The World’s Best Restaurant — the finale

This posting concludes a mini-series on our recent trip from our French village of Daglan to the northeast of Spain. Our vacation centred on Barcelona and the Costa Brava area, with the highlight being our September 23rd lunch at Girona’s El Celler de Can Roca, reputedly 2015’s No. 1 restaurant in the world.

So far, in three postings,  I’ve provided some overview comments on El Celler de Can Roca, plus descriptions and photographs of the starters and the “main” courses we enjoyed at our September 23rd lunch. Today I’ll conclude the series on a sweet note — a look at our desserts.

First up was a light dish called “Suspiro limeno,” shown below. Although it looked something like a slice of white cheese,  our menu explained that it was constructed of “Milk, lime, coriander, milk caramel, pisco.” Quite refreshing.

Our first break from the fish and meat dishes.

Our first break from the fish and meat dishes.

Then came this beautiful blue bowl, filled with “Turkish perfume” — meaning that it offered the scents and tastes of “Rose, peach, saffron, cumin, cinnamon and pistachio.” It was also delicious (and light), but the best was yet to come.

A beautiful mix of fllavours in a beautiful bowl.

A beautiful mix of flavours in a beautiful bowl.

And here’s your first view of what we thought was perhaps the most perfect — or at least perfectly amazing — dish of the meal. Our menu describes it simply as “Orange colourology,” and provides no clue as to the ingredients. As you’ll see, it looks like a very large pearl.

At first blush, it's a perfect sphere. What's inside?

At first blush, it’s a perfect sphere. What’s inside?

As you get closer, however, you can see through the outer shell. And there you find a variety of flower petals , arranged inside. Have a look:

A close-up shows that there's lots going on inside the sphere.

A close-up shows that there’s lots going on inside the sphere.

Finally, we each broke open our desserts to find not only flower petals but a delicious cream, plus little tasty spheres. It’s hard to describe the mix of textures and flavours, but the overall effect was truly outstanding.

Broken open, the delicious goodies are revealed.

Broken open, the delicious goodies are revealed.

Of course, once the dessert plates were cleared away and our coffees ordered, we were served the obligatory collection of mignardises — a rich variety of fruits and candies and cookies. Here’s one of the trays on our table:

The final act -- a tray of goodies to enjoy with the coffees.

The final act — a tray of goodies to enjoy with the coffees.

And then it was all over, and time to get back on the mini-bus we had hired to take the 10 of us back to the house we were renting, overlooking the Mediterranean. As the centrepiece of our vacation in Spain, lunch at El Celler de Can Roca had more than met our expectations.

Finally, three cheers for the three Roca brothers and the roles they play– Joan Roca as head chef, Jordi as pastry chef and Josep as sommelier. Thanks for the memories.

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The World’s Best Restaurant — the mains

This continues a mini-series of postings on our recent trip from our French village of Daglan,  for a vacation in Barcelona and the Costa Brava area of northeast Spain.

My last posting showcased the parade of amuse-bouches and soups that kicked off our September 23rd lunch at Girona’s El Celler de Can Roca, reputedly 2015’s No. 1 restaurant in the world.

Today, I’ll unveil what you might call the “mains,” or else the fish/seafood/meat dishes. Because our lunch was a tasting menu, all the dishes were still pretty small as opposed to “main” in the sense of large. As it happens, it was in this part of our meal where I would have liked a change or two. Suggestions to come at the end of this posting, so stay tuned.

First off came this dish which, for me, remains something of a mystery. I know I ate it, I know I thought it tasted fine, but I didn’t really understand what it was. The menu explains: “‘Ajoblanco’ ice cream with meringue of Jerez, chlorophyll and sardine.” (Evidently, ajo blanco is a traditional Spanish cold soup, made with almonds, garlic, and olive oil.) Here’s my serving:

Pretty tasty, although I'm not really sure what it was.

Pretty tasty, although I’m not really sure what it was.

Next came one of the more visually stunning dishes. This was”Mackerel with pickles and mullet roe,” more fully described as “mackerel sauce with white wine, lemon, capers and chilies in vinegar, fried tomato, mullet roe, mackerel marinated in sugar and salt.” The sauce at top and bottom was made to resemble the skeleton of the fish, and so it all looked as good as it tasted. Bravo!Perhaps the most beautiful of all our dishes at lunch.

