El Celler de Can Roca: End of History?

The Roca Brothers are among the most well-meaning and hospitable people that you can meet in, or outside, the restaurant world. I have a particular fondness for Josep Roca, not only for his obvious knowledge and good taste in wine and how he pairs it with food, but also for the way he approaches wine, which is to say, not as a doctor analyzing a patient in order to make a diagnosis, but with the sensibility of a romantic poet who brings out the intrinsic sensual qualities and distinct personality of the person he loves.

I have dined fabulously at El Celler de Can Roca several times when they had two Michelin stars in their prior location. I also wrote a review that you can read here. What had impressed me most was the re-interpretation of Catalan classics and the way Joan Roca conceived them, such as espardenyes (sea cucumber) and pork feet, by enhancing or magnifying the taste of great ingredients through precise cooking, complementary components, and a contradictory element of contrasting and highlighting the uniqueness of the dish. Furthermore, the tasting menu was well-thought-out with five to six courses that followed each other in a logical and gustatory order, with each course having been perfected before being brought to the table.

I have dined three times in the new location in Girona. Now, besides being a Michelin three-starred restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca is the second best in the world according to Restaurant Magazine's infamous “The World's 50 Best Restaurants" list (for a criticism of the list, see Hatinoglu et al., "The Society of the Illusionists"). I feel that fame and a very busy schedule has taken a toll on Joan Roca. He has neither the time, nor the energy to conceive and perfect new great dishes. So what we are seeing at El Celler de Can Roca is also endemic to many of the world’s highly prized trendy hot spots. In other words, there is a shift away from creating memorable dishes at the expense of creating instead some sort of unique experience for the diner. 

Such experiences vary, of course, from one “top” restaurant to another, but there are some common elements. To start with, form takes precedence over content. An element of vulgar theatricality becomes the centerpiece of the dining experience with unusual presentations and long monologues when the server presents each dish. The duration of the meal has become unusually long, often more than five hours, with multiple courses, often numbering more than ten, many of which consist of multiple parts, some of which are very good and others of which are haphazard. Dining out in the highest-ranked restaurants becomes less of a hedonistic endeavor and tilts instead towards gluttony cum spectacle. Gone are the days when customers enjoyed each other’s company, and great food inspired witty conversation. Now it is the server who takes center stage with his or her interminable stories about each course while the customer becomes a pawn to a staged script written elsewhere. Furthermore, the customer is meant to feel “privileged” to take part in the performance. It is no more the “celebrity" chef who writes the script. There are multiple sponsors and “spin doctors” backstage, and the chef himself is often a victim who can hardly recognize the “theater” created under his name.

I believe this is the case with Joan Roca, a very intelligent and modest man who, to quote a friend, “became the victim of the monster he has helped to create”.  Dining out at Roca now is a dazzling experience, but not a satisfactory one, despite the excellent wines Josep Roca selects. There is no logical sequence to the procession of so many courses; and one detects several different styles and half-baked ideas during the six-hour-long meal. It is as if the chef lets his sous-chefs and interns “create” dishes, and not being able to work with them to streamline and perfect their ideas. The saddest irony is that, despite all references and stories about the three brothers and Catalan cooking throughout the meal, we witness the end of an era when Roca's cooking had a distinct identity and was inspired by his background and Catalan cuisine. It now feels like a self-conscious, a-historical and universal “top” restaurant with its culinary techniques; tableware; language; decoration; plating; reference points; and “shock and awe" tactics. There is much “meat” here for the social media gurus, "50 Best influencers”, and the fans of dining out as a spectacle akin to playing with your portable toy. C’est dommage mais quand-meme c’est un triomphe. It is a pity for the minority, but a triumph for the movers and shakers who are intent on commodifying and rendering scalable what has been left from the historically and geographically-defined character of hedonistic fine dining.

Here is the summary of my late fall dinner at Cellar de Can Roca.

Wines.

  • 2015 Cosmic Paciencia, Aguillana (good with amuses)
  • 2015 Sesenta e Nove Arrobas, Rias Baixas (very good Albariño)
  • 2005 Luisa Lazaro Leirano, Rias Baixas (excellent aged, elegant Albariño)
  • 2010 Jean Foillard, Cuvee 3.14, Morgon (great match with suckling pig)
  • 2009 Clos de L’Obac, Priorat (very good match with suckling lamb)
  • 2002 Méo-Camuzet, Clos Vougeot (excellent wine which has peaked and perfect match with “lièvre à la royale” )

Breads.

They serve the most decadent tomato brioche. Do not eat too much! Other breads are not on a par and should be improved.

