It has three Michelin stars (since 2009), is the current no. 1 restaurant in the world according to the World’s Fifty Best Restaurants list and has been in the Top 5 of that list since 2009 and either first or second along with noma since 2011. I had been to El Celler de Can Roca once before in 2007 before I started this blog, but not since they had moved into their luxurious new space. It was very good then and with its rise up the WFB list, I expected it to be even better, but I had no idea how much better and how great it would actually prove to be! To say the least, the whole concept behind The World’s Fifty Best list is controversial, but while I may personally agree or disagree with particular rankings up or down, I never fail to find the restaurants on the list worthy of discussion and interest and those that have been perennially around the top of the list, are, in fact, amongst my personal favorite restaurants in the world¹. I can now definitely say the same about El Celler.
The Roca brothers, Joan, Josep or “Pitu” as he is generally called and Jordi grew up in the restaurant business, specifically in the restaurant started by their parents. Joan and Pitu started El Celler de Can Roca in 19The three brothers each assume different important roles within the restaurant and each does his job as well as it can be done. Joan is the head chef and mastermind of the savories, Pitu runs the front of the house and the wine program and youngest brother, Jordi, happens to be one of the most brilliant pastry chefs in the business. Together, they make a “trident” every bit as star-studded and effective as the sporting one of Messi, Neymar and Suarez of FC Barcelona a bit down the road at Camp Nou, all the more impressive in that they were not made into a team by a financially powerful juggernaut, but came together within the family business.
I have had the pleasure of seeing the Roca brothers present at a number of chefs congresses over the years and have enjoyed watching the progression of their ideas. I couldn’t help but think, though, that some of the ideas presented sounded a little gimmicky and a touch hokey. I would soon discover quite the opposite.
The interior space of the restaurant is stunning and worthy of its three star status. There is plenty of light, glass and blond wood giving a light, airy and elegant feel to the restaurant. The view from the glass looking out is not as stellar as at some restaurants, but it is not particularly distracting either. The overall sense is one of sophistication and luxury, vastly different from the old school, old time feel of the original restaurant.
Our first set of bites, accompanied by some lovely cava (Albet i Noya “Classic” El Celler Brut Reserva D.O. Penedés), was one of the conceits that had struck me as perhaps a touch gimmicky during one of the Roca’s presentations, but up close, it presented a very different sense. It was a folding gray orb that looked like a Japanese lantern.
The lantern opened up to reveal a set of five different bites under the lofty title “Comerse el Mundo.” In lesser hands, this might have come across as extremely pretentious, or as I had feared, gimmicky, but under the Roca kitchen, it proved to be rather delightful and delicious! Covering four Asian countries and Peru, each snack was made with a deft and elegant touch that truly elicited a wonderful sense of each country. From Thailand, they offered a chicken with red curry, coconut, cilantro and lime. Japan was represented by a cream of miso in “nyinyonyaki” done as a tempura. China showed with pickled vegetables with a plum cream. Korea was celebrated with fried bread with panko, and panceta with soy sauce, kim chee and sesame oil. Last, but not least, was an excellent Peruvian causa limeña. Each bite was packed with great, complex flavors and a wonderful array of textures and each bite successfully represented the culture that it sought to. The snacks set a wonderful tone for the rest of the meal, which is, indeed, one of the purposes of these little bites.
The next set of snacks was the other bit of artifice that I had harbored doubts for, however, this proved to be even more impressive than the first set of snacks. Presented in a highly personal way, the brothers shared some of their earliest culinary memories in the form of five snacks set on a bar to reflect their parents’ restaurant with photos of each of the brothers from their childhood. Neither photos nor a look from afar do this any justice, but the original and wonderful ways the flavors and textures of such diverse, but traditional elements as fried calamari, kidneys with sherry vinegar, tortilla of potato and onion, salt cod with spinach and pine nuts and a glass of Campari were captured were outstanding. Even the pop-up book worked surprisingly and magnificently well to convey the spirit intended. Much effort went into each tiny bite and I could have happily eaten multiple courses of this had they been set in front of me. They weren’t, but no matter, as plenty of other wonderful dishes were.
Additional snacks followed without a specific theme to tie them together. The elBulli olives and their kin are justifiably famous, but then so are these encapsulated bites of savory olive oil ice cream that get plucked from the branches of a bansai olive tree. The actual eating of the olives reminded me of eating a shell-coated ice cream bar, but with great purity of flavor and elegance.
Calçots, the classic Catalan dish of grilled wild leeks with romesco sauce were just coming into season and El Celler had their version. The classic dish is a get down and dirty one, full of great flavor and texture. This one shared the flavor component and supplied beautiful textures, but held back in its messiness.
More snacks were served, this time from spoons set to rest on a silver, coral shaped stand. It was a colorful display of two different snacks. With pink and red hues, a spoon of ceviche of dorada was surprisingly somewhat bland and though it looked pretty, was ultimately disappointing, the only dish of the meal that was.
