Tuesday, 19 July 2005

El Bulli, Roses, Spain.

This was, as you can imagine, a totally epic experience. We flew from Liverpool to Barcelona,stayed one night in Barcelona and then travelled the following evening in a rather nice chauffeur driven Mercedes for about 2 hours (the car waited to take us back to Barcelona when we had finished) up the cost to the town of Roses to collect our friends, J&M who had flown in from London earlier that day. From there we drove up and up and round and round some stunningly precipitous roads with amazing views with anticipation building like you wouldn't imagine. Eventually we arrived at our Mecca. El Bulli is a pretty low lying stone building with traditional influences, but it is unmistakably something modern and special. It nestles in a tiny bay backed by pine trees and mountains with the sea lapping at its front.

We were first shown the kitchen which was more like a laboratory than any kitchen I have ever seen, it was silent with dozens of white coated chefs, men and women busily creating their little mysteries. Ferran Adria was there, and M managed to pose for a photo with him - another celebrity portrait for her collection! We were in there for a while and it helped to fuel the anticipation to a fever pitch, we were desperate to get started.

We were led outside to a very pretty 'patio' area overlooking the sea for the first of our many starter dishes. . We started off in style with a ‘welcome aperitif’ which was a cocktail made with Caipirinha, lemon juice and liquid nitrogen! The nitrogen was poured into the mixing bowl with the liquor and juice and stirred and stirred until everything was frozen to a silken slush and then decanted into cut limes.
After this all twenty of these dishes were totally outstanding. The highlights for me were the Spherical Olives which aren’t olives at all, but an incredibly thin membrane of olive coloured something which explodes in the mouth with a gush of olive and garlicky deliciousness. The Knots of Yoghurt were truly bizarre and wonderful; they really were knots of yoghurt with a kind of outer skin which bursts in the mouth with a rush of mozzarella flavoured liquid with a basil leaf.

It was a shame when we were taken inside, as it was pretty perfect outside, but I suppose a more formal atmosphere was necessary for the next session. We proceeded to have thirteen dishes which were followed by ‘Morphings’ which were a stream of puddings.

The food was not surprisingly, sublime, even the things I didn’t like (monkfish livers, oysters, lamb brains, warm walnuts) were all things that I don’t like anyway, but I chose to try (with the exception of the walnuts which were really odd). The predominately vegetarian dishes were by far the best – who’d have thought that El Bulli would turn out to be a vegetarian restaurant! We were very surprised that there was no meat at all, although M had an alternate dish to the lamb’s brains which was a chicken wing confection which she proclaimed “delicious”. The fish was excellent – mackerel, crab, prawn, mussel, monkfish liver and oyster (so I was told!). I don’t know where snails fit it, but they were fabulous too.

Puddings were great fun and the highlight of these was the Milkshake which came in a closed and sealed polystyrene box. Inside was an aerated, frozen vanilla flavoured foam and next to the box was a small plastic bag containing what looked like earth. The earth was in fact caramelized cinnamon which was for sprinkling onto the milkshake! The result was bizarre, rich, light and delicious. We scraped our boxes clean. After all the puds we had a totally unbelievable pudding wine – Olivares 2001 by Bodegas Oliveras @ Jumilla, it was dark, dark red and tasted of intense blackcurrents.

I feel I should mention the wines - J chose the wine from an epic wine list, wine is his forte, so to say that he was content to choose is the understatement of the year, he selected for us a stunning range of Spanish wines. Our first was Chivite Collection 125 Aniversario 2001 by Julian Chivite @ Navarra – we had two bottles of this, followed by Finca Dofi 1994 by Alvaro Palacios @ Priorat and Pagos Viejos 1998 by Artadi-Cosecheros Alaveses from Rioja.

Overall the verdict was that it fulfilled our inflated expectations, we had a ball and didn’t regret the hassle, expense and the general performance of getting there!

J&M who have eaten in comparable restaurants several times said that this was without a doubt the best of the Molecular Cookery type establishments, beating the Fat Duck hands down and even beating Marc Veyrat, although he has the advantage of cooking red meat to die for apparently. His restaurant is next on our wish list.

We felt very lucky indeed to be there at all as it is the most oversubscribed restaurant in the world with 500,000 people chasing just 8,000 places and of course, incredibly grateful to our friends J&M who asked us to share the experience with them!

What did it cost?
Return flights to Barcelona
Two days car parking at Liverpool Airport
Two nights in a Barcelona Hotel
Chauffeur driven Mercedes for 4 hours driving and 5 hours waiting for us.
Supper for the previous night (also fantastic in a totally different way, report on that later)
El Bulli itself – food and wine.

Answer
Worth every penny!

I’ll list here the few things (from the outside starters part of the meal) which escaped my camera:
Carrot ribbons – verbena, ginger and liquorice.
Black olives “oreo” with bitter cream.
Mango disc and black olive.

