Exquisite, world-class fine dining in Barcelona from the Ruscalleda family.
Carme Ruscalleda has accumulated a constellation of Michelín stars: three in Sant Pau, half an hour up the coast from Barcelona in Sant Pol de Mar; two in Sant Pau in Tokyo, and two in Moments (Hotel Mandarin Oriental, Passeig de Gràcia 38-40, 08007 Barcelona; Tel. (+34) 93 151 87 81; Metro Passeig de Gràcia). Sant Pau is a strong contender to be considered my favourite restaurant so I had high hopes when I visited Moments on a Tuesday lunchtime this month – but also some concerns.
Sant Pau’s food and ambience are so much a part of the Maresme, the Catalan coast where it’s located, that I wondered if the magic would be lost in a five-star hotel in a busy city. Carme herself obviously can’t be everywhere at once and so relies on head chefs in each restaurant to execute her vision. In Moments, the person handling the pans is actually her son, Raül Balam. It’s not a case of being tied to his mother’s apron strings but rather a cross-generational collaboration; Balam worked at Sant Pau for 15 years and has real talent, not just family ties.
The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where I’d stayed the night before, is gorgeous but no city centre restaurant can replicate the relaxed charm of Sant Pau. Instead, the dining room is a sleek and glamourous space. Were it not for the greenery outside it might make you think of a classic theatre: the high-speed silent movie of the activity in the kitchen can be watched through a coloured window framed by curtains.
Prices are as you’d expect in a five-star hotel on Barcelona’s most expensive street. The tasting menu is €143, plus wine; starters and main courses à la carte are all €40-€50. There’s a set lunch menu too. I ordered the tasting menu from the black-clad staff who buzz around with great efficiency and grace. The clients are mainly, though not exclusively, well-heeled and elegant hotel guests – the restaurant was almost full for a lunchtime sitting.
We began with a glass of Balma Brut Natur Reserva sparkling white (Mas Beltran wines are not D.O. Cava so it can’t be called “cava”. But it’s cava.) While waiting for the amuse bouches I heard the voice of my friend Dayna Kurtz (a superb American singer-songwriter you should definitely check out) sing out from the background music. A sign of good taste!
Mató dim sum came with chives, chive flowers, and a supposedly spicy sauce. What it lacked in picante it made up for in prettiness. This latter adjective describes all of what to come. Everything Balam presented was utterly beautiful to look at.
Catalan-style cod ceviche with Indian cress petals. The acidity was just right and the ‘Catalanization’ came from the addition of tomato and garlic. Wonderful.
Sea urchin fritters (bunyols) with violet vegetables and pansy petals. Light and crisp, with more bite than the usual cod variety of bunyols and a tantalizing taste of the sea.
Local langoustine (escamarlans) tails with textures of baby peas and broad beans. Leaves and flowers from the pea plants and the tenderest, sweetest peas and broad beans sitting on a light pea foam, with tomato beneath. This is where we accomplished the lift-off into the stratosphere of bliss. A seriously good dish: light, fresh, just a touch of creaminess and perfectly balanced acidity. I’d have judged it a triumph just from the smell. It was served with a glass of crisp 2013 Cap Ficat Xarel.lo from Celler Credo.
Asparagus and cuttlefish. The white and green asparagus was complemented by a curry sauce and drops of squid ink while the cuttlefish came as ribbons. Beautiful.
A 2013 Biu de Sort Riesling-Viognier with excellent acidity was served to accompany the next dish: Galician scallop (petxina de pellegri) with two old Catalan sauces (juvert and almadroc), beetroot “bonbon” and pork jowl bacon to give it a Catalan mar i muntanya touch. Juvert is a mediaeval picada; a mix of parsley, marjoram, sage, nuts, garlic and other good things. Almadroc is made with egg, garlic and cheese. The beetroot here was presented as liquid, powder, leaf, dice… in other words, there was a LOT going on here. It was a very complicated dish.
And transcendentally good.
There are swearwords in my notebook. This was sensual, multi-textured, layered, teasing, surprising and ultimately harmonious. What a dish. My favourite of the meal without a doubt.
Still floating, I moved onto a glass of intense and perfumed Azienda Agricola ‘COS’ Pithos Bianco 2012, selected, like the others, by star sommelier Fernando Pavón. It was paired with turbot served with lemon and saffron sauce, crunchy black garlic quinoa, eucalyptus leaf and mushrooms. Complex, rich and aromatic, it was both moorish and more-ish.
A 2010 Mengoba Mencia de Espanillo heralded the Challans duck with courgette “flower”. Rare, gamey and rich, this seemed more ingredient-led than the other dishes but he stuffed courgette lurked beneath like a mine, ready to explode with a slightly spicy mix of vegetable and nuts. Immense.
Niepoort White Port was poured and the cheese board was brought. Working my way from bottom to top, by the time I reached the blue cheese I had a look on my face that only restaurant staff and my wife ever see.
My toes were still curling as I ate an almond foam served as a palate-cleanser. A 2009 Peter Jakob Kühn Riesling Oestrich was paired with the desserts. First, ‘Nacre’ – mother-of-pearl – of coconut, spicy vanilla ice-cream, passion fruit and mango.
When the coconut blanket was split, the rest lay like treasures beneath; jewels of different textures, temperatures and tastes. It was a silky, slinky dessert for grown-ups.
‘Smoked’ is hazelnuts, Bourbon jelly, tonka bean ice-cream, black chocolate ganache and smoked white chocolate cream.
I was by now biting my lip to stay quiet, lest I make inappropriate noises of happiness. It was comforting but complicated, full of complimentary delights. What wasn’t so delightful was the battery on my phone dying, leaving me unable to take a photo of the fun finale: a confectionary replica of Gaudí’s dragon in Parc Guell. Individually numbered (mine was 2929) it was a construction of pink-peppercorn-flavoured biscuit, tonka bean chocolate, coconut cookie with black chocolate pearls and spéculoos buiscuit with white chocolate peals.
Raül came out to introduce himself and seemed like a nice guy. I could only babble enthusiastically about how good everything had been; it’s hard to be a constructive critic when there’s nothing to criticize.
Moments isn’t Sant Pau but it recognizably shares the same DNA. There’s the same delicate lightness of touch; the same ability to make complicated dishes come together and, crucially, taste as good as they look. The differences? It doesn’t reach the same sublime heights of subtlety, and a four-hour lunch in the city feels different to one eaten by the sea. But it doesn’t need to be Sant Pau: it’s an outstanding restaurant in its own right. Raül Balam has put his own stamp on the Ruscalleda style and runs a restaurant that compares with the best that Barcelona has to offer.