Some of the most famous dishes of El Celler have been based on oysters, including the legendary oyster with distilled earth, in which earth taken from a nearby forest floor was distilled down to its mineral essence, and served atop the oyster to provide the mineral tones of a great wine pairing such as the classic earthy minerality of great Chablis. While quite provocative and controversial, I had it back in 2007 and found it to work very well.
The yin-yang oyster was a distillate as well, but in a different way than its predecessor. Here, the presentation distilled an earlier version of the dish that served two oysters with a black garlic based sauce on one and the other with an off-white oyster sauce. This one was served as a single oyster on a spoon with both sauces applied so that they contrasted visually with each other. While perhaps not as visually arresting as its earlier sibling, within the context of this large multi-course tasting menu, it worked just fine with the black garlic sauce stepping up in a starring role.
The final snacks were explorations of the flavor of truffles. Truffle bonbons were served in a hollowed stone bowl reminiscent of a mortar. These packed a punch of luxurious, pure truffle flavor with a liquid interior consistency similar to the Campari bonbon served earlier.
The next iteration of truffles came in the form of a brioche with finely sliced black truffles resting atop each one filled with a truffle mayonnaise. Outstanding!
With the aperitivos or snacks portion of the meal now completed, we were offered a tempting array of breads. In the past I would have tried one of each, but trying to limit my carb intake, I settled on one beautiful, flaky, croissant-like olive brioche, that was absolutely worth its carb load and the insulin needed to process it. I expect that the other breads would have been as well, but there was still plenty to come and I needed to pace myself accordingly.
Rieslings are amongst the very best food wines in the world. I was not disappointed by the next pour, a 2010 VDP Emrich-Schönleber Frühlingsplätzchen from the Nahe region of Germany. As with all great Rieslings, it relied on a superb acid backbone to buttress great fruit and body.
The first of the larger plates was served. Elegant with a refined sensibility, the pumpkin consommé with green tea served as the reservoir for a number of other complementary flavors and textures including a hazelnut tofu, spinach liquid, a lovely, sweet and tart passion fruit juice, pumpkin seeds, parsnip, turnip and roasted chestnut. True vegan dishes are scarce in Spain, this was one done with verve and zest, the passion fruit serving to tie everything together.
Red mullet is a favorite fish within the world of Spanish fine dining and for good reason. It is delicate, pretty and flavorful. This beautifully presented, colorful dish, took advantage of the fish’s inherent visual appeal by augmenting it with a a kaleidoscope of colors, but managed to do so without drowning out the fish’s subtle flavor qualities. Somehow a foam of prickly pear along with seaweeds, lime and a katsuoboshi vinager, enhanced and supported the flavor of the fish without subduing it. This was a marvelous dish of real finesse.
My dining partners were a Mexican chef and his wife. That may have altered what they served us at the beginning of the meal as a frequent item on the Comerse el Mundo snack list is a sphere of guacamole, but it didn’t keep them from sending us a dish that incorporated a mole negro and I (and they) was glad that it didn’t. The serving piece was shaped as a cacao pod.
The pod was opened to reveal a langoustine with wisps of chocolate, coconut and porcinis. A cream of galera was poured atop the langoustine at the table.
The flavor combination was sublime and full of deep shellfish lusciousness. The langoustine was of excellent texture. The element that really put this dish over the top was the finding of a lychee-like fruit element that surprised with an unexpected jolt of acidic sweetness.
The next few courses took a landward tilt beginning with the partridge “salad.”
The salad involved fermented cabbage along with a tarragon foam and a broth of smoked pancetta. The partridge was cooked to a rare center. Everything possessed a harmony. It was delicious.
I don’t believe that I had ever previously eaten persimmon in Spain, but here it was paired with grilled pigeon breast. Each piece of persimmon was accompanied by a particular herb – oregano, cilantro and mint with one piece of persimmon to be eaten with a corresponding slice of pigeon. Each bite was therefore different, yet still superb.
Many places in the world enjoy great wild shrimp, but I have yet to find another place that exceeds the quality and variety of shrimp that Spain has to offer. One of the premier varieties of shrimp are the deepwater gambas rojas off the Spanish Mediterranean coast. The major fishing boats tend to sail out of either Palamos in Catalunya or Denia in Alicante. The quality of both is magnificent and begs for a relatively simple treatment to showcase the amazing flavors and textures of these fine specimens. The Roca’s kitchen did just that, adding just enough embellishment to help the native elements of the gambas stand out. The legs had been fried to a perfect level of crispness without burning. The juices from the head were used elegantly to inform the best part of this outstanding preparation, while an algae velouté and phytoplankton bread shored up the dish with sea-born elements. I have had many great shrimp dishes in Spain, but I’m not sure that I have had any better than this one in terms of its combination of presentation, texture, and shear deliciousness.
