Archives for posts with tag: fish

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.

I caught my very first fish! And let me tell you, farm to table is one thing, lake to plate is a whole ‘nother. First, there’s the spot-finding. Stuart and I drove all around searching for the fishes. We tried on a very very full river, where we caught a lot of branches (above and below water) and one pathetically tiny fish (that I was irrationally excited about) then decided to move to a lake, home of Stuart’s childhood lucky fish-catching log, where after much bush-wacking we indeed had more luck.

Kind of. For a solid few hours we stood on the lucky log, fishless, fiddling with poles and lures and bobbers and lures and worms. Also known as, I stood around enjoying my long-missed and beloved sun for a couple hours while Stuart fiddled with poles and lures and bobbers and lures and worms. Sometimes it’s really nice to be a girl and get to be a little bit of a wimp. (This will become even more important later.) We had many trials and tribulations, stolen worms and lost bobbers, but at long last, fortified by english muffins and avocados and equipped with MacGyver-d poles, I CAUGHT A FISH. Such excitement I have never known! All gear problems and impending boredom are instantly forgotten in the extraordinary thrill of that fishy little tug from the depths. I immediately understood all those old men camped out on docks for hours. Because once you start reeling, start this life-or-death tug-of-war with that shiny little trout, it’s the battle of a lifetime. And when his shimmering little body flings from the water, twisting like a mad thing, there is nothing you want more than to dominate that creature.

Net forgotten, we caught him in a plastic bag, this once lunch sack now home to to a living thing fighting for life. And here’s me, killing it. It’s a weird feeling to kill something. Especially to kill something…you’re going to eat. Back on sturdier land, off the mossy log, we pulled the first catch out of the bag and looked at ’em, both giddy with our success. I had no idea what came next, I sort of imagined that you just caught it and that was it, your work was done. Not so. First a solid whack to the head, then retrieval of the hook. (Not done by me, thankfully not within realm of girl duties.) Even though he died for it, Monsieur Fish does not get to keep the hook. Instead, Stuart held open his creepy little mouth and pried it from his gills, a procedure that produced a lot of blood. I think my eyes were wider than they ever have been and I think I mumbled “oh, I didn’t really know fish had blood…”

But I got over my hint of squeamishness and fish-thirst set in. Once you’ve got one, you want more. A lot more. Four sizable trout later (two me, two S, although he most definitely did 75% of the work for all of mine…I am neither a very talented caster or a very steady reller-in-er…I get too excited.) Then homeward, for the gory part. Bellies open, guts out. Surprisingly more fascinating than gross. Although I excused myself to dig their guts’ graves after a couple of these operations to ensure that I would still eat the little guys. (And, I have to admit, I think the bloody fish gutting photos are really oddly lovely.)

THEN, the cooking! Here’s where I’m finally useful. I basically stuffed them with butter and fried them in butter. Can’t go wrong with butter. They’re such tender little guys, their spines and ribcages just peeling away from the barely pink meat when they’re done.

Eaten with asparagus and roast potatoes and a lot of pride in a very cozy cabin. From lake to log to lakeside to cooler to fish operating room to pan to plate. If it was that much work for everything we eat, we’d think about food in a very different way. (And …we’d be a pre-modern society.) The first time I ever cooked something I caught, the first time I ever ate something I killed. Pretty thrilling, pretty tasty.

(And backwoods-style lox n’ bagels the next morning, trout n’ english muffins.)

Once the coffee shop people started giving me the funny “are you homeless or do you really have this much homework” look, I scooped up all my scribbley papers and scuttled across the street to Yume Sushi to meet the other two A’s for dinner. Starving me had (really good) miso soup and (pretty ok) gyoza while everyone else patiently waited for their meals like big kids. Alex had fried rice, Ariana an assortment of pretty rolls, Anne a bunch of little bits and pieces because I like marking a lot of boxes on the fish form. Flying fish roe (which I think I really freaked out Alex by eating), spicy tuna (my favorite), regular maguro, and “sweet shrimp,” which I’d never had before. Usually shrimp sushi is cooked (training wheels sushi), but this was raw and really quite good (and accompanied by a decorative bug-eyed, antennaed tempura-d prawn head, always fun). And the tuna was awesome, I just tried not think about it too much- sorry Greenpeace. Pretty good sushi, pretty good little sushi bar. Full of misplaced Ringling hipsters and confused ancients trying to be cool, eating their sashimi with knife and fork. Even complete with the chatty posse of sushi dudes behind the bar, smacking around knives and rolling up delicate little crazy-named rolls for the masses.

Plate of sushi, boat of sake.

And after dinner, A & A finally agreed to go to White Berry (knock-off Pink Berry, yes) with me, much to my delight. I’ve been wanting to go to the overpriced, mod little yogurt joint all year, and Coldstone always wins out. But at last, I got my plain-and-green tea swirled yogurt with blackberries and fruity pebbles, which I happily ¬†devoured, perched in my little space-age orb chair in the shockingly pink shop.