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El Celler de Can Roca

08.11.2012

Forgive the length of this post, but when you eat 15+ courses at the second-best restaurant in the world, I think you’re allowed (even expected) to be a bit verbose.

Now that El Bulli is closed, I guess El Celler de Can Roca tops the list of best restaurants in Spain, though given the ferocity with which Spaniards approach gastronomy, I’m sure that question is the subject of much debate. At the very least, it’s in the running. Tops or not, the thing that struck me about Can Roca was that it lacked a lot of the fanfare and pretension associated with fine dining. When El Bulli was open, the season’s bookings were snapped up in a single day, and unless you happened to be some sort of super-famous foodie celebrity, you were out of luck. At Can Roca, you simply email them the day you’d like to come, and they email you back a reservation confirmation. Done.

The restaurant is run by the three Roca brothers, whose passion for food was nurtured at their parents’ Girona restaurant. Joan, the eldest, oversees the kitchen; Josep the middle brother takes care of the wine; and Jordi, the youngest, does the desserts. Three rocks act as a centerpiece at each table, symbolizing the three brothers. In my family, being in such close quarters would be a recipe for disaster, but the division of duties apparently works for the Roca brothers- the restaurant was awarded three Michelin stars in 2009.

The place had the air of a garden party when Aunt Cesca, Uncle Ross, Anne and I arrived. It was 9 p.m., but the sun in Catalonia was still shining, and clusters of people sat in the restaurant’s meticulous and minimalist garden sipping cava. The dining room was laid out around a glass-enclosed courtyard filled with birch trees, giving the place an air of understated elegance. Anne and I were the youngest people there by a few decades.

We were shown to our table, promptly poured tulip-shaped glasses of cava, and left to peruse the menu. The decision to be made: would we have five courses or nine? Nine, of course. Wine pairings? Yes, please. Though in a rare show of moderation, we decided to split two wine pairings between three people after the sommelier informed us that the wine pairing amounted to about a bottle and a half per person. If you’re going to travel halfway around the world for a meal, you want to remember it, and a bottle and a half of wine certainly would have left me senseless. Also, as it turned out, most of the wines were white, and white wine is simply not my thing. So sharing turned out to be a good tactic.

After the major decisions were made, our fate was out of our hands. I wondered if I’d be able to eat nine courses, but more so I wondered if this molecular gastronomy thing would live up to the hype. Would food tinkered with until it hardly resembled food be tasty? I needn’t have worried. They didn’t earn those Michelin stars for nothing.

Our first course came out with a flourish: black and white paper globes. “The world,” our server proclaimed. “We are all part of it.” The globes were then removed, revealing a block of wood holding five amuse bouches, each of which was inspired by the food of a different nation. Our task: eat each in one bite, and determine which country they represented. The leaf-studded orbs and cubes revealed nothing, and taken out of context, one had to search through layers of memory for what to associate the various flavors with. We failed miserably. One that I thought tasted leafy turned out to be ceviche-inspired (Peru). And despite my lengthy experience with avocados, I couldn’t for the life of me place what turned out to be jellied guacamole (Mexico). A sort of bleu-cheese-studded rice hailed from Japan, while a mini baklava sort of morsel was Morocco, and finally was a cilantro bonbon of sorts for Thailand. Lesson: taste is a lot more complex than simply popping something in your mouth. It’s smell, and sight and touch, and when you mess with those, your associations get so scrambled that even the most treasured flavors become strangers.

Next up: caramelized olives, brought to the table hanging on a small tree. Olives are one of my top-ten foods, and these were like none I’ve ever experienced, with a thin, sweet shell that melded with the tart olive as you chewed, creating something else entirely. I could have eaten the whole tree of olives by myself, but I don’t think my fellow diners would have appreciated that.

After that, truffles. I’d be the first to say that truffles are overused in upscale (and trying to be upscale) restaurants these days, but Can Roca’s truffles were like nothing I’d ever had before. Four truffley truffles were served in a stone vessel, with a tray of truffle-filled bao next-door. The truffle truffles were creamy and earthy, while the bao’s delicate dough wilted and seeped buttery truffle essence. It was intense, and I imagine if you didn’t like truffles, it would be sort of miserable. Fortunately, I’m with the truffle fan club.

Then came a more futuristic course: calamari a la Romana, deconstructed into a bite of squid-flavored crunch. It was tasty and fun, but also reminiscent of the deep-fried Crumblies they serve at Long John Silvers. It’s sacrilege to compare Michelin-starred food to American fast food, but that’s what I thought of when I ate it. They’re both deep-fried bits of fish-flavored crunch. You don’t really encounter those things much elsewhere.

I should mention that while all this was going on there was bread. White and wheat, of course, but also these amazingly delicious and airy brioche filled with olives and tomato. I was smitten with the olive ones: a smear of olive paste swirled around the interior of the brioche like the filling of a cinnamon bun, forming a delightful center bite was equal parts sweet and savory. I’d like to meet the person who makes those buns and take them home with me.

After the calamari, the best kind of palate cleanser: a Campari-filled bonbon that exploded in your mouth, washing bitterness over your tongue. And then single, perfect mussel, served on a mother of pearl spoon almost too pretty to put in your mouth.

