Some whelks, served cold with a side of garlicky vinaigrette. Espardenyes – those curiously striated cucumbers from the sea, tender with bounce and bite – langostas, gambas, chiparones, and a baby turbot not much larger than my hand, all grilled on the plancha.
These are the simple pleasures of Rafa’s, an unassuming little eatery that has all but become a requisite stop for anyone interested in food who passes through Roses, Spain, thanks to Ferran Adrià, who declared it his favorite restaurant.
When seafood is super fresh, it hardly needs any help. And Rafa knows this.
His plates are simple, naked even, with nothing more than a few pieces of griddled seafood scattered under a spot of olive oil and a dash of salt. There’s no room for error here, nowhere for stray flavors or even the slightest compromise in quality to hide. And the half-dozen plates we ordered were unimpeachable. All of the seafood was tidy and neat, buttery and sweet, interrupted only by the occasional, ashy char around the edges.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t thrilled about my first whelk here. I’ve had them before, but never cold. And something about that first bite of the meaty knot, tightened by a chill, turned me off. But the more I ate, the more I wanted, although I’ll admit its increasing charm grew mostly from the addictive vinaigrette, which we used as a dipping sauce, instead of the whelk itself. Even still, I did come to appreciate its lightly sweet meat, dense, yet tender.
Just having come from Dénia that day, where I had been spoiled at Quique Dacosta with red king prawns and langoustines, left silky and warm from a quick blanch, I found the griddled ones at Rafa’s slightly less desirable. There was no question that Rafa’s seafood was super-fresh, and I had no complaints about his cooking either – these were excellent by any standard. But, with the memory of those tender tails at Dacosta’s still fresh in my memory, a comparison was unavoidable: all else being equal, I preferred them barely blanched.
Otherwise, dinner at Rafa’s was a joy. It’s quite the opposite of fancy – a narrow little space from which a sprawl of tables tumble neatly into the alley outside, where we sat under an awning watching tourists shuffle by in the light, evening rain. Inside, you’ll find a counter case with the daily catch on display for all to see, and behind that, a small open kitchen where Señor Rafa mans the plancha alone (which might explain the glacial pacing).
Service was very helpful at first, when the restaurant was empty. But it filled up fast and furiously. Towards the end of our meal, we had to flag servers down, repeatedly, although our sense of urgency stemmed more from the growing crowd of people waiting for our table than a desire to leave. This place is popular.
I’m not sure we needed dessert. And after having had the only two they offered that night, I’m not sure you do either. There was puff pastry, slightly limp under the humid heat, spread with squash marmalade, a Catalan curiosity that I first encountered earlier in the year up the coast and inland at El Moli (the version at El Moli was much better). And there were skinny slivers of marbled chocolate tarts that, if I recall correctly, had a nice, crumbly crust, but an overly sweet filling. Save your stomach for another plate of espardenyes instead.
Pricey? Yes, somewhat. Six plates of seafood, a couple of beers, and some sweets, split among the three of us, totaled well over $200. But considering the exchange rate, which was rather ugly at the time, and the quality of the seafood and cooking here, I thought it was rather reasonable.
While Roses does not exist for elBulli alone – it is a popular seaside resort in its own right – I expect that reports from Rafa’s from bloggers and food writers will taper off now that elBulli is closed to the public. But if you do find yourself there, I recommend it. Go early, order a lot, skip the desserts.
C/ Sant Sebastià, 56
+34 (972) 25 40 03