The “Airbaguette of Joselito’s Iberian Ham” arrives early on — the third of 22 extraordinary tapas served across the meal at the bustling restaurant Tickets. The lacquered slice of meat is a deep red that contrasts with the stripes of translucent fat attributed to the pig’s acorn-rich diet. It comes expertly stretched around a hollow and impossibly thin bread torpedo. The dish appeared on the menu of the legendary elBulli, when that Spanish outpost of modernist cuisine topped the influential San Pellegrino list of the World’s Best Restaurants a remarkable five times between 2002 and 2009.
ElBulli inspired the pilgrimages of a thousand food writers to its perch on the Costa Brava, two hours from Barcelona. But as most foodies know, the famed restaurant closed more than two years ago, prompting a seemingly endless round of eulogies.
The head-spinning creativity that defined elBulli lives on, except you no longer have to leave beautiful Barcelona to experience it. The greatest show on earth has turned into a multiplex, with the elBulli team now running four dynamic restaurants in the city, each offering a different experience and price point and designed to evoke a distinct emotion. And whereas elBulli had been the brainchild of chef Ferran Adrià, assisted by his younger brother, Albert, in the background, the younger Adrià has taken the lead while his brother plays a supporting role (in between traveling, teaching at Harvard, and building his foundation).
The Adriàs’ pioneering work helped turn Spain, and in particular its fiercely independent northeastern Catalan region, into the cradle of modernist cuisine (which others refer to as “molecular gastronomy”). The combination of elBulli and the many acclaimed restaurants run by chefs who had trained at the Adriàs’ sides allowed the region to attract a steady stream of culinary tourists. But the evolution of the Adriàs’ operation makes that kind of trip more straightforward now. With four Adrià restaurants, it’s easier — though by no means simple — to score a table than it was at elBulli, which for many years owned the world’s hardest-to-get reservation.
And if you’re one of those culinary tourists who won’t be satisfied unless you’ve made a pilgrimage to the world’s top-ranked restaurant, you can still do that too. Simply make the 90-minute drive out of Barcelona for an exquisite meal at El Celler de Can Roca (see accompanying story), current occupant of the No. 1 slot, whose head chef once worked at — you guessed it — elBulli.
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Albert Adrià knows that the people who put in the effort and expense to dine at one of his restaurants are looking for more than just food. “There is an unspoken contract between the guest and the chef — the guest is paying not just for food, but for an experience,” he says in an afternoon interview at Tickets. To fulfill this contract, Adrià, 44, thinks of himself as a film director, ensuring that the food, atmosphere, and staff at his restaurants convey to the patron a specific sentiment, in the same way a movie does. While elBulli was a single masterwork, his new multiplex operation gives him the ability to evoke different sentiments at each restaurant. The fact that all four are located within the same couple of blocks of Barcelona’s Paral-lel theater district only adds to the culinary multiplex feel.
With its big-top atmosphere and eclectic decor, Tickets, Adrià says, is all about fun. Outside, you are greeted by a top-hatted ringmaster under a circus-lights marquee. Heading to your table and passing tiny Playmobile figures cavorting on beaches, you begin to understand that the chefs will be taking the food — but not themselves — seriously.
The offerings are as colorful and playful as the decor, many of them signature dishes from elBulli. “Spherification,” the modernist technique the Adriàs pioneered, is on display in their famous “Olive-S,” a green orb that looks like a wobbly olive, yet tastes like 20. A dish like “high level cow tenderloin,” served with the Barcelona tapas-favorite of blistered padrón peppers, may be more straightforward, but it’s perfection on a plate.
Just around the corner from Tickets is 41° Experience where Adrià aims for emotion and showcases his most groundbreaking work. Opera pours from the speakers, while dramatic video footage of volcanoes erupting and lightning crashing plays across a hanging screen of plastic shards. That powerful sensory experience is merely a prelude to the food, which comes in the form of 41 small courses along with some knockout cocktails. It could hardly be more intimate, with only 16 people served per night, making the roughly $275 per person price more understandable. The cuisine moves from the Mediterranean to the Nordic countries to Latin America to Asia. You’re transported in ways big and small, from the tiny but extraordinary flavors packed into “fennel flower with sansho pepper” to the autumnal “Parmesan and porcini forest floor.”
Yet not all of Adrià’s ambitions or price points are so high as they are at these two restaurants, which each received a Michelin star in November. At his newest restaurant, Bodega 1900, he says he’s simply going for nostalgia. Just across the street from Tickets, this small eatery evokes a stylish early-1900s Spanish neighborhood market and vermouth bar. It serves up Iberian ham, cheeses, confits, and of course, a killer house vermouth, partying like it was 1899, naturally with some Adriá twists.
The final offering in the multiplex is called Pakta. Here, Adrià says, his goal is surprise, a la Hitchcock. The menu is built around Nikkei cuisine, which evolved when Japanese immigrated to Peru and prepared food of their homeland, but with Peruvian products like purple potatoes and huacatay, a mint-like herb from the Andes.
The surprises in this fusion cuisine start when you walk into a life-size loom of colorful yarns that enrobe the entire dining room. Spain, Peru, and Japan all have outstanding seafood in common, so it’s no surprise that it’s the focus here. Adrià has produced a number of standout dishes, such as “leche de tigre,” which pairs a mouth-contorting acidic, spicy marinade with exquisitely fresh sea bass.
The Adrià brothers’ culinary artistry earned them a spot on Time magazine’s recent “Gods of Food” list. But Albert says he’s no artist, seeing himself as simply a chef giving people memorable meals and experiences that they can interpret with their own emotions and sensibilities. Although he works in a city defined by the one-of-a-kind architecture of Antoni Gaudí [see accompanying story], Adrià says he draws more inspiration from artists ranging from rockers Pink Floyd to Catalan painter and sculptor Antoni Tapies, who “knew when to stop.” Still, Adrià himself doesn’t show any signs of stopping. Coming soon to his Barcelona multiplex: a Mexican restaurant called Yauarcan and another establishment called Enigma with mystery on the menu.
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Before leaving Spain, complete your culinary expedition at La Boqueria Market on Las Ramblas. It’s been around in some form for a millennium. The variety of the offerings from the 200-plus vendors — many of them third- and fourth-generation sellers — is stunning. In addition to everything you’d expect, you can also find exotic items such as emu, swan, and ostrich eggs.
This working market was an important building block for Spain’s revolution of modernist cuisine. When the Adriás were selecting a location for their “taller,” the winter laboratory retreat where the brothers and their team devised the elBulli recipes, they deliberately chose one close to La Boqueria, knowing it would allow them to get any ingredient from anywhere in the world.
These days, two former elBulli chefs work in an office above La Boqueria. They toil over enormous foam-core boards to codify, in Talmudic fashion, the recipes behind the Adriás’ cuisine. This is all being done for pos-terity, but you can continue to taste their legacy all over town.
Denise Drower Swidey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @deniseswidey.