It was billed as a 'unique, incomparable encounter that will never happen again': a dinner of 47 dishes (actually, there were at least 50) accompanied by six rare champagnes, and prepared by 50 chefs for 50 international guests.
That a few of the VIP guests didn't show up didn't matter much to those who did, although it would have been nice to see actress Helen Mirren, her husband, film director Taylor Hackford, and Duran Duran lead singer Simon Le Bon. Actress Heather Graham, necking with her slim-hipped young boyfriend, Jason Silva (described on the VIP list as a 'television personality ... [and] gonzo journalist') was enough to put us off star spotting for at least a little while.
But what enticed the 50 of us to travel to Spain from Hong Kong, Shanghai, the United States and various other countries wasn't the thought of rubbing elbows with celebrities - we came for a meal. It was as 'unique' as the organisers hoped it would be. It will never be repeated because the restaurant is closing in July and, for the first and only time in its history, it was opened one evening earlier this month to invitees of just one winery - Dom Perignon, whose champagnes were served throughout the 50-course meal.
The restaurant was El Bulli, a small (about 50 seats), pretty, whitewashed space at an idyllic spot in a national park on Spain's Costa Brava. It's known primarily for the inventive modernist cuisine of Catalan chef Ferran Adria. The Michelin three-star El Bulli for many years has been voted 'the best restaurant in the world' by chefs, critics (including this one) and other food and beverage professionals for the San Pellegrino World's 50 Best annual list.
Until last year, it was open for only six months a year, making it exceedingly difficult to get a table (there have been estimates that the restaurant receives up to two million e-mail requests for each six-month 'season'). When it was announced last year that the restaurant would close permanently this year to make way for the private, non-profit El Bulli Foundation ('a think tank of gastronomic creativity for chefs and front-of-house professionals' according to the El Bulli website), the quest for a table became frenzied, and the chances of getting one even slimmer.
'El Bulli has never done a dinner like this - Dom Perignon is the only collaboration we've had in the wine business,' says Adria, El Bulli mastermind and co-owner (with business partner Juli Soler), just hours before the event. 'We finally realised we could commit ourselves if it was for a very good cause, such as the El Bulli Foundation. We started talking to some friends who wanted something special, and [since] we've had a long relationship with Dom Perignon, we said OK, let's put together a magic evening.'
According to two sources from Dom Perignon who spoke on condition of anonymity, the champagne house paid about Euro120,000 (HK$1.32 million) to the foundation to book the entire restaurant for the evening.
'Dom Perignon is the perfect wine for our food,' Adria adds. 'For a long, extensive menu, you need a partner who can wear many different clothes. If you start [serving] different wines from different areas with such an extensive menu, you just confuse people.'
Richard Geoffroy, Dom Perignon's chef de cave, who, with his glasses, large eyes and sometimes unkempt hair, has the look of a mad scientist (and occasionally sounds like one, too), says: 'With a [multi-course] meal you can't serve one wine with one dish; it needs to be an [overall] experience - it's the sum altogether that makes sense. The food came first. Ferran told me: 'Here's my menu', and he didn't alter or adjust anything.
'It has to be sincerely, authentically Ferran, with no adjustment. I'm the one who made the adjustment. I could have asked him to substitute one dish for another that goes better with champagne but I didn't.'
I've been luckier than many food and wine writers - my meal at El Bulli this month was my third visit to the legendary place - a fact that was the subject of much discussion among the other invited journalists, until we met Rafael Anson Oliart, president of the Madrid-based Real Academia de Gastronomia, an organisation founded last year to research and promote Spanish cuisine, who estimated he'd eaten there 300 times.
Chef Adria prides himself on changing his menu entirely from one season to the next and, indeed, at my two previous meals - in 2006 and 2007 - only one dish, the famous 'spherical olives', was repeated (floating in olive oil, the green orbs look and smell like olives, but they burst in the mouth, releasing an intense liquid olive-ness). The dinner in 2006 was, until this more recent one, the best meal of my life - it completely surpassed my very high expectations. The meal in 2007 was disappointing by comparison: at the time, Adria and his team were using a lot of Asian flavours - ho-hum ingredients to six of us who had travelled from Hong Kong; and the overuse of freeze-dried products, which gave them an airy crunchiness, became tedious after a while.
Meals at El Bulli are an exercise in endurance - not because the dishes aren't delicious (even the meal in 2007 had memorable highlights) but because there are so many courses. At the two other meals, we were served about 35 courses, and we were at the restaurant from 8pm to 1am. This time, the meal was 50 courses (we finished close to 2am), and they were paired with six top Dom Perignon champagnes.
