Food & Travel / Words & Photos
“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
I won the Society of American Travel Writers’ “Grand Award” – The Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year.
“At least you did something,” quipped my Republican-leaning father referring to a certain recent Nobel Peace Prize winner.
I took it as a compliment.
In any case, it’s fantastic news and a huge honor. There is an incredible list of winners that reads like a Who’s Who of travel writing – including several for the Boston Globe’s Travel section. There’s also a video of the awards that includes a photo of me in a cheche and another where I’m slurping an oyster with my buddy Ethan - start at around 17:40.
Here are links to the stories in my entry – most with a serious food bent – broken down by where they were published.
BOSTON GLOBE - TRAVEL
Heart of The Hills - Valparaiso
Sampling the Motherland – Sicily
Desert Rules – The Algerian Sahara
Some Tips to Help Make Your Dollars Stretch in Europe
CENTURION & PLATINUM MAGAZINES – Asia & Australia Editions
The Road goes Ever On – Patagonia’s Route 40
The Centurion Menu – Santi Santamaria & Carme Ruscalleda
THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION - TRAVEL
In Lyon, old food styles and new exist happily side by side - Photo gallery
Finally, my ‘simulcasted’ blogging trio rounded out my entry.
Simon Says! - with French food critic, Francois Simon
The Boston Globe’s Travel Blog, Globe-trotting
…and, of course, right here on Eating The Motherland!
More to come! Stay tuned…
Photo courtesy Joel Scheitler in Luxembourg.