I haven’t posted all of the pictures here as there are far too many, but you will find them here on my Flickr page. Enjoy!

Sunday, 29 May 2005

The Fat Duck, Bray

This meal was part two of our ‘eating the best’ challenge. We were with the same friends who miraculously managed to score a table at El Bulli, the Holy Grail for lovers of fine food everywhere.

We arrived in Bray with perfect timing, just as our friends arrived from Central London, so we were off to a good start. The restaurant is seriously subtle from the outside, just the fabulous logo on a hanging sign. The inside is low ceilinged with beams and really bad abstract paintings in yellows, blues and greens. The place was packed, not bad for a Thursday night.

There were some pretty ordinary but tasty green olives on the table and then no sign of any food for an hour, by which time we had polished off one bottle of stunning Chardonnay and were frankly getting a bit peckish - a bit of bread would have been nice. We questioned the lack of food and were fobbed off with a lame excuse along the lines of "We were waiting for you to choose your wine" which really doesn't make sense as we were all having the tasting menu which is set, apart from a few substitutions and we had ordered and drunk our first bottle. The boys wanted to add one of the A la Carte dishes to their experience, so after a bit of negotiation with the very helpful staff, it was included for them. Perhaps this little deviation from the Fat Duck norm is what really slowed the process down?

Eventually the food started to arrive (we were onto our second bottle of wine by then), the first series of dishes were the appetisers:

The starters

NITRO-GREEN TEA AND LIME MOUSSE
Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse. Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse. Nitro-Green Tea and Lime Mousse.

Little frozen nuggets which we were told to eat in one mouthful, lovely silky texture on the outside and runny on the inside. The lime was by far the dominant flavour. No way near as impressive as the El Bulli nitrogen performance.

OYSTER, PASSION FRUIT JELLY
Oyster, Passion Fruit Jelly

I am no fan of oysters, but this was delicious. Or rather the passion fruit jelly was delicious. The oyster was like oyster.

HORSERADISH CREAM, LAVENDER POMMERY GRAIN MUSTARD ICE CREAM RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO
Horseradish Cream, Lavender Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream and Red Cabage Gazpacho.

This was stunning; the mustard made a delicious and beautifully textured ice cream and the gazpacho was a revelation.

JELLY OF QUAIL, LANGOUSTINE CREAM, PARFAIT OF FOIE GRAS
Jelly of Quail, Langoustine Cream, Parfait of Fois Gras

I think that this was my favourite dish on the entire menu. Which is odd as I have only very recently come to eat foie gras and I have a bit of a problem with savoury jellies – it’s a texture thing. The delicate little quenelle of foie gras was delicious, it was sitting on a pale and creamy langoustine cream which broke into dark brown and vibrant green once you dug in to the bowl. Visually stunning and delicious

Then came the main courses

SNAIL PORRIDGE - Jabugo Ham, shaved fennel
Snail Porridge, Joselito Ham, Shaved Fennel.

The infamous Snail Porridge……I saw this being made on BBC2’s Full on Food a couple of weeks ago, and it looked much nicer than this one did. The snails were much bigger and plumper and were sitting proudly on top of the porridge (perhaps bigger and plumper snails aren’t such a good thing?). Despite this, the porridge was delicious, really herby and I must say that the snails didn’t really taste of much at all. Somewhat overrated. (recipe here, if you feel so inclined!)

ROAST FOIE GRAS - Almond fluid gel, cherry and chamomile
Roast Fois Gras, Almond Fluid Gel, Cherry & Chamomile.

Delicious – I seem to be developing a bit of a taste for Foie Gras! The almonds on this dish were fabulous, really fresh, waxy and crunchy. Almonds were used quite often in the El Bulli meal too – must be a seasonal thing.

SARDINE ON TOAST SORBET - Ballotine of mackerel ‘invertebrate’, marinated daikon
Sardine on Toast Sorbet, Ballotine of Mackerel 'Invertebrate', Marinated Diakon.

This is the one dish I didn’t have – I can’t stand sardines. The others liked it though.

Substitute dish – FENNEL VELOUTE
Fennel Veloute with Oyster

Fabulously delicate creamy soup which had an oyster lurking in the depths. Very nice indeed. Much nicer than sardines!

SALMON POACHED WITH LIQUORICE - Asparagus, pink grapefruit, "Manni" olive oil

Salmon Poached with Licorice, Asparagus, Pink Grapefruit, 'Manni' Olive Oil

The salmon was perfectly cooked, very rare and as soft as butter. The liquorice was a jelly-like wrapping around the salmon, dark and glossy and tasting of liquorice root, rather than liquorice sweets. I wasn’t too keen on that. The pink grapefruit complemented it perfectly, and you can never go wrong with asparagus.

