Spain- Fine Dining Recap

While in Spain, we had the privilege of dining at two of the world’s greatest restaurants. El Celler De Can Roca, located just north of the city center of Girona, is renowned as one of the hottest culinary spots on the planet. It was ranked as highly as #11 in the world in Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 list for 2007 (I believe it fell to #26 on the 2008 list, but we won’t get picky). We made the short day trip to Girona from our base in Barcelona mostly for our lunch reservation here, although I will say that the town is quite charming and would recommend the day trip regardless. After that, we headed for San Sebastian, which is widely regarded as the current culinary capital of the world. Boasting more Michelin starts that any other city in the world (that’s right, including London and Paris) and posting three in the aforementioned top 50 list (and two in the top ten), we headed here solely for the beach and the cuisine. We only had two nights to spend in San Sebastian and decided to devote one night (and most of our food budget) to a world-class dining experience at the famous Arzak restaurant, which currently ranks as the #8 restaurant in the world. Chef Jean Mari Arzak is credited with the innovation of modern Spanish cuisine, and the restaurant has continued its domaince in the culinary world since his daughter Elena has assumed the head chef duties. Earlier in the trip, we also dined at Cal Pep in Barcelona, which is worth a mention as well due to its unique upscale tapas-style dining and nearly perfect cuisine. It also has had its turn in the Top 50, earning “Best Value” honors back in 2005 when it ranked as highly as #31. Here’s a brief recap of our experiences. (Prices in Euros, with one bottle of wine).

El Celler De Can Roca, Girona, Spain: 175 Euros (four-course classic menu 65 Euros)

After spending a relaxing morning exploring the inner-workings of the quaint city of Girona, we made our way through Devasa Park. The restaurant was an easy half-hour walk through park and across the river. El Celler De Can Roca is the creation of the Roca family, composed of head chef Joan Roca, dessert chef Jordi Roca, and sommelier Josep Roca. The restaurant has recently moved to a new location, and the fresh decor was immediately inviting. The contemporary dining room has a non-pretentious feel, with simple white table cloths and a beautiful garden of trees en glassed in the middle of the restaurant below a sunroof which allows a good amount of light to enter during the day. We were seated immediately despite being about a half hour early for our 2 p.m. lunch reservation, and an English speaking waiter and sommelier were provided for us without a second thought. I was quickly excited as the sommelier brought over the wine list on a rolling apparatus! The list was so large that it was separated into large red, white and dessert wine books and placed on the easel-like structure (below). I’d certainly never seen this before. We ended up going with the Finca Sandoval Syrah Manchuela 2005.

A few amuse bouche arrived, including a very salty cod-chip creation and a delicious chocolate bon bon. We of course decided to go with the four-course tasting menu which seemed reasonable enough for lunch. The first course was duck liver covered in a carmelized vanilla, and it was absolutely mind-blowing. The sweetness and crunchiness of the carmelized top layer blended amazingly with the rich, delicate nature of the liver. Lisa couldn’t finish it all because it was so rich, so I gladly helped her out against my better judgment simply because I couldn’t stop eating it. The richness of this dish was beyond measure! The consistency and intensity of flavors reminded me of creme brulee. (below)

The second course was a succulent lobster in a mushroom sauce above mashed potatoes. The lobster was rich, tender and fresh, with a classic salty flavor that left no doubt that this creature had been swimming in the ocean earlier than morning. And of course, any use of mashed potatoes at a fine-dining establishment makes the course a sure winner in my book. It was utterly delicious. (below)

Having consumed two incredibly impressive courses, we readied ourselves for the meat course of roasted suckling pig. We’d enjoyed this Spanish specialty earlier in the week at the world famous Sobrino de Botin in Madrid, and it was great, but something told me this baby pig had potential to be spectacular, and I wasn’t incorrect. The pig was incredibly tender and had a perfectly roasted layer of pig skin that added a delicious crunch to the tender, flavorful meat. (below)

For our final course, an intensely flavorful chocolate souffle arrived wrapped in a ginger paper and served with ginger ice cream. This was a truly interesting and innovative combination that balanced wonderfully. (below) After just four courses, wow, we were full!

The food, the service and the ambiance at El Celler De Can Roca made it a truly memorable experience. Most notably, I thought the price was incredibly reasonable for the quality of the food not to mention the stature of the place. My only complaint was that after we’d finished, the staff pretty much ignored us and let us enjoy ourselves without ever asking if we needed anything else. If they had, I’d have told them that I needed the check! But I suppose you can’t fault a place for not pushing you out the door, especially in Europe. If I’m ever near Girona again, you can bet I’ll be making a stop here!

