This article was also published in the Financial Times.
I opened the heavy wooden door to El Celler de Can Roca in the suburbs of Girona, north east Spain, and allowed my wife to enter before me for what was to prove to be the most exciting meal of the year.
By the reception were all three Roca brothers, Joan the chef, Josep restaurateur and wine lover, and Jordi the pastry chef, standing side by side. After a handshake and a brief conversation, Joan and Jordi slipped off to the kitchen.
But what was obvious immediately was that they all shared the same facial expression. Each of them looked shell-shocked.
The reason for this became clear as we chatted with Josep and we couldn’t help but overhear Manuel, and the receptionist sitting next to him at the front desk, politely informing those on the other end of the line that they were very sorry but they could not accommodate their request for a reservation. For the foreseeable future there is, sadly, no room at this inn.
The brothers’ cumulative talents had already garnered a raft of fully justified awards, but their capture six months ago of the somewhat nebulous title of ‘The World’s Best Restaurant’ in the annual ranking sponsored by San Pellegrino has had unexpected repercussions. With a face that was obviously thrilled yet sad at not being able to welcome everyone, Josep added that they have had to hire another three receptionists just to cope politely and efficiently with the up to 3,000 calls and emails they can now receive in a day.
We felt extraordinarily blessed, for what ensued over the next four hours was a masterpiece of culinary dexterity: a fundamental understanding of that obscure science of food and wine matching – perhaps best exemplified in a glass of 2009 Morgon from Domaine Jean Foillard that smelt of cherries with a dish of smoked eel, slivers of fresh almonds and the last of this summer’s cherries; and, above all, a sense of fun.
It was impossible after even the first amuses bouches to keep a smile off our faces. This bonhomie emerged as soon as our waitress presented a wooden stand surrounded by a black magic lantern with an outline of the world printed on it. She promptly unclipped the lantern to reveal five snacks, each inspired by Joan and Jordi’s travels: their interpretation of ceviche from Peru; a cornet of pickled vegetables from China; a guacamole-stuffed globe from Mexico; a Moroccan combination of almonds, rose and saffron; and finally Japanese tempura.
The second was far more local. In front of each of us was then placed a faux olive tree growing out of an inordinately heavy rock (poor waiting staff) on which were hanging anchovy stuffed olives coated in a thin, anchovy glaze that we were instructed to help ourselves to. An upmarket, savoury version, I scribbled, of ‘pick your own’.
Four fish dishes followed and this was just the 155 euro tasting menu not the even longer 195 one. A single peeled langoustine steamed on a little brazier in front of us with an intense langoustine bisque; squid with mashed potato and saffron that was cooked so delicately it would have won over any non-squid lover; a white fillet of sole on a white plate punctuated by sauces in five different bright colours; and a red mullet floating in a delicate, highly refined suquet, the juicy Catalan fish stew. The second of Jordi’s desserts was also particularly remarkable: whipped sheep’s milk yoghurt on a caramel base with a candy floss topping engulfing a slice of ripe guava (below).
Our final savoury dish had been a combination of lamb with tomato rubbed bread and a grilled garlic puree. As we finished, Josep passed by our table on one of his many tours of duty and asked, somewhat unnecessarily, whether we had enjoyed it. He then explained his own memories of the dish. ‘It is Joan’s variation of a dish our Granny used to serve us all when we were small. I remember loving it every time she made it for us’, he explained.
The immediate pause that followed this confession allowed me to ask a very specific question: how do the brothers manage to find such seeming unanimity in the obviously well thought-out path that their restaurant has followed? Are there many disagreements?
Josep smiled again. ‘Well, yes and no. Jordi, as the youngest, is always the most radical, the one who wants to change the most. But although Jordi and I both have our separate passions we both acknowledge that Joan is the leader. He is the chef, and the eldest, and he was the one who showed the patience and the generosity at the outset by waiting for us to catch him up so that we could all work together.’
This combined expertise is obvious not just in the cooking and service but also in the restaurant itself. It is five years now since the Barcelona-based Isabel Lopez Vilalta and Sandra Tarruella created a triangular layout with glass walls that encase a central courtyard that is home to dozen silver birch trees.
The glass walls ensure that every guest has a fascinating view. The corners of the triangle provide a vital space for the waiting staff to gather momentarily and pass instructions to one another. And the waiter stations, particularly high to ensure space for all the accompanying bottles and decanters, also divide the room into smaller spaces that ensure excellent acoustics.
Seize whatever opportunity to eat here.
All photos here supplied by Can Roca. For some beautiful photographs of the dishes Nick described, plus a few more including one of the full Feast menu, see Nigel Groundwater's post on our forum.
El Celler De Can Roca, Can Sunyer 48, 17007 Girona, Spain.
00334 972 222 157, www.cellercanroca.com