Costa Brava favourites

‘Bourgogne’ lovers' haven Villa Más and Almadraba Park Hotel along the coast from the old elBulli location revisited. 

The good news is that not that much has changed. 

The views from both restaurants are as spectacular as they have always been. The wine lists at both restaurants are still as exciting as ever, the former for its fantastic range of burgundies, the latter for its incredibly inexpensive range of Spanish wines and particularly for its array of local Empordà wines. But at both, Villa Más in Sant Feliu de Guixól and Almadraba Park, a 75-minute drive up the Costa Brava at Roses, significant changes have nonetheless taken place.

At Villa Más, the changes are significant and may lead to the wine list becoming even more impressive.

These changes began several years ago with the arrival of a young Frenchwoman, Agathe Arnaud, born in Toulouse, who came to work as part of the front of house team. She fell in love with a young chef, Roger Co. They married and then went off to open their own restaurant in Palamós, the great fishing port, famous for its prawns, 20 kilometres to the north.

They obviously stayed friendly with Carlos Orta Simas, the long-haired disc jockey and wine-loving owner and chef of Villa Màs because in January 2019 they bought into the restaurant and became partners.

This new arrangement seems to be working for everyone, particularly the customers. That is partly because Arnaud is so good at her job. Not too tall and with a ready smile, she seems to charm the many local male customers without upsetting their wives. And she is patently hard-working as she takes the orders from every single table, in the French style, while covering the many sun-shaded tables with a constant smile on her face. She must walk many kilometres between them on the terrace and the kitchen at the back each day.

Villa Mas on the beach at S Feliu, Costa Brava
Villa Más, really is a villa, right on the seaside too

When we left at 11.15 pm, half an hour after a table of four Spaniards had just sat down to begin their dinner, I asked Arnaud when the restaurant closed during the season. ‘We don’t', came her response, ‘but we do close during the winter.’ We asked after Carlos, whom we'd seen briefly before dinner. Her response was somewhat different. ‘He keeps farmer’s hours nowadays so I am afraid that he has gone home. But he sends his best wishes.’ (In the old days he would have been dusting down his turntables at this point.)

Part of the deal is that with Or in charge of the kitchen and Arnaud so obviously the boss of the dining room, Orta is freer to concentrate on two of his other passions, his vegetable garden and his wine list.

Orta has over the years put together such a collection of wines from Burgundy that they are on his list in great depth and at prices lower than many producers see them back in Burgundy. Orta is a particular friend of Christophe Roumier and Pierre-Yves Colin(-Morey). I had to wait a considerable amount of time while Jancis entered into a deep and meaningful discussion with the charming and knowledgeable sommelier Nuria Luca as to whether we should enjoy Roumier’s 2008 or 2010 Chambolle (we enjoyed the latter for €130 - see Jancis's tasting note).

Roumier village Chambolle prices at Villa Mas, San Feliu, Costa Brava
Villa Más's prices for an impressively wide selection of vintages of Roumier's village Chambolle

We began dinner by finishing off the remains of the bottle of Meix Chavaux 2012 Meursault from Roulot, broached at lunchtime as the small tourist passenger train went by emblazoned with the name Ramonet on its engine – an obvious source of amusement on the occasion that this happened while Jean-Claude Ramonet was actually eating at Villa Más.

Volnay selection on the wine list at Villa Màs
Not a bad selection of Volnays...

The vintages are written in pencil because Orta understands how important they are, and because his cellar is packed with so many bottles that this approach means that moving on to the next vintage can be easily accommodated. But as a sign that even here, higher demand is leading to higher prices and possibly a smaller allocation, Orta has shifted his buying nous to nearby Beaujolais and his list contains two pages of the very best producers from this region at a fraction of the price of the Bourgognes.

Salt cod salad at Villa Mas, S Feliu, Costa Brava
Villa Más's salt-cod salad, just the job for lunch on a hot day

What we ate went extremely well with what we drank. Eight plump anchovies and a salad of tomatoes, olives and salt cod with an avocado puree were fine accompaniments to the Roulot Meursault while in the evening a plate of small squid and a shared monkfish tail, cut through the bone, served with a sauce Donostiarra from the Basque region and incorporating plenty of but not too much garlic, were excellent with our quite beautiful village Chambolle. Their rendition of a peach melba, which over time has become known in Spanish as pijama, is not to be missed although one is big, and sweet, enough for two.

The first and most obvious change at Almadraba Park may seem unfriendly – an electric gate is now in place where the entrance to the car park meets the road. But this is more likely to be due to a decision forced upon the hotel management as parking a car is now one of the most difficult aspects of life on the twisted, narrow roads of the Costa Brava.

The views from this hotel are worth the rather tedious crawl through the centre of Roses as it commands the headland with views south and west across the Mediterranean and down to an often crowded beach on a dramatic small bay. Its owner, Jaume Subirós, is ever present, as smartly dressed as ever although today he is ably assisted by his third son, Luis. His eldest son Jordi is now in charge of their other hotel Empordà near Figueres while the middle son has been seduced away by the charms of the Mandarin Oriental in Doha.

It was relatively easy to spot the changes since last year. The menu arrives in a chic, deep blue cover. It is much easier to read and to handle than their previous and much larger menu with the numerous choices that make up the €40 menu down the left-hand side and the more expensive, principally fish, dishes, many Palamós-derived, on the right.

Subirós has also introduced a new rank into his waiting team. A couple of bright young men wear clean chef’s jackets and Bragard aprons yet act as extra waiting staff, bringing a touch of the kitchen into the dining room, as well as their experience and their pleasing demeanour.

I was driving back to France so I enjoyed only a glass of Viña Ardanza 2009 served from magnum, but the new wine list on a smart iPad bristles with lots of local wines at ridiculously inexpensive prices. The sort you encounter often in Spain that make you wonder whether it’s by the glass or bottle.

Tuna tartare at Almadraba Park Hotel

The cooking was and remains top notch. A very fresh tuna tartare (immediately above) served in a creamy white bowl on to which a cool salmorejo (a thick soup made from tomato and bread) was poured; a plate of transparent crystal prawns, langostinos de cristal (above right) so small that they are deep fried for only a maximum of two minutes and are then eaten whole; and a much heartier dish of fideua, a dish originally from Valencia, cooked like a paella but substituting short Catalan noodles for the rice. And although the dessert trolley is hard to resist, their apple sorbet with ginger, lime and saffron manages to be both refreshing and spicy.

We left the Costa Brava as the Wimbledon mens’ final began and the clouds rolled in. Most unusually I wore my ordinary glasses as I drove back to France and had to change into my sunglasses only as we crossed the border.

Villa Más Passeig de Sant Pol 95, 17220 Sant Feliu de Guíxols; tel +34 972 822 526

Almadraba Park Hotel and Restaurant, Avenida Díaz Pacheco 70, 17480 Roses; tel +34 972 256 550

Sweet, succulent tiny crystal langoustines at Almadraba Park Hotel, Roses