“I always decide,” I said. “Where would you like to go?”
“Back to Spain,” said Magellan. A few weeks later he announced, “I’ve been emailing and talking to the people at El Celler. We’ve got a reservation for 9 pm on your birthday!”
El Celler de can Roca is a family restaurant in a non-descript suburb of Girona, a beautiful Medieval-walled city dating back to Roman times of about 100,000 Catalonians. The three Roca brothers own El Celler. Joan is the executive chef, Josep is the head sommelier and Jordi is the pastry chef. They started out in 1986 next door to their parents’ tavern/restaurant, Can Roca.
The fraternal trio has since moved on—to a new location and a new culinary apogee celebrating Catalan’s delicious bounty, intensifying the flavours of everything they serve and twisting the culinary kaleidoscope to exciting new combinations. They have three Michelin stars and used to have the same number of people managing reservations—mostly saying “no” as they told us over and over and over (graciously) before our first visit to Spain. (That was in 2013 when they were first named the #1 restaurant in the world. Now they have an online booking system that takes reservations 11 months in advance.) On our first visit to Spain, we were in Girona on a Wednesday, the day their mother Montserrat takes a break from her restaurant, Can Roca. Tenaciously, we went to El Celler around 4 pm when lunch was winding down to see if, by chance, there was a cancellation for dinner that night. They said “no,” again, but gave us a copy of their menu for the day and kindly referred us a restaurant the brothers had eaten at the previous night.
Magellan had accepted the only available reservation, which was for four people. “Don’t worry if you end up with just the two of you,” the gentleman at the other end of the telephone told him. We didn’t. Joining us were Gail and Sue who, celebrating Gail’s retirement in southern France, took the train to Girona and invited us to return with them and spend a few days in the large house they were renting.
Foodie friends ask: “What was it like?” “What was the best thing you ate there?” “Was it worth it?”
What was it like?
Here are Gail’s first impressions. “I think of the driving rain and wind as we drove to the restaurant. Then I remember the space and how it seemed we were in glass boxes, a gorgeous feeling. ”
El Celler’s dining room looks into a glazed inner courtyard, a triangular corridor with a few tall, white birches that, on the night we were there, were glistening with raindrops. Neither extravagant nor opulent, the room’s atmosphere is calm and comfortable. There’s no music and lots of space between tables. “I loved that it was quiet enough for us to have a conversation,” Gail added.
The waiters, young, very professional but at the same time very personable, welcome you with a complementary glass of El Celler’s branded cava. The service is perfectly timed. The feeling you get is one of trust. There is an aura of confidence, an absence of conceit, like the feeling you get in the presence of certain medical specialists—you know you’re in good hands and they know it, too. (All three brothers have won the National Gastronomy Award and are honourary doctors of the University of Girona.)
“What was the best thing you ate there?”
Likely few of you our readers want to hear about every course on the menu, the individual ingredients and their pedigrees, because we consumed ten amuse-bouches followed by eleven little mains and three desserts!
Here’s what Sue said. “What an experience! Exquisitely prepared and presented food, flights of imagination and flights of wine!—I forget just how many glasses I had in front of me.”
“I loved that the wine list was a whole rack of books,” Gail says. “No wonder everyone chooses the pairings. I remember at one point, Sue had a dozen glasses in front of her. That’s just because she savoured her wine. Wise woman.”
Recognizing the importance of first impressions, El Celler starts you off with The World, a paper globe holding a cornucopia of bites based on the cuisine of five countries—like the miniature burrito with mole poblano and guacamole we had representing Mexico. Then, a succession of five more amuse-bouches. For all of us, the winner for “exquisite creativity,” as Gail says, was caramelized olives, glossy green and dangling from bonsai trees like beads of jewelry. We are of mixed opinion as to whether or not there were anchovies inside as ‘pits.’
For flavour, the amuse-bouche winner for me was the duo of truffles: a pair of black truffled bonbons (cold, dense mushroom cream enrobed in dark chocolate, I think, and served in a hollowed-out stone; and a warm brioche bun enclosing a piping-hot white-truffle cream and topped with a sublimely fragrant slice of black truffle. I want two dishes from this restaurant at my last supper—this is one of them.
While it sounds so simple, the first main, “Vegetable stock at a low temperature with sprouts, flowers, leaves and fruits” was a bowl of delicate perfection, the broth at room temperature contemplating jelling around its perfectly balanced companions later that night.
