This is my illustrious culinary background and although I have progressed since then I would still count myself as a foodie dunce, a cooking simpleton and a restaurant numbskull. That said even I had heard of elBulli. The sad thing was that by the time the thought popped in to my head that I would love to visit the best restaurant in the world it was dead and gone as the doors closed in 2011. Drat. Surely head chef and owner Ferran Adria would open a new restaurant even grander than the last? Nope. It's quite difficult to discern what Ferran is up to nowadays with the exceptions of the home spherification kits he has produced as well as opening a tapas bar with his brother Albert Adria in central Barcelona called Tickets. It is this tapas bar which brought us to Barcelona as we desperately tried to get a whiff of the elBulli experience before it disappeared into the ether. Not only that but this Tickets place sure did look fun.
The very first bit of fun you experience is actually 60 days prior to setting foot in the restaurant. They have an odd but effective reservation policy. Each day at midnight the reservations are made available for the day 60 days in the future so if you wanted to eat on the 30th April you would need to be sat in front of your laptop at 11pm (because of the time difference you see) on the 2nd March. You have to be quick as well, we were ready and waiting and within a few moments the prime Barcelona eating times around 10pm were gone so we had to start our reservation process again. Luckily we managed to obtain our two seats for 9pm. Although the process may seem a little strange it does ensure that the restaurant doesn't end up with an intimidatingly long waiting list for tables that stretches in to years and months.
Prior to arriving at Tickets we nipped in to the Bier Moritz factory for a beer or two plus the best pork scratchings I have ever tasted in my life. It may not sound very flashy but it's a great quirky bar that is an appropriate place to start the evening. If you are feeling even a little energetic it is also within walking distance of Tickets. One of the best things about Tickets is observing it from afar. In the darkness you cannot miss the exposed festoon lights or the door host who has their own source of illumination wired in to their jacket. You would be forgiven for mistaking tickets for a cinema from the outside and things don't get much less extravagant on the inside.
To get a real feel for what the inside is like your best bet is to click on the website link here and have a look at the illustration of the restaurant interior. It pretty much looks like that cartoon image with the odd surprising touch. We were seated at one of the chef's stations/bars which we were very happy about, it was a real treat to get to see the chefs working up close. One of Jules' favourite moments was watching a chef assemble an unknown dish which featured a large sphere with a number of smaller spheres balanced on top. It took him numerous attempts and each time he failed it was due to a slight nudge from another chef. He didn't curse or sigh or perform any of the dramatic actions you might associate with a chef, he just started again and kept his concentration. The decor of the restaurant is vibrant and fun, you can spend quite a long period of time just gawping around the restaurant taking in all the little details and allowing your retinas to adjust to the colour overload.
The atmosphere too was lively but not quite what I expected. Now I knew all about the cinema decor and the fun fair theme before I arrived but I still did not expect the place to be rowdy! There was a fairly even split of people in the restaurant. The first group were obviously there for the food and the food alone, you could see it in their faces as they awaited every course and the subject of their conversation was clearly what they were putting in their mouths. The second group was made up of locals who had turned out to watch Real Madrid (hopefully) lose to Galatasaray on the big screen TVs that pepper the dining area, these lot didn't give two hoots about spherification or molecular gastronomy, all they want to do is drink Estrella Damm and watch the footie. They weren't alone in this passtime though as at regular intervals Albert Adria was leaving his post in the kitchen to nip out to chat with them and keep his eye on the game. What I'm trying to say here is that despite everything else being weird and wonderful this tapas bar retains the atmosphere of a tapas bar which is fantastic but unexpected.
I've never in my life written a blog post that went six paragraphs before we get to the food. A thousand apologies. Here we go. First out of the blocks was the elBulli classic Olivas Gordial Adobad (even more apologies I don't have the English names for the dishes!). This is a very simple dish, a single olive served on a spoon, that's it. Of course it isn't but that's what it looks like. In reality it's a liquid made of intense olive essence encapsulated in a very thin membrane, the effect of this is that when you pop it in your mouth (the waiter will instruct you "in one please") it EXPLODES. There is no other word to describe the event, it's an explosion. There isn't a single bit of your mouth that isn't covered in the super olive flavour. I challenge anyone not to laugh or squeal when you consume this unassuming globule. Our reaction was to laugh, as it was for many of the dishes served. We hardly stopped laughing. It actually takes a little time to recover from the explosion and so it came as a shock to us when the waiter returned and served us another pair of blobs from the waiting jar. We managed it.