Ray, or skate, is a fish that when handled well is amongst my favorites. It has great texture and a lovely, subtle, relatively neutral flavor that can stand up on its own or be a canvas for other ingredients. In this dish the skate had been confited sous vide² in mustard oil and embellished with brown butter, chardonnay vinegar, a touch of honey, smoked hazelnuts, bergamot, each joined with a particular mustard including a wild mustard from Bages in Catalunya. Each bite had a thematic consistency, but also a significant difference. It was a masterful dish, in which all of the ingredients contributed to a delicious whole, while maintaining their individual integrity.
It is not easy to decorate fish skin when cooking and it is even more difficult to do so and have it be delicious. While the butchery of the sea bream wasn’t totally precise, the ratatouille laid out on top was brilliant, representing whimsically colorful scales. The fish itself was wonderfully cooked – firm, but moist. The flavors melded together in a cohesive whole.
Cochinillo is another favorite of mine in Spain. It is one of the country’s most gloriously delicious dishes. At Can Roca, the ante was upped a bit by the fact that the piglet did not come from just any old breed. This was Ibérico, the breed used for the greatest pork products in the world, whether fresh or cured such as the otherworldly jamón Ibérico de bellota. Of course, unlike the bellota (acorn) fed pigs that make the best embutidos, these piglets, obviously did not feed on the dehesa. Nevertheless, the flavor and textures were outstanding with enough of a contribution from the madroño, a South American fruit and pomegranate, to add a bit of definition and balance.
Spain is as close to a carnivore’s paradise as any country that I’ve been to. The country raises a variety of animals for consumption and the quality, especially at the upper echelons, is simply superb. Pork, beef and lamb (cordero) are the main triumvirate of the Spanish carnivore’s palette with a variety of smaller mammals and birds adding additional color. This dish, which included pureed eggplant and garbanzos was a true testament to the Spanish meat kitchen and the skill with which Joan Roca utilizes sous vide, a technique that he was instrumental in making a mainstay of the restaurant repertoire, but is so easy to ruin. His lamb achieved excellent textures without the mealiness sometimes found when less skill is employed. The flavors popped with a result that was both elegant and delicious, while being respectful of Spanish tradition.
We had already had the first two pillars of Spanish carnivorism, which left the next plate to beef, but unlike the recognizable traditions found on the cochinillo and cordero plates, the ternera involved a less obviously traditional manifestation having included tendons and marrow with the veal meat. Even though it was cooked sous vide for 72 hours, the texture of the beef avoided the mealiness that can sometimes be found with extended cooking times and that technique. Assisted by the presence of a generous shaving of truffles, this was another marvelously delicious dish, bringing the savory portion of the meal to a triumphant close.
Jordi Roca has become one of the world’s great pastry chefs. His adaptation of the Peruvian classic, Suspiro Limeño was outstanding, featuring a sweet Pisco crisp on top with milk, dulce de leche, lime and cilantro underneath.
Jordi Roca gained fame initially with his desserts based on the flavor notes of various perfumes. He remains a master of turning scent into deliciousness, this time with a nod to Turkey and a dessert based on Turkish perfume with elements of rose, peach, saffron, cumin, cinnamon and pistachio. Each part blended into a cohesive whole, that was exotic yet still familiar.
At Madrid Fusión, Jordi presented a project that he is working on along with the human cyborg, the Catalan born American, Neil Harbisson on fusing sound and color with flavor. This fascinating study is not quite ready for restaurant production, but heading in that direction was our final plated dessert, an exploration of the color orange along with the flavors of the fruits bearing that color. It was sophisticated, elegant, subtle, harmonious and delicious as well as beautiful.
The meal finished with a fine cup of coffee…
…and a mignardises cart that would make Willy Wonka blush with envy.
Though I generally do a good job of limiting carbohydrates and sweets for personal health reasons, these were simply too enticing to pass up without experiencing a variety of tastes. I limited myself, but still managed to enjoy this guilty bounty.
El Celler de Can Roca is the current No. 1 ranked restaurant in the world according to The World’s Fifty Best Restaurant List and has been at or very near the top of that list for quite some time. The last time I had been to El Celler, it was in its old location and while still considered a superb restaurant, it lacked the lofty level of acclaim of its current iteration. The restaurant has clearly stepped up its overall game evolving from a great Catalan Vanguardist restaurant to a magnificent one that is now amongst the absolute finest of any stripe, in the world. Yet, is it the world’s best? For me, that is too subjective a question to which a definitive answer can be given. Based upon this experience, El Celler de Can Roca certainly belongs in the conversation when considering the possibilities. This meal exceeded my already high expectations and with its combination of refined, yet relaxed, luxury and warmth, delicious and beautiful creative cooking, stellar service and a truly welcoming environment, it is clearly a restaurant for the ages.
¹elBulli in its day, noma, Osteria Francescana, Mugaritz and now, Can Roca, restaurants that have dominated the top of the list over the past ten years, are amongst my personal favorites, but I have many other favorites that either fall lower on the list or aren’t on it at all.
²Joan Roca is a major figure in the rise of sous vide cooking in restaurant kitchens, having pioneered some of the equipment and techniques in the 1990’s. His book from the early 2000’s remains a classic of the genre.