Restaurant: El Celler de Can Roca – Act 1/6
Cuisine: Modern Spanish/Spanish/French/Fine Dining
Last visited: May 7, 2014
Location: Girona, Spain (about an hour drive from Barcelona)
Address: C/ de Can Sunyer, 48, 17007 Gerona, Spain
Phone: +34 972 22 21 57
Price Range: $50+ ($261 “Feast Menu” + $124 optional wine pairing)
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!
- Chef/Owners Roca Brothers
- 3 Michelin Star
- #1 on World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013
- #2 on World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014
- Destination restaurant
- 45 seats
- Reservations required (2 months in advance)
- Optional wine pairings
- 3-4+ hours dining experience
- Closed Sunday and Monday
- Open Tuesday to Saturday
- El Celler de Can Roca – Act 2 of 6
- El Celler de Can Roca – Act 3 of 6
- El Celler de Can Roca – Act 4 of 6
- El Celler de Can Roca – Act 5 of 6
- El Celler de Can Roca – Act 6 of 6
- El Celler de Can Roca – Act 1-6 (Full post)
**Recommendations: DO THE WINE PAIRINGS. Tasting of Classics Menu: €155 ($213 USD) with wine pairings €55 ($76 USD) Feast Menu: 22 courses for €190 ($261 USD) with 13 wine pairings €90 ($124 USD)
A dream within a dream; and the real experience was better than imagined. Dining at El Celler de Can Roca was one of the most rewarding experiences. Life changing might sound dramatic, but it was emotionally and mindfully impactful. To be moved by food, or more precisely the creative ideas behind food is inspirational, and here, inspiration is a contagious driving force.
I felt it from the moment I stepped foot in their garden patio. The entrance wasn’t particularly grand and it wasn’t in a castle on a hilltop, but the hairs on my arms were already standing. My nose was captivated by the scent of Jasmine flowers which draped the walls of the restaurant like curtains from a fairytale, and this set the tone for the rest of the evening. They bloom during the night and I was told it was the first day they opened. True or not, I didn’t care. They were there, I was there, and so were all three of the Roca brothers.
El Cellar de Can Roca has been called the successor of Ferran Adrià’s elBulli. A culinary masterpiece never replaced, but the influence both restaurants have on generations following is legendary. It wasn’t until elBulli closed in 2011 that El Cellar de Can Roca received the long awaited and deserved recognition it has today.
I’ve never been to elBulli, although I have dined at restaurants of Chef Ferran Adrià’s protégés in various cities, as well as at his younger brother Albert Adrià’s restaurants in Barcelona (Tickets and Bodega 1900).
El Celler de Can Roca and elBulli are Spanish (Catalonia) rooted pioneers in the culinary world, and I wouldn’t compare them even if I could, but El Celler de Can Roca is arguably the “elBulli” of today.
The 3 Michelin Star El Cellar de Can Roca was named “The Best Restaurant in the World” last year by The World’s Best 50 Restaurants, and this year it was No. 2 – see my recap of The World’s Best 50 Restaurants in London, England which I attended this year here.
El Cellar de Can Roca opened in 1986 in Girona which is a small and quaint Catalan city about an hour drive northeast of Barcelona. The original location was next to their parents restaurant Can Roca (pictured above), but they moved to their current location in 2007. They are only a few blocks away so I checked out the parents restaurant before dinner.
It is a casual neighbourhood cafe and literally a “mom and pop” shop. Their parents still open the humble restaurant and their mother still cooks her Catalan cuisine. Apparently little has changed and it still caters to locals, but nowadays it is treated as the staff canteen for El Celler de Can Roca as well.
El Celler de Can Roca is opened by the three Roca brothers, Joan (above), Josep and Jordi. The oldest is Joan, the head chef and the middle is Josep, the sommelier. The youngest is Jordi, the pastry chef, who was also named World’s Best Pastry Chef at The World’s Best 50 Restaurants this year. Each carry their own weight and much like a concert they have their own instruments and play in perfect harmony. The restaurant is balanced and not one shines above the other, yet each have their moment in the spotlight. They are dedicated to their respective crafts and their strengths are interwoven in a seamless way.
If the goal of chefs, cooks, sommeliers, and restaurateurs is to make their customers happy, they go beyond that here. They bring emotion to the plate and to the diner. To connect to people through food and share with them a vision is no easy task, and here it seems effortless. I could feel the passion, effort and even taste the culinary freedom. They do as they please, but more importantly without compromising or being selfish.
The idea of “culinary freedom” is hard to understand, let alone achieve. It is easy to assume once a chef becomes an owner he can do whatever he wants, cook whatever he wants and serve whatever he wants, but it is rarely the case. Besides looking at budgets and operating a restaurant as a business in order to survive, they often need to cater to the palates of their clientele; but the advantage of destination restaurants like this, is the clientele is international. In a way it makes it harder since pleasing everyone is impossible, but here the pleasing is natural.
They are perhaps cooking what they want to eat (in the context of what the restaurant is), and I’m fairly certain doing what they want to do, but in an educated and responsible way. They repeatedly work with single ingredients, old and new techniques, and constantly reinvent things in a world where everything has been done before. Some techniques I’ve never seen and because they are done tastefully, executed properly and applied with intent, they don’t come across gimmicky.
They are not always inspired by the ingredient first either, and sometimes it is a concept, wine, or even perfume (in reference to Jordi’s perfume inspired desserts) that guides the creation of a new dish. They are leaders who don’t put creativity at the forefront of education, or vice versa, but they reinforce the importance of culinary pedagogy.
