Good chefs tell stories. They convey a sense of time and place.
Great chefs tell fairytales. They create time and place.
Carme Ruscalleda is a great chef. And at her restaurant by the sea, a meal unfolds like a storybook, full of romance and wonder.
It is a capsule, a world unto itself, Sant Pau is. Once inside its walls, everything outside seems suddenly inconsequential, dim by comparison. By some cosmic mercy, time slows and stretches there, allowing you to fully wallow in its magic.
We arrived from Barcelona by car, into the narrow streets of Sant Pol de Mar, where, in a small alley we found a house glowing a particularly sharp shade of yellow, the trim a particularly electric tint of blue. Here it was: the soul of the Mediterranean, pulsing before us.
The introduction was odd, a little confusing. There’s a pool table, neon lights, and modern art, all of this in a strange little parlor just inside the front door.
But then you pass into a room stained in scarlet, lined with linen, arresting in its beauty, calming in its quiet. And finally, into a flush of gold, that sharp shade of yellow moved inside, where we had dinner with a view of a garden by the sea.
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Can a restaurant be too charming? Is there a point at which a restaurant’s setting and situation so exceeds reality that the food couldn’t possibly keep pace, no matter how well-executed or creative?
The fact that I asked myself this question, even while seated at table at Sant Pau, suggests that it can.
Here, the sheer magnificence of the setting threatened to overshadow the food. I admit that it was very difficult for me to evaluate each separately, with the service as a third spoke to mind. This is not to say that the food at Sant Pau was disappointing, or anywhere near disappointing. In fact, for the most part, it was extraordinary. But, the sum of Sant Pau was much greater than its parts. For me, it was one of those restaurant experiences that I loathe to cleave for fear of finding minor faults in the details, opting instead to savor the entire package undisturbed, leaving it more-perfect in its wholeness.
We ordered the top tasting menu, which included two options at course number seven (with three at table, we covered both), and tacked on some extra desserts. Here is what we had:
Con tropezones amarillos.
Flor de Calabacin
Con tempura amarilla.
Huevo de Codorniz
Vestido de amarillo.
Chilled Pesto Soup
Brandade, peppers, and black olive.
Maresme king prawn, cherries, and vegetables chopped.
Vegetable Ravioli and Joselito Ham
Carrot, daikon, aubergine, and courgette.
Ray and Dewlap
Jurvert sauce, beetroot vinaigrette.
“Cleaver Wrasse 2011”
Light curry, licorice, beans, chayote.
Boneless Pig’s Trotter
Tender almonds, alfalfa, spicy oil.
With herbs, mushrooms, and vegetable bale.
Cheeses of the Month
Basil, strawberry, apple, coconut.
“Under a Green Roof Tile”
Strawberries, matcha, white chocolate.
12th Course (Supplement)
Coconut, chocolate, shiso, ganache.
White chocolate, rice, lemon verbena, gin, olive oil, yoghurt.
Financier a la Francesca
Limoncello pate de fruit
Rose Water Macaron
Fresita Vino Dulce y Pistacho
Arroz Y Almendra
Nube de Cocao Crumble con Fambuesa
Palito de Regaliz y Sidral
Coca de Hojaldre y Cabello de Angel
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.
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She thinks in colors.
I think in colors.
Perhaps, this is why I fell in love with the aesthetic of Ruscalleda’s cooking.
All of our amuse bouches, for example, were inspired by the color yellow (we were told that the color changes every month). We had a cold rice salad, sunny and bright. There were cheesy cubes of potato gratin, and quail eggs, crowned with tufts of yolk. And there was a tempura-fried squash blossom, a crystalline comet of gold that shattered in my mouth, flakey and light.
Our meal started with a chartreuse waterfall, a table-side pour of pesto soup that I found perhaps a bit too flat on the salty side. But this was redeemed on the back end of the meal by a splash of basil-infused water, another cascade of green, poured onto a torpedo of peach sorbet. With no added sugar, this austere pre-dessert focused on the natural flavor and sweetness of the ingredients, a clean and pure celebration of summer. Ringed in Versace turquoise, this was as beautiful to behold as it was to taste.
