First of all, let me say that if my mom is reading this, and I’m sure she is (Hi, Mom), she is one of many who think I am certifiably crazy as a mad bat, for having done this, but I did it. I ate at Next last Wednesday, Feb. 22, succumbing to the undeniable and almost out-of-control allure of the El Bulli menu. Yes, it was expensive. Crazy-expensive. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars. But it was hands-down the most amazing food experience I’ve ever had. The creativity, the imagination, the “think outside the plate” concepts absolutely blew me away. I sum it up in four words: inspiring, magical, fun and absolutely delicious. Also, a little drunken.
If you’re not familiar with Next, visit their Facebook page. The entire menu changes every few months, and the current menu, which started in early February, is an homage to the famous El Bulli, in Roses, Spain, where chef Ferran Adria broke barriers like no one else. El Bulli closed in July 2010, so Chef Grant Achatz and Chef Dave Berans of Next decided to recreate the experience, Next-style. Along with the amazingly crafted food and the wine pairings, I have to say the staff at Next is simply amazing. The atmosphere is fun, the servers look like they are really enjoying bringing this experience to diners and they know everything about every dish, every wine — they’re amazing. And nice as can be!
Now, I’m not a football fan, a Hollywood actress or a politician, but this was like the Super Bowl, The Academy Awards and the presidential elections of dining all rolled into one amazing 5 and 1/2 hour evening. Behold the “Carrot Air:”
Yes, it looks like a brilliant orange bubble bath – but it was the purest, most intense carrot flavor EVER! The combo of the light, airy foam and the flavor and the aroma was just amazing. Definitely in my top five dishes. Of the 29 courses. Yes, 29. But some are just literally one bite, like these:
Clockwise from top left: trout roe tempura, a quail egg in a “toffee” shell, liquid chicken croquettes and El Bulli’s famous “spherical olive:” a molecular gastronomy first, with olive brine and oil magically (yes, magically!) transformed into a liquid-y slurp of briny olive goodness!
And how can you not love a black sesame sponge cake with miso? “What?” you say? Yes – it’s sweet, it’s black, it’s shaggy-looking, it’s salty from the creamy miso and it looks like it was made by a Muppet chef. And it was delicious.
OK, onward. Here you have some of the more substantial courses.
From top left, clockwise: savory tomato ice on almond milk custard, cauliflower “cous cous” surrounded by a ring of ingredients that you mix together as a sauce (peanuts, Campari gelee, I don’t even know what all, but it was damn good), shrimp “bisque” (my description, not theirs) and get ready – because it sounds gross, but it was amazing– hot crab aspic with mini-corn cous cous. Deeelicious.
Okay, ready for more? Here it comes…
From top left, clockwise: Trumpet mushroom carpaccio, Red Mullet “Gaudi” (a bite), Nasturium with eel, bone marrow and sweet cucumber. Sigh. That red mullet was served on a sheet of glass, which was placed onto a “place mat” that was a big bag full of hot water and sea shells. Shut up. So clever!
Okay, by now we had quite a few wine glasses on our table:
All told, I think there were about a dozen different wines, all of them fabulous.
And then there was the civet of rabbit with hot apple jelly:
And here was the one thing that I did not care for, since I am (inexplicably) a life-long blue-cheese hater.
And now for the finale! Sweets!
Top left was the Mint Pond – a giant glass plate with another “plate” of ice perched on top. They sprinkled on dried mint and two other things (sorry, I’d hate rather a lot of wine at this point) and then you smacked it with your spoon into shards. And ate it! Fun! Then came tiny chocolate donuts, filled with liquified coconut, a chocolate plate with gold leaf, cafe Cortado with a tequila gelee you dropped into your cup and finally, a whimsical plate of gloves waving goodbye. Under one was a dish of passionfruit marshmallows. Sigh.
If you want to go to Next, my suggestion is to join their Facebook communty; they offer same-night and next-night tables and you have to act fast, but it can be done. The way I went was through a new friend I met on the Facebook page last June, looking for two people to share her four-top for the Paris 1906 menu. She needed to fill her table for this one, so we made it happen! The El Bulli menu runs through May and will be followed by menus inspired by Kyoto and Sicily. (The other menus are considerably less expensive than the El Bulli menu.)
Yes, it’s expensive and excessive in every way, but to a food-freak like me – and many others – it is a simply unforgettable experience. I’m an official Next groupie at this point.