I was lucky to have been able to book one of the sold-out tables for the Tokara Tribute to El Bulli, the number one restaurant in the world for many years, in honour of its alchemist chef/owner Ferran Adria, who served dinner for the last time at El Bulli last night. Tokara Chef Richard Carstens’ advertised eight-course dinner became a 13-course feast, and was a fitting tribute to a chef who created Modernist Cuisine, and who is best known for deconstruction and molecular gastronomy.
Last night we read on Twitter that some of the world’s greatest chefs were at El Bulli, to ‘celebrate’ the end of a magnificent era. Chef Rene Redzepi from Noma in Copenhagen, the world’s number one restaurant for two years running, Tweeted regularly, and kept one up to date about the 50-course (yes, not a typo!) dinner, even Tweeting photographs as the list of dishes were ticked off. He unfortunately Tweeted more photographs of the chefs present than of the food served. While the dinner at El Bulli probably would have been impossible to obtain a seat for, what we experienced at Tokara last night was world class, and confirms that Richard Carstens is South Africa’s best chef, and that Tokara deserves to become the number one Eat Out Top 10 Restaurant in November. It did help that sole Eat Out judge Abigail Donnelly was present, and that she pronounced her satisfaction with the meal, and expressed how happy she felt Chef Richard appears to be at Tokara. It is the first time that I have seen a restaurant ‘audience’ give a chef a standing ovation, when Chef Richard and his team came out of their hi-tech kitchen.
The UK online Big Hospitality site writes that El Bulli was ‘the most influential restaurant in the world’. It opened 21 years ago near Roses in Spain, and operated as a 3-star Michelin restaurant in their summer months. The restaurant won the number one spot on the S. Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant for five years, a spot relinquished to Noma in 2010. However, Adria was crowned the inaugural Chef of the Decade at the awards ceremony in April. In the winter months Adria and his team would work in Barcelona, experimenting to create 40 new dishes for his 40-course dinners for the season ahead. Some of his best-known dishes include Mimetic peanuts, foie gras noodles, deconstructed Spanish omelette, and a sherry glass with potato foam, onion puree and egg-white sabayon with deep-fried potato crumbs. Despite a two-year waiting list for a €250 per person table, El Bulli was reportedly making a €500000 loss annually. Adria will reopen a new Barcelona-based restaurant in 2014, as a non-profit Foundation of avant-garde Gastronomy. Twenty chefs and five other staff will work on ‘creating new, innovative cooking techniques and experiences’. “Adria and El Bulli’s achievements over the past 21 years will forever be heralded as the catalyst for the new trend of modernist cuisine, and with a bit of funding and hard work, Adria will continue to lead the way for gastronomy for years to come”, the site wrote.
We were welcomed with a glass of Colmant sparkling wine, included in the R500 price tag. I told Andy Fenner that I would have paid any price to not have missed out on last night’s dinner, so special it was, and so clever an idea. No South African chef is more capable of having recreated Adria’s special cuisine than Chef Richard, our own ‘Ferran Adria’, and long a fan of Adria’s work, which he had first read about in 1998, he told me. Chef Richard said that Adria changed the way of modern cooking, and he was so impressed that he bought the annual El Bulli books Adria wrote about his recipes every year, and had them translated into English. Two years ago he met Adria in Cape Town, and cooked for him with Topsi Venter at a Design Indaba event. Chef Richard described Adria as the Dali and Picasso of cuisine, and his admiration of this guru is evident.
The list of 13 courses was simply typed on a double-sided menu (most only saw the one side initially, and the list of six dishes on the front side was impressive enough already). While the words described what was on each plate, and the waiters did a superb job in expanding on this information when presenting each plate (even in Afrikaans at some tables!), one would have wished to have Chef Richard explain each work of his alchemy, but he obviously could not be in two places at the same time. For most, his description of the ‘scientific’ preparation of what he served last night would have been difficult to grasp or replicate. I enjoyed a glass of Eben Sadie’s Sequillo 2006, a Shiraz Grenache blend, with my dinner, costing R45.
A bread basket with a baby slice of seed loaf and an ‘air baguette’ was the most ‘normal’ item served during the evening! Each of the courses served was a surprise in terms of the beautiful plating, and the mouthfeel in terms of texture and taste.
Course 1 was a shot glass of white sangria suspension, in which tiny fruit pieces were emulsified with Xantan to make them float at the top of the glass, and to not sink down. This was served with a plate containing smoking citric domes, using liquid nitrogen and a trademark Adria technique, as well as pieces of cucumber, papaya and caviar.
The second course was a ‘sandwich’ of frozen Mojito cloud made from egg-white (the cloud was inspired by Chef Michel Bras, I was told by Chef Richard) and I was told to eat it by hand – it was surprisingly firm enough to do so, and had a refreshing minty taste. No matter how Chef Richard explained the technique to make it, it seemed unbelievable to have achieved this, and to make it 60 times over for the dinner! This came with a ball of strawberry sorbet served on Szechuan soil (made from Szechuan pepper, butter and flour) on a smear of almond cream.
