In case you wanted to know what the Election Night invites looked like.
Unfortunately, not mine. My hard-campaigning sister-in-law was the recipient of this golden ticket!
Alright kids, here it is: the big kahuna, the reason for the season: the elBulli meal at Next.
Where to start? Maybe the beginning. I can’t remember exactly when I first heard about elBulli. I got really into food writing in 2007 so perhaps it was then. It seems to have appeared fully formed in my consciousness, a beacon of foam and light, the only mecca that would mean much to me. Needless to say, I never got a chance to go (it’s now closed indefinitely), or even close-to-a-chance to go (M. did, and he turned it down, and obviously he continues to kick himself every chance he gets). I’ve read enough about it (Bourdain’s visit, Steingarten’s visit, a profile of pastry chef Albert Adrià, Chef Ferran Adrià’s brother, to name but a few), that I could describe a meal to you in detail, though of course I have no idea what it was really like.
After the meal at Next I still have no idea. That’s not a criticism of Next. There’s simply no way to recreate a meal that is so critically of a place. You can’t do The French Laundry outside of Napa, you can’t do Blue Hill at Stone Barns outside of Stone Barns.
For example: the meal, which was conceived as a twenty-year retrospective of Adrià’s greatest hits, begins with a nitro (frozen) caipirinha and modernist interpratations of traditional tapas. We ate them sitting down, surrounded by dark wood and a single red rose dangling above each table, an homage to elBulli’s home in the Catalonia surf town of Roses, not far from Barcelona.
At elBulli, in contrast, you would be eating these on the terrace, overlooking the sea, the sun on your skin, the breeze on your lips, the memory of the famously twisty-turny drive up the mountain to the restaurant fresh in your mind.
Once you accept that you are participating in a rather encyclopedic exercise — perhaps an even better term for it than homage — you can focus on what the meal brought to light: the evolution of global food, and Adrià’s immeasurable influence on it. Everyone remembers the scene in “The Devils Wears Prada” where Merryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly explains the fashion industry to the hapless Anne Hathaway in one withering paragraph: designers design, all others copy, and when it finally trickles down, you show up to work in a dowdy blue sweater. For many years, Adrià was the ur-designer of the food world, and I was never able to appreciate that so much as last Wednesday night.
Two examples. As we moved out of the tapas courses and into the second act of the meal, we were presented with black sesame sponge cake with miso, a 2009 creation (all courses were presented with a bit of background on their provenance). It was wild, no question, but at this point making a 40-second sponge cake with a siphon and a microwave is commonplace in a certain kind of restaurant. Just this week we had a glorious mint sponge cake at Gwynnett St. that tasted so fresh-picked it seemed the work of transubstantiation. Adrià may be the originator, but his disciples are constantly improving upon his ideas.
A fish course was particularly interesting to me, not because it was delicious (frankly, it was kind of bland) but because it reminded me so much of what fish tasted like in the ’90s. It was called Red Mullet Gaudí — flaky white fish covered in bits of pepper and tomatoes — and it was served with flair, over a plastic pillow filled with water and pebbles, an innovation of the Next kitchen that seemed like an apology for the relative blandness of the dish.
Do you remember what fish used to be like? In so many restaurants, it was the afterthought on the menu, the sad little dieter’s corner, either overcooked or just dull. The red mullet wasn’t bad — heavens no, nothing in the meal was bad — it just seemed figuratively half-baked. These days there would be a contrast to the red flavors of the peppers and tomatoes, a sprightly green oil or foam, some contrasting texture, too, but in 1987, when elBulli served the dish, it was probably quite unusual: deconstructed gazpacho and fish, together at last. My perception of the dish is an expression of the time that has passed, the immense quantities of artfully-arranged-white-fish-with-tomatoes that have been served since then, the fact that my mom made fish sort of like that when I was growing up. Long before it became common place, Adrià moved on. It was the rest of us that had to keep eating it.
You probably think I didn’t like that course. On the contrary, I found it strangely thrilling. Suddenly it all made sense. Or something like that.