Perhaps the most beautiful of all our dishes at lunch.

This next dish was unusual primarily because the worst looking bits were perhaps the best tasting. This was “Prawns marinated with rice vinegar,” further  described as including “head juice, crispy prawn legs, seaweed velouté and phytoplankton.” Our server encouraged us to eat the prawn legs and I’d have to say that they were yummy. The prawns were good too, but I think the blob of phytoplankton could have been left in the sea. Here it is:

Yes, you eat the legs. No, really, you do!

Yes, you eat the legs. No, really, you do!

At this point in the meal, I may have lost the plot temporarily, because I don’t seem to have a photo of “Oyster with anemone,” which evidently included “anemone sauce, ‘ajoblanco’ sand, tender walnut, seaweeds and apple.” Late note: After this was first posted, our friend Dave emailed me from Toronto with a photo of the oyster dish he had taken at our lunch. So, courtesy of Dave, here it is:

Looks pretty tasty, doesn't it?

Looks pretty tasty, doesn’t it?

I did gather my wits in time to get a photograph of the next dish, which was “Confit skate with mustard oil, beurre noisette, honey, chardonnay vinegar, bergamot, aromatic mustard, confit capers and smoked hazelnuts.” (Phew!) Delicious, but just a bit too tiny — I think that my fish was eaten before I had consumed even half of the various sauces and decorations.

This was light and slippery and perhaps a bit too small.

This was light and slippery and delicious but perhaps a bit too small.

To finish off the fish/seafood section of this symphony, we were served “Blackspot seabream with ‘samfaina’,” which is a kind of cooked-down, finely chopped ratatouille. Here’s my dish:

Some nicely cooked fish with samfaina (whatever).

Some nicely cooked fish with “samfaina.”

Then we left the sea, so to speak, climbed up onto the land, and were served “Iberian suckling pig with figs and carob mole.” The pig had been cooked, we were told, for 36 hours, presumably at an incredibly low temperature. Whatever — I could have eaten three or four more of these servings. Here it is:

Nothing wrong with this that three or four more wouldn't cure.

Nothing wrong with this that three or four more wouldn’t cure.

Moving right along, we went from suckling pig to “Lamb with eggplant and chickpea purée, lamb’s trotters and spicy tomato.” What can I say? It was good!

Our lamb dish.

Our lamb dish.

Last of the meat dishes was “Veal oyster blade and tuber aestivum, marrow, tendons and avocado.” Of course it was good, but by this point my interest was flagging a bit. Here’s my serving:

A final meat dish, involving "veal oyster blade."

A final meat dish, involving “veal oyster blade.”

And that wraps up the fish/seafood/meat section of the lunch.  Delicious, of course, but I was bothered just a bit by the steady procession of very small dishes that — while original — were somehow a bit similar. Most of the flesh seemed to have been cooked sous vide (at low temperatures, for a long time) and most of the dishes were saucy, if not soupy.

Somewhere along the line, I would have knocked out at least a couple if not three or four dishes, and inserted one larger “main” — perhaps a larger piece of the roast suckling pig. Or an unusual seafood dish like the one that was served to our friend Jill, on her trip to Spain last year — a dish that featured a fairly large octopus tentacle. Or perhaps an entire deboned poussin (young chicken) that was stuffed with something amazing and then roasted. I would have liked the change, and would have seen the “main” dish as a centrepiece of the meal.

However, I am pretty confident that Chef will not be calling upon me for suggestions, since his restaurant is already No. 1 in the world, which is hard to top. Ah well.

In my next posting, I’ll conclude this review of El Celler de Can Roca with a look at the desserts — one of which was probably the star of the entire meal.

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The World’s Best Restaurant — the starters

This continues a mini-series of postings on our recent trip from Daglan,  for a vacation in Barcelona and the Costa Brava area of northeast Spain.

