In anticipation of Next's El Bulli menu (which starts tomorrow night—and no, tickets have not gone on sale yet), TOC embedded writer Heather Shouse in the Next kitchen as they held their friends-and-family service (a.k.a. "practice nights,"). The first post in this three-part series covers Next El Bulli’s unique service component; tomorrow Shouse delves into the food.
With the first official Next El Bulli dinner service merely days away, sommelier Joe Catterson is looking at the full menu on paper, tilting his head from one side to the other while his eyes dart up and down over the wine pairings. “This is just the first stab,” he says. “Almost everything here will change.”
Catterson has that freedom. And not only does he have the power to change the pairings as he sees fit, but he also has the power to walk back into the kitchen and tell chefs Grant Achatz and Dave Beran that their menu needs to be changed. “He came to us and said instead of doing it in the order we originally had it, he wanted us to drop the gorgonzola globe down later in the meal and move some stuff up,” says Beran. “He basically did his Joe Catterson magic.”
“Which he does often,” Achatz chimes in. “We’re trying to craft the best possible experience and if he says ‘look, this clashes with this wine so if we move it down it’ll be more fluid’ then I just go ‘okay.’ I think I’ve only told him no, like, twice…but Joe knows his stuff.”
While the chefs are in the kitchen executing the very precise El Bulli path, Catterson is working in an open field, with the option to go in nearly any direction that feels right. That's because El Bulli does not do wine pairings. Instead, meals start with cava, the bottle often left on the table to take diners through a few courses. When sherry arrives, guests have the option of sipping it through a few more courses, the glass refilled as it gets low. Ditto for white or red or whatever the diner feels like drinking that night. “I’ve never had a chance to talk to anybody from there and I’m curious, because I’ve never gotten to go there myself,” Catterson says. “But from what I’ve been able to read it’s not that pairings isn’t something they specifically didn’t want to do but it was more ‘let’s pick something that’s refreshing and diverting and you drink something you like.’ One of the quotes from Juli Soler [El Bulli’s maître d’] was ‘Well, we’re dictating what you eat so you might as well just pick something that you like to drink.’"
That doesn’t work so well for Catterson. His job is to give you what you’ll like to drink, even if you don’t know it yet. So for Next El Bulli he took a similar approach to Next Thailand by creating a pairing menu that mixes things up with wine, beer, sake and two different sherries, not to mention a shapeshifting cava cocktail. For the beer, Catterson collaborated with Half Acre to brew an ale accented with beets and oranges dubbed Sanguine and intended to pair with either a rabbit course or a concoction of bone marrow, smoked eel and nasturtium. “It should go well with those,” Catterson says. “But we’ll see.”
Characteristically casual about getting down to the wire for the first night of service, Catterson is still playing around with many of the pairings, making most of his changes after sitting down for the full meal at Saturday’s friends-and-family night. “Last night I tasted through a half-dozen sakes with that cuttlefish ravioli and found the one that’s just right, a junmai gingo from Kaetsu,” he says. “But what I’m really excited about is the cava cocktail.”
For that, diners are given an unaltered glass of cava just after the frozen caipirinha (the very first thing presented), the cava intended for sipping throughout the opening salvo of snacks: a tempura pocket of trout roe, the famous olive sphere, toast topped simply with avocado and anchovy, crackery bread ensconced in silky jamon Iberico. As the cava in the glass gets low, servers refill to just about two-thirds full while presenting a small vial of Pineau des Charentes (French fortified wine served as an aperitif) with a little bit of farigoule (Provencal thyme liqueur), which they instruct the diners to dump into the glass. After guests have slipped themselves the mickey, the golden egg course arrives, ideal with this new DIY cava cocktail. Then, as the cava gets low once again, servers return to refill. This time they present another vial of the same mix but also an eyedropper of Molaga muscatel (Spanish fortified wine) and Regan’s orange bitters. A few drops later and the resulting cocktail is the perfect pair for both the smoked foam and carrot air hot on its heels.
Non-drinkers get to play too, their cava cocktail replaced by a sparkling lychee-coconut soda that later is doctored with saffron and celery to rev up complexity. Server Bobby Murphy has taken ownership of the non-alcoholic pairings, intent on giving them equal attention so that passing on booze doesn’t mean feeling left out of the experience. For this menu, he’s come up with a roasted-golden-beet-and-apple-juice infused with carrot and black mustard seed, as well as a combination of rose tea, rosemary honey and peach juice, a drink derived from an El Bulli recipe. While Murphy works in the beverage station tweaking and tasting, John Schafer is intently trying to perfect tiny jelled booze cubes of Pedro Ximenez and añejo tequila, an idea of Catterson’s intended to mimic a sugar cube, to arrive with the meal-ending cortado with instructions to drop and drink. “We have some perfecting to do but we’ll see if we can’t get it right before Wednesday,” Catterson says. “And if we don’t, we do something else. It’s different in the kitchen but as far as beverage pairings, we can chuck anything at any moment, and then? Well, then we start all over again.”