Chapter 1 - the venue
Chapter 2 - snacks
Chapter 3 - the menu
El Celler de Can Roca is a restaurant based in Girona, Spain and is run by three brothers, Joan Roca (chef), Josep Roca (wine) and Jordi Roca (pastry chef). The restaurant ranks 4th in the San Pellegrino list of the world's best restaurants. Following our meal there in the week before Christmas (2010), we came away believing that Can Roca fully deserves its status as one of the world's best restaurants having delivered an exceptional meal combining great food and huge amounts of creativity. Our blog post is split into three sections for convenient reading.
Chapter 1 - the venue
Chapter 2 - snacks
Chapter 3 - the menu
Fifty metres down the road from El Celler de Can Roca is a Honda garage, on two sides of the restaurant are car parks and elsewhere in the neighbourhood, it is as far as we can tell, nondescript housing. Put another way, the venue itself is nowhere special, an ordinary suburb of Girona, but as a restaurant, as we were soon to find out, it's a place that serves very special food indeed.
The venue is worth noting because it is a trait that all the top restaurants seem to share: Costa Brava neighbour El Bulli is in the middle nowhere and totally inaccessible, Noma may be in Copenhagen but it's not even in the fashionable part (to the extent that Copenhagen has one) and The Fat Duck is in Bray; not a Manhattan or Mayfair in sight.
The most likely explanation is that property rental values in the most fashionable parts of the most fashionable cities result in restaurants that are more inhibited, forced to play a safer hand because they have to guarantee a full service every night to balance the books at the end of the month. Admittedly, even out of town, a restaurant has to make money to stay in business but with a lower break even point seems to come the freedom to operate the restaurant to an ideal rather than follow the commercial imperative.
The other factor about lower property rents in less fashionable areas is that space is less of a premium which means that restaurants can occupy more square footage which in turn has huge implications not only for the diner but also the kitchen. Think of those Parisien restaurants and how closely the tables are squashed in. Even the Mayfair restaurants are, for commercial reasons, required to have you sitting really quite tightly together; in Girona, this simply isn't an issue. In fact, the space that Can Roca operates from is nearly as stunning as the food itself and significantly enhances the overall experience.
From the outside, it's difficult to visualise the restaurant. There's some wood panelling around an entrance to an alleyway that leads us to somewhere and there's a long wall decked in climbing greenery that prohibits a better look at what's inside. From the back, we can see above the wall the top of a grand house against a backdrop of a brilliant blue sky but it doesn't prepare us for what's inside.
Heading up the alley we're totally excited and on reaching the top, find ourselves in the courtyard of the building. On our left hand side is the old house that we saw peeking above the wall, to the right is a single story ultra modern glass and stone construct and connecting them is more of the wood panelling of the type seen earlier. It's not clear where the door is and we wonder if we've strayed into their back garden rather than the restaurant. The wood panelling looks our best bet and we make our way over; we find the door.
The place has a sense of calm to it and radiates that to its guests. There's almost no one around, even inside the restaurant, and we wonder if we've got it wrong and they're closed or something. No, they're expecting us and show us to our table. Despite the fact it's 1pm, we're the only guests in the restaurant, it's totally weird.
As we're shown to our table we are totally blown away by the restaurant dining area, it's like nothing we've seen before. It comes back to what we've already discussed on space - they've got it, a lot of it, and they've used it well. This modern wing attached to the old villa has clearly been purpose built and combines simplicity of design, sense of purpose and harmony of integration. You feel the space could be many things, a health spa perhaps, a wing of the Museum of Modern Art, a top end design studio, but as a restaurant dining area, it stands alone in our experience.
The shape needs to be considered first. It's triangular with a central atrium where silver birch trees grow with the interior space being the three sides of the triangle enclosing the atrium. Of these, two are given over to the restaurant and one to an after dinner lounge area. The triangle shape lends itself to a single main pathway hugging the glass wall of the atrium with the tables lining a larger strip that hugs the exterior walls. No more than two tables are in proximity without a waiter station between them. The totality of this makes for a brilliant dining concept: huge spacious tables for the diner, privacy of your area without blocking the atmosphere from the restaurant, the main walk way set apart from your table so that waiters are never brushing by you as they deliver the orders and the proximity and quantity of the waiter stations means that staff can do their job in the most efficient manner possible rendering service completely unobtrusive.
