A great restaurant in Spain's far north east - and not El Bulli

10 Sep 2005 by JR

A chance encounter with an old friend, with whom I shared many disappointing school lunches over 40 years ago, took place recently in Gerona, north east Spain. We were both acting as unpaid chauffeurs to our respective families as the city is now a popular destination for low-cost airlines but what ensued was a memorable meal in which quality and generosity of spirit sat very happily side by side.

The restaurant in question is El Celler de Can Roca in the suburb of Sant Gregori, ten minutes from the city centre, which is home to the three Roca brothers: Joan, the hugely talented chef; Josep who runs the restaurant with an extremely capable, young brigade and Jordi, the pastry chef who is also responsible for their excellent bread.

The restaurant occupies a long thin building next to the far more traditional Catalan restaurant, simply called Can Roca, which their parents have run for decades. And it is this symbiosis, and the sense of courtesy which has so obviously seeped into the brothers’ bones since they were first introduced into a family life that revolves around a restaurant, which play such an integral part in El Celler’s distinct appeal..

During dinner however, I could not help but notice three unusual occurrences. From whichever table they were clearing, the waiters took the dirty plates not back into the kitchen where the washing up is invariably done but out of the restaurant seemingly into the small bar by the front door. Joan subsequently explained that as his kitchen now has to fit in 18 chefs, several doing ‘stages’ from as far afield as Japan, Venezuela and Argentina, he shares the wash-up area in his parents’ kitchen and the dirty crockery makes a small round trip into next door before returning clean to his own kitchen.

Then there is Jordi and his assistant, obviously moving pretty regularly from the kitchen on the left of the passageway that links the two small dining areas to the wine cellar on the right, an unusual sight for a chef hard at work. This, I subsequently learnt is because the temperature in the cramped kitchen is too high for him to temper successfully the chocolate that he works every day for his desserts and petits fours but that comes out so successfully from his brother’s air conditioned cellar.

Finally, there is the highly user-friendly, mobile wine stand, unquestionably Josep’s pride and joy. This well crafted unit, made of highly polished wood, glides smoothly from table to table and holds in three different volumes (sparkling and white, red and rose, brandy, liqueurs and cigars) over 4,000 different bins of exceptionally well-chosen wines from all over Spain and the rest of the world at what can only be described by anyone accustomed to the wine prices in any capital city as ridiculously low. Two wines from the Costa Brava, Ctonia  2002, made from white Grenache and Orbus 2001, an organically grown Syrah, would have been impressive at prices well in excess of 24.50 and 30 euros each.   

The famous wine list serves only to accentuate the pleasures of Joan’s cooking which, although experimental in its style and presentation, has its roots firmly fixed in sous-vide cooking, a technique which allows him to cook his ingredients at a relatively low temperature over a long time to extract their maximum flavour. This was particularly the case in two small ‘amuses bouches’, one a crustacean veloute topped with caviar and the other an essence made from the bones of a young goat that had a length of flavour I was extremely reluctant to lose. Another fascinating small dish which features on his tasting menu was Joan’s version of turron, the ultra-sweet Spanish nougat, but here made from foie gras, nuts and a sweet wine reduction.

These and the other ‘amuse bouches’ correctly whetted our appetites for what was to follow but while Joan may be gaining renown for this particular cooking technique (and his book ‘ La Cuisine sous vide’  has just been published in Spanish, French and English by Editorial Mantagut 100 euros), his menu revealed his kitchen’s mastery of far more.

The initial part of the menu includes nine classic dishes which have evolved over the past 20 years, evincing a strong, pure line and certainly delivering quantity too. There were in fact two rather than the one timbale of foie gras wrapped in slivers of apple proclaimed by the menu while the slab of hake with a garlic and rosemary vinaigrette was exemplary and the partridge rice with cuttlefish, listed as a starter, was certainly big enough for a main course.

The rest of the menu, however, demonstrated Joan’s culinary progress. Two soups, one of cool apples with diced tomato and anchovy and a scoop of balsamic vinegar ice cream and the other hot, of French Comte cheese with four mounds of differently flavoured onion were stunning; a crisp fillet of red mullet with couscous and a spinach cream and an intriguing lamb dish that incorporated a lamb chop, lamb sweetbreads and the more gelatinous meat from the lamb’s feet combined strong flavours and subtle textures. Most dramatic, of all, however, was a circle of belly of tuna, cut into pieces no larger than a thumb nail, arranged in a circle under a compote of cherries and then smoked from underneath just before serving. This dish is then served under a glass cloche which traps the smoke which then fills the air as it is removed under the customer’s nose. It may sound tricksy on paper but on the plate it is little short of sensational

An unmitigated recommendation for El Celler de Con Roca comes with only one caveat: it seats no more than 45 and is already deservedly popular. If you are flying, or even chauffeuring, to Gerona, do book early.

El Celler de Can Roca, Ctra. Taiala, 17009 Gerona, Spain, 972.222.157 Closed Sunday and Monday. A la carte 60 euros approx; tasting menu 72 euros.

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