Three years after my first mind-blowing visit (with Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal), I was heading happily back to El Bulli, near Rosas, on Spain's north-eastern coast. Just in case you've had your head in the sand over the past few years, El Bulli is the home of superchef Ferran Adrià, holder of three Michelin stars and of the unofficial title of the world's most experimental chef.
I was to be there because Beatrice Cointreau, an El Bulli regular, invited me. The chief executive officer of Champagne Gosset declared in May that Champagne was the ultimate match for Adrià's food. Now, Gosset is one of my favourite Champagnes. It has bigger balls than most, the Grand Reserve particularly, so perhaps Cointreau's claim wasn't so outrageous. Even more enlightening (if true) would be her claim that Adrià himself agrees with her.
Those of you who have read about Adri…'s food will know that food-and-wine-matching his menu is about as difficult as it gets. For example, he pairs pink grapefruit with sesame, and fennel with coffee, and serving 35 courses in one sitting is the norm.
El Bulli is a sommelier's worst nightmare, so why not drink one wine throughout? And, if one, why not Gosset? And hang the expense - after all the effort to get there, not to mention selling your soul to secure a table (the restaurant allegedly received 40,000 reservation requests for the 2003 season), it would be a drop in the ocean.
Adri… doesn't do signature dishes and each year the menu, of some 80 dishes, changes completely. The restaurant is closed for six months of the year, while Adrià, with brother Albert and partner Juli Soller, works on the next season's menu at the "lab" in Barcelona. This season's menu kicks off with… er, beer and crisps.
Of course, it's not just beer and crisps. It's a beer Bellini - crushed white peaches topped up with a German wheat beer and stirred at the table with a long spoon to amalgamate the liquids - and the "chips" are as thin as a communion wafer, with olives and citric acid.
The battery of pre-dinner nibbles that followed (in rapid succession) included a strip of raw rhubarb drenched in granulated sugar and black pepper, strips of crystallised lemon rind with liquorice in a tempura batter, and (my favourite) whole rabbit ears rubbed in garlic and deep-fried (think pork scratchings).
The "peanut butter and toast" prompted sniggers around the table. We were told to squeeze the peanut butter out of a small tube and spread it on honeyed melba toast, followed by a sprinkling of more ground peanuts, which come in a bowl alongside, followed by a dash of crushed sea salt - "and it must be in that order", directed the waiter.
The jam¢n de toro confused everybody. It looked like ham and tasted like ham but was, in fact, tuna belly. "It's tuna in the style of Spanish ham," explained the waiter, with a straight face. Wafer-thin slices of tuna belly were "painted" with ham fat and served deli-style on a perfect square of greaseproof paper. "What's the point if it tastes like ham?" muttered one of our party.
At this point, I should mention the Gosset. We had started with a magnum of the Grande Ros‚ and it was standing up well to the barrage of flavours from Adrià's kitchen.
But now things began to get a little more strange. "Almendras Gustos B sicos," declared the waiter, placing four fat, fresh almonds in front of each of us. They looked the same but tasted different: sweet, salty, acidic, bitter. "It's to prepare the mind," Adrià explained later. The play between acidity, salt and sugar was to be a recurrent theme.
Next up was a "rock of foie gras" - a kind of frozen foie gras-flavoured Wispa, with all the taste of the revered liver but none of the weight. Clever.
At this point, we switched Gossets, moving on to the Grand Reserve in magnum. The Champagne was still holding up,refreshing the palate after each challenging course.
And we needed major cleansing after the next one - a fat ripe cherry covered in ham fat. No ham, you understand, just the fat. We couldn't work out its purpose, other than to throw off our palates completely. Maybe it was there to prepare us for the bronzed sardines, which looked exactly as you would expect and melted on the tongue (the "bronzing" technique will be revealed only when the restaurant closes at the end of the summer, along with Adrià's other ground-breaking techniques. "I don't want anyone copying them just yet," he later revealed).
His apple "caviar" was a case in point. It was served in an Iranian caviar tin, and when the "eggs" were placed on the tongue they popped like caviar. We wondered whether some poor soul had been slaving away with a mini melon-baller. "I can't say, sorry," said the waiter. "All I can say is that it's apple mixed with product A and water mixed with product B." Guesses on a postcard, please.
Skipping past the pink grapefuit and black sesame emulsion, we came to one of the meal's high points - fennel bulb with coffee and tempura of fennel flower. It was a magical combination, but don't ask me why. The dish also managed to accentuate the fruit notes in the Grand Reserve further.
The next course split the diners in our group. Some shuddered at memories of skinned-over hot school milk, while others entered the comfort zone as we were served a milk crêpe - literally, the skin that forms on heated milk - with truffle juice and hazelnut oil.
"Shark fin," announced the waiter, when we were done. It wasn't, of course, and he wouldn't tell us what it really was until we'd eaten it. We guessed it was some sort of noodles and we were almost right - "noodles" made with gelatine and chicken stock, with a hefty seasoning of soy sauce, sesame and garlic, replicating the Chinese delicacy.
To clear the palate, there was "carrot air" with a mandarin juice (a huge cloud of foam so light that it disappeared the moment it hit the tongue), followed by a Chinese soup-spoon containing a single green "egg yolk" made of petit pois. Then came more foam - fennel, this time - with warm melon, narcissus flowers and chervil. "It's like going to the Tate Modern and seeing your first pile of bricks," said my fellow Gosset guest, food and wine writer Fiona Beckett, an El Bulli virgin.
From sweet, it was back to salty again with baby squid and their "eggs". The "apple caviar" tactic was used once more but this time with squid ink. Then gastronaut Adrià came back down to earth, briefly, with a delectable (and recognisable) dish of baby red mullet with coconut, mint and curry soup, followed by slow-cooked tuna belly with a tuna mayonnaise, tomato jelly and fresh almonds, before taking us back up to Planet Bulli with a dish of spider crab sitting on a sizeable slab of ham fat, soya beans, shiitake and coriander - with sesame and soy sauce riding roughshod over everything.
On the home straight, we tackled sea cucumber with rhubarb and cod roe, followed by a truffle cannelloni of veal marrow with four dinky rabbit brains served alongside - a great dish, but on the intense side for course number 33, though the Celebris 1995 glided through the richness.
An intensely cheesy moment came with "a spaghetti of Parmesan" (more clever consomm‚ action), before we finished with chocolate earth, courtesy of Pacojet (sprayed dark chocolate sorbet over buttery hazelnut cake, hazelnut ice-cream and peach powder). "Life's too short to make peach powder," muttered a diner on the next table.
Adrià doesn't care if customers like his food or not - "I just want people to go through the experience," he says. For the record, he confirms what Cointreau declared in May - Champagne is the only wine that works throughout a meal at El Bulli. "With all those different textures and temperatures you had? Sure, it's Champagne," he says.
So, then: just where does he get his ideas? "It's life - meeting people, listening to different cultures, looking at the routes people take through life. I try and translate this into my food," he says.
Adri… travels a lot in the six months he is away from the restaurant, so what floats his boat at the moment? "China," he says. "The way of life, the spices they use, the different cooking techniques, the textures in their cooking. The future is China."
Roll on, the 2004 season.