Dining in Spain’s Michelin-starred restaurants.
WORDS ALICIA A. HERRERA
When a restaurant earns two Michelin stars, that means the restaurant has “excellent cooking” that is “worth a detour.” On a recent trip to Spain, a trio of two-star establishments became destinations in themselves on a gastronomic tour that involved eating in farmhouses, family restaurants, marketplaces, and the occasional sidewalk.
Over the course of five days, upon the invitation of the Spanish Tourism Board, we dined at Àbac Restaurant in Barcelona, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, and Restaurante Coque at the outskirts of Madrid. At the risk of calling down the wrath of real gourmets out there, I must say that all three of the restaurants serve basically the same food. By that, I mean that they all serve set meals of multiple courses which can mostly be consumed in three bites, each presented with great thought and artistry, and, if one may describe it as such, created with intellectual rigor. Deconstruction, unusual ingredients, and the use of nitrogen were fixtures.
Still, each restaurant is entirely different, in their look, location, ambiance, and even, apparently, the diners they attract. To be honest, dining at the tail end of a very long day — especially when your internal Filipino body clock insists that dinner should not start later than 7 o’clock at night rather than the Spanish 10 o’clock — is bound to result in less than the appropriate appreciation of the starred treasures presented. Still, we rallied to the task.
ÀBaC Hotel is located along what seemed to be a very quiet part of Barcelona, well hidden from the street behind a high wall. A discreet gate buzzed open once we announced to an equally discreet speaker that we had a reservation to dine. A walk through a multi-level garden led to a strategically lit glass and steel structure that looked as chilly as the early winter evening air. Signs led to a sliding glass door, then down a glass elevator.
Despite all the glass, the restaurant itself did not have the same chilly impression as the rest of the building — wooden floors, ceiling to floor drapes, and a fireplace at one end of the main dining area combined to give a cozy feel.
Led to a corner table spotlit from above, we were presented with a seemingly endless array of dishes — 17 in total — from the El Gran ÀBaC set menu, each served with wine decorously presented before each course. There was fresh sea urchin consommé poured out of a decanter into elegant cut glasses, served with a tiny taco; and deliciously salty exploding Parmesan bubbles that are ÀBaC’s version of gnocchi, served with tiny slivers of boar cheeks. There was tuna marrow, Pacific oysters, squid-style scallops. By the time we got the Sea bass with caviar, potatoes with butter and Bataks berries (a pretty dish that looked like a bullseye), the fish started to blend together in my head. Balancing the seafood were tiny spareribs and a tender beef brisket. The multiplicity of dishes extended to dessert, which included a nice dissection of sweet and salted popcorn that came with caramel ice cream.
As the meal extended into infinity, I noticed our fellow diners — an Indian couple who dutifully tasted all that was presented, and a Chinese-looking fellow dining by himself who approached each dish with seriousness and dedication (the expression on his face as he carefully savored each bite was almost pornographic). Common to both tables was an odd glass contraption on top of a burner whose final product required the use of a dramatic puff of nitrogen. As we approached the fourth hour of our meal, the same glass oddity was set up on our table — dutifully bubbling away to create what was revealed, in the end, to be a couple of tiny soufflés. With a dramatic flourish of nitrogen, the server turned the cooking liquid into ice cream to match. After all of this, we staggered out of the restaurant at 2 a.m. to catch a few hours of sleep before going on our next dining adventure.
The next two restaurants on the itinerary — El Celler de Can Roca and Coque — were both family-run restaurants involving three brothers. El Celler de Can Roca is located in a suburb of the medieval town of Girona, about an hour and half from Barcelona. It is the brainchild of the Roca brothers — chef Joan, pastry chef Jordi, and sommelier Josep — whose very modern restaurant is just up the street from their parents’ very traditional eatery.
That this is a family affair is seen in the pop-up book style presentation of an appetizer course called “Memories of a bar in the suburbs of Girona,” which features a tiny kitchen with tiny cutouts of the brothers at work, the tiny mouthfuls — breaded squid, kidneys with sherry, pigeon bonbon, salt cod with spinach and pinenuts, among others — set up on the kitchen’s tiny counters.
The pop-up book was just one example of the mischievous sense of humor that turned out to be a hallmark of the meal. Another appetizer course simply called “The World” was presented in a round Japanese paper lantern that opened up to reveal five tiny boquerones attached to a piece of bamboo. Chef Joan’s trip to Asia, as a guest at Madrid Fusion Manila last year, morphed into morsels called Thailand, Japan, China, and Korea. Each one featured ingredients representative of its namesake country: coconut in Thailand, for example, miso in Japan, kimchi in Korea.
A miniature olive tree bore “fruit” that turned out to be olive ice cream; a sorbet to cleanse the palate was presented as a red nose on a stick; a seafood appetizer came in the shape of starfish on a net-covered piece of wood. A rock opened up to reveal what looked like a patch of dirt and grass — actually truffled bonbon and truffled brioche. A gorgeous “crystal ball” cracked open, displaying a delicious dessert of flowers, orange bombs, and ice cream.
As in ÀBaC, there was a multiplicity of courses — 20 according to the menu — accompanied by 15 wines, all of which took about four hours to consume. But unlike ÀBaC, where the courses came haphazardly, El Celler de Can Roca choreographed a ballet of trays, food and wine, as performed by waiters, busboys, and sommeliers. A joy, in truth, to behold.
