Monday, March 15, 2010

World's best restaurant a surreal experience

The BD Team found this fabulous article on smh.com.au, so read on and discover more about the world's best restaurant…

The unique exterior of Teatre-Museu Dali, Figueres.  
The unique exterior of Teatre-Museu Dali, Figueres. Photo: Martin Moos/Lonely Planet

Nothing is quite as it seems as Helen O'Neill enters the upside-down realm of Dali and the world's best restaurant.

My brush with surrealism began long before I left Australia for Europe. It started late one night in Sydney, with the arrival of an email carrying unexpected news.

I had won the gourmet equivalent of Powerball. Against the odds (with an estimated 2 million people applying for about 8000 places), I had secured a table for two at El Bulli, the semi-legendary Spanish eatery voted best restaurant in the world five times.

Once the dust settled, the planning began. El Bulli's chef, Ferran Adria, a man renowned for extreme cuisine, is dubbed the Salvador Dali of the food world. His restaurant seems eccentrically remote from major cities, yet in terms of artistic inspiration its placement on Spain's north-east Catalan coast is spot on.

When it comes to surrealism – that fantastical, Dali-led, early 20th-century movement aimed at unleashing the mechanics of the subconscious mind – this is the real deal. Dali was born, worked and died in this region. "Other worlds exist ... inside ours," he once said. "They reside in the earth." And nowhere are they closer than here.

But how to reach them? By sleeper train, from Paris, we decide. There is there something irresistibly appealing about literally dreaming one's way into the landscape of Dali. Plus, the Paris-to-Barcelona "Train Hotel" is named after Joan Miro, another surrealist maestro. Perfect.

Our journey begins at Gare d'Austerlitz, a Parisian station named after a Czech town (it's Napoleon's fault), and as we step into the grandiose stone, steel and glass structure a sense of vive le traveller resonates about us. Until, that is, we try to get on our train.

About 25 million people use this station every year, so you'd think they would be used to this sort of thing. Yet boarding the Joan Miro involves the kind of scramble generally reserved for Boxing Day sales. The "system", if you can call it that, goes like this: everybody waits, the train is called and then everybody rushes on at once.

Fighting through the crowds, we squeeze down Joan's long, shadowed corridor and dive into our roomette's comfy armchairs. Before we have time to ask, "How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?" (Answer: "Fish."), we're saying yes to dinner now (at 8.30pm) rather than at 11pm and being shuffled straight back down the corridor to the dining car.

We sit down, sip our welcome drinks and feel the train pull away. Dinner begins. The food is good, the service speedy and by the time we're done our roomette's armchairs have apparently dissolved and reformed themselves into beds with tiny train chocolates nestling on the pillows. As we tuck ourselves in, our bedroom speeds south, floating over the French-Spanish border around daybreak. Twenty kilometres later it pauses at Figueres, where Dali was born in 1904.

Waking up on trains is always rather disorientating, particularly when breakfast features a waiter singing, "Yes! We are in Spain!" at the top of his voice. Other than that, and the eggy concoction placed in front of us, things don't seem too bizarre. Yet.

When Girona appears, we jump off, negotiate a hire car and drive towards Roses, the nearest town to El Bulli, on a road that slices through fields of huge sunflowers. Their listless, yellow heads all face our destination. Now that is weird. Or is it? No. We are driving towards the sun.
At Roses, we take a break at a cafe offering shade from the already blazing heat. The waiter, used to Spanish, French and English speakers, takes one look at us and instantly decides which language to use. "Beer?" he asks, flatly. I check my watch. It is 10am.

They say Roses was once a sleepy fishing community. You wouldn't know it now. This is the Costa Brava, the once dreamy coastline gutted and redeveloped during the Brit-led tourism explosion of the 1980s and, at first glance, Roses seems to fit right in.

It has beachfront high-rises, shops selling sombreros and burger bars with signs saying "Bien venidos a Wimpy". But it also has surprises, such as a huge archaeological park called the Citadel. Here, for €3 ($1.83), you can roam through the ruined remnants of blood-soaked civilisations dating back to 776BC. And then, because the Citadel offers free Wi-Fi, you can check your email.

We trek through the dusty backstreets of Roses to our hotel. It was the cheapest I could find – well, we are about to blow €230 each at El Bulli. Our room is the cheapest this cheap hotel has to offer; beyond the reach of both the lift (which stops on the level below) and air-conditioning.

By now it's really hot so we leave, driving out of town along narrow, mountain roads that wind through olive groves and rocky bluffs. The route is punctuated by ultra-fit, lycra-clad cyclists.

In the blink of an eye we're at Cadaques, the seaside settlement where Dali supposedly discovered "modern painting" in 1916 after seeing the locals catch fish using wooden rods and dotted lines. Believe that and you'll also believe that back then you needed an artistic licence to fish here, which is why it also attracted the likes of Picasso, Duchamp and Miro.

