The road that winds down from Girona’s Ibis Hotel towards this suburban pocket of this city is a busy one, guarded by wire and dust. Littering our path is a litter of construction, graffiti and some hocking local youth. By the time we arrive our shiny shoes are blonde with dirt.
It serves us right for trying to walk to the restaurant. Serves us right for electing to stay up the hill at the Ibis.
(How else do you think we begin to justify flitting to Spain for a dinner reservation?)
We made the booking at El Celler de Can Roca in September last year as one of the last chapters in our ‘quest for the best‘. This night in April was the first Saturday night available on their books. Back then it was ranked as the fourth best restaurant in the world, by a certain list. Two nights after we ate there, it was bumped up to second. I can’t imagine it’s going to get easier to get a table any time soon.
Here are the edited highlights. This is a space that will most probably revolutionise how you view a family restaurant. It is home to the best fish dish I’ve had in a tasting menu. It’s a place that takes its wine just as seriously as its food. And as for the food? It deftly winds a path beyond playful and inventive towards just darn delicious.
(Whether it’s a more inspiring meal than the artistry on the plate at Alinea or the magical whimsy of Fat Duck is another matter entirely (and a pretty irrelevant one at that)).
What I know now is that on the cusp El Bulli’s closure, in this pocket of north east Spain, there’s at least one other place that’s worth a plane ride for a meal alone.
El Celler de Can Roca is a family restaurant. Founded in 1986, it is run by three Roca brothers. Joan Roca is the head chef, Josep; the maitre d’ and head sommelier, and the youngest brother; Jordi is in charge of pastry.
There’s a strong family history that ties them to the hospitality business. The brothers grew up in their parents’ El Restaurant de Can Roca. Their inherited passion for the industry and for the food of the region are obvious to anyone who steps inside their restaurant.
We arrive for our dinner 9pm. Behind the raised wall that borders the street the restaurant feels like a museum (or that kind of spa-hotel where you can sense that the price tag will sting).
For one, it’s deathly silent. No other guests are here yet (I suppose 9pm is still relatively early in Spain).There’s no gentle tinkle of music or water feature to break the stillness.
That feeling also comes from the room itself. The Roca brothers moved their restaurant to within 100 metres of their original family restaurant in 2007. This new building, designed by Sandra Tarruella Interioristas is fodder for design porn. Arching trees hug the entrance and the manicured lawn is ornately interspersed with large pavers.
Inside, the modern space gleams with white and neutral tones. There are clean lines that lead to a serene green arboretum. Radiating outwards from there are huge windows which bring the calm of the courtyard inside. Light comes gently up from where it is recessed into the floor, and the ceilings are buttressed by wooden beams.
It’s a space that is easy to feel oafish and clumsy in. It’s a condition that is exacerbated by attractive (but not particularly comfortable chairs), and burnt orange menus that are the size of primary school atlases.
While we fumble to open the pages out come complimentary glasses of cava.
We begin to consider our options.
There’s the choice of a la carte. And then there are three levels of degustations, which graduate in number of courses and price.
We choose a conservative middle path of the ‘tasting menu’. I’d love to say it was some modicum of fiscal responsibility that led us there. But really, it was because this menu included the promise of suckling pig- something that it is very hard to turn The Hungry One away from.
Our journey really begins with the arrival of a tree. It’s meticulous, like a bonsai and hanging from it are glistening olives. “It’s a Mediterranean welcome. Please pluck the olives” is what we’re told by the lyrically accented waitstaff.
Soon we’re giggling like children and parting the branches in search of more; it’s like looking eggs in an easter hunt. The olives are green, paired with anchovies and coated in a crisp caramel shell.
I’ve often had olives to start a Spanish meal. But never have I’ve plucked them myself from a tree, while I’m still sitting at a table. At this point we cotton onto the fact that while this is going to be a serious meal that showcases the best things of the region, it is also going to be great fun.
Soon there are other treats on the table. There’s a bon bon of astringent Campari that explodes as soon as you put it in your mouth. There’s a small cube of toasted rice. And some crispy tastes of the sea, tangled in drift netting.
These are anchovy skeletons that have been crisp fried. Next to them are strands of seaweed tempura. I scratch around for a parallel sensation. The closest I can find is if you were eating some very refined prawn crackers.
Next there are two Dali esque wafts of bronze. They shatter when you bite them and have a strong taste of crisp chicken skin. Inside there’s a soft spread of chicken mousse.
There’s a spheriphied orb of green olive and anchovy which floods when you bite it. Then a zen style sugar bowl arrives. Inside one part that has a base of mesh is a steamed truffled brioche that you eat with your fingers. Beneath it is a lake of ‘pot a feu’ broth. It’s just what you’d want to sip if you were convalescing.
Here you eat the brioche, which is a doughy as a fat man’s palm. By the time you sip the soup the flavour of the truffle is still hanging around, making friends everywhere you turn. It’s a dish that typifies how comfortable El Celler is with elegant restraint.
Then the wine list arrives.