There are many chefs pushing the envelope and testing boundaries in an attempt to create something new, but they are often criticized for disappointing results or trying too hard. Whether it is lack of experience or understanding, their ambition does not always work in their favour. To do something creative is always a risk and at a place like this there is little room for error. While creativity is stretched even further at places like Alinea, the risks here are more calculated and seen in another light. There is no fear in trying something new and they do it with research, theory, thought, and thus confidence.
They play with temperatures outside of desserts, break down flavours of one ingredient, deconstruct and reconstruct, view one ingredient in multiple ways, manipulate textures, and play with food in a respectful and sophisticated way. They do what many chefs of this caliber do, but they do it with unrivaled finesse. There are little to no trends here, only new ways of looking at ingredients and translating flavours. They might not be the first to attempt all the mentioned concepts, after all ideas are constantly borrowed, but their reinventions and interpretations are worth praise.
In most kitchens, the head chef leads the way, but it is not necessarily the case at El Celler de Can Roca. The savoury dishes had sweet components and efforts from Jordi and the wine pairings were never forgotten. The responsibilities were equally shared and while each department could excel on its own, none could reach the full potential without the other.
Never have I felt so strongly about the importance of wine pairings, as they are done with such precision and perfection here. They do not accompany the meal, they are part of the meal. Most of my wine pairings were from Spain and some I would have never tried unless I was here. Not doing wine pairings at El Celler de Can Roca would be a sin. The attention to detail was to the very last drop, but when it was time for desserts, they were given their sweet moment. There was no competition in the flow of the menu, only mutual respect for each other’s strengths.
Being rather new to Catalan cuisine I could not relate to many of the dishes in a nostalgic, familiar, or historical way, not to say you need to in order to appreciate it, but it does give another level of understanding. While it is Catalan-style food, there are many global influences and modern applications making it avant-garde style or “New-Catalan” style cuisine.
Unlike French-style fine dining it was not about the foie gras, excessive truffles and stereotypical pretentious ingredients (although I love all those too), instead it was about precious ingredients with a strong sense of place. Most of the featured delicacies were local and carefully selected from regions representing the highest quality in their respective categories. Being a tourist, my knowledge was limited and I had no connection to these places, but the way they were presented made me ache for a visit.
The Chef’s Tasting Menu started light with carefully treated vegetables gradually leading up to seafood followed by meat and desserts. This comes as no surprise to any well developed chef’s tasting menu, but the prime ingredients had little alteration. It wasn’t to the point of “effortless” cooking, but they made simplicity elegant and appreciated, much like the Japanese cooking philosophy. The transition between dishes were smooth and aromatics were taken seriously. The seafood courses were my favourite, but the level of enjoyment for each dish was splitting hairs.
The primary ingredient was always obvious, but the secondary components played of equal importance. It was treated as preciously as the main and they brought the dish to life, much like the operational roles of the restaurant.
The Roca brothers are the heart, but nothing without support from their impeccable staff trained to execute their vision. This vision was something they shared with their diners too. I was taken on a culinary journey inspired by their travels and the personal touch was never lost.
There must have been hundreds of ingredients used and sometimes many components on a plate, but in a good way that was never distracting. The flavours didn’t overwhelm each other or cancel each other out, and the main ingredient was never overshadowed. The ratio of sauce, meat, and garnish was considered and every plate was finished clean and not only because it was exquisite, but because it was balanced. Every dish was cohesive, every ingredient was accounted for, and every component considered.
When it comes to attention to detail, they are meticulous. Every dish had matching plating and silverware and the dishes were served at the proper temperature with well heated and/or chilled plates. The plating was modern without being “trendy”, but more importantly it was logistical. There was no questioning what was on the plate or how to eat it, and taste came first. There was no real rise or fall and course after course was consistently incredible. The highlights would be based on personal tastes rather than obvious favourites.
My experience here was beyond what I understand and can explain. Inevitably there were high expectations going in which could end in utter disappointment, or disbelief and amazement, and at no point did I feel the prior. It was beyond what I imagined, which is self-rewarding, and it set a whole new benchmark for fine dining and creativity. It was advanced in a way which made me want to learn rather than to think, and critical thinking is a challenge for me to ignore. I didn’t even need to try here and letting go happened unconsciously.
The Roca brothers are “The Three Tenors” of the culinary world. They sing a different tune, but create a culinary opera. Dinner here is a concert, and they are harmonious in their skills and talent. They stay true to humble beginnings and themselves, and stay connected and rooted to the restaurant. I can’t say for a fact, but it is said at least one brother will always be at the restaurant and there is no interest in opening elsewhere. This speaks of their dedication and honest commitment to passion and customers.
El Celler de Can Roca exudes a silent confidence. To reach this level of near perfection is to be excessive and obsessive, but they are only so by nature and not in presence. Value is not seen in the abundance of expensive ingredients, but rather in culinary innovation, education and beauty. They honour their craft as dedicated artisans and create an experience worth living for.
Few restaurants and chefs make it to “number one”, and once there, time is usually limited; but when one’s work becomes so powerful as to influence others on a global scale, it is no longer about being number one. I don’t believe El Celler de Can Roca is in its prime or has had its time, because so long as life exists, they will continue bringing ideas to food and inspiring future generations of cooks and chefs.
El Celler de Can Roca is one of the birthplaces for creativity and they make impossible seem possible. It is not necessarily “cutting-edge” in a risky sense, or extravagant in a dramatic sense, but simply beautiful in a magical way. What they are doing is not quite classic, but their style is. They create music more so than theatre and there is longevity to what they do, and respect for what they do. They are not creating a food movement which is what great chefs do, but moving people with food which is what extraordinary chefs do.
On the table:
To be continued…
The reception starts with a complimentary glass of Albet i Noya Cava El Celler Brut D.O. Penedès. Albet i Noya is a leading organic wine producer in Spain and this elegant sparkling wine is served with a series of “snacks”. The snacks are a preview of what to expect.