It was after the sea urchin cracker but before the blini filled with smoked cream—that much I remember. We were on our way from one room, where we stood around a translucent table and sipped tart cocktails that harmonized perfectly with an iodine-y oyster wrapped in daikon, to the plancha room, where the air crackled with the sizzle of a corn tamal hitting the heat.
The whole experience thus far—the illuminated ceilings that rippled like storm clouds, the astonishing array of dishes, the way that courses progressed in different rooms, each as mysterious as the last—had made dinner seem like a surrealist fever dream. So it was with something of a shock that I recognized the man, dressed in all black, standing at the pass as we glided through the kitchen. It was like finding Superman himself in his Fortress of Solitude. For a second I wasn’t sure if he was real. But it was Albert Adrià, all right. And as we talked, I got a clearer sense of where Enigma, which opened in Barcelona at the beginning of the year, fits into his ever-expanding cosmology.
“Enigma is unlike any other place,” he said. “But it’s also, I think, what El Bulli would be if El Bulli were still around in 2017.”
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Of course, El Bulli hasn’t been around for a while now. The restaurant in sleepy Roses, on the Costa Brava, served its last meal in July 2011, and when I think back to the night of its joyous closing party, what stands out in my memory—along with the image of chefs dancing giddily with their wives, and the midnight dip in the Mediterranean—is the moment when Ferran swallowed his younger brother Albert in a bear hug and said, over and over: “We did it. We did it.”
At the time I wondered what he meant. The words could have referred to so many things: We kept a successful restaurant going for 26 years; we put Spain on the gastronomic map; we influenced generations of chefs; we sparked nothing less than a revolution in cuisine. But the notion I keep coming back to is this—we changed what it means to be a chef, and to be a restaurant.
El Bulli rose to fame on the strength of the Adriàs’ radically creative approach to cuisine. Hot into cold, sweet into savory, solid into liquid or air, their cooking played with the diner’s expectations, undermined established categories of taste and texture, and constantly, miraculously, continued to surprise. But the impact went far beyond even their mango caviar and cotton candy “paper.” As René Redzepi, who passed through their kitchen, put it, “What El Bulli gave us is freedom.”
It’s true. El Bulli forged a path that allowed chefs in Spain and beyond to break from the stranglehold that French cuisine had on the world of fine dining. It demonstrated in the most vivid way possible that a restaurant did not need to serve luxury ingredients in a set order, or lay its tables with china and heavy silver—or even a tablecloth—to be ambitious. It allowed chefs with scientific impulses to immerse themselves in labs and chemistry sets, and those with more artistic inclinations to treat their dishes as forms of self-expression. It privileged the chef’s creativity over his or her ability to mechanically reproduce recipes, and put the restaurant at the vanguard of culture. “The only rule,” Ferran used to say, “is don’t copy.”
And yet within Spain, ironically, that freedom initially seemed to come with its own set of rules that became almost as rigid as the ones they replaced. The new international appetite for modern Spanish cuisine gave rise to a slew of restaurants cooking in an avant-garde style. From the tiny seafood-centric Aponiente in Andalusia, where Ángel Léon started doing astonishing things with bycatch, to the elegant seaside mansion Sant Pau that Carme Ruscalleda turned into a wonderland of innovative bites; from Quique Dacosta’s eponymous temple in Alicante, where he became famous for provocatively coating oysters in (edible) titanium in homage to Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum, to the pastoral Mugaritz in the hills outside San Sebastián, where Andoni Luis Aduriz conjured potatoes that look like stones—all of these were, and remain, extraordinary in their own right. For all the wildly innovative and delicious things they do on the plate, they—and dozens of others—have also assimilated many of El Bulli’s tropes: long tasting menus that begin with “snacks” and end with mignardises; the constant search for new techniques that have resulted in ongoing collaborations with scientists (Léon began growing his own plankton with the help of a marine biology lab, and Aduriz worked with physicists at a nearby university to transform ingredients through extreme centrifugal force); a schedule in which the restaurant’s open “season” alternates with one when the restaurant is closed for developing new recipes; the pressure to always reinvent. These became almost as immutable as any strictures regarding mother sauces or the progression from savory to sweet.
When El Bulli closed, there was no shortage of restaurants eager to defend the fortress of modernist cuisine. Quique Dacosta was one of the chefs heralded by the New York Times as an heir, and every year since he has developed a creative theme for his “season”—this year’s is called DNA The Search, for which he’s going deep into the history of popular cuisine to find inspiration. Farther north, in Girona, El Celler de Can Roca continues to wow diners with its amazingly textured turbot with sauces of bergamot and eucalyptus and a perfect, clear marble of wild strawberries in gelée. In 2015, it won back the 50 Best List’s title of Best Restaurant in the World for Spain, after El Bulli had been replaced at the top by Redzepi’s Noma the previous year. Eager to spread the gospel and learn new things in the process, the three Roca brothers—Joan is executive chef; Josep is sommelier; Jordi does pastry—have for the past several years toured the world, hosting pop-up dinners where they incorporate local ingredients and techniques into their own dishes.
Not long ago, I sat in the Barcelona dining room of Disfrutar, which opened at the end of 2014 and is run by El Bulli’s last three chefs de cuisine: Oriol Castro, Eduard Xatruch and Mateu Casañas. They all began working at El Bulli as teenagers, and among them put in something like 40 years in that kitchen. So it makes sense that their cooking would continue in the same vein; I sampled a dish that combined intensely sweet real peas with spherified replicas, and a whiskey cake that began with the server spritzing my hands with Scotch. It was a delicious and memorable dinner, but what really stayed with me was the response of the couple at the next table. Clearly new to modernist cuisine, they giggled as they tried a pasta made from Parmesan serum. The expression on their faces—just as it had been on mine the first time I ate at El Bulli—was of wonder and delight. It reminded me that there are still distinct pleasures to be had from the Spanish brand of avant-garde cooking.
But lately, many restaurants in Spain have been transitioning away from the elaborate pyrotechnics of years past. Aduriz continues to dazzle at Mugaritz with a style that blends an attention to terroir, a desire to provoke emotions and an intensely cerebral intellect to create dishes such as a brioche “inoculated” with penicillin spores so that it tastes of blue cheese. But he also recently opened a tapas bar in San Sebastián that serves dishes based on his notion of what Basque migrants who moved to Latin America in the 19th and early 20th centuries would have eaten. His fellow Basque chef Eneko Atxa combines the modernist obsession with surprise with a farm-to-table approach: Dinner at Azurmendi begins with a stroll through gardens and greenhouses where a few of the vegetables are actually preparations meant to be devoured. And El Bulli alum Paco Morales returned home to Córdoba to open Noor, which explores the Arabic influences that have long shaped the region’s cuisine. The groundbreaking Andalusian chef Dani García still riffs on the flavors of Spain’s south, but now, at BiBo Madrid, instead of the glossy liquid nitrogen “tomato” that he concocted from gazpacho, he serves a gazpacho that is just a soup—albeit an intensely delicious one.
And those aren’t the only signs that Spain’s chefs are now breaking free of the modernist model. In Madrid, at Punto Mx, Roberto Ruiz has become increasingly creative with his approach to Mexican cooking, and at DiverXO, David Muñoz blends Asian and Mediterranean flavors. Even the rootsiest of local cuisines are getting a revival: witness La Tasquería, which specializes in Madrid-style offal, or Dos Pebrots in Barcelona’s Raval neighborhood, overseen by Albert Raurich, who first left El Bulli to open Dos Palillos, an avant-garde take on a Japanese omakase menu. Now, at Dos Pebrots, Raurich has come full circle by focusing on the simple, earthy flavors of his native Catalonia.
Tapping into all of these trends is Albert Adrià. He started his El Barri project, intended to revitalize a down-at-its-heels Barcelona neighborhood, with Tickets, a tapas bar that serves many of the marvels—the spherified olives, and hollow “air baguettes”—developed at El Bulli. But since then he has also stepped into international cuisines with Pakta, which specializes in the nikkei cooking of Peru, and Hoja Santa, a genius version of Mexican. At the same time, Bodega 1900—his take on an old-school Spanish vermouth bar—offers some of the best-cured fish and patatas bravas you will ever have the pleasure of eating. And then there is Enigma, where he gets closest to his El Bulli roots even if, this time around, it requires a contemporary intervention: The restaurant asks patrons not to Instagram dishes so as to maintain its ability to surprise.
What’s different now is that, in a country whose dining options not long ago swung between the decidedly traditional and the transgressively modernist, there’s an almost postmodern range of places to eat. And chefs like Albert Adrià continue to redefine what a restaurant—and a chef—can be.
Make that Albert and his brother. In 2018, the new version of El Bulli will finally open; it will no longer be a restaurant but rather a sort of campus devoted to fostering culinary creativity. Not long ago I had the chance to tour the construction site with Ferran. The walls were still going up, but in their outline I could make out the future library and “brainstorming room,” and I was relieved, after traversing a treacherous moat of rubble, to find the old kitchen, if dusty, still intact. As he explained his vision—it will function as a lab for visiting researchers, chefs, artists and scientists, and be open to the public for exhibitions and “experiences”—Ferran simultaneously looked backward and ahead. “El Bulli was the most creative restaurant in the world,” he said, as he glanced wistfully out the archway to the sea. “But it was still a restaurant. Now there will be no limits.”