Where does one have lunch before dinner at elBulli?
My friends and I agreed that a more traditional, Catalan meal would be proper.
So, from Girona, we sped off into the hills in search of el Moli, whose name had been dropped by friends of friends of friends. That seems to be the only reliable way to find good restaurants in those parts.
The hopelessly humorless British woman inside our G.P.S. took us as far as Pont de Molins, a pop-up village, where a creek and a bridge seemed to be the only point of interest. There, she dropped signal, leaving us to guess our way through the next few kilometers. After a scenic wind through a forest of evergreens, we arrived at a clearing.
Here, stood el Moli, an 18th century mill, now an auberge and restaurant.*
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Paved with tiled floors and capped with a gorgeous, wood-beam ceiling, the interior was magnificently preserved. Rough-hewn and hung with rifles and horns, ceramics and paintings, it felt like a hunting lodge.
You could almost tell by the smell of the place that the food was going to be good. The thick stone walls seemed to exhale a deep, smokey scent, steeped for decades in the presence of a wood grill.**
Just twenty kilometers shy of the French border, the restaurant buzzed with French, Spanish and Catalan, the three languages found on the pages of the menu. The food was divided into six sections with about ten plates per section. There were cold and hot first-courses, salads, fish, meats, and meats from the wood grill.
Our server made quick study of us and commenced in enough English to take our order. Given the large dinner ahead of us, we three took on more than we should have. But given how good this food was, I don’t regret it.
Assortit d’Embotits Catalans
(Assorted Catalan charcuterie.)
(Baby artichoke hearts, asparagus, and assorted mushrooms.)
Arroz de Colomi i Ceps
(12.20€ per person; minimum 2 persons)
(Bomba rice with squab and porcini.)
Turbot a la Planxa
Amb esparrecs verds i romesco. (19.80€)
(Turbot with asparagus and romesco sauce.)
Cabrit de Ilet
(Roasted suckling kid goat)
Peus de Porc
Desossats i farcit de bolets. (11.90€)
(Pig trotters deboned and stuffed with boletus mushrooms,
pommes Anna and roasted peppers and squash.)
(Mille-feuille with pumpkin-ginger jam.)
To see all the photos from this meal, CLICK HERE.
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Here, bread and all-i-oli (not butter) come with a surcharge. But olives and sausages arrive for free, a pre-meal snack.
El Moli doesn’t strike me as the type of place for amuse bouches, but one arrived. It was a single shot of pea soup, topped with tiny dices of jamon. It was warm and delicious; the cured ham was excellent.
The Costa Brava is famous for its anchovies. In fact, we had toyed with the idea of crossing the French border for an anchovy “crawl” along the coast. The ones at el Moli, from the coastal town of l’Escala, were excellent. Three to a plate, the fish were beheaded and split, the two skinny fillets lined side-by-side, held together at the tail. Lightly cured, they arrived under a brilliant, yellow slick of olive oil with a plate of pan catalan on the side. The texture of these anchovies was incredible: smooth and silky, exceedingly fresh. We ordered another round.
I feared that I had offended our server when I asked if all of the charcuterie that arrived in an assortment was cured in-house. It was, of course, which made it doubly impressive given that it was all very good, especially the chorizo.
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The cooked food at el Moli was rustic and robust, all of it laced with a touch of wood-fire smoke. It tasted like the room smelled.
Kid goat, grilled bone-in, was juicy and musky, protected by a crisp, crackling crust. (Wherefore the limp and stale fries on the side, I know not. They were pathetic and superfluous; I ignored them.)
Both skin and bone were left on thick slabs of turbot. Nicely grilled, they wore a beautiful, golden crust. The interior was moist and firm with a nice bounce. Dressed with nothing but a little salt, it was tremendously flavorful, exceedingly fresh.
Located in a region known for its mushrooms, El Moli showcased them wonderfully in a deboned pig trotter stuffed with boleti, a fleshy capped mushroom that I first encountered years ago at Can Gaig in Barcelona. The collagen wrapper and the silky mushrooms raised a textural mirror, where one ended and the other began was nearly impossible to tell. This was fantastic.
So too was a plate of roasted mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and asparagus – an off-menu special – which came threaded with strips of jamon. We ordered two of these.
I would have insisted on two orders of the bomba rice casserole as well, had I the stomach (it was already an order for two). It was the highlight of our lunch. Native to that region of Spain, bomba rice is a shorter, more glutinous grain. Here, it was baked in a paella pan, flecked with green peppers and onions and studded with chunks of bone-in squab and porcini mushrooms.
The server presented the platter and portioned it out methodically, five spoonfuls per plate, arranged in a star-shaped pattern. The rice was tender, but firm, a touch clingy, but not quite sticky. The skin on the squab was burnished, the meat was moist. The porcini were meaty and beefy, a luxury. All of it glistened with a thin coat of smokey oil. Together, it had an amazingly earthy, flavor.
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We reluctantly waived desserts (whiskey pie!!), but compromised with slices of mille-feuille (or a local form thereof called hojaldre).*** Actually, the flakey layers were softer, less crisp than mille-feuille – more like strudel dough. The pastry was filled with an unexpectedly thick paste-like jam made from pumpkin, hot with ginger.
With coffee, arrived oversized tuiles, heavily caramelized and dusted with poppy seeds and chopped hazelnuts. These were fantastic.
None of us could have hoped for a better meal, especially since the recommendation came from a game of culinary telephone.
The bread could have been better – it was like a soft version of Melba toast, with a monotonous texture and flavor. But overall, the cooking at el Moli was solid and soulful; the food was honest and timeless. It needs to be preserved and shared.
The Costa Brava seems littered with traditional Catalan restaurants like el Moli, quiet and quaint, tried and true. If you’re in the area, I urge you to find one. If you can get here, this one’s a good place to start.
Ctra. Pont de Molins a les Escaules
17706 Pont de Molins / Girona
+34 972 529271
* The name “el Moli” means “the mill.” There’s a lovely terrace overlooking the “river,” a wonderful place to have lunch when the weather is nice.
** The manager kindly gave me a copy of the menu. The pages smell of that smoke, hammy and dark.
*** I cannot recall the pastry’s Catalan name. I remember it began with an “a” and contained an “x.”