El Bulli - the legendary restaurant, a star of the contemporary culinary stage, that closed its doors last July was recognized as the best restaurant on earth for five years in a row, receiving pretty much every imaginable award and renowned the world over as the most unusual culinary adventure one could possibly enjoy. In some sense it is among the few fresh legends the globe has had to offer in our postmodern chaos - El Bulli not only led to a global explosion in extraordinary cuisine; it changed the relations mankind has to food.
However, in reality, El Bulli hasn't actually disappeared - it has simply taken on another life. The Adria brothers (Ferran's brother Albert being a genius in the realm of pastries) opening a new tapas bar in Barcelona last year. It's called Tickets, and there's also a cocktail bar called 41, next to it. Once again they were pioneers - this time not only in gastronomy, but also in transforming an entire neighbourhood. The Poble Sec district where Tickets is located is known for its proletarian past, stretching back into the 19th century. The factory chimneys of La Canadenca still stand, and the area still retains part of its industrial aura - but as with any such quarter, once a place is affected by the alternative scene in a certain degree, total transformation cannot be far behind.
In the 1940s, the main artery in Poble Sec, Paral-lel Avenue, was known for its nightlife, lined with cabarets and bars. The shine came off - but current plans call for restoring Paral-lel to its former glory as the Broadway of Barcelona. After fifteen years of silence, once of the iconic cabarets opened its doors - El Molino, Barcelona's take on Paris's famous Moulin Rouge. Tickets is only about twenty metres beyond it, on the other side of the street. It opens precisely at seven, but there is no chance at all of wandering in - you definitely need a reservation, which can only be obtained via the Internet (exactly at the midnight), at the restaurant's homepage. In theory, 80 places are up for grabs. The waiter later tells us that the reservations are snatched in a few seconds - the mythical character of the place is cultivated as carefully as that of El Bulli. Arriving is part of the adventure - a crowd teems at the entrance before Tickets opens, and while waiting you get a show through the windows, the team of twenty receiving its last instructions before the hour strikes. The interior and the waiters' uniforms are in homage to the "Broadway" past of the neighbourhood. It's like a carnival. The entryway is like that of a circus, with the maître d'hôtel, wearing a top hat, checking reservations under a sign that says TICKETS in lights. Hams and strings of onions hand nearby, as they do in any classic tapas bar. There are also TV screens showing scenes from El Bulli's vanished kitchen, and kitschy golden Chinese cats wave hello. The lamps look like they've been taken from a Christmas tree. The crazy decor lets you know that this is definitely not El Bulli - you can relax, and the place is far bigger, with 123 seats. This is not a place that accentuates status. You can consider it a kind of El Bulli taken off its pedestal and made available to a broader public. In terms of what's on offer, however, nothing is different - the challenging, extraordinary cuisine hasn't changed one bit.
It may be that the Adria brothers simply needed to cut loose from the formality of their famous restaurant. Instead of offering the summits of the culinary arts to a select few, any snobbishness has been abandoned in order to get rid of the myth that fabulous gastronomy is only meant for the elect. Just as great music isn't confined to opera houses - neither is unbelievably creative cooking. Both brothers were in attendance when we were there - Albert in a white chef's uniform, Ferran in an everyday suit; unlike at El Bulli, his constant presence isn't necessary. They chat with the customers and seem completely at ease in the carnival atmosphere.
Though Tickets does have a menu, unlike El Bulli, it is best to surrender to the surprise, as it is called - that way you will savour about three hours' worth of marvels, about half of them reincarnations of hits from the legendary cliffside restaurant. The surprise starts with green olives - which turn out not to be olives at all, though the jar they are taken from does indeed look exactly like an olive jar. "You have to eat these in one bite," the waitress says - such suggestions accompany most of the dishes, including advice on which instruments to use when eating each food. Though the slightly quivering olives that aren't olives taste like olives, they have the consistency of quail eggs - it's like eating a liquid olive encased in a thin membrane, and strangely thrilling. Then there are slices of tuna belly painted with Iberian cured ham fat, with bread sticks - the waitress warned us to eat the bread sticks separately, not mixing the tastes. There are cod skin chips and oranges in olive sauce, razor clams with ginger oil, cayenne pepper and lemon air, miniature "airbags" stuffed with Manchego cheese and Iberian bacon... but the names are one thing and the experience another. What happens to your senses is impossible to describe. You think you're eating one thing - but it turns out to be somehow exactly opposite. The play of texture and various intricate, clever pranks make you feel as though each dish is an entire symphony. You are sometimes warmly caressed and refreshed simultaneously. Even supposedly simple things like lamb ribs melt in your mouth. Though each dish follows the other as though in an endless succession of acts in a theatre, they are perfectly balanced in taste and in quantity, so that you are never, ever bored and are actually drawn deeper, as if by the intrigue of a thriller. You can endlessly distract yourself, too, staring at the cotton candy tree, for instance, where cotton candy floats like clouds in the branches decorated with fruits.
Then there is the performance taking place at the tables all around you. I don't think I've ever experienced a space so charged with such positive emotions for such a length of time. Diners are as thrilled as joyful children by every marvel that arrives - and doubly thrilled when they taste it. You can dine here for hours, but the intensity of the flavours does not diminish. The textures and tastes come in waves. When the evening is over, it is as when the curtain falls on a perfect performance. You can soar above the earth, it seems - and afterwards you will never doubt that gastronomy is a true art. It is - and here it is a great art indeed.
Avinguda Paral-lel 164
Keywords: restaurant, restaurants, Barcelona