As for design aspects, we wouldn't be surprised if the whole place had been a giant experiment in Feng shui, and more remarkably, one that had in fact worked. The trees in the atrium area are of course nourished by soil that gives rise to a natural brown 'carpet'. But then, as you sweep your eyes from the outside in, the hardwood floors pick up the brown and the scheme runs yet further with actual brown carpets under the tables which means the continuity of colour unifies the outside and inside to a single space. And with the colour schemes of natural wood, bright white, and flashes of green from the internal atrium and the external wall climbing plants, not to mention the significant effect of sunlight that the open design allows, the whole place has the feeling of a relaxing and natural retreat.
Before we move to the food, a quick word on the wine lists just because this in itself was amusing. So substantial are the two books that make up the wine list (one red one white of course) that they are not carried over to the table but wheeled over because of their weight. Our own choice of wine was simplified by ordering the tasting menu and therefore we opted for the suggested paired wines but it was fun seeing the books just the same.
Part 2: snacks
Can Roca still offers an a la carte menu as well as a large and small tasting menu; we opted for the large tasting menu (Feast menu priced at €145) since eating here was the sole purpose of our journey. We opted for the paired wines which seemed pretty reasonable at €65.
However, before we had even decided on the feast menu, a collection of 'snack' dishes (their term) arrive. Many of them were remarkable masterpieces in their own right and we show them in full below before moving on to the main menu items.
Having eaten at Noma where our first course was already waiting for us in a vase of twigs on the table, we're little surprised when they bring to the table a Bonsai tree though we're hoping we're not going to have to eat the whole thing. No. Hanging from the branches are caramelised olives which are absolutely superb. I've never really been a fan of olives finding them often too sour. I probably have to amend that now and say that I'm not a fan of the poor quality olives that are more prevalently served in the UK; the olives here though were just fantastic with the quality shining through. Furthermore, the caramelisation provided both a satisfying textural crunch and a balancing sweetness making this a great tasting as well as a visually playful start.
One tip though, in your excitement, don't forget to remove the steel hanging hook or you could get a bit more crunch than you bargained for.
The next snack follows the cocktail theme: forget champagne truffles, here we have a Bellini bombon. Brought to the table on ice, pop the whole thing in your mouth and the thinnest of milk chocolate layers gives way to flood your mouth with Bellini. The only real shame of this dish was that they only served us one each! Could happily eat a mountain of these.
Two snacks are then brought to the table at the same time, 'chips and chicken cracker' and 'Anchovy bones'. We started with the chicken chips which were so thin they were barely there. Cleverly done but the taste was mild and we moved on with little comment between us. The anchovy bones though were a different matter.
The anchovy bones also came with seaweed and both were done in tempura. Packed full of umami flavours, super light and crisp, a taste of the sea too with the saltiness and seaweed, the sea connection is further emphasised through the clever presentation on netting and wood making the provenance unmistakable.
The tapas continued with a truffle brioche and a escudella which we're told is a typical Catalan soup and is translated on the menu we later receive as pot au feu broth. The truffle brioche, to be eaten in one, presented an intense truffle hit while the escudella offered a comforting rich and meaty broth.
The final two snacks came out together. On the spoons is a smoked herring and caviar omelette, and the small wooden serving trays is a pigeon parfait. The herring omelette was fantastic, bursting in the mouth to releasing caviar so that the whole omelette emulated a piece of caviar in itself. The pigeon parfait (also described by the waiters as pigeon bombons with sherry wine) was also delicious.
With the snacks now having come to an end, we already knew that this would be a special meal.
Part 3: the menu
ember smoke is seen inside the lid
There was only the smallest of gaps between the snacks finishing and the menu food starting. The first dish is brought to the table as a bowl covered by a glass dome like lid and inside, you can see only the outline of food given a haze of smoke waiting to escape.
The food itself is Escalivada which is a typical Catalan dish of grilled vegetables. The vegetables in question here are eggplant, pepper, onion and tomato, presented in this instance with anchovies and 'smoke of ember' (Escalivada itself means to cook in hot ashes). Traditionally, the vegetables would be sliced after the grill and served with meat but here they come as complete parcels of flavour.
When the lid is lifted, the smoke hits you giving you a big aromatic hit of the smoke from the grill. The consomee is pepper like but viscous rather than thin as its appearance might suggest while the vegetables themselves burst flavours in the mouth. We debate whether they used a spherification process of sorts to bundle the essence inside a skin. We're not sure, we don't think so but there's a lot more than just grilled vegetables going on here.
