Girona, Spain – El Celler de Can Roca (World’s Best Restaurant) – Chef’s Tasting Menu – Act 2/6

Restaurant: El Celler de Can Roca – Act 2/6
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!

Food: 6
Service: 6
Ambiance: 6
Overall: 6
Additional comments:

**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)

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 13A 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.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 15Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 31I 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.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can RocaEl 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.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de can Roca parentsEl 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.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 33El 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.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 35Touring the 60,000+ bottle wine cellar and dedicated sherry room with Josep.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 34Never 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.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 32The 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:

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 16The 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.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) Snacks Olive Tree 01Caramelized Olives stuffed with Anchovies 5/6 (Excellent)

  • The first snack came dangling from a bonsai tree.
  • They were caramelized olives stuffed with anchovies hanging from branches like Christmas ornaments.
  • It was an amusing amuse bouche and one of their signature snacks.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca Olives

  • I love anchovies, but unfortunately we don’t get them often in Vancouver since it’s an under appreciated fish.
  • I haven’t had enough to pick out differences, but these were sourced from L’Escala on the coast of Girona (Catalonia).
  • L’Escala is one of their major fishing ports and it is world renowned for their anchovies.
  • The town celebrates an anchovy festival and salt festival and there are even anchovy museums.
  • This area is most well known for “the best” or highest quality anchovies, although there are other ports with excellent anchovies too.
  • L’Escala anchovies are extra meaty, salted, and packed in high quality olive oil and/or brining liquid.
  • Here, they reversed the concept and stuffed the anchovy inside the olive, likely playing off the idea of L’Escala anchovies being packed in olive oil.
  • I thought it was going to be a very salty bite, but it wasn’t. It was salty, but not overly so.
  • Part of me wanted to try the L’Escala anchovy alone, or with a simple tomato salad, the traditional Catalan way of enjoying it, but this was a creative bite.
  • There was a caramelized candy shell wrapped around half the olive which gave crisp texture and balanced out the saltiness.
  • It was a sweet and savoury bite and I could taste the meaty olive and meaty fishy anchovy equally.
  • It was a very flavourful, juicy, oily (from both olive and anchovy), and addictive bite.
  • If in Vancouver and you love anchovies, try the Anchovies & Eggs at Ask for Luigi.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 23Carpano Bonbon with Grapefruit and Black Sesame Explosion4/6 (Very good)

  • This is another signature snack, but they play around with the liqueurs.
  • Carpano is known as “the King of Italian vermouth”.
  • The Italian distiller Antonio Benedetto Carpano created this modern day red vermouth in 1786.
  • Vermouth is a fortified wine made from botanicals and Italian families making it have their own original recipe.
  • It is made with various spices, herbs, and roots etc., and the flavour can be earthy, floral, bitter, woody, and or medicinal.
  • Usually I expect bonbons at the end of the meal, but here it was served in the beginning.
  • The shell tasted like black sesame white (?) chocolate and it was nice and thin.
  • It cracked easily and out burst an explosion of grapefruit juice mixed with Carpano vermouth.
  • I tasted licorice first perhaps from star anise or fennel in the Carpano, and then a citrusy brightness from the grapefruit.
  • It was only half sweet and subtly nutty from the sesame and chocolate, and it had all sorts of aromatics.
  • Pleasant bitter notes came from the vermouth, sesame, chocolate and grapefruit, and I never thought of putting all those together.
  • The one bite had many layers of flavour and it was a solid palate cleanser with the acidity from the grapefruit.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 24Smoked Herring Caviar Omelette – 3/6 (Good)