In my last posting, I provided an introduction and overview comments on our September 23rd lunch in Girona at El Celler de Can Roca, which this year regained its title as No. 1 among The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Today I’ll start showcasing the actual food, starting with the amuse-bouches and then the entrées. As  it happens, these dishes include two of the most memorable taste sensations of the meal. As you’ll see throughout this and the next couple of postings (main courses, and then desserts), a big part of the experience at El Celler de Can Roca is theatre, including different, and often unusual, flatware and accessories at every step.

And speaking of theatre, here is how the first amuse-bouches were presented — inside a black paper globe for each of us seated at our table for 10:

A bit of drama to begin our lunch.

A bit of drama to begin our lunch.

The dramatic presentation illustrates the fact that the next few taste treats represent different foods from around the world. To be precise (verbatim from our menu): Mexico: “burrito” with mole poblano and guacamole; Turkey: tartlet of vine leaf with lentil purée, eggplant and spices, goat yoghurt and raw cucumber; China: pickled vegetables with plum cream; Morocco: almond, rose, honey, saffron, ras el hanout, goat yoghurt; Korea: panco fried bread, bacon with soya sauce, kimchi and sesame oil.

And here’s how some of these looked, after the paper globe was taken away:

Several amuse-bouches, perched on a wooden base.

Several amusebouches, perched on a wooden base.

The next set of amuse-bouches was called “Memories of a bar in the suburbs of Girona,” and the accessory this time was a pop-up made of white cardboard, meant to depict the three Roca brothers as youngsters in their parents’ bar. Here’s the pop-up “bar” that was set on my plate:

The three Roca brothers depicted in their parents' restaurant.

The three Roca brothers, as youths in their parents’ bar.

Once this little stage setting was in place, our servers inserted several amuse-bouches. This time, we had (verbatim from our menu): “breaded squid, kidneys in Sherry, potato and onion omelet, anchovy bone in rice tempura, Campari bonbon.” All of the little bites were tasty, but my favourite up to this point in our lunch was — believe it or not — the anchovy bone in rice tempura. It was tiny (as you’ll see in the photo below) but crunchy and full of flavour. Delicious!

The anchovy bone is at the rear of the little "stage."

The anchovy bone is at the rear of the little “stage.”

Then came what I thought was the most amazing creation of the entire meal. The menu describes it simply as green olive ice cream. What arrived at our table were a few small trees, with green olives hanging from the branches by tiny silver hooks (stamped with the ever-present R, for Roca).

Each of us were able to pluck two olives from our tree, and I thought they were brilliant. Somehow the olives  hung on the tree branches without dripping, but they melted immediately once in the mouth, bursting with the unmistakable taste of green olives. Wonderful! As you’ll see just behind the tree in the photo below, we also received small wooden platters with yet another amuse-bouche — “Crispy corn with Iberian suckling pig rind.”

A miniature olive tree at our table.

A miniature olive tree at our table.

Our next tasting arrived on yet another beautiful and unusual accessory — a sort of silver tree. Here’s ours, holding the next set of amusebouches for Jan and me: “Coral: Pickled barnacles with bay leaves and albarino. Seabream ceviche.”

A silver tree containing yet more amuse-bouches.

A silver tree containing yet more amusebouches.

Because Jan is allergic to gluten, and because there must have been a gluten-containing product in one of the amusebouche, a server brought Jan her own special treat, including a cream of pine nuts, in this special spoon:

And for Jan, a gluten-free spoonful.

And for Jan, a gluten-free spoonful.

At last, we arrived at the final amusebouche, listed as “Saint George’s mushrooms bonbon”:

Last of the amuse-bouches, for this lunch anyway.

Last of the amusebouches, for this lunch anyway.

When the parade of amuse-bouches ended, it was time for the soup — well, soups actually. First came Autumn vegetable stock, with “mashed parsnip, carrot, liquified pumpkin, spinach emulsion, field peas, flat beans, flowers and leaves.” Here it is:

Delicious, and also beautiful.

Delicious, and also beautiful.

And finally we were offered this: “Soup of pistachio, cucumber, melon, goat cheese and pomegranate.” Another lovely bowl.

Small balls of soft goat cheese dot through the soup.

Small balls of soft goat cheese dot through the soup.

