El Bulli

“How could we let it come to this!” I yelled at J and T while doing 140km/h in a 70km/h zone in a reckless effort to keep our 8pm reservation at the most famous restaurant in the world. El Bulli.

It was always going to be a tight. We had to drive across Spain (south of France actually) from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean. A dodgy GPS and a scenic route detour through the Pyrenees, while a great idea at the time, didn’t help.

Check in. Drop bags. Shower. Beer. Ready.

Striding out the front doors of our hotel to our waiting taxi, with doors open and engine running, did it really sink in. I was going to El Bulli.

The restaurant in located in a secluded cove 20 minutes north of Roses in the Costa Brava. While waiting at the front steps like nervous school children it came to me that while the setting is beautiful it is also humble.

We were shuffled in through a crowd of other diners to meet Ferran Adria. While this was a huge honour it felt like a tourist production line and more of a photo opportunity than anything, this could be down to the fact Ferran can’t speak english and we can’t speak spanish.

Once we are seated the dishes come quickly, there are 37 to get through. The waiters don’t mess around, as they put a dish down they explain what it is, describe how to eat it and often suggest it must be eaten quickly. This is all very different from a traditional fine dining experience as sometimes it felt as things were moving a little too quick. Saying this it didn’t bother me, I wanted to eat the dishes the way and pace Ferran had intended.

Ferran doesn’t like to be called a molecular gastronomist, he prefers deconstructionist. He pulls things apart and puts them back together in a way that plays with your senses and memory of how things are and were. A great example of this is serving a apple mojito that looks like a french bagette.

It’s a cocktail but looks like a bagette. The bread (which isn’t bread) dissolves in the mouth and you are left with a chilled, rich, apple alcohol flavour.

Another dish which did this was the gorgonzola globe.

I was thinking sweet white easter egg chocolate, instead got strong rich gorgonzola. And what’s more diners reach in to break off pieces with their hands.

A classic Adria dish was the mimetic peanuts. A peanut oil shaped like a peanut, as soon as you lay it on your tongue the outer layer dissolves covering your mouth with the thick oil.

Just when you get used to eating with your hands the waiters start bringing dishes that require small folks and spoons, like this bone marrow and oyster royale. I don’t recall using a knife anytime during the 37 courses.

There were consistent themes/flavours running through the menu. Pine nuts or nuts in general, gorgonzola, parmesan, ham fat and alot of the dishes used Asian flavours which was unexpected.

We started at 8pm and left after midnight. It was the most enjoyable and interesting gastronomique experiences I have had. I only wish it went a little slower so I could take more of the experience in.

Drunk oil caviar with olive soup.

Caviar cream with hazelnut caviar,

Ham and ginger canapee.

Prawn two firings.

Tomato tartar with frozen cristal.

Clam cocktail.

abalone with iberian ham fat.

Hot strawberries with hare soup and game meat canapee.

Pond.

Cristal “coca”.

Coconut soup.

Box.

El Bulli, Cala Montjoi, 17480 Roses, Spain


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Mugaritz

It’s pretty hard not to love San Sebastien in September. The weather is nice, the people are beautiful and the food amazing. Even after a late night consuming beer and tapas in the old town I was in a good mood the next morning during the 20min taxi trip to restaurant Mugaritz.

Mugaritz is rated the 5th best restaurant in the world according to san pelligrino’s top 50 restaurants. T tells me they were ranked 4th, and the one place drop may be the result of a fire which destroyed the kitchen earlier this year.

In the taxi I discussed with J & T how the San Pellegrino’s 5th best restaurant in the world can have only 2 Michelin stars. Furthermore how the San Pellegrino’s 11th best restaurant can have no Michelin stars. Looking at each of the ratings you’d have to conclude the san pelligrino rating is more focused on interesting experimental cooking. Where the Michelin guide prefers the tradition fine dining experience. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The restaurant’s setting is peaceful; surrounded by green hills with a semi rural feel. We are seated and served snacks in the courtyard which consisted of a mandarin juice with thyme and lime and mugartiz’s signature dish edible rocks (potatoes covered with ceramic). Both interesting with different flavours preparing the palette for what was to come.

We are taken into the kitchen to meet the head chef who explained the 8 and 12 course menus. We are given the opportunity to select dishes from each menu if we wish. We decline the opportunity to select our own and ask the chef to select dishes for a 12 course menu specifically for us.

The dinning area is modern and spacious with a minimalist avant garde feel as a result of creative table ornaments made from plates. As we sit down two small envelopes are put infront of each dinner. I’m not sure as to the meaning of what was written on and in each envelope but it created conversation and gave a greater sense of occasion.

Squid and squid ink salad. The perfect light, refreshing starter with good texture in the squid.

Duck tongue salad. Unusual but very nice, the tongue is like pork crackling.

Tomato salad.

Raw and roasted vegetables. This was the perfect mix of vegetable flavours.

Cod in pine nut cream. The cod is very sticky and the sauce quite heavy with a rich flavour.

Bread and crab stew. This dish is quite light, enjoyable flavour, maybe on the blander side however.

Razor clam, black bean and cinnamon. This dish looked fantastic although didn’t quite work, the clams were overpowering and the cinnamon hard to detect.

