Monday, 1 October 2012
El Cellar de Can Roca, Girona
For a meal that eventually - thank God - managed to be worth the trip to Girona and then some, it couldn't have got off to a worse start. The first fifteen minutes of our lunch at El Cellar de Can Roca were blighted by "service" from a belligerent, monosyllabic waiter who spoke next-to-no English, threw our first few trays of amuses down with distracted haste and at one point, when I tried to ask him a question, actually turned his back on me mid-sentence and grumbled something under his breath as he walked off. This kind of thing is sadly quite common in Catalonia, but the last place you'd expect to find yourself emotionally battered and bruised is in the garden of a 3-Michelin-star restaurant recently voted the second best in the entire world. The guy shouldn't have been allowed to man a toll booth on the A-7, never mind wait on tables.
It took a timely intervention from another much more pleasant and capable member of staff (that's him above), then, to make us feel even welcome, least of all like we were enjoying ourselves. But eventually, after a brief tour of the glamorous Can Roca kitchens and a few glasses of Cava, nerves were settled. And through all the initial trauma, it has to be said, the food still shone. Like El Bulli three years ago (how time flies), the astonishing level of attention to detail and effort that went into every element of the 20+ different dishes was staggering, but unlike El Bulli, here there was nothing that was shocking for the sake of it or experimental to the point of inedible. And if you're thinking it seems odd to praise a 3-Michelin star restaurant for not serving inedible food, you haven't eaten at El Bulli.
The first thing diners are presented with at Can Roca is a spectacular bonsai olive tree hung with caramelised anchovy-stuffed olives. We were still suffering at the hands of El Bastardo by this point, so as our tree was slammed down one of the little olives detached and bounced onto the table. After it was (wordlessly and charmlessly) replaced, we enjoyed them as much as you can enjoy an caramelised olive-stuffed anchovy. Which is quite a bit, actually.
"Campari bonbon" were masterfully done - the cocoa butter casing was so delicate that the thing dissolved almost as soon as it touched the tongue, releasing a bitter, citrusy nectar. "Marinated mussels" were little blobs of seafood broth encased in some kind of edible (I hope) gel, and were similarly fun to eat. And there was a neat row of cylinders made from some kind of rice cracker, stuffed with blitzed calamari and topped with little nuggets of deep-fried, battered salmon eggs. I can't even begin to imagine the amount of work involved in making each these items, which disappeared down our greedy English throats in a matter of seconds.
Once shifted inside the stunning, Zen-like restaurant and safely away from the influence of El Bastardo, we were presented with what they described as a "mushroom brioche" but was more like a Chinese-style har gau dumpling casing, injected with a powerfully truffly mushroom paste. It probably took some poor bugger about three weeks to make.
And if all the above is impressive, the next amuse (we hadn't even got to the first starter on the tasting menu yet) made me want to go and give everyone involved in making it a hug, partly in thanks and partly in sympathy. Dubbed El Mundo (The World), it consisted of five exquisitely prepared morsels, each inspired by a different country. We were asked to guess which was which, and although the sashimi & rice of Japan was fairly obvious, as were the Asian herbs in the astonishing Thailand (a similar technique to the Campari bonbon, fish stock inside a thin casing), I managed to mix up Morocco, Peru and Mexico somehow. All of them tasted great though.
Finally, our first course. "Oyster with black pearl, wrapped in its own juice" is a rather inelegant translation of an extremely elegant dish. Pickled vegetables of various kinds (the celery was particularly good), and I think a melon sorbet, accompanied a meaty bivalve that had been treated in who the hell knows how many different chef-torturing techniques to give it extra flavour and texture. I didn't know there was anything you could do to a raw oyster to improve it other than sprinkle it with Tabasco, but now I do.
"Green wheat with smoked sardine" came with "toasted bread ice cream" which I've decided is my new favourite ice cream. The sardines were strongly flavoured and the smoked fish and grapes worked brilliantly. Nice presentation, too - in an indent carved out of a thick stone slab.
"Olive paste" was a kind of thick gazpacho studded with various different preparations of olive. That description doesn't really do it justice, because this unlikely thing was one of the highlights of the entire meal. There was something strangely beguiling about the way all the various types of olives (Gordal, black and Manzanilla) combined in the mouth; the little black olive fritter in particular was incredibly intense.
"White asparagus Comtesse" was as hilarious as it was delicious - "Comtesse" is the Spanish brand name for Wall's Vienetta, and you can see the similarity here. It had a simply stunning flavour, creamy and savoury, shot through with black truffle. Another highlight.
And then, the famous Can Roca king prawn dish, and I'm afraid my meagre writing skills are going to fall hopelessly short in conveying just how utterly magical this was. On the one hand, it's a deconstructed prawn, with the head and legs freeze-dried and deep-fried (somehow), a sauce made out of the head juice (somehow) and then (somehow) the tail meat infused with chargrilled flavour without drying them out. But the results were mind-blowing, like every prawn I'd ever eaten in my life was just leading up to this moment. The tail meat was soft and sweet and smoky, the head and legs deeply savoury and salty and greaseless, the sauce rich and just the right side of bitter. If I'd paid €165 for just this one dish I'm not sure I'd have cause to complain. Unbelievably - literally unbelievably - good. I'm still in awe.
A dainty little fillet of bream was surrounded by an arc of vegetables treated in various different chef-tortury ways. The vegetables, really, were the highlight - all kinds of things going on and it was fun working your way through them to see which were pickled, which were raw, which were grilled, etc. The fish was pleasant but I'm afraid I do miss a crispy skin - you can probably tell from the photo that it was a bit... gelatinous, and gelatinous isn't the first thing I look for in a good piece of fish.
"Salt-cod brandade" was an experimental but otherwise pretty much perfect fish soup. Not being much of a cook myself I couldn't tell you exactly what they'd done that was so right here, but the broth had a deeply satisfying flavour of fish stock, and the bacalao itself was soft and refined.
These little cubes of Iberico belly pork, each with an expertly-judged amount of fat and meat, were surrounded by a variety of colourful fruit and veg and were, of course, perfect. By this point we were enjoying ourselves so much (helped I'm sure by some incredibly good wines from possibly the best value 3 Michelin star wine list in the world - I can particularly recommend the Blancs del Aspres '09 for €19.50) the chef-guilt factor had been put to one side, but going through the menu again now I'm noticing with horror that the 'fruit and veg' I dismissively referred to are in fact eight different preparations of mango, melon, beetroot, black garlic, onion and orange. They probably cost someone their mental health.
"Red mullet cooked at a low temperature" was presented in a gorgeous scarlet-red sauce and with three towers of fruit-flavoured... things, one of which I think was grapefruit. The fish itself, as you might expect, had a great flavour but again I'd have preferred a more traditional technique and a crispy skin. But maybe that's just me.
"Charcoal-grilled lamb breast" was presented theatrically under a glass dome filled with BBQ smoke, a nice touch. The lamb was excellent, a neat little square of just-so meat, not too fatty and retaining some bite. A sweetbread was similarly expertly done, crispy on the outside and juicy within. I'm glad I didn't detect much of the advertised liquorice in the sauce, though. I don't hold with liquorice in food at the best of times.
"Wood pigeon liver and onion" was another masterclass in making the most of great ingredients. The "liver" just looked and tasted like a normal bit of pigeon breast to me, but that's hardly a criticism, and the curry-caramelized walnuts were the kind of thing I could eat a kilo of in one sitting - that is, if they didn't take a team of trained chefs four days to make (I assume). Lovely orangey tang to the sauce, too.
First of the desserts was this arty arrangement of "Maple syrup cream with pear, hazelnut and cardamom". Very pleasant but I'm afraid just slightly lacking next to the theatrics of earlier dishes.
All the desserts were a bit subdued, in fact. This caramelised apple was little more than sugar wrapped around sugar sitting on top of sugar. It looked impressive, but the savoury courses had matched stunning visuals with equally stunning flavours.
"Moka millefeuille" was probably the best of the desserts, all crispy and soft and not as overwhelmingly sweet as the first two. But it was still only "very good" where earlier dishes had been world-beating. I wonder if this had anything to do with Jordi Roca, the brother who normally heads the pastry section, being out of the country on a conference? Not an excuse, but an explanation perhaps.
And after a selection of fairly uninteresting chocolates and madeleines presented on a tray that looked like a flattened Rubik's Magic, we were done. The relatively unexciting desserts (not to mention early service catastrophes) weren't enough to take the glow off what had been, by and large, a truly exceptional meal, from some uniquely gifted chefs. Can Roca is worth visiting for nothing more than to gasp in open-mouthed awe at the amount of time and skill and creative energies that have gone into every element of the menu, and although it's not cheap (the bill came to €200/head give or take) in the context of what they have achieved it's something approaching a bargain. And so, in short, if you have the means, you should go. The Roca brothers will be waiting for you. El Bastardo - with any luck - will not.