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January 17, 2009

A Trip to Valencia and Barcelona: Ca' Sento, Can Fabes, Can Roca, and Others

Is the hype about Spanish cuisine justified?

Following another 10 day trip to the South of Spain last month in March 2007, I have an unequivocal answer: Yes and No.

It is no, if we equate Spanish cuisine with the “in” places favored by international gastronomic traveler and glossy publications whose business is to create hype. At the high end, with the exception of Con Fabes, the top of the Spanish scene does not equal France in terms of the rigor and precision of the celebrated chefs.

It is yes, by all means, if we are searching for great ingredients or singular dishes cooked expertly, rooted in gastronomic traditions.  Spanish cuisine is especially interesting because certain kinds of seafood (from Galicia and also the Mediterranean) and certain products are either unique to Spain, or nearly so.

 Let’s take some of the highlights of the trip.  Where else on earth can one taste some of the deepest, sweetest, richest flavor that a certain “pig” is capable of delivering? I am referring here to the ham made from acorn fed Iberian pig. In this particular instance, the pleasure one derives from savoring the subtle flavors of the pig coming from the CARRASCO Estate in Guijuelo is such that one can close one’s eyes and thank the eternity. But in this particular instance, we, i.e myself, my wife, and a good friend, did thank Josep Vilella, gourmet extaordinaire, who made the private tasting possible. The tasting was for the four of us, plus the importer of the species to Barcelona, Signor Xavier. We literally finished half of the pig’s leg for breakfast in the boutique hotel Neri in the Barri Gothic.

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What we don’t have in gastroville is a system to rate individual products and specialty restaurants.  It is pointless to compare, say Mannix with its amazing suckling lamb, and lamb only, with Arzak or Can Roca! One classification that makes sense is to give stars. Five stars should be reserved for the best example of a category, four for a great example, three for good example, two for average and one for poor. If this makes sense, I should say that the IBERIAN HAM from Carrasco should be awarded five stars. Don’t miss it when you find it.

I would say the same about the PAELLA we had at PACO in the small village of PINOSO which is about a two hours drive from Valencia in the interior. Admittedly it would not have been easy to find the place and without our friend, Rogelio, and we could have failed to go there without his help. But, IMO this “middle of nowhere” place run by a not so charming man and his charming wife, who is the cook, is a destination restaurant. Cooked in the traditional style over vine branches, each single grain of the rice is a revelation. More interestingly, as your rice sits on the paella (the shallow cast iron/aluminium pan where paella cooks), it continues to develop deeper flavors, and it is a sacrilege to stir it to make eating easier. If you go there, I recommend that you try the traditional version with wild rabbit and mountain snails. You will see each grain you eat as the rice comes before you in one layer, and in this sense it is very different than any other rice dish I have had anywhere.  There is a crusty layer of toasted rice that forms at the edges, called “socorrat” and it is also delightful. Would I consider a visit to Spain to eat paella at this level? Absolutely. I don’t think you can find something in the same league anywhere else.

Paco ranking: 5 stars

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If you go that far, it is not a bad idea to have dinner (paella is for lunch only) in PETRER, a town nearby, at the one star Michelin restaurant called LA SIRENA.  But don’t try the creative dishes there. The nice lady, Mari Carmen Velez, who is chef/owner is overreaching when she makes dishes complicated.  Some dishes suffer either from poor conceptualization or poor execution (such as a casserole of chipirones). In return, classical dishes, especially the “suquet” is beyond reproach. But, above all, this is a place to savor one of the delicacies of the marine world, the incomparable GAMBAS OF DENIA. They come from an even deeper sea than the celebrated Palomas prawns, and they equal the equally sweet and subtle Gamberi di San Remo. At La Sirena they are cooked perfectly (a la plancha) and are extremely fresh.

