Out on the patio, overlooking the bay, tapas were being served, along with frosty magnums of golden ’73 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque. Youthful, mostly male waiters wearing black Nehru jackets brought us airy baguettes surrounded by twirls of ham, and something called a “tomato cookie,” flecked with gold leaf, which melted into the sweet, almost cherrylike essence of tomatoes when you put it on your tongue. I exchanged pleasantries with the Japanese dandy, who was dressed for the event in flowing, aqua-colored robes, and talked to someone who had glimpsed a famed Spanish gourmand who is reputed to have dined at El Bulli more than 300 times.
Inside the surprisingly cozy, raftered restaurant, place cards were arranged at the linen-covered tables, each of which was set with rows of wavy white plates. I sat with an announcer from a global TV network and a pink-cheeked restaurant critic from Switzerland, who would insist on photographing every one of our courses with an ancient Nikon camera fitted with a protruding telephoto lens.
The first things out of the kitchen were Adrià’s famous deconstructed cocktails, the best of which was an airy, lemony gin fizz served with the chef’s legendary “spherical olives,” which wobbled on little spoons like tiny green egg yolks and exploded (as many IAAEB pieces have dutifully noted) in a wash of distilled, salty, perfectly balanced olive flavors when you popped it with your teeth.
Next came a salvo of umami-rich creations designed to wake up the palate, the highlight of which was the glowing, cream-colored “Gorgonzola Balloon,” which was smooth and perfectly round and slightly larger than a very large ostrich egg. As the waiter hoisted the orb to the table, the assembled gastronomes pawed and peered at it, looking, it later occurred to me, like those apes in the famous Kubrick movie when the humming obelisk appears in their midst from outer space. The dish tasted, not unpleasantly, like cheese-flavored eggnog, and melted away to nothing if you held it in your fingers for too long. “It’s a miracle,” whispered one of the gastronomes, his eyes rolling with ecstatic pleasure up into the back of his head.
“The whole El Bulli thing is like a fantasy. It’s the sanctum sanctorum. It’s the ungettable get.”
After that there was a translucent crystal wafer called an olive-oil “chip,” a sheet of white spun-sugar “paper” dappled here and there with peppery-tasting wildflowers the color of butterfly wings, and Adrià’s famous “golden eggs” filled with quail yolks, which glittered and flashed as people took pictures of them. The highlights of the mid-course section of the meal were an ingeniously delicious bone-marrow “tartare” disguised as an oyster and served in a giant shell and a Styrofoam box full of fluffy, faintly bubbly shavings of “Parmesan frozen air” scattered with bits of chewy dried-fruit “muesli.”
A coil of translucent tagliatelle carbonara made with jellified squid was course No. 30, or maybe it was 42. We had begun to lose count. Many of the celebrity guests looked stunned. “I’m beginning to get a tummyache,” said the TV announcer. But the professionals at the table soldiered on. I have dim memories of being served a perfect, softly crisped Chinese-style prawn, an ingeniously deconstructed frozen white-almond gazpacho, and a bracing, mentholated amuse-gueule dessert consisting of a smooth scrim of ice dusted with sugar and mint (simply called “Pond” on the autographed menu that we would receive later), which you cracked with your spoon.
Sometime before midnight, one of the ladies from Dom Pérignon abandoned the seat next to me to go talk to Heather Graham. Elsewhere around the room, people were circulating among the tables, swapping stories like guests at the end of a long, boozy wedding reception. “With Ferran, it’s got to be a long night, that’s part of the game,” said Geoffroy. He didn’t know precisely how many courses we’d consumed in the end. “Maybe 51, maybe 52. You’re allowed to skip a few,” he said. The critic from Switzerland stumbled by, fiddling with his giant Nikon. “This is the best restaurant in the world,” he said, his cheeks flushed with Champagne, “if you only have to eat here once every three years.”
Was this the greatest meal of our lives? We pondered this weighty question, my colleagues and I, as we stood outside on the patio. The air was filled with the smell of eucalyptus and you could hear the faint sounds of waves rising up from the bay. “It was certainly the most interesting,” someone said, which was true. Adrià’s dinners aren’t really dinners at all. They are elaborate, even exhausting, magic shows, filled with all kinds of dizzying, indulgent, and, in many cases, miraculous culinary special effects. In terms of range, technique, and creative stamina, none of us grizzled culinary veterans could remember anything quite like this meal. The Japanese dandy had apparently broken down in tears of joy in the middle of his dinner. The Spanish gourmand had declared his LSAEB to be a grand success before leaving early to catch a plane to China in the morning. Another critic had been seen licking the last drops of Adrià’s gazpacho off his plate, a dish, along with ten or fifteen others on the menu, that was quite possibly one of the most delicious things I’d ever tasted.