Before I left for Chicago, a friend of mine, a man dedicated to high-wire acts of food-as-entertainment, asked me to report back on the deliciousness of the food. He had heard that only about a third of elBulli food is actually tasty; the rest is “just” thought-provoking. I certainly didn’t get that impression from our meal. There were a lot of outright unctuous courses, from the chicken liquid croquettes that exploded in your mouth, to the sweet carrot air with the delightful surprise of coconut milk on the bottom, to the creamy tortilla, rich with olive oil, that you got to eat with a spoon. I happily cleaned my plate (or Japanese soup spoon or martini glass or squiggly-metal-serving-thing) over and over again.
Anyway, enough from me, let’s see some food porn. I wasn’t planning to take so many pictures but the lighting was lovely, the food so pretty, and the time that it took the waiters to describe every course perfectly suited to a quick snap, that I went with it. So here they are, almost all of the 29 courses….
Nitro caipirinha with tarragon concentrate (2004).
Not pictured: the excellent, burst-in your mouth hot/cold trout roe tempura (2000).
Not pictured: the famous spherical olives (2005) — we had them as a preview course during our Next: Childhood meal.
Iberico sandwiches (2003) & coca of avocado pear, anchovies & green onion (1991). Just yummy, as tapas should be.
Pineau des Charentes to pour into our cava. Who doesn’t love an interactive element?
Golden egg (2001) & chicken liquid croquettes (1998).
Black sesame sponge cake & miso (2007).
Not pictured: chicken liquid croquettes (1998).
Smoke foam (2007). Exactly like eating a campfire (as you do).
Carrot air with coconut milk (2003). Delightful doesn’t begin to describe it. I couldn’t help but think that with tons of flavor and very little calories, this would make awesome diet food — watch out Tracy Anderson and your baby food diet, I’m gonna make millions on foam!
Cuttlefish & coconut ravioli with soy, ginger & mint (1997). The cuttlefish stood in for pasta — extraordinary.
Savory tomato ice with oregano & almond milk pudding (1992). I’m from the Midwest, I know what a fresh-picked August tomato tastes like. Somehow this recreated it. (This would obviously be included in my modernist diet, a couple tablespoons of almond milk pudding your reward for being so good.)
Our table, mid-meal: pairings gone wild.
Hot crab aspic with mini corn cous-cous (2001).
Cauliflower cous-cous with solid aromatic herb sauce (2001). Cubes of gel herbs along side fresh herbs; as clever as it is beautiful.
Suquet of prawns (1988). Perfect little balls of potato, perfect little prawns; nouvelle cuisine at its best and most restrained.
Potato tortilla by Marc Singla: I could eat this for days.
Trumpet carpaccio (1989): I absolutely adore mushrooms, and this preparation still feels fresh after more than twenty years.
Red mullet Gaudi (1987), over a pillow of pebbles and water (see my description above).
Nasturtium with eel, bone marrow & cucumber (2007): an interesting presentation for a savory course — a visual cue that we’re heading to dessert.
Civet of rabbit with hot apple jelly (2000). Doesn’t this look like it should be dessert? Another hint that the savory courses are beginning to wind down.
Foie gras flan (1999): words that should always go together. I’ve seen a number of traditionally sweet preparations that incorporate foie gras (remember Richard Blaze’s foie gras ice cream on “Top Chef”?) — but none as successful as this.
Spice plate (1996): a matching game that tests your palate — we first played as a preview course during our Next: Childhood meal. Somehow I scored worse the second time around?
Mint pond (2009): powdered mint atop a sheet of ice that you got to crack. Satisfying! (And another for my soon-to-be-blockbuster modernist diet: and for dessert, eat all the mint ice you want!)
Chocolate in textures (1997): a perfect chocolate course.
Chocolate donuts (2010), creme flute (1993), puff pastry web (1989). Yes, yes, and yes.
The farewell (2004): waving hands that hid tiny passionfruit marshmallows. (Dare you not to smile.)
I’ll Take Chicago (or: remember Leisure Week?)
Last we checked in on Leisure Week (TM), I was en route to Chicago for a four-night stay that centered around tickets to Next elBulli (thank you Megan!), but was really an opportunity to spend leisurely QT with people I rarely get to see. Here’s a glimpse into what I did, saw, and ate (but mostly ate, let’s face it)….
