El Celler de Can Roca
I don’t think I’ve ever eaten at a Michelin-starred restaurant, let alone a two-star (three stars is the upper limit in Michelin’s realm, quite unlike New York’s new five-star scale and Time Out NY’s slightly newer six-star insanity) so I was revved up by the prospect. There are three three-stars also close to Barcelona, but El Bulli was out of the question since I’m no reservations guru, and I’d heard that Can Fabes and Sant Pau weren’t remarkably better than Can Roca, yet pricier.
New York, which was just granted a Michelin Guide this year, has only four two-star restaurants (Bouley, Daniel, Danube and Masa, if you’re curious). It’s funny because I live in a town where high end dining abounds yet I rarely indulge in any of it. I’ve only eaten at three of the one-stars (Annisa, WD-50 and Peter Luger) and haven’t set foot in the higher ranking establishments. I’m thinking maybe the new ballyhooed Eleven Madison Park incarnation for my seventh dating anniversary next month.
We took the hour and a half train ride to Girona. There was a little time to kill before our 3 pm lunch reservation, so we wandered around the station, smoked cigarettes, had coffee. There were taxis lined up outside so we figured we’d be safe. But of course, being me, this would not be the case. We had no idea how far away the restaurant was, but allowed ourselves half an hour for the taxi trip. So when 2:30 rolled around there wasn’t a single cab to be found. We waited, and waited and started getting scared (we had the worst time ever on our last vacation trying to catch a cab to a restaurant in Macau. We couldn’t hail one despite an hour of trying and when we finally flagged one down, they wouldn’t take us to Fernando’s. I was so exasperated with Macau that we just ferried it back to Hong Kong, never tasting the fabled suckling pig we’d come for). Then a freak thunderstorm broke out. Jesus Christ.
I spied a cab on the other side of the station so we ran and grabbed it, but after the driver heard where we wanted to go he was all, “tan lejos” so far. We tried both taxi numbers in our guide book and one no one answered, the other was dead. In a panic, we went to the information desk and asked the nice girl how to call a taxi and she gave us the same number we already had. Desperate, we had her point on a map where the restaurant was from the train station and she was also heading into “tan lejos” territory but I think she meant to walk, not drive because that’s what we were contemplating. It didn’t look far to me at all, but then I’ve discovered that New Yorkers have very different ideas about what’s walkable.
Just then, I noticed a new cab had pulled up outside so I ran and accosted the guy, practically begging him to drive us to Can Roca since we only a had a few minutes before our scheduled meal (I was shaking in my boots because I’m a punctuality nut, but then I reminded myself that late or not this was Spain where time has less meaning—why else would Dali make those clocks melt?). He didn’t have a problem with it. The drive was only like five minutes, if that. Insane. Tan lejos, my ass. If I wasn’t wearing heels, we seriously could’ve hoofed it if need be (though all the roundabouts and lack of right-angled street corners might’ve thrown us off).
So we made it on time and all was right with the world again. The first thing we both noticed was the décor. Totally Ureña. Ok, I’m making my own inside jokes now. When it opened earlier this year, Ureña got so much shit over its bland hotel lobby style that the food almost became secondary. Despite the Dominican chef going trendy Nuevo Spanish with his cuisine, I don’t think his eponymous restaurant is calculatedly trying to approximate a weirdo high end dining room in Spain. He probably didn’t have a big budget and fancy investors, cut the guy some slack.
The tasting menu seven courses for €75 (I don’t have that anywhere in writing, but it’s the number that sticks in my mind) seemed like the best route. A la carte would leave us wanting more and the chef’s menu might be over the top for the middle of the afternoon. We would’ve done dinner over lunch but the last train back to Barcelona is around 10 pm, far too early for a meal that would surely go hours and not even begin until after 9 pm.