With the first part of the meal we were served Oenotheque 1973 (Oenotheque champagnes receive at least an extra 14 years of ageing before being released) in magnums (the wine made an appearance twice more in the dinner), which had toasty, complex flavours. Next up was the Dom Perignon 2002, which was initially fruit focused before becoming deeper in flavour. The Oenotheque 1996 was intense and long lasting on the palate; while the Oenotheque 1969 - no longer available for sale (it's usually served only at Dom Perignon events such as this one) - was rich, elegant and very complex. The Oenotheque 1976 - creamy with a balance between fruitiness and acidity - was paired with the desserts. Then the guests went outside to the restaurant terrace for cigars and the Oenotheque 1990 Ros?in magnums (the first Oenotheque ros?for the champagne house), which was sophisticated with a lingering finish.
This meal was different from my previous dinners. It was a 'best of El Bulli', rather than a completely new menu, so I tasted four dishes I had first eaten in 2006 and 2007. And usually, the meal starts with a lot of one or two-bite courses, and about two-thirds of the way through, the 'mains' - slightly larger dishes - are served. This time, the large and small dishes were served randomly. After about 20 courses - where I consumed almost every bite on my plates and was drinking the champagne almost as quickly as it was poured, I realised I had to make an extremely difficult decision: either eat the food or drink the wine - at this rate, I couldn't do both. I chose the food and, from then on, only took small sips of the wines to taste them with the various dishes.
The food at El Bulli messes with your mind, although in a good way - you never know what to expect from the cryptic dish descriptions. At one point, when one of my favourite dishes, the 'flowers paper', was served (a mildly sweet candy floss embedded with different types of flowers so that it resembled beautiful hand-made Japanese paper), I tried to also eat the real paper that was being used as the presentation dish.
It would be impossible to have 50 courses without a few misses - I still don't like the way they use Asian ingredients (I didn't care much for the 'soya matches', steamed shrimp with tea or the nori seaweed with lemon; I also disliked the Mexican Oaxaca 'taco'). But some of the dishes were so exciting that as I ate them, I was happy, and yet sad at the same time knowing that I'll never taste them again.
The 'mojito and apple flute' looked like a small, stark-white baguette, but it was icy and refreshing - a semi-solid version of the cocktail that started to melt even as we ate it. The fine, thin olive oil chip was sweet, salty, crisp and fatty all at the same time. 'Parmesan cheese porra' (a type of fritter) was long, slender and delicately crunchy.
One of the most exciting dishes for me was the 'golden egg' - I'd read about this dish, but hadn't tasted it. A raw quail egg yolk was wrapped in a thin, crisp caramel shell, which made the former chef in me wonder how the yolk could be encased in hot caramel without it cooking the yolk. The answer: let the caramel solidify in very thin sheets, cut them into pieces, reheat briefly in the oven and then - working quickly - wrap the caramel around the yolk and let it harden.
'Oyster and bone marrow tartare' was served in an oyster shell, with an oyster leaf that tasted as much of oyster as the bivalve itself.
'Caviar cream with hazelnut caviar' had real caviar with hazelnut cream, and hazelnut-flavoured fake caviar (faux caviar is one of Adria's most copied creations) sitting in a pool of caviar cream.
Another favourite dish was the tender almonds with truffle perfume - there was only one real almond on the plate but you couldn't tell which one it was; all the others looked like almonds, but had different flavours and textures.
'Peas 2011' was the most recent incarnation of the dish - it had real peas with mint, and fake peas with ham broth. 'Gazpacho with ajo blanco' (white garlic) was so good that I will forever compare all future gazpachos to it - it was so light and refreshing that it woke up my palate and temporarily made me hungry again, even though it was close to the end of the meal.
I was defeated - finally - by the last main course, which had several elements - hare ravioli 'Bolognesa' served with a goblet of blood (it was faux blood, made from beetroot), game meat cappuccino, blackberry risotto with game meat sauce, and a hare 'ninyoyaki' cooked with chocolate that was so delicious that when it was clear I wasn't going to finish it, Allan Jenkins, editor of the Observer Food Monthly, asked if he could eat the rest.
Desserts were plentiful but - thankfully - very light, and included the beautiful apple rose with pearls of schnapps, and a box holding such a tempting array of chocolates I wished I had a second stomach so I could do them justice.