This article was also published in the Financial Times.
At 8.30 pm, as the sun finally set, the outline of Villa Más, one of Europe's most unusual restaurants, finally began to take shape.
It is located in the centre of the bay of Sant Feliu de Guíxols, an hour's drive up the coast from Barcelona. The building itself is a tall, high-ceilinged affair, built around 1910, in a town whose numerous elegant villas still resonate with the natural beauty of the Costa Brava.
Its transformation into a restaurant has been unobtrusive despite the neon lights that now sit above the entrance to what was the main courtyard. During the summer, this acts as the dining room, protected from the sun by a series of umbrellas that, on the night we were there, also served as windbreaks against the strong, cool tramontane.
It was to prove to be a great advantage to be English, to arrive earlier than most Spaniards and consequently to be able to watch the waiting staff prepare their stations in the quiet before the storm. Waiters checked all the tables to make sure that each place had the right cutlery and at least one excellent Zalto wine glass. The two managers conferred over the reservation list as the elder of the restaurant's two Carloses took his place. This was 'Carlos the ham slicer', who stood behind the most appetising leg of Iberico ham, trimming away at it so that he, and eventually it, were both ready for action.
Then Nature took over. The sky turned dark and the stars began to appear, followed by the moon. The sound of the waves lapping on the beach no more than 20 metres away grew louder as the traffic disappeared to be replaced by strolling couples, families and parties of friends who began to walk into Villa Más for dinner.
It was time for the other Carlos, Carlos Orta (pictured), former disc jockey turned chef, wine lover, and exponent of a wine pricing policy that is so lenient in its mark-ups that it possibly has no rival anywhere in the world, to take centre stage.
To add to this most unlikely make-up, Villa Más also boasts two Argentine sommeliers, who responded to our table of four's enthusiasm for the contents of the first wine list by bringing three more. Silence ensued.
Orta's obsession with Burgundy is reflected initially in the length and breadth of his cellar – there are 12 pages of whites and 14 of red, and some great champagnes too – and by one particular detail. While the new list is printed each June with the names of his favoured producers and their wines, plus the generous prices, the vintage is added only in pencil. Over the past decade he has collected so well and so assiduously – there are 8,000 bottles under the restaurant and another 4,000 bottles not that far away – that he is easily able to replace any vintage that sells out with another.
At 11.45 pm, as the long-haired, hospitable Orta emerged from the kitchen in his chef's jacket, he stopped and rattled off a list of wine producers from Burgundy who would be coming to eat with their families at Villa Más in the coming weeks. 'They can drink more mature wines here much less expensively than they can in their local restaurants in Burgundy', he added with an enormous grin.
In the intervening three hours we too had warmed to Orta's magnanimity and that of his sommelier. He began by advising us against a bottle of Ramonet 1996 Chassagne Montrachet at 125 euros, on the grounds that it, like so many others of that epoch, could be oxidised and nudged us towards what proved to be a refreshing, appetising Chablis Les Clos 2004 from Dauvissat at half the price.
By this stage my stomach was rumbling and I broke rank to order some anchovies and grilled clams to accompany it. These were very, very good. The anchovies came draped lengthways on crisp slices of bread with a pungent tomato puree in between. The clams were from Carril, grilled just long enough to open wide to yield up their flesh and the taste of the sea.
There was no attempt to match anything on the wine list with any dish on the menu – that would not have allowed us to take full advantage of our one visit – and our goal instead was to enjoy the best of each.
The FT's wine writer (my wife) had never before been able to choose from no fewer than four examples of the wine that initially turned her on to wine, Chambolle-Musigny, Les Amoureuses. We chose Fredy Mugnier's 2004 at 150 euros – wildly below any retail price – and then a Domaine Dujac, Vosne Romanée, Les Beaux Monts 2002 at 125 euros.
I pointed us towards the most mysterious-sounding first course, a salmorejo from Cordoba, which is this city's particular interpretation of gazpacho but slightly thinner, and crucially, does not include onions. It was served in a large black bowl with a wide rim that, washed out, dried and inverted, would not have looked out of place on the head of Van Morrison or the late George Melly.
And then to a style of dish that this particular region of Spain executes better than anywhere else, a rice casserole with prawns for two. Unlike so many main courses that can be shared, a Bresse chicken or a chateaubriand for example, these dishes stand or fall not on the quality of a large hunk of protein but rather on the dexterity and finesse of the chefs to marry three ingredients: six prawns, rice and a fish stock that was both pure and powerful. It was a great success – as was the entire evening.
But above all, Villa Más shows how a restaurant can so immediately, and so altruistically, exemplify one man's passion.
See also Luis Gutiérrez' recent review of Villa Más.
Villa Más, Passeig Sant Pol 95, 17220 Sant Feliu de Guíxols
Tel: 972 82 25 26
Fax: 972 82 25 62.
Open: lunch and dinner during the summer; lunch only in the winter.