A Critic's Dinner
The 32 Courses Blake Gopnik Consumed at ElBulli

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The 32 courses I ate on my elBulli visit included five things new to the menu this year:

1. "Cane: mojito -- caipirinha" (new): Sugar-cane wands infused with rum and cachaça, garnished with mint and lime zest. A chewable cocktail.

2. "Coniferous" (new): The tender tips of pine tree boughs, dipped in rosemary honey, then Maldon salt, served with a yogurt cocktail made with pine-infused gin. Like a walk in the forest, nibbling as you go.

3. "Passion orchid": A passion fruit-yogurt crisp served with saffron powder, hazelnut praline and hyssop blossom. Looks like a flower and tastes like one, too.

4. "Mimetic peanuts" (new): Seems to be a peanut, but is a crisp skin filled with a thin peanut cream. "To be bitten in half," says the waiter. (Watch for squirts down your shirt.)

5. "Tomato biscuit": A crisp disk of concentrated tomato, served with basil butter and gold leaf. The Eucharist for vegivores.

6. "Spherical olives": Look exactly like olives but are wobbly, "spherified" capsules of olive juice, flavored with lemon zest, orange zest, rosemary, thyme and garlic. An icon of Adriànism.

7. "Rabbit ear crunchy": Two rabbit ears, fried crisp. They won't let you forget that a wascally wabbit got whacked.

8. "Virgin olive oil spring": A mini-Slinky made of olive-oil hard candy. Crisp; sweet; geometric; olive oil: terms that don't often describe the same thing.

9. "Black sesame sponge cake with miso": A pitch-black, rough-edged fragment of ethereal brioche, with a smear of beige miso. Looks like jagged volcanic rock, but eats like a cloud.

10. "Pinenut shabu-shabu" (new): Translucent pouches of edible Japanese paper filled with pine-nut cream and pine oil, served with surgical tweezers and a bowl of cold "pine-water" to dip them in. Another whiff of the forest.

11. "Oyster leaf with a dew of vinegar": A grayish leaf from Canada, graced with a very few drops of pinkish shallot vinegar, the classic "mignonette" served on oysters. The leaf's just a novel ingredient, but what an ingredient: It turns out mother nature does the taste of oysters twice. An early high point in the meal.

12. "Gorgonzola moshi": Soft and wobbly ovoids, shaped like the Japanese treats but made of gorgonzola cream and filled with gorgonzola bits. The look of a Japanese sweet; the taste of an Italian primo.

13. "Grilled strawberry": The barely cooked fruit, infused with London dry gin and fresh juniper. A pick-your-own martini.

14. "Haricot bean with Joselito's Iberian pork fat": A spherified bean cream, looking like the legumes themselves, served over a pork broth, garnished with crispy bits of fat from the rarest of pigs. Adrià's famous take on lowly ham and beans.

15. "Cuttlefish with pesto ravioli": Translucent pouches filled with pesto, served alongside minuscule sauteed cuttlefish -- the ocean, concentrated -- served on a thin film of Parmesan oil alongside tiny drops of squid ink and a single, intense dollop of lemon zest. Tastes of Genoa, Venice, Parma, Palermo: a pan-Italian tour, served up in Catalonia.

16. "Parmesan frozen-air with muesli": A frozen Parmesan foam served with an optional muesli. An amazing combination of sheer sensory delight and who'd-a-thunk-it surprise. Another stunning moment.

17. "Tea of chervil": A bright-green herbal powder, frothed up with hot water in stainless-steel bowls, using a traditional bamboo whisk from Japan. To the eyes, the tea ceremony gone modern; on the palate, pure vegetality.

18. "Lulo": A chunk of fresh Andean lulo fruit (sour, exotic) served with shavings of frozen foie-gras fat -- looks like egg pasta, but must be served with nitrogen-chilled spoons to keep it from melting -- presented on a plate with dots of insanely concentrated cocoa essence, more dots of plain yogurt, a basil leaf and truffle oil. Would have been the best dish of the night (of my life) if nothing else had followed.

19. "Pine risotto with caviar": Embryonic pine nuts -- almost clear, with a slightly crystalline mouth feel -- suspended in pine-nut infused water. Served with caviar from Rio Frio in Spain. Almost as great as the previous course, and a lovely, mellow complement to it.

20. "Razor clam with seaweed": Tender razor clams (like oyster crossed with lobster) cooked sous vide, served surrounded by a citrusy seawater "air" (like the foam on the surf by a seaside lemon grove) alongside a medley of crunchy seaweeds. If an epicure were drowning at sea, this would be his last thought.

21. "Asparagus with miso": Two tips of white asparagus with vanilla powder and a tiny yellow flower. A rare moment of standard culinary thinking.

22. "Abalone": Small strips of flesh from the precious mollusk, shimenji mushrooms, a jelly of ginger and yuzu (a Japanese citrus), Iberico pork fat, codium seaweed and cilantro sprouts, all finished with a chicken glace and ginger oil. Simply too complex for words.

23. "Sea cucumber with mentaiko and rhubarb": "Espardenya," as it's called in Catalan , presented with Japanese mentaiko (a smoked, spicy, very salty cod caviar) and a crisp piece of rhubarb, all dressed with sesame seeds, soy sauce and mirin. Japan meets Catalonia.

24. "Sea anemone": Frilly anemones, stuffed into transparent Parmesan pouches, served alongside two rabbit brains, a tiny wedge of kumquat and cubes of raw oysters in an oyster-and-dill cream. A fabulous medley: the brine of the anemone; the umami of Parmesan; the sheer fishiness of oyster; the mellowness of brains and the pucker of kumquat. Also, a challenge. The evening's masterpiece.

25. "Gnocchi of polenta with coffee and saffron yuba": Thin, light, gnocchi-shaped pouches filled with a light polenta, dusted with ground coffee and capers. Patches of yuba, a "fresh milk skin" flavored with saffron, surround them on the plate. Radical comfort food.

26. "Suckling pig tail": Fried, served with a ham broth, with little bits of fresh melon and tofu. We've now covered the distance from a rabbit's ears to the far end of a hog.

27. "Hibiscus and tequila rose cocktail" (new): Looks like a frozen rose. Tastes like Mexico.

28. "Water lily": A jasmine tea infused with roses, elderflowers and tangerine, with nasturtium leaves floating on it like lily pads. A pondscape, for eating.

29. "Omelet surprise": A milk skin filled with a yogurt cream, finished with a touch of burnt sugar, fresh lavender and lavender powder. The apotheosis of Spanish flan?

30. "Coco" (new): A coconut-sized balloon of frozen coconut milk, served with a sprinkle of curry powder. Cracking it apart is half the fun; curry for dessert is the other half.

31. "Amber": Spherified elderflower essence with a rosemary-honey gelee. Wobbly balls of flavor that taste the way a sunset looks.

32. "Roots": Chocolate cake with chocolate-yuzu mousse, yogurt, cardamom toffee, tangerine sorbet, chocolate roots, black-sesame "earth" and "rocks." Looks like the abandoned corner of a compost pile. Tastes dark and fertile.

-- Blake Gopnik

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