Tuesday, October 6, 2009

El Celler de Can Roca, Girona (1/2: Mains)

September 2nd, 2009. 9:30 PM

El Celler de Can Roca is The 5th Best Restaurant In the World. If you averaged this dinner with last night's, I ate at the 3rd-best restaurant in the world two nights in a row. Can Roca is often mentioned as a place that deserves three stars but is stuck at 2, and the food is creative but tasty, weird but recognizable. Honestly, I was looking forward to this dinner more than El Bulli in some ways, and I wasn't disappointed at all.

The staff were a little disappointed with me, however. Getting too into the spirit of the Spanish late-dining thing, we showed up at 9:30 to find that our reservation had been for 9. Oh well, no harm done. I love the way the restaurant is outside the nice (Medieval, walled) area of Girona and is fairly unobtrusive.

This setting is evidently new; I'm not totally clear on what's what since I've read that they moved but also that the restaurant is next to their Mom's old restaurant. I say 'they' because the Roca brothers run the place - the oldest is the chef, the middle brother the sommelier, and the youngest the dessert chef. 

I liked how dark and quiet it was - no one else coming or going when we got there (and again when we left). Might be because we were later than the approved time!

Inside is similarly modern and airy in a spacey, otherworldly way. This atrium with lit trees is actually glassed in so that some 'outside' is visible from most places inside the restaurant. You'd think this was Scandanavian if it wasn't Spanish.

The wine list is massive - several books presented on a rolling cart - but we went with the pairings and the basic course. We also each got a supplementary dessert - some of the chef's desserts are quite well known, and I guess as a result of requests they just started offering them all the time. Considering how cool they are, the prices of the supplemental desserts are quite reasonable (EUR15, I think) as is the whole experience (considering). I've read that they decided to keep the prices down so that local people could still afford to come for special occasions.

La carte.

As if things weren't weirdly classy enough, the first thing they brought to the table was a tree. This is where I got a big smile on my face and figure that there would be all sorts of interesting stuff happening throughout the dinner. I'd like to think that they just left this for us to explore, but in practice they probably pointed out that it was a little olive tree, and hanging from it were little...

Caramelized olives, good. Black, slightly sweet, some sort of mildly crunchy coating, and most importantly hanging from special serving wires on a tree.

Other nibbles included these sesame crackers, served in a sliced rock (nuts +1, El Bulli flashback and mild fear)...

and fried eel spines. These might seem alien if you didn't live in Japan. As it was, I was a little bored by them.

But not bored enough to skip taking an up-close-and-personal shot. These eels did not give up their lives in vain; they'll reappear shortly in the first proper course.

Finally, a reconstituted frozen cherry that was served hand-to-hand (hence me taking a picture of it hanging. Such a great starter; sweet and tart and refreshing, with a neat texture.

No idea what this was or how it tasted (not on the menu, just a bigger nibble), but this is quite illustrative of their style. Tangles, angles, sauces and lumps. Not the most appetizing descriptors for food.

I believe this was a tuna jelly - like soft gelatin cubes that tasted like cooked tuna. Being a lover of canned tuna, I was a lover of this. Mild fear of Asian (Korean) influence since this came in a metal bowl but all was OK. +1 foam.

If anyone was worried about the food, this is where it stopped. We were all knocked back a bit (OK, a tiny bit, but still) by these pigeon bonbons. Something like pigeon meat and liver encased in a candy-looking shell. Intense and awesome.

NOW we were ready for the first of the 7 courses on the proper menu.

This was, for me, the hands-down winner of the evening. It's always sad to have the best thing first, but this was it. Starting with the basics - smoked eel in cherry soup. Sounds...riiiiight. But the eel was like the most beautiful smoked fish ever (and I love a good smoked whitefish, which I just now realized is probably a silver fish despite the name). The cherries came in at least 3 textures - the dark 'natural' ones (though these may have differed from each other), the lighter-color frozen one (like the earlier nibble; I don't really know if they were reconstituted) and the soup, poured around at the table. Edible flower garnish, other bits for texture...I want to eat this again someday (in fact, the memory of this forced me to order off-menu the next day to get another cherry soup, that one with soft cheese and corn. Not as good. Nothing could be as good.). This is the kind of thing I came here to eat, and it was worth it.

The high point was unfortunately followed by the low point - oysters topped with apple compote, pineapple, ginger, and spices - which included a fair amount of curry or at least cumin. And an oyster leaf, which I promptly ate. It wasn't as good as El Bulli's.

The thing that ruins this dish for me (as well as other reviewers) is the 'champagne'. Note the curved glass dish? It's a cut champagne bottle, and the concept here is a classic 'oysters and champagne'. Good as far as it goes, but the champagne, poured from a champagne bottle onto the dish, is heavily thickened with chemicals to make it gummy and artificial. Sure it holds the bubbles, and sure it looks neat, but the whole thing was to mucus-y for me. And the oyster was too strong too - strong enough that you could actually taste it under all that apple, pineapple, cumin and xantham gum. I'm not saying it was bad or anything, but it wasn't a great oyster.

Well, nuts to that, because we were back on track conceptually and tastefully with this terrific charcoal-grilled sole. The Mediterannean-themed sauces were variously vegetal and nutty (I want to say olive paste, basil, pine nut...), and the idea was to eat one bite with each. Maybe that's a bit of a conceit, but it was certainly varied, and the fish was certainly cooked very nicely. Also, they went to the effort of differentiating the bites of fish. See how in the middle there's a bit of orange garnish, and at the near end a single green leaf for the green sauce?

On top of the last bite you can just see the little 'gem', which from memory was a candy shell filled with olive oil. I could be wrong, but this was a fun way to hit a bit more flavor with a tiny crunch.

I reiterate, certainly cooked very nicely.

This 'Catalan Cod Pot Au Feu' was the second-best savory dish. Not that it had anything to do with pot au feu (and the cod was actually made from soy). I enjoyed this elaborate presentation (the arrangement of the pasta 'casserole' with vegetables especially), and the cooking of the cod was outstanding. I imagine it was sous vide, as the chef is known for that, but the flavor was extraordinary and the texture was a first for me (in a good way; the champagne gum was a first too).

In retrospect, they should lay off on pouring sauces and soups at the table. It's repetitive. But without this they would have no right whatsoever to call it a pot au feu.

And finally, suckling pig - another Catalan staple transformed to their style. I didn't think of it at the time, but maybe this is more directional eating like the fish. You could start with the first bite with just the deliciously crispy-skinned pork, then move on to the watermelon ball with embedded herb, then a bite of green onion, then repeat. In retrospect, I wonder if this is a joke about Chinese duck - served crisp-skinned with red peppers and green onions.

I was more than happy with all this. I can also imagine being happier (especially the oysters, but also the pig to some extent), but the creativity and flavor were well-balanced. I think this was great cooking, within the bounds of normalcy. I was also very surprised that the savory courses were already over, after spending 3+ hours and 25 courses on them the preceding night!

Of course, dessert, is where things got really impressive and weird, so let's not get up from the table for too long...

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