Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Spanish Inquisition

I apologize to my readers for a lack of promptness in retelling tales of my recent travel to Barcelona and the Costa Brava. There were so many memorable meals and so much worth processing that it feels impossible to distill the five day trip into one mere blog post. Obviously, El Bulli and my night there deserves an unhealthy cut of attention here, as does El Celler Can Roca, where I enjoyed dinner the night before heading to Roses for my 35-course feast. I should, however, mention in the meantime that Spain was full of culinary possibility. My first meal in Barcelona was enjoyed on my 29th birthday at a small restaurant within Barcelona's famous Boqueria. Seated at the bar, we ate a plate of fish cooked a la plancha--prawns, razor clams, manilla clams, firm white fish, squid. We ate mushrooms and asparagus tips drenched in good olive oil and we ate pan con tomate (which we would eat much more of in days to come) and a rib steak grilled on the flattop and dusted with Maldon salt. We ate French fries and, finally, creme caramel with a candle in it. It was our best meal in Spain.

Other great meals followed. At Els Pescadors, the daily catch arrived atop gorgeous scalloped potatoes and roasted onions. A snack of brined baby garlic made most of us swoon, and we could have asked for no better treat than a plate of 'Joselito' Iberico ham, straight from the pata negras.

One night, in Barcelona, we were taken out to dine with wine friends, who lamented the fact that good restaurants were mostly closed on Mondays. No matter. He found a traditional Catalan space for us, ordered peppers a la plancha, fried lamb brains, various cured meats. But the restaurant's claim to fame was its massive wine list, more of a tome than anything, and through dinner seven diners were treated to seven impressive bottles of wine. Some wine got lost in the recesses of a wine-logged brain, but not to be forgotten were a 1998 Chateau Latour, deemed corked by some (I argued that 1998 was an off-vintage and that now, ten years later, inadequate grapes were showing signs of the weakness of the year, tasting green. We split our opinions down the middle; I drank what others passed up.) and a 1987 Vega Sicilia 'Unico,' demonstrably better than the pricier first-growth.

Our kind friend picked up the check. But there were more surprises ahead.

Once we tackled the demons of the highway leading north from Barcelona--a flat tire befell us mid-trip--we tucked in to our first of two long and undulating meals, this one at Michelin two-star El Celler de Can Roca. We ate nineteen courses, seven of which were deemed "snacks." We drank a bottle of vintage Cava (1999), a 2007 Egon Muller Spatlese Riesling, a 2001 Donhoff Riesling, and, our most impressive of the evening, a 1999 Jacques Prieur Le Musigny. Memorable delights of the evening included a bright cherry broth filled with one halved cherry, a slice of smoked eel, and a scoop of ginger ice-cream that resembled a cherry completely; a preparation of sole that involved pairing the fish with five descending sauces (olive oil, pine nut, fennel, bergamot, and orange), a steak tartar that played on sweet and savory elements; and an apricot made of blown sugar, airbrushed pink and orange and dusted with sugar and releasing, at the tap of a spoon, a creamy interior of apricot nectar.

A trip through the wine cellar with one of the Roca brothers (Josep, the sommelier), revealed a mind-blowing dedication to the regions of Sherry, Priorat, Champagne, Burgundy, and the Mosel. The cellar consisted of five separate rooms, all built from old wine boxes. In them, Josep described the virtues of his favorite regions, showed videos from prize vineyards, and involved us in tactile games (in one such moment, he pulled a piece of green silk from a worn wooden bowl and lifted it, stretched it, urged us to touch; it was riesling, he said: strong, resilient, elegant, not ruined by age).

We left dinner at two in the morning, after arguing with our server about the meal charge: it was noticeably absent. But no, they told us; the food, a total of $1,000 Euro, was a gift. Our only expense was our six bottles.

I suppose El Celler set an impossibly high standard for fine dining, but if any restaurant could rise to the challenge, it is El Bulli, the notoriously impossible-to-get-into hotspot for molecular gastronomy on the beach. When we arrived, we were immediately brought to the kitchen to meet Ferran Adria. We took pictures and stumbled back to the sweeping vistas of the patio, where we would have our snacks in clear view of the Mediterranean.

There were snacks, and there were cocktails, all of them conventional-ish, none of them conventional. Mojitos arrived in pure cane sugar sticks. We chewed them to release the rum and lime. "Mimetic" peanuts looked like the whole suckers found at baseball stadiums, but when they hit the mouth they turned into very cold peanut butter. A milky cocktail came with the pleasant addition of candied pine needles ("eat the needle and then take a sip," our waiter instructed; El Bulli has many, many instructions) and tasted the way you would imagine very sweet and delicate pine sap would taste.

It would be silly for me to describe all 35 courses. For one, they weren't all good; two were actually inedible and several inspired a lot of laughter. The most memorable parts of the meal included three fun and different bottles of Champagne (NV Diebolt-Vallois 'Prestige' Gran Cru Cramant, NV Jacques Selosse 'Blanc de Blancs' Gran Cru Avize, 1998 Paul Bara 'Comtesse Marie de France' Gran Cru Bouzy); a course entitled "Margarita Cactus," which was really a cactus leaf infused with tequila, lime, and salt (we ate the leaf); a course entitled "Oyster Leaf," which was an actual edible leaf that came from Norway and, amazingly, tasted exactly like an oyster (it came with a mignonette); a dish called "Coco," a giant frozen dinosaur egg (but not really) that the server broke at our table and told us to eat with our hands, as the shell was a melty cool-cold Coco Lopez-type concoction; a dish that was a dessert but that looked exactly like shellfish innards (it was supposed to); tea service, wheeled over and prepared by a woman who clipped herbs from live sage, basil, thyme, mint, and tarragon plants; a cardboard pop-up birthday cake that came replete with a real, lit candle at my very own place setting; a box of forty or more assorted handmade chocolates (I sampled them all); and, finally, Cuban cigar service on the terrace as the punctuation mark to our meal.

Our bill was outrageous. But what's more outrageous than seven hours of gluttony? As a token of appreciation, the staff gave us each copies of A Day At El Bulli, a color book showing the crazy workings of the oiled machine. Not that I would have forgotten. Not in a million years.

Els Pescadors
Placa Prim 1
08005 Barcelona, Spain

El Celler de Can Roca
Can Sunyer, 48
17007 Girona, Spain

El Bulli
Caja Montjoi
Roses, Spain

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