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Restaurant namedropping is a blood sport among those with gourmet pretensions, and by last summer, my status as a with-it New Yorker was taking a beating. A match against a Prada-wearing, loft-dwelling media executive was the turning point. I took it easy at first, mentioning an evening spent at Nobu. She hit back hard, recounting recent trips to both Charlie Trotter and The French Laundry. Staggered, I mumbled something about the tasting menu at Jean Georges, but was quickly put down for the count by the story of her dinner at Alain Ducasse. (The one in Paris, of course.) I retreated in shame, licking my wounds and vowing never to be beaten again. Since I already had a trip to Spain planned, I knew where I could acquire the ultimate weapon — El Bulli. Anyone who claims to be a “foodie” knows about El Bulli, its three Michelin stars, and the line of chefs from around the world who worship at the altar of chef Ferran Adri�. But acquiring that weapon is almost impossible. First, reservations are near-mythic, something like the yeti or the Sasquatch. The restaurant serves dinner only, from April to September, to 55 people each night. Reservations are taken starting Jan. 15; the season is booked within weeks (Tel. 97-215-0457; e-mail: [email protected]). I managed to land a spot by (reluctantly) telling them I was a reporter. If you lack media pull (or a relationship with Spanish dignitaries), your only chance is to call early, then plan a trip around whatever date you’re given. Second, getting there is a challenge. El Bulli is on the Costa Brava, about three hours north of Barcelona. Roses is the closest town of any size, and El Bulli is about 30 minutes beyond that, down an extraordinarily narrow, twisty, scary mountain road, above a deserted beach, miles from anywhere. My wife and I were still trembling from our near-death experiences on the road when the maitre d’ greeted us and showed us the kitchen, where 35 cooks labored in what looked like a big chemistry lab. We met Adri�, who was friendly, but shy and uncomfortable. He clearly wanted to get back to the food. Adri� has no formal training, so when his cooking began to veer off into the unknown, nothing held him back. He’s most famous for turning food into foam — airy, frothy concoctions — but that’s just the beginning of his creativity. He wants to upset your expectations, to make you taste things for the first time. Parmesan ice cream. Rose-petal tempura. Whatever it takes. We began our meal outside, on a terrace. We ordered the tasting menu (virtually everyone does), then discussed wine with the sommelier. “Don’t think about matching with the food. Is not possible,” he advised. Since there were more fish courses than meat, he recommended white; since we were in Spain, I skipped the many French selections and chose a Conca de Barbera from Miguel Torres. It was good, but the sommelier was right — matching was not to be. From the first cocktail, we knew things would be different. The foam mojito was squirted from a seltzer bottle and delivered with instructions to drink it quickly. It tasted like the Cuban drink made from rum and mint, but transformed into something airy and effervescent. Then began a four-hour parade of 20-plus courses. Adri�’s desire to shake things up was apparent from the start, in dishes like c�pes prepared two ways: Cool c�pes jelly, sucked out of a straw, was served with a crisp, wafer-thin mushroom cookie. Eight or nine courses followed: trout eggs tempura, a liquid chicken croquette. They were accompanied by champagne and eaten by the ocean; our heads were spinning. After about an hour, we moved into the dining room. The courses kept coming, each one delivered with identifying information and instructions about how to eat it: “This is chilled and powdered foie gras and hot foie gras consomm�. Don’t mix them.” Or: “This is cuttlefish ravioli filled with coconut milk. Eat it in one bite.” After all that adventure, the last course — rabbit civet with warm apple jelly — showed that Adri� can do traditional when he wants to. We then lingered over sherry and the parade of desserts that followed. There were a few moments during dinner when style overwhelmed substance, but my usual reaction was head-shaking and a muttered “wow.” Adri� wanted me to throw away my assumptions, and he succeeded. But while the food was delicious, it was more intellectual than sensual; it provoked more admiration than love. (It was also surprisingly affordable — dinner for two, with wine, was about $400.) El Bulli asks for an extraordinary commitment. Essentially, you’ve got to plan a vacation around one dinner. Is it worth it? I’m not sure any restaurant is. But it was a meal unlike any other. And I’m going to feel pretty damn good the next time I get into a food fight.

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