It’s not often I can brag; “Hey, I’m going to the best restaurant in the world!” When a restaurant has such an accolade and three Michelin stars, there is one factor which may severely affect one’s experience – expectations. And being the best restaurant in the world, mine for El Celler de Can Roca were the highest they have ever been and probably ever will be.
After getting lost trying to find a taxi in the old Medieval city of Girona, located 1 hour and 20 minutes away from Barcelona by train, we eventually stumbled across one. Our taxi driver, who spoke very little English, immediately knew where to go once we told him the name of the restaurant. That’s just one example of how well this restaurant is known and respected throughout the region. I couldn’t imagine telling a taxi driver in my hometown of Brisbane, that I want to go to somewhere like Esquire or Urbane without needing to tell him an address.
We shouldn’t have been too worried about being late because we ended up being half an hour early. Waiting outside in the courtyard, we admired how the green vines laced the restaurant walls. A waiter came to ask if we had a reservation. In my head I thought of replying, “No actually. We were walking past and thought we would pop in for a quick meal.” In fact, this place requires booking 11 or more months in advance and its menu is 20 or so courses long!
Instead of being seated at our table straight away we decided to have the snack section of the meal in a cozy little room that looked out to the courtyard and to the tables of the restaurant. We had a glass of the restaurant’s very own cava (a Spanish sparkling wine) while the snacks began to arrive. First off the block was an El Celler de Can Roca classic: An olive tree with little olives made out of green olive ice-cream.
Next, the crispy prawn. What looked like a chip was actually a prawn which had been flattened very thinly, fried and topped with three little dots of sauce made out of the heads.
Then an abstract construction of silver wire holding four little spoons. Two were filled with an oyster in a white and a black sauce and the other two held a sea bream ceviche with crunchy sliced vegetables.
A rock was placed in front of us, and when the waitress took the top of it there were two little truffle bonbons in it.
The last snack we had in the little sitting room were little mushroom brioches which reminded me of a Chinese steamed bun.
With two of the bigger snack dishes to go we moved to our table, which was simply decorated with three rocks representing the three Roca brothers.
Another El Celler de Can Roca classic came out simply titled “The World.” A paper lantern was placed in front of us and when the waiter lifted it off, it revealed five little snacks, each one from a different country. Each one was perfectly matched with the right combination of ingredients from that country and I marvelled at how they could get so much flavour into such a small bite sized snack. Here were the five snacks and their respective countries:
Thailand: chicken, coriander, coconut, lime and curry
Korea: Panko fried bread, bacon with soya sauce, kimchi and sesame oil
Turkey: tartlet of vine leaf with lentil puree, eggplant and spices, goat yoghurt and raw cucumber
China: pickled vegetables and plum cream
Morocco: almond, rose, honey, saffron, ras el hanout and goat yoghurt
Next out came a dish called, “Memories of a bar in the suburbs of Girona,” The waiter came to the table and opened out a flat piece of paper and out popped a fold out house with a bar and the three brothers as kids. The waiter then placed down five bite sized snacks: breaded squid, pigeon bonbon, potato and onion omelette, anchovy bone in rice tempura and a Campari bonbon. These elaborate snacks were a play on their favourite dishes that they used to eat at their family restaurant when they were children. I especially loved the bonbons as they popped when bitten into wit the strong tasting liquids exploding out.
The house-made breads were presented and I had to restrain myself from asking for too many due to how delicious they looked. I asked for a tomato scroll and a slice of the olive oil focaccia. Both breads were superb and some of the finest I have ever eaten at a restaurant.
At this stage we were presented with a plate of food and a knife and fork for the first time of the night. Only now we were actually starting the courses! The dish was a pumpkin consommé with green tea. Of course there were many more ingredients in this dish but they weren’t mentioned on the menu. I loved the light flavours of this dish.
Next came Red pine mushrooms, pine nut sprouts and a tear of Thai grapefruit. This dish consisted of two red pine mushrooms, both cooked differently, served with a pine nut cream, fennel emulsion, green pine cone oil, pine nut sprouts and a tear of Thai grapefruit. One of the mushrooms were pickled and the other was cooked on a charcoal-grill. I think I enjoyed the charcoal grilled one a bit more as it had a smokier flavour and was a little softer as opposed to the crunchier, tangy pickled mushroom.
An enclosed big white cocoa bean plate was placed in front of us. The waiter took off the top to reveal Langoustines with cocoa bean sauce. The sauce was kind of like a Mexican black mole with the hint of chocolate in it. The langoustines were cooked perfectly with a lovely bite. Too often they are overcooked and have no texture to them. My only concern with this dish was that I thought the natural sweetness of the langoustine may have been overwhelmed by the amount of sauce. Nevertheless it was a beautiful dish.
A quite strange looking dish came out next: Partridge with a fermented cabbage salad, smoked ham broth and tarragon foam. Looking at this many of you would think that the partridge looks too raw but this was actually cooked perfectly because it retained its moisture. The broth was a great addition adding an underlying smokiness to each component of the dish. The little cabbage ravioli was a little stringy and hard to cut into but the flavour was delicious, especially with the broth.
