On Wednesday, I went to El Celler de Can Roca, the molecular gastronomy project of the three Roca brothers, you know, the second best restaurant in the world. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it, it certainly isn’t “my kind” of food; my favorite restaurants are funky and warm and comfortable, innovative in little ways, good in that they just serve good ol’ food, not in that they force food across phase changes. But still, they had to be doing something right, to come in second only to Noma and Rene Redzepi (…be still, my heart. Chef crush.) so the anticipation far outweighed any trepidation. After a scenic Spanish countryside drive from L’Escala to Girona, my cousin Tania, my aunt and uncle Cesca and Ross, and I all wandered down the block from our one-night apartment, strategically located a hundred yards from the restaurant, down to El Celler at 9 pm to begin the extravaganza. One of the first thoughts I had upon arriving at the restaurant was: a restaurant, even one of the best in the world, is still a restaurant. Still a place serving one of the most basic human needs for life on earth; food, calories, energy. Then my second thought, with the arrival of the fist few dishes: but the food that meets that human need can be manipulated and elevated and twiddled with so far from the norm that is nearly unrecognizable. And pretty darn delicious.
We got two menus in English, two in Catalan, figuring that we could use all the info we could get in this brave new edible word. We were seated and promptly poured glasses of Cava… the first glasses of many. After a visit from a hostess, a server, and a sommelier, First, the world. A teeny little tree stump with five wire halos coming out of it, all encased by a lantern shade with the world printed on it. A flourish-y pull by one of the black-suited servers revealed five little food blobs, each representing a nation. Mexico, Peru, Thailand, Morocco, and Japan. We had to guess which was which…we failed miserably. Jello-ed guacamole, Mexico. A hard shell that burst open, fishy liquid poring out, ceviche from Peru. A little sushi-esque something-or-other, Japan. A teensy little pastry, sticky with honey, Morocco. Another green orb, cilantro for Thailand. They were interesting for sure, but they weren’t all good. (Morocco excepted, mini baklava, ten more please.) They were a bit strong and odd and gave me a weensy bit of that “Oh, lord, what have we gotten into?” feeling. Then, the famous Roca amuse bouche: caramelized anchovy-stuffed olives, hanging from a little bonsai olive tree. This is the kind of molecular gastronomy oddity that totally works. Flavors that sound awful when read together aloud, but somehow zingily come together in a good way. Flavor combos that you know come from many, many failed kitchen experiments. (And fun to eat too, popping them off their little branch-hooks.)
After that, the truffle course. (Disclosure: truffle scent makes me gag a little. A summer of making stupid truffle salads all night, every night, and constantly smelling of truffle oil will turn you right off of ‘em.) A rock-dish (rocks cut in half with perfect little treat-holding hollows inside…the serving-ware equivalent of a hide-a-key, I need one) held a little pile of, um, truffle truffles. Consistency of a chocolate truffle, flavor of a real truffle. And little mini hum baos stuffed with creamy truffle. Delicious, surely, if truffle didn’t transport you back into a hot kitchen at 11 pm, feet sweating in dirty clogs and dying to go home and eat ice cream in bed. Next course: redemption. Calamari a la Romana… mmm. Little towers of calamari and fried-ness, somehow separated and elevated. More molecular gastronomy magic; in making more out of something, in finding new in old. A base of calamari something-er-other, topped by little crisps, the delightful flavor of fried-ness. Yum. The saltiness then cleared up by a little campari bonbon, a waxy orb that you popped in your mouth for a sip of bitter campari. Ok then, here’s us, on our sixth amuse bouche: mussels. A mother of pearl spoon, a black “shell” made of agar-agar, and a marinated mussel made into the very best version of itself. This was the kind of dish I liked best, the ones with a recognizable, good, familiar, beloved component, made all the more interesting and tasty with the tricks of the trade. No need to emulsify the mussel beyond recognition, let it be, make it better.
Then an oyster…as if I didn’t love oysters enough already. Here’s a perfect specimen, surrounded by melon juice, brightened up with “cucumber, celery, apple, lime, oxalis ocetosella, melon flowers, and heartleaf iceplant.” I tasted: oyster, melon, yum. (This is the part where I start to get really tired of typing, and we’re on the second course.) Next: cherry soup. A couple teaspoons of gingery cherry matrix with a gelled cherry, infinitely thin slices of cherry, and, you know, smoked sardines. Again; odd, but good. Again; elevating and playing on the simple goodness of a ripe cherry, making it a thousand times more interesting. Next, another soup, black olive gazpacho with a little orb of green olive ice cream resting in the middle of the bowl, topped by a crispy little black olive fritter. Then my least favorite course: a slab of white asparagus ice cream covered and filled with truffle. So if “comfort food” is the little trend that irks me most in the regular food world, ice creams play the same irritating, overdone role in the land of molecular gastronomy. It was not really so yummy. I like a little dash of cold savory ice cream to liven up a dish, like in the gazpacho, but a whole hunk of salty ice cream; no. Also, again with the truffles, I am not in the fan club.
After that though; redemption. “A whole king prawn.” Reminded me of the raw bodies/fried heads combo at Walrus. A perfectly–lightly–cooked prawn body flanked by dots of pungent prawn head essence, crispy legs, and a pile of black briny fluff, described as “kind prawn sand.” Again (again), a familiar, loved ingredient, brought into a whole new world. Then something kind of, normal. A tiny filet of sea bream with a colorful smattering of vegetable bits and a spoonful of yuzu jam. Light. Nice. A nice break for the brain. “Oh, fish. I know about this!”
