Last weekend was our first wedding anniversary and to celebrate this happy occasion, we headed for lunch at the best known restaurant in Girona in Catalunya – our big blowout for the end of July. I’d made the booking at El Celler de Can Roca, the 4th best restaurant in the world (if this ranking is to be believed), way back in January. It was a much less stressful affair than trying to get a booking at El Bulli – I just sent an email to them requesting a booking and they sent one back confirming it. Of course, with the restaurant being in another country, it was also a bit of an excuse to have a long weekend away. (I was mentioning to Blai that booking a restaurant six months in advance to celebrate a first wedding anniversary must seem overly optimistic in this day and age!)
After a journey to Girona from Barcelona on a crowded train (turns out every person with a Eurail pass goes to Portbou to cross into France), we arrived in the city with about an hour to get ourselves to the restaurant. If you’ve got sensible shoes, the walk takes under half an hour and we had enough time to wander through a gorgeous park on our way there. The restaurant is located in the new part of the city in a residential area and if it’s your first time to Girona, I would encourage you to give yourself more time to explore the old centre too.
I love that the restaurant is family run – three brothers Roca are involved: Joan the head chef, Jordi the pastry chef, and Josep the sommelier – and that hints of the Catalan cuisine they grew up with are prevalent in their cooking. Their restaurant is absolutely gorgeous – and from what I’ve read, it’s believed that the move to this new space a few years ago was one of the main factors that pushed it from two to three Michelin stars. We were seated at a generously sized table with a wonderful view of the central “courtyard” space. As you can see from the photo below, the tables were well spaced and it’s impossible to feel crowded.
Almost immediately after we had settled in, the activity commenced around our table. Glasses of cava were proffered and duly accepted – hey, we were celebrating after all! Then came out own little olive tree, with caramelised olives stuffed with anchovies hanging from its branches. What a fun presentation and it was a great start to the meal.
Soon after came little Campari and grapefruit truffles that were to be popped into our mouths immediately so no photo for you. I remember a very strong alcoholic hit as the contents burst in our mouths and I giggled at the surprise of it all.
Huge menus were brought to us (in Catalan and in English and I’ll give both names for the dishes here), followed by even more little snacks: fried anchovy bones in a rice tempura and sesame and cocoa crisps. The menus were a little unwieldy and I almost knocked over my champagne with mine but luckily Blai saved it in the nick of time. But really, we had no need for menus as we’d already decided what we were having in advance – the festival menu, advertised online as consisting of 9 savoury courses and 2 desserts, their largest tasting menu. The waiter taking our order looked every bit as excited as we were for ordering it! Soon after, the sommelier came by with his wine menus but Blai turned him down and he looked not at all offended that he was not required. In fact, he looked positively happy – there are no problems ever to be had at this restaurant!
After a little wait, the first of our courses arrived – the Truffled Brioche with Pot au Feu Broth (Brioche trufat amb brou d’escudella). Now, thanks to the menu, we already knew the names of all the dishes that were to come; however, a lot of the names were quite vague or obscure and while we might know we were getting a brioche, we had no idea how that brioche was to be served and so the meal still remained a surprise throughout. This soft steamed brioche was filled with a garlicky, truffley liquid filling and was topped with lots of shaved black truffle – a beautiful mouthful. The escudella broth was a wonderfully rich and meaty hot drink.
More snacks that didn’t appear on the tasting menu showed up. I loved the omelette with a bursty liquid centre containing caviar while Blai’s favourite was a meaty and olivey truffle thing whose details escape me. Actually, it was described to us as an olive but I suspect this was because it looked like an olive as it certainly didn’t taste of it – I think something was lost in translation there.
Another waiter then came by and presented us with a huge trayful of breads – olive, nutty, seedy, oily, round, sliced, buns. It was difficult to choose! We each chose variations of the most unhealthy sounding of the lot – a millefeuille of bread with olive oil (mine) and with tomato (Blai’s). They were indeed lovely and came apart in oily tender layers. A little warmer would have been better but I do understand that it would be near impossible to keep that tray of breads warm at all times.
