to this day. This was evident in spades when we visited the warehouse where the organization of LaBulligrafia is taking place. The project is essentially a museum level archive of all that was and is elBulli. Shown by Lluis Garcia and Ferran himself, we visited amongst a wide variety of objects, photos and concepts undergoing detailed documentation and organization, eventually, for much of it, to wind up back at elBulli 1846. Items like magazine covers, various serving pieces, statues, artwork, menus and much more elicited a profound nostalgia on my part with warm memories flooding back into my mind. We also learned more about the exciting Sapiens Project that incorporates LaBulligrafia, elBulli1846, LaBullipedia, Los Bullinianos and other elements of the old elBulli into something even larger, designed to explore the very heart of creativity and apply what they learn across a variety of disciplines.
When Ferran said that they “closed elBulli to open elBulli,” he meant it. With elBulli as a single restaurant in Cala Montjoi only so much was possible. With its closure, it has actually expanded, both in scope and in ambition. The principle people behind the restaurant, the Catalans that ran the day to day operations, as well as the creative elements, have moved beyond its physical boundaries and into their own spaces. Albert Adria has expanded into a number of very distinct styles, retaining the elBulli spirit and creative focus, but applying them to a number of different cuisines and concepts, all in magnificent ways, while the trio of Castro, Casañas and Xatruch remain committed to the elBulli creative process, but with their own signatures. Others such Raurich, Morales and Abellan retain elements of their elBulli DNA, but have applied that DNA more broadly with very different concepts, yet still with an incredible attention to detail and quality. But then there is the fact that elBulli is no longer simply a food preparation and service facility. The team of cooks has morphed well beyond that with the genesis of elBulli 1846 as a think tank, the documentation heroics of LaBulligrafia and the creative basis of The Sapiens Project, that together encompass, but go well beyond, the world of food. What was very special as a restaurant, is now extra special as a world resource with applications to the world of food and much further. This is the legacy of elBulli. elBulli is dead! Long live elBulli!