After The Astronomer and I left the sunny shores of Valencia, we hopped a train to Girona, where our only order of business was to dine at El Celler De Can Roca. Even though this was our third three-star Michelin meal in the span of two weeks, I eagerly anticipated it as if it were the first.
Founded in 1986, El Celler de Can Roca gives new meaning to the term “family restaurant.” The place is run by three brothers [Joan Roca heads up the kitchen, Josep Roca is the maitre d’ and head sommelier, and Jordi Roca is the pastry chef], but the food is far from homey, and the space is decidedly modern.
In 2007, the restaurant relocated a hundred meters from the original grounds. Here, the chefs work in a state-of-the-art kitchen cum lab, while the sommelier manages a wine cellar that offers customers an audio-visual journey through five key wine regions.
In the custom-built space, diners are treated to a gorgeous dining room with an abundance of natural light pouring in. The miniature arboretum in the center offers a tranquil and understated view. As The Astronomer and I settled into our table and perused the menu, we were served complimentary glasses of Cava (Finca Viladellops 08 D.O. Penedes).
Although we didn’t partake in any additional libations, it must be noted that the wine program is a large part of the El Celler De Can Roca experience. The collection of available vintages is so vast that it is cataloged across two volumes. These massive “wine lists” are delivered to diners on a cart! Amazing.
Our Menu Festival (130€) began with a thump. Seemingly out of nowhere, a little tree was set upon the table. I thought it was rather strange that the table decor arrived after the guests, but upon further inspection, I realized that things weren’t as they seemed.
Hooked onto the low hanging branches were anchovy-wrapped olives. Plucked from the tree and popped into our mouths, the salty bites were candied and crunchy. Olives are a quintessentially Spanish way to start a meal, and this clever twist made me smile with delight.
The amusing olives were followed by a steady stream of one bite wonders. The Campari bonbons, which resembled miniature water balloons, unleashed a flood of zesty orange liquid.
Black Sesame Cracker
Served nestled in a carved rock were black seasame crackers with cacao. The crackers shattered in our mouths with a complex sweetness.
Next, a plank of wood arrived with anchovy bones embedded into rice tempura. The presentation evoked thoughts of oceanic fossils from long ago. The texture was airy, while the flavor was distinct. It was incredible how the pungent and salty taste of anchovies was conveyed so strongly from the bones alone.
Truffled Brioche with Pot Au Feu Broth
The penultimate amuse bouche was a round of truffle brioche served with a delicate Pot au Feu Broth. Topped with white truffle shavings and filled with a similarly earthy liquid, the brioche paired like a charm with the simple soup.
St. George’s Mushroom Omelette
Lastly, a deconstructed take on a traditional British dish: St. George’s Mushroom Omelette. It was comprised of a thick eggy sphere filled with liquid caviar paired with a sweet and fruity St. George’s mushroom sphere.
Oyster with Fino Sherry Escabeche, Seaweed, and Oyster Sauce
I probably should have divided this pristine oyster into two or three bites, but it looked so damn enticing that I killed it in one fell swoop. The texture was awesomely firm and the flavor was pure and grit-less.
Pumpkin, Rock Mussels, and Mandarin Orange
The magic lasted a little longer with the mussels, which were bathed in a broth of Mandarin orange juice. The artfully shaped plate proved helpful in spooning up every last bit of the terrific sauce.
After a slew of innovative dishes, I must admit that the bread selection was a let down. White, wheat, and multi-grain are fine options, but definitely a yawn in comparison to the earlier courses. Alinea will always hold a special place in my heart because their “bread pairings” were as interesting and thoughtful as the rest of their offerings. Score one for American molecular gastronomy!
Charcoal Grilled Prawns
The grilled prawns was one of my favorite courses because I have a weakness for barely cooked flesh, savory powders, and slurp-able shrimp heads. The best element of the shrimp-laced powder was the crunchy shards of antennae. I loved how the powder melted on my tongue, leaving behind only the essence of shrimp.
Onion Soup, Crespia Walnuts, and Comte Cheese
I assure you that this dish was quite the beauty, but I didn’t manage to snap a pre-dousing shot. Before our waiter poured the cheese and walnut soup table-side, we were presented with bowls accented with caramelized onions, walnut bread, and fennel leaves. The soup was intensely rich, creamy, and brimming with bright notes of cheese and onions. It was the perfect French onion soup as rethought by a Spanish man.
Sole, Olive Oil, and Mediterranean Flavors
I am rarely thrilled by cooked fishes these days, but this sole was seriously awesome. In fact, I scribbled in my notebook that it was the “best fish dish ever!” The flaky fillet was paired with five olive oil emulsions including (starting from the top) green olive, pinenuts, orange, bergamont, and fennel. It was like having five different dishes in one, which was kind of perfect for an easily bored palate like mine. My two favorites were the green olive sauce that was accented with an olive oil-filled candy and the citrusy bergamont.
Red Mullet with Susquet (Catalan Seafood Stew) and Lard
Just when I thought that things couldn’t possibly get any tastier, we were served Red Mullet with strikingly supple and translucent flesh. The fish was served in a sauce similar to bouillabaisse along with weighty potatoes that reminded me of gnocchi.
Veal Tendons with Sea Anemone
Moving from fishes to meats, we were presented with a plate that encompassed both the land and sea. From the ocean were lightly battered and fried anemones that tasted like a salt-less sea with a texture similar to oysters. From the land were hunks of jellified veal tendons that coated my throat stickily. The anise-laced sauce tied both elements together.
Steak Tartare with Mustard Ice Cream (2009 Adaptation)
Another dish that I thoroughly adored was the steak tartare. Dotted with capers and mustard ice cream, the steak was topped with a plethora of flavors including a Bearnaise sauce and airy chips dusted with chives, lemon curry, paprika, and Szechuan peppercorn. Just like the sole that preceded it, this course tasted like five different dishes in one.
Lamb, Peas, and Mint
The final savory course was a hunk of perfectly cooked lamb served with goat cheese and pea purees, minty accents, and topped with jerky crisps. This dish didn’t have as many wow-inducing elements as some of the others, but it was solidly executed and tasty as heck.
To transition from savories to sweets was a lemon distillate sorbet with lemon cream, lemon gel, tiny verbena cakes, mint flowers, and a honey crisp. It was floral, fragrant, and fresh.
Continuing with the theme of floral, fragrant, and fresh was a rose souffle with litchi sorbet foam. The souffle had the lightest texture and an ideal hint of rose.
And finally, a dessert that was inspired by the color orange. The centerpiece was a carrot compote filled with egg yolk ice cream and apricot eau-de-vie. The flavors reminded me of caramelized flan. Orange sugar, lemon drops, and pieces of blood orange rounded out the plate. It was literally and figuratively refreshing to finish with a vegetable-based dessert rather than a predictable chocolate one.
Our meal ended with warm tea and little chocolates. The hazelnut praline with poprocks was The Astronomer’s favorite, while I fancied the vanilla taronja (orange) with almond paste.
From beginning to end, El Celler De Can Roca delivered a thoughtful and delicious meal with just enough punches to keep me excited. It provided the perfect ending for my tour of Spanish molecular gastronomy temples [See also: Akelarre and Arzak]. It will be exciting to see in the future which of Spain’s cutting-edge techniques and philosophies will make its way across the Atlantic and into America’s dining rooms.
El Celler De Can Roca
Can Sunyer, 48
17007 Girona, España
Phone: 972 222 157