Another game bird was a star of this dish. This time it was pigeon in a dish called Persimmon with charcoal-grilled pigeon. The bird was grilled over charcoal and served with segmented persimmons and three blobs of persimmon sauce. Each blob had a different topping: mint, yuzu and rosemary. Again many of you may think, “Its raw!” But since pigeon is another game bird they should all be slightly under-cooked to keep good texture and retain flavour. The persimmon was a great counter to the strong gamey flavour of the pigeon.
This stage was the beginning of a seafood trilogy and first out came prawns marinated in rice vinegar with prawn head sauce, crispy prawn legs, seafood velouté and phytoplankton. As the prawns were marinated they had a firm texture and they paired nicely with the rich bisque like sauce. The prawn legs added the crunch to the dish and contrasted nicely with the velvet texture of the sauce and slight firmness of the prawns.
A stunning dish of confit skate with mustard oil, buerre noisette and smoked hazelnuts arrived next. The skate (sting-ray) was so perfectly cooked it was just slightly firm yet could flake away. There were all different kinds of mustards on the plate and they each went well with the tangy vinegary buerre noisette and the skate.
The Blackspot seabream with “samfaina” was the last seafood dish and one of the simpler ones we had in terms of elements. Although simple it was my favourite seafood dish of the night. The fish was cooked sous-vide for 5 minutes at 55°c and was topped with a ratatouille-like sheet. It sat on a rich traditional Catalan fish stock called a suquet, which was made using the bones of the fish. The combination of everything in this dish was an absolute delight with a great mixture of tradition and modern cookery. If I were asked what kind of food El Celler de Can Roca do, I would use this dish as an example, and say they use and respect their traditional Catalan upbringing while incorporating modern techniques and concepts to evolve it into a superior dish.
The next dish marked the beginning of a meat trilogy. It was Iberian suckling pig with strawberry tree fruit and pomegranate. This pork element has been a common feature on the El Celler de Can Roca menu over the years but they often change what goes with it. I could see why they never take it off the menu because the meat was tender and moist and the top beautifully crisp. The reduction underneath, made with the pork juices, was rich, with an intense caramelised meat flavour. The addition of strawberry and pomegranate struck the perfect balance in the dish.
Lamb with eggplant and chickpea puree, lamb’s trotters and spicy tomato was the next course. There were four different cuts of lamb including the loin, the trotter and two others that I’m not too sure about but could have been some kind of offal and the fat of the lamb. It was a very unctuous dish with the combination of rich fatty meat and sticky reduction. The spicy tomato sauce added a nice little kick and complemented the richness of the dish.
The last savoury dish of the night was Veal oyster blade and marrow, tendons and avocado. The veal was cooked to a perfect medium-rare so that it was tender and juicy. The other elements were quite rich yet the soft, creamy whipped avocado added much needed lightness.
It was now time to see what the sweet maestro Jordi Roca could produce. The first dessert titled “Suspiro limeño” was a take on a traditional Peruvian dessert by the same name. I’m not really sure what you could call the big milk element because it wasn’t really an ice-cream nor a sorbet yet it was icy, light, pretty much tasteless and dissolved in your tongue like snow. On top of it was a thin sugar disk with coriander and hidden underneath was a milk caramel. While it was unusal it was refreshing and very interesting.
The next dessert was inspired by the flavours of Turkey and was called, Turkish Perfume. There were so many elements that I cannot name but there were flavours of rose, peach, saffron, cumin, cinnamon and pistachio throughout the dish. I remember it being a very floral dish with many textures. Served alongside was a little perfumed piece of paper that we were instructed to smell before taking a bite. It had a strong floral fragrance, which strongly related to the flavours of the dish – very clever!
The last dish of the night was a showstopper! Titled, Orange Colourology, this dessert was a celebration of oranges and carrots. Presented as a sphere, I couldn’t wait to crack into it and see what was inside. Here’s a little video of me cracking into the sphere.
I’m not too sure of all the components inside but there were little balls that were like drops of ice-cream flavoured with orange.
Around came the petit four cart with heaps of bite sized sweets. While our waiter was filling our board with some of the sweets I went up to take a photo but instead he allowed me to stand behind the cart and took a photo of me using it.
We were so full at this point that we only tried a couple (I know I will regret this one day later when I am ravenously hungry and reflect on this moment!) Fortunately for us (and the boys at home) they were packaged up so we could take them home.
Before leaving we got a tour of the kitchen where we met two of the brothers Joan and Jordi. They didn’t speak much English (similarly we don’t speak terribly much Catalan or Spanish) but it was easy to express our gratitude for an amazing evening.
I have been told that the key to life and the pursuit of happiness and dining out are the same, that is, to not have unreasonably high expectations. At El Celler de Can Roca, it was impossible to reduce my mine given their awards, the prices (195€ plus an extra 90€ for matching wines) and the hype surrounding these three extremely talented brothers. I am privileged at such a young age to have experienced the confluence of these things and not been disappointed, a beautiful moment when the reality of dining at the best restaurant in the world met and exceeded all my hopes and expectations.