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41° Experience - A slightly different take from a french guy

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I usually lurk around in the "French board" here on Chowhound, but having been recently to Spain (and spied on this board prior to my visit), I thought it was only fair that I gave back by writing about my experience at "41° Experience", (one of) Albert Adrià's restaurant.

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In this dark and intimate room you are served a tasting menu of 41 bites or dishes with a few cocktails thrown in from time to time. You travel around the World through Mexico, Perou, Japan, Vietnam etc. While being dimly lit by a video art installation, and cradled to melodies supposed to be in sync with what you are eating.

I have to say, I was a bit scared.

But it turns out that the contemporary art installation (poorly animated images, projected on glass stalactites) can be discreet if you don't wish to watch it. The audio part of the experience is nothing more than background music. So to make it short, the idea of an absolute immersion in an art piece is not fulfilled... but to be honest, I'm pretty thankful I was able to enjoy the "eatable" part of the experience without having a headache.

I will not go through all the dishes, because, well there were 41 of them, and it would be pointless.
I will try to speak about the few heroes and the few villains.

HEROES
- Anchovy stuffed olive -
Finally I tasted the original spherification! The one that came out of elBulli's kitchen in 2003 and has been copied to exhaustion since then... I have to say I wasn't expecting any less, but it was fantastic. The technique is spot on, when the olive enters your mouth it's wall disappears in an instant, the thick sensual juice dripping down your throat. But what's important to point out is that chef Adrià understands that cooking is not just about fireworks, and that a magic trick becomes a gadget if the food is not... well... good. And this olive with anchovy was, rich and salty, a Godzilla-like punch and yet smooth as a thought.

- Pickled mussels -
Oh mama what an umami ! This umami going hand in hand with the escabeche marinade which brought some acidity and vibration. Vibration which quickly spread through my spine.

- Truffle causita -
Well buttered potato puree, iberian pig juice, truffle. Should I spell it out for you?

- Chicken and shrimp -
A thin crackling and intense chicken skin, carrying two barely cooked "slipper lobsters", hidden under a veil of delicate gelatin with chicken broth aroma. While this dish sounds complicated and weird, it really was as comforting as a big bowl of soup during winter.

- Banh-mi -
This version of the famous Vietnamese sandwich had light brioche bread, deep-fried in olive oil, with perfect condiments and some “cerdo iberico” (the heavenly Spanish pig) sneaked in place of the traditional pork. Exhilarating. While keeping the street-food vibe of the original, this dish balanced every taste, every texture, and raised the soul.

- Classic lemon pie cupcake -
None of the sweet bites really slapped me in the face, but this one was soft, crunchy, lemony, fluffy, chocolate-y, everything it should be without any fuss. (well actually, the "paper" was edible, so one might consider this to be some "fuss").

VILLAINS
- Chips -
Pumpkin leaf, redcurrant leaf, potatoes with "espinaler" sauce powder, spicy corn tentacles, crispy seaweed with quinoa, pizza 41°, chocolate leafs... Crunchy, crunchy, crunchy... Some of those bites surrendered quite easily to the taste buds, but the systematic dehydration of every ingredient began to rub me the wrong way. I know some people hate tasting menus with ridiculously small dishes, I personally don't mind that, but a series of chips, I have to say I was a bit annoyed.

- Agave amber -
A cocktail made with tequila and agave sirup, served quite dramatically as a gelatinous orb imprisoning a flower petal. This time, the liquid didn't flow, and the texture was gelatinous from start to finish which I found to be pretty off putting.

- Lamb delights -
I'm all for controlled temperature sous-vide cooking as it allows some meats to become incredibly tender and delicate. But sometimes we want some fibers, some bite! Especially when it's meat on a stick. So I'm sorry but I'll pass on this "veal liver" textured lamb.

- The black leather table -
The last villain was not a dish, but the table carpeted in black leather... It looks good, and certainly goes well with the "SM" vibe of the restaurant. But leather gets stained really easily. Even a slightly humid glass will leave a mark. So, after each plate, each cocktail, a waiter (all lovely by the way) came to wipe out frenetically every small drop on this cow skin. You end up feeling dirty and it slightly prevents one from fully relaxing and having a good time.

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I was expecting a lot from this meal, I can't deny it. I wasn't naive enough to believe the "41° Experience" would be as mind altering as elBulli apparently was (unfortunately I never went), but a small voice inside me whispered that this is the place that is the closest to the source. I'm aware that this preconception may have played a role in my mixed feelings about the place, but it's not the only thing that influenced me.

The chef wanted to create a place rooted in the creations of elBulli but with its own identity. He came up with the idea of a cocktail bar, then decided to do a tapas tasting menu, a culinary trip around the world, all encased in theater with a poorly executed video installation, and a musical line-up lacking inspiration (especially when the Japanese title comes on while you're eating the Mexican dish...). He searched for, or I should say he “forced” a concept.

But the memorable parts of the evening were not "the experience", nor the trip, but a few succulent dishes. I have no doubt that Albert Adrià is a talented chef, he proved it to me numerous times during this dinner, but I have a feeling that maybe if he could free himself from the past, his brother, his concepts, maybe if he simply opened up "a restaurant", this day, the Earth may very well start shaking...

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For a slightly modified version of this review in French, and for some pictures of the dishes, check out : http://www.chezfood.com/2014/02/15/41...

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  1. Great review and photos. Very funny observation about the S&M leather tables making you feel "dirty"… maybe some people enjoy that--ha.

    One of the things I still remember most about El Bulli is how relaxed and comfortable the experience was, despite the fact that there were more people in the kitchen and attending to the tables than there were people dining. The natural setting, design, and perfect timing of the courses were a big part of what made it such a successful "event."

    1. Thanks for your detailed review (and the pictures on your blog - which I've now bookmarked).

      It seems that the 'journey' has changed from my visit - and perhaps a slight 'miss' on the soundtrack (on my visit, the Japanese-style music was synched to the Peruvian 'visit' (NOT the Mexican) which makes sense because of the large Japanese population there. Given that there are essentially two seatings (the service is speeded up/slowed down so that patrons are on the same 'video' schedule) the music/images have to work for two different presentations (e.g when we were on Peru, the other half of the restaurant was on Japan). I was super-impressed.

      My favourite part (excluding Spain itself) was the Scandinavian 'tour' which was extremely playful e.g. using dehydrated vinegar as snow.

      And my take on the images was that they were 'intentionally vague' so as to evoke a feeling rather than a photographic representation.

      But a great and informative review. Thanks.

      1. >> "Oh mama what an umami !"

        Great line, I may need to borrow it sometime!

        1. Thanks all !

          @butterfly
          The servers were very nice and professional, and I did feel the timing was well executed. It just felt weird the way they cleaned that table so vigorously after each dish.

          @estufarian
          To be honest the miss on the soundtrack did not ruin it for me, it was just a little mishap. But I did feel that the music choice (even though I'm happy the volume wasn't higher) could have been a little more "daring". Same thing with the video, while I enjoyed the stalactite sculpture, the videos themselves were almost always slideshows with images moving up and down... I like vague, I like subtlety and minimalism, I'm not suggesting they should have put fireworks and flicking images, I'm just saying there are some video artists out there that do some really beautiful ethereal works, very contemporary, and of high technical mastery, this was not the case.
          And since the food is supposed to be as modern as it gets, and the restaurant is described as "an experience", I felt they played it safe with the music and the video.

          @willyum
          Haha I'm glad you like it !

          1. Great review. Will start to do some trans-board stalking of you from now on.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Parigi

              Haha thanks Parigi !