Finally, we were onto the courses listed in the menu, though by then I could barely remember what had been on the menu in the first place. An oyster arrived swimming in melon juice garnished with flower petals. It was dainty and elegant, the brine of the sea seduced by the sweetness of melon, a combination I’d never put together on my own, but that worked surprisingly well.

And then something I really never would put together: cherry soup studded with bright pieces of sardine. Not as bad as it sounds, but not something I’ll be recreating at home. Another soup arrived, this one black olive gazpacho, topped with olive ice cream, and an airy black olive fritter. Refreshing, yet complex, the way the three textures mixed.

Next was white asparagus ice cream topped with black truffle powder. This was my second asparagus ice cream experience, and I can officially say I’m not a devotee. I like asparagus, but it just puts me off as ice cream. I ate it, yes, but I was mighty glad when that course was over.

The Rocas redeemed themselves with what followed: a whole kind prawn, its tail just slightly cooked, its head and legs fried crisp. I adore prawn heads… yet another thing we should eat more of here in the USA. There was “head juice” and “prawn essence” dripped around the plate, and little heaps of something they called “king-prawn sand,” which was powdery and prawn-y. I wished I had more.

Next was a beautiful filet of sea bream, just slightly cooked with confetti-like pieces of radish, asparagus and micro-greens. It was normal, a top-notch piece of fish allowed to shine on its own. The cod that followed was sort of the opposite: a delicate piece of flesh, set in a rich, creamy broth, and topped with foam. Cod’s delicate flavor is easily overpowered, but the broth here accentuated rather nicely. 

Can Roca’s interpretation of the classic Spanish cochinillo (roast suckling pig) was perhaps my favorite. I loved the geometry of the dish, perfect squares of pork with one crispy layer and one tender layer. I’d like to know how they got the skin so light and crispy- it was almost like a pork flavored chip. A little, beheaded red mullet followed, just barely cooked, smothered in cabbage and swimming in a light, savory broth.

Then more food to seduce me. A lamb breast served under a bell jar, it’s smokey essence released with a flourish. Little morsels of meat alongside morels and sweetbreads, a few of my favorite things. And finally, an almost rare sliver of pigeon liver, served with onions and candied nuts. Surprisingly good for a bird I generally refer to as a “flying rat.”

“That is all,” the server informed as as they cleared our plates. We’d been eating for hours, and I couldn’t believe that I’d made it through. I felt like I ‘d just finished a long run.

Of course, we weren’t really done. Instead, we were on to desserts. We began with another futuristic course: an iridescent blown sugar apricot filled with apricot-floavored foam, and a teeny “pit” of ice cream. Airy and intense… very apricot-y.

And then a sphere of strawberries and cream, Willy Wonka-ish in its presentation. A tube of strawberry sorbet, surrounded by a striped pillowy cylinder of marshmallow or meringue… it was hard to tell. A thin skin of cheese and a mountain strawberry almost too pretty to eat rounded things out. Because there is apparently no such thing as too much dessert, we went on: a scoop of strong coffee ice cream and mocha foam sandwiched between two wafers of anise-flavored sugar. Delicious, but too hard to photograph.

We should have been done then… but we couldn’t be. Instead, a whimsical, circus cart of desserts was rolled over. Miniature cones of mango sorbet were scooped, and a tray of goodies dished out: shiny macarons, perfect squares of candied pineapple, fruit jellies and chocolates. It felt like somebody’s birthday as we giggled and tasted and critiqued. The check arrived, and I was almost sad that it was over. “It’s your first time here, yes?” the maitre’d asked. Affirmative. “Would you like to see the kitchen?” I nearly swooned.

Moments later, we were walking through the silent automatic sliding door into the kitchen, which was well on its way to being closed up for the night (it was almost 1 a.m.). Stoves has been scrubbed clean, counters were immaculate. And there was Joan Roca, shaking our hands, asking how we liked everything. One always wants to say something profound in moments like this, but I couldn’t come up with a thing, so I let Ross and Cesca do the talking and while I took photos like a tourist, trying to imagine what this space must look like in the midst of a full dinner rush, wondering if they play rock and roll while they prep all those immaculately cut vegetables, and how long does all that take anyway?

We took a swing through the wine cellar as well, which was bigger than my house and stacked floor to ceiling with wine, not just on racks, but also in haphazardly stacked boxes piled between the racks, just like my dad does at home.

Overall, I think that’s what I loved most about Can Roca. It was real, approachable, and true to its roots: you almost felt like you were visiting someone’s home. I’ve been to fancy restaurants where the service was so formal or mighty that you felt like you were inconveniencing the staff by eating there. I’ve met chefs who act like they’re doing you a favor by cooking for you. Here, the chef asks you earnestly how you liked his food, and then shows you proudly around his kitchen. And even surrounded by foams, caramelized, or sous-vided, the food retains the character of the region. This is the food in the Rocas’ blood, the food they grew up with, reinterpreted, re-imagined, and shared, almost as if you were a part of the family.

A million thanks to Ross and Cesca for treating us. Happy anniversary.

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