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
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
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
Paco ranking: 5 stars
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
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
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
Hogar Gallego is a gem.
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
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).
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).
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
Alambi ranking: 4 stars.
One “no miss” in Barcelona
One thing to miss in Barcelona
Ca L’Isidre ranking: 10/20
But there is no need to be concerned about having great food
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.
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
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.)
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
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
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).
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.
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!
CAN FABES ranking: 18.5/20
Vedat Milor. April 2007