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Restaurants

Les Cols

Oscar Foulkes June 15, 2006 Restaurants No comments

(de La Canya, Olot. Tel: +34 972 26 92 09. Email: restaurant@lescols.com)

Les Cols is the most extraordinary space. Occupying the ground floor of a large old house, it was renovated a few years ago. Walls and floor are clad in matt-finished dark steel sheeting. The same sheets, cut into 15cm strips, are used in an arrangement to separate tables along wall. The way the strips are attached to floor and ceiling makes them look like slightly twirled pieces of fabric. All tables and chairs are also metal – with a gold epoxy coating. The amazing thing about all this is that there is no sense of the space being hard and unfriendly, although soft lighting probably has something to do with it.

After the usual pre-prandial glass of Cava, the meal opened with artisanal bread accompanied by a selection of local olive oils. One would usually have associated the devotion to olive oil with Tuscany, but driving around Catalonia we saw several areas where ancient olive trees had been collected in preparation for sale and transplant to smart buildings in Europe’s capital cities. The gnarled trunks are – doubtless – a fabulous design feature in juxtaposition with minimalist modern interiors, but it does seem a shame to move trees from earth they have lived in for several hundred years.

We again selected the tasting menu, and found several of the courses enjoyable (lamb, roasted for 11 hours at 70 ºC was particularly good). However, we agreed that we would probably have been better off ordering from the a la carte menu on this occasion.

L’Esguard

Oscar Foulkes June 13, 2006 Restaurants No comments

(Sant Andreu de Llavaneres, Tel +34 93 792 7767, esguard@miguelsanchezromera.com)

Neurologist Miguel Sanchez Romera opened L’Esguard in a 17th century farmhouse about ten years ago, after teaching himself to cook – at age 45! With his medical training (he still practises on Mondays and Tuesdays) he approached cooking from a scientific perspective, understanding firstly the chemical and physical properties of various food ingredients. Using this knowledge, and working from a fundamental point of the raw materials’ flavours and textures, he creates his novel dishes. The end result is as much installation art as it is nourishment, stimulation and entertainment.

Apart from this restaurant, Sanchez Romera’s contribution to the world of cuisine is his invention of Micri, “a neutral, colourless, odourless, tasteless base made of vegetable matter (cassava) that is a stable emulsion capable of emulsifying vinaigrettes, stabilizing sorbets, creating sauces with ease and maintaining all of the natural flavours of the products”. Having eaten numerous dishes involving Micri (by other Spanish chefs, too), I can report that it truly does have the most amazing way of preserving the shape of sauces (more like gels, actually), at the same time as holding other components in suspension. Its translucence, and ability to ‘hold’ – whether warm or cold – are attributes that make it extremely useful in assembling beautiful plates. It’s to cuisine what silicone and collagen are to plastic surgery.

One arrives at L’Esguard through a tranquil garden and is taken on a guided tour of the downstairs area which comprises wine, cheese and ham cellars, as well as an extensive library of cookbooks.

The white-painted walls and ceilings of the upstairs dining area are broken only by black gilded cornices, suspended from the ceiling in non-matching sections, rather than being attached to the wall as an unbroken line. Light fittings (reminiscent of the large ones used in operating theatres) carry spot lights that are trained on each diner’s plate.

Noting from my email signature my involvement in wine production, the sommelier, Xavier (Catalan for Javier), had already selected which wine we would be drinking. In view of the menu this would be a white wine from Rioja, the 2003 Remelluri, a barrel-fermented blend of Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Moscatel and Sauvignon Blanc. Not for one second need I have harboured doubts that I would be presented with a stereotypically oxidised monstrosity. Remelluri delivers rich waves of flavour, and did actually do a pretty good job throughout most of the tasting menu. He had envisaged us having a glass of red towards the end of the meal, but that quickly turned into a bottle!

Xavier’s wine selection was getting the scoreboard ticking quite rapidly. There’s nothing like a little forethought on the part of the restaurant to make one feel very special (even if you’ve caught the train to save on a 40 euro taxi fare). The amuse bouche consisted of a few tablespoons of fabulous olive oil, with pistachio purée, olive purée, tiny fried squares of potato and flower petals (could have been pansy). The presentation, as with several other dishes throughout lunch, was dramatic. The dish was served on slightly wavy large square plates, in the centre of which were small bowl-like indentations. So the kitchen was also now making its own contribution to the scoreboard.

The first course, a similarly impressive looking dish with two flowers – one pink, the other purple – stuffed with anchovies and olives, was set on a Kumbu sauce, the first of the Micri gels we would encounter. The visual excitement continued, with a translucent (micri?) disk covering shavings of fabulous jambon on top of a cheese mousse.

There are many reasons why our visit to L’Esguard was memorable. None, though, exceeds what to my mind is the most sensational vegetarian dish that has ever been put in front of me. It was served in three stages, the first of which was the hot dish (much like a large, flat-edged pasta bowl) in which a colourful mosaic had been arranged. The different coloured squares (each about 1cm in size, about 3mm apart from each other) consisted of various dried, ground vegetables and spices. The heat of the plate set loose the aroma of the various squares, the sum of which was spectacular. Onto this canvas was then put a spoonful of home grown baby vegetables tossed in Micri butter (hollandaise is possibly the only other way of getting a butter sauce to coat vegetables, but would have been too ‘heavy’), after which we were invited to pour a little vegetable stock over the entire arrangement. This stock was, without question, the most flavourful vegetable stock I have ever tasted. As we started eating the vegetables the squares dissolved into the stock, taking the flavours to yet another level.