And thus endeth the beginning of our lunch. In my next post, I’ll unveil the “main” courses, what you might call (in France) the plat principal. Be prepared.

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The World’s Best Restaurant — an intro

Over the years, my wife Jan and I have dined in countless Michelin-starred restaurants (well, okay, at least 21 starred restaurants that I can remember), with many return visits to some of them. Their locations range from  London to  Paris, from the Cote d’Azur to the Greater Daglan Area.

Never shy about overdoing things, last year alone we ate lunch twice at the triple-starred Epicure, at the Bristol Hotel in Paris.

But until September 23 of this year, Jan and I had dined in only one place that’s named in the 2015 edition of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. That place was  Mirazur, where we had lunch with six good friends from Toronto on September 14, 2011. Mirazur is in the beautiful seaside town of Menton, in southeastern France, not far from the Italian border.

This year, Mizazur was ranked No. 11 in the world. When we ate there, four years ago, the food was wonderful and inventive, the restaurant modern and attractive, and the view over the Mediterranean was gorgeous. Unfortunately, the service was somewhere between Keystone Cops and “Bring-Your-Kids-to-Work-Day,” which detracted just a tad from the experience.

So we were obviously thrilled when our request for a reservation at this year’s No. 1 World’s Best restaurant was accepted — a lunch for 10 of us on Wednesday, September 23, at El Celler de Can Roca, in the Catalan city of Girona, in northeastern Spain.

Our group included eight friends from Toronto, all vacationing in France and Spain; together we had rented a beautiful, modern villa beside the sea. Here’s a view looking outwards from the house where we stayed:

By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea...

By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea...

In later posts, I’ll drill down a bit and show off the food we enjoyed. But in this posting, I’ll provide an introduction and some overall comments.

The list and what’s behind it. So if these are The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, who decides? From a June article in The Guardian, I learned that “The list is organised and published by William Reed Media, which says that the final rankings are derived from the votes of almost 1,000 ‘influential’ people within the restaurant community. Some French chefs have already expressed anger with the list…” Since I sincerely doubt that every single one of the voters is able to eat  in all the fine restaurants in the world, year after year, I’d say that you  should take the list with a few grains of salt. Still, I’m sure it’s indicative of quality.

My biggest surprise. To reach El Celler de Can Roca, we had arranged for a private mini-bus to ferry all 10 of us from our rented home on the coast. It was a fairly long ride, heading inland from the Mediterranean, and I have to admit that I was both surprised and disappointed to find that the restaurant was pretty much in the heart of the city of Girona (population: nearly 100,000) — with no superb views of the Mediterranean or any other body of water. What I eventually realized was that I was probably thinking of El Bulli, Ferran Adria’s outstanding restaurant that has since closed. I had never been there, but I’d seen photographs and a television documentary on it, and must have been thinking of its Mediterranean location. Ah well.

Funnily enough, I never took any photos to show off the interior of El Celler de Can Roca, except for this one shot of our table as we got settled:

Our table for 10.

Our table for 10.

As you might be able to deduce from the photo, the restaurant is modern and elegant and stylish, with simple decorations like the three stones in the centre of our table. The building itself is surrounded by walls, and you might get a sense of that from this photo of us, after our lunch:

Out in front, after our lunch.

Out in front, after our lunch.

Overall, El Celler de Can Roca is attractive and comfortable, and quite large, with a few open courtyards that do lend a bit of an “outdoor” quality, seen through the plate glass windows. Our table was tucked nicely into a corner, and screened from the rest of the room by a divider that acted as a serving station.

Personally, I did miss sitting outdoors, on a beautiful terrace,  with a view of the Med. My wife Jan, on the other hand, thought our setting was beautiful, and had no complaints. Overall, we were happy. Okay, very happy.

The restaurant basics. From the same article in The Guardian that I quoted above, here’s a nice,  simple description of the world’s best restaurant: “El Celler de Can Roca in Girona regained its top spot this year, after dropping to second place last year. The Catalan restaurant is run by three brothers: Joan Roca as head chef, Jordi as pastry chef and Josep as sommelier. It is known for taking an experimental approach that is nevertheless rooted in the culinary tradition of the region.”

