El Celler de Can Roca review

El Celler de Can Roca review

by Gemma Harrison 1 June 2015

On a recent foodie trip to Catalonia, Gemma Harrison visited El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, ranked at number 1 in the World's 50 Best Restaurants.

Gemma can usually be found in a restaurant, at a food festival or cooking at home.

Gemma studied Music at the University of Surrey, but her passion for food and wine led her to work firstly for an online wine, beers and spirits retailer and then Catering Services in the House of Commons. Outside of work she can usually be found in a restaurant, at a food festival or cooking at home.

Now ranked at number 1 by the World's 50 Best Restaurants 2015 (rising from number 2 in 2014), El Celler de Can Roca is Spain’s most lauded 3 Michelin-starred restaurant. Picking up the Catalan culinary baton from Ferran Adrià’s elBulli are the three Roca brothers: Joan (Head Chef), Josep (Sommelier) and Jordi (Pastry Chef). In their own words, the restaurant is ‘avant-garde, but still faithful to the memory of different generations of the family's ancestors dedicated to feeding people’ - and this evident from the moment you arrive.

To secure a coveted table at El Celler de Can Roca, you’ll need to book 11 months in advance – and so on the third time of trying, I finally managed to get a reservation (I actually found easier to get into the Fat Duck). I arranged a trip to Barcelona around the date of the reservation, and after a few days of eating my way through the city’s tapas (and doubling the weight of my suitcase with food and wine), it was time to catch the train to Girona.

The restaurant has an understated beauty, with the centrepiece being a tree-filled open air triangle. There were two tasting menus on offer – either the 7 course Classic menu or the 14 course Feast menu and we chose the latter with paired wines (it was unlikely we’d be here again, after all). The meal began with a series of amuse bouche – with ‘The World’ first up. Revealed from underneath a Chinese lantern style cover were 5 expressions of national dishes. From left to right – China: pickled vegetables with plum cream; Morocco: almond, rose, honey, saffron, ras el hanout, goat yoghurt; Turkey: tartlet of vine leaf with lentil purée, eggplant and spices, goat yoghurt and raw cucumber; Korea: panko fried bread, bacon with soy sauce, kimchi and sesame oil; Mexico: ‘burrito’ with mole poblano and guacamole. This dish really set the tone of the meal to come – lots of theatre, with a series of flavour explosions and surprises.

The World El Celler de Can Roca
'The World'
Memories of a bar in the suburbs of Girona
'Memories of a bar in the suburbs of Girona'

Next was ‘Memories of a bar in the suburbs of Girona’ – the Roca brothers’ take on the tapas their parents served in their restaurant. Again, presentation is crucial to the dish – a cardboard pop up scene of each brother as a child is placed on your plate, along with seemingly classic, yet incredibly modern miniature tapas – back row: breaded squid, anchovy bone in rice tempura, potato and onion omelette; front row: Campari, kidneys in Sherry.

The next dish is simply called ‘Caramelised Olive’ – but in typical Roca style, presentation is key – with four olives coated in caramel, hung from an olive tree. Considering most of us are now familiar with salted caramel, I didn’t find this combination particularly jarring, and I’d love to have a bowl of them as a bar snack. Then came ‘Coral: pickled barnacles with bay leaves and albariño’ and ‘sea bream ceviche’ – the former perhaps less successful than the latter (the albariño foam was a little too reminiscent of washing up liquid).

The ‘mackerel with pickles and mullet roe’ shimmered in the light – literally, as the sauce contained liquid silver.

The next two courses were less ambitious in presentation, but this didn’t stop them being the best tasting of all the snacks. Squares of Iberian suckling pig with their soft, salty flesh and crispy skin were placed on top of silky guacamole and corn crisps; and then St George’s mushrooms two ways – ‘bon bon’ (coated in white chocolate) and ‘brioche’ (similar in texture to a Tawainese bao and filled with a mushroom purée).

Now it was onto the first of the 14 courses proper. ‘Spring vegetable stock’ was an extremely delicate vegetable emulsion with tiny pieces of carrot, baby broad beans, flat beans, flowers and leaves. A perfect palate cleanser after the richness of the snacks.

Mexican flavours have already made several appearances on the menu (which is no surprise considering Spain’s influence on the country) and each layer of the sweetcorn ice cream was really something to savour. Made up of ‘fermented corn and toasted corn sable, huitlacoche and fried huitlacoche, fried corn and vanilla’, my favourite was the black huitlacoche (a fungus that grows on the ears of corn), its earthy flavour working really well against the sweetness of the fermented corn and vanilla layers.

