The thing that surprises you about the El Bulli dishes being reproduced faithfully at Next this season is how real they are. The usual knock on molecular gastronomy is that it's all blobs and powders, but some dishes here do nothing more futuristic than batter something and deep fry it. And even the ones that alter their ingredients' physical form the most — the famous spheroid "green olives," a carrot reduced to an "air" that looks like an orange root-beer float — seem to do so just to intensify the flavor, to deliver the essence of carrot or green olive without the distractions of physicality. As photographer Roger Kamholz joined us in the kitchen on opening night, being fed exactly half of the 28-course menu by chefs who couldn't bear to have a guest in the kitchen who wasn't eating, what kept surprising us was how something that looked like it came from Mars would wind up tasting so wonderfully of Spain.
The crowded kitchen was moving quickly but was unfailingly courteous to the two civilians standing there trying to occupy as little space as possible, and though a few sharp words came out here and there, and a few cooks occasionally showed a tinge of panic around the eyes, the fact remains that Next on opening night has its act together better than most restaurants on a regular Saturday. Kamholz noted that it sounded more like a trading floor than a kitchen, as chefs and waiters called out both tables and dishes by their numbers. (All the chefs had clearly been cramming on the numbers and years of the individual dishes, as catalogued in the various El Bulli books over the years.)
Chef Dave Beran said that the first full dinner, served to friends and family last Friday, was something of a mess (his definition may be more demanding than yours), but by Sunday, when they served 60 of the maximum 62 seats, they pretty much had it down. For that reason (they normally only serve about 50 seats at a time during the first week, to give themselves time to work up to full capacity), they went ahead and sold out the house beginning with opening night, confident they could pull it off.
The dinner is running about four and a half hours at the moment, and Beran says he hopes to get it down to three and a half to four hours over the next couple of weeks. "But nobody seems to care; they're all taking pictures and tweeting that they're here," he smiles. Indeed, the dining room was noisier and jollier than we remembered it being at Childhood. One of the things people don't get from the outside, where the food looks so serious in its artistry and the reservation process is fraught with so much angst, is how much fun dining at Next is; many of the courses are just flat-out funny in their conception — it puts the most neurotically status-conscious diner in a good mood to simply be presented with one course after another that delights the imagination as well as the palate. Part of what keeps the kitchen moving so smoothly and relatively tension-free, we're sure, is that not only can the diners see them hard at work, but they can see the diners hard at play.
Our slideshow of opening night follows below.