Today, the first thing that hits you about Cadaques is its commercialism. This steep, historic fishing town escaped the developers' bulldozers but its higgledy-piggledy laneways and white-walled, terracotta-roofed homes are dripping with Dali memorabilia. There are more melting clocks for sale here than you could throw a stilt-walking giraffe at.

Yet beyond the souvenirs (and the suspicion that a real surrealist gift shop would have no door) lies mystique, beauty and an ever-present sense of the danger of the sea.
Cadaques' church overlooks the roaring waves from high above. From the outside, it looks like just another picture-perfect Mediterranean house of worship but inside lies a huge, spectacularly eccentric, 17th-century baroque altarpiece; a nightmarishly excessive mishmash of saints, symbols and disembodied cherubic heads.

Apparently fishermen used to tie live lobsters between the carved angels, perhaps to claw back some good favour with the ocean. Today's church is sadly crustacean-free, so we scuttle back off to Roses, find some tapas and put ourselves to bed. Tomorrow is El Bulli.
Early next morning we drive to the edge of this surreal world, the furthermost point of the Cap de Creus National Park. This stunning peninsula is seriously weird. Walking here, in summer at least, is like entering a Dali painting.

More bone-scape than landscape, the lunar terrain is dust-dry, heavily eroded and almost treeless. Its cliffs are bleached and its perspectives warped. You can almost see the artist's gargantuan rock figures emerging seamlessly from it.

Legend states this place was created by Hercules. Good sense suggests the best way to see it is to get up early and have breakfast at one of the cliff-edge tables at the cafe perched at its peak.
Wear sturdy shoes to deal with the uneven walking tracks and pick up a map from the visitors' centre. Even so, assume you will get lost – the maps here make about as much sense as Dali's politics.

Spending a morning at Cap de Creus frees you to take an afternoon tour of the home Dali shared with his wife, Gala, in the nearby village of Port Lligat. Stepping into this labyrinth – all twisting tunnels, warped windows and staircases which seemingly lead nowhere – feels like walking into an Escher. Built from several fishermen's shacks, it is a sensory supernova, with gigantic white concrete eggs on the roof, stuffed white swans in the library, white Michelin men beside the pool and an oval lounge room (white, of course) designed so whispers can travel along the walls.

Dali left this convoluted construction for the last time in 1982 after the death of his wife. We leave to head back to Roses, get ready for dinner, and drive 12 kilometres along yet another of these steep country roads.

It is finally time for El Bulli.

The moment we arrive, we're ushered into Adria's stainless-steel kitchen to see his team of chefs at work. One is leaning over a dry-ice machine with what looks like a yellow balloon in his hands. He bursts the rubber and an ostrich-egg sized version of Dali's roof sculptures appears suddenly.

Turning it quickly in the smoky liquid nitrogen, he sprinkles dust across his egg's shell-like surface. Coincidence? In this landscape, there is probably no such thing.
The curious thing about El Bulli – perhaps the world's most surreal restaurant – is that it feels like a perfectly natural extension of this beautiful part of the world.

It overlooks a quiet, secluded beach and initially it appears conventional enough. The decor is comfortably chintzy, with wood-panelled detail and the odd understated chandelier. There are pictures of the bulldog the eatery is named after and a smattering of other, relatively conservative artworks on the walls.

But then there is the food.

Our evening begins with "cocktails" (mojitos and caprianas compressed into short stubs of sugar cane) and "nibbles" (objects looking like olives and peanuts that burst in the mouth releasing pure concentrates of their namesake's flavours).

In the 32 dishes that follow, Adria does gastronomically what Dali did visually, combining unexpected natural treasures (rose petals, pine leaves and dew) with more predictable elements; from the high end (think abalone, scampi and oyster) to the humble (cockles and pig's tail).

The Dali egg turns out to be a frozen coconut dessert, which our waiter breaks open, sprinkles with curry powder and tells us to eat fast, lest it melt between hand and mouth.
The moment, like the rest of this remarkable meal, is a confronting melange of science, theatre and sensory overload. It is wonderful but unexpectedly exhausting.

The following morning we drive 20 kilometres to the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, the self-described "largest surrealist object in the world". Dali designed this to be the epicentre of his hallucinatory world and it is considered his greatest achievement.

There are about 1500 artworks here, including holograms, sculptures, a Michelangelo-style ceiling painting of Dali and Gala and installations occupying entire rooms. Giant Dali eggs sit on the roof, a Cadillac with what looks like a rainforest growing inside it is parked in the middle and a frozen audience of huge, golden dolls watch the visitors.

This hyper-theatrical dreamland flows from the beginnings of his art to the end of his life. Literally. He is buried in the crypt beneath – experiencing his work means walking on his grave.

We exit stage left to head home. On our flight, the trolley dollies try to flog us whisky in plastic sachets and flight-friendly "cigarettes" requiring sucking, not lighting. The in-flight magazine offers cameras to strap on our pets so we can film what they're up to when we leave the house.

Have we cracked, or has surrealism been superseded by consumerism and that is what's gone crazy? Either way, you can almost hear Salvador Dali laughing.

Helen O'Neill travelled from Paris to Girona courtesy of Rail Europe.

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