What about the cost? I can hear you asking: What does one pay for lunch at the best restaurant in the world? Obviously it’s not cheap — we each paid 195 euros for the multi-course lunch (“Feast Menu, available for the entire table only”), plus an additional 90 euros for the wine pairings, chosen by the sommelier, Josep. That’s 570 euros per couple, a sum that we’re not likely to spend very often. But was it worth the cost, given what we’ve paid for other Michelin-starred meals? For sure.

The highlights. In later posts, I’ll show off specific dishes. But for this introduction, I’ll simply list the things I liked best.

  • Food: first and the last. All the food was inventive and delicious, but I found that I liked the early dishes (the amuse-bouches and the entrées) and the final dishes (desserts) the best. Why? Perhaps you’ll understand when I show off the dishes in detail in later postings.
  • The wine pairings. Overall, this was probably the best example of wine pairings we’ve ever enjoyed in any restaurant. (Cheers to you, Josep Roca!) The pours were generous, and each wine really did go amazingly well with the dish it accompanied. As well, the wines were not just Spanish wines, but also from Germany and France and Portugal. If there was a quibble, it was that each wine was described so quickly — in English, but with a heavy Spanish accent — that it was hard to know just what we were drinking. (Although we did get a printed menu, showing all the wines, at the end of our meal.)
  • The service. Flawless service was a key part of the complicated meal. I don’t think anyone missed a beat; all dishes were served on time, but we never felt rushed; the staff spoke very good English, and each server was available when needed, but never intruded. Bravo!

So that’s it for the overview. In the next posting, I’ll start working our way through the meal. You may want a siesta first.


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Snacks — before lunch at the world’s No. 1 restaurant

Today I’m continuing my travels-from-Daglan saga with a report based on our recent trip to northeast Spain — Barcelona and the Costa Brava. Following this posting, I’ll begin my review of our lunch (on September 23) at the world’s No. 1 restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona.

But before we get to world-class cuisine, let’s just have a look at some regular-class (but awfully yummy) food. Think of this as snacking before the main event.

First, the Ibérico ham that shows up at just about every restaurant and bar. No wonder it’s so popular, because it’s absolutely delicious and exceptionally tender. Here’s a platter of it (along with some mounds of flavoured cheese) that we had at the rooftop bar of our hotel in Barcelona:

The ham is especially delicious.

The ham is especially delicious.

Often the ham is served with what is simply called “tomato bread,”  but which is a wonderful  treat on its own. It’s like garlic bread without the garlic  and the thicknes and the heaviness — usually the pieces of crusty bread are relatively thin, nice and crispy, and rubbed with crushed fresh tomato. Perfect.

Seafood is ever-present on the Costa Brava, also for good reason. It’s fresh, delicious, and often cooked in ways that are unusual, at least for us. Here was Jan’s main course at one lunch on the Mediterranean coast — fish served “on its back.”

Fresh fish, cooked perfectly.

Fresh fish, cooked perfectly.

Among the other seafood treats we enjoyed were: breaded and fried squid rings; breaded and fried baby squid; meatballs cooked with cuttlefish pieces in a squid-ink stew; prawns of all kinds; and cockles.

Another seafood dish that I enjoyed were fresh crab-cake burgers, served on buns that had been doused in a green curry sauce. Here’s my plate:

Fresh crab, with a taste of India.

Fresh crab, with a taste of India.

Ever one to try local specialties, for one lunch I opted for kid (young goat) that was said to be roasted in “the traditional manner.” This was at Principal, a lovely restaurant (and tapas bar) located on a side street not far from our hotel on the Passeig de Gracia, which one travel writer called “Barcelona’s smartest street.” The roast leg of the kid was brought to our table for a viewing, after which it was taken away and carved. Eventually, the sliced meat arrived on my plate, like this:

Pieces of roast kid -- crispy on the outside, tender within.

Pieces of roast kid — crispy on the outside, tender within.

Of course, one cannot live on food alone, so on our trip we enjoyed cava (the Spanish sparkling wine), as well as red, white and rosé wine, and (of course) the odd martini or two. As a nice touch, several places in Barcelona served silver martinis — a dry martini made (properly) with gin,  but with the addition of a silver powder of some sort that added a nice colour but no added taste. Here’s one of mine:

My silver martini.

