Expectation is the blow-up doll of idealist emotions but how can you approach the new restaurant of the past decade’s greatest chef without a few projections? I was nervous, excited and hungry when I walked through the door of Tickets in Barcelona. Tickets is the brain child of Ferran Adria’s younger brother Albert, owned by both, and with ex-elBulli chefs and staff in key positions.
Located in the old theater district of Barcelona, Albert and his team went all out to create a vaudeville-style food fairground with witty detail and playful references to put you instantly at ease. So, there’s misconception number one cleared. You don’t have to get uptight about going to Tickets because they aren’t. After years of performing a tightrope act in the international culinary arena, Tickets is were the Adria brothers get to play. With La Vida Tapas emblazoned on uniforms, they’re going back to their roots and honoring the gastronomical heritage of Spain. Tapas is a way of life, of caring, sharing and savouring each bite.
There are several service stations, each decorated to a theme and responsible for a different style of tapas. We sat in La Presumida that references the beach bars of Barcelonetta, the city’s beach front.
I had a great view of the seafood station where Albert finished each dish before it went out.
I must admit I was a bit scared. What if I didn’t like it? I don’t trust foam and skid marks and blobs for the sake of blobs… I like real food. This was my first visit to Spain so I obviously missed the whole elBulli phenomena. A rudimentary google search will confirm their status as the prime exponents of molecular gastronomy, a phrase which has now fallen out of favour, and flavour, for that matter. The problem with being genius innovators is that you get copied. And although it is the greatest form of flattery, the ‘inspired by’ version seldom lives up to the real thing. Ferran and Albert are artists and artists tend to evolve. So, much like I don’t want to be reminded of that challenging hairstyle I sported 15 years ago, they’ve moved on and are comfortable describing their food as modernist. I only know that because a few days later, at their cocktail bar 41º, a barman deftly submerged what looked like a smoking ball into a drink and I said: ‘Ooo, a molecular cocktail!’ What a blooper. Albert set me straight and the-M-word-that-will-not-be-mentioned is now forgotten.
So, what did I eat? It’s an elBulli classic so why not start with the olive sphericals. Fresh juice from the finest olives turned into delicate spheres. They look like wobbly olives and once in your mouth, the lightest pressure makes them pop to release delicious flavour. A wonderful appetizer.
Followed by sangria watermelon. Just watermelon, lightly infused with sangria.
Service at both Tickets and 41º is excellent. A world-class combination of efficiency, knowledge, genuine hospitality, wit and kindness. Care is taken to explain each dish, irrespective of language-barriers. I sometimes feel that waiters in upmarket establishments in South Africa feign haughtiness to appear more accomplished…or to match their surroundings. Any which way, shake it. The Tickets crew made me feel so at home. After the olives and watermelon, and perhaps that little glass of Moët, I sat back with a huge grin on my face, ready for the main act. Or rather, for a succession of main acts, as is the tapas way.
Paper-thin slices of tuna belly rubbed with Iberian ham fat, served with a sprinkling of nuts and bread sticks. Read this again dear friends, slowly: tuna belly rubbed with luxuriously rich, smokey ham fat. The waiter explained the forest-meets-sea sensibility of the dish. ‘This is real food!’ I almost shouted at Victor, a new friend of mine and an old friend of Albert who knows the Tickets menu. ‘But of course,’ he said, ‘you can make all of this at home’, pointing at the now empty jar of olive sphericals. I know you can order spherification sets online – not that I’m buying – but even so, it’s the quality of produce that sets their food apart.
Airbags. Hollow, crispy pastry shells. Wonderful carriers for good stuff like Manchego, a flavourful local cheese, and cured ham.
Albert’s objective was to create a menu that would work for all ages. Kids are welcome at Tickets and there’s plenty for them to eat. Plus, you’re expected to play with your food. They even give you branded tweezers to help you along. Clearly, by now all fear of Frankenfood had made way for enjoyment. I love tomatoes and they served a wonderfully refreshing salad.
Chunks of tomato in what seemed like a jellied tomato consommé with a few drops of basil oil. I might be getting it wrong here but it was super tasty. Perfect with the tuna.
Using the spherification technique, a sea water pearl is created. A touch that turns an excellent oyster into a masterpiece.
At 16,50 euro the cep mushroom en papillote (in a bag) was my most expensive dish.
We had 18 different tapas and the bill came to just under 150 Euro, drinks excluded. Tapas start from as little as 4,80 for the oyster with pearl. Expensive but not excessive, if you consider the quality and expertise involved. Spain has been hit hard by the economic meltdown. Everyone talks about it. Just before or after they warn you about the pickpockets. At some point they pause and say…. ‘you’ve heard about la crisis?’… with a note of dread as if the plague has struck. Seen in this fragile context, it absolutely rocks that Tickets and 41º are booked out three months in advance. They don’t accept bookings further in advance and reservations can only be made online.