POACHED BREAST OF ANJOU PIGEON PANCETTA - Pastilla of its leg, pistachio, cocoa and quatre ├ępices
Poached Breast of Anjou Pigeon Pancetta, Pastilla of it's Leg, Pistachio, Cocoa and Quatre Epices

This was very gamy, very strong, especially the leg. The tiny little leg. The last time I had pastilla (shredded pigeon layered with filo pastry, pistachio nuts and icing sugar and cinnamon), we were in a palace in Marrakech sitting in an outrageous room scattered with rose petals. So it had a lot to beat! This little samosa shaped pastilla didn’t do too badly, a bit more pigeon and a little less deep fried pastry would have been a better ratio. The overall effect of the dish was very very rich and tasty.

Lasagne of Langoustine, with Pig's Trotter and Truffles.
Lasagne of Langoustine, with Pig's Trotter and Truffles.

This is the course which the boys wanted from the a la carte menu, the girls paused for breath while they inhaled this rather interesting little offering. Actually I did have a taste and it was beautiful, really melt in the mouth tender, sweet and powerful. Strange and interesting but still tasty.

WHITE CHOCOLATE AND CAVIAR
White Chocolate and Caviar

Delicious chocolate and salty caviar which worked rather well. But then sweet and salt always do.

MRS MARSHALL’S MARGARET CORNET
Mrs Marshall's Margaret Cornet Mrs Marshall's Margaret Cornet

Fabulously whimsical and very pretty, the crystallised rose petals were divine.

PINE SHERBET FOUNTAIN
Pine Sherbert Fountain

Very witty– the dipper was a vanilla pod. It bought back lots of warm fluffy childhood memories.

MANGO AND D0UGLAS FIR PUREE - Bavarois of lychee and mango, blackcurrant sorbet
Mango and Douglas Fir Puree, Bavarois of Lychee & Mango, Blackcurrent Sorbet.

I have no recollection of the bavarois at all, but recall the sorbet as being about as perfect as a blackcurrant sorbet can be. A big bowl of it would have been nice! Or perhaps some in another Mrs Marshall's Margaret Cornet would be more appropriate.

CARROT AND ORANGE TUILE
Carrot and Orange Tuille

A really intense burst of orange, a bit like the Middle Eastern apricot leather but much thinner and crisper.

SMOKED BACON AND EGG ICE CREAM - Pain perdu, tea jelly
Smoked Bacon and Egg Ice Cream, Pain Perdu (served with the tea jelly) Tea Jelly

Out of all the very strange things I have eaten in the last two weeks, I think this was the strangest, and it was just wrong. Weird for the sake of being weird and slightly disturbing. Mind you, the tea jelly was fantastic.

PARSNIP CONFLAKES WITH PARSNIP MILK
The box for Parsnip Cornflakes Parsnip Cornflakes Parsnip Cornflakes

Fabulous packaging, very amusing. The little white flakes were intensely parsnippy and I quite liked them as a gimmick, but I couldn’t face the parsnip milk. The others said it was tasty.

The verdict

A really enjoyable meal, Heston Blumenthal can certainly cook (and in the tiniest kitchen I have ever seen, even by domestic standards). Many of the combinations did seem to be gratuitously odd, but most of them worked with aplomb, some didn’t i.e Bacon and Egg Ice Cream but perhaps that was just me. The service was excellent (apart from my long awaited bread being put on the side plate to my right – the waitress said she was new…..) and the dishes we didn’t fancy were substituted with good grace, M changed four of hers and they smiled graciously even at that! The sommelier (I was reliably informed, that he knew his stuff) and he recommended one bottle out of the four which we greedily enjoyed as well as the glasses of Tokaji with our puddings.

How did it compare to El Bulli? I liked the fact that the main courses here were more substantial so that you could taste a bit more of some of the lovely ingredients (for example the salmon and the second foie gras dish). The packaged puddings were very clever, but so was the El Bulli milkshake, this also tasted divine, much more delicious than sherbet and parsnip cornflakes could ever taste. The sheer cleverness of El Bulli is unbeatable; many of the dishes there left us with smiles on our faces whereas The Fat Duck seems to take itself a bit too seriously. Perhaps the Spanish/British character difference. Bray is one hell of a lot easier to get to than Roses, but that’s neither here nor there really – I’d rather fly to Spain than drive down the M6 and M40 after work.

This makes it sounds like I didn’t really enjoy the Best Restaurant in the World and that would be misleading – it was great. I have been unbelievably lucky to eat at both of these restaurants within two weeks of each other and deciding between them is pretty hard, but I think that for me El Bulli must come out on top.

We will go back to The Fat Duck as I would love to choose from the A la Carte menu, in fact we could go any time we like – because we can, it is only three hours drive away. Chances are that we will never go to El Bulli again; it took four years to get there this time……a true one in a lifetime experience.

If you click on any of the photos, you'll go straight through to my Flickr site where the pictures can be viewed bigger with some more comments. Enjoy and please let me know what you think!

High Street, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AQ