In March 2020, precariously right before COVID-19 hit Europe and the Americas real hard, I ventured to Barcelona, Spain. Why Barcelona when Spain’s cases were on the rise? Well, at the time the recorded official cases were around 500-600 centered around Madrid and most importantly I figured it was worth the risk because….upon calling, I was able to clear the waitlist and get a seat the the Roca Brothers’ famed establishment in Girona, Spain: El Celler de Can Roca.
So, was it worth the risk? Absolutely. This opinion might have been a wee bit different had I actually gotten the virus and tested positive, I have tested negative.
Regardless, this now ranks as a tied #2 meal of my life. It is tied with Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. Number 1 remains Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark.
El Celler de Can Roca is a 3-starred Michelin restaurant in Girona, Spain. Ranked as world’s #1 in 2013 and 2015 and #2 for many more years. It is now considered among the best of the best on San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best rankings. You may have seen the three brothers on various food shows, including Netflix’s Chef’s Table: Pastry, where youngest brother and pastry chef, Jordi Roca, was mainly featured.
Joan, the oldest, is the main chef. Josep, the second, is the sommelier and curator of the beverage program. Jordi, who is much younger than his older brothers and at first was not part of the team of cooks, joined as the pastry chef, the story of which is well documented in Chef’s Table. Together, they create a culinary journey unlike any other. It is a team and restaurant that is heavily rooted in family. Their mom still cooks the staff meals from the restaurant kitchen of her original restaurant located right next door.
I highly recommend checking out their website, it extensively covers the brothers’ story, the restaurant’s history as well as intros to the entire staff.
The restaurant goes for locally sourced creative food. There is elements of molecular gastronomy and various lab-like experimentations that happen. But it is definitely rooted in the brothers’ upbringing and Catalan heritage. There is a story behind each dish, and inspiration, a source material. Once you understand that per the explanation of the staff either before or after you have a dish, then somehow the flavors and textures come together and you too begin to understand where and how the brothers came to creating this dish.
Or you may have read about how this is one of the hardest restaurants in the world to book and that is has a very long waitlist. It is indeed nearly impossible to book. I have set alarms and gotten up in the middle of the night to be at my computer ready to enter the reservation system at Spain local time. Reservations can be made for the following 11 months, with the next one opening at midnight on the 1st of each month, Spain local time. Once that clock hits midnight for the next month’s available slots, they somehow all have disappeared already. You can put yourself and your party on the waiting list though.
Now, as I learned from my experience at another equally notoriously hard to book restaurant in Modena, I tested my luck and sent them an email checking on the status of my waitlist. As expected with the likely volume of emails they get of similar nature, I was ignored. Closer to the planned date of dining, I tried calling. The gentleman who answered was quite nice and upon my inquiry confirmed my name and email and details of my waitlist. He then checked his system and with that he said he actually did have a table for 1 available on Saturday March 7, 2020 for 1PM. Unsure of travel time and such I pushed it back to 1:15PM, with latest arrival being 1:30, they hold tables for 15 minutes. With a credit card for guarantee, my reservation was secured!
After landing in Barcelona El Prat international airport on Saturday morning, I took the Aerobus to downtown. Settled into The Cotton House Hotel, An Autograph Collection, which I do recommend. Afterwards at around 11:15AM, I took a taxi to Barcelona-Sants Station to catch a 11:50AM local train to Girona. There are two types of trains, the express that takes around 35 minutes and the local that takes just over an hour. I bought my ticket at a machine and boarded the train. arrived into Girona Station at around 1:10PM, and from there hopped on a short taxi ride and arrived at El Celler de Can Roca just around 1:20PM. Between the train and the taxis, one-way to Girona was around 25-30 Euros.
I would not exit El Celler until around 5:45PM. Yes, be prepared for a long meal.
There are two tasting menus, a seasonal one and a more extensive signature one. The key differences lay in the desserts. I opted for the signature Roca menu and who appeared to be the Matr’d offered to mix up my dessert selection and work with the chefs to ensure I got a taste and good mix of both signature and new items.
The meal came down to 362 Euro tax and service included, the 22 course tasting menu was 205 Euros, and the 21 pour wine pairing was 119 Euro. One of the reasons this was #2 is the value was insane in my opinion, the wine pairing was beyond worth it.
El Celler de Can Roca
Open: Tuesday Dinner through Saturday Dinner.
Closed: Sunday through Tuesday lunch and major holidays.
Carrer de Can Sunyer, 48, 17007, Girona, Spain
+34 972 222 157 10AM-6PM Tuesdays to Saturday
I hopped off the taxi and walked into the walled gardens in front of the restaurant. Pushed open the door and was immediately greeted and welcomed. Said my name and was handed off to someone to walk me to my table. I had to first use the bathroom though, but then another person was there to walk me to my table after I came out. The restaurant is beautiful, minimalist yet beautifully sculpted.
