It’s not easy emerging from a big brother’s shadow, particularly when he is Ferran Adrià. The Spanish culinary innovator revolutionized fine dining with El Bulli, becoming arguably the most influential chef of the 21st century. At age 15, Albert Adrià dropped out of school and joined Ferran at El Bulli, working every station in the kitchen. He quietly remained in the background, helping to fashion the boundary-breaking dishes that consistently made El Bulli the number-one restaurant in the world.
In 2011, six months before Ferran closed El Bulli, Albert opened 41º as an ode to the art of molecular cocktails and bar snacks. “I purposely wanted to create a space so people would feel that the soul of El Bulli continued to be alive,” said Albert when I visited him in El Barri, the Barcelona neighborhood where today he houses his concepts Tickets, Bodega 1900, Hoja Santa and Enigma.
The Michelin-rated Tickets, which scored 25th place in the 2017 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, opened right after its predecessor, 41º. During that first week, I was seated with two-Michelin-star chef Andoni Aduriz and his associate Susana Nieto when the mollete de papada adobada con queso—a light steamed round brioche filled with slow-roasted Iberian pork sprinkled with Spanish adobo seasoning—arrived at the table. As I took my first bite, abandoning myself to savory ecstasy, Susana yelled, “I knew it! I knew this was so good it would make you cry!”
At Bodega 1900, Albert dives into the old Catalan tradition of drinking vermouth (or vermut) at rustic eating houses that serve salted products, confits, marinades, chargrilled dishes and tapas. Start with the house vermouth coupage and an order or two of Cantabrian anchovies, canned cockles, and tapas that includes the restaurant’s exceptional Iberian ham, El Romero de Salamanca, and Iberian loin, better known as Joselito. Accompany this with sides of crispy bread with tomato, then move to the above-mentioned dish that made me cry—an original Tickets classic, now only served here.
Helmed by chef Paco Méndez, Hoja Santa impresses with ancestral Mexican recipes re-envisioned by Albert Adrià. A few of its treasures: raw fresh almonds with avocado sorbet, banana-dough empanadas with black beans, and prawns over corn toast accompanied by a potent shot of shrimp broth.
The most recent of the gastronomic “homes” that make up this foodie ’hood, Enigma is Albert’s most accomplished expression of culinary complexity. And while I shouldn’t divulge everything we ate and saw—the restaurant’s name is applied quite literally—I have to share a few highlights. Once you score a table at Enigma (it serves up to 28 people a night), you are sent a code that opens the doors on the day of your reservation. The décor is a futuristic fantasy, with a ceiling of clouds made of aluminum mesh. During my first visit, Catalan chef Agusti Comabella and I, hardly containing our expectant giggles, entered through a winding corridor resembling an ice tunnel. During the next four hours, we were waltzed through six separate spaces and tasted more than 40 dishes.
In the first three rooms, we enjoyed a spoonful of precious fresh teardrop peas, a Parmesan sphere, a cube of nori topped with a generous dollop of caviar, and a dozen more bites, all of which were a preamble to the main dinner that would occupy most of our time. In this larger space, with views of a metallic open kitchen, more than 16 dishes were served without any explanation, forcing us to decipher what we were eating. Alongside Dom Pérignon 2006 appeared a small crystal bowl filled with frozen black beads atop a transparent gel. Our server asked if we could tell what it was, and I guessed frozen caviar with some kind of gelatin. She replied, “You are right about the caviar, but the transparent gel is the rennet of cream.”
We just decoded our first main course: caviar with crème fraîche. Other dishes must remain mere clues: a composition of green soupy textures, a slice of raw beef with a mustard dressing, and artichokes in disguise. At the end of the evening, we were led to a backroom closet and told that we had reached our “final frontier.” Instructed to open a door and keep its contents a secret, we found ourselves at the place where the entire culinary journey began. With a single tear running down my cheek, I understood how visionary the Adriàs really are.