El Celler de Can Roca Opening Remarks:
-El Celler de Can Roca is a family-owned restaurant in Girona about an hour outside of Barcelona.
-Brothers Joan, Josep and Jordi were raised in their parents neighbourhood bar “Can Roca” in Taiala just outside of Girona. It was here where their love of food and the dining experience was fostered.
-In 1986, the older two brothers, Joan and Josep, opened El Cellar de Can Roca next door to the family’s establishment. In 2007, they relocated up the road where Joan (the chef), and Josep (the wine expert) brought on their younger sibling Jordi to become the pastry chef. Many have called the brothers the gastronomic holy trinity as they work symbiotically together- each complimenting the other in a seamless and elevating way.
-Speaking of trinities, I love that the website describes the various fitting trios that are represented by El Celler. The sweet, the liquid, the salty worlds. The kitchen, the dining room, the celler. The art, the science, the dialogue. “In the Celler, everything is a three-party game.” Well, ménage a trois, if you please.
-Today the El Celler empire includes Can Roca (his parents’ bar), Mas Marroch (an event space), Roca Moo and Roca Bar (1 Michelin Star and bar in the Omm hotel in Barcelona), and Rocambolesc (an artisan ice cream shop).
-The restaurant has been awarded 3 Michelin Stars, and last year (2013) when I made the dinner reservation, they held the top spot on the World’s 50 Best restaurants. It is also regarded by many as the “elBulli” of today.
-And speaking of reservation, it’s not an easy one to acquire. Eleven months ahead to the day, they release the tables, and I had to call literally all day for a few days to land a spot. I was hoping to actually leave to go to Spain a week earlier, but I built my entire trip agenda around the date I could get.
-To get to Girona, you can take a 40 minute train ride from Barcelona, and ride a cab back when you’re finished because they stop running by the time the meal is over. In case you’re wondering, the cab ride home took about 1 hour and 20 minutes, and cost 157 € – yep, pretty much an extra tasting menu.
-Without completely jumping to the chase, I will give you a teaser of the outcome- I had high expectations and they weren’t met. Read on.
-When you arrive at the venue at the top of a windy hill in Girona, you’re greeted by a glowing sign elevated on a wooden wall. Upon wandering up the walkway, you enter a pretty courtyard lounge where I saw a number of guests enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail (really? How much can people possibly drink?)
-Inside is a bright white hallway with unusual bird-like light fixtures and a desk that is more like an office reception area than a hostess stand.
-The 55- seat dining room is simple, bright and modern. The ceilings are lined with pale wood panels, while the matching floors are topped with simply dressed white-clothed tables and artistically shaped chairs.
-The dining space is divided into 2-3 table sections by bussing stations, which are all oriented around a triangular glass garden. Inside is a Zen-like oasis filled simply with birch trees and tiny pebbles standing in as grass.
-At first we were sat right by the main hallway that staff use to move from the kitchen to the dining room, but all we could hear upon sitting down was obnoxious clatter. We asked to be moved, which seemed to cause a bit of an inconvenience, but after consulting with the other staff, we were found another space. Once we began the meal, however, we figured out it wouldn’t have mattered as there was plenty of chaos and clatter at each of the bussing stations near by. More on that in a bit.
-Unlike most of the other Michelin star restaurants I’ve been to (and most recently on this trip, ABaC or Sant Pau for example), El Celler de Can Roca was not quiet at all. Everyone and everything seemed to move at a hasty pace, with glasses being shuffled, wine carts being pushed around, servers rushing in and out of the kitchen, that there was quiet a lot of residual noise. I don’t think it was the noise itself that bothered me much, but rather, the hustle and bustle in that fine dining environment put me off. Read more on that below.