I took my seat, was handed the menu, offered water (still or sparkling) and a welcome sparkling wine. They asked how I was doing and what brought me to El Celler. I explained that I flew into Spain just to have this lunch for the weekend, they were honored, touched and also amazed at my insanity.
After I was walked through the menu, my choice was easy, and in seeing a tad bit of hesitation, the head waiter immediately offered to talk to the chef about mixing the desserts up a little to ensure I got a good taste of everything. I also ordered the wine pairing, thinking it would be the usual wine pairing of maybe 6-8 pours, where one pour would go with a couple of dishes at the same time, what ended up happening was one pour per dish, and I certainly am not complaining about it.
And so began my near 5 hour modern symphonic meal here at El Celler.
note: please forgive some of the poorer quality photos, it was my first time using my new GoPro Hero 8.
Catalonia Sparkling water and Cosmic Paciencia 2016 Agullana, Emporda sparkling wine
Mexico: Jicama taco, mago, onion, lemon, achiote and coriander
Japan: Octopus with ginger
Turkey: lamb, yogurt, cucumber, onions and mint
Peru: “causa limena” potato tart.
Once you finish, you had to guess which is Peru and Japan and adjust the apparatus to unlock the secret item inside the globe
It was easy because the Takoyaki was give away, and Peru: potato giveaway
I unlocked the globe to reveal: Singapore Chili Crab, knew it was familiar tasting but couldnt pin point until waitress told me.
Memories of a bar in the Suburbs of Girona: Squids, kidneys and Sherry: gentian and orange bonbon, Montse’s meat cannelloni, “Perol” crunchy and lactarius delicious.
It is a pop up and homage to the brothers growing up in their parent’s restaurant down the street and their mother’s cooking and flavors. the three brothers, but in 1967 when the family restaurant first opened, Jordi Roca, the youngest brother (14 years younger than his oldest) was not born yet so he playing in the clouds!
Gonzales Byass Palo Cortado 1986 Para el Celler de Can Roca D.O. Jerez, Sherry. So good, like rich, smooth, oaky almost like a light and sweet whisky.
Puff pastry bean leaf with truffle, beans and bean’s flowers, essentially an iteration of various forms of Chickpeas
Green olive’s ice cream and black olive tempura served on a Olive Bonsai. Both items you get the textures first, crunchy for tempura, and velvety and icey with ice cream, but the olive’s natural flavors explode
Mestres Mas via 2000 magnum D.O. Cava from Catalonia
Cabbage, truffle, and anchovy. Surprisingly perfectly balanced, it’s like different kinds of salty between the earthy Truffle salty and the ocean seafood anchovy salty with the sweetness and lightness of the cabbage
Tartufo meringue with egg yolk: amazing, first you get the various textures then the truffle taste then the salty yolk.
truffle brioche with truffle mayo
Albarino Do Ferreiro Adina 2016, D.O. Rias baixas
Vegetable Surf and Turf. plankton mouse, not my favorite as I think the surf elements overpowered the turf elements, but the wine pairing was amazing
Christmann Idig 2016 V.D.P Pfalz
One of the best, if not my favorite dish of the entire meal.
Orange Salad: sweet potato puree, carrot puree, saffron and vinegar, yuzu marmalade, carrot sauce, tangerine, apple, orange juice, ginger, sriracha sauce, grilled mango, yellow beetroot, salad of chicory, Jerusalem artichoke and mango, air of “pipara”, bottarga and sea urchin
I mean, crazy number of ingredients but you can actually taste them all individually, and just the flavors here! Each bite was different and just so fun and amazing. You got sweet, sour, tart, bitter, crunchy, silky, liquid. There was so much happening.
Tissot Vin jaune 1997 A.O.C. Arbois
Spring Pickles with walnut “romesco” sauce
Ars Natura liquida Vermut (Vermoth) Negre Cynar. Cynar is alcohol made from fermented artichoke. Fantastic Vermouth, smooth but still bitter and acidic.
Spicy liquefied artichoke, artichoke confit, and artichoke soft textures. Best artichokes I have ever had, and I normally dont like artichokes.
2013 Domaine aux Moines A.O.C. Savennieres – La Roche aux moines
Not the best photo, but probably for me the second best dish of the afternoon.
Peas with bone marrow foam, coffee and tangerine. Again the textures, flavors.
The bone marrow foam was crazy, like fluffy cream but tasted like you eating bone marrow paired with crunchy sweet peas, the bitter acidic coffee and the tart tangerine. Almost like eating an old-fashioned but in food form
2014 Motor Gold Fenaltix
It was Calcot season, the Catalonian spring onion
Charcoal-gilled “Calcot”, hazlenuts, black sesame, nori seaweed, and calcot oil
Donnhoff Hermannshole 2014 V.D.P. Nahe Riesling, very good. More on dry side, but still sweet and smooth.
