San Francisco’s balmy fall weather has made it difficult to stay indoors; however, I must confess to having spent a bit of time indoors these past few weeks, not just watching the Giants slog their way to another NLCS, but also looking at the thousands of photos that Steve and I took on both the European and South East Asian legs of The Grand Tour. Some of the photos are from our travels through Spain, a country we visited almost a year ago. One year! Time has a funny way of imprinting itself upon a person. Sometimes I feel as though the journey experiences took place a decade ago and happened to someone else. It is nice to have this respite to decompress and put the pieces together to realize that these incredible exploits, escapades and encounters did indeed happen to me.
Among the experiences in Spain was our trip to a town outside of Barcelona for a lunch at El Celler de Can Roca with our good friends Sean and Abby. The word “lunch” is inappropriate as this was a feast, an epic one, exquisite to the point that I can safely proclaim it the best meal of my life. (There, I said it.) The entire day was not without its faults, however, so I put my amateur food critic hat on again to give you my review of Spain’s best restaurant and the world’s second:
The day greeted us with hangovers courtesy of the previous night’s wine-induced reverie which included a tribute to The Spice Girls and a few 80s hair metal bands. It did not matter. We were all excited to go to the town of Girona about 60 miles northeast of Barcelona, roughly an hour in our rental vehicle, to eat at the fabled El Celler de Can Roca. Since the closing of Ferran Adrià’s temple to molecular gastronomy El Bulli, El Celler de Can Roca now enjoys status as Spain’s top restaurant according to those who decide these things (who are these people anyway?) It is also considered to be the world’s second best restaurant and it holds three Michelin stars. Based on that information I don’t think it takes too much thought to conclude that reservations are difficult to come by (Friday and Saturday night dinner service should be booked a year in advance); yet, with some pluck and persistence, Sean managed to get us a lunch booking on a drizzly Tuesday in late November.
After an uneventful drive from Barcelona we arrived in Girona. The GPS insisted we drive through a rather dreary industrial part of town about a mile and a half from the city center in order to arrive at the restaurant. Surely a restaurant of this caliber couldn’t exist among callous concrete and soulless steel with nary a tree to canopy the path to its hallowed doors. We thought that the GPS lady with the soothing voice was taking us on a wild goose chase and determined that playing around with her accent – at one point a no-nonsense Aussie cadence, at another a friendly Scottish brogue – would yield a different directional outcome. Quickly we figured out that the GPS wasn’t the problem but rather our expectations, so we followed the directions and found ourselves in an empty parking lot next to a low modern building with Scandinavian touches: we had arrived at El Celler de Can Roca.
El Celler de Can Roca is run by the three Roca brothers – Joan, Josep and Jordi – who occupy both the front of the house (Josep is the head sommelier) and the back (Joan is head chef, Jordi is pastry chef). The brothers did make an appearance on the floor from time to time but their presence was ever felt in the simple table decoration of three rocks, each rock – or “roca” – representing one of the brothers. When we entered we were greeted by two professional looking ladies in dark brown-grey pantsuits who promptly took our coats, gave us complementary glasses of cava and showed us to our table just inside the main dining room.
In the bright airy dining room the only major decision we were confronted with was what to order ie which menu to have. Naturally we opted for the whole shebang, The Feast, a meal of fifteen courses (you read that correctly) each paired with wine.
As we sat back and enjoyed our glasses of cava the amuses bouches started to arrive: The World, five bites of liquid-infused mini globules each with a different international flavor (Mexico, Peru, Lebanon, Morocco and Korea); anchovy bone; seaweed tempura; zucchini omelette; ring calamari adaptation;, mushrooms bonbon, truffled brioche; and, the pièce de résistance, the thing I most wanted to see, revel and consume: the caramelized olives. Anchovy-wrapped olives that had been caramelized to the point of becoming candied – a salty and sweet explosion of flavor. But what made it worth my anticipation and wonder was that the olives were hooked on to the branches of a flourishing bonsai olive tree that was placed in the middle of our table. How many times can you say you have eaten olives from a bonsai olive tree? And caramelized ones to boot.
After a green salad of avocado, lime, melon, cucumber, green shiso, tarragon, arugula, oxalis (a type of wood sorrel, I later learned) and Chartreuse, quickly followed by some figs with Majorero cheese (a milky, nutty goat’s milk cheese similar to Manchego), we were served one of my favorite dishes of the day: oyster with Palo Cortado and white and black garlic.
Palo Cortado is a relatively rare sherry that exhibits both rich and crisp notes. It was a good foil for the salt and cream of the soup. The garlic was ever present but mild and I loved the whimsical ying and yang pattern the colors formed. I am surprised I got a pic of this dish as I recall inhaling it before my fellow diners finished their second bite.