Part of what makes dining in these restaurants interesting is their menus, which inspire a guessing game of what comes next. What is one to expect from a dish simply called “Oyster,” whose listed ingredients are fennel sauce, black garlic, apple, seaweed, mushrooms, distilled earth and sea anemone? At El Celler de Can Roca, the combination of ingredients both familiar (mackerel, prawn, suckling pig, lamb) and unusual (sand-distilled water, fir tree dust) results in a symphony of flavors as precisely arranged as Beethoven’s notes.
The restaurant — hidden from the road and accessed through a narrow path between ivy covered walls — is a marvel of glass and wood and subdued lighting set next to a pleasant garden. At night, the garden disappears and the focal point is a dramatically lit, glass-enclosed stand of trees at the center of the three-sided dining area, and tables cozily separated by shelves of tableware. That evening, the well-dressed guests were in a celebratory mood — one table was marking a birthday, a tiny pastry appearing with lit candles; another table was made up of cheerful young gentlemen in suits toasting, perhaps, a promotion with well chosen wines; at another was a multi-generational family, the ladies sporting their pearls. A friend in Barcelona said that she had treated her husband to dinner at El Celler de Can Roca to celebrate his 50th birthday. The elegant yet relaxed restaurant, its fascinating, delicious, yet mischievous dishes, and performative service created a perfect place to observe such a special occasion.
Three brothers are also behind Coque — chef Mario, sommelier Rafael, and maître d’ Diego Sandoval — and they also come from a family of restaurateurs, having taken over the restaurant from their parents at the turn of the century. The Sandoval brothers have created a very different experience from the Rocas, presenting their set meal as a journey which brings the diners from one part of the restaurant to another.
The journey starts at the cellar, a massive open space lined with shelves filled with bottles from some of the most famous vineyards in the world. Scattered cocktail tables stand on a lit floor embedded with more wine bottles. Waiters efficiently provide the restaurant’s take on tapas and wine — Merlot Macaroon with cheese “torta de queso,” soufflé of Manchego cheese with “polyphenol from albillo grape.” We were led to a tiny elevator which brought us straight to the kitchen. There in the white-tiled workspace, among the red-hot ovens roasting Sandoval’s signature cochinillo and chefs carefully positioning bits of fluff onto carefully designed dishes using tweezers, we enjoyed a soup of cocido with mint foam, bao bread with chickpeas — basically a vegetarian siopao — and a Peking duck-like ssam of suckling pig trotters with a sweet Cantonese sauce. Chef Mario Sandoval has also been exploring Asian flavors, and was also one of the guest chefs at Madrid Fusion Manila.
As the elevator doors opened for the next diners to have their kitchen course, we were ushered into the main dining room — an elegant yet subdued space with more than a touch of 1980s glam — and seated at a booth where we had a good view of our fellow diners: an elderly gentleman in a leather-elbowed sports jacket, a couple of pretty young things in tight and slight dresses, and, later, a group of young men in jeans and sneakers who gave the impression of being either football players or DJs. All were tucking into meals that were more substantial than either ÀBaC’s or Can Roca’s — four bites perhaps, to the other’s one or two per dish.
Carnivores would be happy with Coque’s menu, which reveled in earthy, meaty flavors. The King crab stew with mollusks, red prawns and grilled octopus had a surprisingly spicy kick, while there was a very familiar sense of paksiw in the escabeche of sturgeon, monkfish, sea bream which were marinated in apple vinegar, juniper and miso. There were relatively substantial servings of callos a la Madrileńa and ox tail with white truffles, and, of course, Sandoval’s signature glazed suckling pig, its crunchy skin sweetened with a purée of spicy pumpkin and roasted pears.
Still, presentation was important: a beef consommé with mushrooms and pâté, for example, came in what looked like a coffee carafe and poured into small goblets. Presentation was king down at the lounge — a small space with an industrial-cum-sci-fi vibe with video screens near the ceiling — where dessert was served. Of the four sweets presented, the best was easily also the most dramatic: a soufflé of yuzu and vanilla with flambéed meringue and whisky served on a plate over which cascaded a fog of dry ice.
As Coque will be moving location from the suburbs to the center of Madrid by this summer, it is to be seen how well its food journey will be recreated. It is safe to expect, however, that the restaurant will live up to its two Michelin stars: “excellent cooking, worth a detour.”
Av. del Tibidabo, 1, 08022 Barcelona, Spain
Phone: +34 933 19 66 00
El Celler de Can Roca
Carrer de Can Sunyer, 48, 17007 Girona, Spain
Phone: +34 972 22 21 57
Calle de Francisco Encinas, 8, 28970 Humanes de Madrid, Madrid, Spain
Phone: +34 916 04 02 02
Coque will be relocating to the Madrid neighborhood of Chamberí this summer at number 11, Marqués de Riscal street.
High Life visited Spain as a guest of the Spain Tourism Board, Cathay Pacific, and Classic Travelhaus. Cathay Pacific flies to Madrid from Hong Kong four times a week, with connecting flights to Manila. Starting July 1, it will also fly four times a week to Barcelona from Hong Kong. Classic Travelhaus arranges gastronomic tours of Spain in collaboration with MS Foodtrails with chef Myrna Segismundo, inspired by the Lifestyle Network TV show Fork in the Road which was hosted by Ms. Segismundo.