After the levity of the mullet-on-seashells course, the proceeding dish was a shining example of perfect simplicity, an intersection of French and Japanese tastes: a thick disc of eel atop a decadent slab of bone marrow, under which rested a dark green nasturtium leaf shaped like a lilypad. Another nasturtium leaf held a circle of fresh cucumber and between these two leaves was a beautiful red-orange nasturtium flower.
These flavor combinations were an incredible match, with the peppery leaves and the clean cucumber cutting the richness of the eel and marrow. I have a difficult time describing the taste of the flower, however; that is to say I recall it being relatively bland, bringing to mind images of goats munching on shrubbery. The alcoholic beverage pairing with this course was an amazing beer, another collaboration between Next and local favorite brewery Half Acre. For the Thai menu, Half Acre used hibiscus as the dominant ingredient in the collaborative beer; this time, oranges and beets featured prominently, resulting in a surprisingly smooth, red ale-like quaff called Sanguis (a reference to the dark red "blood" color of the beer, no doubt from the beets). The brew was a great accompaniment for 3 courses and eminently drinkable by itself (indeed, the waitstaff was gracious enough to let us buy 4 bottles of the stuff to take home, one of which has already been enjoyed at the Commissary).
Next up was a curious plate - a civet of rabbit served with two small cubes of hot apple jelly and diagonal smears of beige and maroon sauces. After some discussion at the table, we came to a general agreement that the beige sauce was liver-based, possibly foie gras. There was no consensus about the maroon one, other than it was clearly meant to evoke blood (nicely matching the beer, of course). Regardless of what they were, everything on the plate was mind-bogglingly delicious.
I had to look up "civet of rabbit" back home and discovered it to be an old French dish (also popular in England) whereby rabbit meat is cooked in red wine vinegar plus a brandy sauce that's enhanced with the rabbit's liver and blood. Upon further reflection, then, it seems clearer to me that the "smears" in question were probably rabbit liver (beige) and rabbit blood (maroon), a deconstructed brandy sauce from the traditional recipe (although I'm just speculating at this point). The meal headed back to the funhouse with the following course, a dinosaur egg-sized hollow sphere of a white material that turned out to be blue cheese (the menu lists gorgonzola, but I've read at least 2 published reviews stating that it's actually Maytag Blue from Iowa). Our server cracked the sphere with a flourish and offered each of us pieces for nibbling.
The cheese was delectable, but it was robust and there was a lot of it, much more than the table could eat at this juncture of the meal. In fact, I'd be surprised if any of the diners were able to polish off the whole thing (Chef Beran could probably reduce the sphere's size by half and not really lose anything in the process). From a technical standpoint, this was another of those "how'd they do that?" courses. Liquid nitrogen was definitely involved (the cheese was frozen and started melting fairly quickly) and some sort of scaffolding on which to mold the raw material; beyond that, I'm clueless to its genesis. From this point onward (after the cheese course, naturally), our journey began to nudge ever-so-slightly towards sweeter and less savory plates, starting with a wonderful flan-like caramel custard of foie gras (the ultimate sweet/savory pairing) accompanied by a second palo cortado sherry (this time a Lustau "Peninsula").
This was followed by another whimsical course, a little game to see how well one's palate could identify various spices. A bowl filled with a light green gelatin (neutral tasting, maybe green apple?) suspended 12 different flavorings, each neatly placed at the hour positions on a clock face. The goal was to match up each spice (listed on a separate card) with its corresponding clock position in the bowl. Some of them were easily recognized by sight (such as mint leaf and saffron threads), while others were more difficult to distinguish (pink peppercorn versus Szechuan pepper). All things considered, Mrs. Hackknife and I did pretty well, correctly identifying the placement of 9 out of 12 spices. We enthusiastically washed down our gameboard with a nice Pommeau de Normandie (cider mixed with apple juice) that had some white tea, lychee, and mandarin orange added for complexity.
I'd gotten a little bit of advance intel regarding the next dessert, described on the menu as a "mint pond", basically a thin, frozen layer of water onto which our server sprinkled mint, brown sugar, and green tea. We were instructed to crack the ice with a spoon (this was a bit messy, with ice chunks popping around the table) and mix the shards with the spices, creating a very simple and tasty dish not entirely unlike what my mother-in-law likes to make at the Commissary in wintertime for the kids using freshly-fallen snow and whatever sweet liquid (juice, maple syrup, etc.) happens to be around (or is it more like the ice cubes at the bottom of the soft drink cup that you chew on?).
When Jose Andres spoke to our group at the Cayman Cookout, he made reference to a technique he'd learned (possibly at el Bulli) to flash-freeze the top layer in a bowl of water and drain out the remainder via pinhole, leaving the hollow frozen layer on top. This came to mind as I scrutinized the serving vessel, but I wasn't able to find any obvious escape route for liquid underneath the top. Maybe the "pond" was frozen in a different mold and then fitted to the serving vessel or maybe a different sleight-of-hand technique was in play - I can't say for sure. A dessert course attributed to Albert Adria (Ferran's pastry chef brother) immediately followed, an elegant-looking plate evoking a sea fan or coral whose components were a diverse collection of chocolate textures and tastes.
Being a huge fan of chocolate in any form, I was pretty pleased with this creation and the smaller sweet bites that came next: chocolate "donuts" that were actually frozen discs of coconut creme dipped in dark chocolate, paper-thin pastry flutes stuffed with whipped cream, and puff pastry "webs" that resembled twisted pretzel dough.
None of these items on the table survived for long. Our final drink pairing (which was served with the dessert bites and the previous chocolate course) was a unctuous Casa de la Ermita "Dulce Monastell" dessert wine from the Jumilla region of Spain. By this time, the overall experience had exceeded the 4-hour mark and everyone at the table was starting to get a little weary. As much as I wanted to tour the kitchen (I'd missed out on my previous 2 visits), Mrs. Hackknife and I decided to defer to of one of the later menus (Sicily in June and Kyoto in October) so we could get home to cut the babysitter loose. As we prepared to depart, our server brought us one more course, a bit of parting theater in the form of inflated white rubber gloves stretched over the openings of small silver bowls. Inside one of the bowls were the el Bulli version of the after-dinner mint, a handful of passionfruit marshmallow candies.
As you can infer from the photo, the idea at hand here (sorry...awful pun) is that the gloves "wave goodbye" as you tap the bowls, which was a fine encapsulation of the whole meal: gestures somehow both refined and casual, executed time and again in perfect balance. Of course, not every course struck a positive chord with me, but as a complete entity, the experience certainly satisfied whatever longing I had to dine at el Bulli (without having to leave my fair city, to boot). I have to commend Chef Achatz, Chef Beran, and all of the staff at Next for having the confidence to take on such a daunting challenge and the technical skill to flawlessly pull it off. I can hardly wait to see what the boys whip up for the next 2 menus and feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to be a regular patron of their temple to world cuisines....