A Catalan period piece


A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

The two views from table 10 in the dining room of the Hotel Empordà, on the outskirts of Figueres in north-east Spain, are very different but likely to fascinate anyone interested in their surroundings or the history of Spanish restaurants. 

Out of the large window is a view of the Pyrenees in the distance with the rich farmland of the inland plain of the Costa Brava close by. In the other direction, towards the restaurant’s entrance, is a series of trolleys laden with glasses, cheeses (including a port-laced Stichelton), liqueurs and several desserts including a tarte Tatin on a special four-jet burner. Wood and net curtains, two items that have not changed since the hotel was first built in 1961, dominate the distinctly retro decor. And then alongside the maître d’, in evening dress, and several waiting staff in white jackets with epaulettes, is a man dressed quite conspicuously in an outfit of his own creation.

Of course he does not feature in the hotel-restaurant's extensive library of images such as the one above. Instead he wears black, plain trousers, a chef’s jacket and over them a long black apron. He has grey hair, is quite tall although slightly hunched with age – he is now 68 – and he talks in a low mumble but possesses a very gentle voice as well as a definite twinkle in his eye. He is the hotel’s owner, Jaume Subirós, and he has been working at this hotel for the past 57 years, albeit in a variety of roles.

He began his career here, aged 11, working in the school holidays helping customers with their luggage thanks to friendship between his father and the seminal chef Josep Mercader, for whom the hotel’s restaurant was built and whom Ferran Adria of elBulli once described to me as ‘the father of modern Spanish cooking’. He then worked in the hotel kitchens, and in various restaurants in Barcelona before marrying Mercader’s daughter, Ana Maria, and inheriting not just the Hotel Empordà but also the Hotel Almadraba Park in Roses nearby now run by Jordi, their second son.

I have been eating at the Empordà for many years and have in the past seen Señor Subirós dressed more conventionally in a dark suit as befits any hotel owner. But his current outfit, which he has worn for several years, suits him perfectly. In it he greets customers; he takes orders; he talks passionately about the food and wine list (which incidentally is on an iPad, and is very keenly priced); he has a special word for anyone with small children; he whispers quietly in the ears of his waiting staff; and he genuinely fills a necessary gap, as his outfit would suggest, between the kitchen and his customers. 'I am thinking for my customers’, he explains quite modestly.

And also he is managing the transition of a restaurant, and a style of cooking, that are both changing. Some things will never change, such as the paintings on the covers of the main menu and the dessert menu, both by a young local artist, aged 17 at the time, called Salvador Dali, with the main menu showing almost a reproduction of our view from table 10 with coffee cups and a bottle of red wine in the foreground.

And certain dishes will never change. My wife began her lunch and dinner with two such dishes of simplicity and flavour.

The first was a cold cream soup of melon enlivened by the addition of some diced Iberico ham. The portion of ham initially looked slightly puny in the base of the white bowl on to which the soup was poured but it turned out to be just the right amount of salt and fat to offset the cool lusciousness of the melon. Then at dinner another seemingly simple classic – a salad of green beans with peaches and fresh almonds – but each ingredient was perfectly chosen and prepared, each brought a new and attractive colour to the whole that was then artfully dressed in coriander and salted butter.

The more modern style of cooking was exemplified in my first course, a spider crab salad with citrus and kaffir lime vinaigrette, and the section, bottom right on the menu, headed Market Fish. The salad was as pretty a picture as that on the menu cover, the brown and white crab meat in a circle in the centre of the plate surrounded by segments of oranges and pink and white grapefruit.

But it was my fish main course that created the biggest surprise. In the past a variety of fish has just been priced and listed in the main section of the menu. Today, however, as fish prices rise so much and so quickly, Señor Subirós has to be more careful and the list of nine different fish, plus the famous red shrimps from Roses cooked in a salt crust for €51.70, are listed by weight, then by the number of people each fish will serve, then by the overall price of the dish.

I ordered my scorpion fish roasted in the oven ‘fisherman style’ because I recalled the deliciously thin roast potatoes that are served with it. But I was surprised when it had been taken off the bone and that alongside the fish was a piece of sausage, some garlic, a few olives and tomatoes. Enter Señor Sobirós with an explanation. 'When the fishermen went out they always took some sausage, garlic and tomatoes to eat in case they caught nothing. It is a tradition I am more than happy to continue.'

Hotel Empordà  Av Salvador Dali, 17600 Figueres, Spain; tel +34 972 50 05 62