 La Sirena ranking: 13/20

 The celebrated CA’SENTO restaurant in Valencia is another seafood place where the young chef Raul Alexandre tries to combine the traditional cuisine that he inherited from his parents with new ideas he learned from Feran Adria and company.  Presentations are more elaborate than La Sirena and plating is very modern. So is the ambience and decoration.  I have some mixed feelings about Raul. There is no doubt that his ingredients are top notch even by (very high) Spanish standards. There are products, such as “datiles del Mar” or sea dates, or Denia prawns (picture below) which are hard to get elsewhere. He is great with the salt crusting technique, and his big Cigalas cooked in a salt crust were outstanding (picture below). His traditional seafood “fideua”, thin noodles crusted a la plancha (like a crepe) and mixed with cuttlefish, squid, galera (like small langoustines) and a side aioli and squid ink, is outstanding. If this is a take on a traditional dish, this is the way Raul should evolve. On the other hand, he is more likely to evolve in the “creative” dimension favored by the apostles of the avant garde, like Rafael Garcia Santos, and unfortunately, the Guide Michelin, which now distributes stars like lollipops and follows, rather than guides, popular tendencies. At any rate, the modern dishes at Ca’Sento are a mixed bag. They range from beautiful, but insubstantial (soft egg, ham gelee and caviar), to misconceived (gorgonzola ravioli with low quality truffles), to pointless (steamed oyster topped by dried seaweed which sticks to your gum).   On the other hand, a modern dessert, coconut sorbet, marinated excellent strawberries, and a strawberry mousse is also outstanding and an apt harbinger of the Spring weather to come.

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Ca’Sento ranking: 15.5/20

There are, of course, seafood temples in Catalunya which, though much less celebrated than the Valencian Ca’Sento, offer products which are at least on par with Ca’Sento and cheaper, or much cheaper. A case in point for the former category is JOAN GATELL in CAMBRILS, where the great chef Joan Pedrell reigns. Everything is of outstanding quality. He has the “datiles del mar” which taste more subtle than clams and more creamy than mussels (picture below). They are harvested from the rocks even though their harvest has been banned. Pedrell also serves fried tiny fish (“Chanquetes”) and “espardenyes” without any trace of oil. His baked cigalas, finished like a “crepe Suzette” (by flambéing with cognac) is good, if unorthodox. But one of the “piece de resistance” dishes is the traditional ‘caldereta” of langouste, which is langouste cooked in casserole with potatoes. I am especially fond of the sweet langouste, which, disproving my fear, was not overcooked. I inquired about the provenance and learned that it was caught in the Islas Columbretes, near the city of Castello, not far from Valencia.  I was equally dumbfounded by the captivating and tiny purple baby octopus (“Polpetta”) which is highly prized in the Spring Season. I had three wonderful examples of this unique seafood dish (the other examples being at Hogar Gallego and Con Fabes), and they were all outstanding.  The version at Joan Gatell, grilled on wild rosemary skewers and splashed with “arbequina” olive oil and a dash of freshly ground black pepper, became the standard bearer for me to compare the other examples (picture below).

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Talking about Gatell, one should be crazy to go all the way to Cambrils and not literally lick the dish in which he serves his zesty “romesco” sauce. We asked for a second actually!

Desserts are fair.

Joan Gatell ranking: 17/20

The other seafood temple that I have alluded too, and which is cheaper than Ca’Sento and Pedrell, is a Galician stronghold in the nondescript seaside town of CALELLA (one hour from Barcelona) called HOGAR GALLEGO. There, encouraged by the status and knowledge and appetite of our friend Josep, the three of us went out whole hog and consumed the following: local mussels, “oysters” from Galicia (good), “clams” from Galicia (good), “sea urchins” from Galicia (outstanding), 1.9 kg “centollo” crab from Galicia (outstanding +), 200 gram steamed Galician “percebes” (great), super tender and juicy “razor clams” from Galicia a la planxa (picture below),  grilled “baby scallops” in the shell (“zamburonas”) that are the sweetest imagineable and served with the roe attached, local “espardenyes” which remind me of chipirones in taste but perhaps with a more lingering aftertaste and a different, more chewy yet crisp texture (picture below), sautéed “polpetta”, which I believe to be the pinnacle of the octopus species, some Palamos “gambas” cooked under a salt crust, very fresh and with feelers intact (had I not had the ones from Denia I would have said unbelievable—maybe we become too spoilt), “coquinhas” (tallarines) which are more subtle than clams in taste, and, to conclude, a thick piece of “ wild turbot”, roasted on the bone, and served with wild asparagus (very good). Of course we had some Galician cheese from raw cow’s milk, but went easy on desserts. We washed all these down with my favorite Galician whites: 2001 Pazo Senorans Seleccion, 2002 Pazo Senorans Seleccion and a vigorous if too young 2005 Do Ferreiro Cepas Vellas. All were very good matches with the food and serious wines, in their own right.

