I had long wanted to eat at Rafa's in Roses on the Costa Brava, in the rugged and beautiful north east of Spain. In a region renowned for its reverence for simply grilled, very fresh fish and seafood, Rafa's has long been talked about as one of the very best.
And while everything about our lunch fully justified this reputation, it came with a bonus. As well as the freshness of the fish, and the pride and pleasure that grilling it so expertly obviously generates in Rafa himself, its chef/proprietor for 30 years, comes the delight of being served by Rosa.
The morning had begun somewhat gloomily with heavy rain falling on the terrace of our bedroom at the ever-excellent Almadraba Park Hotel and the sight of the normally glorious bay of Roses swathed in mist. Happily, this had all cleared by noon as we set off to walk the 75-minute coastal path into the centre of town.
By 1.30 we were sitting opposite Ferran Centelles, our Spanish correspondent, and Berta, his charming girlfriend, at La Sirena opposite the beach as the men indulged in two particular but distinct addictions. Ferran had asked to meet there so as to indulge in his particular craving for a dish of their 'Russian salad', a concoction I was put off when I last ate it at the canteen in Manchester Grammar School in 1965. I indulged in my one, very cold bottle of Coca Cola of the year.
Both cravings satisfied, we walked five minutes away from the crowded seafront, holiday home now to increasingly large numbers of French and, as soon as we started towards this modest restaurant on the narrow, paved Calle Sant Sebastià, I knew that we were going to be in the best of hands.
While those in the two restaurants on the northern side sweltered under the sun, Rafa's occupies the much cooler southern side, a spot obviously chosen in a pre-air-conditioning era when only mad dogs and Englishmen went out to eat in the midday sun.
Rafa's encompasses two adjacent sites. One is reserved for larger tables, but the smaller one, where we ate and in which the open kitchen is located, stays very cool. It is tiled; the tables and chairs are made from the sort of heavy, chunky wood you find in Paradors; and the decorations are sparse – a few black and white drawings plus one larger and more colourful painting of fishermen hard at work. On the wall at the back is a large, wooden open cabinet, so often found in these long-established Spanish restaurants, full to the gunwales with liqueurs and malt whiskies.
Rafa had his back to us as we walked in but immediately turned round to shake our hands and smile. He is portly with a round, gentle face and was dressed in blue from a dark blue apron to light blue Crocs. In the fridge that forms part of the work counter were sacks of mussels and clams, and several large fish obviously still in rigor mortis.
We head to the table where Ferran has already kindly parked four wines, including his most exciting find from a recent tasting trip to Ribeira Sacra, a strangely fizzy supposedly still Xarello from Sava producers Recardero, a fading Torres Gran Sangredetoro 1982 and a delicious El Pison 1996 Rioja from Artadi.
And then came Rosa. Rosa is an extremely pert, authoritative but not bossy, lively woman who has been working here for the past 18 years. She is the kind of waitress who, if there were a transfer season for the best waiting staff as there is for overpaid footballers, any restaurateur in the world would want on their team. She smiles. She knows everything about what is on that day's menu. And she knows, above all, that her customers are in for a good time.
And we were particularly fortunate because we were the only table during the whole lunch service. Rafa's is normally packed, Ferran explained, but for some reason that day it was very quiet; and the consequence, Rosa explained, was that, having bought the fish that they anticipated selling over a busy Saturday lunch and dinner, they would certainly, but most unusually, now have to open for Sunday lunch as well.
We sat back as Rosa took centre stage. 'There are anchovies, and clams, tomato salad, prawns, sea cucumbers. And, as for the fish. Well there is monkfish, turbot, rascasse, bream, John Dory and sea bass', she proclaimed. And as we took all this information in, one other hidden charm of Rafa's assailed our nostrils: their extremely pungent bread was being cut right next to the grill, further whetting our appetites.
We began with four large anchovies on a plate of deep green olive oil alongside four halves of tomato to be rubbed, with a clove of garlic, on to our toasted bread, Catalan style. Then came a plate of grilled sea cucumbers, far more tender than many I have eaten; a glorious salad of tomatoes from their own vegetable garden (shown above); eight grilled red prawns, six inches long, that are a speciality of the deep, cold waters around Roses; and then a plate of small, thin-shelled clams. These, Rosa explained, are becoming increasingly expensive as demand increases and supply falls. Ten years ago they cost 8 euros a kilo – today they are 50 euros a kilo.
We chose John Dory as our main course because, as the thinnest of the fish on offer, I thought that it would be the best test of Rafa and his grill. Neither disappointed. It arrived crisp on the outside, firm the whole way through and an absolute delight to carve as I plated it up for the rest of the table. My dexterity prompted Rafa to offer me a job as I finished the job by dissecting the two cheeks and handing them over to Ferran and Berta. It was a stunning dish, anointed with nothing more than their own olive oil and the remains of the tomato salad.
The dessert plate incorporated thin slices of cheesecake, different flavoured truffles and something that Berta is obviously addicted to, a thin chocolate tart made from Nutella. (I assume the addiction began when she, like Ferran, worked at elBulli nearby.) Without wine, our bill for four was 145.85 euros.
As we walked into the brilliant sunshine, watching a waiter make aioli in an old pestle and mortar, I realised that Rafa and Rosa are just two more excellent reasons for returning to Roses.
Rafa's, Calle Sant Sebastià 56, Roses, Spain; tel +34 972 254003