Sea anemone with sea anemone and nettle sauce and avocado
Vina Tondoni Rosat 2008, D.O. Ca. Rioja, a Rioja Rose
Third or tied for second best dish:
Prawn marinated with rice vinegar, head juice, crispy prawn legs, seaweed veloute and phytoplankton.
It was sweet, salty, bitter, crunchy, silky, soft, gelatinous at the same time. All characteristics of Shrimp on full display here. Interesting is that it was simultaneously very sweet and very salty but like so addicting, you just wanted to keep eating, like potato chips.
2018 La Perdida A’Mallada Ourense
Langoustine with sobrassada sauce, langoustine veloute, parsley jelly
Adding some of that langoustine veloute
2007 Mas d’en Comte D.O.Qa Priorat
Skate with saffron, yellow rocoto, bottarga and mustard/mustard seed.
It almost is a deconstructed skate curry, but allows you to taste each ingredient and how it all works together. Also amazing skill in cooking the perfect skate and thinly slicing the fillet into tiny pasta like strips.
Ferrer Bobet Seleccio Especial 2014 D.O. Qa priorat
Iberian Suckling Pig tatin with Kabu turnip in red wine, junipe berry chantilly
Alion 1996 D.O. Ribera del Duero, amazing vintage red
Squab pithivier with spinach and truffle, squab sauce and chlorophyll spinach sauce
the Pigeon was super tender and no real usual pigeon gamey taste
Joh. jos. Prum Graacher himmelreich 2015 Spatlese V.D.P. Mosel, similar to Riseling, very good.
Taste of the Earth
Petrichor: distilled Earth (I watched Netflix, and Jordi Roca literally takes soil, adds water, boiled and distills the steam to form that clear white gel), pine syrup ice cream, carob cookie, fir dust, cocoa biscuit
At first a bit weird, but once you get more bites and the flavors linger, it really does evoke the smells and dampness of when you are in a forest right after it rains.
Jordi literally takes inspiration from his memories and from places he goes to create his desserts, his story is actually quite great because he is 14/15 years younger than his two older brothers and they looked down upon him until he proved himself one day and started creating crazy but amazing desserts.
Incredible sweet sake
Sake Katsuyama dolc miyagi
White Flower: Elderberry, acacia, orange blossom, soursop, lynchee and green apple and jasmine. Literally tastes like you walking through a jasmine garden, in a place like Thailand. So airy, light but sweet and good.
Special pour, Josep Roca was in the restaurant that day and heard that I flew in just to eat so he told the staff to pour this vintage, very good.
Caslillo Ygay Logrono Reserva Especial Rioja Cosecha 1986, Bodegas Marques de Murieta
Perez Barquero La Canada VORS Montilla Moriles
also poured a Cafe Colombia Fina La Colombia, cidudad Bolivar, Antioquia coffee
Jordi and the brother went to a local sheep farm, and he was inspired by the smells there and the fresh and rare organic sheep’s milk they produced there. He also drew inspiration from his nephew who had been born, and “babies, they smell like milk”
Milk Desserts: sheep milk caramel, milk ice cream, curd-cheese foam, milk yogurt, and milk cloud. and that little cone by the plate is sheep’s wool essence, a strand of sheep’s wool with the smells of sheeps wool. A full round for the senses
2016 Porcelanic Verema Tardana 2016, D.O. Penedes
A Trip to Havana: Chocolate cigar with whipped cream and smoked with Havana Cigar Partagas serie D n 4 and “mojito”: lime jelly, rum candy, and mint granita
Amazing. It literally tastes like you are smoking a cigar: ashy, smokey and spicy. Also shown on Netflix is how Jordi and team makes it. He lights a cigar and distills the smoke and blends it into a cream which is the filling of the chocolate!
Petit Fours dessert cart
Chocolate and nuts cart
Following the incredible meal I asked if it was possible to tour the kitchen, even though I knew full well there would not be much action in between sittings. They more than happily walked me to the kitchen, and right before I entered I bumped into none other than Josep Roca himself. The pastry kitchen was cleaning up, the main kitchen was cleaned and the rest of the team was in the prep area getting ready for dinner.
I then exited the kitchen and asked Josep for a photo. And in my very tipsy, borderline drunk state thanked him and had a short conversation. He was very nice and seemed like a humble fellow, either that or he is just used to/ jaded by weirdos like me.
After paying for my meal at the reception, unclear if that is the official process or not. I had them order me a taxi to head to the station for a 6:30PM train. I waited outside in the gardens under the clear sunny skies of Catalonia. Where other lunch parties were sipping on post-meal Gin and Tonics (the tonic is homemade).
Soon my taxi arrived and I had to part ways with one of the most amazing meals I had ever had.