Sant Pau Opening Remarks:
-Chef and owner Carme Ruscalleda is one of only four women chefs in the world to hold 3 Michelin stars for her Catalanian restaurant Sant Pau.
-After opening her second Sant Pau restaurant in Tokyo (which received a coveted 2 Michelin stars), she became the women with the most Michelin stars in the world. I knew instantly once beginning my research that I absolutely had to taste her food.
Sant Pau Ambiance:
-Sant Pau is located in the coastal town of Sant Pol de Mar, about 40 minutes outside of Barcelona in an old seafront townhouse. It’s accessible by train (about an hour ride on the Renfe train), but if you’re dining in the evening, don’t expect to get out of there in time to get back- the last train leaves around 10:30 PM.
-The restaurant is quite unassuming when seen from the outside, with beige cement walls and a simple blue sign ensuring travelers they’re in the right place.
-The small 30-seat space overlooks the Mediterranean sea and has a lovely private garden out back. It features two dining rooms – one with sultry red walls, the other with mustard orange, with white linens draped over round tables and simple décor. There is no more on the walls but a few white pieces of art, and a bouquet of roses on the mantle. Actually, this is pretty much exactly the look you might expect in a stock photo with the title “date restaurant”. I imagine many traditional men choose to pop the question to their dining companions at Carme (though side bar- this definitely did not happen to me).
-With no more than 10 tables in the whole restaurant (and one seating per night), it’s eerily quiet in there. I never found it stuffy but I do always appreciate a little bit more chatter or elevator music to liven things up.
Sant Pau Service:
-Service could not have been more refined and comfortable throughout the night. Each course, and the wine, dishware, cutlery and pre-dish “performance” (i.e. showing us the bread before cutting, or bringing us the whole raw fish before the fish course), came together like a well choreographed dance. My only complaint would be that often dishes arrived and the explanation would be no more than 2 or 3 words. For a food writer, that’s just not enough. So, naturally I would call them back to deliver a little more details (to the best of their English-speaking abilities), and they were always happy to oblige.
-I also loved that at the conclusion of our meal, we were invited to have coffee and petit-fours in the garden outside where we could overlook the action in the kitchen downstairs. An even better surprise came when Chef Carme herself came out to greet us and thank us for coming by.
-The meal moved at a really comfortable pace- we were in and out within 2 1/2 hours, with no long lags between any courses or wine pours.
-Curated by sommelier Joan Lluis Gomez, the 100-page wine list includes predominantly Spanish vintages but also a fair spread from around the world.
-My partner opted for a very well composed wine pairing selection at the reasonable price of 59 € ($84 CAD), while Joan carefully selected a few for me including my favourite of the night- a peachy, almond-like Terrer de Mas Fonoll Cinclus 2009 from Penedes Spain.
-Utilizing the best produce on the market, Carme’s food is inspired by Catalan recipes and local ingredients.
-The restaurant offers their menu a la carte as well as by tasting menu at 159 €. The tasting menu includes a series of small seasonal appetizers, 7 additional savoury courses (one of which you have a choice of meat), cheese, pre dessert, 2 desserts, and a unique installation-style petit fours spread.
-The cuisine is certainly not molecular in that you won’t see an over abundance of foams, jellies, freeze-dried elements. Everything feels organic, real and genuine, but like much modernist cuisine, the plates are works of art.
-Having eaten so much fantastic food made predominantly by men, it’s really refreshing to see how in contrast, a woman’s palate influences the plate. I remember having a really magical afternoon with a group of Toronto female chefs (read about it here), when one of them suggested that a woman touches the plate differently. That is, women’s take on food is not the same as men’s- and we are surrounded by so many dishes made by men. Well, I didn’t think that much of it at the time, but I believe I can see and taste the femininity in Carme’s food- and that is absolutely such a wonderful thing. There is a more rounded softness on the palate, a touch of natural sweetness from the choice in produce used, a more delicate treatment of the ingredients, and (my favourite) – lots of desserts- most of which have a little tease of saltiness going on (which I love). Carme offers a perfect balance of simplicity and precise craftmanship- the perfection here absolutely makes sense.
Upon being sat, our server brought over a full loaf of bread, presenting it to us like a gift and explaining that it was baked in a village a few miles away. She then whisked it away to slice it before offering us slices. It was admittedly hard to resist. Warm, fluffy and bouncy on the inside, and wickedly crusty exterior- this bread needed no oil or butter. It was just that good.
Figs, European Eel and Daikon with Moscatell, Hazelnuts
I loved the sweet jammy figs against the crisp daikon and toothsome eel – a delightful first bite.
Harvest Cookie, Grape, Anchovy, Tomato, Onion and Courgette
When reading the ingredients, I wasn’t sure how it all was going to come together, but all of those fresh bold flavours – the salty anchovy, the sweet grape, the acidic tomato –balanced each other quite well.
A fun Asian-inspired light two-bite starter served with a grape mustard, a spicy dip and a little pile of sesame seeds. I loved the cold crisp vegetables against the sweet and tangy mustard, while the seeds offered a gratifying little crunch.
Boiled and Warm Langoustine with Tomato, Cucumber and Strawberries Velvet
The bright, yet creamy tomato broth complimented the delicate sweetness of the langoustine beautifully, while the hit of sweet ripe strawberries helped to balance out its natural acidity.
