Or, Gentlemen, Start Your Salivary Glands! – Or, Take That, Food Nerds!
By Meredith Brody
Anthony Bourdain’s gastronomic travels always have the power to inflame his foodie viewers, but this time Bourdain straight-up predicts havoc: before a minute has elapsed, in the pre-credit sequence, he throws down the gauntlet.
“No one has eaten as well as we have in this last week. No one in the history of the world. Food bloggers are going to see this show and they’re going to bleep their cage.”
Not content to leave it at that, he continues: “The very best of Western cooking. It’s unbelievable here. This is the best place in the Western world to eat.”
It’s not the first time that Bourdain has been to Spain, or, more specifically, the Catalonia region: Barcelona, San Sebastian, and other smaller towns in the region. He did an entire show, Decoding Ferran Adria, on the famously experimental chef of El Bulli restaurant in Roses, on the Costa Brava. (I remember being most envious of the simple grilled fresh seafood meal he shared with Adria at Adria’s favorite hole-in-the-wall place called Rafa’s, Calle San Sebastia 56, 972 254 003, also in Roses.)
Bourdain says that while trying to figure out where Adria’s passion and creativity came from, he realized that Spain was the other part of the equation. “Outside of Asia, this is it: the best, most exciting place in the world to eat.”
Yikes! Having just seen Vicky Christina Barcelona, in Woody Allen’s travel-porn late period, in which beautiful people live in beautiful houses and walk down beautiful streets and eat in beautiful restaurants in beautiful cities, even if they’re looking to murder each other (no, not in Vicky Christina Barcelona, in Allen's London travel-porn movies), I figure northern Spain is going to be inundated with new media-maddened travelers, with the “sort of sense of frenzied panic, a sort of need” that Bourdain inspires, even in himself, wanting to eat in a half-dozen places on the way to the place he’s going to eat.
“If you’re looking for the good stuff in the Western world, it’s no longer France – it’s here.” Them’s fighting words. Even more is this, promising: “Food porn so hard-core, so smoking-hot, that even I, jaded feed bag that I’ve become, get the gastro version of morning wood just thinking about it.”
Yikes again. I am able to keep my composure for his first few segments, even though the show begins with a visit to exactly the kind of old-fashioned tapas bar I adore, in a seacoast village called Villasar del Mar half-an-hour north of Barcelona. Taverna Ca L’Espinaler specializes in seafood both fresh and carefully canned under its own auspices, including razor clams, cockles, mussels, and tuna, but at what Tony calls nosebleed prices: over 150 euros for a 6-ounce can. I just can’t see myself standing and picking shellfish casually with a toothpick out of a thousand dollars worth of canned goods, as Tony and his friend do.
I also stay calm through the pastry chef Albert Adria, Ferran’s brother, assembling complicated desserts in their cooking lab, El Taller, for his new book Natura: a 30-second microwave angel food cake, eerily accurate “strawberries” molded from sorbet. A wacky modernistic chocolate sculptor who lets his huge chocolate eggs crater in the sun and then airbrushes them with matte and shiny glazes doesn’t drive me mad with desire: those eggs are 50 euros each. And though it looks impossibly picturesque, the sight of people dipping specially-grown grilled onions called calcots in romesco sauce and washing them down with red wine squirted from hand-held glass jugs with spigots called poron, in a festive event called a calcotada, also doesn’t get the juices flowing.
But at the half-hour mark, I begin to falter. Bourdain amps up the gastronomic stakes. He joins Juan Mari Arzak, chef of Arzak and his daughter Elena, for amazing tapas washed down with the fizzy chacoli at Bar Haizea: pickled banana peppers with anchovies, shrimp, tortillas, salmon mousse, pastries stuffed with tuna and mayonnaise, and others stuffed with bacalao. At Antoni Aduriz’ 3 Michelin-starred Mugaritz, “an important station of the cross on the international foodie trail for globe-trotting gastronomes looking for the next big thing,” per Tony, where dinner starts with you choosing between two cards – REBEL and SUBMIT – Tony chooses SUBMIT. “Cooking is about control,” he says, “Eating for me is about submission.”
He submits to potatoes baked in an edible clay shell contrived to look like a polished stone; melting gnocchi made with idiazabal cheese and a Japanese starch called kuzu; and grilled foie gras with sea urchin, which Bourdain calls “blackout good”, adding “In your face, food nerds!” – I agree with him that it’s “two of my absolute favorite ingredients”, but I would have no way of knowing whether it’s also “like having sex with twins.” The last two courses are beef painted to look like a lump of coal, burnt to a crisp but blood-rare within; and a dessert of moist chocolate cake, cocoa “bubbles”, and cold almond cream
Then, at the 45-minute mark, he eats grilled food directly off the special stoves of Victor Arguinzoniz, in his restaurant Extebarri in the remote village of Axpe: caviar, shrimp, an uncured fresh chorizo sausage, and baby eels. Though we can’t smell or taste the food, Tony is so transported that when he says “It’s no exaggeration to say when you’re eating at Extebarri, no one else in the world at that precise moment is eating better than you,” it’s easy to believe him. And wish you were there.
He winds up perhaps the most delirious hour of superlatives Bourdain has ever unleashed -- over several seasons of two different shows -- with a final meal at Arzak: boiled lobster with freeze-dried Spanish olive oil in an onion soup broth; slow-poached egg in an intense chicken stock seasoned with freeze-dried chicken, caramelized chicken skin, and an egg-yolk veil; and bronzed grilled monkfish served with a crisp wafer.
To make things easier – or harder – for Bourdain’s acolytes, the Travel Channel thoughtfully provides a page with links to help you follow in his footsteps, which also reveals the visits to an all-dessert restaurant, Espai Sucre, another tapas bar, Quimet & Quimet, and a meal at a farmhouse inn an hour north of Barcelona called Hotel Rural Els Casals that all ended up on the cutting-room floor. Oy vey. Maybe they’ll be on the DVD.
Foodies, start your engines. The show will be repeated on the Travel Channel on August 25th at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Watch it, but be aware it may haunt your dreams.