Hard not be bullish on Spain's elBulli restaurant

DANIEL WOOLLS - Associated Press
This March 30, 2011 photo shows Spanish chef Ferran Adria during an interview with The Associated Press at his restaurant elBulli in Roses, Spain. The oft-imitated, modernist wizardry that Adria has pioneered for nearly 20 years in Spain's far northeastern tip has earned him fame, awards and the highest of honors.   (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
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This March 30, 2011 photo shows Spanish chef Ferran Adria during an interview with The Associated Press at his restaurant elBulli in Roses, Spain. The oft-imitated, modernist wizardry that Adria has pioneered for nearly 20 years in Spain's far northeastern tip has earned him fame, awards and the highest of honors.

Dinner began with a pillow and instructions on how to eat it.

It was a cloud-like blob, sort of folded around yellow chunks of something and white pellets of something else. I was flummoxed, and this was only the first course. Another 49 awaited me at Ferran Adria's restaurant elBulli, the Everest of haute cuisine.

"Just start pulling off pieces and eating them," waitress Lena Bernal, one of three servers pampering me, said as she flashed a reassuring smile. The menu called this item "pillow like a cocktail."

I picked at the mass and found it to have the consistency of cotton candy, only cold, and the chunks were freeze-dried pineapple. The pellets: rum frozen in liquid nitrogen. Altogether, a solid-state cocktail, a pina colada you can hold in your hand.

The second of three "welcoming cocktails" was not drinkable either: a mojito that looked like a small white baguette sandwich, made with a brittle meringue-like material, the boozy part a bright green paste spread between the slices.

"This one, you should eat in two or three bites," said Bernal.

I complied. It was great. A warm glow of relaxation started to sink in. Four hours of eating lie ahead.

Courses came and went at a quick and sometimes dizzying pace, always on chic dishes of silvery mesh or wavy metal or ceramic and never readily identifiable, and I did not shy from anything.

Not the small dish of goopy white shrimp brains with ginger Thai sauce that accompanied a single boiled prawn, or the tuna bone marrow, or the itty-bitty octopuses I poached in a black pot of scalding water, then dipped in green-gold olive oil, then in fire-red paprika.

Mixes you'd never think of in your wildest imagination tasted fantastic, like tender, delicate wontons stuffed with a mash of ham and rose petals imported from Ecuador (because of their particularly sweet aroma).

But 50 courses are 50 courses, and after a while I started to get punch drunk. My note-taking got sloppy.

After course No. 17 — or maybe it was No. 27, I can't remember — I was brought a plate holding a fuzzy white cylinder. My servers stood there, but gave no instructions. Mercifully, just as I was about to pick it up and bite it, I realized it was a towel for washing my hands.

Food, food and more fabulous food, that's what I was immersed in. After the cocktails, then things called snacks, there came thematic sequences based on Japanese cuisine, or Latin American cooking, or game meat, like hare (broth from it whipped into a cappuccino, or meat from it turned into slippery ravioli) and quail (tiny breasts with a spicy pickled carrot sauce).

Twice, I called for a time-out. But elBulli's clockwork precision required coordination with my servers.

"Eat this, and then that will be a good time for a rest," said another of my waiters, Mauricio Rodriguez. This would be somewhere in the mid-to-high 30s of my 50 dishes.

I went out to a courtyard and took a few deep breaths as I listened to the Mediterranean below. I was alone and tempted to run in place or do some push-ups for rejuvenation. But this seemed incompatible with a three-Michelin-star restaurant, even if nobody was watching.

There was a pre-dessert sequence, then a full-blown dessert sequence, the highlight of which was a crunchy, transparent tube made from a thin Japanese edible film called obulato. It was sweetened and wrapped around flowers like marigolds and begonias. It was pretty and tasted like biting into a spring garden.

The grande finale was something called simply the box: a large, dark reddish chest that was placed on my table with solemn fanfare. The top was removed and two shelves were pulled out from either side to reveal chocolates and other sweets of myriad shapes and colors.

I had a couple — more as a courtesy than anything, at this point. And as I got up to leave I expected to waddle out of there at least one belt-hole thicker in the gut. But actually I felt surprisingly light.