Saturday night it was rainy and chilly; ramen at Slurping Turtle — followed by an oozy, gooey chocolate chip skillet cookie smothered in ice cream and salted caramel sauce — really hit the spot. A night of Chicago blues, old friends, and doggy butts. In other words, perfect.
On Sunday morning I met up with these loverlies at Dose Market, a really neat monthly extravaganza of food and crafty goods. I thought everything was surprisingly cheap — which is to say, I was a New Yorker outside of New York. If you’re visiting Chicago on a Sunday that Dose is happening, I cannot recommend this enough. Though get there early to avoid crowds.
That evening, I had an early dinner with Jane at Girl and the Goat. Now, I’ve heard a lot of good things about it and I mean, yes, it was tasty — but I felt a little underwhelmed. On paper the flavor combinations were brave and exciting but in practice, I felt it wasn’t something you couldn’t make at home. However — Chef Izard (whom I loved on Top Chef) really nails the balance of cold and hot, pickled and roasted. My favorite dish was the chickpea fritters with stewed chickpeas, pickled cabbage, and mozzarella.
On Monday, I took a train to Elgin to visit with my aunt and cousins, whom I haven’t seen in quite a few years. We spent summers together when we were kids, playing pranks on our grandparents, recording talk shows on cassettes, and crafting fashion magazines with paper, yarn, and colored pencils (one was memorably called “Buety” — I was a terrible speller because I learned to read and write in phonetic Spanish before confusing English). It was really wonderful to catch up on their adult lives — growing families, round-the-world mission trips — over Thai iced tea and lunch.
On Tuesday, I visited my great-aunt Vera in her assisted living facility in Des Plaines, the suburb where she and my maternal grandparents lived for many years. Vera is my maternal grandma Leah’s sister. She was born in Tuscany, in the Luca region, and immigrated to the near north side of Chicago when she was 18 months old. Leah was born a few years later.
I knew it would be good to talk with her, to reconnect with that side of my family, a side I take great pride in (Tuscany is surely one of the most beautiful and delicious parts of the world), but know relatively little about. It was even more moving than I expected. With my birth-mother and grandma now gone, Vera and I remain the last living remnants of the direct female line. I wanted to hear as much as I could and thankfully, she is still as sharp and chatty as ever. Though very frank with her feelings about her current place in life — no one loves aging, no one loves assisted living — she was so happy to reminisce. She told me that her father, Leo, was a concert French horn player until a respiratory ailment that he picked up in the trenches in the first World War robbed him of the ability to play. She told me about my great-grandma Gemma, a woman I idolize because everyone else who knew her does (and because of this), about how close they all were, Gemma and her daughters, and about how sad the community was when my mother died young. That’s Gemma and Leo, below.
We drank coffee and ate slightly stale pastries and in those pastries I could taste it all. They tasted of my grandma and summers in Des Plaines and swimming in Lake Geneva and riding tandem with my grandpa. Thank you, Vera, for a wonderful morning.
Tuesday night we got a gang of Tumblr girls together for an excellent and shockingly cheap meal at Longman & Eagle. Lauren, Katie, Emily, Emily, Megan, Erin, — what a terrific gaggle of smart and powerful ladies. Beautiful, too.
(Good gracious, please ignore the fuzzywuzzy iPhone photo of us all, which Emily graciously sent me despite it not being nearly up to her usual snuff. It’s pretty amusing that you can get a table full of Tumblrs together and produce nary a decent group shot.)
After dinner, Jane and I shut it down at Zebra Lounge, a piano bar to end ‘em all. Definitely worth stopping in if you’re in Chicago.
The heart and soul of the trip was these two right here. Jane and Trouble, Trouble and Jane. Longtime readers know that Jane was my roommate in Park Slope a few years ago (along with Andrea), and that she and I found two kittens in Wilkes-Barre, PA, while canvassing for Obama two days before the 2008 election. She is my cat-mother from another brother. Or something. Point is, I love her to bits and she’s staying with us for TWO WHOLE MONTHS this summer while she does a legal internship in NYC. We’ve got so much funtimes up our sleeves: an epic Summer Solstice party (complete with pagan rituals), Summer of Fitness, the Camp Mannahatta party, friends’ bday trips to CT and Kansas City…. It’s gonna be great.