Hogar Gallego is a gem.

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Hogar Gallego ranking: 17/20

While one can eat regal seafood in pristine condition in Catalunya, it is also possible to have game and rustic meat dishes that one can never find in the US and, rarely, in France and Italy. When I think of “no nonsense” sturdy cooking, imaginative yet steeped in tradition, my favorite is a Michelin one star restaurant located in the mountain range close to the town of Vic:  CAN JUBANY in Calldetenes. Run by the passionate chef Nando Jubany and his charming wife, this place which is a one hour drive from Barcelona, is heads and shoulders above the level of many Michelin one star restaurants located in Barcelona.  Last November (2006), at the height of the game season, we had the best “becada” (woodcock) of our trip at Can Jubany, so expertly prepared that, had I closed my eyes, I would have guessed that I was transported to the manicured village of Satigny near Geneve where hunter/chef Chevrier at Chateauvieux concocts some of the best game preparations known to me. I was equally impressed by the “lievre a la royale” at Can Jubany, even though it was hard to savor its richness after becasse.

Chef Nando, unlike most other chefs, does not pay lip service to the quality of ingredients. He means it. He refuses to serve “wild mushrooms” not picked in the close mountain range the very morning he serves them; his limited seafood offerings are always wild and line-caught; his game has never been frozen, etc…  In mid-March, he delighted my wife and I, and our friend Mariano, with his truffle dishes, especially the whole truffle in papillotte with potato and pancetta. The quality of the truffle (from Teruel) was above-average, his preparations wholesome and delightful. Even though we were critical of his “millefeuille of truffe with caramelized apple and foie gras” (it was served too cold, apples were raw, and the foie gras was tasteless), we licked our lips wolfing down the “calcots”, a local marvel (tastes like a cross between a spring onion and a leek, perhaps reminiscent of zucchini flowers, too, in its delicacy), grilled on vine branches first and then finished on a hot tile. It was served with precious local red gambas and, of course, romesco sauce (picture below).

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Nando also excels in traditional “mountain and the sea” type dishes, and he is a deft roaster. His, baked to order, “baby goat” with artichokes, spring onions, broccoli flower, garlic and crumbles of butifarra sausage, has been anchored in my memory as the equal of the great Cesare’s version in Albaretto della Torre (near Alba). Equally delightful was his stew of langoustines and various cuts from a pig’s head (ears, tongue, crane), enriched by remarkable quality (thin shell) local beans (both pictures below).

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And, I assure you, that Nando makes good desserts.  If you are lucky, the artisanal Brie de Meau like cheese from Lleida that he serves with truffles, truffle ice cream and membrilla, will be available when you go there.

Can Jubany ranking: 17/20

It is possible that, when you are in Barcelona, you may wish to eat baby “churra” breed lamb from Ribera. Don’t go to the Asadors mentioned in Michelin where you will taste imported lamb (probably from New Zealand). The right address is the restaurant ALAMBI at the Hotel Hesperia in Sant Jus Desvern where they serve the three weeks old local lamb, and they expertly cook it in a wood-fired oven. They also carry excellent Morcilla from Burgos. Perhaps this is not Mannix at Campaspero, but it is very good.

Alambi ranking: 4 stars.

One “no miss” in Barcelona is breakfast at the bar Pinotxo in Mercado where you can taste the tastiest doughnuts in this planet called XuXo. The problem is that, you have to wake up early enough to be there before 9 AM, if not 8 AM.  Admittedly, I am an anathema to Admiral Nelson who admonishes late risers, even though I admire the man’s dalliance with “My Fair Lady” Emma. At any rate, the best is to have an elegant and gracious friend who will get there on time and hang two XuXo on the door of your hotel room so that you can have them when you wake up, but unfortunately, with lousy coffee. (When will the Spanish learn to make good coffee?)

