review: landscape of memory…
There are three rocks on every table at el Celler de Can Roca, presumably one for each of the brothers Roca.
Together, they’ve built upon their family’s restaurant, where all three worked as youths, and made it one of the world’s most acclaimed dining destinations. Their food is “techno-emotional,” a constantly evolving cuisine that uses modern technology to invoke the past, to explore and trigger memory and to give it shape.
In January, I was one of six people at a corner table inside this restaurant in Girona, Spain. And there, I was invited to survey the landscape of my memory.
* * *
* * *
The restaurant is breathtaking, a collision of old and new that visually embodies the brothers’ culinary philosophy.
Its current location is not its original. The brothers moved out of their former space into an old villa built in 1911, which they had been using as an off-site special events venue since 1992. The villa now houses the restaurant’s kitchen, a sprawling series of rooms lined with steel counters. To the villa was added a starkly modern lounge, cellar, and dining room – a sleek, triangular space with a glass-encased courtyard full of trees.
So, in a poetic way, diners experience in the present what comes out of the past.
Peaceful. Elegant. It’s one of the most beautiful and meaningfully designed restaurants I’ve ever seen.*
* * *
* * *
The six of us agreed on the “Feast,” an eleven-course tasting menu (145€). We also agreed to supplement two dishes from the a la carte menu – the restaurant’s signature oyster dish and steak tartare. Half of us also wanted to try the goose a la royale (I among them) and the other half, a plate of young pigeon with anchovy sauce. So those two were added as well.
The wine knowledge represented at our table was pretty impressive. The wine list, a tome that came on its own cart, was passed around the table, first to The Godfather, an American; then The Civilian, a Frenchman; then to Vanparys, a Belgian; and finally, to Ingo, a German, who selected a very fine Riesling, of course. After the book made its tour, five bottles were called up and ordered accordingly.
So impressive were their selections that Josep complimented them, noting that he couldn’t have done a better job of matching wines to our food. And he was right. The wines that were poured couldn’t have been more appropriate, or amazing.
Here is our menu and the wines we had:
Oysters with Agusti Torello Cava (Supplement)**
Apple compote, ginger, pineapple, lemon confit, and spices.
Charcoal-grilled eggplant, pepper, onion, and tomato with anchovies and smoke of ember.
Foie gras soup with orange and truffled oil.
Charcoal-Grilled King Prawn
Acidulated mushroom juice.
Crespia walnuts and Comte cheese.
Olive Oil and Mediterranean Flavors
With onion rocks.
Suquet and lard.
Steak Tartare (Supplement)
Sweet potato and tangerine.
Young Pigeon (Supplement)
Anchovy sauce, black truffles.
Goose a la Royale (Supplement)
Beet and liver sauce.
Lime, avocado, green apple.
Vanilla, Caramel, Liquorice
Dried and caramelized black olives.
La Closerie Les Beguines
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.
* * *
* * *
If a chef cooks out of his childhood memory, and he does not share the same cultural background as his diners, how will his food be received? Will his intentions and references be lost in translation? This is the question that raced through my mind during this dinner, and in the days thereafter.
I did not grow up on the Costa Brava. I was not raised on tropical fruits, the freshest catch off the boats, escalivada, or the flavors of the Mediterranean. These do not spring out of my earliest and deepest memories.
And so, in many ways, I was eating at el Celler de Can Roca with a handicap, unable to more fully realize the nostalgia and familiarity with which the Rocas expressed themselves.
Was I reduced, then, to evaluating the meal solely on its technical merits, the lowest form of assessment?
No, I don’t think so.
For, in every childhood memory is comfort, a universal beacon that is recognized regardless of house and home, a bridge for all the gaps between kitchen and table. And isn’t the familiar comforting, and the comforting, familiar?
My meal at Cafe Boulud in May of last year is a rare example of how a chef’s ability to convey comfort turned a meal into a reverie of things past. That was a perfect storm of personal triggers that I dare not hope to be repeated with regularity for fear of perpetual disappointment.
So, what of my meal at the Rocas’s table? At its best, it was immensely comforting, wonderfully imaginative, and technically sound.
Did it trip a few memory chords? Yes.
What child knows not the soulful embrace of warm chicken soup? For our first course: a restoring bowl of “pot au feu” broth (it tasted more like chicken than beef), sided by a buttery ball of dough, slightly steeped in the broth and topped with shaved black truffles. It was a fancy matzoh ball soup. It was immensely comforting, unquestionably familiar.