The next three courses highlighted Cataluña’s obsession with fish and seafood. We ate sand and skin and foam :
The king prawn looked as though it just washed up on shore, the shore being an edible powdery salty sand whose flavors evoked the ocean – savory and briny. I am sure the salt-cod brandade was good but I don’t really remember it because that moment was overshadowed by by the swordfish and skin that came before it. My other favorite dish of the day! (Okay, it was difficult to pick just one.) I cannot tell you how delicious the swordfish skin was. It came with a soft and buttery piece of fish and we were instructed to take a bite of fish, then skin, then flower. Crisp salty skin gave way to tangy refreshing lemon and then cleansing floral notes. Amazing.
I have to pause the food ecstasy to talk about the service. At this point in the day we have had a bevy of one-bites, an orgy of green and a medley of fruit of the sea all paired with wine and there would be several more bottles and dishes to go. The wine, including the cava, a Sancerre, and a Meursault, paired impeccably with our food and would continue to do so for the rest of the meal (in the course of meal we were also served a white Rioja, a Ribera del Duero, a Priorat and a lovely German riesling.) No issue with the sommelier’s selctions. However, the service was…casual. I don’t mean in a jeans and t-shirt kind of way, but it just didn’t have the snap precision of the service in other Michelin three- and two-star restaurants I have visited (The French Laundry, Per Se, Cyrus). The wine was presented and poured for us before the dish with which it paired was even brought out. The inverse happened as well. For one course we waited for the sommelier to open the wine and pour into the empty glasses sitting in front of us before tucking into our food. The pace of the meal was choppy, and the time between courses varied. It was of little concern to us as we were fully prepared for a meal that extended well into the evening (it did); however, the relatively lax service was noted by all at the table as it didn’t match the exquisite nature of the cerebral yet ethereal dishes.
The next five dishes were an ode to meat, save for one fish dish, which was meaty and rich in both consistency and flavor:
Each one of these dishes had a little something interesting in it. If you look at the photo of the suckling pig you will see a slender flower at the top of the plate. We were instructed to eat this flower after finishing the dish. The flower served as a palate cleanser, redolent of warm spice, and cut through all the glycerin coating the mouth. Complementing the red mullet were airy honey-like saffron gnocchi – simply delicious. The highest accolades were reserved for the Viking-ship that was the steak tartare. It was served with a mustard (!) ice cream. The amazing part of this dish, however, was that each bite tasted different from the other due to a light dusting of of savory powder on each pillowy wafer on top of the meat. Spiced tomato, capers, lemon, hazelnut (I had something else due to my allergy) rendered each bite a different flavor experience. The colorful mini-balloon like blobs with the lamb are quintessential molecular gastronomy: sweet peppers reconstituted into chubby spheres, injected with tomato and pepper liquid and then grilled. I can safely say the first time I have ever eaten a wood pigeon liver was at El Celler de Can Roca. Eating organs of a grey bird may not be your thing but isn’t the color pretty? It was delicious and I especially like the smattering of juniper berries, orange skin and ribbon-like herbs mixed throughout.
At this point you are probably thinking we couldn’t possibly have eaten anything else as we had spent four hours consuming enough food to feed a small US city. Wrong! There’s always room for dessert:
The photo doesn’t do it justice but the star of the dessert show was the Deconstructed Black Forest Cake. Yes, it looks as though pastry chef Jordi just threw a bunch of brown stuff in a red bowl and called it a day. Upon closer look I could see the carefully constructed layers of vanilla, licorice, caramel and black olive, not to mention the luscious bits of dark chocolate scattered throughout. Constructed and deconstructed – brilliant.
Oh no, we are not done yet. After the port we had some nibbles with our coffee:
Candied fruit, fluffy Turkish delight, layered chocolates. We managed to find a sliver of space in our stomachs and ate every single piece.
Phew! Five hours later, with nourished souls and distended stomachs, we made our way back to the car, the last people to the leave the lunch service, and drove back to our rented flat in Barcelona. I would dream of this day for months after and still regard the experience with great affection. Good friends, compelling conversation, a comfortably stylish setting, magnificent food.
Would I go back to El Celler de Can Roca? Absolutely, and without hesitation. I can’t imagine the number one restaurant in the world providing a better food experience although it may have an edge on the service.
Oh, and Chef Joan Roca, a man who humbly refers to himself as a cook, thanked us for coming to the restaurant and hoped we liked his food. A touching comment to mark the end of a great day.
More photos from our culinary adventure in Cataluña below: