The three-Michelin-starred Sant Pau, a short train ride up the coast from Barcelona, offers one of Catalonia’s greatest dining experiences.
UPDATE: October 2018: Chef Carme Ruscalleda has closed Sant Pau to concentrate on other projects. I’m leaving this post up as a memento of the wonderful meal I enjoyed there in early 2014. Thanks to Chef Ruscalleda for her outstanding contribution to Catalan gastronomy in recent decades. Sant Pau will be missed.
I’m often asked, “What’s your favourite restaurant?” It’s impossible to answer, of course, so I usually reply with a noncommittal, “It depends.” And it does; it depends on the type of restaurant, the budget, the mood I’m in…
But if I HAD to choose, I’d choose Restaurant Sant Pau.
Chef Carme Ruscalleda’s converted seafront townhouse in Sant Pol de Mar (+34 937 600 662, booking essential) lies 50km (30 miles) north of Barcelona and getting there is half the fun. The train line runs literally (littorally, even…) alongside the beach for much of its distance. On a cold, crisp winter morning it’s empty and stunningly beautiful; in summer you’re treated to a flickering parade of happy holidaymakers.
Inside the restaurant, natural light breaks though large windows that look out onto the immaculate garden and, beyond that, the sea. It’s a gorgeous view but you’ll hardly notice: you won’t be able to take your eyes off your food.
How good was it? Read on…
I was joined for lunch by Dan, who once made regular appearances in FoodBarcelona posts but now does his fine dining in London. We settled down with glasses of Mont-Ferrant’s pleasant Carme Ruscalleda-brand CR20 anniversary cava and awaited the €159 tasting menu.
Xató and mantis shrimp cornet was an exercise in textures with a great finish. It also started a Sant Pau signature theme that was to continue throughout the meal: the presentation of traditional Catalan coastal flavours in new contexts. In this case the xatò, a fisherman’s nut-and-pepper based sauce, as a savoury ice cream.
The next dish was cocas (Catalan pastries) dedicated to the Tokyo Mandarin Oriental. They blew us away. The meal had barely started and we were knocked back on our heels, relishing the astonishingly clean flavours. Unlike many chefs who are recent converts to Asian flavours, Ruscalleda really understands Japanese food: her 2-Michelin-starred Tokyo restaurant, also named Sant Pau, recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. It has resulted in an organic and unforced marriage of Mediterranean and Japanese cuisines that is probably unrivalled anywhere in the world.
The staff, too, move between the two restaurants. Our Japanese maître d’, Rie, brought us a ‘Spanish omelette’, pa amb tomàquet (bread and tomato) and ibérico cured ham. Classic flavours, cleverly presented in a roll.
Black truffle dashi with vegetables and foie was paired with a Masia Serra Gneis 2007. Again, superb, clear separation of flavours and clever use of shiso.
Espardenyes (sea cucumbers) with celery, cucumber and fine herbs was, simply, one of the most enjoyable dishes I’ve ever tasted. It was popping with deep flavour and freshness, a tour-de-force of balance between power and lightness.
King prawn and artichoke 3 ways, however, divided opinions slightly. The artichoke was a scene-stealer here, but did it rob the prawn of its deserved place in the spotlight? I said no; Dan said yes. Either way, we both enjoyed it and agreed that 2012 Parató Pinot Noir rosé was a good match.
The ‘sailor’s toast’ with prawns came with its own little business card explaining the history of the dish and how to make the traditional version at home (toast some bread, dip it into some seafood stew, toast it again). The Sant Pau homage included one of the best prawns I’ve ever tasted, and the garlicky suquet (sauce) embodied the best of Catalan seafood flavours. A 2011 Mas Candi Quatre Xarel.los matched perfectly.
At this point Dan and I were almost ready to stand up and applaud. We’d expected it to be good, but not this good.
How good was it?
We’ve both been fortunate enough to eat at some world-class restaurants and this was already right up there with the best of them, at the level where rankings become ridiculous and arbitrary. But we were still barely halfway through the menu.
Carme Ruscalleda came out for a quick chat at this point but I was too blissed-out with the food to say anything profound. We expressed our appreciation, she moved on, and the dishes kept coming – each with a superbly chosen Catalan wine.
A monkfish and lemon verbena suquet was jawdropping.
Then Challans duck with turnip and chestnuts, plus hints of sake and yuzu. Hands down the best duck I’ve ever tasted. In the top ten of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my life.
Venison loin with apple and a hint of Sichuan pepper, served with a massive but balanced 2010 Embruix de Vall Llach, was nearly as good at the duck, which is about as highly as I can praise anything. I was running out of superlatives at this point: my notebook contains lots of exclamation points and little post-orgasmic-style, one-word comments, most of them profanities.
How then, do you expect me to write about the cheese course? Blessed are the cheesemakers. Tomme de Miren, three ways: creamed, with chopped dates and walnuts; julienned with a date arrope; and as a hunk, with everything whole.
A small spoonful of passion fruit and Calisay liquor ice-cream cleared the palate before we dived into the desserts. Two banana-shaped slivers of white chocolate sandwiched frozen banana plus a banana-and-butter cream topped with almond. We both agreed it was the biggest let-down of the day. There was nothing wrong with it; it was just a bit ordinary, a bit obvious – words that could not be applied to any other aspect of the meal.
Fortunately, after this slight loss of altitude we were immediately rocketed back into the stratosphere with a black truffle ‘ice cream’ lollipop with chocolate leaves and truffle ‘dew’. It was immensely good: rich, surprising, playful and satisfying.
We were about done by this point but the petit-fours train arrived bearing more good things. An homage to the restaurant’s track-side heritage, the miniature carriage opened up to reveal treasures including lemon yoghurt marshmallows, creamy chocolate bonbons, chocolate rocks, coconut financier, mini Sacher cakes and more. Each was a perfectly presented jewel, a work of true kitchen craftsmanship.
Restaurant Sant Pau has 3 Michelin Stars and Ruscalleda is a huge star in Catalonia so it’s hardly an under-the-radar insider secret. On the other hand, it’s not on the San Pellegrino top-50 list and it’s not as internationally famous as some of Catalonia’s other star restaurants, past and present. In truth, neither Dan nor I had expected it to be quite this good.
How good was it?
Before the meal, I was slightly jaded with fine dining. Professional reviewing is a great job and I’m not complaining but I’d been eating Michelin-starred tasting menus several times a week for several weeks just before our Sant Pau trip. This was was in a different league. Ruscalleda has a profound understanding of the roots of Catalan cuisine and a feather-light touch; the balance of flavours in some dishes was exquisite. Everything was presented beautifully, as you’d expect at this level, but how it tasted was what truly impressed: this was making cooking an artform, not making art a form of cooking.
There’s no such thing as the ‘best’ restaurant. But, as Dan and I analysed the matter over coffee, we cautiously, tentatively agreed that it might possibly have been the best meal either of us had ever eaten.
It was that good.
Check out Carme Ruscalleda’s two-Michelin-star restaurant in Barcelona, Moments, for a more urban taste of the Maresme.