El Cellar de Can Roca Service:
-This is where things got started off on a sour note. After being moved to another table, our server came by our table immediately and asked if we wanted a glass of cava with our appetizers before we even had a chance to look at the food menu. I knew I was going to be doing full wine pairings (15 glasses), so we didn’t think it was necessary to tack on another glass each. Well, apparently, that wasn’t cool with our server, as we immediately got a shocked and almost pissed off look who marched off without another word. Moments later, her colleague came by to offer us the cava again, and when we politely declined, he asked again “are you sure?” Yah, man, we’re sure. We then asked if it were possible to do 1/2 pours on the wine pairings for me as I just like to experience the pairing but I just can’t drink that much if I want to remember anything past the fish course. I’ve never been told no by a restaurant when I request this, and actually it’s even been given to me free in places like the Fat Duck. But, again, there was serious hesitation by the gentlemen, and instead of being accommodating, he simply talked me out of the request, ensuring me that they were such tiny pours anyway so I would be fine. Well, they weren’t and I wasn’t. I would say 60% of my wine was wasted but I was still drunk by the end- half pours would have been more than enough.
-The service throughout the rest of the night was amateur at best. First, lets chat affect. Our server was short in her correspondence, seemed immensely disinterested in my questions, and I don’t think I saw a single smile all night.Actually, she looked kind of mad. Second- professionalism. There were a few instances when the wine was poured after the food by a frazzled rushed sommelier, or I saw the server bring out the food and rest it on the bussing station for a good 2-3 minutes as she looked around for the sommelier to pour. There was even a time when we got our wine after the food was already eaten and gone, and another time the server couldn’t remember if we had gotten the next wine and he actually poured the same wine twice. For a three Michelin star restaurant, supposedly the 2nd best in the world, this is absolutely unacceptable. Our server also didn’t even ask us if we had any allergies or couldn’t eat any foods (my partner despises coriander/ cilantro)- which we later brought to her attention after some coriander-heavy appetizers. Her response? “Oh, sorry, yes it’s in that dish you just ate.” Yes, he knows. Third, was just the general vibe of the meal where everything felt rushed, hectic, anxiety-provoking, and impersonal. The meal took about 2 1/2 hours, but felt like a bit of a sprint because there were so many courses and wines coming and going. Sometimes we would have a glass of wine poured, we would hardly get a sip of it, and another would immediately come our way. What is this- a university drinking game?
-Other than seeing Josep visit the guests at each table, it just felt like the staff couldn’t have cared less to make the experience special. I was made to feel I should be grateful I got one of the coveted reservations and just being there should be good enough. It wasn’t good enough.
-Wine pairings are available at 55 or 85 € for the smaller and larger tasting menus, respectfully, or bottles can be ordered a la carte. After we had already agreed on the pairings, the sommelier came by with a wheel-able magazine-rack like cart that housed 3 extensive booklets of bottles to peruse. Apparently, Josep has 3600 different wines available by bottle with 50,000 total bottles in the cellar.
-While I am usually somewhat less enthused about wine pairings when compared with my excitement for a meal, the experience was completely different at El Celler. Here, I felt it was only right to give Josep the same attention as I did Joan and Jordi, and as a result, I wholeheartedly appreciated the wine as part of the meal. It truly shared the spotlight with the main ingredient on the plate for each and every course we were brought.
-While we both agreed that the wine pairings were beyond incredible with the food- one of my absolute favourite pairings of the evening was the Joh. Jos. Prum Kabinet 08 V.D.P. Mosel with the White Asparagus and Truffle course. This wine was not only delicious in its own right, but it completely transformed the flavour profile of the dish. Alone, the ice cream was more grassy and sulfurous, but with the floral Riesling, it rounded everything out with a nice level of sweetness. Absolutely divine.
El Cellar de Can Roca Food:
-El Celler describes itself as a “free-style” restaurant, committed to avant-garde cuisine while paying homage to passed down recipes from generations. In other words, they “defend the dialogue between the countryside and science, a total dialogue.”
– I was particularly struck by the triangular relationship between the wine, savoury and sweet. Usually a chef’s menu determines everything else in a restaurant, but here, you get the sense that they all hold equal weight. That if one corner were to fall, it would drag the other two down with it, so that they must work hard to continually check in with one another and move as a single entity.
-The dishes at El Celler are not necessarily a mélange of luxury on decadence on excess. Rather, there is a particular respect paid to local simple ingredients presented in their best flavour profile, form and shape.
-It should also be mentioned that the choice in dishware, to me, was probably just as exciting as the food itself- truly unique, breathtakingly beautiful and perfectly suited to the needs of each course.
-There are two options for the meal- either the Tasting of Classics menu for 155 € or the 22 course Feast Menu for 190 €.
Taste of the World
Mexico (Burrito with Mole Poblano and Guacamole) – Turkey (Tartlet of Vine Leaf with Lentil Puree, Eggplant and Spices, Goat Yogurt and Raw Cucumber)- China (Pickled Vegetables with Plum Cream) – Morocco (Almond, Rose, Honey, Saffron, Ras el Hanout, Goat Yogurt)– Korea (Panko Fried Bread, Bacon with Soja Sauce, Snow Peas, Kimchi and Sesame Oil)
I loved the whimsical presentation of this which began as a globe-decorated Chinese-lantern with a peep-hole inside, that opened up to reveal an a collection of internationally-inspired dishes.
I think it takes tremendous ingenuity to pack so much pointed flavour into such small spaces, so I really appreciated this first amuse. I loved and savoured every bite, but I think my favourite was the aromatic spiced Morocco bite with the crispy candy-like shell and the creamy tangy yogurt.
Caramelized Olives Stuffed with Sardines
Imagine the most extreme execution of the sweet-salty flavour combination and now, add in the contrast of wickedly juicy olives and crunchy hard candy shell.
It was like a savoury candy in one bite- yum.
Black Vermouth Truffle with Crispy Prawn Crackers
One of my favourite bites of the night. Once on the tongue, the candy-like shell cracked and gave way to a floral sweet liquid that was balanced out by the ethereal salty crisps.
Pickled Barnacles with Bay Leaves and Albarino and Mediterranean Lobster Ceviche
This wasn’t my favourite dish of the night, as I found the pickling acid overwhelmed the delicate barnacles and albarino. I also found the lobster could have used a bit more salt, acid and even heat to elevate its delicate flavour, especially after the pungency of the first bite.
Truffled Bonbon and Truffled Brioche
This was insanely delicious.
Here, the umami-rich truffle filling was balanced by a sweet candy shell, and the pillowy steamed-bun-like brioche merely melted on the tongue. Heaven.
A nice selection of bread, especially the sun-dried tomato filled brioche, but it paled in comparison to some of the breads we had at Sant Pau and ABaC.
Summer Vegetable Stock
Vegetable Stock at a Low Temperature with Sprouts, Flowers, Leaves and Fruits
Pairing: Vinya Oculta 12 D.O. Penedes
An interesting and delicate first course, albeit a bit underwhelming in flavour. The broth was very mild with a flavor and texture a bit of very lightly seasoned stock that had gelatinized slightly in the fridge. But I loved the combination of the vegetal pop of the peas and the ripe sweet mango that added just enough acidity to liven things up.
White Asparagus and Truffled Viennetta
Pairing: Joh. Jos Prum Kabinet 08 V.D.P. Mosel
This was a favourite dish of mine, especially in conjunction with the wine (see comment above). The tender asparagus was topped with a sweet almost balsamic-like black garlic reduction, served with a white asparagus and truffle ice cream.
With the wine, the luscious viennetta was smooth, slightly sweet, and offered a balanced level of earthiness from the fresh truffle.
Mackerel with Pickles and Mullet Roe
Mackerel Sauce with White Wine, Lemon, Capers and Chilies in Vinegar, Fried Tomato, Mullet Roe, Mackerel Marinated in Sugar and Salt, and Mackerel Infusion
Pairing: Domaine de la Rectorie L’Argile 13 A.O.C. Collioure
An absolutely stunning presentation of the meaty mackerel lined by a skeleton made up of wine and mackerel scales and garnished with addictively crispy fried capers. Admittedly, I found the combination of mackerel, roe, marinade, capers and scale-y sauce a bit overkill on the briny-fishy factor, but a nice dish nonetheless.
Sea Anemone, Razor-Clam, Royal Cucumber and Seaweed in Escabeche
Pairing: Navaros Niepoort 12 Vino de Mesa de Jerez
In contrast, despite the fact that this was merely completely seafood, it was remarkably well balanced by the sweet and fresh escabeche. If you reached down to the bottom with the surgical like tweezers we used as a utensil for this dish, every bite was flawlessly cooked, perfectly seasoned, and well balanced.
A Whole Prawn
Charcoal-Grilled King Prawn, Head Juice with Seaweed, Seawater and Sponge Cake of Plankton
Pairing: Vina Tondonia Blanc 99 D.O.Ca. Rioja
I very much enjoyed this prawn composition. The typically sweet prawns took on a more earthy woodsy aroma after their time on the charcoal grill, while the delicate flesh juxtaposed the wickedly crispy head. Paired with the slightly vegetal savoury seawater cake and viscous jus, it was a highly satisfying plate.
Palo Cortado-Steamed Langostine, Bisque Veloute, and Jerez Caramel
This was by far my favourite savoury course. The dish began by our server splashing sherry wine into the coals, which steamed and perfumed the delicate langostine with a sweet, nutty aroma. Next, the creamy sweet bisque went down like a comforting dream, finishing of with a sweet sticky drop of thick sherry caramel.
This was the dish that will stick in my mind as one of the most simple, yet absolutely flawless ways to showcase fresh local ingredients. Perfection lives in sherry caramel- that’s all I’m going to say.
With Mustard Oil, Beurre Noisette, Honey, Chardonnay Vinegar, Bergamot, Aromatic Mustard, Confit Capers, Smoked Hazelnuts
Pairing: Maison Romane Montmains 10 A.O.C. Chablis 1er Cru
A simply cooked skate with a mélange of sauces for dipping- my favourites being the sweet, rich hazelnut puree and the bright citrus bergamot. Not a dish I will remember forever, but it definitely gives me ideas for fish recipes at home.
Surf and Turf
Sardine with Pork Jowl, Charcoal-Grilled Sardine-Bone Broth, Suckling Pig Sauce and Chervil Oil
Pairing: Cobero 12 Valle de Bedoya (Cantabria)
Definitely one of the most innovative takes on surf and turf I’ve ever seen- here the unctuous cutlet of pork jowl was topped with the salty skin of the sardine, sat on a bed of rich sardine and suckling pig sauce.
It was admittedly a bit too oily and salty for me, as I found myself searching for something acidic to cut the fat, but still, a very creative concept.
Spicy Mandala of Artichoke Flower
Milk-Fed Lamb Belly, Lamb Sweetbreads, Curry Yogurt, Beetroot, Spinach, Turnip, Lemon, Tangerine, Sweet Potato, Leaves and Flowers
Pairing: Grantallops Alvaro Palacios 07 D.O.Qa Priorat
This was one of favourite savoury courses, despite the somewhat old-school Mandala-themed presentation. I loved the crispy lamb belly skin with the luscious sweetbreads, delicate artichoke heart “flower” and the various sweet and savoury sauces- the bright citrus, the sweet root vegetable puree, the aromatic tangy yogurt. While lamb belly and sweetbreads are inherently rich, the dish managed to feel light, bright and fresh.
Saint George’s Mushrooms, Marrow, Tendons, Avocado and Truffle
Pairing: Jean Leon 95 Magnum D.O. Penedes
Another beauty of a plate- this one even more comforting then the last. Here, the delicate shin meat was juicy, tender and remarkably flavourful- reminiscent of freshly cooked shawarma meat. While it seemed strange at the time, I really loved the combination of the earthy truffle with the verdant avocado puree, and the decadent marrow rounding everything out.
Pigeon Heart and Cloud of Rice, Pigeon Stock, “Botifarro” and Tatje Pigeon Breast
Pairing: Pesquera Janus 86 D.O. Riberta del Duero
Certainly the most rich of the meat courses, this one starting with a dense pigeon heart parfait sat upon an ethereal pillow of rice and beside a tiny goblet of warm hearty stock.
The best bit, however, was the tender breast and deeply flavourful black pudding. Surrounding the main attraction was a collection of tiny flavour accompaniments like candied ginger, a bright citrus reduction and the best pairing- a bittersweet mocha sauce.
