A restaurant with three stars, says the guide, is one offering "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey". And you'd certainly have to make a detour to get to this one. El Bulli (pronounced bully) is a two hour drive out of Barcelona to Rosas (the Costa Brava resort), then a five mile drive along the hilly coastline to a villa tucked into a cove.
How did Michelin find it anyway, those conservative Frenchmen who have only seen fit to acknowledge two other Spanish restaurants this highly? Perhaps they found it in the rival French restaurant guide, Gault-Millau which, dazed by its originality, has been giving El Bulli higher ratings every year, culminating with 1912 out of 20.
El Bulli certainly proved to be worth the special journey - but first Barcelona. Bustling and beautiful, a cultural and business centre, it is not so much the second city of Spain as a capital in its own right, since Catalonia considers itself a separate nation. With a separate cuisine, too.
Barcelona was revamped for the 1992 Olympics with a pounds 250m makeover. The port and seafront were reclaimed, and new ring roads have shifted 30 per cent of the traffic from the city centre. So now Las Ramblas - the grand flower-filled, cafe-lined avenue which sweeps down to the statue of Christopher Columbus - opens on to a sparkling harbour-scape of nodding masts, islands with shopping malls and a promenade to the waterfront Barceloneta, with its stylish restaurants and brand-new sandy beach.
Major art galleries abound and the architecture of Antonio Gaudi is breathtaking. But the minor art form is food, and plenty of bars offer good value all day. My first stop, though, is La Boqueri the great food market half way down the Ramblas. A brilliant white central temple is devoted to seafood of superb quality; the vegetables and fruit are so good and cheap it makes your heart ache. Stall after stall sells superb jamn - mountain hams from all corners of Spain. You must buy some, as well as piquant olives and fine roasted almonds.
AFter this, I make my pilgrimage to El Bulli by way of Figueras and a lightning visit to the Dali Museum, celebrating the inventive life of the surrealist painter. The cooking at El Bulli is no less surreal, though the tiled villa in landscaped gardens - a beach bar until 1980 when it was bought by the manager Juli Soler - belies this.
Soler found his ideal chef by default. Ferran Adri started working in the restaurant kitchen as an economics student on a holiday job, but so impressed Soler with his enthusiasm that he was invited back the next year and, at the age of 23, became a partner in the business.
Like the young Picasso, Ferran initially copied the great masters. Then, as dramatically as Picasso, he created his own language. The little appetisers are of the kind you may never have experienced - home-made rice crispies flavoured with curry; a madeleine (cake) made with black olives; a poached quail's egg in caramel; a mysterious glass of smoked foam; an ice-cream wafer flavoured with Parmesan. In fact, Michelin has awarded its three stars to a man who dislikes meat and finds fish boring. Instead Ferran Adri thinks in terms of morsels, the tapas of his home city, Barcelona.
How many amazing dishes of Adri's can one begin to describe? It has been said of great chefs that they may copy, they may adapt, but even the best invent no more than a single original dish in a lifetime. It is possible that Ferran Adri invents one a day. He puts on 30 new dishes each season. They are full of conceits and witticisms but only in that they enhance sensation and flavour. The tastes themselves bring no surprises, but the combinations do. He plays tricks by altering textures. A clear white jellied tomato consomme (clear because it is made with the juice from the pips) is served with tomato-coloured cubes of watermelon. Cold raw clams are served on a mixture of warm crunchy diced vegetables, which he calls chow mein. A brandade of cod implies substance, but disappears in your mouth like froth. A piece of sweet, creamy, warm bone marrow is coated with iced caviare.
Take this dish: baby octopus (marionells in Catalan) with ravioli of squid. The marionells are the size of the nail on your little finger. A serving is 20 of them, lightly sauteed and seasoned. They are topped with two crunchy black onion rings, fried in a batter mixed with squid ink and served with three transparent ravioli filled with a puree of onion confit.
Ferran Adri's kitchen looks more like a science lab. It is airy and light with long tables and no fire or smoke since he works with electricity only. Sculptures are set into recesses. On one work surface he's mounted a life-size bull's head. He enthusiastically shows me the tools of his very new trade. Chief of these are 30 compression siphons made to his own specification. He fills them with strained purees, such as avocado (the airy brandade was just such a mousse) and squirts them out. And raspberries.
I've now eaten the sardines and raspberries and I can report on this mystery. Fillets of sardines no bigger than anchovies, are marinated in vinegar and water overnight, then drained and bathed in sweet olive oil. Coiled into silver rollmops, they are piped with a pink cap of unsweetened raspberry froth, using the compressor. An outrageous trick of colour, texture and taste - sweet fish with sour fruit.
I ask about the squid ravioli. With animation and laughter Ferran shows me his ham slicer. He cleans and trims a kilo of squid, presses it together and semi-freezes it. When hard, he slices it into thin sheets on the machine. These are the sheets of "ravioli" ready for filling. He poaches each one for only a few seconds. They are ethereal and delicious beyond imagination. And imagination is what it's all about.
I haven't mentioned the dazzling desserts made by Ferran's brother, Alberto. The same slicer is put to use to create such masterly desserts as slivers of fresh pineapple, warm caramelised pineapple and pineapple ice layered together. Imagine the textures and tastes.
The enchantment of El Bulli is no less enhanced by its fine wines, keen service and a lovely setting. But the food puzzles set by Ferran Adri - they just leave you dumbfounded.
Before I left I had to ask him one thing: What was the secret of the smoky froth? It looked like egg white but didn't have the taste. No secret, he said, picking up a compressor. "I put a bowl of water in the smoker. Then I fill the compressor with it. Squeeze. It is nothing but foam."
Unworldly though Ferran Adri's cooking may seem, all the ingredients and flavours are familiar to his Catalan customers. And so are unusual food combinations. One such is known as mar y montana (sea and mountain) not to be confused with the unsubtle American Surf and Turf.
Many Catalan dishes are started with a sofregit, a sweet-sour, silky mixture of onions slowly fried in quite a lot of olive oil until golden- brown, then simmered with chopped tomato until the moisture disappears. And they are often finished with a picada which both seasons and thickens.
This mar y montana recipe illustrates both techniques. It is taken from Colman Andrews inspi-rational classic, Catalan Cuisine (which is being republished next month by Grub Street, pounds 14 99).
CATALAN CHICKEN AND SCAMPI
1 chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces
8-12 uncooked prawns (scampi) with heads and shells on
2 onions, chopped
4 tomatoes, seeded and grated
12 cup dry white wine
dash of Pernod
For the 'picada':
8 almonds, blanched and roasted or lightly fried
1 slice fried bread
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 sprigs parsley, minced
salt and pepper
In a frying pan saute the chicken pieces in a small amount of oil until golden-brown. Remove them, drain, and set aside. In the same oil, saute the prawns in their shells until bright red. Remove them, drain, and set aside. Pour off the excess fat, and then, in the same pan, make the sofregit with the onion and tomatoes as described above. Return the chicken pieces to the pan and add two cups of water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat, and simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes. Add the wine and Pernod, return to the boil, then reduce the heat again and continue simmering. After 10 minutes, return the prawns to the pan and simmer for 20 minutes or until the chicken is very tender, adding more water if necessary.
Meanwhile, make a picada by pounding garlic, parsley, bread and almonds in a mortar and pestle and then moistening with a bit of cooking liquid. About 10 minutes before the cooking is completed, season to taste, then stir in the picada. !