Tip Sheet: El Bulli
Each year, two million people (that’s about the population of Las Vegas) vie for a coveted 7,000 reservations at El Bulli (pronounced “el•boo•yee”).
From June to December, the Michelin three-star El Bulli serves 45 diners [in a single seating], five nights a week. (The restaurant is closed on Sundays and Mondays). There are also a few lunch services in the fall and winter. During each service, there are 40 chefs in the kitchen, 18 waitstaff, and two sommeliers. The restaurant is closed for the rest of the year so Adrià and his team can conjure new dishes in their Barcelona test kitchen.
The drive from Barcelona to Roses, the closest town to El Bulli, takes about two hours (mostly a straight shot on the A7 autopista). Plan on staying overnight: dinner usually ends after 2 a.m. We chose the Almadraba Park Hotel, with views of the lovely Bay of Roses, and a sweet beachside restaurant where we had a light pre-Bulli lunch.
Here’s Freddy, one of the two sommeliers. Our favorite wine of the night: a white 2008 Plou I Fa Sol ($55) named after a famous nursery rhyme whose limited production of 300 bottles per year goes entirely to El Bulli.
Even if you don’t plan to drink (which would be a shame because the wine list is surprisingly affordable and chockful of wines you can’t get anywhere else), it’s a good idea to take a taxi to and from the restaurant: the scenic, windy, five-mile ride from Roses costs a hefty $50 each way. Take cash; drivers don’t accept credit cards.
El Bulli started life as a mini golf establishment in 1961, named for the owners’ French bulldogs. The name stuck.
Make sure to arrive early for your reservation. El Bulli’s setting on a small bay lined with cedars and cypress trees is charming and quintessentially Costa Brava. And you don’t want to miss a pre-dinner cocktail made with de-oxygenated ice cubes and house-made mixers such as carbonated limonada. From your perch on the terrace you may see fellow diners arriving by yacht—the restaurant’s website offers UTM coordinates for boaters.
Surprisingly, dinner at the Greatest Restaurant in the World won’t cost you an arm and a leg: a set menu of 35 courses runs 230 Euros (approximately $320) per person—less than $10 per course, not including wine. Compared to the price tags at other vaunted restaurants—French Laundry in Yountville, Masa in New York, Alinea in Chicago, Tetsuya in Sydney—dinner at El Bulli is a terrific value. (It has been widely reported that the restaurant runs at a loss each year.)
Ask questions! The waiters are extraordinarily well informed, but are instructed to present each course using only a simple title, like “Abalone” or “Rose Frost” or “Yolks.” However, if asked, they are free to describe the components of the dish in detail. Please ask.
Our meal took six hours – but you have the table all night. Take breaks. Everyone does. A chef friend in Barcelona advises a trip to the terrace once an hour to stretch your legs and get a second, third, and fourth wind.
Sorry to offend pastry enthusiasts, but I’m not a dessert lover. Still, the sweet courses of our meal at El Bulli were some of the most inventive and memorable. And the tea service, complete with tableside snipping of verbena, chamomile, and lemon balm made me swoon.