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El Bulli at Next – Adria Retrospective

February 18 2012 - 4:07 PM

El Bulli was a phenomenon. It’s a large part of the reason why molecular gastronomy is part of our vernacular. Ferran Adria is universally accepted as the thought leader in the world of cuisine. I wouldn’t really even think of it as fine-dining. It’s something else.

My education is in fine arts. I have a studio art degree and for years have thought about food as a medium. I have had conversations about how restaurants by definition cannot be fine art as they have such expectations attached to them… from performing really only at “meal times” to filling diners with flavorful food. I’ve always looked at even haute cuisine as applied art. The prettiest food is after all just an entree or just an appetizer or just a salad. Even if it’s beautiful, it has such anchors. Tasting menus push this notion a bit but they still are very traditional. Lighter foods first and dessert comes last. This didn’t change at Next but after dining at their El Bulli incarnation I’m rethinking things. At the very least those conversations seem beside the point. This is not a concept dinner or tasting menu. It’s a retrospective on the years and history of El Bulli and the dishes that resulted from Ferran Adria making his mark. Regardless how functional as a meal his work may be, it is not hard to understand it as art. In fact, I think it succeeds more as art than as dinner.


Art can be explained as having two primary components, a technical narrative and an emotional or story narrative. You can look at a Michelangelo or a Jackson Pollack from these two starting points. The Michelangelo has an obvious technical skill and an obvious emotional feel as does the Pollack. The representational aspects of the work is tied to both the technique as well as what the the imagery conjures up to the viewer.

Why should we look at Ferran Adria any differently? His work tells a technical narrative, as any foodie can attest to, utilizing spherification, emulsions, stabilizers, pots and pans. These are the tools he uses with food as his medium. Or the sewing machines to food as his fabric (getting hung up on the applied arts thing again). Food also is by its nature contextual. As a medium it comes with associations: the flavors of roasted chicken, woodsy mushrooms, overwhelming carrots, coconuts, chocolate. These food associations are very much of our own making and remind us of our special dinners, friends, family. Our memories. Flavor and scent elicit a limbic brain response. Our subconscious can’t be switched on so easily. It can be why concept dinners can be gimicky. Especially when they try to be too literal.

It’s also perhaps why Adria used abstraction at El Bulli so successfully. The visuals might be abstract as in an orange foam or a stunningly beautiful sauce of dried ingredients but flavors are not. It’s an overwhelming mouthful of carrot. It’s a combination of flavors where you may pick out an ingredient here and there visually but once together it’s melted into a sauce. Either way, you just can’t put your finger on it. That’s the tension that these dishes create. They are both abstract and familiar.

The 29 courses were presented spanning the history of Adria at El Bulli, beginning in 1987 though not in chronological order. The avant garde nature of these dishes remind me very much of how contemporary art rewards firsts… “Yeah, it looks simple but he was the first guy to do this.” Or specific artwork, “This is famous for being the first of what is now familiar.”

I kind of had the same appreciation for these dishes. Liquid smoke. Sure it’s a foam but there’s little to nothing there. And like a few other dishes, if you don’t enjoy it it will simply melt away to nearly nothing. Where haute cuisine in general was and most often expressed visually, Adria’s food incorporates action in mouthfeel, visual transformation and immediacy. These dishes exemplified that. The cous-cous plate looks beautiful. It will certainly be one of the more photographed plates and it works on a complex level as well. You can see all these separate ingredients but you don’t taste them separately. They are all part of one sauce.

There were plenty of examples of simple food, sometimes deceptively so, with a touch of something added. The first plate you receive is a cocktail served in a hollowed out frozen lime filled with cachaça sorbet. You mix in a bit of tarragon on the tip of your tiny spoon. It’s simple, elegant and perfect. The hollow lime was perfect as was the consistency of the sorbet… the tarragon  on the spoon was a simple touch, a deconstruction of the one element that was unexpected.

A sesame sponge just smaller than your fist, held a miso sauce. You crushed it into a single bite. It looked like a bloated sea urchin, with the uni-esqe miso, and tasted like it was inspired by Adria’s trip to China, which of course it was.

And there were disruptive foods. A giant sphere of gorgonzola, whose inspiration is credited to Moto, was a fun dish to crack and then watch melt. Separately, a glass plate was seasoned with minty spices and then, like the gorgonzola balloon, you cracked the center of it, which was actually ice, and it became an ice cold mint pond. The pairing here was notably awesome. A mouthful of mint makes me want to run from red wine. The late harvest monastrell (mourvedre) Casa de La Ermita was even more surprising than the broken plate.

The list goes on. It’s 29 courses. We were there from 7:15pm to 1:45am. Every execution was perfect. The service was great. The pairings were also very well done. Eyedroppers and vials were presented over the first few courses for you to tweak your cava. It was not only clever but worked well as something that could compete with the food. There were more unusual pairings throughout the evening including a sour cider, a saké, a 22oz bomber of Half Acre/Next’s collaborative ale named Sanguis, sherry, port, two wonderful reds– a Priorat and Rioja.

So what about the other chefs serving “Haute Cuisine”? What about Alain Ducasse or Eric Frechon? I guess in the future Next could always do a group show.

On to the big question, “Is it worth it?”

As a dinner, it’s the most expensive meal I’ve ever had but I have purchased more expensive pieces of art.

–Josh Brusin

* NOTE – If you are going, I would recommend reading about Adria and El Bulli first. I usually avoid spoiling surprises and wait until afterwards but either way, it’s interesting to know the history around these dishes, from foams to spherical “olives”. We’ll include a post or two about it soon but google is always your friend!