The second course of the tasting menu was the Cherries with Fatty Tuna and Ginger (Cireres amb ventresca de tonyina i gingebre), which turned out to be a cold cherry soup with various bits and pieces. That cherry in the middle wasn’t a cherry but a cherry and yogurt ice shaped like a cherry – too cute! And its intense fruitiness did go well with the very fresh fatty tuna.
The next course came in a clear sphere and its contents were masked by the smog going on inside. This was the “Escalivada” with Anchovies and Smoke of Ember (Escalivada amb anchoves i fum de brasa). The lids were removed with a flourish, with the waitress waving the smoke towards our faces and its fabulous scent of charcoal barbecue had me almost dip my nose into the bowl. The escalivada turned out to be spheres of each of the usual vegetables: red for tomato, green for pepper, black for aubergine and white for onion, all sitting in the juices that form when escalivada is cooked. While each element tasted delicious, the dish was a bit samey-samey at the end and as Blai pointed out, it didn’t improve the real escalivada dish in any way. Still, it was an unique presentation but was the least interesting dish of the afternoon.
The Charcoal-Grilled King Prawn (Gamba a la brasa) sure sounded like it was going to be quite simple. It was far from simple. There was the grilled prawn, its head sitting in a pool of prawn veloute. There was a line of a thick prawn stock reduction. There was also what the waiter called the “land prawn” – that strip of sand with weeds in the front. That sand was like the best prawn cracker ever, all powdered, and had bits of seaweed, samphire, and cute, crispy, little green “plants” all on there. The grilled prawn too was superbly fresh with subtle encouragement given to you by the little moist towelettes provided to pick up the head and suck it – mmmm, prawny. I adored this dish and its quirky presentation.
Then there was a hot soup course – Onion Soup, Crespià Walnuts and Comté Cheese (Sopa de ceba i nous crespianes amb comté). Perhaps the heat of this dish was a little odd for summer but it was still delicious. We were presented with bowls of a thick caramelised onion sludge, a lump of walnut bread, bits of walnut and fennel leaves, all very prettily decorated. A waitress then came along and poured over a thick and cheesy soup of Comté cheese and walnut. It was intensely cheesy and then oniony and in a way, an interpretation of a French onion soup.
The Sole, Olive Oil and Mediterranean Flavours (Llenguado amb oli d’oliva i sabors del mediterrani) course was presented as the most delicate fillet of sole, cooked perfectly, served with five sauces; from bottom to top, these were fennel, bergamot, orange, pine nut and olive. The gorgeous way it was presented reminded me of a very efficient filing system, complete with little labels on the tabs! The “label” for the olive sauce tickled me the most – it was a little sugar pastille filled with extra virgin olive oil that coated the tongue as it was crunched. All the sauces were delicious though special mention must go to the beautifully floral and fragrant bergamot.
The name of this dish really had us guessing for a while: Baby Squids with Onion Rocks (Calamarcets amb roques de ceba). Rocks? Onion rocks? Was it going to be hard? Luckily, what arrived only appeared to be a black rocky island surrounded by a “sea” with tiny tender squids (xipirons). The dark rock was a moist bread and underneath was more onion confit – the sweetness of the onion and the sweet/saltiness of the squid and its broth paired well. I really enjoyed this dish.
I suspected that the next course, the Red Mullets with Suquet (Catalan Seafood Stew) and Lard (Rogers amb suquet i sagí), was cooked sous vide or using some other similarly low and slow cooking method as the fish flaked away yet appeared raw and translucent. I loved the way this preparation caused this usually strong flavoured fish to mellow a little and we both really enjoyed this. The potato gnocchi on the side were lovely too though nothing very new or different.
I was surprised to see steak tartare on the menu because… well, I have no idea why. El Celler de Can Roca’s version, specified as from 2009, was Steak Tartare with Mustard Ice Cream (Adaptació de steak tartar amb gelat de mostassa 2009). Anyway, it was made of veal and was like no classical French tartar. The little yellow bubbles on top were a mustard ice cream while each of the souffle potatoes on top was flavoured differently: there was chive, curry powder, smoked paprika and Sichuan pepper. Hidden between the big bubbles were a bit of spicy tomato sauce (the waiter announced it as ‘ketchup’ to our neighbouring table to their shock and horror!), capers, and a tiny chewy sack of Oloroso sherry which resembled a raisin but oof, what a hit of sherry that was! The dark sauce at the bottom was a thick veal reduction. Eating this dish was such fun as we started at the bottom and worked our way upwards and every bite tasted different for all the bits and pieces hidden throughout. Really excellent.