Bonito, chamomile and herb broth. Wonderful mix of flavours, this is one of my favourites.

Duck loin and summer truffle. The Duck was delicious, however summer truffle is subtle in flavour and didn’t always come through to compliment the duck.

Iberian pork tails, langoustine tail, iberian jamon. Rich flavours and differing textures in the tails and jamon worked well with the perfectly cooked langoustine. This dish was my favourite.

4 month old veal. After we finished the previous dish a waiter asked how we were feeling and if we could do more courses before the desserts. How could you refuse…

Cheese and apple

White crystal, ganache, kaffir lime. Very interesting dessert.

Chamomile ice cream, caco nectar, candied fruits. This dish was also a favourite. I’m a fan of chamomile and I felt it was an interesting mix with the caco which worked.

otzazulueta basserria. aldura aldea 20 zk. errenteria 20100, San Sebastian – Donostia, Spain


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HEL YES!

To be honest, when I heard from my friends in advertising, about a pop up Finnish restaurant incorporating Finnish food and design as a part of the London Design Festival I wasn’t overly interested. What do I know about Finnish cuisine? No alot. What do I know about Finnish design? Even less than not alot.

To pass the time I had a look at their website, and I have to say the images of their food and dining space looked pretty cool. Ok, so now I was interested, time to make a booking. What! Booked out! That’s right, every dinner slot had been taken during the restaurants 2 week stint. Whatever. It’d be full of advertising people pretending to be designers anyway. Pfff.

I was lucky to get an invite (thanks to S) and I was impressed with their minimalist yet detailed setup. On the approach to the transformed warehouse, lights from image projectors escape out of the front door, which gives one the feeling of turning up to a rave, minus the muffled throbbing bass.

As stated on their website, “HEL YES! is a temporary restaurant and exhibition imagined and realised by a creative team of Finnish designers and food visionaries; led by Antto Melasniemi together with Mia Wallenius and Klaus Haapaniemi. HEL YES! will be unveiled 15 September 2010 in a former depot in East London. For 14 days it will serve as a melting pot of people and ideas during London Design Festival.”

The cocktail I had to start involved two glasses; one with strong clear alcohol which I think was an infused vodka with fresh thyme sticking out of the top. The other with beetroot juice which acted like a cleansing chaser. It worked, I liked it.

25€ for three courses. I had the sea bass tartare with archipelago bread. This worked well, good quality fish, dark bread and baby raddish.

For main I had the Lamb neck, which had been slow cooked to perfection, sitting on top of a stewed vegetables. Vegetables cooked perfectly and the right amount of sauce. Again liked it alot.

I had the liquorice crème brûlée for dessert, which was more of a custard with a very mild hint of liquorice, still delicious.

We were fortunate enough to be able to bring our own wine thanks to S’s wine connections (Paul Bara Champagne 2004 Rose & Remoissenet Pere & Fils 1978 Volny) both went very well with the food. The wine list at HEL YES! is short and simple with enjoyable wines however has hefty mark ups. An £8.70 bottle retail was £25 at the table.

In short, loved it. Great food, space and atmosphere. If only there were more of these in London.

LONDONEWCASTLE DEPOT, 1-3 WENLOCK ROAD, N1 7SL

15.9. – 3.10.2010



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San Sebastian Tapas

“This is amazing (repeat)…”

“Get at least one of everything, ok.”

This was my response to A, my Basque mate who is from San Sebastian, who just asked me what I’d like to eat on my first visit to a San Sebastian tapas bar.

The main reason for a recent quick trip to San Sebastian was to eat at Mugaritz (San Pellegrino’s 5th best restaurant in the world). However one thing I was looking forward to was the famous tapas bars of the old city.

Salmon, octypus, scallops, jamon, tortilla, peppers wrapped in anchovies, garlic mushrooms etc… And the traditional Basque dishes like Txangurro (shredded spider crab), Tolosa beens, sheep cheeses and lots of hot red and green peppers.

Some places went for more modern presentations like this scallop in cream sauce and ox cheek.

As an outsider to the Basque and Spanish food culture you have to admire it. Bars that serve fresh good quality produce in small portions that can be a meal or a snack are the way forward in my opinion. Beer and wine are of course available though the focus is on the food. A specific attempt to recreate this in Mayfair, London pales in comparison due to its over branded fast food style food and service. Anyway more of that later still blissing out to to the tapas bars of San Sebastian.

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Restaurant: Auberge De l’Ill

A reason as good as any for a recent trip to France was to visit the famous Auberge De l’ill restaurant in Illhaeusern, Alsace.

The restaurant, which was called L’Arbre Vert, has been on the site since 1878. The building, along with the nearby bridge was bombed and consequently destroyed in World War II. Brothers Paul and Jean-Pierre Haeberlin rebuilt on the site and renamed the restaurant Auberge D’Ill, after the nearby river.

Paul, the first male head chef since 1878, attained the first Michelin star in 1954, the second in 1962 and the third in 1967 which has been maintained since. Paul passed away in May 2008 with his son Marc already in charge of the kitchen as head chef.

