El Celler de Can Roca, Girona, Spain
Every night, the three Roca brothers come crawling through the river with torches and into the kitchen. That’s where our story begins.
2013 Best Restaurant in the World
Look. We get it. You can’t decide on the best restaurant in the universe. It’s all subjective. There is a thread on Chowhound right now with over 100 replies where everyone hates on best lists. But I think it’s fun to ask a bunch of people who know good food what they would call their best experience that year, and then to hand out awards. So that other people in the world can try out great restaurants that they maybe didn’t know were awesome.
El Celler de Can Roca was voted #1 best restaurant in the world in 2013 – The first restaurant to knock Noma off the king’s chair after a solid 3 year run in the #1 spot (incidentally, El Celler de Can Roca is currently #2, and Noma is back on top. All hail the king).
Noma is where I experienced the best and most creative meal of my life, and in my opinion, it was a well-deserved 3 year monarchy and nomination back to the top.
The World’s 50 Best Restaurants
Who decides such a list? Over 900 industry experts (i.e. people who like to eat food and have been given food-related jobs for doing so. Dream.) from all over the world cast votes, and once a year, we get the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. They must have gone to each restaurant within the previous 18 months, and at least 3 of their choices must be outside of their region. Mix it up.
Towards the end of 2013, my roommate and I decided we should take a trip every quarter to visit one of the restaurants on the Top 50 list. For the #1 restaurant on the list, El Celler de Can Roca, we would have to wait until the end of 2014 to make that visit because they fill up 11 months in advance.
Date of reservation request: December 1st, 2013
Date of dinner reservation: November 21, 2014
Nearly a full calendar year in advance.
How to reserve for El Celler de Can Roca:
Reservations open exactly 11 months in advance, and you can reserve by email. Imagine that inbox. I tried and failed every month, starting in August. “I’m sorry, we are fully booked for the next 11 months. We’re kind of a big deal.”
They didn’t say that last part. I clearly needed to be more strategic. At exactly 12:01am on Dec. 1st, the day they would start accepting November 2014 bookings, I sent an email requesting any weekend in November.
Success! A few days later, I received a glorious response informing me that I had a table. Let the countdown begin…Only 355 days to go, 10 days short of an entire year.
The Day Arrives
Fast forward 11.75 months, and my foodie roommate (we’ll call her Froomie) and I are sipping cava on the main square of Girona, counting down the 1.5 hours until our eating extravaganza begins.
As we are sitting there sipping away, Froomie’s left eye, which had been watering since we were fancying ourselves up in the hotel room, has now begun to flow an endless stream of tears. She goes through a mountain of napkins in the process of catching the tear flow, and by the time we enter a taxi, her eye is swollen AND weeping.
It’s exactly what you want when you’ve waited for nearly a year, bought a plane ticket solely for one meal, and are about to drop a cool 200 plus euros. So please keep in mind our dear Froomie, sitting across the table from me, looking down at her lap with one eye shut as she eats.
Knowing that unfortunate bit of info, and with compassion in our hearts, let us proceed with the meal.
To the left, behind those bushes, large windows give into the kitchen. Unlike this photo, lovingly borrowed from their website, it was dark and the courtyard was empty, and I crept over into the bushes to spy on the kitchen because I have a thing for chefs and kitchens, and this provided the perfect set-up for me to be a creepy stalker. Why would I take a picture of the courtyard when I have chefs to look at?
“For me, a handshake from a great chef is as sacred as a benediction from the Pope.” –Michel Montignac
Agreed, except in more of a celebrity/rockstar kind of way. A chef in his kitchen in his chef smock has super powers. For me, the chef is even a step above the fireman in terms of that-uniform-and-profession-make-you-ten-times-more-attractive-regardless-of-your-actual-face.
Back to the point – There I am in the bushes, being a creeper, checking things out in the kitchen, and by things, I mean chefs. Looking good.
We checked in at the front desk, where three men were authoritatively sipping wine (more on them later), and followed the hostess to our table.
The dimly lit dining room is a gorgeous design, with tables surrounding a triangular glass enclosure of trees, and you instantly feel that this is a special experience based on the atmosphere alone.
We immediately received a glass of Champagne (or, more likely, Cava) in beautiful stemware that I plan to hunt down and purchase. I’m not sure if this is standard procedure, but I received it with gladness in my heart towards the Roca brothers all the same.
There are two tasting menu options:
The Classic Menu:
- 7 courses (5 savory & 2 desserts) for 160 euros
- 55 euros for wine pairings
We were definitely interested in the classic dishes that had contributed to the restaurant’s fame, but everyone at the table has to have the same menu, and there was a second choice:
The Feast Menu:
- 14 courses (11 savory & 3 desserts) for 195 euros
- 90 euros for wine pairings
Normally, 195 euros would seem excessive, but if we are talking bang for your buck, we can get twice as many courses for a mere 35 euros more. At this point, sitting in last year’s best restaurant in the world, what is a 35 euro upgrade? Gluttons that we are, when it came to trying 14 courses vs. 7, it took but a shrug of the shoulders and a nodding of the head – we would be having the Feast.
Disclaimer before diving in: In an effort to be discreet, I did not bring my SLR, and only snapped a quick photo of each dish with my iPhone, so there will not be any award winning photos here. But I have a pretty great story at the end, so do stick around for the best part.
Ok, let’s go.
No sooner had we had ordered the Feast menu, than our server returned, swooping in with a beautiful paper balloon tied shut with a satin ribbon. Let the games begin.
He pulled the ribbon apart, lifted the balloon, and presented our first 5 treats, bites from around the world (delivered by mini hot air balloon). This was the first of six amuse-bouches, bringing our total number of courses to 20.