Wine is an important part of the Roca brothers dining. At their restaurant ‘Moo’ in Barcelona they offer an inverse pairing, where dishes are inspired by the wines. Similarly, wine is put front and centre of the experience here. I’ve rarely been to a restaurant that will free pour cava as a gesture of welcome at the start. I’ve also never been to a restaurant where the wine list is so large that it requires wheels to transport it around the dining room. I promise I’m not exaggerating there
We’re intimidated by the choices and keen to delegate responsibility, so we elect for matched pairings with the menu. A series of serious matched wines, with exceptionally generous pours at 45 euro seems like startlingly good value to me. But then maybe I’ve been going to these sorts of restaurants for too long.
The first wine is another cava, this time an Agusti Torello Gran Reserva from 2006. It is poured as an accompaniment to a dish of oysters which also makes good use of the sparkling wine.
The dish looks like a bisected bottle. In the middle are poached oysters with the gentle acidity of pineapple jelly. Around it are little spawn like balls of cava. Cava is also effervescently poured over the dish at the table. To add a little mystery and spice there are touches of ginger and curry. It’s a wake up call for the roof of your mouth.
The next wine gives a quick hint at the rich flavours coming our way. It’s a Josphshofer 99 Ausless Mosel. It’s sweet and clear as church bells. To me it means; here comes the foie. What arrives is a course that’s so pretty that I don’t even feel silly when I start subtly photographing it.
It’s a luxurious mouse of foie gras and artichoke. Adorning the top is a flower of artichoke petals. To me it looks like a boutonnière in search of a taupe wedding suit.
Beyond being pretty it’s so rich that after scraping the bowl, I feel slightly stoned.
The next dish is the famed fish. It’s a choose your own adventure story, specially crafted for pescaterians.
It’s painterly in its execution- a fillet of sole that’s flanked by pallet smears of five different emulsions. The fish has a gentle smokey flavour. Ranking up the side are dashes of fennel, bergamot, orange, pine nut and green olive. It is, in all honesty, the most restrained and beautiful fish dish I think I’ve ever eaten. To continue to harp on about it would be tedious. Suffice to say, if you go, you really should make sure that it is on the menu that you choose.
From there is another fish dish that is richer and slightly more challenging. It’s a dice of cod and a tian of brandade and tubular noodles. It’s flooded with a creamy fish veloute and dotted with gnocchi. . A wafty slip of cabbage adds some welcome green.
But then it’s time for the dish that The Hungry One has been quivering about. It’s Iberian suckling pig. It comes as a sloping slab, with skin as crisp as a sun scorched piece of newspaper. To the side are shapes that initially resemble peeled grapes.
They’re actually balls of melon that have been stained pink by the flavour of beetroot. If you were seeking relief there’s a generous pour of Terra Remota Camino 07 with enough tannin to cut through the sticky fat. At this point the length of the wine pours means I’m triple parked, with half finished glasses tracking across the table like a mock musical instrument. I manage half of the glass. And besides, I have no problem making it through the threads of fat that hug the meat. To me that’s where all the flavour is.
As we head into desserts it’s easy to see that the youngest Roca brother is more than pulling his weight in this partnership. To start it’s one of his classic ‘colourologies’. These are combinations inspired by the feelings that come from a colour. In previous iterations of the menu he’s done white, red and orange. Tonight; it’s green.
It’s a pistachio deckled plate that’s decorated with an avocado puree, a dice of creen apple, baby leaves, touches of lime and eucalyptus candies that crack and flood with a soft syrup. There’s a quenelle of coconut sorbet, that echoes the calming and refreshing atmosphere of the dish. Making your way through it is as relaxing as a nature stroll in a dappled glade. All that’s missing is the chirp of birds and the frustrating itch of grass against your shins.
Dessert proper is a marvel. It’s a combination of Tahitian vanilla ice cream that has had the concentration of the vanilla turned up so loud that the custard is actually flecked dark brown.
It’s paired with pearls of light liquorice, a startle of salt from candied black olive and the tiniest dice of caramel jelly.
It’s a gobsmackingly good dessert. A perfect pairing of sweet and salt, precision and art.
From there it’s more of the exploding frozen balls ; this time there’s not campari but chocolate, rose and peach, vanilla and coconut.
They’re beautiful and terrific fun, but if I wanted to get really persnickety I might say that the cool centres in the bon bons contrast a little harshly with my blisteringly hot infusion of mint that has arrived at around the same time.
And then, it’s over. The menus are printed and brought to us, as are the wine pairings. Which is useful, because while the synchronicity of the beverages were spot on, sometimes the dense accents made it difficult to pick up exactly what we were being served when.
We really must work on our Catalan.
It was, all in all, a night to remember. Civilised and playful. Restrained and exuberant. And most of all; filled with beautiful things to eat and see.
It seems that sometimes it’s not so hard to justify travelling so far for dinner. We made our way out at 12.30 am, while others were just getting underway.
We walked back to the Ibis through the dusty streets and slept fitfully- our bellies large and our minds drunk with pleasure.
It was a very, very good dinner.
Second best restaurant in the world in the 2011 San Pellegrino ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’. Tick off another in our ridiculous ‘Quest for the best’.
El Celler de Can Roca
Can Sunyer 48, Girona 17007, Spain
Telephone: +34 97 222 21 57