  • This was the only snack I thought was okay, but an “okay” at El Celler de Can Roca is more or less still good.
  • They usually serve variations of this omelette as a snack. My version was with smoked herring caviar – egg in egg.
  • The herring caviar was likely high quality and well sourced, but it wasn’t the finest caviar.
  • I would not expect it to be either since it was all covered up and folded in between the mini omelette.
  • The omelette was executed using spherification-like technique and it was enjoyed in one bite.
  • The exterior was a bit rubbery and thick (being an egg), but the inside was an explosion of liquid.
  • The inside tasted like savoury liquid egg, and not just the yolk, and I couldn’t feel the texture of the caviar, but I could taste it.
  • It didn’t taste smoky or salty, but it just blended in with the omelette.
  • The omelette skin was not like a regular omelette in texture and it was a bit more rubbery since it had to hold the liquid inside.
  • If it was a regular omelette the liquid centre would leak out.
  • I wasn’t too keen on the texture of the omelette skin so it wasn’t my favourite snack.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 25Crispy Shrimp and Seaweed Crisps – 4.5/6 (Very good-Excellent)

  • They usually do a version of crisps, and lately they have been serving it on this “fish net” and wooden plank.
  • It was creative plating and an edible storyboard or mini model of the sea.
  • The light and thin wafer-like crisps were very delicate and infused with dried shrimps and seaweed.
  • The crisps had lots of umami and a few incredibly tiny dried shrimps sprinkled on top.
  • It was the thin, flat and papery “dried shrimp skins”, the size of short grain rice, often found in Chinese and Asian cuisine.
  • A little of these dried shrimp skins go along way. They are potent and full of umami.
  • I think the black dots were black garlic reduction or balsamic vinegar reduction, but I’m not sure.
  • It was almost like a parmesan crisp and the intensity of umami was the same, but here it was from seafood rather than parmesan.
  • I really enjoyed this and possibly because I’m Asian and the dried shrimp flavour was dominant and very Asian.
  • It was slightly nostalgic and reminded me of Asian childhood snacks like prawn crackers, rice crackers, and dried seaweed, but a much more refined version.
  • I didn’t eat the “fish net” which I don’t think was edible, but it would be neat if it was.
  • At Chinese restaurants they have something similar to the “fish net” made from noodles or potatoes.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 29St. George’s Mushroom Bonbon & St. George’s Mushroom Brioche – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)

  • This was my favourite snack and it was a play on hot and cold temperatures.
  • Spring is the season for St. George’s Mushrooms and it is a very popular mushroom in Northern Spain.
  • It is considered a delicacy and is very aromatic, woody, and earthy in flavour.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 30

  • It was my first time trying the mushroom, and paper thin shavings of it raw were used as a garnish on the hot St. George’s Mushroom Brioche.
  • The hot mini brioche bun was airy and incredibly light like a hot air balloon.
  • The brioche was stuffed with a hot and rich mushroom cream soup that was viscous and thick like béchamel.
  • I felt like I was eating clouds of creamy mushroom soup.
  • The raw mushroom garnish gave a slight bitter and extra earthy flavour to the bite.
  • I love mushrooms, but I’m not keen on raw mushrooms, however I was glad I got to try it in its natural state and it was only a small shaving.
  • It was a hot and savoury cream puff and I could have eaten 20.
  • I could have eaten 20 of the following as well.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 28

  • The following interpretation for the St. George’s Mushroom was a cold St. George’s Mushroom bonbon.
  • It was another bonbon, but this time in a shape of a mushroom.
  • They were the size of two thumbtacks and it was a one biter.
  • The inside was filled with a cold savoury mushroom cream.
  • It was almost like mushroom flavoured ice cream, but it was the texture of cream and not ice cream.
  • The exterior was a white chocolate (?) shell and the whole bite was more savoury than sweet.
  • The white chocolate shell was actually not sweet at all and almost bland, so I questioned if it was chocolate at all.
  • The green moss was decoration, but I think they could have made it edible as an aerated pistachio or Calçot sponge cake.
  • I loved this cold interpretation even more than the hot, but I wish it wasn’t so fragile because it was tricky to eat let alone pick up without breaking.
  • Both bites were explosions of contrasting temperatures, but I think the liquid in them was the same if not a similar recipe.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 037.5The snacks continued in the dining room with “El Món”.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 39El Món or The World – 5/6 (Excellent)