At this point we remain the only diners in the restaurant which feels a little strange. People start to arrive shortly after and the place does fill up with a mix of young to middle aged people, all with a very casual sense of dress (Marcus Wareing would not have approved) leaving us feeling quite smartly attired. Had it not been for some local politicos in suits, we might have even been the smartest people there.
The paired wines are now also being served and we're feeling relaxed, happy but also excited. The quality so far has been exceptional and we're intrigued with what's to come.
Artichoke, foie gras, orange and truffled oil follow. The foie gras is a foie gras cream that can be seen filling the bowl in the picture below. It's not fully liquid, more mousse like in texture. The confit artichoke married remarkably well with the foie gras and we were surprised and delighted at how well this dish came together.
Charcoal grilled king prawn with acidulated mushroom juice (with ginger and citrus) followed. We've so often said that prawn dishes are 'samey' with chefs struggling to do anything different with prawns beyond the grill but this was very different indeed. While the prawn physically dominates the bowl, it is the mushroom, ginger and citrus that provide real punch to the flavours (together with the smoking) providing something more than just a well cooked prawn. Again, lots of earthy flavours here which has been something of a theme going through the food so far.
Our overall verdict of the king prawn was 'phenomenal'. As well as the flavours and textures, the dish had great 'length' with the flavours staying in the mouth long after swallowing. The ginger and citrus too wouldn't always hit immediately with each mouthful but would often kick in later in the tasting allowing the dish to evolve in the mouth.
Our next dish is an onion soup with Crespia walnuts and Comte cheese. The plate as it arrives at the table is already a work of art. The onion soup is dark and intense at the base of the bowl with a treacle like texture, augmented with wisps of greens and walnuts. The Comte cheese is poured on top at the table. The nuts add more to texture than flavour but the flavours from the onion and cheese are intense and the length of the dish is again impressive. We're thinking that this could be our favourite dish so far.
What arrives next is yet another visual masterpiece, in some ways simple but utterly brilliant. Described as sole, olive oil and Mediterranean flavours, we're not sure what to expect but are blown away when it arrives. On a rectangular piece of marble, a sole fillet lines up parallel with one side with five emulsions smeared perpendicular to the length of the fillet. The five emulsion flavours are fennel, bergamot, orange, pine nuts and green olives; our waiter describes this combination as the Mediterranean light. We're advised to start with the fennel and work our way to the top.
The dish tasted as good as it looked. The emulsions were beautiful and with the fish of course perfectly cooked (over charcoal), what a delight this was. It's so memorable as a dish because it looks so stunning. A simple idea yet brilliant. And with the five emulsions, the flavour profile changes as you progress through the dish; genius. At the end of each emulsion smear is the smallest portion of the physical of what the emulsion is. On the olive emulsion however, it clearly wasn't a real olive and we assumed it was a was a spherification, it wasn't, rather, it was a crystalline candy casing with olive oil inside; stunning.
We're making good progress through the meal now, aware that we have had plenty of food but not obscenely full that hinders are our enjoyment of the prospect of more food to come. The environment continues to feel tranquil despite the fact that the restaurant is now mostly full. The trees are dropping their leaves on the ground and casting long shadows by the now low winter sun leaving us with a feeling of utter contentment as we await the remainder of the meal.
Baby squids with onion rocks follows (mixed with squid ink, potatoes and seaweed). Following our initial tastings of this dish, we both felt that this was our least favourite dish of the day thus far. As we progressed through, we both warmed to it more though given the brilliance of everything we had eaten, this was not not one we'll remember. I guess it just didn't offer the surprise or wow factor that almost every other dish so far had. We thought that our squid at Rafa's had been better (that was after all the best squid ever) but here the dish overall lacked the depth of flavour that we had up till now experienced on each and every plate.
Red mullet stuffed with liver and served with suquet (Catalan seafood stew), potato gnocchi and lard followed. This was a fish that let you know it was a fish, tail still on and a pale texture to the flesh. We surmised that the fish was cooked sous vide given the transparent quality of the meat.
The lard meanwhile can be seen as a sheen on the soup. This dish took us right back to the deep flavour zone with not only the fish elements but the gnocchi too. This dish heaped with plenty of flavour worked amazingly well but in the kitchen of less skilled practitioners could have gone horribly wrong.
