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Form and flavor

At El Bulli, air tastes like olives and cotton candy is a drink

ROSES, Spain -- On an elegant, vine-covered terrace overlooking an unspoiled Mediterranean cove, six American diners nervously stared down pea-sized dollops of concentrated tarragon on silver spoons.

''You must eat it now -- all in one bite," the waiter directed us, in English. The dense green blobs looked anything but appetizing. Several members of our group were downright scared.

''Please, eat it now," he repeated, more an order than an invitation.

The damp clump immediately released an intense, earthy, licorice-mint flavor. The tingle spread on my tongue and numbed the roof of my mouth. Fighting panic, I looked up to see our waiter disappearing behind a wave of vaporous smoke as he mixed our cocktails in a steel cauldron. OK, I thought, go ahead and panic.

A year ago, it seemed like a great idea to dine at the famed El Bulli restaurant here -- home of the celebrated Ferran Adrià, always called by his first name and considered by many authorities to be the world's most innovative and influential chef. With luck, my husband and I and four friends had scored a rare reservation, and we were finally here. Not comfortable, but here.

What Dali is to painting and Gaudi is to architecture, Ferran is to the kitchen. El Bulli has become the must-do experience of gourmands, chefs, and foodies everywhere. Ferran's innovations -- he's practically made ''foam" a household word -- have begun filtering down to restaurants the world over.

Open for only six months of the year, El Bulli fields roughly a half-million reservation requests each season for the 8,000 seats. Don't even think about asking for a table less than a year in advance. But once you sit down on the terrace, the food is not for the faint of heart. It's a 40-course tasting menu of extremes and challenges, and for a couple of members of our party, it was ''Fear Factor -- Gourmet Edition."

As the tingling from the tarragon blob spread in our mouths, Bill Weinstein of Wellesley, one of my fellow pilgrims, announced, ''This is Ferran's way of saying, 'You're mine for the night.' "

After several minutes, our palates returned to normal. And despite the mad scientist vibe coming from the man mixing our first cocktail, the caipirinha-nitro turned out to be a delicious blend of Brazilian rum, lime juice, and sugar. It was liquid nitrogen that caused the vapors. Spooned into frozen lime shells, these lime-slushie cocktails calmed everyone's nerves.

On to the third taste, where the hors d'oeuvres began in earnest. What looked like a glass jar of green olives was presented at our table. The orbs wiggled like Jell-O and, within moments of hitting our tongues, disintegrated with a slight pop into velvety, liquefied olive -- a Platonic ideal of the olive -- pure, intense taste delivered in an ingenious membrane. An olive disguised as an olive, you might say.

Another cocktail arrived in the form of flame-shaped clouds of cotton candy in martini glasses. The wait staff (which often numbered five for our table of six) poured a liquid over the clouds, melting them instantly. The resulting concoction was a sweet pineapple-coconut juice with bath beads of rum bobbing in the center -- a perfect pina colada, with the alcohol segregated from the fruit juice. Until, that is, the drinker popped the rum beads.

Our group was relaxing. We had hired a taxi to navigate the winding road that snakes along the coastal cliffs leading down to the beachside restaurant. Bill's wife, Ruth, had been so unnerved by the ride that she told us, ''If we survive this drive, I'll eat everything he puts in front of me."

Ferran was putting her to the test. Each of us was presented with forceps. The arrival of these surgical instruments heralded the ''snack" phase of our meal, including wafer-thin mango crackers with black olive paste in the middle -- an extraordinary pairing of sweet and salty. Several snacks played with our expectations of the same taste dichotomy: ''marshmallow" squares coated in peanut dust weren't sweet at all, and likewise, ''Oreos" were deliciously salty black olive crackers with a heavy sour cream in the middle. They were so good that, despite worrying about being full by the 20th course, I ate three.

Then we were delighted by sand-dollar-shaped rounds of crunchy Parmesan and lemon meringue. The cheese and lemon flavors somehow stayed separate, rather than mixing into something vile.

One course arrived inside black lacquered jewel boxes. ''A spring of oil," the waitress declared. We found exactly that: a small gold slinky resting on a bed of salt. She instructed us to put our pinkie through the center and eat it in one bite. The virgin olive oil that had been solidified and spun into a coil tasted sweet against the grains of rock salt. Walking a similar line between jewelry and food, Ferran soon followed with a caramel-candy ampule containing pumpkin oil that was decorated with an edible gold-leaf ribbon.

Repeatedly, we wondered -- and worried -- that the beauty and originality of the presentations would trump the taste. But as focused as Ferran is on form, he understands that the visual pleasure of food should amplify the experience, not mess with it. The pumpkin-oil jewels proved this point. When released from its thin candy shell, the oil slid down our throats like sweet butter.

Homemade mozzarella balls with liquid centers were presented in a store-bought container, another clever Ferran touch that winked at the idea that such delicacies could be found in the grocery aisles. Again, our minder instructed us to eat them in one bite. I hesitated because I don't particularly like soft cheeses, but two waiters stepped closer to me and repeated the instruction. I took just a nibble of the cheese and a dribble of the liquid inside. My dining companions reported that the whole deal was astoundingly good. I couldn't look either waiter in the eye as I handed back my spoon.

Some courses were less avant-garde. I could've eaten platefuls of the seaweed tempura with saffron. We inhaled the delicate Thai soup with coconut tofu as creamy and soft as a pillow. There were giant slices of truffle over a rich, doughy brioche, and ravioli made entirely of truffles suspended in anchovy jelly and decorated in what El Bulli calls green olive air. The air -- a Ferran signature -- was like foam, only lighter, and tasted like olives, but without the need for chewing or swallowing.

Some dishes were scary. One consisted of raw slices of monkfish liver, which we were instructed to ''cook" for a count of two in a pot of consomme. I'm told they tasted like bacon, or a cross between foie gras and tofu, but I'll have to take my companions' word for it. At another point, our waiter asked if anyone would rather not eat oysters. Instead, half of us were given sea cucumbers -- a polite way of saying sea slugs. He got us on that one. (They taste like scallops.)

Days later, at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, still thinking about the meal, I figured out something about Ferran. Picasso painted dozens of interpretations of Diego Velazquez's masterpiece ''Las Meninas," reimagining the image of a royal household in totally unexpected ways. Similarly, Ferran has deconstructed the conventions of how food is prepared. His ''melon con jamon 2005" didn't subscribe to the classic presentation of a melon wedge wrapped in ham. The chef's version was liquefied, served in a tall shot glass. In the clear, salty, ham-brine-like liquid floated little orange pearls of melony sweetness, which popped in the mouth. All the usual elements were present and accounted for -- but in a totally unexpected way.

Among our favorite sweets (there were about half a dozen) was the dessert del desert, an edible Sonoran tableau with a delicate, crunchy tumbleweed made from pasta and a spindly chocolate cactus, all covered in a sandy powder of cinnamon, coffee, and licorice.

By the end of the meal, Ferran had successfully rejiggered how we think about food. When the last dessert arrived -- a sour raspberry chocolate in the shape of pink coral, resting on a piece of lava -- one member of our party reached out to sample the lava.

Alas, it was a real rock.

Three hours after the tarragon taste test, we still belonged to Ferran.

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