My silver martini.

I had this one at lunch at Restaurant Brown, just down the street from our hotel, on Friday, September 18. That is an easy date, and meal, to remember, because it was during that lunch that we received a text message announcing that our first granddaughter, Katharine, had just been born in Toronto. Martini indeed — the restaurant staff brought us each a glass of Champagne!

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Surprises in Spain

We are just back home in Daglan after our first venture into the neighbouring country of Spain — which included a fabulous lunch at the world’s No. 1 restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca, in Girona. (Are you even slightly surprised that we would manage to have a meal there?)

We had expected to have a good time in Spain, and we did. But we also had some wonderful surprises.

First, a quick recap of some things you probably know about the area we visited — the Catalonian region in Spain’s northeast.

The largest city is of course Barcelona, and you probably know it for the astounding cathedral created (in large measure) by Gaudi. Here it is:

It looks like it's almost melting.

It almost looks like it’s melting.

And when you think of Spain, you probably think of tapas — even though it’s apparently less common in Catalonia than in other parts of the country. Here’s a sampling of how we began one informal lunch near the home we rented (with four other couples) on the Costa Brava, not quite two hours north of Barcelona:

Many hands made light work of this feast -- to begin a meal.

Many hands made light work of this feast — to begin a meal.

The local ham is naturally a key part of many meals, and we often began our lunches — or ended our days — with plates like these:

Thin strips of absolutely delicious ham.

Thin strips of absolutely delicious ham at a Barcelona restaurant.

Beautiful coastal areas around the Med are another feature you may imagine, and you’d be right. Like these views from a place where we ate lunch twice, right on the Costa Brava. First, a look to the left from our table:

Looking to the left from our table.

Looking to the left from our table.

And here’s a view from our table, looking towards the right:

Looking towards the right is pretty nice as well.

Looking towards the right is pretty nice as well.

Now here are some of the (positive) surprises that struck us:

A city that does it well. For all concerned. We knew that Barcelona would be “attractive” and grand and beautiful and interesting. But we weren’t prepared for how smart it would be. Virtually every kind of handicap seems to have been considered, and accounted for. Even a cable car suspended above the city was labelled as wheelchair-accessible. How come? Maybe it was the 1992 Olympics — we really don’t know. But I’ve never been in a city that seemed to care so much for doing things the right way.

Allergies? No problem. Along with looking out for people with physical handicaps, Barcelona seems to have convinced its restaurants to be alert to food allergies. In fact, its restaurants seem to be on the leading edge of being sensitive to people with food allergies — like my wife Jan, who is allergic to gluten. Would you like gluten-free bread? No problem. Are there are “problem” ingredients in this dish? No problem — all potentially troublesome ingredients are listed (for each dish) right on the menu.

Language smarts. I think the French tourist people could learn a lot from a visit to Barcelona. Signs are in multiple languages, and virtually everyone we met in a hospitality setting (hotel, restaurant, bar, tour bus, museum, art gallery) spoke English, and more.

Food, glorious food. Let’s just say that French chefs need to take a hard look at what their counterparts south of the border are doing with food. More on that in later postings, of course.

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A seasonal treat in Sarlat

This afternoon we were in Sarlat with visiting Toronto friends Darlene and Rob, and thought that lunch at Le Bistro de l’Octroi would be a good idea. And it turned out we were right.

I won’t cover all our food and drink choices, but instead will focus only on my main course or plat principal — a dish featuring that seasonal treat, black truffles.

The whole dish was a good-sized helping of tagliatelle, coated with a delicious light brown sauce featuring flecks of truffle. And sitting nicely on top was a beautifully seared piece of that local favourite, foie gras.

And here’s my plate:

Now that's a tasty plate of pasta.

Now that’s a tasty plate of pasta.

While we usually think of pasta as an Italian dish, the foie gras and the truffle pieces definitely turned this main course into something decidedly southwestern French. And that was absolutely fine with me.

Posted in Food, French food, Life in southwest France, Restaurants in France, Restaurants in the Dordogne | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments