Tuesday, January 02, 2007

el Bulli and Micro-Sushi

A colleague of mine sent me this link to an article about single-grain sushi. Apparently a restaurant in Japan is serving up miniscule portions of nigiri sushi consisting of one grain of sushi rice, a pinpoint of fresh wasabi and a centimeter of succulent tuna belly, fluke flesh or shrimp side—pick your mercury delivery vehicle. Any of you, who have knelt through the traditional Japanese formal meal consisting of thirty courses, each about 2 grams in mass, all delicious, but none satisfying, understand the source of Japan’s minimalist culinary roots. But single-grain sushi is over the top--even within a Japanese context. In a future post I will discuss the trend of minimalist American eaters who restrict themselves to diets of 1500 calories per day (they really exist), in an attempt to lead far-longer-than-average and far-lower-quality-than average lives.

Of course, the sushi article has inspired me to concoct recipes for five grain risotto (warm the chicken broth in an eye dropper and use only two strands of saffron), and bottle-cap paella with braised bunny cheeks and krill substituing for the traditional shrimp. I considered a minimalist jambalaya, but it turns out to be difficult to cure ten grams of andouille sausage in a gerbil intestine casing. I figure that, with a little more thought, I may be able to construct an entire menu for an upscale restaurants catering to supermodels and female gymnasts. Of course I will include chili fries (1/32nd of a potato, one bean, one centimeter cube of grass-fed free-range beef, 1 gram toasted cumin and 1 gram chili powder) for the collateral male diners that the target clientele is likely to attract.

If you think all of this is a little extreme, this brings us to el Bulli named after the above pictured bulldog. It has taken me three months from ingestion to reflection to finally post on our visit to this foodie Mecca, about two hours up the Costa Brava from Barcelona. It took 1000 days to get a reservation, and I was successful only because one of my CEOs (I am a venture capitalist by day job) happened to have a son who worked at the restaurant a few years ago. So after thrice suffering rejection via official channels, we brought out the big guns, promised Tom Alexander we would buy dinner and made plane reservations for Barcelona with my wife Susan, Phil and Nancy Young, Tom and his similarly named son, Tom. Now this is the farthest I have ever traveled for dinner--just under 5,700 nautical miles. Though once when I was stuck in a loop of one way streets near 9th and Market in San Francisco, looking for a parking place, it seemed longer.

The facts:

Gorgeous place--middle of nowhere (Picture).

Surprisingly casual atmosphere. We were the only ones with ties, I having bought a 100-euro Armani in Barcelona just for the occasion. I destroyed this adornment about 4 minutes after we sat down, whence the restaurant staff proceeded an attempted resuscitation with sparkling water, only to deepen and lengthen the stain. I kept the tie as a souvenir and may eventually make it available on Ebay.

Creator: Chef Ferran Adria

Prices: Expensive, but less so than top U.S. Restaurants in New York and San Francisco.

Reputation: Unsurpassed among foodies for its molecular gastronomic innovations.

Now the food: There are plenty of places to go to get a play-by-play on the el Bulli experience including a recent article by Mark Bittman for the NY Times and an even more detailed version in one of my favorite food blogs, Chocolate & Zucchini. But I think I should warn you about doing too much research on the place if you ever hope to go there. You don't want to be reading "The Secrets of Penn and Teller" before you go see their magic show at The Rio. Like P&T, El Bulli is all about astonishment and bewilderment. I am convinced that the less you know the more fun you will have.

I will therefore offer my comments on a more conceptual level and only a few pictures. Dinner at el Bulli is like eating mushrooms while on mushrooms (an archaic reference for those of you, who did not live formatively during the 1960s and/or do not listen to Eminem in the current era). Nothing looks or tastes like it should. The Mango looks like caviar. The caviar tastes like Mango. Popcorn foam dissloves into quantum particles in your mouth. Olives are devoid of structure, but burst oily sensations all over your tongue. Seeds are a savory course. "Virtual" Iberian ham. It is the LSD of fine dining--the greatest culinary show on earth.

So now the hard question. Did I like it? Well I know I would not have wanted to leave this planet without having eaten Ferran Adria's amazing food. It was exhilerating, inspiring, confusing. I liked it like I like Disneyland. It was great fun, but I wouldn't want to go there every day. Especially since after ingesting 30 or so 2 gram courses. Susan and I went back to the hotel chirping about the amazing experience, while we cracked open the mini-bar and inhaled a bag of chips. Now that's satisfying.


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