Food & Travel / Words & Photos
El Bulli interview finished, I head to Cadaqués to Can Rafa, a sojurn I’ve been trying to make for months…except every time I go, it’s closed and this time is no exception.
I’m alone and looking for a place where I won’t feel like too much of a chump sitting by myself and can still eat well. On this night, that doesn’t exist in Cadaqués. In desperation, I leave town and call my friend Twin Stomach for somewhere to try in the nearby El Port de la Selva but the phone rings and rings…
In town, I knock on the door where a set of stout-bellied accordion players are practicing and they point me toward El Celler, a family-run seafront place set apart from the town’s more kitschy offerings.
There are fantastic anchovies with gobs of good olive oil and a bit of tomato which are fantastic together on top of their warm, homemade bread. I have a great duck breast in fig sauce and the front of house owner does a perfect job of alternately chatting and leaving me to enjoy my meal.
Count on about 25 euros.
El Celler - MAP
C/ Llancà 8-10
El Port de la Selva
+34 972 126 435
“It’s too expensive,” was the first thing out of a friend’s mouth when I mentioned we were heading to Xemei.
“But it’s goooood,” was the second.
“Best risotto of my life,” said another friend, “made with cod tripe!”
I was sold, plus there was serendipity involved. Food writer Carme Gasull proposed going at right around the same time.
On the weekend, Xemei is bustling with the open concept kitchen with the restaurant’s namesake Venetian twins running the show. It’s a loud, fun and casual atmosphere that stimulates the mind and the appetite.
We start, sharing a giant appetizer dish that’s an Italo-Catalan tapas with cod fritters, anchovies in vinegar on a fresh tomato salsa, a tender slab of mackerel. It’s all fine, but I’m thinking of the “expensive” comment more than the “good” one.
The waiter stops by, proposing a new bottle of wine and when I ask about the screw cap, he launches into a bizarre, five-minute explanation about screw caps, corks, evaporation and, to synthesize, how this case of special Italian wine, initially bound for America happened to end up in their restaurant.
It’s harmless fun, but I want to ask the guy if he actually believes what he’s saying.
“We’ve got a phrase here: he sold you a motorcycle,” says Edu. “He just wanted to sell you the bottle.”
The wine is peculiar but fine, but more important, the mains knock our socks off. All of them. The girls get mushroom risotto and Edu has spaghetti in squid ink that tickles our umami sensors and is served looking like cross between a Sicilian sfogliatelle pastry and a perfect beehive hairdo. I get a squid and artichoke dish - each element cooked separately and perfectly, the whole with fantastic textures.
Expensive? Motorcycles aren’t cheap, but it’s not that bad. Goooood? Yep.
We’ll be back.
Count on 40€, with wine.
Xemei - MAP
Passeig de l’Exposició, 85
+34 93 553 51 40
The first thing you notice on a tour of the kitchen at Les Cols is that there’s a water garden fed from the heavens in the middle of it. This makes sense. An ardent but not annoying locavore, chef Fina Puigdevall is intent on building your relationship to the ground beneath your feet - this volcanic area where she was born.
She immediately shines spotlights on local ingredients - buckwheat, cured sausage from Olot, wild mushrooms, the cabbage that gives the restaurant its name and even wonderfully fragrant black truffles. One dish features an egg from the black chickens running around outside the window.
The clever thief would begin by swiping Puigdevall’s purveyor list; in retrospect, what’s odd is that there’s no standout dish, nothing so wildly good that it makes you want to do cartwheels between the tables, yet hers is is food with roots. These are deep and wild flavors, strength pulled up from the soil - a geothermal cuisine.
Puigdevall is like a wayward member of Rene Redzepi’s New Nordic cuisine gang - you half-expect to find Sigur Ros jamming in the henhouse.
You spend a bit of time like this, thinking of where she fits into the scheme of things - some say she’s the next Carme Ruscalleda but you quickly realize their styles don’t match, give up the ghost and start enjoying things.