One thing to miss in Barcelona is a visit to CA L’ISIDRE. It is possible that this pretentious bistro may have seen better days. Presently, there are about 100 bistros in Paris, which are better and cheaper. Still, they make a fine “foie gras ravioli” and “lamb brain” with caper vinaigrette. But they re-heat the baby goat leg (dried out), and their bacalao is so so. Desserts are fair. Prices are too high for the level. You can eat much better, and cheaper, at the newer COURE, where the young team which came from restaurant Neichel is preparing some fine dishes.

Ca L’Isidre ranking: 10/20

But there is no need to be concerned about having great food in Barcelona, as some of the best restaurants are about a 45 minutes drive away. Of these, we had extolled the virtues of two of these before in Gastroville:  HISPANIA in Arenys de Mar and CAN ROCA in Girona. We have repeated them head to head, on March 21 and March 22, respectively.

I stand behind my ranking of HISPANIA. It is the quintessential eatery if you want to understand what Catalunyan home cooking—at its absolute best—is all about. If you don’t like Hispania, you don’t like Catalunyan food, period. Notice the two pictures below from the recent trip: fava beans with home made morcilla (blood sausage), and fresh peas with home made botifurra sausage, simple but ethereal.  One rarely encounters, and I am afraid our descendents will not encounter, vegetables of this quality, in the modern age.

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Unfortunately, I can no longer stand behind my ranking of Can Roca, and I have to re-consider it. My last meal there, before the March 22 dinner, was good, albeit not as otherworldly as the first two. But this very last meal proved that there are some problems. Possibly, Chef Joan Roca is overstrechted, overextended. What made him unique in the past was that he was a master of finding complimentary tastes, while also introducing a contrasting and interesting element in his dishes. He did this by respecting the integrity and quality of ingredients. In the past, his search for aesthetic perfection did not detract from deliciousness.

Unfortunately, although these qualities are still in evidence in some dishes, such as “baby pigeon (from Northern Italy) infused with subtle spices and served with red fruits and agrumes coulis,” half of his current dishes have been plagued by various problems. One type of problem is that some new creations consist of a pointless take on a familiar theme, such as “oysters with solid cava,” a version of the classic, “huitre au champagne”.  Here, the solid cava poured from the magnum is a jelly made from an emulsifier, the so called “xantham gum” and the result is an utterly bitter, unsubtle taste. Also too much is going on in this dish (cumin, curry, crumbles of pain d’epice, caramelized apple) as if the chef could not make up his mind about what to include and what to leave out.

There are also dishes which are pretty to look at, but marred by extreme sweetness, such as “bonbon de langoustine,” where even a top notch veloute of crustaceans could not balance the sweetness of the sugar-caramel coating of the langoustine.  Similarly his “morue” with pumpkin and passion fruit suffers from an average quality ingredient (pumpkin), and a fake pil pil sauce made by an industrial stabilizer lacks the depth of the original. The dish is sweet and shallow at the same time.

The worst, however, is when a dish is flavored by so many flavors and aromas that our taste buds feel confused and overwhelmed. Such has been the case with “moules avec Riesling” where six oysters are flavored, respectively, with bergamot cream, apple and jasmin, lemon and cardamon and coriander, peach and rose, distilled earth, and, white truffle oil. Some are OK, but others end up leaving unsavory and artificial tastes (the last two). It is as if Joan wanted to pull out all of his tricks at once. Or, rather, it is as if his younger brother Jordi, who concocts interesting, if a bit corny desserts, has mistranslated his ideas to savory courses. See his interesting dessert which ended the meal, called Anarchy 2007, composed of 40 flavors, and compare it with the mussel dish. Well, some “anarchy” on the plate is refreshing, but too much of it is not necessarily in good taste. (The picture of the mussel dish and the new dessert, which have a common conceptual base, are below.)

