Monday, February 20, 2012

Next el Bulli Tribute - Installment 1

Just a few nights ago, Mrs. Hackknife and I had the extreme privilege to dine again at Grant Achatz's shape-shifting restaurant, Next, this time for the much-heralded el Bulli tribute menu. I won't go into a lot of detail describing the process I went through to get us a table at such a sought-after event (this rigmarole was chronicled in my June 2011 posting on the Next Paris 1906 menu), but suffice it to say that I spent more time stalking the restaurant's website and associated Facebook page than I care to admit in order to time the release of tables just right (and even then it came down to luck of the draw and my ability to guess the composition of two fuzzy-looking security words under pressure). In any case, we found ourselves seated at 7pm on a recent evening with two new foodie friends (Sharon and Chrystal) who had expressed great interest via a colleague of Mrs. Hackknife in joining us on this culinary adventure tour, all 4 of us giddy with anticipation. The ensuing meal amounted to 29 courses, so for ease of reading, I've decided to divide my coverage into 3 separate postings.

In keeping with my two earlier visits to Next, the meal began with little in the way of fanfare, save for a single red rose suspended above our table from the ceiling (I'd read that Messr. Achatz and Co. hatched this idea in lieu of placing a flower vase on the table, which would occupy valuable plate space). First up was a version of an aperitif, a capirinha (Brazil's national drink containing sugar, lime, and cachaca, a type of rum) frozen using liquid nitrogen and served in a hollowed-out lime.

The silver spoon on the slate next to the lime contained a small bit of tarragon concentrate, which we were instructed to mix into the frozen slurry to add some complexity to it. Considering I hadn't eaten for several hours, my capirinha went down quickly, and I nearly started munching on the crystalline base below the lime, thinking it was an edible part of the dish (it wasn't - our server told me it was a combo of sugar and salt before whisking my dish away to safety). Next began a parade of single-bite courses, much like what we'd experienced at the outset of both the Paris 1906 and the Thailand menus here. The following course was a single bite listed as a "hot/cold trout roe tempura", a puffball of fried dough inside of which rested a clump of salty, silky trout eggs. Unfortunately, we only received one each and I could easily imagine downing a basket of 20 of these in a single sitting. The tempura balls were paired with a Jane Ventura "Brut Nature" Cava Reserva sparkling wine from 2008, the perfect foil to the roe's richness. The cava also paired very well with our next bite, the famous "spherical olive" that's been well documented as one of el Bulli's signature dishes.

Our server had to spoon the delicate olive spheres (concentrated olive juices and oil encapsulated inside an alginate coating, much like an egg yolk) from a large jar onto the individual serving spoons. This was as difficult as it sounds and he good-naturedly endured a couple of misfires before getting it right (one olive burst and another slid off the spoon onto the tablecloth, yet amazingly remained intact - you can see the spot where it landed in the picture, and no, we didn't get to eat the scraps).

Two more courses subsequently arrived, including a coca (a Catalan pastry similar to a flatbread) topped with avocado, tasty white anchovy, and green onion and what was called an Iberico ham "sandwich", basically a slice of wonderful Iberico ham wrapped around a hollow, feather-lite baguette (where did the insides go?).

We've now had the good fortune to have sampled Iberico ham 3 times in the past year (at L'Atelier de Robuchon in Las Vegas, at the Cayman Cookout courtesy of Jose Andres, and here) - I'm getting to the point where I'm tempted just to mail order a whole leg of the stuff and have it shipped directly to the Commissary, expense be damned.

Three more single bite courses showed up, along with a small vial containing a blend of Pineau des Charentes (a fortified wine popular in a few regions of western France) and farigoule (a thyme-flavored liqueur from Provence). Our server instructed us to add the vial's contents to our glasses of cava so that it better matched the flavor profile of the new courses (which it did).

In the photo foreground, you can see what was one of my favorite dishes of the night, a black sesame spongecake topped with a liquid globe of miso, reminding me of so many lightly-sweet-yet-savory boxed gift cakes that we encountered all over Japan. Directly above were some delicious chicken liquid croquettes, a take on the ubiquitous tapas offering (again, a basket of 20 would have been much appreciated). Mrs. Hackknife loved the last course in this sequence, a "golden egg" consisting of what I believe was a quail egg yolk inside a sweet, hard candy-like shell (not being a big fan of either hard candy or raw eggs, I had a bit of trouble with this one).

Our server brought out another liquid vial intended to again transform our cava, this time by adding a few drops of Malaga Moscatel (a Spanish white wine) combined with Reagan's Orange Bitters. This accompanied a small glass containing what was described as "smoke foam" topped with two golden croutons. Although I understand the significance of foams as a triumphant symbol of el Bulli's innovative cuisine (at least it was back in 1997, when this particular dish was conceived and before foams in fine dining became cliched), I have to say that this was my least favorite of all the courses - I found the smoke flavor to be overly harsh and somewhat one-dimensional.

The foam dish that immediately followed, however, was a revelation: carrot "air" served atop a bed of coconut milk. When mixed together, the carrot and coconut were amazingly intense and melded together beautifully, to my mind a more-evolved example of an el Bulli foam (from 2003, so that theory at least fits chronologically, although I'm probably unqualified to make such an observation). This was the first of many subsequent courses where I sincerely wanted to lick the serving vessel (hmmm...I wonder how tricky it would be to create something like this in the Commissary...stay tuned).

From this point onward, the meal progressed into courses that were more substantial in size (i.e., entrees). I'll chronicle the middle portion of our experience in the next posting...

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