Does “the world’s best restaurant” live up to the hype? Yes. Oh, yes. El Celler de Can Roca is a spacewalk so high in orbit above the level of ordinary that diners almost need airtanks at tableside.
Review: El Celler de Can Roca restaurant, Girona, Catalonia
It was around the third main course of the meal when I started losing my mind. The toes of my foot curled up in my shoe, which I was involuntarily stamping quietly on the floor. The conversation had all but stopped; words were unwelcome interlopers at the table, ephemeral and inadequate distractions from the fireworks display that was going on inside my head. Communication with my wife was reduced to Roger Moore-style eyebrow waving and the occasional four-lettered whisper of wonderment. The few brazen sentences that did burst forth all stumbled and died, far from sight of a full stop.
“Oohh, that’s…. it’s just….” I may have managed to say. “Oohhh.”
The evening didn’t start like that of course. While I had certainly been looking forward to my visit to El Celler de Can Roca, I didn’t approach it with any sense of awe. I am lucky enough to eat in a lot of very good restaurants. This would just be another. And yet, I must admit, the months of waiting for a table created a heightened sense of anticipation, as did the endless plaudits. El Celler has three Michelin stars. It has twice been ranked as the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine. Jordi, the youngest of the three Roca brothers who run El Celler, was voted the best pastry chef in the world in 2014. A legion of cynical and hard-bitten food writers have come here and left humbled, penning reams of praise.
There’s nothing about the restaurant’s location to set the pulse racing. Girona is a stunning city, all medieval stone passageways and brightly painted riverside houses, but El Celler de Can Roca is a couple of kilometers out of the centre in a humdrum suburb. The converted mansion in which it’s located seems out of kilter with its surroundings. Its glass-walled dining room extension is modern and stylish but its best features – views, abundant natural light and the courtyard – only reveal themselves during the day.
Before guests get to the table, they’re shown the kitchen. Or rather, kitchens. This is where the penny starts to drop that this is no ordinary upmarket restaurant. A warren of rooms is packed with state-of-the-art equipment and a busy brigade of about 40 cooks (for around 45 diners), whose young faces are set in stony expressions of intense concentration. During our tour, executive chef and elder brother Joan was still outside, leading the chefs de cuisine through a thorough pre-service briefing.
The amount of precise, careful work going on was staggering; a complex ballet of organization. I could have watched it for hours but I’d come to eat, not observe. Once seated we chose the Festival menu (€195) over the less elaborate Classics (€180). The wine pairing for the Festival is €90 (€55 for the Classics) and is selected by the third Roca brother, sommelier Josep. If you want to navigate the restaurant’s mindboggling list of 60,000 wines yourself, be prepared for some exercise: it comes on a trolley in three hefty tomes.
Glasses of El Celler’s own-brand Albet i Noya cava kicked things off and the first amuse bouches arrived. El Celler de Can Roca is a proudly Catalan restaurant, with creative plays on regional themes, but there are also plenty of well-integrated outside influences from the brothers’ recent international trips. The paper globe of “The World” opens to reveal nibbles representing Thailand, Turkey, China, Peru and Korea. They’re all delicious (with China and Turkey tied for first place) but probably more novel to natives of Catalonia and Spain, where the borders of food culture can be difficult for other cuisines to cross, than to people from polygastronomical countries like the UK or Australia.
Then a second selection of snacks, this time dubbed “Memories of a bar in the suburbs of Girona” in honour of the original Can Roca located not far from here, which is still owned and run by the brothers’ parents. This is where the brothers started; this is where they learned; and this plate of miniature versions of classic tapas is their homage to their roots. I first saw it at the Forum Gastronomic a couple of years ago, and it’s as fun as it looked there: a fold-out cardboard mini-bar of tiny treasures including a Campari bubble and a liquid potato omelette. Each component has a fractal-like quality, revealing details within details as you pay closer attention. There are similar dishes in the Joan Roca tasting menu of the brothers’ Michelin-starred Barcelona restaurant, Roca Moo and the concept has been honed to near-perfection.
Perfection is a word that would come to mind a lot over the evening. A meal like this does prompt you to think: how could it possibly be any better? How much higher could the levels of skill, attention to detail, organization and developed taste on display be? At this point, however, I was being impressed by the cleverness and technique, not moved by them.
