A Culinary History Lesson: next elBulli

Weeks have gone by and I’m still in awe. Months of anticipation, weeks following a Facebook page (what an age we live in…), hours of waiting for a single email, for what? Five hours of absolute perfection? Yes.

It seemed like fate, getting season tickets that is, as we were sitting in the Gene Siskel Theater waiting for Cooking in Progress to start. Somehow, in the good graces of [insert ideological figure], we got the email to buy tickets. With a phone, yes a phone, we managed to miss half of the elBulli movie to score a four top for the year at Next. Fate. Destiny. Whatever you call it, it made watching that movie all the more better.

But what is one supposed to expect going to a restaurant paying homage to an innovator, an international culinary superstar, a 3-star Michelin restaurant acknowledged as the world’s greatest of all time? Huge shoes to fill…but hey, what Next is aiming for is not to replicate Ferran Adria and elBulli. Instead, Chef Achatz and Chef Beran put on a history lesson, with 29 carefully selected artifacts on display, a fantastic faculty of teachers, and yes, a quiz.

When experiencing Next elBulli, patrons are offered two 21+ drink options: strictly vino or a mixed bag of tricks. Having had the opportunity to taste what Next can do with beverages, our table opted for the eclectic option, which included wines, a chemistry set for a DIY stab at mixology, beers, and coffee (with a gelatinous shot). Pairings were phenomenal and plentiful. Rumor has it the non-alcohol pairings are awesome. I can attest to the magic of the mixologists and the NA drinks. Your taste buds will go crazy. (shameless name plug…)

But what about the food? Flavors are representative of Catalonia, with seafood and salt shining bright. But the beauty behind Chef Adria’s cuisine lies in the creation of the dish. The team at Next collaborated with elBulli, obtaining original recipes for this menu. What was originally planned as a celebrated regression of dishes wound up evolving into a highlight reel of innovative dishes that changed the international culinary scene.

The evening consists of 29 mostly single-bite dishes, though some were a little heavier than others. Next’s elBulli experience begins with a nitro caipirinha with tarragon concentrate, an edible cocktail served in a hollowed lime on a bed of salt.

Following the caipirinha is the hot/cold trout roe tempura, then a trio of courses, which include the coca of avocado pear, anchovies, and green onion, iberico “sandwich,” and the infamous spherical olives. The airiness of the sandwich bread in conjunction with the thinly sliced iberico ham was absolutely perfect. The spherical olives, if you’re unfamiliar, are created through reverse spherification, a molecular gastronomy technique, and are encapsulated in a very delicate casing. They should be taken in a single slurp, otherwise you’ll ruin a shirt.

The fun definitely didn’t end there, as courses like the golden egg, black sesame spongecake and miso, chicken liquid croquettes, and smoke foam followed. But what might have been the most intriguing and thought-provoking dish of the night was light as air: the carrot air with coconut milk. This is the dish that put Chef Adria on the international culinary map. It is time-sensitive, as the air turns to liquid after a few minutes. Served in curved bowls from elBulli by way of an Austrian collector, the air is interestingly flavorful. It has an intense carrot taste, but is complemented well by the coconut milk.

Among the larger dishes are the cauliflower cous-cous with solid aromatic herb sauce, red mullet gaudi, and the civet of rabbit with hot apple jelly. The cous-cous was a hit at the table, and had us talking about the concept of a solid sauce. The red mullet gaudi, a small red fish, is eloquently served atop a hot waterbed reminiscent of the sea. Served with onions, red/green peppers, and tomato, the fish was so delicate and tasteful. The civet of rabbit with hot apple jelly was easily one of the surprise favorites, at least in my opinion. I haven’t had rabbit too many times, but this stew was very good. At first, I thought the apple jelly was out of place. But silly me, who am I to second guess the culinary genius of Chef Adria, or the Next team? The sweetness complemented the flavors of the civet very well.

As the menu progressed, naturally, Chef Albert Adria had to shine. The desserts presented in this menu held back no punches. Kicking off the end of this monumental meal was the idolized gorgonzola balloon, which was intense and impossible to finish. It’s just huge, and if you don’t eat it quick enough, it starts to melt. Following the giant cheese ball was a foie gras caramel custard, which was surprisingly very good. It was very sweet, with a subtle foie gras taste. And then there was the quiz…a gelatin-filled bowl with twelve unnamed spices. Your job, as part of the experience, is to identify the flavors in a clockwise fashion. Your prize? The satisfaction of having a good palate. How’d the four of us do? One perfect paper, though I mixed up two spices. Shucks.

What followed was a palate cleanser, then desserts so sweet your girlfriend would leave you. The mint pond (a thin sheet of ice), dusted with brown sugar, mint, and powdered green tea, was the perfect neutralizer, and required a little elbow grease to crack. Who would’ve thought eating ice could be so cool?

Chocolate reigned supreme as the evening came to an end. Chocolate in textures was so rich that it came with gold…paper. It was dense, creamy, and crunchy all in the same dessert. The chocolate donuts were actually freeze-dried coconut rounds dipped in a dark chocolate. These bad boys burst with flavor, literally. To conclude the evening, hands were waving farewell. And as a last surprise, under the hands were passionfruit marshmallows, a wonderful way to end the experience.

Was it worth it? Honestly, yes. It was worth the time, stress, money, everything. When will I ever be able to eat at elBulli? Never. But what Chef Achatz, Chef Beran, and the team at Next have done is the next best thing. With the blessing from the man himself, arguably the best new restaurant in the country has shown the evolution of modern cuisine. What’s even more impressive is that they’ll reconcept in a couple months. How many executive chefs/chef de cuisines can do that and maintain such a high standard? Very few. And that’s why I thank you for the experience, Chef Achatz and Chef Beran. See you guys soon.

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One thought on “A Culinary History Lesson: next elBulli

  1. Pingback: Next: Sicily, Hampered By Its Success | The Taste Buds

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