From classic to classic we moved on to the slightly humorously named Mini Airbags de Queso. We had watched the chefs assembling these which added to the excitement of their arrival. The instruction came again "in one please". We dutifully complied with the command. This one too gave your tastebuds no where to hide but instead of an explosion it was like somebody had put a can of that expanding foam in your mouth. The flavours were simple but very rich. The bag itself was a perfectly delicate, slightly salted container for a creamy cheese centre. I'm not a gambling man but if I was I'd say I could probably eat around thirty of these in close succession.
Another dish we had previously seen pictures of and therefore had our hearts set on was the Comete de Ventresca, a crunchy cone with a layer of nori sheet within to hold a portion of tuna tartare topped with tiny balls of roe. The tuna was out of this world, I've never tasted such 'meaty' fish, incredibly satisfying. When you managed to get a little bit of everything on the go the flavours were much more complex than what you might imagine presuming there were only a few ingredients but perfectly balanced.
More fish followed in the shape of Taco de Ceviche. The appearance of this tapa was a stark contrast to the rest of the dishes in that it looked incredibly natural. The greens of the herbs and the lettuce leaf were a sight to behold, so rich that the photo below doesn't really do them justice. Further guidance on eat technique was forthcoming "with fingers please". Luckily this was a two bite job so we got to savour these a little longer. There was a real zing of citrus to the taco but it never overpowered the herbs or the very delicate fresh cod tucked away within.
Next up was the Buey de Mar or in other words avocado and crab canneloni. Again this was being made by the chefs at our station and so we had the pleasure of watching these being not only put together but the complex process of creating some of the elements. I have to say I was blown away by the techniques used to put this together so my fear was that maybe it wouldn't be worth all that time and effort. What a fool I am. This was my absolute favourite dish. It was a shame to break in to the avocado shell as it looked so beautiful but it was worth it get at the rich and luxurious filling. The crab was creamy with a huge flavour but it was also moreish, it never became sickly. This one was worth travelling via Ryanair all on its own.
Up until this point I have to make it clear that every mouthful of food had been outstanding and exciting and fun and all of the things we had wished for, we were amazed. It didn't really go downhill from here but the Pan con Tomate wasn't quite in the same interstellar league as the other plates. It was great though and had we not visited a more traditional tapas bar a few days before it probably would have been my favourite tomato bread ever, instead it had to take second place behind Bar del Pla.
Half way there! Mollete Trufado was the simple sounding steamed brioche with truffle and cheese. Simple it was but simply amazing. It appeared in a little paper bag which was useful to grip the still steaming light brioche. It was surprisingly sweet but this sweetness was balanced by the slightly strong cheese, the truffle sat quietly in the background rounding it all off. Also impossible to eat without strings of cheese falling down your face with every bite in the style of a toddler. Fun.
The next dish arrived enshrouded in smoke and covered by a bell jar. I had always been interested in how effective this method of presenting food was, would the smoke overpower everything? Or is it just a little bit of theatrics that adds nothing to the taste? In this case it was both a nice theatrical moment (we were in a perpetual state of giddiness at this time so it probably wouldn't take much to excite us) as well as a real hay flavour of it's own. The hidden dish was artichoke heart with quails yolk and salmon roe. Jules loves artichokes but she wasn't that big a fan of this dish, the combination of the yolk and the salmon roe wasn't a winner for her. She managed to put it away though.
Following the artichoke was the Pincho Monino kebab. This one was a bit of a disappointment all round. There was nothing outstanding about the presentation or the flavours. It wasn't very Tickets. Which is not to say it was bad, I'd have been more than happy getting served up this pork tenderloin in any other tapas bar in Barcelona but here it sticks out like a sore ordinary thumb on a hand that contains only experimental and outstanding fingers.
A return to form came with Fritura de Peix, a simple fish fritter served with mojo rojo sauce. The fish was corvina which I had never tried before but I will be making an effort to seek it out, absolutely gorgeous. It was covered in a light but not insubstantial salty batter. The accompanying sauce had a subtle spice to it and when combined with the fish it was an absolute belter. It is worth mentioning that part of the visual attraction of the plates at Tickets comes from the choice of serving dish/plate, it seemed every tapa had it's own dedicated crockery and this one in particular with the restaurant logo branded on to it was eye catching.
Xuxi Queso Payoyo is quite a mouthful and so was this liquid ravioli, almost too much of a mouthful! Very similar to the liquid olive we started off with but the intensity of the cheese flavour in this bad boy is absolutely off the charts. It almost resulted in my mouth rejecting the cheese explosion but one thing saved me, that tiny biscuit balancing on top was the deciding factor on whether or not my body was going to accept the unruly cheese sauce in to my digestive system. I actually think my eyes started watering it was so cheesy and that is an experience you do not get to enjoy every day.
