First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to come onto Laissez Fare and share your dining experience with us.
As some readers may have already deduced, you are none other than the ‘Dr. J’ who cooked up a storm a while back at your home for moi, Mrs. LF and a bunch of other friends. So your culinary prowess precedes you :).
What readers may not know is that you have a very large appendage – by which I mean camera – that you carry around with you most places, and have been known to take a spectacular snap in your time. So, I am very happy to post your photos of this modern-day temple to gastronomy below, although I understand that they were taken with a rather smaller member than that which you usually carry. However, despite this appended appendage, there are still some great shots.
But first, let’s play 20 questions!
1. Before we get down to the nitty gritty, can you tell us a bit about who the Phantom Medic is and what makes you tick, tock, balk?
- A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away…I’m not going to keep that one up, am I? Well, I am a doctor who turned to the dark side of medicine about 10 years ago (I’m only private now). I lead a team of specialists in a private clinic and our very generous patients often take us out to fantastic places to eat. And so my love of restaurants began. Apart from eating, I love climbing mountains and my big orange cat – all evil world-dominating mad geniuses have one, so why can’t I?
2. So, how the hell did you land a table at El Bulli in the first place? Did you have to use Jedi mind tricks? Who did you dine with?
- Well, one of the Phantom’s patients called and said, “Phantom, what are you doing on Thursday?” I said, “Well, nothing much.” And he said, “Meet me in Barcelona, in the morning sometime.” I asked, “What are we doing there?” He said, “We’re going to have dinner.” I said, “Where?” He said, “Somewhere yummy,” and that was that. I think his new girlfriend had cancelled on him for that evening, and he owed me dinner, so there you go.
3. If you were writing a twitterish–length review of the overall experience, what would it say?
- Experience is sometimes a place, sometimes a film, sometimes a big event. But never before for me has a truly great experience appeared in my mouth. It wasn’t a meal, it was a milestone.
4. Speaking of twitter, I hear something rather unexpected happened while you were there, thanks to the ever-increasing influence of social media?
- Well, yes indeed. Upon entering the humble interior of El Bulli, a stunningly dressed woman caught my eye as she was enjoying what looked like a balloon of white chocolate. For her, El Bulli was already underway. I thought nothing much of it, turned and took my seat and soon our own show began. As every course manifested – not only with what it was, but with how to eat it – I sent messages via text to you (Laissez Fare), partly in my excitement and, of course, to generate sufficient envy as I know it is you who should have rightly been in my place. But hey, do not underestimate the power of the dark side. So, at course 29 (or thereabouts), I heard a shriek from the unexpectedly animated table behind us that had previously caught my attention. I saw glee emanating from the two diners who were ogling a chest of drawers that revealed a chocolate paradise that they were photographing intently before the final assault. One of the women suddenly turned towards me, lifted her head, and said, “I am a chocolate blogger, that’s why I’m so excited.” She then said, “Can I ask you a question…? Are you Dr. J?” Flabbergasted, I said, “Uhh, yes,” wondering how on earth anyone could know who I was inside some random Northern Spanish region at the end of a single-tracked path. It turned out that you had been tweeting my texts, that @chocolateguide was following your tweets and she couldn’t believe that you were there in ethereal presence, sending one of your drones in place of yourself. So that is the power of the internet. Me texting you, you tweeting me, followed by her (who follows you), who’s looking for me, who didn’t see, and then a shriek, and then she saw. And there we were.
5. What was the most memorable thing you ate out of your 30-something courses?
- By far, the olive. A mercury-like visual consistency, kind of wobbly, clearly not an olive, but deceptively olive-like when sitting still. The instructions were to place the olive in your mouth; that was all. I lifted this weird oil-wrapped ‘olive’ into my mouth and the simple pressure between tongue and palate made it burst open, the shell dissolving, and the full essence of thirty olives consumed me. It’s like a word just shouts in your brain, “O. L. I. V. E.” It was weird; I’ve never heard fruit speak to me. Mechanically incredible. Extraordinary.
6. What was one thing that really didn’t work for you on any level, if any?
- Look, out of the 35 courses that the 8,000 people who visit this place every year will taste, by the law of averages, no one will like every single course. In fact, I was extremely surprised that I so deeply enjoyed the taste and didn’t “morally object to” the surreal courses that came our way. Almost every course was not only extraordinary and palatable, but has ingrained a memory in me that few entire meals ever have. The only thing that didn’t work for me was a magnificently crafted ‘black strawberry’. I don’t know, it just didn’t work, dude.
- The other equally interesting bit was when the Maître d’ asked if we were allergic to any foods before we began. We said no. Then he said, in a slightly more sinister tone, “Are you allergic…to anything?” WTF?! And then, he said, “Do you have any moral objections to anything?” by which I presumed he meant certain types of food (i.e. offal or worse) that some may find questionable. I replied, “No, as long as it’s consenting.” I don’t he think he understood.
7. What was the craziest thing you ate?
- I reckon the oyster leaf. A leaf that turned into an oyster. Uh, yeah.
8. What was the most interesting part of your evening?
- Well, being bamboozled by a cocktail of surreal gustatory delight, and the power of twitter.
9. How long were you there for all in all – did you get bored at any point?
- C’mon, bored? I left at 4am on Thursday and arrived at home at 8pm on the following day. There was not much time for boredom. Incidentally, the restaurant at the hotel we stayed at, Mas Pau, whose head chefs are apprentices of Adrià, would rate in London as a top-10 dining destination.