Next up was a run of fish dishes, starting with ‘cuttlefish with peas: pea pesto, cuttlefish ink and coral’. Cuttlefish has a tendency to be a rather bland fish, but the pea and cuttlefish ink had a big impact on flavour. The ‘mackerel with pickles and mullet roe’ shimmered in the light – literally, as the sauce contained liquid silver.

El Celler de Can Roca's Iberian suckling pig
Iberian suckling pig
Mackerel with pickles and mullet roe at El Celler de Can Roca
Mackerel with pickles and mullet roe
Prawn marinated with rice vinegar from El Celler de Can Roca
Prawn marinated with rice vinegar

The ‘prawn marinated with rice vinegar’ was without doubt my favourite of the fish dishes; the sweet, juicy prawn was just stunning and perfectly matched by the ‘head juice, crispy prawn legs, seaweed velouté and phytoplankton’. The ‘oyster with anemone’ was gone in an instant – but the seaweed and apple were a great salty-sweet contrast.

‘Confit skate with mustard oil, beurre noisette, honey, chardonnay vinegar, bergamot, aromatic mustard, confit capers and smoked hazelnuts’ was the last of the pure fish dishes, and the skate was silky smooth, carrying the myriad of strong flavours beautifully. The last course in this section was ‘Surf and turf: sardine with pork jowl, charcoal-grilled sardine-bone broth, suckling pig sauce and chervil oil’ – probably the cleverest take on surf and turf I’ve ever had. What appears to be a fillet of sardine, is actually just the skin, covering the pork jowl beneath.

The meat, sauce and mushrooms were incredibly rich, but the avocado cut through that richness sympathetically – not too sharp, just enough.

From what seemed like endless fish courses, it was finally time for the meat – and these dishes didn’t disappoint. To begin there was ‘Iberian suckling pig with charcoal-grilled young garlic, garlic pesto, black garlic and “nyores a l’all”’. On paper this dish looks to have far too much garlic, but each element was perfectly balanced (although I do love garlic, so perhaps I’m a little biased). Saint George’s mushrooms made another appearance, this time with veal shin, marrow, tendons, avocado and morels. The meat, sauce and mushrooms were incredibly rich, but the avocado cut through that richness sympathetically – not too sharp, just enough.

Our last meat course was the most impressive of them all – ‘pigeon triology: pigeon heart and the cloud of rice, pigeon stock, “Botifarró” and Tatjé pigeon breast’. The pigeon heart was actually a mousse, the stock was warming and well flavoured, and naturally, the pigeon was cooked perfectly.

Now it was time for the youngest brother, Jordi, to shine. He was the 2014 winner of The World’s Best Pastry Chef and so I had high expectations. By the time the first dessert arrived I was beginning to feel I might not make it through to the end of the meal (there had been so much food already); but the beautifully light ‘Suspiro limeno’ had lots of zingy lime and coriander flavours that were serious wakeup call - and had a strange way of making me feel less full than I had been 5 minutes ago.

The next dessert was ‘Orange colourology’ – which pretty much does what it says on the tin. There were a range of orange colours and flavours (with a particularly focus on iced elements) and it was really refreshing. The final course in our mammoth menu was ‘Chocolate anarchy’. A riotous display of chocolate textures, this dish was technically brilliant and had the flavour profile to match.

‘Iberian suckling pig with charcoal-grilled young garlic from El Celler de Can Roca
‘Iberian suckling pig with charcoal-grilled young garlic
‘Orange colourology’ at El Celler de Can Roca
‘Orange colourology’
‘Chocolate anarchy’ at El Celler de Can Roca
‘Chocolate anarchy’

Just when I thought the meal had finished, we were bought the sweet trolley which was jam-packed with all manner of delightful petit fours. From macarons and chocolates to old fashioned ‘sweet shop’ style confections, this was a fantastic end to the meal (although I think we would have enjoyed them more if we could have taken them away to have later).

My meal at El Celler de Can Roca was one of my best eating experiences since The Fat Duck. Even though the ‘molecular gastronomy’ scene isn’t enjoying the popularity it once had, every now and then it’s nice to spend a whole afternoon in a beautiful setting with incredible food and wonderful staff.

For those on a gastronomical tour of Spain, El Celler de Can Roca is a must-visit restaurant – find out more here.