I have a lot to share with you.
I’d like to write about two weeks spent eating in Spain. About meals that I never thought I’d eat. About going to those places that people like me only dream about until we’re there, and Elena Arzak is smiling warmly and asking you if you like her pigeon while a waiter scrapes crumbs off the table with some polished pewter tool and a gruff sommelier splashes more ancient Rioja in your glass. Holy shit. Pinch me. This is real.
Now, I understand that but a month ago I wrote about lists, and fancy restaurants, and how preposterous these indexes of greatness are. And I meant it, sort of, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to eat at the world’s best restaurants, whatever that means. And in two weeks in Spain my lovely wife endured four very long and meaningful meals with me. Not everything was good, but it was, for me at least, a transformative sort of experience.
First, I’ll share with you my meal at Tickets, Albert Adria’s (brother of Ferran, of el bulli fame) tapas restaurant in Barcelona. Calling Tickets a tapas restaurant is sort of like calling a Ducati a motor scooter. Yes, the form is the same: small bites eaten in succession, often with bread, some things from the mountains, some from the sea. Yes, the ingredients are familiar, especially if you are Spanish. But the way they are delivered – the pops and crunches and clever twists – are just delightful. The tricks that were perfected at el bulli are employed sparingly here – a spherification of seawater here, a caviar of olive oil there – but the precision and care that defines this kitchen is evidenced throughout.
We ate tomato smeared on perfectly crisp slivers of country bread, with a translucent jelly of iberico that melted like luxurious, ethereal pig fat. Severely perfect segments of oranges swimming in a mild soup of olive oil, mint, and a suggestion of mustard. An oyster, with a bouquet of microscopic flowers and cubes of sour apple. There were crunchy cones of tomato that had a whisper of wasabi – a combination so subtle and simple that I thought about it that night before bed, rolling around, wondering about the possibilities of cooking so precisely that flavors might come to you after you had consumed the food.
Then there was a rabbit taco, laced with cumin and chili, like Mexico colored by the gentler spectrum of Catalan cooking. And soft, steamed buns stuffed with ribbons of lardo and bacon, that slid down like the best Chinese baozi. We gulped a bottle of PSI – a great second label of Pingus from the Ribera. My friend Veronica wept after the rabbit taco, because she had a rabbit once, and never realized that it might taste so wonderful.
And as we skipped off into the Barcelona night, bellies full, bursting with pleasure and a little shame, one thing was certain: we had just witnessed something really, truly special. A chef communicating with diners, executing his vision in a way that wasn’t pretentious or exhausting. Just really fucking good.