El Bulli del Barrio: Adrià Brothers at “Tickets”

Posted on November 7, 2013

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Entrance to Tickets in Barcelona (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

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El Bulli del Barrio
(originally published in Gourmet Live)
by AnneLise Sorensen

A circus master, in top hat and coat, greets me at the entrance. He parts the velvet rope with a solemn nod. Inside, a film reel unspools on its side, a cotton candy machine sits on the counter, and a dancer Rockette-kicks on an old El Molino cabaret poster. There’s also a woman with an artichoke for a head.

Tickets in Barcelona (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

“Welcome to the show,” says Albert Adrià, with a grin.

This is Tickets, the theater-themed Barcelona tapas restaurant that Ferran and Albert Adrià opened earlier this year.

Tickets was inspired by the surrounding neighborhood of Parallel, which in its  heyday was Barcelona’s cabaret district, anchored by the neon-flashing El Molino – Barcelona’s Moulin Rouge. Showy and seedy, El Molino was the kind of place where you’d see “live nude girls” and drag queens in smeared makeup smoking outside.

El Molino closed, and after 13 years, reopened in October 2010, a celebratory revival of its burlesque tradition, false eyelashes, pasties and all.

Albert Adrià is doing something similar at Tickets. Minus the pasties.

Marquee lights frame the entryway, promising dining as “espectáculo,” while on the plate, it’s “a dialogue between cocina de vanguardia and the traditional,” says Albert.

He smiles broadly: “The other day, ten tables in a row said to me, ‘que divertido, que divertido, que divertido!’ (‘how fun, how fun, how fun!’). That’s my objective. That people have fun eating serious cuisine. That they like it.”

That we like it. It’s almost startling to hear – to like versus appreciate – but that’s the kind of accessible dining that Albert is cultivating here.

Albert Adrià at Tickets (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

There are spherified olives and quivering quail egg yolks, but also an ice-cream cart, with a green-and-white striped awning. But most of all, it’s about La Vida Tapa – the restaurant’s slogan – where eating out is as much a social occasion as a gastronomic one. Tickets channels the spirit of those dark old-guy tapas bars you see across Spain, where seating is at the bar and dame una cerveza (gimme a beer) is hello. It’s old-fashioned tapas with a touch of El Bulli, served in Pee Wee’s Big Top.

I was in Catalunya to interview both brothers – in the same week: Ferran at El Bulli (before it closed) and Albert at Tickets. When your brother is the most famous chef in the world, might there be a smidge of sibling rivalry? Or, perhaps a weariness of hearing his name from the lips of every interviewer? I’m delicately planning on how to begin, when Albert beats me to it:

“When we first opened, guests would ask me, can you get me a table at El Bulli? I’d say, well, no. And then they’d say, okay, what here tastes most like El Bulli?”

He continues, “There was huge interest in Tickets from the beginning, because everyone wanted to know, what’s Ferran going to do next?”

“It’s being called El Bulli del Barrio,” he says.

Albert’s culinary DNA is stamped with El Bulli. In 1985, at age 15, he dropped out of school to join older brother Ferran at the restaurant (the early years, says Albert, were “very hippie…  almost like living in a commune.”) He established himself as the pastry chef, eventually wrote a book on El Bulli desserts, and in 2006, he opened  the very popular Inopia Classic Bar in Barcelona.

“At El Bulli it was Ferraris; at Inopia, it was Fords. Here it’s a bit of both,” he says.

Would that make it a Saab? (Or maybe more of a Kia – the hamster car?)

Meat counter at Tickets (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

Product as Protagonist

 “At Tickets, the product is the protagonist,” says Albert.

We’re talking about how Catalunya’s cuisine is rooted in the region’s remarkably fertile and varied landscape. My mother is Catalan, from Cervera in Catalunya’s heartland, and I had grown up spending summers there, weaned on Mediterranean cuisine – olive oil instead of butter; wine over water. In our family, we ate tomatoes like apples. And allioli? It was our ketchup. (On this note: I conducted the interview with both Albert and Ferran in Spanish. I’m fluent enough, but even so, I had spent the last few days walking the streets of Barcelona murmur-practicing to myself – pluperfect? or subjunctive?)

Albert takes me through the evolution of a dish at Tickets: “El tartare de tomate,”  he says. “Tartare de tomate,” he emphasizes, and then jumps to his feet, smiling at me over his shoulder. He returns, holding a tomato, and places it on the table. We both look down at it. And then, with a flourish of the wrist, he pulls the top of the tomato off.

It’s a ceramic tomato bowl, and the tomato tartare goes inside.

Que divertido, que divertido, que divertido.