Our final savoury dish was the Lamb, Peach and Apricot Terrine (Xai amb terrina de préssec i albercoc). The little cylinder was put together from tender morsels of braised lamb neck and the rich meat was beautifully complimented by the apricot conserve and peach slices. A cheese foam on the side gave another extra umami hit to the dish. That crisp of lamb skin was just divine – as thin as tissue paper and crispy and so rich and lamby. In a way, the dish seemed wonderfully simple for what I expected from El Celler de Can Roca but it was utterly delicious.
The Lemon Distillate Sorbet (Sorbet de destil·lat de llimona) announced that the sweet dishes were about to arrive. Rather stupidly, after reading the name of the dish, I expected just that – a little scoop of an interesting lemon sorbet in a dish. But duh, this restaurant doesn’t have three stars for nothing. The sorbet was lovely but it was the extras that were more interesting. The scoop of iciness sat in a pool of lemon cream and hovering on top of it was the thinnest crisp of honey that you can imagine. This was sensational and we only wished the portion was sized more like a full dessert! With our sorbets, we were also presented with a paper cone spritzed with a perfume. I’d heard that Jordi Roca, the pastry chef, was known for his dessert interpretations of famous perfumes but our waiter told us that this time, it was the opposite; he developed the dessert and then a perfumer crafted a scent from it. And so, that rather delectable scent was unavailable for purchase (I’m going to send an email to them asking again).
Our first major dessert was a Rose Soufflé (Souflé de roses) with lychee sorbet and guava. The souffle was a light as air foam that just gave enough of a rose hint without it being too overpowering and this floral note complimented the fruits well. Hidden within the mixture were a couple of the most fragrant wild strawberries, which were a lovely surprise.
Orange Colourology (Cromatisme taronja) was our final dessert and it was indeed a plateful of orange. That lump of carrot was actually fashioned out of orange ice and egg yolk ice cream with lots of apricot eau-de-vie – quite an alcoholic ending! A fresh carrot compote, orange segments, and beautiful pastilles of orange sugar with liquid centres finished this very different dessert – I never expected to enjoy a sweet preparation of carrot.
And that brought our tasting menu to an end. I spent a greedy few minutes wondering if I should order another dessert off the a la carte menu (as another table did) but closed the menu and settled for coffee. Blai asked for a tea and was presented with the most amazing tea menu we’d ever come across in a restaurant.
And then they came along and set this down on our table for us for our wedding anniversary! A freshly made sugar swirl and a candle!
As spectacular and unexpected that was, it came with this box which got more attention from us. Hello, petit fours! It was only in hindsight that I realised that the little macarons, of which there were four, were based on classic perfumes, their names given above the combination of flavours. Each was a lovely little bite but our favourite was the intense yuzu milk chocolate at the bottom of the box.
The coffee was excellent, very smooth and among the best I’ve sampled. Blai’s tea though was more exciting – a whole teapot was brought along with a little sample of the dried and steeped oolong tea leaves. An explanation was also given of the treatment the tea had received (steeped at 80 Celsius, if I remember correctly); I do like that they take their tea seriously!
Soon, it was time to go – we were the second to last table to leave but don’t be mistaken, we were never rushed out. Reluctantly, we made our way to reception where we were presented with our bill. This meal cost us a little over €300, not cheap but I didn’t grudge the expense – it was 4 hours we both greatly enjoyed. If I could describe our meal at El Celler de Can Roca in one word, it would be this: fun! Honestly, I can’t wait till we have a chance to go back. We’ll be saving our pennies again!
Happy anniversary again, Blai! (Whoooo – one year married and nine years together!)
El Celler de Can Roca
Carrer Can Sunyer, 46