Course 3 consisted of olive sfericas – they were olive-flavoured domes but in liquid form, set with gel, a tribute to Tokara and its olive wealth. With this was served parmesan marshmallows, olive oil rocks, black olive puree, and balsamic gel cubes.
Course 4 was a piece of cob, a sushi cloud tasting of sushi elements topped with salmon roe, miso (fermented soya bean) puree, yuzu fluid gel, miso sfericas, and wasabi, on watercress emulsion with basil seeds, a very colourful presentation.
Course 5 was a smoking study in tomato, with liquid nitrogen creating the smoke, and on the colourful plate was tomato presented blanched, and as skin, paste, puree, gel, sorbet and tartar. Also on the plate was avocado, goats milk cheese cream, olive oil paste, and corn puree.
Course 6 was meant to be served with soya glazed eel, and I asked to have this excluded from the dish. Instead of accepting my request, which would have made things easy, Chef Richard added crispy duck in its place, and it was served covered in gari (home-made pickled ginger) foam, on yoghurt, with enoki mushrooms, ponzu dressing, rocket emulsion, and edamame beans, an interesting contrast created with the warm duck and the other elements being cold.
I liked the ‘Chicken Curry’ course, deconstructed with chicken breast, a ball of curry sorbet, a tumeric crisp, and served with coconut foam. The curry sorbet was a delight – one associates curry with heat and bite, and not to be ice cold!
Chef Richard told me that Adria always has one ‘conventional’ course, and this was often pork and prawn. Chef Richard’s interpretation was beef (the most tender slices) and prawn, served with liquid centered gnocchi, shitake and shimeji mushrooms, mange tout, spring onion, a Cantonese jus, and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Course 11 was called ‘Smashed snowball”, and the sugar syrup and citric whipped cloud looked exactly like its name, served smoking too, with a ball of strawberry sorbet, linking back to the strawberry sorbet of the second course, so completing the cuisine circle, Chef Richard explained.
As if we had not had enough to eat, course 12 was called ‘Chocolate textures’, and consisted of frozen white chocolate mousse, frozen dark chocolate mousse, chocolate branches, dark chocolate sponge, chocolate soil, cremeux, bits of honeycomb, mint emulsion, and a dusting of cocoa powder!
With my cappuccino came the last course, called ‘Morphings’, Chef Richard saying that he was not sure why Adria had used this word for the friandises. It consisted of white chocolate and naartjie caramel, a mini Magnum ice cream, white chocolate and black olive crisps, and beetroot powdered marshmallow.
Tokara restaurant owner Wilhelm Kühn must have been extremely proud of his team last night, including Chef Richard of course, as well as sommelier Jaap-Henk Koelewijn and the professional team of waiters, none of whom seemed phased by the daunting task of getting the many ‘smoking’ dishes out to the tables quickly, and to remember where in the sequence of thirteen courses each table was! GT Ferreira, owner of Tokara, told me he is very happy with his new restaurant, and I shared with him my Eat Out prediction, which made him even happier! We had met at La Touessrok three years ago, when he brought plane-loads of friends to Mauritius to celebrate his 60th birthday there.
Gracias senor Adria and may you delight the cuisine world with new inventions in your ‘next life’! Thank you Chef Richard Carstens for an unforgettable evening, and may you continue to re-invent yourself, to bring us more of your cuisine talent!
POSTSCRIPT 3/8: In the weekly Eat Out newsletter editor Abigail Donnelly wrote about the Tokara El Bulli tribute dinner on Saturday evening as follows:
I am reading The Sorcerer’s Apprentices at the same time as the rather significant elBulli restaurant serves its last supper. The book is a behind-the-scenes look at a restaurant that has changed the face of modern cuisine. It describes how mastermind chef Ferran Adrià ran the ‘world’s best’ award-winning establishment and, in the process, trained the next generation of culinary stars. On Saturday night the stars certainly shone at Tokara in Stellenbosch. Chef Richard Carstens took centre stage to pay tribute to Ferran, his mentor. Although elBulli had a brigade of the best chefs in the world creating 50-course dinners, the magician Richard performed his own magic by preparing a clever and curious 13-course feast for his guests. I have followed Richard and his playful concoctions of nitro foams, spherifications, gels, suspensions and textural plates since his time spent on the KZN South Coast at Lynton Hall, and have enjoyed his passionate readings and translations from a few Spanish chefs. I believe that night I tasted Richard’s best food yet. The dishes were smart and beautifully executed without losing the emotional component of the dish – those layered flavours. Ferran has announced that elBulli is not closing; it is merely transforming, and its soul will remain. Indeed, there is plenty of Richard’s soul at Tokara, and a whole lot of admiration there too”.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage