It was an interesting end to November, to say the least. A week or so ago, I was sat in Stansted Airport, eating a Burger King, wearing a paper crown. Twenty-four hours later, I was sat in an airport in Catalonia, eating a McDonalds. There was of course, the small matter of the filling in this fast food sandwich.
The filling, in general, was the rather amazing city of Girona. We arrived there on the morning, checked into the AC hotel, which from its location atop a frustratingly steep hill, offers sweeping views across the Old Town, and far beyond, towards the Southern Pyrenees. Having a few hours to kill, we explored the narrow streets of the walled city. We ate the best pain au chocolat (or whatever the Spanish call them) in the history of ever. Phil, my housemate ordered a hot chocolate that was richer than Amancio Ortega and essentially chocosoup.
It was late November, and Girona, clearly a city slammed by the recession, was deserted. Many cafés were shut, but the places that were open were charming and inviting. We didn’t eat much though, and soon headed back to the hotel. After a beer and a bath, I collected my housemate. We had a taxi to order, and headed to the hotel’s front desk.
“Yeah, we need a taxi for El” –
“El Celler de Can Roca? You’ll need it for twenty to eight, right? You’ll arrive at nine”
So the receptionist know the game. Girona might be a glorious city for many reasons, but right now it is on the map for one more. It’s home to the official best restaurant in the world, as voted for by a panel of over nine hundred chefs and culinary experts.
El Celler de Can Roca (C.D.C.R.) attained the top spot on S.Pellegrino’s Top Fifty list two years after the sad demise of the legendary elBulli, Ferran Adrià’s labour of love that wowed six thousand diners a year a mere thirty miles down the road. It was also a world’s best restaurant, topping the table a record five times, in 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. In many ways, the two restaurants draw comparisons in their interpretation and relentless perfection of molecular gastronomy (C.D.C.R. calls it ‘Freestyle Cooking’) with edgy, arty, Latin twists.
Despite Spanish cuisine continuing through somewhat of a golden age (there are two more Spanish restaurants in the Top Ten. Mugaritz and Arzak, both in San Sebastián, are currently ranked fourth and eighth in the world respectively) I first heard of C.D.C.R. through MasterChef: The Professionals, a couple of years back. The contestants had to cook a few signature courses for the founding chefs that created them – Joan Roca, the Head Chef and Jordi Roca, the Pastry Chef. They’re brothers (would you believe it), Joan is the eldest and Jordi is the youngest. A third brother, Josep, is the middle kid – he is the sommelier. At the very least, one of them is on duty every night. C.D.C.R’s logo is a three-pronged ‘R’.
A life of servitude and long hours is a piece – but only a tiny one – of the mosaic that saw C.D.C.R. climb the Top Fifty list to second place in 2011 and 2012 (Noma in Denmark was number one in both years) before emerging victorious in April 2013. The food is famed for a daunting level of detail (Jordi once created a dessert called ‘Anarchy’, which boasted forty-three elements and one thousand and one ingredients). The chefs’ ‘office’ is in the kitchen, so there is constant attention on the pass. The office is charming – when we saw it, there were three MacBooks (like something out of Goldilocks) and the shelves were overflowing with books, notes and bottles of bubbly. A large backboard opposite was covered in scrawls of ingredients, names of guests including your truly) and drawings of food and plates. The website yielded so much more information, as this is a restaurant steeped in as much history as excellence. I had to go.
I had just come back from The Ledbury – another restaurant that I had first seen through the eyes of John Torode and greedy Gregg Wallace – and immediately sent C.D.C.R’s reservation email a pathetically grovelling email;
Almost a month later, I was nursing a particularly severe hangover on a houseboat in Amsterdam when I received a reply;
I literally jumped for joy, not great if you’re a fifteen stone guy on a boat. Word is that bookings for the forty-five capacity restaurant are best taken via email, and there is a waiting list for parties of four etcetera of up to a year, maybe longer for a more summery reservation.
Almost as soon as I returned from the ‘Dam, hotel rooms were reserved. We didn’t book flights until late October, a which time I had been emailing back and forth with host Manel (my new best friend) as the numbers had reduced from three to two and I felt that I had to check (twice) that the reservation was still there – I still couldn’t believe it.