The latest variation of another El Celler de Can Roca classic came next: a real tree hung with green olives made from ice cream. Instead of being gimmicky, it’s laugh-out-loud good and shows why the brothers Rocambulesc ice-cream brand is becoming their next big success, expanding from a shop in Girona to the bright lights of Barcelona some 60 miles away.
In the dappled shadows beneath the boughs was a seasonal speciality: calçots (green onions that locals go crazy for in winter), freeze-dried to crunchiness and dotted with a trio of Catalan sauces.
Then a voyage through the sea, in the words of our waiter: Coral comprises a smooth (perhaps too smooth) sea-bream ceviche and a “yin-yang” oyster (served in a black garlic sauce to create the distinctive two-tone contrast), which leaves careless eaters with goth-like black lips.
More amuse-bouches: a double-bill of truffles. Black truffle, in a bonbon, delivered a big hit but it was the pillowy brioche, filled with white truffle cream and topped with a slice of black truffle, that first made hairs stand up on my neck.
Bread was served at the same time. And here was the first and only real flaw of the evening. El Celler’s breads are renowned, and the olive brioche that my wife selected confirmed their quality, but my white bread had been cut some time previously and had dried out, hardening on the surface near the crusts. Edible but not up to scratch in a three star restaurant. Perhaps it was a stray slice left over from the lunch service or perhaps they make one deliberate mistake each meal, like weavers of Persian rugs…
It was now time for the first course. Pumpkin consommé with green tea revealed hints of spice and a range of textures. The long list of components (hazelnut tofu, parsnip, turnip, liquefied pumpkin and spinach, passion-fruit juice, pumpkin seeds, and charcoal-grilled chestnuts) somehow all harmonized. Served with a 2013 Naranjuez Baco Pérez Antonio Vilchez Vino de Mesa.
A nicely balanced cream of pine nuts with fennel emulsion, studded with pickled and charcoal-grilled red pine mushrooms, pine nut sprouts and “tears” of Thai grapefruit for acidity saw cava brought back to the table, this time a 2004 Loxarel 109 Gran Reserva.
The crema was a suave set-up for a flavoursome sock in the chops: a langoustine with cocoa bean sauce, Mexican mole with chocolate and mantis-shrimp cream and truffle, served in a cocoa-bean-shaped dish. As the richness, slight spiciness and incredible balance of acidity registered, the stage-two rockets fired in my head. I blasted free of the gravitational field of my been-there-seen-that-spilt-wine-on-the-tshirt composure and started grinning. Ladies and gentlemen, we were floating in space. And drinking a 2013 Baillot Millot (A.O.C. Meursault).
A partridge and choucroute salad, with smoked partridge consomeé and tarragon foam, served with 2012 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Calcaire Pinot Gris (A.O.C. Alsace). Cabbagey majesty.
Persimmon with pink pigeon, charcoal-grilled and served with yusu, coriander leaf and toasted oregano. Served with 2010 Ageno (I.G.T. Emilia).
Soft prawn flesh marinated with rice vinegar; a sauce of the prawn’s head juices; completely edible, crispy prawn legs; seaweed veloute and phytoplankton bread is up there with the best prawn dishes I’ve ever eaten. It was prawns as played through Motorhead’s sound system, the taste turned up to 11. Wine was a Riesling, 2012 Heymann-Lowenstein Uhlen (VDP Mosel).
A fleshy hunk of confit skate with beurre noisette and several mustards: honey, chardonnay vinegar, bergamot and smoked hazelnut. Wine was a 2008 Nelin (D.O. Qa Priorat).
Then this beauty: a Mediterranean blackspot seabream with samfaina. Samfaina is a Catalan vegetable dish similar to the Provençal ratatoille. Here, the individual components formed a mosaic, rather like some of those found on Antoni Gaudí’s modernista buildings in Barcelona. Around it was a lake of sauce made of the bream’s roasted bones. It tasted as good as it looked. Served with a 2013 Carles Andreu Trepat (D.O. Conca de Barberà).
Iberian suckling pig with strawberry-tree fruit and pomegranate. I’m not sure what to write about this; I was wholly speechless by this point and my eyes were beginning to get watery. There was sweetness, richness, a hint of heat from hidden mole (praise be to whomever convinced the brothers to go to Mexico) and the peerless Iberian pork, topped with impeccable crackling. To match this deep-Spain dish we got a deep-Spain wine, a 2013 Las Umbrias Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León.