1st Set of Amuses

A nod to the Roca Brothers’ travels around the world is encapsulated in mini-bites: Thailand, Japan, Turkey, Korea, Peru. All of the taste ticklers are good; the best is “Japan”, which is miso cream-wasabi-ginger. Second place goes to Turkey: long cooked lamb, yogurt, cucumber, onions and mint. There is a game to play. You have to identify which one is Japan and which one is Thai. The successful rendition of this Herculean task is not without its own reward. If you move the lever the right way, the globe opens up and the trophy shines: jellied seawater (morphing technique) with caviar.

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2nd Set of Amuses.

To be honest, here we have over-used ideas and a presentation that borders on the vulgar: A cartoon box that opens up with the miniature figures of the three brothers when they were young. I bet they were eating much better then, as I have not been convinced by most of their morphing techniques, such as a boring Campari-red fruit bonbon; tasteless kidneys with sherry; caramelized nuts; fried “fake” calamari that was awkwardly breaded as if in the southern United States); and a St. Georges mushroom that did not taste right (and may have been fake?). We could not decipher why they served these tidbits that did not complement one another. Overall, had I had them in an avant-garde tapas bar as pinchos, I would have been disappointed.

3rd Set of Amuses.

This dish was frankly disappointing as formal technique took precedence over substance or raw materials—a sin when it comes to shellfish: A “star fish” from prawns and clams; a piece of razor clam with pesto and Macademia nuts; and a mussel with albariño wine foam. I could not detect the briny-sweet shellfish taste in any of the compositions.

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4th Set of Amuses.

This set may have been the most disappointing of all, as I do not appreciate being served fake green olives, even if they are hanging from a plant placed inside a pot. There is also an ethical issue here; that of relying on synthetic products to evoke something natural. Some may like morphing as a technique to make little creations pop in the mouth.

5th Set of Amuses.

This dish was a liquid truffle bonbon and soft bun topped with truffles. It has an overwhelmingly intense, in-your-face taste that imparts a mettalic bitter edge to the truffles. I like the bao-bun. It was subtler in taste. Had they offered only the first set of amuses (which displayed a global, sophisticated pinchos style) and then moved on to this, the start of the meal would have been more balanced and less deleterious (some morphing seems de rigeur when you dine avant-garde in Spain).

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1st Course:  Consomme/Gelée of rouget-salmonetes (red mullet) marinated with kombu, saffron, charcoal grilled garlic, tomato and fennel.

The reduction of a gelée is from fish bone thickened by an alginate (xanthan gum, perhaps?) more for an aesthetic than a gustatory reason. Garlic (aioli), fennel and tomato drops blend well and are complement each other. Our waiter also mentioned “fish bone from Carignane,” but we could not detect this. Overall this dish is a modern take on fish in aspic. The rencontre between Escoffier and Japan actually worked here as the salmonetes was also fresh; and, despite unnecessary complexity, we liked the gelatinous texture and depth imparted by the fish bones.

2nd Course: Oyster fennel sauce, black garlic, apple, seaweed, mushrooms, distilled earth and sea anemone, Earl Grey mayonnaise and Salicornia.

I want to forget about this dish which amounts to an experiment gone awry. The oyster shell with oyster jus (de-hydrated something) is supposed to impart crispness, but tasted metallic instead. This is almost the opposite of sophisticated simplicity. This dish has unnecessary complexity to the detriment of the palate.

3rd Course:  Langoustine with sagebrush, beurre blanc and vanilla.

This is a great dish with sweetness with excellent quality of fresh, meaty langoustines from nearby Perpignan. They were cooked a la plancha and were firm and succulent. A touch of absinthe adds complexity to the beurre blanc flavored with vanilla sticks. This reminded me of the great lobster with vanilla beurre blanc in Lucas Carton’s heyday when the great Alain Senderens was in charge..

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4th Course:  Marinated raw mackerel with fermented beans.

Local excellent thin-skinned “ganxet” beans have been fermented one, two, and four weeks respectively (Try the bean salad at Hispania in Arenys de Mar for the ultimate expression of “ganxet” beans). The fresh mackerel is marinated in manzanilla. This dish is a fine terre et mer dish that works. It may have been even more appropriate earlier in the meal with a glass of manzanilla. Overall, it is a very good dish.

5th Course: Sardines 3 ways; representing the three brothers

The courses representing the three brothers are incoherent and haphazard at best, conceited at worst. One is presented two distinct preparations of sardines: one steamed with amontillado and a the other with  strongly flavored broth with yeast and a fish bones’ foam. The latter overwhelms the former. The third element is a spoon that has a drop of Pedro Ximenez caramel, which is even sweeter than a Middle Eastern dessert. We could not figure out the logic behind this trio.

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6th Course: Angulas.