I also couldn’t believe that I was travelling to Spain for less than twenty four hours – and for dinner. The taxi to the restaurant was late, and the cab driver was an arsehole about it, but we didn’t care. We were soon being angrily whisked towards a Girona suburb where the restaurant stands. It was founded by the Roca brothers in 1986, next to Can Roca, their parents’ restaurant, and first won a Michelin Star in 1995. As you may expect, it now holds three. In 2007 C.D.C.R. moved a hundred metes down the road to its current location.
The building, if I am being honest, feels a little bit rough. From the outside, it reminded me of this portacabin-ish food-tech room we had at school, though when we tentatively pushed through the door we were greeted not with a smell of burnt Christmas pudding and socks, but with stark white minimalist décor with very modern wood touches all around. We were swiftly rushed to the table – decorated with three rocks, and the fun began.
Call me cynical but the first thing I noticed was a line of rust on the ceiling. The whole restaurant is triangle-shaped, with tables on three sides of a glass-walled courtyard. The seats seemed to be fashioned out of the kind of wood you get in IKEA, with only a touch of padding and the waiters’ stations were shiny white obelisks which, again, had a disturbing sense of flatpackishness about them. I’ll be honest, C.D.C.R. wasn’t a terribly nice place to be. There is no dress code and the diners all around us were dressed in a mix of jeans, t-shirts, sweaters – even shorts – but a few were more smartly dressed. I had heard of massive informality here – but the illusion ended there. The whole room was deathly silent. There was one seating, at 9pm, and like us, most people must have been hushed in anticipation, or in awe of the first course or two. Luckily, as the wine started to flow, the atmosphere improved as the evening progressed.
We began with a glass of Spanish Cava as we perused the choice of two tasting menus with optional wine flights. The first tasting menu was smaller and cheaper, though as you might expect, we lived vicariously through the Carmine mantra of “Go Big Or Go Home” and went for the Feast Menu with wines. The first course arrived at about half past nine and we were still eating by one in the morning.
What can I possibly say about the food, or add to what has been said before? C.D.C.R. is not just a favourite of the critics, it’s a favourite of chefs as well. In many ways, it is a restaurant to honour those tireless back of house boys and girls – a place for chefs, by chefs. There was nothing in that restaurant to detract from the food. No fancy dining room, ornaments on the table of even a sense of theatre. All that mattered was what was in front of you to eat.
And that all started with caramelised olives, hanging from a bonsai tree. It set the perfect first impression, and in taste, was the precedent to the things we had coming to us – the olives were crunchy – similar in texture to a Malteser – but were rich beyond what any olive with sugar should have delivered. What followed were about twenty courses of bloody brilliance.
The starters were substantial, and began with The World, a quintet of amuse-bouche from five corners of the globe. Peruvian Ceviche broth was served in a brittle globe which exploded when you pressed it against your tongue, a bite-sized taco of black bean and guacamole from Mexico, a cone of pickled vegetables from China and almond, rose, honey, saffron, ras-al-hanout and goat yoghurt from Morocco. Breathe, Mike. Despite all this, Panco-fried bread, bacon, kimchi and sesame from Korea was the star, and we were directed to eat that one first as it was warm.
More nibbles followed. Capano bonbons – more exploding balls – were rich with that unmistakable Vermouth taste, sesame bread was loaded with balsamic and felt like a new kind of delicate. Less impressive was an artichoke omelette, which maybe was wasted on me as it tasted like gunge. Indeed, punctuated through this meal was the occasional element which really pushed the envelope – perhaps tasting and feeling more heavenly to a chef or gourmand, but bypasses the palate a little with me, a guy who does like the occasional bag of Haribo and those four-packs of cream cakes from Tesco.
Two more pairs of balls arrived next. We were instructed to eat the boletus edulis brioche first as it was warm – a moist sponge pumped with a rich fungus cream, topped with a huge slice of truffle – just one of many times we encountered this ingredient (a tour of the kitchen later on uncovered a massive tub of the things, which al together mist have been worth thousands) We ate the accompanying truffled bonbon next (served in a rock). It was a slightly spicy sweetener before we moved to the starters proper.
Oh yeah, I forgot about the sexiest bread basket in the history of the world.
I couldn’t even remember what all the choices were, but I plumped for a slice of red wine loaf and some olive brioche. My mate had the same, but also tried the plan baguette, which was the least plain baguette ever, to the point of irony. How can the pastry team get so much flavour in what was essentially Hovis? The brioche was flavourful but the red wine loaf was like eating Merlot – no bad thing. I had seconds and thirds, and no-one cared.
