In 1997, El Bulli, got it’s 3rd Michelin star. In 2002, it was named restaurant of the year. Back then, lead times to super-restaurant-stardom were still a matter of years, rather than months. (Check out Alma: Best New Restaurant in America 2013. Now, no sooner is the accolade laid on then the book comes out, all marinating time has been discarded. I find the lack of build up unsatisfying, like eating before you are hungry.)
There was plenty of build up with El Bulli. I watched Cooking in Progress (a film which proved that exciting food to eat is the exact opposite to make) and read Lisa Abend’s Sorcerer’s Apprentices. But by then El Bulli had already announced its impending closure, dashing my hopes of experiencing a meal there. But the silver lining is that Tickets opened soon after. It’s not El Bulli but there are El Bulli dishes, you don’t have to drive up a windy road to get there and it’s much easier (but still very hard) to get a table.
It turns dining on its head. When I search for the adjectives with which to describe the experience, ‘delicious’ seems besides the point. Instead “silly”, “unexpected”, “deceptive”, “fun”, “irreverent”, “textures” are more fitting. Instead of a fork and knife being laid out in anticipation of the meal, I get tweezers. While at Comerc 24 I marvelled at the use of large rocks as serving plates, here it’s all gravel and pebbles. (I wonder, does the gravel get washed after every plate is returned to the kitchen or is it recycled? How does one wash gravel? Do they lay them out on miles of tea towels to let them air dry?)
The space is fitted out like a circus. Aspects of it; like the plasma screens running documentaries featuring Ferran Adrià and flanked by scores of Maneki-nekos waving their gold paws, are cringe worthy. It could very easily not work, I would go further and say it should not work.
But then there are two things that happen. The food (obviously) and exceptional service. Tickets may be funny to behold but those two elements are still treated seriously and with respect.
I am greeted at the door by a beautiful hostess in a top hat and a face so closely resembling that of Rebecca de Mornay that I wonder if she may have changed vocation? Hollywood likenesses continue, my server has the bubbling-just-below-the-surface-energy and spinal curve of Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck (“So I bake; bread, bread, bread.”). At my request, he presents all the dishes in Spanish, supplying just enough information to make it interesting but not so much to make it feel like school. Active service is key to a successful meal experience, flabby service is like a limp handshake: momentarily unpleasant and quickly forgotten.
Eating alone has its perks. Usually, it means that you get more attention from the staff. It also means I am able to observe things. The minority of the servers wear shoes with gold stripes and ‘Tickets’ stitched into the leather in small copper buttons. I speculate that these are the long-termers and that since the ‘Tickets’ shoe scheme was introduced it may have been dropped as many were lost by way of eBay. The servers and kitchen communicate with each other and keep stock of service through a complicated electronic interface that looks like the miniature abbreviated data of stock markets. The bartender has a walkie-talkie.
Much has changed since the day that Francois Vatel killed himself when the fish delivery did not arrive (on time – the irony is it arrived shortly after he died). Now eating for amusement, expecting to be surprised is not reserved to Kings called Louis. We can all take part. With the miniature dishes (generally) coming in at €4.50, you can decide how much you want to spend. I left it in the capable hands of my server who kept it coming until he saw me start to sigh a little with effort and then asked if I was ready for dessert? Would I prefer more chocolate or fruit flavours? How do I feel about a coffee dessert?
I will not give you an account of every dish I ate (there were 19 in total) nor will I inundate your screen with pictures of the dishes – what I will say is that you should try it. It’s a veritable Cirque du Soleil of a gastronomy experience. It’s fun. And yes, it’s definitely worth the hype.
Avinguda del Paral·lel, 164,