Jordi Roca’s “Green Colourology,” a study in green, with avocados, limes, and green apples, was a fragrant and bright reminder of summer in winter – this was a limeade. But better. It was creamy. It was light. It was crisp. It was a big smile at the end of a heavy meal.
In fact, I would say that the pastries pulled the most familiar strings. There was a turn of vanilla ice cream that was so purely vanilla that it seemed to encompass and conjure every vanilla memory in my mind. And to its side, a collection of dried and caramelized black olives, boozy gelatin, and licorice that magically intensified the vanilla flavor even more. It was like eating vanilla beans straight out of the pod. It had legs.
And at the end of our meal, a box of candies, each one an authoritative expression of its kind: praline, palet d’or, Mont Blanc, and airy – almost frothy – marshmallows that tasted just like a shot of Irish coffee.
* * *
* * *
Joan Roca reminded us of how many versions of steak tartare this world has seen. In his one strip of tender, chopped meat, he showed us four of them, each section having a different flavor, marked with a crisp, airy pomme souffle. The one common thread was pearls of mustard ice cream, which were strung over the whole. Together, it was complex. It was anthological. It was brilliant.
So was a strip of baby sole, the fillet flanked by five different flavors of the Mediterranean: fennel, almond, orange, piment, and olive oil. Even if I didn’t grow up with these flavors, Roca showed us how they were important to him. So clean and perfect was that fish – a sounding board and palette for the rainbow of colored sauces – so pure and simple were those flavors, that it was, above all else, a picture of respect.***
These two dishes, along with the goose a la royale, which I enjoyed for its texture more than its flavor, were my favorites. The little cake of goose meat was so velvety, so soft – so comforting. The civet sauce was clean and neat. I have no clue why the beet or foie gras sauces were on the plate – they added nothing but color.
* * *
* * *
Our meal wasn’t without flaws. If I had two criticisms, it would be these:
First, some of the dishes were almost too rich to bear, even if they were delicious. The “onion” soup was like drinking demi glace with liquid cheese fortified by nuts. It was super strong, super cloying. So was the soup of foie gras, as you can imagine, poured over a thick artichoke puree and dotted with orange and truffled oils.**** Thankfully, both of these portions were reasonably sized.
Second, quite a few dishes were over-salted, including that onion soup. The young pigeon was, to me, inedibly so, totally obliterated by the anchovy sauce. The suquet – a form of a Catalan stew used here as a sauce – was nearly as bad, though thankfully, the stunning filet of mullet, with iridescent, pink skin, stuffed with even saltier lardo, helped temper things a bit with its clean, almost sweet, white flesh.
And, along the same lines, there was very little subtlety. Flavors tended to be bold, gripping, strong. My admiration and patience for such things end when they start stripping away dimension, leaving blocks of monotone. And much of our meal flirted with the limit.
* * *
* * *
Service was great, the pacing was perfect. Josep came to our table throughout the night, making sure everything was in good order.
After dinner, he introduced us to his brother Joan. Then he took us back into the restaurant’s celebrated cellar, where we passed row upon endless row of inventory. To one side of the corridor were small tasting rooms, constructed out of wine crates. I’m fairly certain that a couple of them were devoted to cigars.
And finally, into the kitchen, which had been cleaned and cleared – not a soul to be found.
I left el Celler de Can Roca more flattered than floored. It was, for the most part, a very solid meal with delicious high points, and some dishes that could have been spared.
But, more importantly, this meal left me reflecting for days on the contours of my memory as shaped by taste, smell, touch, and sight, four senses that were constantly strummed throughout our meal.
I’ve always thought that “techno-emotional” was a rather silly term to describe a style of cooking. I still do. But whatever you call it, the Roca’s approach to cooking – their philosophy – made an impression on me that went far beyond the plate, date, and place of our meal. And that is important.
El Celler de Can Roca
Can Sunyer, 48
17007 Girona, Spain
+34 972 222 157
* From the street, the villa is hidden behind a high, wooden retaining wall. It’s only after passing through a narrow ramp do you arrive in a private little courtyard with a magnificent view of both villa and annex. You can read more about the restaurant’s design on its website.
** The oyster with cava dish has been catalogued by the Rocas as being created in 2005. The cava was thickened with xantham gum, which strangely does not disturb the wine’s carbonation, giving it just enough body to stand up to the meatiness of the oyster.
*** The sole dish has been catalogued by the Rocas as being created in 2008.
**** The artichoke with foie gras soup has been catalogued by the Rocas as being created in 1991.