The first proper starter was a vegetable stock with pumpkin purée, parsnip, quince, turnip, carrot, potato, violet potato, Comté cheese, porcini gnocci and hazelnut tofu. It was like eating a rainbow but again, packed to the hilt with flavour – and everything could be tasted. The white asparagus and truffle Vienetta was a light reprieve to a light starter, but was somehow massively rich in equal measure. Less delicate but richer still was a starter that went down as one of the stand-out dishes of the evening. Chestnuts and eel – possibly the first fish course – introduced us to a new kind of texture – a fluffy, melt in the mouth cloud of umami and saltiness that tasted divine and looked, as one person commented, “…like it belongs in the sea”.
The mackerel was next. served naked aside from a few pickles and mullet roe, it was less successful – dare I say too fishy?! – but there was no denying that this was fish as chefs see it – it was all about the animal. It looked beautifful, the skin silvery and the flesh bright pink. There was a brief pause with the fish as we were then served more boletus edulis, cured in salt with egg yolk, marinated in miso and air of yeast. It was hearty and unapologetic in its earthiness, a celebration of rurality that would put the farmers of the Forest of Dean to shame. I am not a fan of big chunks of mushroom, but it tasted awesome – cannot argue if it’s cooked well I guess… God I am fickle.
By now we were both in full ‘grin’ mode. This happens to me at all these kinds of restaurants, where the sheer joy of the moment and the food just makes me smile, almost like when you cannot believe it’s Christmas… because it actually is Christmas Day. The arrival of some tweezers rested upon a Royal Doulton block made us more cerebral.
Said tweezers heralded the arrival of the sea anemone. I had been looking forward to this one, having seen MasterChef contestants screw up this prized ingredient year after year. Served with razor clam salad, royal cucumber and seaweed in escabeche (a traditional Spanish acidic fish stew), it was presented in the anemone’s shell and tasted fishier than Jaws in a sushi bar. Blinking flip it was good though – crashingly salty but offset with the richness my new favourite mollusc, razor clam.
Therefore, the ominously-titled ‘A Whole Prawn’ had a hard act to follow. As the name suggested, this was a dressed-down prawn, served in its entirety, the legs cooked down to crunch upon, the head served as a salty garnish and the whole thing accompanied with seaweed and plankton sponge cake, with head juice. It was plain – the prawn was clearly made to stand out and once again it was cooked bloody well, but for me, stunned in looks and creatively rather than taste.
We ploughed through the crustacean family – next up was langoustine, another dish stripped down to the nuts and bolts of the eponymous ingredient, and little else – or so we thought. I think by now both us were in agreement that this was amongst the best food we have ever eaten, but damn it was clinical. Only the most confident brigades could serve naked langoustine, even if it was followed in sequence with a bisque velouté. If I am being honest, I felt that the food at the Fat Duck (another molecular gastronomy-monger and ex-Number One) carried more ‘personality’ and likability, but for flat out taste C.D.C.R. wasn’t beaten. The langoustine was not accompanied with wine (a first for the meal) – rather, the sherry it was served with was poured into the pot with the fish, sizzling on rocks and giving the seafood a little tang of sweetness. The velouté was followed with a spot of syrupy Jerez caramel on a spoon; essentially meaning that the dish got sweeter and sweeter as you progressed through the trio of components. It was very clever, and very surprising.
Whew! The final fish course! It was about half ten, eleven and we were getting full – and drunk. We were presented with a beautiful piece of grilled sole. White and black garlic with parsley juice was presented like a stained-glass window and banged the fish into life. As always though, it was the little things that made the dish stand out. A sliver of sole skin with lemon was more citrusy than a freaking lemon itself.
The arrival of the reds signified the first main course – artichoke flower, lamb belly, sweetbreads, curry yoghurt, beetroot, spinach, turnip, lemon, tangerine, sweet potato, leaves and flowers. Its complexity was beaten only by the oil-painting-esque presentation and the sheer thump of flavour, making my most hated meat somewhat acceptable.
