As midnight approached on Thursday, just after a 51-course dinner at elBulli, I told Ferran Adrià that I was sad that his iconic restaurant in rural Catalonia would be closing its doors for the last time on Saturday. He tut-tutted disapprovingly, surprised that someone who had known and followed him for several years could even feel such an emotion. There was no reason for sadness, he insisted; elBulli was being transformed, about to become a radically new but equally creative enterprise. It would, though, no longer be the restaurant that each year fielded 2 million requests for the 8,000 slots available for dinner.
Adrià did not recognize that my sadness was selfish. I was well aware of his plans to remake elBulli into a culinary think tank, a research center for chefs, a site of digital pilgrimage and inspiration for cooks the world over. But it will not be a restaurant any longer, and that is why I am sad. Over the past six years, I have landed six of those rare dining slots, brought along 21 people as my table companions and helped about a dozen others get their own dinners at elBulli. In the frenzied world of foodism, to be a regular at the most influential and critically acclaimed restaurant in the world was a mark of true cachet and clout. Now, that chapter in my life is over. I feel significantly enfeebled.
Allow me, if you would, to be insufferably smug one last time.
I sat down to my sixth and last supper at elBulli in a lachrymose frame of mind and was promptly overwhelmed by nostalgia. Adrià, who is a master orchestrator and choreographer, had never allowed regulars to have the exact same dish twice, no matter how much we longed for another taste of some past masterpiece. But for the final season, he brought out many of his greatest (and some of his most infamous) hits: the spherical olives that exploded into pure olive essence in your mouth; a "hot" gin fizz; the breadless sandwich that reconstructed the taste of a mojito in what looked like an albino minibaguette; the flat sheet of cotton candy studded with small, sweet blossoms that culminated in a surprise of Sichuan-pepper flowers; the raw-looking langoustine that had actually been cooked two different ways; the "ostrich" egg created out of flash-frozen gorgonzola, sprinkled with nutmeg; and the much ridiculed foam that tasted of smoke.
There were courses that showed the kitchen's ability to produce amazing savory dishes. There was the small but thick block of veal marrow topped with caviar and accompanied by an ephemeral beet foam that melded the solid flavors of fish and beast into a distinct microcosm of earth, sea and air. Or luscious headless prawn, so perfectly grilled that its flesh was tender but its shell and legs so crisp as to be edible served alongside an intense "Thai-flavored" soup (all two spoonfuls of it!) made from the crustacean's brain, which one of my well-traveled companions proclaimed to be the distilled essence of Thai cooking.
Dinner at elBulli is always crafted to engage the diner's thoughts and emotions as much as taste buds, and our last supper was no exception. The offerings included a "contest" in the form of a plate of gelatin on which about 10 little slivers of different spices had been arranged in a circle, the identities of which the diners had to distinguish by taste on an accompanying list. I tied for top place at our table with eight correct answers; a guest at a different table got full marks. Later in the evening, I discovered I was not all that smart. Adrià had reprised a dish of hare served with a beautiful glass of its own blood, more intensely red than any wine. The last time I had tasted the dish, I simply took the master chef's word for it. On its return, however, one of my companions declared, "This 'blood,' it's red beet juice." The server smiled at her approvingly, delighted that someone, at last, had gotten the joke.
The spice contest reminded me of another dish I had had in the past. That time, after a swift succession of culinary magic, Adrià had presented us with a plate of 10 tiny fronds, every one a different kind of seaweed. We were told simply to eat them in clockwise order. Each leaf was a different experience, the entire exercise a revelation no test required, yet still a deeply satisfying intellectual palate cleanser.
For all its reputed exclusivity, elBulli was a primal experience. Adrià required you not only to eat with your mind and your feelings, but also, often with your fingers. No cutlery was provided for the parmesan egg or the cotton-candy garden. For a restaurant of its stature, there was nothing forbidding or austere about it even with a culinary sorcerer behind the scenes plotting when and what dish made it to specific tables throughout the night.
elBulli for me always felt like visiting the home of a beloved cousin, one you are willing to travel a long distance to see again and again for his mesmerizing idiosyncrasies and company. Until last weekend, dinner at elBulli took place in a nondescript Mediterranean-style building, by a lovely but isolated bay that washes up against a not particularly beautiful beach surrounded by photogenic if dizzying cliffs. But upon your arrival, you were ushered into the warmth of Adrià's disciplined kitchen where he greeted you in person with a handshake or a hug; long-serving staffers smiled greetings without condescension and then conducted you to the terrace for inventive cocktails and the beginning of four hours of a conviviality that bubbled up from the conceptual depths he has plumbed with his magic. You finished a meal at elBulli not just fed, but feeling happier and smarter, even enchanted.
Some may argue that every great restaurant is required to create such an effect, but elBulli did that better than any other in the world. It was a privilege to return, again and again, leaving me with memories on which I will dine out for the rest of my life.