  • This was what was inside the paper lantern globe.
  • The five snacks were inspired by the Roca brothers recent travels.
  • They wanted you to “eat the world” and took you on a “world-tour” in five delicious snacks.
  • After describing each bite the server leaves by saying “have a nice trip”!
  • 1) Korea
    • It was the one served warm so they recommended starting here.
    • It was a panko fried bao/bun with bacon, soy sauce, snow peas, kimchi, mushrooms and sesame oil.
    • It was salty, sweet, tangy, nutty, aromatic and spicy with lots of umami and various textures.
    • It was my second favourite bite of the five.
  • 2) Peru
    • It was my least favourite of the five bites, but still good.
    • It was ceviche broth, also known as Tiger’s Milk (leche de tigre) – the leftover marinade from ceviche.
    • It’s a great hangover cure and often served in a shot glass.
    • I could taste a fishy seafood flavour, but I found it lacked acidity and I couldn’t taste any citrus.
    • It was a bit bland, smoky, bitter and gelatinous, although Tiger’s Milk can be slimy in texture.
    • I actually enjoy Tiger’s Milk, but I wasn’t keen on this version of it.
  • 3) China
    • This was the one in the shape of a shao mai dumpling.
    • It was a wonton-like crisp stuffed with pickled vegetables and plum cream.
    • I could taste something that was similar to hummus, but it had the flavour of black beans.
    • There was a bit of black pepper heat and it was a sweet and sour bite.
  • 4) Mexico
    • This was my favourite bite of the five.
    • It was a “burrito” with crunchy carrot, cucumber and I think daikon (which made me think it was Asia and not Mexico) with mole poblano and guacamole.
    • Burritos are Tex-Mex, but the presentation was a logistical way to showcase the mole poblano which was the highlight.
    • It tasted Mexican and the one bite was packed full of flavour.
    • The mole poblano was super rich like peanut butter and I could taste all the ground nuts and seeds used to make it.
    • I could taste a hint of chocolate and it was rich and creamy especially eaten with the added guacamole.
    • Gucamole is like butter and it works beautifully with chocolate.
    • It was a saucy, creamy and rich bite with sweet, savoury and smoky flavours and a bit of heat.
    • The crunchy vegetables were a desired and necessary contrast since the burrito was mainly highlighting sauce.
  • 5) Morocco
    • It was the sweetest bite, so they recommended to eat it last.
    • It was a crispy and crunchy pastry with almond, rose, honey, saffron, ras el hanout, and goat yogurt.
    • It reminded me of the “faux peanuts” I had at Tickets in Barcelona.
    • I also really enjoyed this one because it had all the ingredients I love.
    • I’m really surprised I could taste pretty much all those aromatic ingredients.
  • It was impressive how many flavours they were able to capture in only one tiny compact bite.
  • Each one represented flavours from their respective countries and they were well designed.
  • They were intricate with attention to details and textures and I can only imagine what steady hands, focus and patience it requires to make them.
  • The flavours were quite traditional, but the bites were not authentic and they didn’t need to be either.
  • It was not their intention to be authentic, but rather to show how they were inspired, and to share their journey.

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 41The assorted house made bread tray included red wine panforte, walnut and apricot bread, traditional Catalan bread, sun dried tomato brioche, and black olive brioche.

To be continued…

Sneak peek

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 43

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 45Spring Vegetable Stock – Vegetable stock at a low temperature with sprouts, flowers, leaves and fruits

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 46

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 47White Asparagus and Truffle Viennetta

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 50

Girona, Spain - El Celler de Can Roca (World's Best Restaurant) 53Mackerel with Pickles and Mullet Roe

 Intermission

See – El Celler de Can Roca Act 3/6

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