Can Roca – Less Magical

”There were once three brothers who were traveling along a lonely, winding road at twilight. In time, the brothers reached a river too deep to wade through and too dangerous to swim across. However, these brothers were learned in the magical arts, and so they simply waved their wands and made a bridge appear across the treacherous water.“

For this being the beginning of „The Tale of Three Brothers“ it somehow reminded me of the three Roca brothers, also extremely gifted in magical, i.e. culinary arts, each of them in a very distinct way. Joan, the eldest, is the head chef, world-renown for inventing and adopting various culinary techniques*. Josep, the middle brother, acts as the maître and head sommelier** whereas Josip, the youngest, is in charge of the desserts***. Together, they have created their own bridge between their culinary message and the diner. It all comes down to evoke emotions by applying most advanced self-developed techniques – in a nutshell, the Roca brothers at the core of techno-emotional cuisine.

The notion of three elements continues to be present in the restaurant itself. In 2007 the three brothers moved into completely renovated premises comprising the old villa (La Torre) built in 1911, the rectangular lounge / bar area and the triangular dining room. There are also three gardens – one that welcomes the diner when he approaches the entrance, one that offers zen-like contemplation within the triangular glass box in the dining room and finally one that houses lots of vegetables and herbs just behind the kitchen.

Breath-taking, emotional and just amazing – one of the most beautiful and enchanted restaurants I have seen in my life.

La Torre

After the reception, the whole entrance area is a white lacquered space where the magic begins…

Entrance Area

… to proceed to the bar to have a small sip of cava and some snacks…

Bar

…and finally, the impressive dining room welcomes the diner…

Dining Hall

Enough about the interior, let’s talk about the occasion as it is very rare to have such a fine group of foodies packed on one table. When we were doing our Copenhagen Crawl in February 2010, Steve Plotnicki proposed that he would like to arrange a dinner at El Bulli for some of us who had never been there. A man a word and a couple of months later we were getting an email that Steve will get a table in February. Needless to say we planned a couple of other meals around our trip, so Can Roca was naturally included.

There we were, the godfather himself, the miraculous ulterior epicure from Kansas City, Laurent from GastrosOnTour, Gary Alan Fine from VealCheeks, a French civilean and myself – and we had great fun.

Olive Tree

Sitting in the bar, we have a nice selection of snacks all starting with some caramelized olives hanging from a miniature olive tree. Delicious. Then some Bellini bonbons, Sardine bone chips that captured the essence of the Sardine taste all together with some nice Cava – life can be just great.

Menu on the Black Board

After being seated we quickly agreed to go for the “Feast” menu (11 courses at a very reasonable 145€) supplement by the Roca’s signature oyster dish as well as a goose a la royale (for half of us) and pigeon (for the other half).

Tapas

Instead of common amuse bouches Joan has traditionally been serving some small bites, or “tapas” as they call them in the kitchen. From my 2008 visit I was familiar with the intense pigeon parfait that again turned out to be just yummy. The truffled brioche served with a pot au Feu broth was much too heavy, a criticism often voiced in the course of this meal. The omelet was a traditional Catalan preparation, but it pulled also some strings for me, as I had often eaten omelets as part of (hotel) breakfast or for dinner. However, this piece was much too small to really have a lasting effect and could stand up next to the strong other flavours. A so-so start.

Oysters with Agusti Torello Cava – Apple Compote, Ginger, Pineapple, Lemon Confit and Spices

Originally created in 2005, the oyster dish stems from an old Larousse classic: huîtres au champagne. Joan experimented quite bit especially with the consistency of the cava as normal cava would have been too light to conquer the meaty oysters. In the end, the cava is thickened with Xanthan, poured and served at room temperature.

A perfect example of how the Rocas work on their recipes through thorough analysis, continuous improvement and, finally, perfect execution. However, the dish was less impressive than expected, bringing me to my main theme of the night: expectations. After having experienced an amazing and mind-blowing meal here in 2008, the bar was raised quite high. Compared to a similar dish in 2008, Chablis oyster, the flavors were too blurred and not crystal clear, but it demonstrated the essential character of both protagonists whereas the other flavors were kind of soaked up by the thickened cava.

’Escalivada’ – Charcoal-Grilled Eggplant, Pepper, Onion, and Tomato with Anchovies and Smoke of Ember

Two distinctive Roca elements in one dish: first, the use of smoke that the Rocas have been experimenting for some years now (I can still taste the smoked eggplant soufflé with sardines from 2008) and second, a cuisine that tries to evoke emotions from the diner by drawing on traditional flavors. Escalivada is a traditional prepration of Catalan cuisine (escalivar means “to cook in hot ashes“), with eggplants, red tomatoes, sweet red peppers and onions being charcoal-grilled and served stripped. Joan filled each of the veggies with a cream of its mousse paired with anchovies and perfumed it with the smoke of ember emphasizing the charcoal notes.

Not having grown up in Catalunia, this was hard for me to judge as it was not a familiar taste and grilling vegetables is not so common-place in Germany. But anyhow, it was delicious, rich, and intense with the smokiness a bit too dominating. Excellent.

Artichoke – Foie Gras Soup with Orange and Truffled Oil

A dish from 1991 (!) that was just too creamy and rich to be enjoyed properly. Overall pleasant and even delicate but any kind of textural surprise was missing. A good dish but hard to place in a lengthy menu.

