William Sitwell declares an end on his war on tasting menus after his experience at El Celler de Can Roca
I’VE WAGED A war on tasting menus. It’s been a long-fought battle and it’s up there with some of my other gruelling campaigns: my fight to have morris dancing banned, for example, or the endless fisticuffs I’ve had with people who argue for the cause of chocolate orange.
But sometimes, battle-weary, one pauses to allow the enemy one last chance to show their mettle before delivering the killer blow. It’s a bit like Dr Seuss’s ‘Green Eggs and Ham’. We all know how the story ends – and if you don’t look away now – as the unnamed character, the furry beast in the tall top hat, finally tries the dish and admits that after all the argument, all the bluster, that having actually tried the green eggs and ham, he loves them. And he will indeed eat them ‘in a boat’ or ‘with a goat’.
And so it was that I travelled to Spain, to Girona, a couple of hours' drive from Barcelona, in Catalan country, to give the tasting menu one last try. A friend was having a birthday and her husband’s treat was to take five of her friends to El Celler de Can Roca. I was one such friend, dinner was on the husband (let’s call him Jasper) and as the menu was all sorted, the wines picked, each course negotiated, the table booked and primed, who was I to argue?
Who would turn their nose up at such an offer? Who would say that the offer to dine at what is reputed to be one of the world’s finest restaurants should be shunned because the event would be of the tasting menu variety?
AND SO I set aside my issues, the fact that such menus are too often the self-indulgent expositions of chefs too amateur to be able offer the perfection of what is small, simple and brief – three perfect courses, no smears, no cappuccinos, no froths, no amuse bouches, no treats from the kitchen, no 12-course extravaganzas that just leave you feeling sick with no memory of what you ate. The only things I usually recall from tasting menus are the breads, the rest is too exhausting with too much detail to fill my sad little mind.
The restaurant at El Celler de Can Roca
Off we trotted. And we ate a dinner so sublime, so immaculate in conception, it was almost a religious experience. The restaurant is run by three brothers – Joan, Josep and Jordi – has a beautiful and massive wine cellar and, while the kitchen is housed in an elegant and traditional townhouse of a building, the restaurant is in a modern space that more resembles an art gallery. Which is appropriate, given the beauty and presentation of the food.
The first thing to arrive, as we sat sipping cava, was a bonsai olive tree that hung with little caramelised olives mixed with a dash of anchovy. Funny, clever, delicious, intriguing. It was one of several ingenious little starters that came in rapid, but well-paced, time, the most wonderful of which was a little rounded brioche topped with a tiny shaving of truffle.
You popped it into the mouth and it was still warm, then as you chewed a little, light, and slightly warmer, savoury filling of gooey, but not too gooey, cheesey sauce tripped out from within. It was the sexiest thing I have ever eaten in every sense. It was weird, in a good way, naughty, curious.
I WAS EATING a small soft breast and it emitted milky yumminess. You figure that out. You try it and tell me it’s not right. I was mesmerised, salivating from this experience, when along came another truffley treat: a black chocolate truffle.
Would this be even greater, even more pleasurable? I had had one truffley orgasm type dish and now came a large, more truffley thing in chocolate. Greedily I scoffed it down anticipating that I would land on the ceiling.
But it was more tart, more bitter, good but not sensational. The bastard chef was playing with me. ‘You like this,' he was saying, ‘so go on, have another, have an even more truffley thing.' And then he slapped me in the face as if to say, ‘Idiot, nothing can ever again be as good as the brioche tit with cheesey juice.’
AND ON IT went. More playful dishes, canapés whose country of origin we had to guess – from Japan to Morocco. Then the finest foie gras dish surely ever invented – the timbale of apple and duck liver – with the apple and liver in such perfect balance that you could imagine them picked from the same tree, or plucked from the same duck.
A little dish of lobster, soft, tender sole with six different emulsions and atop of each a tiny speck of their core ingredient – a tiny bit of orange, a flick of pine nut. More fish – salt cod – then the thinnest slice of belly pork (er, yup my vegetarian Lent took a night off) and two lovely puddings, a soft cloud of lemon, a consommé of milk and chocolate.
And every dish presented to the table by a waitress who never looked smug about the genius of these dishes, and seemed to share every bit of our excitement. Our eight wines were presented with equally subtle panache.
This was an evening every foodie must dream of. So bring back tasting menus, let the streets be full of morris dancing, hand me that chocolate orange, for the world according to El Celler de Can Roca is a beautiful place.
Read more from Sitwell Scoffs