- Mexico: Burrito with poblano mole & guacamole
- Turkey: Tartlet of vine leaf with lentil puree, eggplant and Arabian spices, goat yogurt & cucumber
- China: Pickled vegetables with plum cream
- Korea: Panco fried bread, bacon with soy sauce, kimchi & sesame oil
- Morocco: Almond, rose, honey, saffron, goat yogurt
I present to you the world’s tiniest burrito. Do not drop it.
Then, continuing with the theme of baller amuse bouches, a baby olive tree is delivered to our table, where we find two caramelized olives hanging from the branches.
Coral: Pickled barnacles with bay leaves and sea bream ceviche, on coral reef serving platter.
These are some classy amuse-bouches. My bouche is amused.
Carpano bonbon with grapefruit and black sesame
Iberian suckling pig rind on crispy fried corn chips
Autumn Vegetable Stock
Mashed parsnip, pumpkin emulsion, pomegranate, hazelnut, dices of turnip, chervil root, salsify, beetroot, spinach, chestnut, mushrooms, and radish
Truffled brioche & truffled bon bon
I believe this is still part of the amuse bouche section since it wasn’t on the menu, but no one is complaining that yet another extra surprise course came after the officially listed first course.
Mackerel with Pickles and Mullet Roe
Mackerel sauce with white wine, lemon, capers, chilies, and vinegar, fried tomato, mullet roe, mackerel marinated in sugar and salt. Mackerel infusion.
Three Flavor Corn Ice Cream
Three distinct Neapolitan corn layers: Fermented corn & toasted corn sable / Huitlacoche and fried huitlacoche (What is huitlacoche, you say? Oh it’s just corn smut) / Fried corn and vanilla
You corn smut.
Prawn with Vinegar – My favorite dish of the evening.
Head juice, crispy fried prawn legs, prawn veloute, prawn marinated in rice vinegar. My first time eating prawn legs, and who knew they could be so delicious.
Starting top left going clockwise:
1. Surf and Turf: Sardine with pork jowl, charcoal-grilled sardine-bone broth, suckling pig sauce, and chervil oil
2. Skate confit with mustard oil, hazelnut butter, honey, chardonnay vinegar, bergamot, aromatic mustard, confit capers, and smoked hazelnuts
3. Oyster with Anemone: Sous-vide cooked oyster at 85 degrees for 5 minutes, anemone sauce, garlic sand, tender walnut, seaweed, phytoplankton veloute
4. Chestnuts and Smoked Eel: Charcoal-grilled chestnuts, smoked eel, tarragon, fennel, caramelized orange, toasted butter, and yuzu
Iberian suckling pig with figs and carob mole – a standout dish.
Veal (slow cooked for 72 hours) and Saint George’s mushrooms, marrow, tendons, avocado and truffle – Another standout, if you’re the kind of person who likes flavorful meat to melt in your mouth along with its truffles.
Pigeon Trilogy: Botifarró (a type of Catalonia blood sausage) and Tatje pigeon breast.
Pigeon heart and the cloud of rice with pigeon stock. The pigeon heart is pâté made to look like a heart on puffed rice, served with a tiny glass of concentrated pigeon stock.
But if they had served me a pigeon heart, I would’ve eaten it, though I’d imagine it’s very small. Since moving to France, I have had duck heart, chicken heart, deer heart, rabbit kidneys, calf brain, all kinds of livers. I am no longer afraid. These things can be made delicious. The first time I ate a chicken heart, it was on accident. They delivered the wrong dish, and I could tell it was an organ of some type, but tricked my picky-eater friend into thinking it was a mushroom and pretended I didn’t know it was. Surprise twist: She loved it, even though she hates a whole lot of normal things like PIZZA and SANDWICHES (Love you Brookie). But she liked the chicken heart. So just saying, if you don’t like stuff, come to France, try it all, and don’t think about what you’re eating. Time for dessert?
Sourdough ice cream with cocoa pulp, dried lychee, and Jerez vinegar meringue, presented on a beating heart. The white plastic platform beats up and down in the rhythm of a heartbeat to remind you of the living yeast used to make sourdough.
Chocolate Anarchy – 50 different distinct types & textures of chocolate.
Orange colourology (orange, tangerine, egg yolk, passion fruit, carrot)
Then, finally, (because I needed more food after all this) the man with the post-dessert dessert trolly came around with his plethora of goodies. I had been eyeing his journey around the room as he brought his mobile cart of delights around to everyone as they finished their meals. He very carefully selected a plate of mini desserts for us, and took his job VERY seriously. You would have thought he was disassembling a bomb with the look of concentration and earnestness on his face. Probably takes a lot of self control not to eat the whole cart in front of customers. I get it.
In case you can’t tell, there are 12 different things here for us to try for our post-dessert dessert. This is perhaps one of the greatest reigning features of 2 and 3 Michelin star restaurants: After eating two, maybe three, desserts, they then typically have not only a cheese tray, but a dessert trolly of “mignardises”, or mini desserts/chocolates/candies, for you to finish everything off with that final round of sweets. It often means 4 solid rounds of dessert, and I will always be for that.
Overall, it was a memorable dining experience with fun, unique, interesting dishes, both beautiful and technical, with some playful touches like the beating heart. And those amuse bouche presentations. I do have to admit that when I went to Noma in 2012 (#1 that year and currently), they blew me away, and I could see instantly why they were voted best restaurant in the world. No restaurant since then has been able to top the overall experience that Noma provided, but El Celler de Can Roca certainly deserves its current #2 ranking after King Noma.
What happens next, post-dessert, is the defining moment of my experience here, a story in itself. It involves this: