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Sunday, March 09, 2008

L'Esguard: quite possibly the worst meal of my life


The usual caveats apply and all that, but, in my opinion, I might have finally eaten at what was quite possibly the worst restaurant in the world. Not that I wasn't forewarned; I should have taken note when Rafael Garcia Santos, the One Man "Michelin Guide" of Spain, contorted his face into something quite indescribable when I told him we were going to eat at l'Esguard. I should have listened to many other concerned souls who pointed out that Roses—and the legendary elBulli—was really not that much farther from Barcelona. One person pulled out a mobile and offered to get us a reservation, even.

Alas, I was determined, pigheaded, I should say. I had already been to elBulli, but was yet to try l'Esguard. We were sticking with our plan, we would not be swayed by anyone, not even the lot of them. Our resolve was, sadly, resolute.

You could hardly blame us. The chef, Miguel Sanchez Romera, has a back-story that is more than intriguing: a brain surgeon by day, and an haute cuisine chef by night. Ok, it's more like two and four days a week, respectively, but you get my drift. Quite an iconoclast, Sanchez Romera famously denounced the inclusion of his restaurant in the Michelin Guide for Spain. Whether he had done that pre or post the not-so-favorable mention in said guide is up for question, however.

I knew things began southwards not long after we entered the beautifully restored 16th century building. Lining the walls of the reception room were photographs of the food. Beautiful yet strangely sterile, they were blown up, spotlighted, and posed as if to demand no less than worship from the unsuspecting diners passing through the corridor.


The hostess's reception gave me yet another pause. Before we were allowed to see our table, she insisted on giving us a tour of the "beautifully restructed" 16th century villa, to see the wine "cellar" with "more than 500 different types of wine" and the cheese aging cellar where they aged all their own cheese. Frankly, the whole thing was more Disneyland than anything gastronomically inspired. The wine cellar was lined with glass, as though intended for a spectacle and hardly the protection and aging of the delicate wines. The cheese cellar-–though had been there since the 1700's--was nothing more than a hole in the ground with two or three mesh-door cabinets stocked with cheese. Bernard Antony doesn't need to close up his operation just yet.

By then we were tired, hungry, and more than a little annoyed, but there was hope yet. We were finally led to the staircase leading up to the second floor dining room, where we shall, hopefully, soon be seated and, also hopefully, fed. Then, only two steps up the stairs, she stopped, turned around to us again, one arm motioning—in the best imitation of a stewardess showing that the best exit may be behind you—toward the cubes just beyond the stairs. "And here we have built the toilets", she said. I scoffed, and kept walking up the stairs.

Finally installed at our table, I was more than ready for some serious nourishing. The table was quite precious, each place setting with its own directed light, illuminating the plate as though it was artwork. Beautiful plates they were, and I was ever so hopeful of beautiful food that would soon fill those plates, and my belly. Alas it wasn't to be, at least not yet. Instead we were presented with a manifesto. Don't ask me what's in it. I just couldn't be arsed to pay attention. It began with some absurd notions about god and creation and whatnot. I put it aside, thinking I'd read it when I got back, perhaps after some food and drinks, a lot of drinks. (FYI, I did read it again at home, well-nourished and well-sloshed; it was no less absurd.)

What is it with chefs and manifesto these days? Seriously. We get it. You don't just randomly put stuff on plates. You've got a grand idea. But you know what? Sometimes all we care about is if your grand idea tasted any good. Because if it isn't, then it's just a big pile of crap.

This chef has got a grand idea alright, and it came in the form of Micri, a special magic powder he invented himself. It's a sort of hydrocolloids made from, as I understood it, cassava starch. It's basically used to thicken or stabilize stuff. In the kitchen at l'Esguard, the chef fashioned it into some sort of butter and into transparent, tasteless, and odorless wrappers he uses in place of ravioli wrapper, sauce, and, basically, everything.

Back at our dining table, the chef's grand idea came early. And often. Quite relentless, really. It arrived first as a clear wrapper for a mini "ravioli" of potato with oddly fishy fillings and an aromatic sauce. Then it came as a sort of "lasagna" replacing the traditional pasta with clear Micrifilm®. The novelty of it was intriguing enough the first couple of times, and then it just became a bore. It didn't taste bad, mind you, but it had this very odd, plastic-y texture that refused to melt properly in your mouth, sort of similar to how agar-thickened jellies shatter rather than melt in your mouth like gelatin-thickened jellies. The Micriflim seemed even more sturdy than agar thickened stuff--not entirely a good attribute if you asked me.


A square soup plate arrived, laid with palette of freeze-dried vegetable powders so intricately arranged there was hardly a grain out of place. No Micri, I let out a sigh of relieve. Alas I spoke too fast. The waiter arrived to lay sautéed vegetables artfully atop the colorful carpet. The vegetables were gleaming with what I first thought was butter, but which somehow didn't taste the least bit like it. It was, instead, oddly inoffensive tasting yet with the sort of gummy, viscous texture that was not entirely pleasant. Yes, it was Micri, MicriButter to be precise. Another server arrived to pour a vegetable consommé, intended to blend with each square of the vegetable powder and create a new amalgam of flavors. Unfortunately, the liquid was neither hot enough nor in large enough quantity to completely dissolve the powder, leaving the broth oddly grainy and, again, not entirely pleasant to eat.


Oh, no, and we were yet done with the Micri. The next dish was a piece of otherwise innocent—if not entirely pristine—salmon wrapped in clear Micrifilm. I was too bothered by the plastic-y Micri to be able to tell you how the fish was. I may have even given up before I got to it.

This was bordering on the ridiculous. All the plates were gorgeously composed, mind you. Illuminated by the specially directed light, each plate was more beautiful than the last, but this was hardly lunch anymore. It was an absurdly curated exhibit: Micri dans tous ses états. There were more food to come, some sort of seafood dish that smelled of a fish market at the end of the day—no, that's not a good thing—and some pigeon roasted or smoked in something or another, seemingly Micri-free but so vastly overcooked it wasn't worth chewing.


The only saving grace of the savory portion of this meal was the cheese cart, filled with interesting local cheese that I devoured with delight, or was it ravenous hunger? I couldn't really tell anymore. The cheese course was—to the palpable relief of the table—Micri-free, but our luck ran out at desserts: white chocolate ice-cream, thickened with Micri powder, came wrapped in a shining Micrifilm® blanket "who hints flowers and fresh herbs", and some sort of gelatinous white chocolate (again!) soup, also more than likely stabilized with yet more Micri.

We were not quite yet done with the meal, but were "sent" instead to luxuriate with coffees and teas and mignardises in the comfortable library. That part was quite fun, the chef's cerebral approach to cuisine in apparent in his collection of cookbooks from everywhere. I had fun browsing through the shelves, though I must say the fun subsided more than a bit when I found a book on the coffee table, flagged and underlined. I'll leave the content to your imagination..


The petits-fours were little "handkerchiefs" of choco-Micrifilm® and gold, filled with chocolate truffles. I stared at them in disbelief. It's really time to go.


Click here the see the full set of pictures from that meal.

P.S. Please don't ask how much the meal was, the memory of the food alone was painful enough.

P.P.S. I sat on this post for a very long time. I wasn't so sure if I wanted to post it, but I kept getting asked about this on email, so finally I decided to go for it. Take it however you want, this was just my opinion.


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