El Celler de Can Roca is considered one of the best restaurants in the world. You usually have to go to Spain to get a dish like this
El Celler de Can Roca is one of the best restaurants in the world, lauded for its inventive, playful, and serious cuisine. It’s located in the small city of Girona, Spain, an hour or so outside of Barcelona, and accepts reservations a year in advance — and if you want to book a table at the beautiful place, you’d best do so at least nine months ahead.
It’s run by the Roca brothers — Joan, Jordi, and Josep — and I attest, from personal experience, that all the accolades are deserved. A meal there is a wonderful journey for all of your senses… you’ll dine with your eyes and brain and heart and palate in an uncommon way.
One cannot head over to Spain on a weekly basis, of course, but some Houstonians were fortunate this week, because El Celler de Can Roca came to them.
BBVA Compass sponsors the Roca siblings and their culinary and educational endeavors around the world, and hosted Joan this week for two feasts at BCN Taste & Tradition as part of Super Bowl LI festivities. BCN is, in my opinion, one of Houston’s best restaurants. Of course, it specializes in the cuisines of Spain, and does that well, so it is appropriate that El Celler set up shop for a few days in the charming circa-1920 bungalow. (The Rocas have cooked in Houston before with BBVA, so this was a welcome return engagement.)
To the tasting menu lunch: The afternoon was mild and sunny, the sunlight was streaming through the windows, and the guests were expectant. Spanish wines were served as apéritifs as we mingled — Fino Tio Pepe González Byass D.O. Jerez and Cava Gramona III Lustors Gran Reserva 2007 D.O. — and jamón ibérico was passed around, draped on pan tomat.
Once the guests were seated, the show began. And it was a tasteful show; the service at BCN is exemplary and understated, and several front-of-the-house staffers traveled with Joan Roca to Houston. Tables of 12 or so guests were treated to a spectacle of timed service and graceful maneuvering. Not a stem was out of place, not a course served clumsily.
We started with Dig Into the World, Roca’s representation of the cuisines of five lands: Thailand, Japan, China, Korea, and Peru. Korea was for me the standout, a fried bread with pork belly that had been cooked in soy sauce; kimchi completed the bite. These worldly creations, all exquisite miniatures full of profound flavors, were brought to the table hidden from view by a paper covering, each “globe” opened simultaneously.
The main courses were next, six dishes that lacked nothing: the art, the color, the textures, the bouquet … all of those things and more. A translucent consommé with marinated scallops — paired with the 2013 Taleia Sauvignon Blanc, Castell D’Encus — was delicate, the consommé possessing an ever so slightly viscous consistency, which made the flavors in it linger on the palate. Paper-thin vegetables floated on the liquid, evoking a shimmering, clear pond.
An oyster dish followed. The poached bivalves were accompanied with fennel sauce, black garlic, apple, algae, mushrooms, and a sauce made of anemones. The sauce tied everything together here; it was delicate yet redolent of fennel, which married well with the flavors of the oysters and their accompaniments. A 2014 As Sortes Godello from Rafael Palacios was an inspired pairing.
Shrimp came next, perhaps my favorite course of the repast. I love a good sauce, and the one here was made well. Using the juice from the heads of the crustaceans, along with their shells and legs, produced a rich and luxurious potion. The shrimp, translucent and tender and soft, shone. The crunchy legs in the dish provided textural difference, and the algae velouté gave a wonderful contrasting flavor.
These shrimp were prepared perfectly… it is not necessary to cook shrimp so long that they become desiccated.
Continuing the sea motif, we moved to mackerel, served with sherry, orange, almonds and an olive emulsion. Again, art on a plate, symbiotic and dynamic flavors, and, above all, a demonstration of treating food with exacting respect. The El Celler team served AB Amontillado Sherry from González Byass with this course, a natural and just pairing. The fish was everything mackerel should be, and took me back to the Basque region.
Red sea bream was the final seafood course, and it took its place with beauty. Stained glass? Jewelry? It made me think of both. The jewel-like vegetables atop the fish was the Roca version of Samfaina (think of ratatouille): eggplant, peppers, zucchini.
These thin “stones” adhered to the bream and enhanced its flavor. The fish was swimming in a suquet (stew) made from the bones of the bream. A California Pinot Noir played with this course, Mas Cavalis from the Sonoma Coast.
To the final savory course, and a great one it was. Suckling pig — Ibérico, of course — with a skin so thin and crisp that it melted in one’s mouth as if it were a (flavorful) communion wafer. I separated the skin from the meat and enjoyed it on its own. A green papaya salad, Thai grapefruit, and purées of lime, cilantro, and chili pepper rounded out the wonder. We went back to Spain for the pairing — a 2009 Vega-Sicilia Valbuena 5, Ribera del Duero.
Desserts. One cannot overlook Roca desserts. These — there were two — were light and simple and closed the meal properly. First was Lemon Cloud, an ethereal and refreshing dish based on a perfume of which the brothers are fond (a cone adorned with the scent was placed above the dish for comparison).
Meringue, ice cream, mousse… it was all here, and altogether satisfying. And what better to serve with this than a 2009 Joh. Jos. Prüm Himmelreich Spaetlese? Get your hands on some of this wine.
Vanilla had the final say. A dessert that made me smile. Vanilla in so many ways and textures. Cake-like pieces dotted the plate, as did spheres of custard-like consistency. My dining companions smiled as well while enjoying this with Noe Pedro Ximenez sherry from González Byass.
The three hours seemed one. Joan Roca stood at the entrance to the restaurant, bidding all farewell, shaking hands and kissing cheeks and thinking of the meal that was to be served the following evening.
Food such as this is rare in these parts, sadly.