There is pea soup - a bright and happy green canvas supporting tiny cubes of balsamic, a micro-scoop of peanut ice cream, a bright yellow dollop of saffron sauce and a deep orange sea urchin. Squint from above and it looks like abstract art made with a set of Crayolas.
‘Pumpkin in five different ways’ has similar beauty, showcasing an ingredient that deserves the attention. Tendrils might grow from our fingers, roots from our feet.
In another dish, salt cod floats on brandade, those under spinach and chard everything heating the truffle (see above). You stare, you smell, you think, you hesitate to destroy it with a fork, then you smile. The beauty in the presentation of these dishes is subtle when looked at individually and breathtaking when considered together.
Equally as sublime is the space.
Using iron, glass and stone, the design of this restaurant hits what they missed at Can Fabes. While spots inside Santi Santamaria’s nearby restaurant can feel like the inside of a tank, Puigdevall clearly spent a long time talking to an architect who listened.
The sliding and pivoting glass doors and arches make the chef’s 13th century home modern and the main dining room are set slightly into the earth, so your eyes are level with the grass. We’re here on one of those winter days where you look at a picture of the backyard in summertime and it’s so green it might as well be another planet, yet even in winter, that subtle shift makes you notice shoots and buds you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
When your gaze extends upward, it might linger on clouds clinging to the hills or you might spend two minutes watching a drop of water work its way down the giant window. On any other date, this much time spent gazing outside would signal disaster. Here, you’re simply taking time to reconnect to the world around you.
The hotel rooms here are minimalist glass and metal cubes and I would love to return and spend the whole afternoon - post lunch - in the bathtub with a bottle of wine watching the clouds stick to the hills and contemplating the meal I just ate.
Service is well done, without hovering, and low key. Bravo for the bravery to offer a cart full of very worthy Catalan cheeses.
A tasting menu is 70 euros plus wine.
Les Cols – MAP
Carretera de la Canya
+34 97 226 9209
To taste Holland’s best cheese, you used to have to truck out to the tiny town of Santpoort to visit Betty and Martin Koster at L’Amuse. One taste could tell you it was worth the trip, but there was no other reason to head out there.
No more: L’Amuse Amsterdam opened last week and now that city’s got their own version of Randolph Hodgson or Marie Quatrehomme.
If they’ve got ‘em, try the Oude Remeker 18-Month or the Wilde Weide Kaas. They’ll knock your socks (wooden shoes?) off.
Click here for a look at my story on Betty and Martin at their Santpoort store.
Living in Ferran Adrià’s shadow is not an enviable position. Or maybe it’s liberating. Or maybe it just is.
Joan Roca of El Celler de Can Roca is one of the greats in a region of greats like Santi Santamaria, Carme Ruscalleda and, of course senyor Adrià - and his style is closest to the latter.
Roca’s also got a ‘James Bond of the Catalan culinary set’ thing going. He’s a bit of a tough guy with some cool gadgets - he’s a big cheese in the world of sous vide cooking, for example, writing the book on the subject long before Thomas Keller did. After the service is finished, you can imagine Roca, standing by the entrance, smoking a cigarette and looking cool.
Every once in a while though, the Adrià comparison’s gotta drive him nuts. Early on in our meal, it seems as though most of the dishes in the ‘snacks’ catetgory (little amuse gueules that come out before the tasting menu really starts) could have been nicked from Adrià’s book - like little ‘caramelized olives’ which arrive dangling from a bonsai olive tree, little Campari ‘bonbon’ balloons served on a bed of crushed ice or Parmesan ‘tulips’ nesting in a rock - but then - poof! - it’s gone; you stop comparing and start enjoying.
This might have been about when the sea urchins arrived. On the menu, the dish is called “crustacean velouté with cauliflower toffee and tangerine,” but my notes read “little, edible sexual organs from the sea.” RRRRRRROW!
Soon after, there’s a plate called ‘artichoke with duck liver, eel and orange’ - that launches ‘brown food’ into the stratosphere, followed immediately by a single grilled sole filet flanked by individual dabs of olive oil, fennel, bergamot, orange, pine nut and green olive emulsions. The whole thing’s got a musical look to it, like a deconstructed music scale - and there’s Roca, standing by himself in the middle of a big field, smiling, waving.
When we try the cod pot-au-feu, which draws a direct line to some perfect chowder of my youth and I come to the realization I needed - I want Roca to teach.
“He does,” says my dining partner - most notably at Girona’s catering and tourism school.
Adrià has so much to teach, but it’s a specialized class - I don’t want 1,000 little Adrià copycats running around out there, but I want as many as possible with a foundation built by Roca.
Desserts, by brother Jordi Roca, are as good, complex and beautiful as the mains. Josep Roca’s wine list has wheels.
Tasting menus run from 90 to 135 euros. Spend as much as you like on wine.
I’d searched for almost 10 years ever for someone to sharpen my knives in Paris. Never found a thing.
Closest I got was the boys at E. Dehillerin who had some sort of outsourcing deal, but I didn’t like the idea. Once burnt…
A decade ago, I took my Wüsthof chef’s knife to a sharpening shack just north of the Golden Gate. I had the vaguest whiff of apprehension when I dropped off my knife and should have listened to my instincts: the guy put a hole in my knife.
At the end of the cutting edge, just before it meets the heel, the guy pushed a little too hard; put it on a flat surface and you could see light coming through the other side. Made me want to cry. Who knows? Maybe he was using the lawnmower blade stone.
The blade cut beautifully through 99 percent of the vegetable, then stopped, leaving me with celery that looked like a slinky heading south if I didn’t exaggerate the rocking motion of the cut.
Then I found the guys at Gaignard-Millon Outillage et Machines on a back street near my old flat in the 11th - one of those places that leaves a guy with any sort of wood shop experience slack jawed and drooling in the front window.
There are Japanese saws, chisels, hammers and beautiful knives from around the world…and the shop is quite good at sharpening.
It took a couple tries, but they fixed my knife as well as they could.
Not long ago, after years of staring longingly into shop windows at santoku knives, I walked into Gaignard-Millon and bought one, along with a sharpening stone.
The transaction was a lesson in knife care and sharpening not unlike I was taking Mr. Millon’s (Mr. Gaignard’s?) brand-new Peugeot - a car whose every feature he’d memorized the day he bought it - for a for a spin.
“You may not use this knife on one of those glass cutting boards,” was my favorite instruction/commandment. I cringed at the idea like he’d run his fingers down a chalkboard and he smiled approvingly.
My new knife corners like it’s on rails and Gaignard-Millon’s got a client whenever I’m in town.
Gaignard-Millon Outillage et Machines - MAP
24 rue Jules Vallès
+33 1 43 71 28 96
This is the place I used to go to in Paris to make sure I knew (why) I was here. It connected me to my city with shoulder-to-shoulder seating and decent bistro food, preferably preceded with a drink at the crowded bar.
There are simple rules: go late and avoid anything that swims. I used to make an exception for a smoked herring and potatoes that down with a Meteor draft, but I won’t be doing that anymore.
A bout a year ago, the crotchety old owner left and the new owners have tried to keep much of the same feeling while cutting a few corners and bumping prices slightly northward. Case in point? Six oysters served on the half shell served with a glass of Colombelle white for 14€. Whose bright idea was it to pair oysters with plonk marketed at women?
I digress. The aim here is to revel in the conversation, getting down to the nitty-gritty with old friends under what used to be a thick cloud of smoke that descends like a heavy carpet. (This is one of the few places that seems less enjoyable with the laws that have pushed smokers outside.)
Here, you eat a steak, have a few glasses/bottles of wine and realize with a start that it’s 5 a.m. and you’ve spent eight hours connecting.
Count on 30-50 euros, depending on how much connecting you want to do.
Le Tambour - MAP
41 Rue Montmartre
75002 Paris, France
+33 1 42 33 06 90