The restaurants’ setting is about as good as it gets, picturesque French village, willow trees hanging over a narrow fast flowing river with manicured grounds. The dining areas are well presented and refreshingly not clean cut modern minimalism; maybe this is the work of Jean-Pierre who is a decorative artist by training.

It was a Saturday lunch and the 3 sections of the dining area were all full with diners, in what I would call formal wear. Our group by far the most underdressed, which was embarrassing considering all of my companions were French, of which two local to Alsace. 

The staff were a highlight, professional, always attentive however relaxed. One thing I like about France is that restaurant table service is a profession and therefore a role waitors take pride in. And on request the waitors were happy to give us a tour of the kitchen post service. You also get the feel this is still very much a family business, during our visit Jean-Pierre roamed the dining area geeting and chatting with guests (and posing for a photo with a pretty stoked Australian).

For the most part the food at Auberge D’Ill is not modern haute cusine or more fashionably molecular gastronomy. It’s traditional; I’ve read that some dishes on the menu have hardly changed in 30 years. Although with no English menus most of the dishes had to be translated to me by my French companions.

 

The first appetiser was a piece each of eel, cheese stick and a sort of buttery puff pastry. This was quickly followed by the second appetiser which was a delicate piece of mackerel on a herb jelly and some crème fraiche.

This dish gave me more of a clue on what three Michelin star dining was like. Not only is it executing each part of the dish well, it’s incorporating a greater number of flavoures and ingredients to a dish to give the dish more complexity while also maintaining harmony between the flavours.

As soon as I say that the next dish (1st entrée) bins my above theory. La terrine de foie gras d’oie (foie gras terrine with port jelly). But hey, if there is one food you can have by itself (or with one other ingredient) it’s foie gras. Auberge D’Ill are so keen on their foie gras terrine you can purchase take away portions. It was wonderful foie gras with a noticeably high percentage of liver in the terrine.

The foie gras was followed by le filet de bar cuit a la vapeur sur un risotto aux supions oeufs de poissons volants parfumes au wasabi (sea bass steamed in a risotto of baby squid and cuttlefish eggs perfumed with wasabi flying fish roe and Hawaiian volcanic sea salt). In my opinion this dish was cooking of the highest order. Every ingredient was perfect and nothing was out of place.

After a stroll outside, to view the river and garden, and to try and walk off previous courses in the aim of freeing some space in the upper stomach, the main had arrived. la noix de ris de veau en viennoise doree, aux asperges et morilles fraiches (Calf sweetbreads gilded in viennoise with fresh aparagus and morels). Sweatbreads or ‘ris’ is the thyroid or throat gland usually from a lamb or calf, however beef and pork are also used.

On first impressions the dish looked inviting yet slightly old fashioned. It was well presented although didn’t have the swishes of sauces at ornate angles on a plate 3 sizes too big, just like I was used to. The sweatbread was tender and a little spongy with a unique flavour quite different to other offal. I can see where the sweat part of the name comes from as the flavour wasn’t as savoury as some meat and offal.

Considering we are in France les fromages (cheese) course comes next, via a well stacked trolley, where for me the highlight was the local munster variety.

By this stage the endorphins had taken over my brain and I wasn’t too sure of what was going on. I do however remember dessert being pink le macarre a la rhubarbe sur une crème cruite a la vanilla de tahiti sorbet fraise perfume au poivre de sechan (macarre with rhubarb cream and Cruit with Tahitian vanilla strawberry sorbet perfumed with sechan pepper) and petit fours being rich.

From start to finish the experience was memorable and was one of the most enjoyable restaurant meals I’ve had. Some may find the food a little dated, but for the purists it was executed perfectly.

L’Auberge de L’Ill
2, rue de Collonges au Mont d’Or 68970

Illhaeusern Alsace 
France 

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Grower Champagne

I like champagne. And I like grower champagne even more. So when S asked me to come and try some new stuff I was fairly excited. S and D had returned from champagne with a bunch of samples from different producers to see if any would be suitable for import. Why they asked someone with such an unrefined champagne palette like my own along I am not too sure, but there was no way I was declining this invitation.

Grower champagne is essentially a wine made by an estate that owns the vineyards from where the grapes are from, and abides by the rules of the champagne appellation. For example: is Moet & Chandon a grower champagne? No it’s not, because Moet & Chandon source the majority of their grapes from vineyards owned by other estates.

Grower champagne is generally produced from smaller vineyards and the person who makes the wines also grows the grapes. What can make these wines special is they display specific characteristics of their own terroir. The wines show personality, in other words.

The first clue to a grower champagne is the letters RM (Récoltant manipulant) will appear on the label (usually very small text at the bottom of the label). This means the grower makes the wines from there own grapes. Keep in mind under this RM classification a maximum of 5% of grapes can be purchased from other estates.

While I would have liked to produce a detailed list of the wines with informative tasting notes, I was far too relaxed drinking bottles of unique grower champagne with friends. I will say this, all of these wines showed difference, personality and uniqueness I have not experienced in entry level grand marques champagnes. Does this mean they are better quality wines? I’m not sure, I just prefer them.

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Supper Club: Fernandez & Leluu

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