Charcoal-Grilled King Prawn – Acidulated Mushroom Juice

After the previous dish, the barely grilled king prawn had a difficult stand. Subtle, with sweet acidity the dish was problematic for me mainly due to rather rare texture of the prawn. In 2008, we had a similar dish that I didn’t like that much neither…

Onion Soup – Crespia walnuts and Comte cheese

Another delicious in itself, but overly heavy, dense and texture-less course. Some monotony creeped up on the table…

Sole – Olive Oil and Mediterranean Flavors

A clear star of the night: an impeccably prepaired fresh piece of sole paired with five different flavors: fennel, almond, orange, piment and olive oil. As simple as this might seem, to taste the fish with each of the flavors showed a different perspective and the transformation ability of the sole as it perfectly ‘adjusted’ to each. Excellent to outstanding.

Baby Squids with Onion Rocks

Apart from the outstanding quality of baby squids and the yummy intense soup-like juice (much lighter though as the previous soup dishes) this dish didn’t speak to me or conveyed a message.

Red Mullet – Suquet and Lard

Hard to say but this was hardly edible as the red mullet was pretty rare and the suquet (a Catalan seafood stew) was overly salty.

Steak Tartar – Spiced Tomato, Caper Compote, Pickles and Lemon, Hazelnut Praline, Meat Bearnaise Sauce, Oloroso-Sherry Raisin, Chives, Sichuan Pepper, Pimentón de La Vera (D.O.) Smoked Paprika and Curry, Small Ccoops of Mustard Ice Cream and Mustard Leaves

A classic of the Rocas that inspired many chefs around the globe, this elaborate constructed and structuralistic dish had everything one dreams of when it comes to modern cuisine: outstanding product quality, ingenious flavor pairings and interesting textures. Outstanding!

Lamb – Sweet Potato and Tangerine

Roca’s ballontine dishes have some tradition, back in 2008 I had a fine goose terrine. Again, this dish was texturally interesting, especially with the crispy skin a part, but the lamb itself was rather fatty and smelled to lamb-like. Moreover, I found the tangerine and sweet potato too overpowering and the overall dish therefore out of balance.

Young Pigeon – Anchovy Sauce, Black Truffles

This was much better, but nevertheless, had we known that we supplemented another ballontine, we would have refrained from ordering it. A superb piece of pigeon with nice texture.

Green Colourology – Lime, Avocado, Green Apple

Colourology is, together with the deconstruction of perfumes, of the key themes of Jordip’s work. In a cumbersome and lengthy process he condenses same colour flavors and assembles them to convey a certain mood. Here, green tries to calm down the diner (which was necessary after this rather heavy meal). The style and the presentation, somehow reminded me of the Copenhagen school, much less of a genuine Roca dessert. But, this was one of the clear highlights of the meal.

Lemon-Distillate Sorbet – Lemon Rind, Perfume

Not finished yet – Jordip showed another technique the Rocas have been obsessed with for some time: distillates. This lemon-distillate was just perfectly intense, maybe of the best variations around the lemon theme I have ever eaten.

Vanilla, Caramel, Liquorice – Dried and Caramilized Black Olives

To conclude, a vanilla ice cream of benchmark authenticity and product character whereas I didn’t like the olives that much – I think there were too many of them on the plate which made them rather dominant.

Chocolate Box

The Verdict

When judging a meal, it very much hinges on your prior expectations – given my stellar 2008 meal at El Celler, the continuous praise from critiques all around the world (now at No. 2 of the Pellegrino list), and the third star it is fair to say that my hopes had been high and the bar was set out high. If I now measure the food only against my expectations, this was a meal far below what I longed for. Heavy or soup-like dishes that were delicate in themselves but offered no suspense with respect to flavors or textures (the onion soup, the foie gras soup, the baby squids), dishes hard to eat due to saltiness on the edge (king prawn and the red mullet with the suquet) or sweetness (the lamb) made the overall experience a rollercoaster coupled with textural monotony.

Surely, there were clear stand outs: the sole, all of the desserts, the tartar and the pigeon were really excellent but they didn’t reach the high accolades of the oyster Chablis dish, the melon/jabugo deconstruction, the eggplant/sardine soufflé or the anarchy dessert of 2008. I dearly missed creativity, the ability to absolutely wow the dinner – it seem like a toned down version of the borderline creative meal in 2008.

This brings me to my central point: has the hunt for the third star slowed down the evolution in this usually pace-making, trend-setting restaurant? Has a safe-harbor strategy won over utmost creativity? Hard to tell, but many other three star chefs (especially in Germany) seem to be ultimately free after the third star and accelerate their engines instead of backspacing…

Additional to the food comes atmosphere that is really one of a kind at Can Roca, perfect ambiance, perfect service, perfect wines at very reasonable prices that all together will bring me back for sure. Maybe next time with lowered expectations and a then exceeding expectations experience. May the hope be with me – the three brother can do magic, if only they have just forgot to use the elder wand for now.

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* Joan is widely respected as one of the masters of sous-vide and low-temperature cooking, experimentation with smoke, char-coal grilling and distillation. An overview can be seen here http://www.cellercanroca.com/TECNIQUES/tecniques_2.htm

**Josep has developed a deep understanding of wine pairing in adding emotional aspects to certain dishes. He is a profound fan of German Riesling.

*** Jordip was the first pastry chef of creating desserts that resembled perfumes being decomposed into their different flavors. And, I am still in love with his Anarchy…

El Celler de Can Roca
Can Sunyer 48
17007 Girona
Phone:  +34 972 222 157
Web: Website
Mail: Mail
Opening Times:
 
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[wpmaps company=”El Celler de Can Roca” street=”Can Sunyer 48″ city=”17007 Girona”]

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