Liquid nitrogen and exploding olives - apparently, the menu's from Mars
Although many people know of El Bulli from Anthony Bourdain's television show, Decoding Ferran Adria, food-lovers have been flocking to the restaurant, in Roses, north of Barcelona, for much longer than that.
El Bulli chef Ferran Adria spends six months each year experimenting with food in a laboratory, working with equipment and ingredients not normally associated with haute cuisine.
But it all comes together to give diners the unexpected, making them look in new ways at what's on their plates: savoury cotton candy, for instance, and glistening beads of melon 'caviar' presented in a tin labelled: 'Imitacion El Bulli Iranian caviar' (below). Our server summed it up well when she said: 'The food is from Mars'.
Each year, Adria gets about 5,000 applications from chefs asking if they can work for free at the restaurant. Normally, cooks apply for these so-called stages at the beginning of their careers, but the El Bulli applicants are usually highly experienced chefs capable of running their own kitchens. Gianluigi Bonelli from the Kee Club, in Central, spent three months working there in 2003.
No menu is given at the beginning of the 30-plus course meal (it's presented at the end, and only in Catalan). Diners have to depend on the descriptions by the staff, who instruct you how the dish should be eaten.
First, we get a caipirinha, frozen to sorbet-like consistency with liquid nitrogen (because alcohol has a higher freezing point than other liquids). Then, there's something that looks, smells and tastes like an olive, but bursts in the mouth, releasing a gush of olive-flavoured liquid. And there's a glistening, ruby-coloured object decorated with gold - it looks as if it should be hanging from an expensive necklace, but it's actually a thin caramel shell filled with pumpkin-seed oil.
Valerie Colbourn, who was in Spain for only 18 hours, specifically to visit El Bulli, loved almost all the courses, 'especially the faux olive, the homemade mozzarella [it's also liquid inside], the parmesan air and melon caviar'.
'The meal was terrific,' she says. 'It was unique in ingredients and presentations, but still, the focus was on enjoying the food. The palate was constantly surprised, It was a fantastic culinary experience.'