Here's a question for all you serious eaters: Where do you take El Bulli's Ferran Adrià, the Spanish toque god, molecular gastronomy master, who closes his restaurant in Spain for half the year just to come up with new dishes and new gastronomic ideas, to eat in New York City? Where do I take the man who is generally considered to be the greatest, most influential and innovative chef in the world, for a late breakfast or brunch in Gotham? Not an easy question, is it?
According to Wikipedia, Adrià's stated goal is to "provide unexpected contrasts of flavor, temperature, and texture. Nothing is what it seems. The idea is to provoke, surprise and delight the diner." So I decided I had to take Adrià somewhere that would provoke, surprise, and delight him.
I thought about one of David Chang's places, because Chang often cites Adrià as one of his heroes, but his restaurants are not open at 10:30 a.m. Same with Wylie Dufresne's Adrià-influenced WD-50. Plus, Adrià doesn't need to come to New York to see what he has wrought. Ferran Adrià can find that anywhere, in virtually any city in the world. That's how pervasive his influence has become. He needs provocation and surprise and delight, and I was determined to find it for him somewhere in New York's food culture.
So where do you take the man who has cooked everything? Somewhere he can taste food and experience something and someplace for the very first time, somewhere that will resonate in his heart, soul, and palate. That's how I found myself at Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side eating a pastrami sandwich, a hot dog, a knoblewurst, and washing it all down with New York City's own contribution to the food foam culture, the egg cream. And just to complete the experience we headed over to Russ & Daughters for a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese.
Did he like it? He lurved it all. Well, not quite all. It turns out there are limits to his tolerance for foam, especially foam done badly.
Adrià was in town to promote his new book, A Day at El Bulli. I figured that when in Rome (New York) he should eat like a New Yorker. That's how we ended up at Katz's.
Adrià smiled knowingly as we walked into Katz's. Though he had never been to a Jewish deli, he understood the feelings of generous bounty evoked by Katz's. What he didn't understand was the ticket billing system. I suggested to him through his translator that he give a punch ticket to every patron at El Bulli. Each time one of the thirty courses comes he could punch the ticket. Somehow I don't think that's going to happen at El Bulli, a place that receives two million requests a year for one of its 2,000 coveted spots available nightly from May through September (next year the restaurant is not going to open until June 20).
We sidled up to the sandwich line and ordered two pastrami sandwiches, one on club and one on rye. When our Dominican sandwich maker overheard Adrià speaking Spanish to both his translator and his American colleague Jose Andres (who was along for the meal) he immediately started a conversation with him. Now who didn't understand what was being said? Me of course.
Adrià may have never been to a deli or eaten pastrami before, but on some primal level he understood why Katz's is important. He said the following through a translator: "Places like these have soul, that the food it serves obviously connects very deeply to its customers. I understand this pastrami, these pickles, the sausage. I can connect them to things we eat in Spain. Believe it or not, that's what we try to do at El Bulli, try to connect what we serve to our guests in the same fashion. We just do it in a different way."
While there's no Katz's-like kibitizing with your server at El Bulli, Adrià finds other ways to connect with his customers: "When you walk into El Bulli, the first thing you see, you experience, is the kitchen. That way we get people to feel at ease, to help them relax before all the surprises come. It's like when you have people over to dinner at your house and you invite them to open your fridge. It makes everyone relaxed and not uptight. It makes them feel more confident. It makes them feel more at home."
What Adrià couldn't connect to is the egg cream: "I must say I don't really understand this thing you call an egg cream. It doesn't seem to go well with the pastrami, and doesn't have much flavor. And there doesn't seem to be any egg in it."
He was right. Katz's made Ferran Adrià a truly awful egg cream, in a plasticized paper cup no less, and here's the ultimate shame, no foamy head. I obviously hadn't sufficiently explained Adrià's importance to the egg cream maker.
The bad ice cream didn't stop Ferran. He tore into the pastrami and the knoblewurst with gusto:"What I love to do is create something unique, something like this, and share it with my guests. That creating, that sharing, is what it's all about for all chefs, I do believe."
He understood the magic of Katz's: "Food and the experience of eating it should be magical. Eating this food is magical in its own way. It is special, it makes people feel good to eat here."
We walked down the street to Russ & Daughters, where Joshua Russ Tupper shared the 100 year-old history of his family's business. Adrià sampled a bagel with cream cheese with smoked salmon and pronounced it delicious. But it was more than deliciousness that he recognized at both Russ & Daughters and Katz's.
As we were leaving Russ & Daughters, Adrià smiled knowingly and said, "You can feel the souls of these places. That's what I want people to feel at El Bulli."
He thanked me and turned to get into his car. Looking over his shoulder he said, "You should come to eat at El Bulli."
I hope I get to take him up on his offer. Until then I'm working on my own molecular gastronomy (or deconstuctivist cooking as Adrià likes to call his food) equation:
Pastrami plus bagels and lox minus a bad egg cream=heart and soul and serious deliciousness.