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This dish made up for the disappointment of the previous course. The baby eels were cooked the classical way—in the frying pan with garlic oil and pil-pil emulsion. The unaromatic tartufi bianchi which were past their prime was unnecessary. It may be more complementary for the baby eels to sprinkle some briny caviar on top, at at Güeyu Mar. The texture revealed that the baby eels were alive a few hours before they were cooked. Why do they add pico magnatum? Our server (who barely spoke English) assured us that it was familiar territory, i.e.  “it is just like an Italian pasta, except we changed it to elvers!” Well, there is nothing wrong with that!

7th Course: Raw Gambas from Palamós.

The fresh and succulent-sweet Palamós prawns are cut thick after being quickly marinated in rice vinegar. The deep-fried head and body contrast well both in texture and temperature. They come with a classic bisque sauce and just the right amount of kombu at the bottom. The acid (rice vinegar) - sweet (prawns) - earth (kombu) balance is right, and all is held together by the rich and opulent sauce which does not overwhelm the meaty prawns. This is a great dish as far as crudi of gambas dishes go, only surpassed by Milan's Aimo e Nadia’s more-subtle version.

8th Course: Cuttlefish with sake leaves and black rice sauce.

The language barrier made it hard to fully understand this somewhat fussy dish. The sake is jellied and did not add much to the rest of the dish. The sauce seemed to be the ink of the cuttlefish but was not as sweet as expected, probably because it was combined with fermented black rice water as can be seen in the sauce (It is possible that there was no fresh ink). I could grasp the logic of adding neither the parmesan nor the jellied sake. Most importantly, the cuttlefish (probably cooked a la plancha) did not taste as fresh as I am used to in Spain, such as the “chocos” in Granada at the FM Bar. Perhaps they are becoming extinct and such that more restaurants need to present them in overly-complicated forms. 

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9th Course: Turbot with vegetables fermented in brine.

It is better to forget about this course, even though it looks beautiful in the photograph. The turbot was cooked sous-vide, and it was raw and blue in the middle and cold. The pil-pil sauce is a misnomer as it tasted more like a mayonnaise. The pickled cucumber flower was tasty. The waiter noticed that we did not eat the turbot, and they brought the following course:

10th Course: Bacalao.

Alas, this is not like eating the amazing “bacalao a la parilla” at Asador Etxebarri. However, sous-vide cooking did not entirely obliterate the characteristic texture, and flavor of the salted cod here. It was served as in a soup bowl (escudilla), with a sauce made of potatoes, onions and fish bones. I am a bit critical of the thickening agents such as alginates that they use. They look good in photos, but compromise the sweet/saline/mineral flavor of the fish bones. They served it with fresh bok choy that went well with the dish.

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11th Course: Iberian Suckling Pig.

This dish is Joan Roca en plein forme as in the old days. It is hard to create a better small-portion suckling pig dish and furthermore preparing it sous-vide. At the first glance the dish looks overly-complicated and fussy with papaya,green apple and coriander-filled tacos; home-made ketchup; grilled lettuce with toasted sesame and pine nut foam; and its own jus. But the different elements blend well, and the texture of the cochinillo, although not with a crisp skin and baby fat as cooked in asadors in Spain, is not mushy. (Roca may be the leading authority on sous-vide cooking, which homogenizes taste and texture in the so called leading restaurants). I enjoyed this dish.

12th Course: Suckling Lamb Trio.

As in the old days when El Celler de Can Roca had two Michelin stars, perfect cooking, nice spicing, and the gelatinous nature of suckling lamb has not been compromised. The dish includes lamb tongue, brain, tripe, and belly. The tripe is with yellow peppers and tomatoes; the tongue with chimichurri; the fried brain with yogurt; and the belly in an excellent consommé. This is reinterpreted Catalan cooking without any nod to Japan!

13th Course: Hare à la royale.

The dish was cooked two ways: One part is the filet (rable), and the other is a preparation that reminded me of rillettes rather than classic lièvre à la royale, which is to say Câreme style, with stuffed foie gras. Here the foie gras is like a mousse at the bottom. The almond and garlic mousse adds complexity.  This is not a labor intensive and complex dish like the traditional version, but it is very tasty. It was a good finish until they brought the dessert that turned out to be a disaster!

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Dessert: Old Book.

This is a variation that refers to Marcel Proust's madeleines with tea. That is, puffed pastries of butter cookies, cream of Darjeeling. Jordi included some torn pages from Proust’s Spanish translation, and our captain told us that they are edible. Well, they are not! I thought them to be white chocolate. At any rate, the rest of the dessert is uni-dimensional and bland. Form over substance is too striking here. It may not be at all ethical to commodify a classic to fulfill a marketing function. Proust would have turned over in his grave.

EVALUATION: 15/20