David Garcia, winner of Spain’s Top Chef 2 TV show, relaunches Restaurant Tomás, his family’s restaurant located one hour from Barcelona.
Review: Restaurant Tomás, Palà de Toroella, Barcelona
I’d never heard of David Garcia. When I told friends that I was going to his restaurant they got very excited but his name meant nothing to me. The young chef is famous in Spain for winning season two of Top Chef but I don’t watch TV cooking competitions. That’s not snobbery; I simply burned out years ago after endless international iterations of Masterchef featuring amateurs, professionals, children, celebrities and anyone else in possession of a pan. Enough was enough. There’s probably a Masterchef Pets by now.
Nevertheless, as part of a press junket I boarded a bus in Barcelona and was driven out to the tiny village of Palà de Toroella (population 181). It’s an hour from Barcelona, 20 minutes from Manresa and about a light year from the contemporary urban dining scene. Wheat fields ripple in the breeze, green mountains shimmer in the heat haze and birds flit among the trees. It’s all very bucolic.
The village exists because of a textile factory built here in the late 19th century. David Garcia’s grandparents took over its old inn, 40 years ago. Later, they passed it on to his parents who created Restaurant Tomàs. David himself wasn’t born in the restaurant but, he informed us, it was close: his expectant mother went into labour here. He grew up playing behind the stoves. For a while after he took the reins the restaurant was split into To[+] Tradició and To [+] Gastronomic, each half featuring a different kind of cooking. This year, he has combined them and returned to the original name: Restaurant Tomás.
The re-launched, 48-place restaurant only opens from Friday to Sunday. À la carte, expect to spend €45 per person. The dining room is light, contemporary and comfortable, with layered brick-and-stonework walls. Restaurant Tomàs’s menu draws heavily on local ingredients. The wine, vegetables and olive oil are all produced within a few KM. The bread – Pa de Palà – is from the village bakery. We met some of the producers, all of whom were bursting with pride and keen to tell their stories.
Restaurant Tomás 10-course tasting menu (€65 + €20 wine pairing)
We dipped the aforementioned bread into Mig Jorn Corbella EVOO, an unusual and delightful oil variety re-cultivated from wild local trees. Our first wine, too, was local: a white LaDiferenta D.O. Pla de Bages, made just 1km away.
The tasting menu hors d’oeuvres began with a slight misstep. Paper-thin crunchy pig-skin wafers were served with a tasty paste of white Ganxet beans but the skins were too brittle to serve as scoops and repeatedly shattered. A rethink of the dish is required. A second hors d’oeuvre – endives with anchovy cream and shaved walnuts – was unremarkable but easier to eat.
Huge ham croquettes came next, each loaded with around 35 grams of quality jamón – Iberian cured ham from Jabugo. These bad boys were flavour and calorie bombs, oozing greasy goodness through crisp shells. As good a ham croquette as I’ve had.
A white asparagus foam with Chardonnay-marinated fresh anchovies (boquerones in Spanish) over asparagus and fresh almonds was also excellent: smooth, light, fresh, and flavoursome.
Our server swapped the wine for another white, Abadal Picapoll D.O. Pla de Bages. The next dish, an homage to esqueixada was less successful, failing to improve upon or add anything to the original, classic Catalan salt-cod salad. Pleasant, but pointless.
The same cannot be said for a dish that needs careful translation: ou de periquita could be rendered as “budgerigar’s egg”, which might intrigue hardcore gourmets but freak out everyone else. What did I say before about Masterchef Pets? That’s not what I meant. Fortunately, the periquita is also known as the gallina nana flor d’ametller – almond-blossom dwarf hen – a much more poetic name for this Catalonia-specific fowl. This globulous, golden-yolked treat came atop a mound of jamón-and-breadcrumb migas, much softer than the traditional type.
I can take or leave foie dishes usually but David Garcia’s cinder-cooked foie with grapes made me a fan. Skilled knife-work resulted in a fine brunoise of fresh, colourful local vegetables; a skilled palate finely balanced the salt on the foie with the grape juice. The foie itself was cooked to perfection.
An homage to suquet, deconstructed the classic fish stew with mixed results. First came fried bread with dollops of saffron aioli and a prawn tartare. Then a bisected and warmed but unadorned langoustine (that’s a cigala in Spanish, not a langostino; language is a cruel mistress). The next stage was a flaky hunk of dentex (a Mediterranean white fish) and a disk of roasted potato, doused in a rich seafood broth. Individually, all delicious. Separately, interesting to eat. But it didn’t add up to more than the sum of its considerable parts.
Another wine from within 1km: a red Can Serra dels Exibis La Rasa D.O. Pla de Bages accompanied what was without a doubt the stand-out dish: a four-way presentation of squab. I’ve put them together in one photograph here but they’re served separately. A pestle-and-mortar-pounded liver paste, with black pepper and Armagnac; Middle-East-influenced crunchy pastry parcels stuffed with braised wing-meat and dried fruits, and a hint of cinnamon, served with a shot glass of broth; braised and glazed squab legs; and best of all, the breast. Pink, smoky, seared, dripping into a pillow of potato pureé, it left a tableful of jaded food writers moaning with joy. The best pigeon I’ve ever eaten.
Chef David brought out the next dish before it was carved, to show off the full glory of this roasted Ral d’Avinyó pork, reared, of course, nearby. The pale, pink meat received a kick from mustard-tinged mix of rocket, apple and radish.
To finish, a sweet Torre de Capmany Garnatxa D.O.Empordà natural wine and an old-fashioned treat: apple tart and vanilla ice cream.
On this evidence, chef David Garcia doesn’t need his media celebrity to attract people to his restaurant. His cooking is enough. He has skills, deep roots and a passionate local network of producers to support him. That is a solid position on which to build a culinary identity. He has quite rightly turned to traditional techniques, preferring roasting to sous-vide, creating dishes that allow the flavours of these excellent ingredients to shine through. This isn’t farmhouse cooking, however – it’s meticulous and precise. Questions remain: can he keep up this standard when he isn’t cooking for a room full of food writers? Will he be tempted to overcomplicate his style? Time will tell. Right now, it is well worth driving for an hour to get to Restaurant Tomás from Barcelona.
Restaurant Tomás: Carrer Terrassa 5, El Palà de Toroella, 08269, Barcelona | (+34) 93 868 2528 | www.gruptomas.com | Open Fri & Sat lunch & dinner, Sun lunch only
Looking for another restaurant-based day trip from Barcelona? Consider Cal Xim