I spotted row upon row of bright gold cats and asked Albert about them. ‘From China,’ he laughed, ‘to bring in the money.’ I think these cats are going to do just fine.
I left Tickets feeling incredibly fortunate myself. And I have my friend Guy Harcourt-Wood to thank, who spoke to his friend in Barcelona – Victor Garcia – who grew up in the same hood as Albert, worked at elBulli during student breaks and knows everyone in the Barca restaurant scene. Without their help…I don’t even want to think about it. Victor was a star and organised that I return a few night’s later to have dessert. The show was not over. I had another ticket to ride! But first, we went to Lolita’s for Gin Tonic. The post-dinner drink of choice in Barcelona. And drop the ‘and’. It’s just Gin Tonic.
Tickets: Act Two. Keeping it sweet. I’m not a big dessert person but a few nights later I was back to try theirs. Ex-elBulli and now head chef of Tickets, Andrés Conde has a soft spot for desserts and recalls his kitchen debut – making instant pudding for his mom’s birthday at the age of 7.
I had six desserts. And they were superb. So delicate and airy you could almost inhale them.
The meringue here was incredibly light but what really set this dessert apart was the spicy, crunchy streusel base. With hints of cinnamon and fruit, it tasted like Christmas.
And then, in fairground fashion, the ice cream cart arrived.
According to Albert they wanted to have fun with Tickets. A lot of thought went into absolutely everything to create a bespoke environment that is stimulating, super enjoyable and totally unstuffy. So when my scoop arrived in this organic-shaped holder I at first thought it was a nod to Gaudi’s fantastical architecture. But no. I think it looks more like a ginger root. Doesn’t it?
At this point in time I’d say Tickets is the main stage in the Adria Theatre. But keep an eye on the fringe act, 41º. Destined for a revamp at the end of October, 41º will change into a 60-seater restaurant with an amazing bar. And a menu with 41 dishes to choose from. It’s here where the spirit of elBulli will resurrect itself. They already have old classics on the menu, like the parmesan ice cream sandwich with marmelade but the recipe has been tweaked and updated. ‘It’s almost like a mini elBulli in the making,’ I said to Albert. ‘No! It’s Big Bulli,’ he replied. Big plans for a small space. According to the younger Adria, his ‘chip is always open’ for inspiration to strike. It can only get interesting.
One of the cool things about 41º is that their head chef is South African Rob Roy Cameron. Rob is from Durban and worked in kitchens around Europe until a chance meeting with Andrés Conde took him to elBulli. I’ve heard chefs here claim elBulli experience but according to the elBulli crowd, Rob is the only SA chef to have worked there. Case closed. And put away that gadget if you don’t have a license.
I saw these at a distance in Tickets and was very glad to try them at 41º.
No. They’re crisps that look like tentacles. ‘It’s just rice paste,’ Rob shrugged. Rice cooked, pureed, piped, dotted with quinoa to create the little suckers, and cooked. They’re like super sophisticated seafood chipniks… seasoned to taste like grilled tentacles. All natural, all good, just bloody clever.
I also loved these. Fake pistachios are incredibly creamy little versions of the real nut. I raved. ‘It’s just pistachio and water,’ Rob said. And I could make them at home. Somehow I don’t think so. The yoghurt pistachios were equally delicious.
Their over-the-top, all-edible (except for the gooseberry leaves) dessert for two will retire from the repertoire when the menu changes in October. They only make five or six a night. I watched Rob painstakingly assemble this sugary wonderland and thought, honey, you’re fabulous but maybe too much work.
As with Tickets, bookings can be made online for an advance period of three months and 41º is as tough to get into. With the relaunch, perhaps even tougher. I leave you with a last touch of class from this incredibly talented team.
Now, when I think of my experience at Tickets and 41º, I remember amazing flavours and slinky textures. Real food by some of the world’s greatest chefs, who also happen to be very kind people. Muchas gracias.
I’m not done with Barcelona. There’s more to come. Dinner at Dos Palillos, black rice, Lolita’s and shopping for Tickets at the amazing Boqueria fresh produce market. Follow me on Twitter @kitchenvixenSA for updates.
Click here for the live review of Tickets on SABC3 Expresso Show. We ran out of time but the good news is, I’ll be reviewing 41º and another great restaurant by an ex-elBulli chef, Dos Palillos, on Expresso, 28 September.