Another fish course: salt cod “tripe” (that’s what it says… do fish have intestines, am I an idiot, or did they put the menu through Google Translate? I’m not sure.) with salt cod foam (we were waiting for the token molecular gastronomy foam!), in a teeny sea of olive oil and honey soup. The salt cod, not my favie, but the broth; delight. (We’re getting close people.)
THEN: suckling pig. So, so, so very far from the hunk of crisp-skinned pork on top of rice, doused with sambal and balanced on a banana-leaf plate of Ubud, Bali. Here we have: five perfect squares of crackly pig skin, surrounded by multicolored dots of mango, melon, and beet reductions. When the dish arrived, our waitress poured a creamy Riesling sauce over each of our dishes. Yum. (Speaking of Riesling, we had beautiful wine pairings, which I do not have the typing abilites to discuss. Also: more interested in the food.)
Okay: red mullet, a just-barely-not-sushi-anymore filet, with the tail still attached, in a simple little sauce. Three little flavor-pop gnocci-type-blobs alongside for the ride. Then the “smoke” course that I’d read so much about about online. Our dishes arrived with glass toppers, which were removed with a flourish, letting out a big waft of smoke, revealing the lamb breast (!!) and sweetbreads (!!) and morels (!!) inside. Three of my dearest favorites…. Here’s another little corner of the molecular gastronomy world: just doing normal dishes perfectly. Seeing as there’s about half an ounce of lamb on the plate, so it’d better be stellar. No redemptive second bites to be had. Last dinner course, we’re in the home stretch here, and it’s about midnight: pigeon liver. Yep. With curry-caramelized walnuts (not unlike JJ’s famous crack nuts) and juniper and orange. Totally delicious, even though it was the very rare-cooked organ of a ratty bird. DESSERT. First up, a blown-sugar “apricot” filled with apricot cream, and a little “pit” of vanilla ice cream resting alongside. And a teeny slice of real-live, normal, un-fiddled-with apricot, just to remind us what it was really all about. (The faux-ricot was infinitely more delicious, of course.)
Then “strawberries and cream,” a little cylinder of strawberry sorbet surrounded by a tube of milky stuff, ringed by a spiral of hard candy. Looked like something out of an old fashioned candy case; tasted a bit like it too. The teeny little mountain strawberries were the best part of the dish.
Then a little anise mille-feuille sammie of coffee ice cream and mocha foam. Anise + coffee is an unexpectedly fantastical combo. Then, what we’d all been waiting for, the dessert cart. A veritable little rainbow cart of all sorts of good things; madelines, financiers, truffles, pates de fruit…. We all got weensy little ice cream cones, served in stone bowls, propped up by cocoa chips. Then a gold platter of gorgey mignardises. My favorites: perfect cherries made even better, coated in some ultra-cherry gel, teeny madelines, and teeny financiers. Two of my favorite pastries…in miniature. Thank god in miniature, because I was getting real real full.
By this time it’s one am, and none of us were really sure what to do. Asking for the check seemed something that mere mortals eating dumb mortal food do… But no, even the most intellectual meals aren’t free. They anticipated the inevitable requet and brought us all keepsake menus, then, best of all, they asked us “Would we like to see the kitchen?” But in Castellano, so I heard fnsgkjnasgbbf cocina? Whether this was standard or special treatment, we’re not sure, but I’m going to pretend it was special. We slid through the automatic white Star Wars door back into the kitchen, and I did me best to exude my I AM ONE OF YOU vibes, tried to look like I was incredibly familiar with all the stainless steel and rubber mats and whites and all, but I’m not sure how well it went. After running crying from the last kitchen I ever worked in, I’m pretty sure I’ve lost all my kitchen cred. Still. Joan Roca was incredibly cool, I think. Couldn’t understand a lick of what he said. Tried to muster up something incredibly foodie and witty to casually say to him over my shoulder as we walked out, something about the Modernist Cuisine folks in my own city coming to his restaurant, something about one of his many cookbooks on display, but I got star-chef-struck and I can’t speak Spanish and I just skittered off like a regular awed diner. Number one observation about the kitchen of a crazy, uber-succesful Spanish molecular gastronomy kitchen: not really all that different than a regular old American resto kitchen. Bigger, cleaner, more gadgets (and a signed Messi jersey). Same tables, mats, ranges, ovens. mitts.
Overall: a really, truly amazing meal. So much more effort goes into this kind of food than your regular restaurant fare. I feared that it wouldn’t have the heart that my favorite “regular” restaurants have, but with that kind of effort and dedication, you know there’s got to be some serious love and excitement behind it all. Food like this takes so much manual labor, so much practicing and planning and failed testing that the squadron of chefs holed up back behind that Star Wars door has got to be in love with what they’re doing, or they’d rip their sous vide cookers out of the wall and pack up and head home to make mac and cheese. One of the chefs still piecing together desserts at one am when we got to pop into the kitchen was from California–so far from home, out in the Catelonian boonies… he’s there for a reason. Can Roca isn’t my second best restaurant in my world, but it certainly deserves it’s place. It’s an experience: the food is mind-bending, but still food, still human sustenance (at some level) which makes it even more bendy. The service is stellar. The fact that it’s in a lovely old, old city helps too. I’m so glad to have went, to have put these crazy science experiments in my mouth. I get the Modernist Cuisine cult of food nerdity now, I get why taking food, things that come from the earth, from plants and animals, and making them into teensy little artistic creations that serve double duty as food (and amazing food at that) is totally, completely, overwhelmingly thrilling. Thanks Ross & Cesca.