Tickets also have a specials board as if the rest of the menu isn't special enough. From this I chose the Viaje Nordico or Nordic journey. I wasn't quit sure what to expect as the menu only really let on that it involved steak tartar, I certainly was not expecting a meat based dessert. As you can see from the picture there was a fair coating of the sweet stuff liberally applied to the pickled vegetables, herbs and steak but that didn't mean that it was overpowering. The sweet flavour was just the first thing that hit you but it quickly subsided and allowed the more tart flavours to rise up. Each bite followed the same pattern. Very clever and still so much fun.
We had done our duty when it came to the savoury (or supposedly savoury!) plated and we moved on to dessert. First up was Tickets' take on the classic tiramisu. This dish didn't stray too far from the classic flavours but each one was very distinct and could easily be picked but with the bitter coffee was the winning taste just pushing out the other very well balanced flavours. For me too many tiramisus have the coffee taste in the background, this one was right in your face and for that it got a big thumbs up.
One dessert had been flying past our eyes and luckily one of the portions passed at the same time as our waiter so a "can we have one of those?" was uttered. The dessert in question was the Merengue de Grosella. It was over all too quickly, as soon as you put these blackcurrant meringues in your mouth they dissolve leaving you with the frozen yogurt filling within. That filling is so cold! Another wonderfully contradictory dish, light but dense, creamy but fruity.
The final dish wasn't really a dish at all. It was a tree. We had seen so much of this tree in reviews and photos that there was no way we were going to miss out. The tree involved in the Arbol de Algodon is simply a vessel for very lightly flavoured candy floss. The candy floss is as perfect as candy floss can be, scattered with sweeter than sweet dust, edible petals and the odd super fresh berry. The flavours won't blow you head off but that isn't the point of this ex-shrub, it's all in the fun of picking your candy floss from on high (not that high but higher than normal) and the laughs that come with it.
So just yesterday it was announced that Tickets was the 77th best restaurant in the world and with only 76 better restaurants in existence you would imagine that absolutely everything was perfect. It wasn't. There were some very minor niggles but in a restaurant that clearly takes its environment and marries it to its food so closely these caused minor distractions from the experience and prevent me from using the word perfect when describing Tickets. Don't forget I said they were minor! Firstly our waiter, for the first half of the meal, was distracted by what was going on behind us and as a result we didn't get any eye contact from him, it seemed that he was reading from a script somewhat. Not only that but he seemed to be engaging with the other diners in a much more friendly and conversational manner. This was a disappointment but he corrected it in the last half of the meal. That said this would be the level of service I might expect in Frankie & Benny's, not the 77th best restaurant in the world. Secondly, although I do understand that I was sat at a working kitchen station, the surface right in front of me was continuously and unnecessarily being used as a dumping ground for dirty glassware. This is something I would expect in a Wetherspoons, not the 77th best restaurant in the world. Finally (and you may well laugh at this one!) right above the TV which was right in front of me was the satellite receiver box thingummy. It was perilously hanging over the edge of the shelf where it lived and this was probably because of the mass of cables that were piled up behind it and also hanging over the edge, it was a technical eye sore. This is something Jules would never let me get away with in our living room so I wouldn't expect to see it in the 77th best restaurant in the world either. Just incredibly minor niggles but they do snap you out of the wonderland they have worked so hard to build for their guests. Stick on top of that the very few dishes that were great but not outstanding.
Now on to an unexpected plus point for the restaurant. Relatively speaking Tickets is not expensive at all. You can sit and drink beer for the same price that you can in any other tapas bar and the plates are not much more expensive. Our bill came to less than 130 euros and we had plenty to drink while we were there and we were there for more than two and a half hours. For the quality of the food and the amazing experience I'm astounded that the cost is so little. It may well be to do with the abundance of sponsorship deals tied to the restaurant but nothing is out of place so who cares?!
The fact that the prices are so low fits well with the very welcoming air of the restaurant and its similarity to your normal Barcelona tapas bar. In everything but the food and the decor Tickets is 'just' a tapas bar and that's brilliant because it means it loses none of the endearing and warm feeling of your classic tapas bar. People come here not only for the food but also to sit and chat, to watch the football with their friends, to consume a couple of glasses of beer and converse with the owner just like any tapas bar. The only difference here is that the owner is Albert Adria.