André's Travel Log

El Bulli at Documenta Kassel, 2007

Travelling to Spain one senses the awesome vibrancy of this revitalized country. Barcelona is a great indicator of how busy and exciting Spain is today. Just landing in Barcelona, the crowds and the energy announce a full-blown European capital. This is July and the city is packed in with tourists from all over. The streets overflow with gregarious crowds at night enjoying tapas. The food is diverse and fun with different regional restaurants showing off their small plates.

This food scene is also wonderfully innovative, and places like TAPAÇ24 exemplify this creativity. We show up at this little joint in the Eixample neighborhood created by the chef COMMERÇ24 for lunch. Outside he spoofs the traditional coastal tapas joints with their painted shrimp on the widow advertising Gambas al Ajillo. Inside in the basement the décor is more Barcelona design, smart and modern. The foods are delicious renditions of classic little plates, ranging from great olives to fried smelts (chanquetes). The service is casual and comfortable.

Later in the night we roam the “El Born” neighborhood and sample different plates from various restaurants. All are quite good with the exception of a slightly formal place that serves some modern food. It tries hard but doesn’t achieve its goal; it is one of the negative symptoms of the avant-guard nature of the food scene.

But we are just adjusting ourselves in preparation for the main event. This is our meal at EL BULLI, planned for the following day. This restaurant, where it is impossible to get reservation, is one that’s been on my agenda for a while, but it’s a difficult place to get to as they are only open from April until September. The rest of the year they are in their workshop developing dishes the following year. Following the coast, we arrive at our destination perched on a small cove north of Barcelona. The restaurant is a rambling, turn of the century house that looks like it’s inhabited by artists. The staff is minimally dressed, and we are escorted into the kitchen to meet the chef and to just check out the digs. This smart move nips in the bud any request to check the kitchen out after the meal. We are offered a glass of sherry to start. And not only that, but the list starts with five pages of sherry! It makes me smile to know that today’s most revered chef is promoting this great wine region.

A hibiscus margarita opens the tasting menu. Then small tapas start arriving: pineapple fries, miniature chocolate bars, beet profiteroles, cracklings, and the list goes on. The serving dishes themselves are impressive. All handcrafted for the restaurant, they add to the impeccably studied aesthetics of this place.

Next in my faculty of memories is the olive dish. We are offered an olive out of a jar in a custom little spoon with a shrunken handle. But the olive is not, in fact, an olive and as I search for the pit, I encounter instead a void filled with extra virgin olive oil. This dish epitomizes what I see as Ferran Adria’s conceptual approach to cooking. Many items are simulations, fabrications of elements emblematic of the culinary traditions of Spain.

Another dish exemplifying this philosophy is raviolis of Pimientos de Padron. These typical green peppers, originally from the town of Padron in Galicia, are a wonderfully simplistic treat where one out of ten packs heat. Here translucent raviolis are filled with the seeds of the peppers and float on a green pond. Whimsical and delicious! Many other dishes follow, with raw razor clams paired with fresh seaweed as one of the highlights. But the main attraction is the snail eggs. Yes, snail eggs on a custom, sinous little bronze plate. The texture of caviar and taste of the earth. Really good, but how many times do you want snail eggs?

Many other memorable dishes follow and all are savory and inventive. We drink Champagne (Bollinger RD 95) and Emilio Rojo 2005, but this is a side note as it’s really all about the food here. The experience is wonderful and truly spectacular. As we are handed the menu and finishing this stimulating experience, we question the waiter on a banner we saw outside the restaurant that announces Documenta Kassel. This contemporary art event occurs every two years and it turns out that El Bulli is one of the exponents of the show, so we have just experienced their space at Documenta Kassel.