Thursday, February 23, 2012

Next el Bulli Tribute - Installment 2

At this point in the meal (i.e., following the carrot foam), the courses began to consist of some larger entrees (although I wouldn't describe any of them as "large", thank goodness, considering we still had almost 20 to go). First up was a beautiful plate with a single, elegant cuttlefish and coconut ravioli, served atop a small bed of bean sprouts with soy, ginger, and mint emulsions.

I'm looking at the photo of the plate and it just occurred to me as I'm writing this that the ravioli and sprouts are arranged such that it looks like a swan. Whether intentional or not (and I'm betting that there was nothing accidental about anything coming out of that kitchen), I didn't notice that during the service, quite possibly because I was so anxious to eat the tasty bundle. With this course, we received our second drink pairing (not counting the twice-modified cava from earlier), a Kanbara Junmai Ginjo sake (Junmai Ginjo is one of the 8 categories of premium sake made in Japan) also known as "Bride of the Fox". The sake was nicely balanced between dry and sweet, melding well with the richness of the cuttlefish. Next came a martini glass filled with what appeared to be a pinkish shaved ice. The material was actually described as "savory tomato ice" layered over some almond milk pudding with a sprig of oregano added.

Although nice to look at, the combination of flavors in the glass just didn't do much for me, even when washed down with the sake. The following dish, a hot crab aspic paired with a pile of couscous that was actually very tiny corn kernels, was much tastier (even if the aspic reminded me of something Julia Child might have whipped up in the '60s).

I certainly wouldn't want to be the kitchen slave responsible for extracting all of those microscopic corn kernels. Clearly the job would seem less troublesome if I had imbibed mass quantities of the accompanying drink pairing, described to us by our server as a Basque cider (produced by Domaine Bordatto) made from 15 different heirloom apple varieties that are indigenous to the Pyrenees (at least I think that's what the producer's website said when conducting follow-up research - I can read a little French, but Basque, not so much). Most ciders I've had in my lifetime (that is to say, not many) have had some measure of sweetness to them - this one was not sweet, but earthy and funky (think barnyard), and a bit of a shock to my neophyte cider palate.

Our subsequent course was nothing short of spectacular, visually stunning and containing an incredible interplay of flavors: a mound of delicate cauliflower couscous surrounded by a circle of mixed herbs intended to be the "sauce" of the dish. I can't imagine how difficult it was to plate this and I can't begin to describe all of the different tastes I picked up (I know gingerbread dust was prominently featured). Perhaps the most amazing thing is how savory it all was without an ounce of meat anywhere, clearly the best vegetarian course I can ever recall eating.

This wave of momentum continued right into the following dish, a "suquet" (a Catalan fish stew typically made with saffron and almonds) of prawns, paired with a uncommon version of dry Sherry known as palo cortado (which has both crisp and slightly oxidized characteristics). Again, the course looked and tasted amazing (I think I may have considered selling the progeny for another ladlefull of the stuff - please don't tell the missus).

I'm not sure I even now quite understand what we received after the suquet. The menu lists it as a "potato tortilla" and certainly those flavors were there, but not in any form I would have expected; that is, liquefied in a martini glass. This dish is attributed to Marc Singla, who seems to be a Spanish chef that collaborated with the Adrias back in the 1990s (if you Google his name, you'll get a couple of hits, including a picture of this signature dish, but not much else).

Did I mention that it was delicious? And the wine paired with it (a Cune "Vina Real" grand reserve from Rioja) was also spectacular, light, yet rich. The next course presented some challenges for me, as it included mushrooms as the centerpiece (for those of you who are new readers, I'm a longtime mushroom hater, but I'm slowly coming around via immersion therapy). A large piece of trumpet mushroom (maybe the cap?) was placed atop very thin discs of what I believe was the same mushroom (the "carpaccio" of the dish), sauced and presented with little pieces of rabbit (which I surmised was loin and then later found out was actually kidney - had I known that at the time, I might have paused a bit, but can now look back and say that I enjoyed eating my first ever kidneys).

I didn't have any trouble consuming the thin mushroom discs; however, the trumpet cap was another matter. It was particularly chewy (my main beef with most mushrooms), but I soldiered on and almost achieved a level of "mere dislike" by the time it had disappeared from the plate. There was no dislike of the following dish, a wonderfully-prepared red mullet "Gaudi" style (in reference to the famous Catalan artist known for his eccentric Gothic architecture) with chopped herbs and smears of sofrito (much better made that the slop I created in the Commisary a while back). The food was placed on a piece of clear glass, then laid atop a warm plastic bag filled with water (seawater?) and shells, clearly meant to evoke the ocean.

This in-your-face type of presentation comes from the early days of Ferran Adria's tenure at el Bulli (1987) and I'm sure would have been done much more subtly in recent years. That being said, I loved it all (and, truth be told, I was expecting many of the courses to follow this pattern of obvious whimsy, although one reviewer I've read has posited the formula el Bulli + further playfulness = Alinea, which pretty much seems spot on to me). Our drink pairing in this case was another Spanish red, a Fransesc Sanchez Bas "Montgarnatx" from the Priorat region.

The final installment (#3) of our meal coverage will include a few more entrees and then segues into the desserts. By now, you probably need a bit of time to digest all of this anyway...

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