I am a social diner.
I crave cross-table interaction and I love the background noise of a busy restaurant. Few things twist the tedium tally upward like dining without companions or, worse, eating alone in front of a TV.
So I had my doubts about how well Seviche’s “dinner and a movie” night in late July would work … how 11 courses could be enjoyed visually when illuminated only by the flickering light of the video, “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” … how a team of servers could introduce and remove courses without, well, blocking my view of the show and creating distracting racket … and how my ADD brain could focus appreciatively and simultaneously on both film and food.
Chef-owner Anthony Lamas also had his doubts, mostly because he’d never done such a meal.
He knew the $125 per person ticket price was risky, too.
Yet it sold out weeks in advance and at a speed that surprised him — great news that also meant the pressure to perform perfectly was on. Doubtless, I wasn’t the only one thinking, “For that price, this flick and a feast thing better be good.”
Yet it wasn’t good.
It was brilliant. Possibly the best all-around dinner experience I’ve ever had in Louisville.
It wasn’t just a meal, it was an event, an exciting, exceptionally well-executed and unique two-and-a-half hours of entertainment. In the hyper-competitive fine-dining segment, such meals had better be different because the nickel required doesn’t come from couch cushions or piggy banks.
A restaurant meal is truly superb only when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It must be complete and stellar in all verticals—service, surroundings, food, drink—to be truly extraordinary.
And this was.
The movie choice itself hardly could have been better, a real foodie flick. (Click here to see trailers and clips.) Anyone familiar with Ferran Adrià, the brilliant chef who made his Michelin three-star restaurant, El Bulli, in Roses, Spain, the most sought-after chow house in the world, agreed to the filming of a documentary about the seaside establishment’s last year in operation (2011).
Some time ago, Lamas took his culinary team to see the movie at a theater in Nashville, Tenn., and he loved it so much that he bought the DVD and watched it twice more.
Addressing the 40 diners on hand for his dinner, Lamas insisted the meal would be less El Bulli and more Lamas than some anticipated. Still, what
was coming would not be conventional Seviche cuisine, he stressed.
“We’re going to have fun tonight because we’re doing a lot of things we don’t do here normally,” he said, as guests sipped heirloom tomato margaritas (imagine a bloody Mary with tequila and a jolt of orange). “We’re not about playing with our food: This is still about what Seviche does, infusing Latin flavors into our food in new and fun ways.”
The lights were dimmed and the procession of courses began: the first, “a nuevo mojito,” essentially the drink in gelled form and presented as an amuse bouche.
Next came a “nitro caipirinha” built on the classic blend of cachaca (“ca-sha-sah,” a spirit made from distilled sugar cane juice) and citrus and crystalized by liquid nitrogen. On a side table, and slightly out of view of diners, chefs vigorously stirred the liquid nitrogen (a cool -312 F) into a large bowl holding the cocktail. The nitro vapor, eerily visible in the low light, tumbled over the bowl’s sides and to the floor like a crude concoction by Uncle Fester.
The final bead-like texture entered the mouth frigid and firm before dissolving into a citrusy snow cream—perfect on a night when the temp was a searing 102 F.
As we grazed, the images on screen showed the El Bulli staff shutting down the restaurant—as it did every year for six months—to retreat to quarters where they spent months creating the coming year’s dishes. There the cooks produced hundreds of ideas subject to Adrià’s critiques,
tastes and re-tastes.
Without announcement, a dish dubbed “gazpacho textures” arrived. The deconstructed chilled soup included multiple gleaming spoon-sized domes of a geléed spicy tomato broth placed beside a brunois of celery, cucumber and onion. A pureed and frozen scoop of the entire mixture also was on the plate. The Goose Island 312 brew match was surprisingly perfect.
“Orange, olive, ice” came next: a collage of perfectly sectioned oranges and broad dots of ultra-finely pureed olives. (Lamas said the dots retained their shape with the help of a dash of xanthan gum.) Swiping the orange slices through the olive puree produced a dazzling collision of sweet and brine that were cleanly and quickly scrubbed from the palate with sips of Pierre Sparr Reserve Brut.
“Surely my favorite course,” I thought, until the “oyster, yuzu air, seaweed” serving arrived and delivered fresh doubts: a firm Barron Point oyster on the half-shell topped by a puffy cloud of salted sea air. The seaweed mound below the shell was delicious, served al dente and spiked with fresh ginger.
“Summer water” followed: a small glass of tomato water garnished with a golden globule of olive oil just visible in the light emanating from the screen. A chef buddy had texted me moments before to “Stay away from anything named summer water,” but he was the one who missed out. Served at body temperature, it tasted like a delicate broth; the splash of oil coating my lips soothingly.
As the movie reopening day at El Bulli drawing nearer, Adrià started showing the strain by needlessly browbeating head chef Oriol Castro over a single recipe—out of hundreds bound and collated in a binder in Adrià’s hands—not being present in his laptop computer.
Subtitles reveal his concern and evoke empathy for his dishwashers as the final menu consists of 35 tastes guests will consume over three hours … which means … naught into naught … carry the 1 … thousands of plates to wash by hand every stinking night!
While pondering such a pearl diver’s hell, ‘albacore, smoke and heat” arrived at the table smoking: a sashimi-style sliver of tuna presented in an anchovy tin shared a plate garnished with a dab of wasabi, red chile broth and spicy black radish. When released from beneath a brandy snifter, the smoke, born mostly of a smoldering black radish slice, produced a dramatic fog that snaked upward through the video projector’s light.
The meal’s lone wine (the variety of beverages was a fantastic touch), Paul Hobbs “Felino” Vina Cobos, an atypically bright Malbec with notes of raspberry and low acid, delivered a delightful switch leading to a course of mushrooms compressed in various juices. As the plate swept by my side toward the table, a contrail of truffle oil announced its arrival.
The Hobbs Malbec proved a solid match again for the “beef, potato bone, fried yolk” course up next. A diminutive section of beef tenderloin, cooked sous vide, stood beside a potato section carved to resemble a beef bone. Even its middle was hollowed to hold a cheese “marrow.” That was delightful, but not as dazzling as the fried egg yolk atop the tenderloin: separated from its white and frozen briefly in liquid nitrogen, the yolk was breaded in panko and fried. Placed atop the beef, a mere touch of the fork was all the force required to pierce its crispy exterior and send warm yolk cascading over the
medium-rare flesh. Just remarkable.
On the screen, service had started at El Bulli, and if it weren’t hard enough serving paying customers (prices for meals there averaged about $600 per person), Adrià sits, watching the kitchen at work and tastes courses as they’re prepared. He nods approval for some and suggests tweaks for others while observing the action somewhat trance-like. (Perhaps a profound state of relaxation allows for fully heightened senses?)
The evening’s final beverage pour, Evan Williams bourbon on the rocks, preceded a course of blended sweet potato mash, pine nut and manchego cheese: a clever and subtle transition from the nine savory plates before it.
I’m not a bourbon drinker, but the tingling sensation of the straight stuff cut nicely through the avocado ice cream closer designed to look like the real thing, pit and all. From a mold of a real avocado, Lamas’ team created an edible facsimile filled with avocado ice cream, a chocolate truffle pit and a splash of bourbon caramel.
Much like the entire meal, the conclusion was surreal.