Arzak, San Sebastian: 380 Euros ( six course tasting menu 150 Euros)

I should preface by noting that my entire vacation was nearly ruined when I woke up with food poisoning the morning of my 9:00 p.m. Arzak reservation. I couldn’t keep anything down for hours and was horrified that I’d have to cancel the reservation that I’d made six months ago and had essentially planned the trip around. Luckily, by about 6:00 p.m. I started to feel as though I could make a run at the tasting menu. Fortunately, food this good quickly makes you forget about anything that might be ailing you.

Again we arrived a bit earlier than our reservation was made for, but trust me when I say that if you choose to eat dinner at 8:45 anywhere in Spain on a Saturday night, you’ll have the place to yourself for a good while. We arrived and were seated immediately, and to my surprise were greeted by a friendly young captain who spoke English impressively (being in Basque country, I was very concerned about the possible language barrier at this restaurant, but the staff eased those fears right off the bat). I was surprised by how elegant the decor was; I guess I was expecting more of an old country style, but instead the restaurant was predominantly sleek and black. And while I admit that paying the equivalent $250 a person for a tasting menu is a bit of a ridiculous proposition, (especially when, in my case, you’ve been throwing up all day) we were at one of the best restaurants in the world, and a splurge was well within reason. I ordered a bottle of the Finca Valpiedra Rioja Reserva 2001 and we braced ourselves for a barrage of food.

The amuse bouche were nearly a meal in themselves. Our friendly server, dressed in a simple kitchen apron, succeeded admirably in her English explanation of our five mini-courses. Our favorites included a roasted chicken with pear, a delicate bite of stone crab, some escargot and an interesting gazpacho soup topped with a strong cheese. (below) It was evident that this place was serious about its food.

We decided to sample as much food as we could, so we ordered different choices at each tasting point and shared. The first of our choices to come out was a carmelized escalloped apple topped with foie gras, which was sweet and delicate with the slightest hint of crunch. (below)

I enjoyed a soft and refreshing oyster course by myself. The presentation continued to amaze us as they brought to our table an out-of-this-world lobster dish. The lobster was drenched in an amazing sauce which our server brought out from the kitchen after making an additional trip. The dish itself was incredibly rich and flavorful and cooked to perfection, not chewy in the least bit. (below)

The next course took imagination to a whole new level. It was a poached egg surrounded by peas, mushrooms and ham, which combined beautifully to create a soft, delicate breakfast dish in the middle of our meal. The yoke spilled out and mixed with the vegetables and meat. Lisa was a huge fan of this course. (below)

I was nearly full by this point, but the fish and meat courses were still to come, and since we had split our orders, that meant that I had four courses yet to sample. We absolutely loved the sole dish, which came in a sweet, creamy sauce and was perfectly tender. The balance of flavors was perhaps displayed best in this course, which was far from “fishy” and tasted more like dessert! (below, top) The monkfish came wrapped in a crust of bronze! (below, bottom) It was also very tasty, although we both enjoyed the sole the most of the two, which says a lot more for the sole than it takes away from the monkfish.

Perhaps my favorite course of the night among so much amazing food was the lamb loin, which came served medium rare in an au jus and the perfect amount of subtle mint. It was melt-in-your-mouth tender, gamey and packed with flavor, cooked to utter perfection. (below, top) Lisa ordered the beef course, and the small bite that I had was fantastic. (below, bottom) I noticed well-concentrated flavors including a tasty hazelnut character.

I was beyond stuffed by this point, but that didn’t stop what seemed like a never-ending string of dessert courses from finding their way to our table. First there were chocolates, including jelly-like chocolate balls (below, top) and another course of creamier mint balls filled with dark chocolate. Wow did these go well with the subtle chocolate undertones of our delicious Rioja! The next set of desserts included an amazing “champagne ravioli” as well as dry ice of pineapple along with a steaming hot creme de cocoa that oozed onto the dish (below, bottom), all again with careful design and presentation.

My highlight came shortly after, as Jean Mari Arzak himself came over to our table to thank us for coming to his restaurant! In his limited English, he asked us “Where from?” When we told him Chicago, he replied, “Oh, Charlie Trotter!” Small world, I suppose. He was even nice enough to pose for a picture with us at our table.