That was the original dish but “for a touch of El Bulli del Barrio,” says Albert, “we took out the tartare de tomate, put it on a plate, added a quail egg yolk, some watermelon to take away the tartness of the tomato… and now it’s “alta cocina’

On the menu, there’s also tuna belly carpaccio, “painted” with the fat of Jamón Ibérico; and rabbit ribs served with allioli foam. (The ribs are tiny – so tiny – that for a tender moment, I understand why people are vegetarians and almost consider it myself. Almost.)

Pescadito frito arrives in a paper cone, like fish and chips at a seaside resort, but here the fish are the chips, and dusted with seaweed and kimchee. You can sometimes still see the octopus suction cups, but rather than soft, like tongue on tongue, they’re crunchy.

It’s a dish that seems to exemplify Ferran’s description of Tickets as “the informal model of the ‘taste of the Mediterranean.’”

Tickets in Barcelona (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

From Sea to City

The view at El Bulli is a sparkling blue Mediterranean cove, and sometimes a bird flapping into the sky. At Tickets, it might be a taxi driver cursing out the window (joder!… )

It’s a difference you can feel the moment you walk in: At Tickets, there’s a certain looseness. Hanging in the window are cut-out paper thought bubbles that pose questions like ”What is Tapa?” A mini helicopter made entirely of Coke cans dangles over the meat counter, looking very Etsy (bordering on Regretsy). You almost feel like humming La Vida Tapa to the tune of Livin’ La Vida Loca.

In contrast, at El Bulli, it was as if everyone had drunk from the same cup of ardent perfection. The kitchen thrummed impressively like some top-secret laboratory, where young trainees in white aprons and white rubber gloves worked in an almost Sci-Fi-movie unison. (I became nearly hypnotized watching a young woman dipping the tip of her pinkie finger into an avocado-green mixture. Dip, pull out, and then she’d touch it to a glass tray to create a tiny circle – the size and, impressively, the shape, of a hole-punch. She did this over 100 times.)

Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

Kitchen at El Bulli (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

Food as Art

The brothers, and Ferran especially, are inevitably compared to another Catalan artist: Salvador Dalí. One’s the surrealist on canvas, and the other in the kitchen. When I had asked Ferran about the parallel, if any, between food and art, he comes out with one of those comments he’s famous for – simple, almost folksy, and yet when you hear it you can feel a shift in your thinking: In the end, he says, it doesn’t much matter if cuisine is art, but “if it changes the way you look at the world.”

He follows this with what may be my favorite comment on food every uttered: “There is no strange food. Only strange people. People are the way they are. Let’s take the head of a shrimp. If someone’s open to new tastes, they’ll suck it. If not, they won’t.”

Ferran Adrià at El Bulli (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

The physical similarities between brothers are noticeable: close-cropped curly hair, a slight build, a frank gaze. But what stands out is the attitude, or, better said, the lack of an attitude. Both have a – how shall I put this? – no-BS approach. They’re plainspoken philosophers – two guys with humble roots (Ferran started out as a dishwasher) who are now breathlessly courted by the most sophisticated palates in the world.

Tickets itself isn’t too far away from where the brothers grew up, the working-class Barcelona suburb of Hospitalet.

“I’m very proud to be from there,” says Albert. “It has changed – a lot. It used to be more like… Harlem. He thinks for a moment, and then: “Or the Bronx. The Bronx from the 80s.”

He makes this comparison warmly, respectfully. New York City, he says, is where he’d most want to live if not Barcelona.

Getting a Table

Nabbing a seat at El Bulli became as much of a story as the food itself. (2 million request yearly; 8000 granted.) One of the reasons that Ferran said he closed the restaurant was because his life had become about getting someone a table.

How about at Tickets: Is getting reservations more Ferrari or Ford?

It’s far easier – after all, this is livin’ La Vida Tapa  – but demand still trumps supply. Each day, online reservations open up for three months in advance, but they’re quickly snapped up. But, there is another way in: At the adjoining, low-lit cocktail lounge, which serves superb bar snack versions of the Tickets menu, plus potent mixed drinks, you can often book just a couple weeks out.

“So, what’s the future for Albert Adrià?”

He pauses. “Ser feliz.” (To be happy.)

At interview’s end, Albert goes to change his clothes, emerging in gold-trimmed chef whites. Sponsor names – Estrella, the cursive Coca-Cola – are discreetly printed in grey on the sleeve. The marquee lights are flipped on, the red carpet unfolded, and the first guests walk up.

It’s show time.

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Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

Ferran Adria’s El Bulli (Photo by AnneLise Sorensen)

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Posted in: Barcelona