The second main was more truffles—this time with white asparagus magically transformed into a silken cream with a panna-cotta texture flecked with shavings of truffles and served with a single, thick stem of warm white asparagus atop a dollop of black garlic sauce. Umami! This was the first time I’d had black garlic, which as mentioned in a previous post (Peas and Thank You Chef Matthew Accarrino) tastes a little like reduced balsamic with hints of mushroom and molasses.
Among the mains, two made me swoon and two made me feel I was in the hands of a genius. The swooners: (1) one charcoal-grilled king prawn, its head juice combined with seaweed and seawater foam and a plankton sponge cake (more like bread); and (2) confit skate with mustard oil, smoked hazelnut butter, honey, bergamot and capers.
The geniuses: (1) a “Salad of sea anemone, razor-clam, royal cucumber and seaweed in escabèche,” escabèche being a marinade of sugar and vinegar for cooked food; and (2) the best of the mains—“Palo Cortado-steamed langoustine, bisque velouté and Jerez caramel.” Tableside, the waiter poured a perfumed cloud of sherry over the langoustine, barely cooking it. The foamy bisque made from langoustine shells picked up sherry notes from the addition of hazelnuts. With the grand finale, the concentrated flavour of a teaspoon of Jerez caramel, the dish, as I said, made me swoon. (We were so mesmerized we missed taking a photo of it.
They’re playful here—boys will be boys.
“I remember there were sardines on the menu and secretly thought my dad would have loved that being part of such an incredible meal,” Gail commented. Her dad, like us, may have been fooled if we hadn’t read the menu. While it tasted like a sardine, it was actually “pork jowl, charcoal-grilled sardine-bone broth, suckling pig sauce and chervil oil!
Time for dessert. Jordi is a magician.
Imagine if you will, the first dessert, a rhapsody in white. Sourdough ice cream, miniature snowballs atop a Jerez vinegar macaron, white cocoa pulp and fried lychee. I read they make the ice cream balls with sourdough powder—the taste reminded me of the slight tang you get from buttermilk powder. Boys will be boys again—see those sourdough ice cream balls in action Magellan’s movie.
For my last supper—my favourite of all the imaginative food we ate at El Cellar, the one I dream of at least every other week, the best dessert I’ve ever eaten—was a “Caramelized apricot.” As Sue says, “a perfect apricot, its creamy-apricot centre exploding on the palate through its delicate sugar coat. While I was amazed by the artistry, the flavours were equally tantalizing.” Jordi himself (at least one of the brothers is always at the restaurant and makes a point of talking with the guests at every table) explained how sugar is blown (like glass) to create the perfect shape and colour of an apricot, right down to its blushed cheek. “Organic,” said Magellan. It was served with concentrated apricot coulis with the perfume of ripe, sticky fruit in a hot summer orchard, a “pit” of vanilla ice cream and a spoonful of dense caramelized apricot cream.
Was it worth it?
There is something special going on here besides alchemy, intelligence and longevity.
If there is a single word to describe why, I think it would be respect.
The Roca brothers have an abiding respect for learning and innovation. For serving the highest quality of hundreds of ingredients. For perfectly balancing the flavours in every dish. For selecting amazing wine pairings. For showcasing Spain’s culinary heritage and expertly infusing it with the best of the world’s cuisine. For creating an unpretentious ambience that makes you feel the world is magical.
And so it was for the four of us. In Sue’s words, “As we were leaving the cloud burst and water began streaming down the central glass walls as Mother Nature, on cue, complimented the theatrical quality of the evening.”
El Celler de can Roca serves 45 covers for lunch and dinner. The Roca brothers also travel the world for a part of the year, cooking with and learning from other chefs. As their website says “El Celler is a free-style restaurant, committed to the avant-garde, but still faithful to the memory of different generations of the family’s ancestors dedicated to feeding people. El Celler de Can Roca’s commitment to cuisine and to the avant-garde, and its link to academia, has led it to defend the dialogue between the countryside and science, a total dialogue.”
This review captures the essence of El Celler.
If you want to see pictures and detailed descriptions of every course at El Celler, check out Mijune Pak’s description of her dinner—it was an excellent reference for me.
Yes it’s subjective, but The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by San Pellegrino, is probably the most respected source.
This article explains how the Roca brothers use molecular gastronomy to create some of their complex dishes..
This great review shows you El Celler’s interior with those birch trees in the triangulated corridor of the restaurant.