Oliver Smith, The Daily Telegraph, October 14, 2014
After more than a dozen courses, and almost as many glasses of wine, my tasting notes had become somewhat perfunctory. “Pig – delicious” was all I could manage for what was perhaps my favourite dish; “all the prawn” was the enigmatic description of another; while some had vanished from the record books altogether. With pork disguised as fish, ceviche hidden beneath the frozen face of tiger, and puddings that pulsate, it’s easy to get lost in the moment at a place like El Celler de Can Roca.
Founded in 1986, in an inauspicious suburb of Girona, the pretty Catalan city where Ryanair’s Barcelona passengers are deposited (even though it’s some 60 miles further north), the restaurant is run by the Roca brothers: Joan (head chef), Josep (sommelier) and Jordi (in charge of desserts), each thought of as a master in their field. With three Michelin stars and a waiting list so long that three people are employed just to tell callers “no”, it’s now considered the heir to Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, which closed in 2011. Mama must be proud.
It reached its zenith last year, edging out Rene Redzepi’s Noma, in Copenhagen, to top the prestigious “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list, based on a poll of chefs and critics. Noma reclaimed the number one spot this year, but some consolation arrived last week when El Celler de Can Roca was named the best place to eat on the planet by TripAdvisor, based on its user-generated reviews (Redzepi’s place didn’t even make the top 20).
Whether TripAdvisor’s gong is quite as meaningful is a matter for debate, but the affable Joan Roca said it was not being taken lightly. “Recognition from our customers is wonderful - we’re very lucky,” he told me, adding that the award was testament to the importance of hospitality at his restaurant. “We want to make guests feel at home, and try to have at least two of [the brothers] on site for every service.”
It was Joan and Jordi during my visit, and after a quick tour of the kitchen (more like a fine dining factory, with at least 30 cooks piping, prepping and plating), it was down to business.
“To begin, I propose a journey around the world,” said my waiter, parking a black paper lantern in front of me. Within it I found five gorgeous morsels, each representing a different country that had inspired the chef. A mini burrito for Mexico; a tiny stuffed vine leaf for Turkey. “Can I recommend you begin in South Korea? That is the little croquette. Then you may fly where you wish.”
As I sipped cava and took in the surroundings – simply furnished, with tables arranged around a handful of trees encased in glass - five more rounds of appetisers followed, including sweet caramelised olives, stuffed with anchovies and presented to the table attached to a bonsai tree, and a dreamy mouthful of carpano vermouth and grapefruit, encased in a delicate, paper-thin shell.
An “autumn vegetable stock” came next, cooked with the sort of precision you expect from the disciples of molecular gastronomy (“80 degrees for three hours”). It was crystal clear, with an unusual, almost gelatinous consistency, and bursting with 10 or more individually distinguishable flavours.
To follow was perhaps the most eye-catching dish – Leche de Tigre, a lobster ceviche topped with a disc of frozen lime branded with the image of a growling tiger. It, like many of the dishes, pushed the boundaries in terms of texture, but – thankfully – was less quirky when it came to flavour, with the sharpness of a classic ceviche. Other highlights were the pork jowl served in a sardine broth and - confusingly – topped with a sardine skin; the aforementioned “delicious” pig – with a crispy top and adorned with five variants of the humble fig; and a succulent pile of veal with marrow and truffle shavings.
Last to be served were a sourdough ice cream that sat on a gyrating block (one gimmick too far, perhaps), and “chocolate anarchy”, a riot of cocoa that contained 50 different constituent parts and was served with sweet sake. Such complex dishes, and the fact that there are around 60 staff present at each service to cater to 45 guests, explain the price: €300 per person if you choose the matching wines (and Josep’s knack of finding the perfect vintage among his 60,000-bottle cellar is staggering, so you really must).
It’s 20 courses in all, but each is well judged in terms of size - I didn’t feel fit to burst after the four-hour sitting (although I’d hate to know how many calories I consumed – they worked it out once but refused to tell me the figure). There were misses, but only due to my own personal tastes. I couldn’t bring myself to eat “all the prawn” – legs and all – while the final savoury, pigeon with a chocolate sauce, was too rich so late in the day.
As with the likes of Noma and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, this is a destination restaurant – people fly to Girona just to eat here (10,000 from 57 countries in 2013). But why is it TripAdvisor’s number one? Joan might think it’s down to hospitality, but I think it’s down to a lack of pretentiousness. Reviewers of Noma, for example, bemoan the lack of meat, with its devotion to foraging and seasonal produce leaving some bemused when they’re asked to gorge on moss. At El Celler de Can Roca the scientific, sous-vide trend may be to the fore - my oyster was cooked for five minutes at 85 degrees, I was told - but this is food you really want to eat.
El Celler de Can Roca, Calle Can Sunyer, 48, 17007 Girona, Spain; 0034 972 22 21 57; cellercanroca.com
Q&A: Joan Roca
Guests have to wait up to a year for a table at El Celler de Can Roca - will you ever expand to meet the demand?
I am amazed at the passion people have to eat here. But we will never expand, or open another restaurant. How can we change our formula? Good hospitality is the most important thing for us and if we had another business we would no longer be there to see the guests.
Where in the world has the most exciting cuisine?
I have just returned from a tour of South America, visiting Mexico, Colombia and Peru, and there is an amazing gastronomic diversity. Peru is moving very quickly, and Colombia is about to explode.
What do you think of the British culinary scene?
I am a big fan of Heston Blumenthal's restaurants - The Fat Duck and Dinner - but also believe London has perhaps the finest variety of restaurants anywhere in the world.
Will you ever return to more traditional cooking? Do you think people will ever tire of "molecular gastronomy"?
We always want to find a balance - traditional techniques are still very important. But we are also committed to science and to being creative.
How many calories are there in your taster menu?
We worked it out once, but I'm not going to tell you - it will be the headline of your story! It's a lot, but I don't think people mind - they come for a special experience, not to lose weight.
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This article was written by Oliver Smith from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.