When we tasted that pigeon smeared with the coffee cocoa paste, we both looked up and agreed it was one of the best single bites of the night.
Sourdough Ice Cream
Cocoa Pulp, Fried Lychee, and Jerez Vinegar Macaron
Pairing: Sake Katsuyama Gozenshu Gen
You can’t see it in this picture of course unless I showed you multiple photos at the same angle, but that strange rubber-coated rock upon which the dessert rested ebbed and flowed like a living breathing species. With each “breath”, the unusually-shaped ice cream slowly moved up, down, left and right, leaving you to chase it around the “plate” with your spoon. But let’s talk about that dessert itself, shall we. In a few words, it was absolutely divine. It had a very mild tangy sourdough flavour to balance the sweetness of the mini macaron shell, paired with the floral lychee and a fantastic Sake Katsuyama Gozenshu Gen wine pairing. Jordi was off to a great start.
Blown-Sugar Apricot, Caramelized Apricot Cream
Pairing: Casta Diva Cosecha Miel 10 D.0. Alicante
Following with another beautiful dish, this celebration of apricot was as beautiful on the palate as it was on the plate. The sunset-painted apricot candy shell shattered to reveal a luscious fresh sorbet, with a tiny dollop of rich cream to round out the mild acidity of the stone fruit flavour. Absolute heaven.
Pairing: Café Panama Geisha/ Toro Albala PX 1962 D.O. Montilla-Moriles
I’m not usually a chocolate person, but my goodness, was this ever a beautiful representation of its range of flavours, textures and aromas. The bitter, the sweet, the rich, the light, the crunchy beans, the dense brownie bits, the creamy ice cream, the velvety ganache, and the flaky thin shards – Jordi made me a fan of chocolate for the night.
The meal ended with a cute playful dessert cart making its way to our table and a tasty selection of tiny little edibles.
My favourites were the angelic lychee marshmallows, the cream filled chocolate cookies, the hazelnut filled truffles, and the marshmallow-coated strawberries. Petit fours done right.
El Celler de can roca Closing Remarks:
-For two tasting menus, 2 wine pairings, still water, and teas, the bill came to about 600 € ($860 CAD) including tax and tip- plus about 20 € ($29 CAD) for the train ride there and another 160 € ($230 CAD) for the cab home. Was it worth it? Sadly, I fear not. The price was not the upsetting part- as it was no where near as expensive as some of the restaurants I’ve dined at (i.e. Fat Duck which also cost us a pretty penny to get home from because it was an hour away from London). What was disappointing was to be promised the best meal (or at least 2nd best meal) in the world; a meal I had to reserve 11 months ago after calling for 3 days all day and night; a meal that I literally planned an entire trip to Spain around and I didn’t leave wowed.
-The food was great- I can’t deny them that. With the exception of a few fish dishes, which I could have probably done without, Joan’s savoury creations were divine. Risks were taken, and they often paid off with a few of dishes I’ll easily remember as some of the most ingeniously composed flavour combinations I’ll probably ever have. Likewise, Jordi’s sweets were all home runs. While perhaps, a touch less creative and innovative, they were beautiful, tasty and balanced. The wine was expertly paired, so I give Josep serious props. While I have had wine flights that I just happen to like more, I don’t think I have ever and maybe will ever get a set of pairings that work so brilliantly with the food. The space was simple, tranquil and nice- not a whole lot to complain about there (other than the fact that the personal-bussing stations meant a lot of clanging). But I fear that’s where the good stuff ends. The service, as well described above, set the tone for a disappointing night, and as I personally feel this should be the easiest and most obvious thing to perfect in an acclaimed restaurant like this, it’s truly hard to excuse. I also just felt in general the whole thing lacked a wow factor. I walked out of there underwhelmed and almost felt a bit like crying, which in retrospect feels silly because a) look at what I just ate, b) I was tipsy and I’m usually a happy drunk, c) I’m in Spain for G-d’s sake, I’m the luckiest girl ever, and d) I had another week and a half of top restaurants to enjoy to make up for it. But it just wasn’t what I wanted it to be.
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian, an avid food writer and blogger, a cookbook author and the founder of Abbey’s Kitchen Inc.