Having been married to a man passionate for food science and world travels for Michelin starred cuisine, Chef Albert Adrià was one of his many chef celebrities. He first spread his creative wings with El Bulli, which was the world’s top restaurant until its closing in 2010. Chef Adrià continues his molecular adventures with Spanish restaurants such as Tickets, Bodega 1900, Pakta, Hoja Santa, Niño Viejo, Enigma, and the recently opened Cakes & Bubbles in London.
My ex-husband influence has shaped me a lot as I grew in my own love for food and wine. Spain has always been my home-away-from-home since university. When I first saw Chef Albert Adrià was coming to Portland and would be hosted at Ataula, I knew I couldn’t afford to go. I sent the information to Jason in hopes that at least one of us would attend. Imagine my shock when I received a note from him saying he scored one last ticket, and he’d gift it to me if I could have Albert Adrià sign his copy of Natura. The gift was huge and the task not impossible, but certainly not one I wanted to mess up.
WARNING: So much happened in this evening, I couldn’t seem to edit down this recounting. There are two parts: the meal itself, and the interaction I had with Chef Albert Adrià after the meal. I hope you’ll read it all!
The staff at Ataula has been a part of my sherry journey from the beginning and I’ve always felt at home whether I’m visiting for tapas or a special limited-seating dinner. Fueled by adrenaline, I arrived too early on this arctic cold evening. Chef José Chesa greeted me with a kiss on each cheek before he kept on task in a flurry of orchestrated movement. You could feel the anticipation by both back of house and front of house staff as guests arrived. Most guests mingled with their friends while enjoying a boozy otter pop of gin, cranberry and “son of man” Basque cider. The evening was running behind as we waited for the guest of honor to arrive from his many speaking engagements coordinated by MEETHECHEF.
We sat at our assigned seats and chatted while sipping on a lovely glass of sparkling rosé. I had the pleasure of sitting with two ladies just as fascinated with food and travel. It was a refreshing reminder that I can maintain my love for travel and fine dining even if Jason is not accompanying me.
Once the honored chef and guests arrived, the experience began! Each of the nine courses perfectly paired with libations was beautifully and artistically plated using works from Bullseye Glass. The courses playfully married various temperatures and textures with sweet, savory, acidity and spice.
ACT I – THE STARTERS
I loved the pops of color to continue the balance of sophistication and playfulness. This was the perfect start to break down any expectation too take the night too seriously. It was completely messy as I bit into the ladyfinger shaped meringue and the foie mousse squished out. Yet it was so delicious, I wanted to lick my plate. The sweet and crunchy meringue played with the savory chilled mousse as it all melted in my mouth.
This was presented dry in a gorgeous glass bowl with a crackled metallic edge. A porrón poured over the delicate broth. It was the combination of childhood comforts of warmth needed on a cold winter’s night and seaside visits to Cannon Beach. The pop of acidity from the Pinot Gris pulled it all together!
More like KAPOW! This spicy number cooled by cucumber reminded me of all the best qualities I love in a good ceviche but with way more class! The star of this show was the Kabinett. Ataula’s GM, Emily Metivier, has one of the most amazing palates for wine pairing, and this was a homerun! I would have never thought to pair the two. The balance of minerality and acidity also helped to cool off the heat from the chiles. She was so busy managing the execution of the service this evening; it was hard to really express to her my sentiments.
You know you’re only halfway when the palate cleanser arrives. This long evening was completely worth staying up on a school night! This too went deliciously with the remaining Kabinett in my glass. The cold put out the final fires remaining in my mouth from the Kanpachi to prepare me for the final dishes.
ACT II – THE MAINS
The second half started similarly with a pop of pink partnered this time with a teal! I fell in love with the playful sophistication of this plate. The swirls of color, the round curve suddenly flattened on one edge evoked an image that dreamers also need to be grounded. This salmon must have been in an immersion circulator, it was so mouthwatering but not under nor overcooked. This was the first time for me to have a sake table wine. It was completely approachable, clean and delicate enough to enhance the fish rather than overpower it.
Out of every course, this was a bit too rich for my palate. The textures of both foie gras and the creamy base were slightly reduced with the help of the crunch of the granola. The wine by itself was really funky, but came to life in combination with the mushrooms, much like the ugly duckling turning into a swan.
This dish was delightful! The aroma from the sauce made me think it would be much richer like the previous dish. The squab was tender and juicy and not overfilling. The sweetness of the candied dates and crunch from the yucca chips worked well with the earthiness of the wine.
This is officially top of my list for my last meal request! I caught Chef Chesa’s eye and said in Spanish, “If I die tonight, I’ll die happy!” The cracklin was perfect and the tender meat melted in my mouth. Also, what a beautiful way to showcase an Oregon Pinot Noir! I’ve never fully understood my friends emotionally moved by food until this dish. On my second bite, something in my core made me catch my breath and my eyes welled up with tears of joy. It all took me by surprise. This dish was made with love.
Finally the meal concluded with this harmonious dessert that was not too sweet. The beverage packed quite a punch. Probably why I had the liquid courage to get up and speak to Chef Albert Adrià and have him sign Jason’s book.
ACT III – THE MEETING
Natura is a beautiful book of Chef Adrià’s dessert creations. Jason found it on his travels and it is not in print in the U.S. Leading up to this evening, I had it by the door in my computer bag to be sure it was not forgotten. I emailed Emily Metivier beforehand to be sure it would be ok to ask him to sign the book. Even the night of, I nervously kept it by my side; afraid the with the Chef’s full schedule, the opportunity would pass me by.
After the meal concluded, the women sitting at my end of the table encouraged me to get up to walk to his table. Chef Adrià is very gracious, approachable and fully engaged in our brief encounter. I began to speak in Spanish asking if he would sign my menu first. We joked about both being left-handed and how certain inks spread on our hands. Then I showed him the book. I knelt down to explain that my ex-husband and I were big fans. His eyes lit up and he began leafing through the book, pausing on certain pages. He explained that this was his best achievement. He stopped on one dessert called Red Peach and began to recount flying over the outback of Australia with all its colors and he couldn’t wait to get back to El Bulli to create this complex ice cream dish of stunning colors. He signed the book and stood up and said, “un beso” and kissed each cheek as if we’ve been dear friends.
I returned to my seat shaking with excitement. In the mixture of intoxication, excitement and freezing cold, I somehow managed to get into the wrong Lyft but quickly circled back for my own ride. By 2am I was home and crashing into bed. By 5am I awoke in a panic. I realized Chef Albert Adrià signed Jason’s book to my name. I had one job!
After a flurry of early morning texts with Jason, we discovered the book was not out of print and were able to ship him a new copy from the U.K. in time for Christmas. He graciously let me keep the signed copy, and I hope one day he too will dine and interact with Chef Albert Adrià, and receive the signature he was hoping for.
For me, this dinner was not only an honor to meet and celebrate Chef Albert Adrià, but also to applaud another memorable meal from Chef José Chesa and crew. They put their soul into their food and it never goes unnoticed. In a world of dreamers, it is rare to be in a room full of so many that make their dreams come true. If it weren’t for Tania Cidoncha taking her vision into action, MEETHECHEF would not have happened. Her partnership with Chef José Chesa’s wife Cristina Baez was a fanstatic success!
This night reminded me that in order to succeed, you have to fail, take risks, and keep learning and growing. Above all, never give up on dreams!