Billed as steak tartare with mustard ice cream, we wondered what one of the world's best restaurant would make of a classic steak tartare dish: the answer is, something special. The menu we later received listed the full additions: spiced tomato, caper compote, pickles and lemon, hazelnut praline, meat bearnaise sauce, Oloroso-sherry raisin, chives, Sichuan pepper, Pimenton de La Vera (D.O.) smoked paprika and curry, small scoops of mustard ice cream and mustard leaves.
The result was again nothing short of phenomenal. You're advised to start with the chive and work down, and of course, as you do progress down the length of the tartare, the ingredients (and so flavours) change with every bite. By the end, you're hardly eating the same food you started. None of the flavours overpowered any other and the dish was balanced despite the range of contributory ingredients. We were both blown away.
The last of the savoury dishes was lamb with sweet potato and tangerine. The first thing you notice is how aromatic the dish is, something that had been true of almost all the dishes that day. Then, you cut into the lamb and see how easy it pulls apart to reveal the succulent meat inside. It looked and had the texture of confit lamb though were sure the cooking process was considerably more complicated than that and we commented at the time that this might have been the best lab we had ever tasted. We had already seen that we didn't need a knife to cut this and you hardly needed to chew it either, rather, just let it dissolve on your mouth. With the reduced lamb jus, this was again exemplary. The lamb crackling though didn't really work with more chew than crack but this little mattered when the lamb itself was such a masterpiece.
Having blown us away with the savouries, we wondered what the sweets would bring; the menu description 'Green colourology' offered few clues. This though was more of a pre-dessert, a little palate cleanser: avocado, Chartreuse candy and eucalyptus ice cream together with mint, basil and some green apple. Texture too: there's soft, crunchy and chewy all there and once again, hugely aromas. It did the job exceedingly well and shamed the mango-passion fruit juice cleanser we had been served at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay a few days earlier.
Penultimate dish, we have 'lemon skin-distillate sorbet' with lemon cake, lemon cream and milk ice. The milk ice was reminiscent of coconut sponge at El Bulli which there, counted as a course in its own right, and had the texture of snow, disappearing in the mouth to nothing. The lemon components offered interesting takes on multiple expressions of lemon and was as fresh and light as it sounds in description.
The final dessert was also totally amazing being a vanilla reconstruction. In the picture below, you can see in the distance concentrated vanilla ice cream on vanilla cake. The idea of the combined ingredients in the foreground was to create the same taste without using vanilla. It's analogous to colour composition and the idea that red + green = yellow, so too does the kitchen work off flavour maps. Here we have caramel, cocoa, liquorice and black olive to equal the taste of vanilla. A genius dessert and possibly the plate of the year we thought.
Following the dessert, we retired to the lounge on the third edge of the triangle for petits four and whisky. Their after dinner drink range is impressive as is the bar itself, showcasing a floor to ceiling glass wall of bottles. We've rarely seen a bar this well stocked of whisky since i) home and ii) Scotland. They even had Glenfarclas 1992 and 1994 family casks at reasonable prices which we've rarely seen out and about. A truly comfortable way to end the meal.
This was by any standard a truly great meal. There was no plate that failed to work. These were dishes that really engaged. The presentation of the food throughout was undoubtedly art, with the vanilla dessert perhaps a Jackson Pollock. There was almost always intense aroma too. On taste, the depth of flavour was astounding as was the length of taste, while the conception of most of the food was highly original. What's not to like?
What's more, they continue to have an a la carte menu and so thrilled were we by what we had eaten on the tasting menu that our immediate reflection was to desire all the things that were not. El Bulli was a fantastic and challenging meal but we would not want to eat it or there more than once a year, it's a food marathon. Can Roca offers a composed meal with the natural order of start to finish, light to heavy giving you something you can relate to while giving you food experiences that are totally original. We felt that we could eat the weekly and not get bored.
In the San Pellegrino list, El Celler de Can Roca moved up from fifth in 2009 to fourth in 2010 (displacing Mugaritz) but on the basis of our meal there, we think it can move yet higher. Could it take the number one spot? Quite possibly. When we posted on The Fat Duck, we hadn't then eaten at Can Roca but it was what we had in mind when we said that if TFD doesn't move forward it will relatively slide backward. El Bulli of course has taken itself out of the running by closing down in 2011, so will it be Noma vs El Celler de Can Roca battling it out for the top spot this year and next? Book a table there while you still can for this is a remarkable restaurant now but surely a place with the best years still ahead of it.