I hate that I’m a wine retard almost as much as I hate being Spanish illiterate. I’m working on rectifying both of those situations, but these things take time. We took the coward’s way out and asked for wine pairings. If I’m correct, this was a reasonable €25 or so a person (especially when you read the things other people order. Do you think there was an upsurge in envy and feelings of inadequacy with the advent of the internet?). I’d heard about the three volume wine list that gets wheeled around on its own podium. That’s almost more simultaneously funny and frightening than snakes on a plane (sorry, I had to toss in planes and snakes in there somewhere). I’m not qualified to speak about the wines we were given and honestly can’t remember many of them (except for the gratis [I think] Bollinger served with the amuses) especially since they were described to us in Spanish. There was a port and a sherry in there, it never occurs to me to order sweet wines (which James took to calling "Disarannos," possibly to annoy me like when he intentionally mispronounces “The Devil Wears Pradas,” making fun of the lowbrow tendency towards adding unnecessary S’s to proper nouns. [I've humiliatingly said, and recently heard my mom say Fred Meyers for this popular NW store, simply called Fred Meyer, so no one's immune.] “Oh, another glass of Disaranno.” We’ve never had the amaretto, but it must’ve made an impression from the old Queer Eye days when they seemed to be their only advertiser and got mentioned on every episode) though they make sense with crazy combinations like foie gras and chocolate.
Only one of our servers spoke spotty English so a lot of details were lost on me when they presented each new dish. The additional trickiness is that the cuisine doesn’t always lend itself to simple translations. The dishes are fanciful, there are visual puns, quotes employed in menu descriptions, it’s not always easy to get if you’re not a native Spanish speaker. Like is the coco helado rallado con sorbete de yema de huevo mimicking an egg yolk, the orange orb on white edible grated coconut canvas or is the ice cream actually flavored with egg yolk? I try not to over analyze the food and simply concentrate on flavors. Even that can be difficult with so much going on. I was rattled with the newness of Spain, the fanfare of an acclaimed restaurant, concentrating on foreign words, the giddiness of the alcohol creeping up on me—sometimes it’s hard to stay focused. Thank goodness for the novel concept of presenting customers with a print out of what they’ve eaten (if you ask—I wouldn’t have known to do this if I hadn’t read about it on the web). I’ve never seen this done in NYC. I’ll simply show photos and offer mangled translations and vague descriptions. Delving into the minutiae of taste isn’t for me.
crujiente de tripa de bacallao/salt cod rinds
These were like pork cracklings but with bacalao skin. Fun to snack on while drinking champagne.
caramelo de sesame and crujiente de parmesano con aceite de trufa/sesame seed brittle and parmesan strips with truffle oil
More pre-meal snacks. Sweet and savory.
sardinas con helado de anchoas, moras y Olivares, veloute de hierbas anisadas con hinojo y agua de mar, higos con foie gras y Pedro Ximenez/sardines with anchovy ice cream, mulberries and Olivares, veloute of anise with fennel and sea water, figs with foie gras and Pedro Ximenez sherry
Ok, I'll admit that this tapas trio is baffling me. They weren't explained clearly to us and the Spanish descriptions aren't helping much because I'm not sure what some of the ingredients are. The spoon in the foreground definitely contained berries and fish, but I have no idea what Olivares is, which translates literally olive grove. Perhaps a brand name of olive oil? The shot glass contained a licorice-y concoction with a smidgen of sea creature that I'm thinking must be the agua de mar. It clearly wasn't a blob of sea water. The dish held a thick pudding, which must've been composed of figs and foie gras. I thought that it was topped with caviar, but there's no mention of that in the name.
sopa de cerezas con gambas y helado de jengibre/cherry soup with shrimp and ginger ice cream
The amazing nearly hot pink hue was much more vivid than pictured (I don't use a flash in restaurants). This was very bright and refreshing.
bonbon de foie gras con oporto Taylor's/foie gras bonbon with Taylor's port
A play on candy, these bonbons were foie gras encircling a chocolate center, topped with truffles. Olive oil and salt dotted the edges of the plate. The was insanely rich and I'm afraid it gave me a stomach ache later.
berenjena con anchoas/eggplant with anchovies
A smoked eggplant mousse with an aspic layer, anchovy and a little leaf, possibly basil. Our server was trying to search for the right word when describing this and after a few seconds declared, "aubergine." I should've been all, "speak American, dammit." I'm honestly not sure that the typical American (whatever that means) knows what aubergines are. Courgettes either, for that matter. I'll never understand why the British use all those Frenchified words.
lenguado con "bullavesa" /sole bouillabaisse
This was a sprightly dish, not dark and ominous like the photo intimates. I couldn't really discern what the different green, white, yellow and red circles were, though I'm sure thought was put into them.
ventresca de cabrito con parmentier de leche de cabra y menta/baby goat confit with goat's milk and mint foam
I had no idea this was goat until I looked up cabrito. For some reason I thought it was suckling pig. I think this is a play on suckling pig in its mother's milk (or some such dish). That's kind of gruesome if you think about it, but not as creepy as eating flowers (see below).
coco helado rallado con sorbete de yema de huevo/coconut granita with egg yolk sorbet
Like I said earlier, I'm not clear if this sorbet was yolk flavored (clearly I have no palate) or mimicking a yolk in appearance. I liked that it was served in a coconut shell bowl.
adaptacion del perfume Carolina de Carolina Herrera/adaptation of Carolina Herrera's perfume Carolina: Despite the sheer novelty (I'm normally a sucker for novelty), this dish was the hardest for me to handle. I'm really fucking scared of eating flowers. I'll eat organ meats and baby animals, but flowers absolutely gross me out. (I found a flickr set from someone who ate at Can Roca the week after we did and they had a dish with squab and rose petals. It looks beautiful, but it might've freaked me out a bit.) I used to not even be able to eat lettuce or spinach if I could still make out ribs and stems but I've gotten a little better with that.
Youngest brother, Jordi Roca, is the mastermind behind all these inventive desserts. He is known for creating edibles to approximate the scent of perfumes like Miracle, Eternity and Tresor (I've also heard Polo, which I have horrible connotations with. I can't imagine eating Polo without gagging over bad teenage memories). You're brought strips spritzed with the perfume to smell and compare with the taste of the dessert. It's kind of uncanny.
End of dinner confections. I don't know the details. There was a white chocolate praline bark, fruity gel squares. White chocolate bonbons. The two in the right, front corner elude me.
We couldn’t figure out the youngish possibly-not-a-couple seated diagonally from us. The male was disheveled Euro-hip, the girl more mousey yet still artsy. They had a table already filled with wine glasses when we were seated and they were the only table remaining in our dining area when we headed out. There had to be at least 25 glasses in various states of fullness. I assumed they were doing a lengthy wine tasting, but then food would also come out so perhaps they’d opted for the chef’s choice route. They received a lot of attention from who I think was Josep Roca, sommelier/maitre d’. The girl had on a wedding ring, the guy did not. He seemed intoxicated, she didn’t. When she got up to use the restroom, she hugged him and he forcefully grabbed her ass. Their relationship was ambiguous. What were they doing here on a Tuesday afternoon? We were tourists, we had an excuse. I suppose they could’ve been, too. There’s no reason to think that all Spanish speakers are residents of the city I see them in.
Despite trying not be even an occasional smoker, I do love that smoking is permitted in the restaurant as is the case with Spain in general (though not at Cinc Sentits, where we dined a few nights later. I think there’s a direct correlation between the English fluency of the staff and smoking restrictions). At first James was like, “no we shouldn’t, it’s rude.” But the girl with the 20 wine glasses was puffing away the whole afternoon and I couldn’t let her have all the fun. During a marathon meal it’s luxurious to be leisurely about the whole thing. Stop to sip your wine, relax, converse, have a cigarette between courses. Worry about your health later.
I hate to say this (ok, I don’t because bathroom humor is the only thing that gets me by) but serious, er, digestive troubles slammed both of us later. James was having trauma at the hotel that evening and I refused to believe Can Roca was the stomach wrenching culprit. But me with the sluggish metabolism got my payback in the form of an unexpected accident the following afternoon at El Corte Ingles. ¿Donde esta el baño? (but I knew the word was baño in Spain so I wasn’t only fretting over finding a bathroom but not sounding like idiot while asking. It’s an L word and I’ve already forgotten it) got added to my tiny repertoire quite quickly.
I think the food was just really rich. My stomach isn’t accustomed to foie gras bon bons. James insists it was the anchovy eggplant custard that did him in. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the Can Roca experience. I apologize for the mildly gruesome postscript. I will say that just because you spent $300 on food is no guarantee that it will stay in your stomach for long. But aren’t the best experiences often ephemeral?
El Cellar de Can Roca * Carretera Taiala 40, Girona, Spain
Yum! I didn’t know that Michelins were stars (and not tyres), I must confess, until I started watching “Hell’s Kitchen” this year. And as for the aubergine/courgette challenge, it took David and I approximately five years to figure out why he always neglected to pick them up at the market whenever I asked. Now I really have to watch what I say, since he’s picked up the Sheffield dialect fairly well in 17 years of togetherness…
And now I must return to my feast of sardines on toast…