About an hour later an adjacent table was served the same course. Once again we experienced the potent aromas emanating from the mosaic plates. This is a dish not only worthy of a detour, but probably an overnight flight as well.

When the time came for red wine, Xavier racked up yet more points with the 2003 Dominio de Atauta from Ribera del Duero. Made from tempranillo vines that somehow escaped the scourge of phylloxera in the 19th century, this wine embodies every reason why I love modern Spanish wines (especially when made from tempranillo). Along with its gorgeous fruit intensity is a fine vein of acidity that keeps the palate interesting. There’s no shortage of oaky flavours, but it’s all French and it doesn’t dominate the wine.

With the red wine came a piece of amazingly tender duck breast. Our happiness soared even as the alcohol was having its inevitable effect upon us.

To cope with the amazing cheese offering we ordered two plates, each with different selections. Heaven beckoned. The intended glass of red each had turned into a whole bottle.

Two desserts followed, but not being a ‘dessert person’ myself, any comment would not be entirely fair. I do, however, recall the use of Micri, which was also used in making the petit fours served to us with coffee. I would regard myself as being generally enthusiastic about the use of Micri in certain applications, but with coffee I prefer my chocolate to have richer flavour, with a more chewy texture. Chocolate jelly with espresso is just not the same!

The wine list at L’Esguard is extensive, with more than a passing reference to France, and did not seem expensive. Whatever is listed, though, I would give Xavier an indication of my preferences, and leave the selection to him.

A large part of the value derived from this kind of experience is the constant element of surprise, with the odd challenge tossed into the equation. For us, L’Esguard was an unforgettable dining experience in every respect.

El Celler de Can Roca

Oscar Foulkes June 13, 2006 Restaurants No comments

(Taiala 40, Girona. Tel: +34 972 22 21 57. Email: restaurant@cellercanroca.com)

It was with much anticipation that we departed from Castell d’Emporda for the 30 minute drive to Girona. El Celler de Can Roca was one of three Michelin-starred restaurants (it has two stars) we were visiting on a short trip to Catalonia, and had recently been listed at number 21 on a list of the world’s top 50 restaurants (headed by El Bulli, another Catalonian superstar).

The address given to us by the hotel wasn’t recognised by our navigation system, but we assumed we’d see signage of some sort to assist us once we reached Girona. Assumptions, they say, can be dangerous. We ended up lost, with Sally Garmin (as we named the voice giving us directions) driving us mad with her constant “recalculating” of our route. After phoning the restaurant we established the correct name of the road, Taiala (the hotel had told us Talaia). No wonder we couldn’t find it on the navigation system! The correct address was recognised, and we set off again.

Shortly thereafter, Sally’s monotone was telling us that we were “reaching destination on right hand side”. We could see nothing that looked like the world’s 21st best restaurant. After driving past the same address twice more we thought we could at least stop and get directions. Bear in mind that we were in a fairly downmarket-looking mixed residential and commercial area. We saw a local-looking restaurant, called Can Roca. Close examination of the adjoining building revealed a very small sign indicating the location of Celler de Can Roca. At last!

Celler de Can Roca is run by three Roca brothers – Joan, Jordi and Josep – while their parents operate the traditional Can Roca next door.

The front of house experience was tentative to say the least, with staff apparently giving our table a wide berth, but we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt because of our lack of Spanish. Eventually we did manage to get glasses of Cava (specially made for them). The wine list was wheeled to us on a purpose-built trolley. With separate books for red, white and sparkling wines, the selection was huge. All we wanted was two glasses of white wine, and the recommendation of an interesting red to take us through the meal, but whether for reasons of language or general slackness we were having some difficulty. We did manage to get the white, and in the absence of a confident recommendation from the sommelier, eventually resorted to ordering a bottle of 1996 Gran Clos, a wine from Priorat that we knew.

Fortunately, what came out of Joan Roca’s kitchen was sensational. One of the early highlights was a little glass of fresh peas poached in lamb stock, topped with a mint jelly disk. Soon after came a slightly old-fashioned champagne glass with fizzing contents. This dish consisted of a cold, poached apple slice, its lightly-jellied cooking juices, and a fresh oyster, dressed with Cava poured in at the last minute. The combination of flavours was sensational.
For theatre, though, nothing beats the smoked calamari, served on a punctured sheet of cling film stretched over the top of a slipper-shaped glass bowl. Inside the bowl was a pile of paprika heated to the point of smoking, and this smoke was pouring out of the hole in the cling film. As far as we could establish this had been the means of smoking the calamari.

Quite delicious was a slice of slow-roasted suckling pig, which could have been from the belly.

Pastry and desserts in the restaurant are done by Joan’s brother, Jorge. One of our desserts, “after Gucci’s Envy”, comprised a variety of fruits (macedonia is the local word for fruit salad), with pieces of jelly. Intended to taste like the perfume smells (they brought testers to the table for us to compare), the dish was wonderfully refreshing. While its flavour was perfumed – in a most appetising way – I wouldn’t say it necessarily mimicked the perfume exactly. Its flavours carried all of the surprise that one expects from a restaurant of this stature. It was the perfect way to end the meal.