Overall, we found the service to be spotless, incredibly unpretentious, welcoming and accommodating. The food was obviously inventive and approaching perfection, using an impressive combination of innovation and mastery of classic cuisine to create a tasting menu with great balance. Our friendly server made us souvenir copies of our menu selections, which of course are unintelligible since they are written in Basque. After perhaps the most expensive dinner of our lives (it has to be at least tied with The French Laundry) we left incredibly satisfied, which is always such a wonderful feeling after such a splurge. I don’t think we could have asked for anything more, and this is certainly in our top five dining experiences ever.

Cal Pep, Barcelona: 110 Euros, 6 Courses

What an exciting and lively experience it was to dine at Cal Pep. After searching some of the narrow streets of Barcelona’s gothic quarter looking for the restaurant, we ended up finding it in a much more wide-open area than we had anticipated thanks to a long line already formed at the door. It was 8:10 p.m., a full twenty minutes before the famous restaurant was supposed to open, so we took our place in line in hopes of attaining one of the twenty-some seats at the bar of the tiny place. Unfortunately, we ended up about three or four back in the line after all of the seats were occupied, so we were forced to wait for other patrons to finish before we could have a seat. However, what could have been a frustrating experience actually turned out to be a lot of fun, as we were able to get a feel for the chaotic nature of the place while watching what other people were eating and while the staff served us Rioja on the house.

The best way to describe the atmosphere at Cal Pep would be to call it organized chaos. Pep, the owner and chef, barks out orders with what seems to be a damaged voice box, while waiters and cooks scramble to prepare the large tapas portions for their guests in the tiny kitchen that is placed wide open inside of the bar. Needless to say, when we got our seats after a very reasonable 45-minute wait, I was all excitement. Our waiter poured us some more wine and asked us what we wanted to eat. That’s simple enough, I thought! After explaining that I wanted to leave it up to him with the exception that Lisa wanted to avoid shellfish, he offered some suggestions, and away we went.

The first course was a tuna tartare, which was impossibly tender and flavorful while still modest in its own right. It was served simply with sesame seeds which added a nice crunch, but the attraction in this course was the sheer flavor and melt-in-your mouth texture of the jello-esque tuna. (below)

The next course was a lightly fried baby squid which was served similarly to how we eat calamari in America, except without any marinara or cocktail dipping sauces. (below) Luckily, no dipping sauces were necessary for this dish, as it contained a freshness and saltiness of flavor that was plenty satisfying.

In Spain, especially near the sea, they are all about the squid. I found this out the hard way later in the trip when I may have gotten food poisoning from a lightly sauteed octopus that I decided to eat. But my favorite squid-related dish of the whole trip was our next dish at Cal Pep, the grilled calamari, and it really wasn’t even close. This dish was served hot in an impressively simple and delicious tomato and onion broth. The calamari was cooked perfectly and wasn’t the least bit chewy as calamari can often be when grilled instead of fried.

Finally, the monkfish course arrived. Ah, monkfish. Is there a better combination of steakiness and mildness out there in that giant ocean than these specimen? Cal Pep knew how to take advantage of the possibilities, and after deboning a generous portion of monkfish (below), we dug into a perfect example of this fantastic fish. It was steaky without being fishy or overly rich, and was prepared simply with olive oil and garlic, which were perfect complements. Anything more would have been overdoing it. Probably the best piece of monkfish that I’ve ever had.

It really was entertaining to just sit back and watch the action as Pep frantically gave orders to his workers with his strange voice and bright red glasses. We soaked it in and decided that we weren’t ready to leave yet. The courses had been so good that we decided we couldn’t leave without trying a meat dish, so we ordered the “beef”, which turned out to be medium-rare pieces of filet that melted in our mouths with an amazing intensity of flavor. (below) This turned out to be the best course of our night, and pulled the meal together wonderfully by showcasing the wide range of food that this place can absolutely knock out.

I suppose if there were any negatives at Cal Pep, the desserts didn’t seem quite as inspired as the courses. Of course, at that point I was about to order another helping of the beef so I might not have been giving the dessert the full attention that it deserved. I ordered a glass of Noval Tawny port to close the evening as we picked away at a bizarre lemon-flavored whipped cream along with a chocolate napolean which was like a pastry on the outside with intense dark chocolate on the inside. Satisfied, we forced ourselves to give up our seat at the bar to other eager (and hungry) patrons, but not before yelling “Pep!” as the man walked past us, briefly startling him in an attempt to thank him for such a memorable meal. For an exciting night of what seemed like bottomless food and wine, not to mention the quality of all of the above and the rowdy atmosphere, the “Best Value” tag that this restaurant earned is still well-deserved.

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