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Despite all that has been said about Can Roca, I should add that for a wine lover like me, the brother Josep remains the best sommelier in Spain, and one of the best that I have met. His matching of several wines for his brother’s cooking was nothing but brillant. Joan also embarassed all of us, upon our departure, by his lovely gift of his recent cookbook. I cross my fingers that he will return back to good form and that I will be able to proclaim, once again, that his cooking is inspired and delicious.

Can Roca ranking: 14/20

Well, it seems like fate, and Josep Vilella conspired to save the best for the last. I am talking about CAN FABES, of course. I will not go out on a limb and claim that my meal there was typical. Josep is a friend of the house and is a most respected gastronome in Catalunya, and even though he was not with us during the meal due to a last minute tragedy involving a friend’s son, his involvment with the reservation should have made a big difference. Also, that day, the great chef Santi was in the kitchen. If HISPANIA is THE example of Catalunyan everyday cuisine, than, I guess, one can say that CAN FABES is how the Catalunyan royalty must have eaten or what the Catalunyan Haute Cuisine is all about.

To sum it up, Santi is a great saucier; he has an unfailing sense of balance; he is a master of different techniques; and he has achieved the level of perfection which is very rare. That is, this level of perfection is achieved when the chef is able to make dishes look “extremely simple” while the simplicity is actually deceptive, because it hides the laborous thought process which underlies the creations.

And, Santi, is ingredient driven. Go there in winter and you will have best mushrooms and game. In late Spring, try the local lamb.

How about mid-Spring? We had a symphony of clean and precise flavors, which, like a crescendo, evolved from the zesty and sweet to more complex and deep and earthy flavors. An “assortemen of amuses mostly based on shellfish”, “local crab”, “bay scallops with gnocchi and truffles”,  “pea tart with clams’,  “angulas pil pil”, “pulpitos with fava beans”, “cigalas”, “grilled duck liver with pear”, “butifarra with truffle and perigourdine sauce” and “wild venison in pastilla”. Then came the best cheese course in Spain, followed by good desserts: a variation on agrumes and little chocolate filled beignets (bunuelos).  Needless to say, one should finish with aged Armagnac and coffee even though no room may be left for the petit fours.

Such a summary does not do justice to Santi’s greatness of course. It is not a single dish that is most memorable (we ended up starring half of them); it is the totality and the geniality of the progression.  We have not encountered any single element in a dish which was sub-par or not well thought out (with the exception of re-heated pastilla). The Spanish truffles were clearly Melanosporum, and very ripe and smokey at the end of the season. Some of the dishes contained an interesting contrasting touch hidden in the dish (such as the crunchy pork skin or chicarron with Cigalas or large langoustines). These contrasts were memorable in terms of the restraint with which they were included in the dish and served the role of calibrating our palate to appreciate the main ingredient, rather than stealing the show. This is the hallmark of a great chef. Other dishes, such as the tart and flan of peas with clams, struck me as a teaching lesson, showing that one may introduce different textures and temperature variations in a dish, NOT AS AN END IN ITSELF TO WOW, but as a means to titillate taste buds and bring out all the complexities inherent in an ingredient (in this case the peas, pictured below, whose taste was further enhanced by the sweet clams which married beatifully).

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I should add that there were dishes, such as angulas (picture below) and the great baby octopus, pulpitos or polpets, where chef Santi, unlike most young so called “celebrity chefs” understood that the greatness was in retiring himself from the picture, while adding just a touch of something which separates this level of cooking from, say, the a great Hogar Gallego. And what a touch! The best olive oil and fresh garlic in pil pil sauce combined with refreshing parsley that one can not buy from the local market. Outstanding fava beans (same level as Hispania) and sprigs of fresh dill came with polpets.

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Finally, Santi is a great saucier. Both the perigourdine sauce and the Burgundian winey sauce with the venison reminded me of the long gone days where, instead of squirting colorful but sterile liquids misleadingly called “sauce” from plastic bottles, chefs knew how to make a sauce and did not take shortcuts. Well, I will not describe in length the butifarra sausage dish which showcased a beautiful marriage between Melanosporum and the first artichokes of the season, but I will say that if a rustic dish can be elevated to a regal level, this must be it!

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CAN FABES ranking: 18.5/20

Vedat Milor.  April 2007

 

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