The mains section was only two deep, but seeing as I was now full – even by my standards – that was probably a good thing. Pigeon parfait with curry-caramelised walnuts and juniper was next and it is one of the most visually striking plates I have ever seen, the pinkest pigeon in the world lying brazenly against the charcoal bowl. It was the perfect end to the beginning of the meal. Did I mention that it tasted boss? The should sell curry-caramelised walnuts in bags in Tesco.
In way, the main courses seemed almost like an anti-climax, in the sense that you build thorough countless starters and suddenly, after two more dishes, you are faced with dessert. In similar fashion, the puddings felt abbreviated, but I couldn’t complain. The first one, sourdough ice cream with cocoa pulp, fried lychee and sherry vinegar macaroons, was incredible – smothered in the richness of cocoa and the tiniest, sweetest macaroons, whilst stuffed with freshness of lychee. It was served with Sake wine – it was tear-jerkingly good.
Then came the dish which I had been waiting for – a little bit of humour in an altogether serious meal. ‘Candied Apple’ was served with pistachio sponge – the apple looked like an apple – so you can see where this was going. Spoon into it and the brittle sugar case shattered, leaving you with a sweet apple mousse that it dangerously addictive. It was served with cider. Not exactly wine, as per the menu, but touché.
The final dish was a little bit of a let down, but it may have been intended as a palate-cleanser. Walnut, lemon and ratafia was essentially jujjed-up sorbet, albeit served with a choice dessert wine. Shortly after, the petits-fours arrived in a rare flourish – pushed into view atop a pram-slash-carriage thing. They are in made in house by Jordi, and we were served on a silver plate made from loosely-connected triangles, which you could bend and twist to your hearts’ desire.
This plate was a rare moment of control afforded to the diner at C.D.C.R. Throughout the meal, you are guided – no – prodded towards how to eat each course. The servers dictate the evening;
“Eat this first”
“Open the lid (of the langoustine) in a few moments”
“Lick the spoon after”
“You eat this in one mouthful”
You can call C.D.C.R. a lot of things, and one statement could be that it does indeed serve some of the best food in the world. I heard a quote on MasterChef the other day; “The gastronomic equivalent of perfect pitch” and this sums up the Roca Brothers’ endeavour to a tee. It is technically stunning here. The wine flight was superb. To someone who possess a wine palate as sophisticated as the Flintstones’ car, I do believe that for the first time ever, I truly understood wine pairings. Whereas the menu was overtly Spanish, the wines were less so, where New and Old Word offerings (and cider and Sake) were only occasionally punctuated by the likes of Rioja.
As a restaurant though, I consider C.D.C.R. to be flawed – even beyond the shortcomings of the room. It’s not a relaxing evening. You are swarmed by waiters pouring wine, explaining it, serving food, explaining it – or instructing you. There is a distinctly ‘Latin’ feel to the pace and flow of the evening – i.e. erratic and ever so slightly rushed, as the staff rush to churn out the twenty-odd courses in time with the wine and the other tables. There is a huge lack of control, and you’re left expecting more from an evening that cost just six hundred Euros for two diners, even though the general demeanour of the workers is positive, good natured and hospitable. And yes, they’re all fluent in English.
The menu is challenging and some things are difficult to understand, or simply eat. This is the pursuit of perfection, and to hell with the sense of homeliness and overwhelmingly replete feel-good factor of the Fat Duck or The Ledbury. Such were the shortcomings that as I sat in Girona Airport, eating that McDonalds on the morning after, I was asking the question I never saw myself asking; was this really worth it?
It was only as I write this that I realised it was. I can still recall every dish and almost every taste. Everything I ate that evening was the perfect example of what it set out to be. And so what if some of it was odd, or experimental to the point of gross? I’m not a big fan of Findus crispy pancakes, either. Heading to Spain for dinner was more than a box-ticking exercise – to say that in 2013, I dined in the best restaurant in the world in 2013. Instead, it was a trip to see a great city, to eat genuinely good food and to say, whist being grateful and honestly dubbing El Celler de Can Roca as near as makes to difference to perfection, sometimes less is more. Or maybe I’ll never understand food like a chef does. That lot are a different breed of awesomeness.
Feast Menu €190, Wine pairing €90 per person (prices as of December 2013) service not included (nor are flights or hotel rooms, eek)
CellerCanRoca.com | @CanRocaCeller | +34 972 22 21 57 | C/ de Can Sunyer, 48, 17007 Girona, Spain
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Originally published 7th December 2013.