Then lamb. Oh, what lamb. Here lay levels upon levels, depths below depths of flavour. The meat in its many guises – sat atop aubergine and chickpea purees, lamb’s trotters and spiced tomato – was forked into my mouth and started lobbing hand grenades of sensation into the pleasure centres of my brain. When my time comes to depart this world, if I feel like I did at this moment then I’ll leave as a happy man. Wine was 2013 Ciruelo Suertes del Marqués (D.O. Valle de la Orotava).
Just in case there was any chance whatsoever of recovering before dessert, the next (and final) savoury course came to deliver a finishing boot to the face. Young beef, cooked for 72 hours, with bone marrow, wild mushrooms, black truffle and avocado. Choose your own swearword; I’d run out. Wine was a noteworthy 2001 Negre dels Aspres Criança (D.O. Emporda).
Joan Roca’s turn at the controls of this conveyor belt of culinary bliss came to an end and younger brother Jordi stepped up in his stead. Suspiro Limeño, a Peruvian dessert, was more evidence of the Roca’s Latin American adventures. Here a disc of milk, a light granita, pisco (a Peruvian brandy), hints of lime and coriander leaf and a glossy caramel combined to oustanding effect. I’ve never tried the original version of this, so I can’t compare, but here it’s magnificent. Wine was another Riesling: 2012 Maximin Grunhauser Abstberg (VDP Mosel).
“Turkish Perfume” was brought to the table alongside a paper cone, to be sniffed upon finishing the dish. This rose, peach, saffron, cumin, cinnamon and pistachio potpourri could easily be overwhelming but in Roca’s hands it is completely harmonious. There are delights in its floral depths to be uncovered and inhaled with every spoonful of different textures and temperatures. Wine was 2007 Okonomierat Rebholz Albersweiler Latt (Auslese VDP).
Then “Orange Colourology”. A chromed, iridescent globe sat on a carrot cushion breaks open at the gentlest of touches to reveal its treasures: flower petals and frozen ice-cream pearls of orange, mango and egg-yolk. Wine was a 2012 Matias i Torres Malvasía (D.O. La Palma).
And then, at last, the end was near. The Rocambulesc trolley was wheeled over and petits fours presented. I finished with a glass of Octavis Catalan brandy, which I’d never tried before.
The final bill for two people, one of whom (not me, obviously) drank only water and tea, was €512.
My experience at El Celler de Can Roca lasted over four hours. During that time I hit heights of gastronomic happiness matched in Catalonia only by Restaurant Sant Pau. Picking my favourite between the two is impossible and pointless. The fact that one is rated as the world’s best restaurant and the other doesn’t even enter the top-50 list (although both have three Michelin stars) shows the silliness of rankings. So forget about the hype, what’s the reality? Well, the reality is that you should ‘phone El Celler de Can Roca, beg for a table and book your tickets to Girona. You’ll have to wait – current list is around 11 months – but it’ll give you time to save up. It’s worth it. Not for the bragging rights, but for the food. It’s intricate, it’s technical, it’s innovative but most of all it’s absolutely bloody delicious. The Catalan roots of the restaurant are deep, giving it the strength and character to support international influences without being bent out of shape by them. The result is stratospheric cooking, a spacewalk high above the level of ordinary that you see food from a completely different perspective. Away from the plate, there is nothing to criticize. The service is prompt and professional, the restaurant attractive and comfortable. Behind the scenes, the three brothers are generals in charge of a small army of staff who are drilled with precision to deliver a world-class experience on every front. Mama Roca must be the proudest woman in the country.
El Celler de Can Roca, Carrer de Can Sunyer 46, 17007, Girona, Spain; Tel. (+34) 972 222 157; Reservations essential; Closed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday lunchtime, also Easter and August.
Getting there: we took the AVE high-speed train to Girona from Sants Estació in Barcelona. The journey time is less than 40 minutes. Normal trains take around 1hr 20 minutes. Check RENFE for details. Taxis to El Celler de Can Roca cost between €5 and €10 from Girona centre, depending on the time.
Where to stay: the Hotel Historic in Girona isn’t 4-star standard as claimed but it is a pleasant boutique hotel with stone walls, wood beams and friendly owners. It’s located right next to Girona cathedral in the old town – and next to the cathedral’s bells, so light sleepers beware. For everyone else it’s a good option. Double room €127.
Catalonia’s other tri-stellar restaurant has a shorter waiting list but is just as long on quality. Try Carme Ruscalleda’s Restaurant Sant Pau in Sant Pol de Mar.