That evening was the big ticket item — the elBulli dinner at Next — but M. and I weren’t sure if there would be much, y’know, food in 29 courses so we stopped into the Publican, a pretty much perfect gastropub, for snacks first. The chicken liver pate with pickled ramps was my favorite, but a Minnesota girl can’t not order fried walleye and cheese curds when it’s on a menu. It’s a rule.
I was feeling so good and happy after five straight days of Leisure I spent the meal with a shmoopy grin on my face. Omg the meal is almost here!! I kept thinking.
And omg it was. And omg it was totally omg. More on that soon. If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading. I owe you a leisurely drink.
Next: elBulli preview (!!)
Let me tell you something I really admire about Emily. She’s the kind of person who is unafraid to be wildly enthusiastic about something. She had a meal at Alinea — at it literally changed her life. As she explained to us at dinner, I realized I had a new passion in life. How often does that come along? And how often do we embrace it as she has — reading all she can about high-wire dining, watching documentaries, even doing something as simple as writing thank you notes to the chefs? (When I read that she did that I was amazed — and a bit ashamed I never thought of it. Why wouldn’t you thank the person who has created this experience for you?)
The thing that really floors me is that she’s not just a fan — she’s become a true friend to Chef Dave and other great minds behind Next. I get so shy around people I admire that I know I come off as aloof. She’s inspired me to break out of that shell and be more generous with my feelings. Who doesn’t like a high five?
Emily’s good will made us the lucky recipients of a special treat: two preview courses of Next’s next menu, elBulli, an homage to what many agree is the greatest restaurant of the modern era and probably of all time (copyright Kanye). At its height, elBulli received two million requests for reservations annually — and it was only open for six months out of the year (the other time was spent developing new techniques). Chef Ferran Adrià recently closed elBulli’s doors for at least two years to devote himself full-time to experimentation. Rumor has it Next is bringing in elBulli chefs to cook along side them.
Tickets to elBulli are going to be nearly impossible to get (they’ll only do one seating a night), and though we hope to try and squeeze our way in somehow, we’ve resigned ourselves to enjoying the meal vicariously through those that do get in (rooting for you, Emily and Simon) — and recreating it with our crazy friends here in NYC (who’s with us??).
Next’s elBulli meal will be some 30+ courses, each representative of one of the restaurant’s major culinary breakthroughs or classic courses. Chef Dave presented our first preview course: olives. As you entered the beautiful hill-top restaurant, he explained, you gazed upon a wall of jars of olives (an ordinary sight in Spain) and were later invited to try some.
But these are no ordinary olives.
They’re liquid olive essence suspended in gel spheres that burst in your mouth, thrilling your taste buds with the most concentrated olive flavor you’ve ever had. Chef Adrià invented the technique in the 1990s (maybe even the late ’80s) and it has become widely adopted — M. knows how to do it, and has used them in martinis (genius!!). Here’s a video of Chef Adrià explaining to Mark Bittman how he makes the olives.
Emily’s face in the picture above pretty much says it all. The play of the familiar with the absolutely unexpected is awe-inspiring.
Our second sneak peek was at a 1998 course, the Spice Dish. Before us was a bowl of cold green apple puree with 12 spices arranged around the perimeter like a clock. We were invited to taste each one and guess which spice it was from the card provided: pink Szechuan peppercorns, threads of saffron, tiny mint leafs, slivers of ginger confit, and so on. Chef Dave explained that Chef Adrià was inspired by the experience of eating at a Chinese restaurant and being exposed to a bewildering array of unfamiliar flavors.
The simplicity of the presentation — and the incentive to do well on the pop quiz — forces you to take a moment and really taste. Of course, a quiz worked very well within the Childhood theme. The tenacious little straight-A student that I presume Emily once was came right out, and her husband sweetly obliged by marking her test with an A+. I hope it’s hanging on her fridge right now.