The freshest of fish in a Costa Brava restaurant was chosen by our Spanish specialist. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.
For some time, public debate has filled the narrow streets of Roses, the fishing port on the northern Costa Brava in Spain, as to which of its two fish restaurants serves the fresher fish: Rafa’s or Cal Campaner?
The first misapprehension that anyone must rid themselves of is that either of these places bears any resemblance at all to a top fish restaurant in London, Paris or New York. There is none of the chic beauty of Scott’s or Rech or Marea about these two restaurants. Instead there is charm, history, and the fact that they primarily exist to serve the local community.
Cal Campaner is slightly smarter than Rafa’s but only by a degree or two. It’s a tad cooler and more spacious. Its home is on a narrow street (our taxi held up all the traffic as we got out) and its entrance could easily be missed. Once inside there is a step up and then you are in the main body of the restaurant, which has a sea-like interior: the walls and ceiling are painted a light blue and covered in paintings with an obvious connection to the sea.
At the back of the room is the open kitchen, where Joan Romero cooks. Fifteen years ago, he was a chef at El Bulli, the magical restaurant a few kilometres away via a twisty road to Cala Montjoi, when he fell in love with his future wife, whose parents happened to be the owners of Cal Campaner. It did not take him long to transfer his culinary skills from one kitchen to the other.
It is their menus, however, which unites these two restaurants most closely. Neither has any place for meat lovers, both are fish only. Here the menu begins in the left-hand corner with oysters, tallarines (the small, extremely sweet clams in season only in high summer, to which I had been introduced the night before at the Almadraba Park Hotel nearby), sea snails, a dish intriguingly named ‘anchovies of the house’, sardines and tuna tataki.
There then follows a list of shellfish: red prawns from Roses, normal size and those marked Extra Large; squid and sea cucumbers. Then came the most interesting category under the heading of brasa or grilled fish: sea bream, sea bass, John Dory, and turbot. The prices are in chalk alongside each dish – by-the-unit price alongside the starters and by-the-kilo price for the individual fish.
We began with a variety of first courses with, I am delighted to say, a plate of the tallarines, which were as good here as before: sweet, salty and juicy. So too was the plate of anchovies, which arrived split but attached at the tail and had obviously been the subject of a very personal marinade. More surprising perhaps was the stunning rendition of a tuna tataki, in which the thin slices of extremely fresh tuna lay under a really appetising sweet-and-sour sauce.
Our main courses, a turbot for me while others shared a sea bass, were brought to our table twice, initially uncooked and then when they had spent several minutes on Romero’s grill. While the sea bass was then whisked away to be split on the counter of the open kitchen, I managed to stop such an annihilation. Personally, I enjoy the enormous, and increasingly rare, pleasure of carving up my own turbot almost as much as I enjoy eating it.
Although the size of this particular turbot meant that there was little to be enjoyed from my sucking the bones as there was little in the way of unctuous cartilage, there was plenty to be enjoyed from eating its flesh. It had been on the grill for only a few minutes, enough time for the skin to pick up plenty of colour but not enough time to damage the flavour of the flesh, which was perfect.
Both fish were served in true Catalan style: extremely plainly. The menu made no mention of any side dishes (perhaps if we had asked we could have been served a salad); the fish was all. In fact, the only thing served with the two fillets of sea bass was its head, which sat proudly on a side dish until our Catalan friend (our Spanish specialist Ferran Centelles), attacked it and in a couple of minutes had entirely destroyed it.
When booking, Ferran had asked the restaurant whether they would be open for such an early reservation as our chosen time of 8.30. Even more diners were coming in as I asked for my bill (€275 for five with a bottle of Belondrade y Lurton 2019 Rueda, an excellent white wine that never seems to disappoint) at 10.30. Two of these groups came in en famille, one with two small children, the other with three.
Dinner at Cal Campaner was a delight for several reasons. Firstly, because all those layers that exist to supply a restaurant of such quality had been stripped back. The harbour where our fish had been caught is less than a mile away and it is also home to the daily fish auction.
Secondly, because our whole evening seemed like an introduction into a distinctly Catalan way of life, including the enjoyment of such excellent fish. It helped that a Catalan speaker was with us but this was an advantage not a prerequisite.
And finally, I left Cal Campaner a slightly wiser and more appreciative ‘fish chef’. I spent the entire evening watching Romero as he worked in his open kitchen. As he took the fish out of the fridge underneath his grill as the orders dictated; as he filleted them before placing them on the grill; and, above all, as he kept a constant eye on them before anointing them with olive oil. He took his eyes off his grill, and the fish that were on it, long enough to say hello to Ferran and to bump fists. Then it was back to work for Romero.
Cal Campaner is slightly more sophisticated in its cooking of the freshest fish than Rafa’s. There is slightly less use of salt and the atmosphere is somewhat less smoky and quieter than the more confined Rafa’s. But any small town that can boast two such restaurants is fortunate indeed.
Cal Campaner Carrer de Mossèn Carles Feliu, 23, Roses, Spain; tel +34 972 25 69 54.