Food as art: My dinner at El Bulli.

El Bulli
Even the kitchen is artful: A view of El Bulli’s kitchen, where glass walls permit outdoor views, and sculpture emerges from the kitchen counters. (Photos by C-M.)

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people do just about anything they can think of, including pleading, prayer and strong-arming to get a table at El Bulli, the three-Michelin star restaurant headed up by Ferran Adrià on a remote patch of Spain’s Costa Brava. Every year, only 8,000 people make it in. And this year, because I’m an extraordinarily lucky person (bastard, some might say), I was one of them.

The meal was all high ceremony, kinda like those scenes in the period films about British monarchy where some petulant royal stands in the middle of a room and is bathed and dressed by a gaggle of terrified servants. There is no music at El Bulli and each table is tended to by a battalion of black-clad waiters who whisper regular instructions on how to eat the food: “One bite.” “Eat it quickly.” “The green one first, then the red.” Over the course of the evening, these somber advisers guide you through an endless, multi-colored parade of bite-sized morsels that defy the definition of food. Dishes are deconstructed and then reconstructed and then deconstructed again. The act of chewing is largely irrelevant. Around the room, hushed diners nod and scrutinize with a high degree of reverence (a library-like atmosphere that our table promptly polluted).

If you’re a daring eater, it’s damn delicious – and seriously decadent. The menu tends towards the luxuriant (foie gras soup, anyone?) and explosive (shiso candies that burst the moment they hit the tongue). But it’s the presentation that had me rapt: each dish is agonizingly produced (by one of more than 40 cooks in the kitchen) to take full visual advantage of texture, color and composition. It is cooking at its most sculptural. No wonder Adrià was invited to participate in last year’s Documenta (to the dismay of some cranky art types).

Because I’m crazy lucky (and because I have well-connected friends), Adrià gave us a tour of the kitchen and then joined us for some chit-chat when the meal was over. We talked food, wine and art. He told me that art media power couple Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith had just been by, samplin’ the pickins as part of some art round table. And when our discussion drifted to the merits of cacao fruit, Adrià bolted into the kitchen and had the staff produce a dish of cacao fruit ice cream on the spot. (Heavenly.) It was one of the most insane culinary experiences I’ve ever had. I’m still mentally digesting it.

Naturally, I photographed every little thing I ate. And you can find every last shot in this post, along with links to some artsy fartsy comparisons. Bon appetit.

* * *
Special thanks to Howard for inviting me along, and elevating my cholesterol levels. The doctor’s bill is in the mail.

Click on images to supersize. Infinitely more courses after the jump.
El Bulli
Our six-hour meal (which averaged a bottle of wine per person) began on the terrace, with a sake cocktail made with yuzu citrus and an hors d’oeuvre (at left) that consisted of a bite of nori seaweed filled with a burst of liquefied sesame paste. The drink was clean and crisp, but in its texture, a little trippy. Kinda like Van Gogh’s
Still Life With Absinthe, but without the ear-slicing after-effects.

El Bulli
Even though Wayne Thiebaud doesn’t paint fruit, there was something about the above presentation that reminded me of the starkness of one of his cupcake paintings. The above are baby mandarin orange segments, each smaller than a thumbnail.

El Bulli
An orchid made of passion fruit which crumbled once it hit the tongue. Very Georgia O’Keeffe.

El Bulli
Insalata caprese gets deconstructed: a crisp basil leaf, followed by a crumbly tomato cracker, followed by a pungent cheese cracker. The colors and shapes seemed to evoke shades of Henri Rousseau.

El Bulli
Pine nuts coated in chocolate and chased by…

El Bulli
…these bright pink shiso jellied candies, which were highly reminiscent of a Jeff Koons sculpture (if softer on the teeth).

El Bulli
A puffed Mexican cereal with walnut. It fell apart to the touch, kinda like Jason Rhoades’s Pearoefoam, but with a flavor that’s infinitely better.

El Bulli
Edible Juan Gris: Cubism on a plate in the form of soy and crab Peking crepes.

El Bulli
Beet and yogurt brazo de gitano, an hors d’oeuvre that resembles reconstructed borscht in flavor and Salvador Dali’s 1928 sculpture Anthropomorphic Beach in appearance. Coincidentally, Dali was born in Figueres, a city that lies less than 20 miles from El Bulli. Naturally, there’s a crazy-looking museum in his honor…)

El Bulli
Adrià likes to present different versions of similar ingredients. This is Take 2 of the beet and yogurt hors d’oeuvre. If the previous version is all Dali, this one appears inspired by sculptor Rachel Whiteread.

El Bulli
Delicate gorgonzola mochis looked like mini versions of Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Pool Balls.

El Bulli
Muenster cheese ball eaten in two bites. Crisp on the outside, melted on the inside. (I could totally suck down a platter of these during Super Bowl.) Their appearance reminded me of the mysterious granite spheres deposited by a pre-Columbian culture around southern Costa Rica.

