You know you’ve had an intense eating experience when mid-way through a meal you wonder if you can actually go on; when your friend decides he can’t and has to leave the table 3 times to be physically sick and then, when it’s over and you’ve made it through, you’ve eaten so much that a button pops off your dress. This is what happened during the 12 course ‘Feast Menu’ at 3 Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Gerona. The restaurant is run by 3 brothers – Joan (Roca) the savoury chef, Jordi the pastry chef and Josep the somellier. We were booked in for dinner on the last night of our holiday, to make sure we went out with a bang. It was one of the most intense meals of my life.
The earliest dinner sitting is 9pm, very late by British standards but perfectly normal to the Spaniards (we saw a couple sit down to dinner at midnight) and when we arrived the place was dead. The first thing that struck me was the silence. We shifted about nervously, talking in hushed voices. As the place started to fill up though the air came alive with background chatter and the tinkle of glass and cutlery. The recently built space is modern – clean lines, starched white, lots of mirrors but the restaurant’s ethos of being in tune with the surrounding landscape is apparent: a sky-exposed central area is planted with trees and tables dotted with pebbles.
The €115 tasting menu was quickly ditched for the more expensive €145 ‘Feast Menu’, as dishes like ‘baby squids with onion rocks’ and ‘steak tartare with mustard ice cream’ jumped off the page. It was just about do-able, as long as we didn’t drink. One of our party was driving anyway and a fizzy aperitif included in the price kept us happy.
The accompanying ‘snacks’ added up to a course in themselves; ‘caramelised olives’ hung from a bonsai olive tree and kicked off a sweet and salty theme which continued throughout the meal. There were 7 in total but my favourite was a ‘bellini bonbon’ – an ice cold pink sugar sphere which burst instantly in the mouth to release the cocktail or, if you are my friend, burst between your fingers when you tried to pick it up, sending an unflappable waiter back to the kitchen to fetch another.
And so it began. A culinary marathon which was exquisite in places and downright challenging in others. Here are my peaks and troughs:
The bread: the best of it on the sweet and salty theme like my black olive brioche. Not as good as The Ledbury‘s bacon and onion version but I have that on a pedestal. Our first proper course arrived in a clear glass orb; a light smoke enveloped little vegetable cushions concealing pieces of the famous Catalan anchovies beneath. I’ve a lot to say about those anchovies: another post. The dish was light and interesting (although the broth practically flavourless) but things were about to get a lot more intense.
The prawn was the first real challenge. The barely cooked body lay naked, head intact next to a beach of prawn dust, its legs removed and standing to attention. “When you’ve finished the meat, suck the head to extract the flavour” recommended the waiter. We nodded excitedly, having done exactly that at our BBQ two nights previous. This head however, was different – filled with scary bright red and brown gunk, the likes of which I’ve never encountered. We concluded it must have been injected by the chef. Not wanting to wimp out, I picked it up and sucked. Intense shellfish flavour. The most intensely prawny prawn I’ve ever eaten but a dish which would might better served with a blindfold.
Feeling slightly queasy, the Comte, walnut and onion soup came as a relief. The flavours were familiar, but powerfully reduced. Fillet of sole with olive oil emulsions was just great fun. We worked our way from bottom to top as instructed, through each ‘Mediterranean flavour’; camomile was downright weird, pine nut creamy and olive oil topped with a crunchy, miniature caramel-olive-oil bubble.
Baby squids with onion rocks was my favourite savoury course – it’s fair to say I inhaled it. The ‘rock’ was an onion-y seaweed-coloured sponge. With each spoonful the foam swished back and forth in the bowl, picking up pieces of rock and squid like lapping waves. The menu aims to celebrate the local harvest, re-creating features of the surrounding landscape in the presentation – this dish achieved that perfectly.
After this things started to get hairy. I loved the silky, barely-cooked red mullet fillets with lard – they flaked like cooked fish but remained as translucent as if plucked straight from the sea. The surrounding suquet however (Catalan seafood stew) was starting to push me beyond my richness threshold.
Steak tartare, one of my all-time favourite dishes, was more difficult to eat than it should have been, even though the pearls of mustard ice cream were refreshing in their own way. The spiced puffs on top were superfluous though, and tasted like a Wotsit in development phase. By the time it was finished I felt nauseous but didn’t know why. I looked up to find my companion as white as a sheet. Flagging the waiter down he pleaded, ‘”no more food”, criss-crossing his arms for emphasis. I felt tearful about struggling with the next dish, a lamb and apricot combination, but pulled through, forcing down all but a few scraps and the frankly rather minging milky blob at the side.
As our friend got a little closer than he’d like to the porcelain throne, we gobbled up a reviving lemon dessert. “It’s the evolution of lemon sorbet” said the waiter but it was more than that, bringing me back as it did from the brink of defeat. A whipped icy puff soothed my tired, overstimulated palate and increasingly lemony components refreshed with life-saving waves of citrus flavour.
The desserts proved to be the best courses of the evening, and that’s coming from someone with a firm savoury preference (ice cream excepted). A rose soufflé was a sugar-cased tower topped with violet dust that was old-school sweet shop with none of the old-lady-soapy. Perfectly sweet wild strawberries lay beneath.
Our final dessert was a black Tahitian vanilla ice cream with a mixture of vanilla, caramel, liquorice and black olives; an odd combination of miniature pieces of various textures, which together were supposed to taste like the flavour of the ice cream. They didn’t, but were fun nonetheless. The ice cream was perfect with such a complex vanilla flavour. Some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Petit fours were great too, the marshmallows almost fizzing on the tongue.
Tasting menus can be really hard work. Eating 12 courses of very intense, rich food late at night is taxing for the digestive system. We sat down at 9 and left gone midnight. Our only other main complaint was the chairs. How a restaurant offering a menu that takes over 3 hours to consume can make chairs so fiercely uncomfortable baffles me. The back was the wrong height, the seat the wrong length, the whole thing under-cushioned. We shifted from bum cheek to bum cheek to get some relief. Speaking of bum cheeks, our charming and efficient waiter (who spoke excellent English) managed to cushion his up against me no less than three times as he moved around the tables. This was simply hilarious rather than annoying.
As I let out a huge sigh of relief mixed with satisfaction once the meal was over there was an audible ‘pop!’ – I had burst out of my dress through sheer over-consumption. I’d like to say I was embarrassed but I just felt pride at my own stamina.
There were moments of true brilliance at El Celler de Can Roca; it was a rollercoaster of excitement, confusion, fun, relief and truly amazing cooking. I had a blast, I’d do it again and it’s definitely worth the money. It’s also a hell of a lot easier to get a table here than at El Bulli and according to my friend, there are many similarities. I just wish the whole thing had been a bit more comfortable.
El Celler de Can Roca
Carrer Can Sunyer, 46