We don’t ask if a dish is “good” or “bad.” Here there’s no such question. Our question is: Does it make your hair stand up on end? Is it magic?
Night Four (final night): We once again head back to the El Raval neighborhood and to 41 Degrees, our second Adria brothers restaurant, located next door to Tickets. And that’s where the similarities end. If Tickets didn’t engage all five senses, the concept at 41 Degrees is specifically about engaging them all. Perhaps that’s why it’s called 41 Degrees Experience. The restaurant is small, with just sixteen diners a night consisting of four two-top tables and two four-top tables. Similar to Tickets, you make reservations sixty days in advance, but you need to reserve a full table and put down a non-refundable fifty euro per-seat deposit. The six tables are seated in rotation starting at 7:30pm, with the last seating at 8:30pm. These are early reservations for Spain, but with the “experience” clocking in at just under four hours you need to get an early start.
The idea is this: fourty-one courses are served consisting of about fifty bites, tastes, and sips, in a culinary trip around the world that the servers guide you through. There are some elBulli classics served here, as well as many other unique and new dishes, all with the common goals of intense flavor, gorgeous and pain-staking presentation, along with surprise and magic.
As we approached the restaurant anticipation was running high. I was so excited and had intentionally saved this reservation for our final night, expecting it be unsurpassable but also fearful of being disappointed. I was also a bit nervous. This felt so exclusive, and I wasn’t sure if we’d feel comfortable or if we’d fit in. We like to eat good food whenever and wherever we have the opportunity, and we made it through our first Michelin star experience the previous night, but this seemed like a whole different level.
Thankfully, any fears were immediately removed upon arrival. We had an 8:30pm reservation and were the second-to-last table to be seated. The space was gorgeous. Dark and moody, it felt more like a hip, sophisticated bar, and nothing like a stuffy fine dining establishment. I also think we got the best seats in the house. Close to the front of the restaurant and seated side-by-side instead of across from one another, we had a view of the entire restaurant and bar, and therefore all the action, in comfortable black leather club chairs. An art installation called Frosted Rain by Javier Milara consisted of crystal shards suspended from the ceiling that surrounds diners with an ever-changing visual landscape and audio accompaniment that developed along with the mood and geography of the food. It also cleverly concealed lighting that very precisely highlighted the center of each table and every course that was carefully presented.
The service was stellar. Despite the fact that it was a carefully choreographed ballet, with different servers switching off for various courses, a sommelier for each wine pairing and bartenders that take their shaken cocktails very seriously, and despite the fact that they clear the table of every spot or crumb between each course and the silverware is changed whether you’ve used it or not, it was completely relaxed and comfortable. The staff were friendly and put us at ease. Each dish was carefully explained, starting with where you’re at in the journey geographically, what the ingredients are, how you’re supposed to eat it (eat this piece first, followed by that sip, etc.), and what parts of the presentation you should not eat. Several of the courses were very elaborate and there were decorative components not meant for consumption. Everything was so highly intricate, and like nothing I’ve seen before, that there was no way to know on your own what could or could not be eaten.
How then to describe the food? Each dish was an artistic arrangement of color, texture and composition. Every vessel unique and specially designed for the dish it held. Most of the food was eaten with fingers, but many were fragile and you had to be very careful. It was like being in an expensive shop where you nervously pick up a ceramic tchotchke and wonder why you were compelled to pick it up to begin with because of the consequences should you drop it. Although, in this case, the reward if you didn’t drop it was a delightful, surprising explosion of flavor the likes of which you could never have anticipated.
Our journey started with Vermouth. A burlesque cocktail was poured over an over-sized 41 Degrees inscribed ice cube, and the first amuse-bouche was presented reminiscent of Japanese ikebana. It included delights to pick off the ground and pluck from branches. A wasabi raspberry, a fallen orange, and an autumn leaf. This was followed by the most simple but delightful spherified kalamata olive with a dried tomato and a single bite of feta cheese – each eaten separately. While the latter may seem overly familiar, it didn’t taste like any olive, tomato, or feta cheese you could ever imagine. The next stop was Pizzicato Five. I’m not sure I can say what that means, other than I know they’re a Japanese pop band. There were bites, such as almond tofu with caviar and crispy seaweed with quinoa, which looked like octopus. We also had an elBulli classic, the Iberian ham airbaguette – the best ham sandwich you could ever dream up. The ham was wrapped around the outside of a very thin, crispy “baguette” that was filled with air. Fantastic.
Next stop was the Nordic landscape and toast topped with fish, sweet onion, and dill, presented in a snowy landscape. That was followed by Mexico and a sweet corn ravioli that you ate while sucking on a lime. Next was Peru with a Don Pedros taco, which made me think of an extravagant lettuce wrap. Then came Vietnam with a mini banh mi sandwich; Japan with kaiseki sea urchin; China with a faux shark fin soup; and the Mediterranean with the 41 Degrees version of steak frites. We then arrived at Sweets, which included a classic lemon cupcake where you eat everything in one bite, including the wrapper and a bloody orange drunken bonbon. The journey ended with a display of mignardises, which included a peach pit and a black sesame rock. There was so much more at each geographic location, but suffice to say nothing was what it seemed, either by name or by sight, and it was a pleasure to surrender to every bite and sip.
Even though both the food and drinks at times sounded or looked complicated or precious, the tastes were often startlingly pure and not at all fussy or inaccessible. There’s a leap of faith you take with each bite, and a trust you give to the chef that is essential for a meal like this. With that willingness to give up all control for an evening you are rewarded with subsequent delight (usually), followed by a lot of grinning and squealing. This food is fun. And all of that makes it magic. It really can’t be explained and needs to be experienced first-hand, but it’s been a consistent theme for each of our meals in Barcelona.
Would we go again? In a heartbeat. While 41 Degrees is Albert’s baby, in The Sorcerer’s Apprentices Ferran said of elBulli, “We don’t ask if a dish is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Here there’s no such question. Our question is: Does it make your hair stand up on end? Is it magic?” I would suggest this also whole-heartedly applies to 41 Degrees. And to Ferran’s question: the answer is an emphatic “yes.” Yes, it was magic, and one of the most memorable and fantastic nights of my life. It was also, by far, the most expensive meal I’ve ever had. While I realize not everyone can afford to go here (we certainly had to plan and save for it), I would go again without hesitation. If we make it back to Barcelona, this will be the first reservation I try to secure. The only thing I would do differently is to make it when we don’t have to get up at 6am the next morning to catch a flight, so we can linger after dinner and enjoy more cocktails and further expand our experience.