There was a “gastronomic” ode to Piet Mondrian, that Dutch master of geometry and primary colors. Ruscalleda translated his palette into those of her Mediterranean world, with flavors to match. On a grid outlined in black olive puree glowed panels of green, yellow, and red bell pepper sauce, all of which appeared, as if glossy enamel, on a fluffy pavement of brandade. The reference was obvious, another’s style borrowed, but the flavor was entirely Ruscalleda’s, entirely Spanish, entirely amazing. (One of my dining companions that night, A Life Worth Eating, captured this dish on video.)
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At the end, there was a rainbow of desserts, a volley of colors, a showy finale. Some of it was truly delicious, like a pool of “black” chocolate, dressed with coconut, pine nuts, pepper, mint and candied dill, that haunts me even now. And some of it was more art on a plate. But all of it aligned to help tell Ruscalleda’s imaginative tale.
There was a transparent Rubik’s cube, a colorful patchwork of raspberry, strawberry, apple, coconut, and shiso ice cream. This was refreshing and delicious, though not entirely easy to deconstruct and eat.
White was the color of lemon verbena sorbet, suspended on a thin membrane of white chocolate hovering over a nugget of yogurt, coated in puffed rice.
Green was the glaze on a roof tile – literally – that was lifted from the plate to reveal its proxy underneath, cast in chocolate, tinted with matcha. And underneath that, a cache of rubies – sweet strawberries and raspberry sorbet. I loved this one.
And blue was a starry, starry night – a glittering vignette in lapis with an iridescent coconut moon, which I scooted down a swirling, silver river into a chocolate dam sprouting baby shiso alongside quenelles of blue chocolate ganache. Sounds surreal? It was. Highly conceptual, this was poetry much more than anything I’d necessarily want to eat again. But man, was it beautiful.
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There were much more serious dishes to consider in between, ones that truly showcased the cylinders of this Michelin 3-starred kitchen.
We were presented with a glistening parrot fish, one of those jewel-like creatures that I’ve always regarded as expensive window dressing among the reef – look but don’t touch – through the frame of my snorkel lens. Who knew it was actually edible? Yet here it was, filleted and fried, with the most delicate flesh and a gossamer crust, not a pin or hair bone to be found. Curry and licorice aren’t flavors I had ever imagine putting together, but they worked together here, strangely.
There was a beautifully constructed handbag, banded with vegetable ribbons, topped with a pink ruffle of ham. The pasta was delicate and supple; the warm, creamy vegetable soup within was pure and simple. This was delicious.
Skate, alabaster and silky, was so incredibly soft that all else on the plate seemed not to matter.
King prawns from Maresme arrived cloaked in “tomato velvet,” an aptly named puree with the sweetness of summer and the weight of felt. This was great.
For my main meat course, I chose foal – meat of a young horse – from the Pyranees. Rosy and moist, with a slight, uric acidity, it was surprisingly tender. With it, came a bale of colorful vegetables, and mushrooms too. What more could you want to know about the farm and field? Ruscalleda told it all in this tidy display.
And the bread. My gosh, the bread.
At first, I thought our server a bit too proud when she walked the loaf, cradled in her arm like a babe, to our table, presenting it with pause and removing it to the cutting station with ceremony. But when she sawed into it, the entire restaurant stopped, paralyzed by the beautiful sound of the crust being opened. My gosh, that bread was amazing.
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Did you know that Sant Pau is on two different continents?
There’s one in Tokyo too.
And some of the Japanese sentiment from that foreign land can be felt at Ruscalleda’s house in Spain, where her cheese course, for example, came with a convenient little key, a hand-drawn map of the plate before us, with each cheese matched to its condiment. How thoughtful. How cute. How very Japanese.
Carme Ruscalleda, petite and spunky, came by our table to say hello at the end of our meal. And thereafter, we were led down a flight of stairs into a garden under a canopy of trees, an outdoor lounge with a view of the kitchen and the sound of the sea, the waves crashing at our backs. Here, we were showered with petits fours, which were also accompanied by a hand-sketched directory. And, here is were we three wished we could sit forever, or, at the very least, delay our inevitable return to reality.
I didn’t sleep that night. Actually none of the three of us did. Partly, it was to exhaust ourselves for the plane ride home, which departed only few hours after we left that garden by the sea. But, for me, it was also a bid to prolong Ruscalleda’s fairytale, and, through a wider lens, the Catalan chimera that preceded it.
If you can, you must go.
Carrer Nou, 10
08395 Sant Pol de Mar, Spain