Lenny Ann Low discovers Ferran Adria's new Barcelona tapas bar has signature elBulli dishes - without the price tag.
On a hot summer's day in Barcelona's Paral-lel district, a top-hatted ringmaster ushers people past a box office-style marquee. This is Tickets, the latest restaurant venture for brothers Ferran and Albert Adria, formerly collaborators in the most famous restaurant in the world, elBulli.
The three Michelin-starred restaurant, which catapulted Ferran to fame and introduced a style of food that still influences chefs and excites diners, is no more, of course. After being named the world's best five times, it closed last July.
In 2014, its site, a two-hour drive north in the Catalan seaside town of Roses, will reopen as a foundation dedicated to culinary creativity.
But now fans mourning elBulli's demise can rejoice. The star chef brothers' revolutionary take on food and drink is alive and being served by waiters dressed as old-fashioned cinema ushers at Tickets, a tapas bar, and 41°, a cocktail bar next door.
The ringmaster leads us into a bright, spacious room with floor-to-ceiling windows, garlands of lightbulbs and coloured glass shades hanging from the ceiling.
Chefs work at five food and drink stations - La Presumida (seafood, oysters, charcuterie), La Estrella (beer and cocktails), Nostromo 180286 (cheese serums, sparkling mayonnaise), El Garatge (meats and Catalan dishes such as pa amb tomaquet - tomato and garlic rubbed on bread), and dessert stall La Dolca. There is also a bar space near the door called the "madhouse" or "Marx Brothers' cabin", which acts as a meeting place for "rogues and swine".
La Dolca is the brainchild of Albert, who was pastry chef at elBulli for many years. He is responsible for the ice-cream cart being wheeled around the room, the candy-floss machines and an edible tree adorned with sweet treats.
The waiting list may be lengthy for Tickets - you can book only through their website and the waiting period is two months - but on this Saturday afternoon the diners are not showy, celebrity types. Casually dressed and low-key, the clientele match the restaurant's relaxed vibe.
In contrast with elBulli's formal dark, wooden beams and white-clothed tables, Tickets, which opened three months after 41° last year, are whimsical, full of colour, playful shapes and images. Diners sit in pastel green and pink love chairs. Hearts or boy-girl profiles form the chairs' backs. Tables are small, resin or outdoor-style metal or long, white, organically shaped eating bars with ivy growing from mini-gardens set within.
The Tickets website shows videos of Ferran and Albert with collaborators, the restaurant-owning Iglesias family, mapping and transforming the once-uninspiring ground-floor space into this quirky, happy food fun fair.
In the video Ferran piles cardboard boxes to mimic food stations and trestle tables to emulate customer seating. Two years later the floors are covered with trencadi, a disjointed Catalonian tiling effect. Red-and-white carnival awnings hang in the corner, pastel-hued metal chairs, resin-topped tables and fabric-covered stools line the room, and dishes such as elBulli's famous exploding olives are being served.
Ferran Adria once described his food as "magic", not because it was delicious - though it is - but because he and his food collaborators wanted to play with diners' minds.
"The most important thing is to make people happy," he told The New York Times while running elBulli. "But the second sometimes is to give them something to think about."
In the carnivalesque environs of Tickets I am thinking very hard about Albert's tall fruit-flavoured candy floss tree being meticulously created nearby. Beautiful and delicate, its edible features include flowers, mint leaves, glitter, berries and soil made from chocolate.
Our table has already marvelled at the heavenly, caterpillar-like Avocado Galician crab cannelloni, the finely sliced, home-salted tuna belly painted with cured ham fat of jamon de toro; and the delicate "mini air bags" stuffed with manchego cheese, Iberian bacon and bubbles made from hazelnut oil.
The famous elBulli olives arrive. Ferran has said Tickets will not serve dishes from elBulli but cannot avoid the popularity of these exquisite, gossamer-skinned globules of reconstituted olive. Served from single silver spoons, they pop in the mouth, leaving an intense oily olive flavour.
Next, pescaito frito with Galician seaweed powder. Served in cones of red-and-white paper and declaring, "This is not a tapas bar," it resembles petrified underwater plant life but is wafer-thin fried fish. Then rabbit ribs with foamed garlic mayonnaise, followed by "liquid ravioli", which is another gelatinous wonder, issuing the taste of pasta-less cheese ravioli.
This is followed by marinated salt cod with tomato nectar and black olive powder, and refreshing cubes of watermelon soaked in sangria with cinnamon, lemon zest and mint. I'm wowed by the Adria cuisine trademark - experimentation and artistic expression - but also by the intensities of flavour.
Albert Adria, who has been working in the kitchen, now circulates among the tables. He visits while we eat his almond molten cake with apricot sorbet, and asks if we are happy. "You must be happy when you eat here," he says, his cheery face and curly blonde hair creating the appearance of Harpo Marx in a chef's uniform. "That is what we want most."
He recommends a visit to 41°, the brothers' smaller bar space next door. "Come back at midnight or so," he says. "Too quiet before then."
Hours later, when the sun has set and the streets are alive with people walking to dinner and drinks, 41° is close to full. A darker, more late-night space, it is furnished with smoky-hued, '60s-style decor featuring translucent bull's heads mounted on the walls, iridescent yellow lighting at the bar and lipstick-red buttoned couches.
A wave of Adria-designed cocktails arrive. Mars Attacks, creamy and fruity with elderflower liquor, apple juice, Ramazzotti and a dill foam.
As slow, loud funk tunes fill the room, snacks including bleached, coral-like pistachios wrapped in yoghurt sugar, and reconstituted pistachios perched on a rock are devoured.
It's 2am and hot as we leave 41°. I float happily along the crowded streets, adrift in the fantasia-like wonders of the Adria brothers' magic.
Lenny Ann Low travelled courtesy of Accor Hotels and Rail Europe.
Emirates has a fare to Barcelona from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1920 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Barcelona (7hr 30min); see emirates.com. Qantas has a fare for about $2570 low-season return including tax. Fly via Singapore and London. See qantas.com.au.
The boutique Pullman Barcelona Skipper hotel, Avinguda Litoral 10, near Port Olimpic, is 2.6 kilometres from the city centre. Rooms have views of the Mediterranean or city. The hotel has two pools and the restaurants Malbec and Syrah. Rooms cost from €180 ($229) a night. Phone +34 932 21 65 65. See accorhotels.com.au.
Tickets, Avinguda Paral-lel 164, 08015, Barcelona. Tapas from €3 to €16. See ticketsbar.es. 41º cocktail bar is next door. Book online from 60 days in advance.