When I traveled north from Rio de Janeiro to a town about seven hours away by bus I had no idea what to expect. I was heading to Vitoria on the recommendation of a dear friend and her word was more than enough to send me off the beaten path in search of flavor. I wasn't concerned with what I might try while there, I just wanted the experience. I knew that the chefs had trained at the great El Bulli and that they were good friends of good friends and that was all of the information I had in my back pocket when I strolled into the restaurant.
Settling in at a corner table tucked away from the entrance, the bright lighting was unlike anything I've even encountered at a restaurant before, especially at night. Looking back, I realize it's so that each dish is seen for the perfection it is. With no shadows or dim lighting to camouflage the colors and textures, the brilliant white light highlights the experiences your eyes and mouth are playing with.
At the end, when we were presented with our printed menus, we were blown away to see we had time traveled through 33 courses. That might seem like a staggering amount to eat but believe it or not it took less than three hours. With each course taking around three bites, I left comfortably full but not in any way uncomfortable. I've spent the last few months reliving this meal which was absolutely incredible, to figure out exactly what has had me reminiscing about the flavors, surprises and absolute beauty of the meal.
The number one factor that has kept this meal in the forefront of my mind was the feeling of wonder that so many courses brought to me. From dishes that looked like one ingredient but were actually another, to the depth and complexity of others. There was never a course that passed by without some element of a "wow that was cool". That's pretty special 33 dishes later.
What could have felt forced and dragged on slipped by with barely a moments notice and as we exited into the balmy night we were shocked at how quickly time had passed us by. As we all know from appointments at the dmv, feeling like you have to wait for something isn't fun. But here, whilst we were so enthralled in the flavors, the night had grown longer but not as long as we had might have feared. It was almost as if we had entered a different dimension where time sometimes moved forwards and sometimes went in reverse. It's a sort of mystical feeling to get so lost in the moment that you have no grasp on time.
Looking back if I were to sum the meal up in two words I would say the experience provided me with wonder and warmth.
Looking back if I were to sum the meal up in two words I would say the experience provided me with wonder and warmth. These two feelings made a incredible meal otherworldly. Have you ever noticed that you can be somewhere stellar, but if the server and you don't quite connect the meal just isn't the same? This can be a tough balance to find, especially when you enter a restaurant that does this many courses. It's hard to stay on for that long sometimes as a server (trust me!). It really takes both parties being active in the experience.
Let go of time, worries, stress and just relax.
Being an active participant and allowing your wonder and awe to come shine while eating the artwork that a chef created go a long way towards forming a bond with the team. Being present in the flavors, textures and presentations is a must. Food doesn't need to just be food, let it be a piece of art and explore it. It doesn't have to become too cerebral but just having an open mind can let you get swept away in the magic of the moment.
This menu was created with the intent of sweeping your feet out from under you and carrying you away into the corners of the chefs imaginations, but that only works if you are ready and willing. If we had resisted, the magic would have begun to disappear and fade. So maybe that is the last important key of having a meal that stay with you longer than the nourishment does.
The wonder and warmth and incredible flavors will only take you so far if you don't actually let go. Let go of time, worries, stress and just relax. Know that they are there to take care of you. The very idea of a restaurant is that the chef is inviting you in with a promise that they will make sure everything is as close to perfect as it can be. And guess what, if it's not quite perfect, remember that there is beauty in that too.