El Bulli
Grilled strawberry. Carnal in appearance and in flavor, so I’m gonna go with Frida Kahlo.

El Bulli
The first part of a deconstructed carbonara, evocative of the spectral figures of Camille Rose Garcia, was eaten with…

El Bulli
…an eggy chaser, which, with its solitary cheese cube, displayed an air of Richard Tuttle.

El Bulli
Buffalo milk soup with eucalyptus-laced honey, topped with freeze dried strawberries and basil powder. The careful arrangement of shapes and colors brought to mind a wheatpaste by New York City street artist Momo.

El Bulli
Pine nuts with a truffle, lookin’ kinda Herzog & De Meuron.

El Bulli
Downright Gehry-esque: detail of the dishware at El Bulli.

El Bulli
Razor clam with jellied broth. Makes me think Brancusi.

El Bulli
Ellsworth Kelly in bowl: Very yummy custard made with mandarin flowers, pumpkin oil and mandarin seeds.

El Bulli
Silky egg-yolk gnocchi with fish roe seemed to channel Yayoi Kusama.

El Bulli
Caviar with coconut milk and coconut water takes its cue from Mondrian.

El Bulli
A jelly made of lulo, an acidic Andean fruit, was topped with…

El Bulli
…melt-in-your-mouth “noodles” of shaved foie gras fat. Decadent, like Matthew Barney.

El Bulli
Sticky (and delicious) veal tendons in broth (kinda Henry Moore) were accompanied by…

El Bulli
…a spoonful of bone marrow soup. Small, yet voluptuous, like the netsuke on display at LACMA.

El Bulli
Black garlic raviolis with apricot are all Kazimir Malevich.

El Bulli
Eating Monet’s Water Lilies: a perfume-y soup of edible flowers.

El Bulli
Wild game pate on cacao crackers. Rich and dark like Richard Serra.

El Bulli
One of my favorites: crisp suckling pig tail with a clean melon soup. A dish that (visually) evokes another son of Catalunya, Joan Miro.

El Bulli
Green walnuts with endive. A sculptural form that imitates Jean Nouvel’s Barcelona skyscraper, Torre Agbar (a structure which I overheard a group of Spaniards affectionately refer to as El Supositorio – “the suppository”).

El Bulli
If Matta were a dish: Barnacles with foie gras soup.

El Bulli
Sea anemone with rabbit brains and oysters and just a tiny wedge of orange as a palate cleanser. Fertile, like Judy Chicago.

El Bulli
Looking very Hiroshige: Abalone with ginger jelly and mushrooms. (This dish looks deceptively large in the photo. The mushrooms were no bigger than a tiny thumbtack.)

El Bulli
Sweetbreads…bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Louise Bourgeois sculpture Fillette, now on view at the Guggenheim in NYC.

El Bulli
Bring on the dessert courses: Meringue with edible flowers. Sweetly fragrant and reminiscent of an installation by Cristina Lei Rodriguez.

El Bulli
16th century rosary beads reborn: Truffle oil bonbons dusted in chocolate, another explode-in-your-mouth sensation.

El Bulli
Sugar, chocolate and ice cream (yes, ice cream) come together to form a spectacular dessert that looks as if it emerged from a painting by the Hudson River School.

El Bulli
A presentation worthy of Andy Goldsworthy: sweet, pomegranate-y (if I remember correctly) beads that evaporated on the tongue.

El Bulli
Last but not least: a box of chocolates, looking just like a pirate’s treasure. The corals are chocolate as well.

El Bulli
A wafer thin chocolate mint (read with a French accent): Delicately delicious. I actually put several of these in my purse, with the intention of giving them to friends in the U.S., but they melted before I could make it back to Barcelona, requiring hasty consumption and a thorough rinsing of the inside of my bag.

11 comments

  1. jasonlujan

    it’s apparent how the quality of light changes from the first photo to the last – 6 hours indeed.

  2. Calibighead

    Man, oh man…. I just stumbled across this and DIGGA DANG! You are one lucky bitch-bastard (perhaps rolled in crushed edible flowers, flash frozen and reconstituted over a sliver of twig from a 17th century shiso tree). I just can’t believe there were THAT many courses. I just kept scrolling… and scrolling… And that he came out at the end to hang… I guess the cacao dessert he had them whip up is the one that will remain in your heart and mind…. Whatever the case, I suppose one word sum it up: sublime.

  3. Cali

    Apparently Arthur Schwartz is an ignorant philistine.

    Great photos of a great meal. Thank you.

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  5. Katarina Wong

    Ah! Now that el Bulli is on hiatus, I’m even more envious of your dinner. I also thank you for the beautiful photos and evocative, witty comparisons. I feel like I was there. (Ok, not really, but at least I have an idea of what it would’ve been like…)

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