Lobster “Coca”, Raw and Cooked Vegetables, Creamy Mozzarella
This was described as a little mini pizza crust loaded with succulent sweet lobster, fresh tomato sauce, zucchini blossom, rich cheese, pear and gelee made of lobster jus. It was a lovely combination of sweet and savoury flavours and crispy, creamy and supple textures. Yum.
Miso and Foie Gras Cubes, Champignons, Umeboshi, Lemon, Vegetables
I almost always see foie gras done as some sort of sweet preparation, so it was interesting that in a savoury tasting menu full of sweet suggestions (ie. fresh fruit in almost all of the courses) that Chef Carme threw in an umami-rich foie dish. Did I miss the coulis, brioche, boozy fruit etc. etc. etc. – actually, no. I very much enjoyed the unctuous foie against the salty earthy broth, green beans, matchstick mushrooms and tiny tendrils of spaghetti squash. For once, foie gras didn’t feel so rich.
Gambes on Sailor’s Toast
This course came with an adorable instruction card that told a story of the origins and instructions on how to create sailor’s toast (you toast the bread, soak it in fish stew and then toast it again).
What arrived was simple but deeply satisfying. The toast had the texture of a perfect grilled cheese- crispy and light on the outside but buttery and soft within. The combination of the little crusty crouton with the thick salty broth and the perfectly cooked prawns was simply elegant and divine.
Cleaver Wrasse 2014, Cactus, Barbary Fig, Aubergine
This lovely fish course featured lightly fried parrot fish (which were brought to our table for us to see before the dish arrived), paired with toothsome cactus, sweet roasted eggplant smear and a sweet and tangy fig sauce.
Like the most ethereal fish and chips you’ve ever tried- the parrot fish were light yet buttery in texture and offered a delicate contrasting crunch.
Pirinese Foal Loin, Black Garlic, Banana
For the main meat course, there are two options so each of us went with one and we shared. We were a wee bit apprehensive about eating a baby horse, especially with banana (whaaa?), but once it arrived, I was glad we went for it. I loved the rich rare meltingly tender foal with the sweet bananas, crisp nuts and bright pickled shallots to cut the mild gaminess of the meat. Who knew bananas and baby horse worked so well together? Who knew I would even like eating foal?
Girona Veal Cheek with Pumpkin and Chayote
Blessedly tender cheeks enhanced by a lusciously runny egg yolk, all cut by sweet tender pumpkin and refreshingly bright brunoise of chayote.
Del Montsec 3 Ways with Apple, Raisins and Cordifole
Rarely does a cheese course impress but this ended up being one of our favourite dishes of the night. The goat cheese was presented with the same ingredients, but three very different ways. First- the most savoury- was a simply presented deconstructed offering with the cheese, fresh apple, raisins and the baby greens.
Next (my favourite), was whipped to a more chevre like consistency, coated with dehydrated apples and a candy-coated leaf.
Finally, what they called a cheesecake, but what I would more accurately describe as tasting like bread pudding. It was dense, rich, and offered a nice balance of savoury and sweet. I wished I could do this dish again and again.
A simple but effective palate cleanser- a generous bowl of ice coated with ripe peach puree. Not sweet, just refreshing, making for the perfect introduction to dessert.
Tender Almonds Kiss, Sea Water
I loved this dish. A silky almond ice cream was seamlessly topped with a sea water foam, then garnished with almonds, olive oil and sea salt. The result was an addictive few bites of sweet and savoury magic – I was literally scraping the bowl.
Black and Green Olives, Aragon, Sevillanas, Sweet Wine
Again, I absolutely loved Carme’s playful use of sweet in savoury dishes and savoury in sweets. Here we see the briny salty flavour of black and green olives against the sweet and rich flavour of chocolate. The dark chocolate letters were mixed with the black olive juice, while the white chocolate letters were mixed with the green olives.
I used this mainly as “sauce” to mix with all the other textural delights on the plate- the satiny chocolate mousse, the little bits of olives, the chocolate glazed crunchy biscuits, and the sweet wine jelly. Creative and deeply enjoyable.
Dragon: White Chocolate, Black Chocolate, Puff Pastry with Angel Hair and Pine Nuts, Chocolate Cookies, Spiced Cookies, Licorice and Sherbet Philo, Mint Brick and Strawberry Marshmallows in Souvenir Box
Dessert was served outside in the beautiful courtyard overlooking the show kitchen downstairs. When I saw this edible installation make its way over to our table, I did a little wiggle of excitement. All of the moving parts were delicious on their own right, but my favourite limbs were the front claws (the puff pastry with the crispy angel hair and toasted nuts), and the take-away fluffy strawberry marshmallows. What a whimsical way to end a magical meal.
Carma Ruscalleda Sant Pau Closing Remarks:
-The meal including tax and tip for two tasting menus, one wine pairing, 3 glasses of wine, and 2 teas came to 450 € ($640 CAD). I was quite happy with the meal for the price, as I literally found every single dish beautiful, flavourful and precisely “my style”- that is, I think I really like feminine food (whatever the hell that meals).
-In conclusion, I would absolutely recommend Carme Ruscalleda’s Sant Pau if you’re visiting Barcelona or around the region- it is even worth the extra 100 € cab ride home. It’s a magical space with flawless service, a fantastic wine selection and absolutely beautiful food- do try to get yourself one of their few tables for a surely memorable meal.