10. What’s the overall vibe? For being the so-called best restaurant in the world, was it stuffy, relaxed, or a bit of both? Was the service good overall? Clinical? Theatrical?
- It was definitely serious, but not stuffy. You walk in and they take you to the kitchen. If the plethora of silent machines were not clothed but naked, the gleaming aluminium worktops and military precision could well have been mistaken for a coke factory. To the left, there was a hot room, where hot stuff was being made, and opposite, what must have been an extremely cold room with dry ice, like clouds of frosty air, billowing from the door frame. And that was even before we sat down…it was also a nice bit of theater to shake Adrià’s hand even before we ate. The waiters were very attentive and friendly, but it was weird. The place felt more like a relaxed North London trattoria, or a Greek place like Vrisaki (which is pretty good, by the way), but had none of the airs and graces of a 3-star joint, and I liked that.
11. Did you get full, or was each course small enough that you didn’t need to make your excuses halfway through, hurl everything up in the bathroom, and re-emerge ready to tackle your next 15-odd courses?
- So here’s the thing. You try eating 30 mouthfuls of everything and you’ll get pretty full. And not everything was a ‘mouthful’; some were little plates of food. So, yes, there is no question, if you can stomach everything, you will be stuffed by the end. However, the total running time for the show was near enough five hours – that’s normally the distance between my lunch and dinner. So everything sort of flowed kind of at the same pace as my digestive track…let’s leave it at that.
12. Was the food just ‘interesting’ (i.e. made for the people of Tatooine) or did you actually really enjoy the cooking? Is this the kind of food you’d love to have every week or every month, or just once in a blue moon?
- Honestly, some things are only special because they happen the once, or perhaps the first time is always the best. If it was my last meal, then no, I know exactly where I’d want to eat my final fillet steak…and that is for another guest blog entry on Laissez Fare…but I feel seriously privileged to have tasted something the once that is like what I guess a classic symphony is in the world of music. I think my definition of food has changed; it’s not food as you know it here. It’s art that you can see and touch and taste. As a doctor, I’m dubious as to the nutritional value of the food, but that’s the very last thing you think about at this place. I normally consider it a bonus if the food is good for you at other amazing restaurants I’ve been to, but that just didn’t matter here. I suspect one might start looking a bit like Alexander Litvinenko in his final days after his small but rather fatal dose of Polonium 210 if they ate at El Bulli often. No, that’s not fair, the food was no doubt of the utmost quality, but would you go to Dali’s museum every year? More than that would be an overdose for me…decadent.
13. One thing I always wondered about El Bulli is what recommendations they make for wine. Given all of the weird and wonderful culinary concoctions they serve, what did they suggest you do for drink, and what did you do? I assume you didn’t just opt for a pint of accarrgm?
- As the founder of Sarment Wine was with us, I assumed he would know a thing or two about fermented grape juice, but the menu we had that day was very weighted towards foods that lent themselves to whites and we too readily went red, in my humble opinion. That might have seriously put a spanner in the works in many other meals, but quite honestly, the wine was totally surpassed by what we saw, handled and tasted. The Pinot Gris at the end (Trimbach 2000), was exceptional, I have to say.
14. How do you feel now that Adrià is closing/evolving El Bulli into something else from 2012?
- His insignificant rebellion will soon be crushed.
- Refer to above commentary, Laissez Fare. There were something like 40 or 50 R2-D2s, none of them said a word. It was like Attack of the Clones, except everyone was nice.
16. This may be a bit sensitive, but how much did it cost all-in-all?
- I would say to allow £1,000 for the 38 hours door-to-door, bells and whistles included (i.e. flight from London, hotel, wine, etc.).
17. Did you do anything else in the area around El Bulli? Is it a nice part of Spain?
- Surreal is the operative word, however clichéd. Catalonia oozes oddness. It seeps from the brickwork to the paintings and, in El Bulli, to the food too. The following morning we went to the Dali museum. It was twenty years almost to the day since I’d been there. I left dizzy, bamboozled, amazed. Just like I did those years ago, and the same as I felt the day before at the restaurant. There is a weird congruity between the artists, maybe something in the Catalan air.
18. How would you advise someone to prepare for El Bulli?
- I guess I’d love it if everyone that went to El Bulli could be as surprised as I was, hearing that I would be going just a couple of days before, and knowing that I would never have made it by going through the X-year waiting list. I’d recommend not over-planning El Bulli and waiting for serendipity. But then again, if everyone did that, then no one would go.
- Well, look. The table sitting next to us had been bought on auction by four bankers for charity for $17,000. A couple of weeks earlier, Roman Abromivich et al had been turned away at the door: he hadn’t booked. Adrià must be doing something right. I don’t think it’s all just hard work; there is a serious stroke of genius there. The force is strong with this one.
20. And finally, if El Bulli were one of the Star Wars films, which one would it be and why?
- Hmm. Well, I’d say it was A New Hope, then the Fat Duck and others appeared, and then the Empire Struck Back, raising the bar yet again. I guess with its ‘closure’ / ‘transformation’, we can only wait for The Return of the Jedi.
If you would like to see the full El Bulli menu, the Phantom Medic has compiled a short video below, humming Star Wars music in the background…
…Now, please enjoy some more the good doctor’s photos, in no particular order. If you wish to clone them, please ask me for the Phantom Medic’s permission, otherwise a war on your hands you might have.