The day El Celler de Can Roca was named World’s Best Restaurant, its website got 12 million hits.
That’s according to Josep Roca, one of the three brothers who own the establishment in Girona, Spain. The waiting list for a table has grown to one year from 10 months before the award on April 29. There is a backlog of 3,000 requests.
“We have three employees whose only job is to say no,” Josep, 47, says in an interview -- via an interpreter -- beside the dining room in the unfancy suburb of Taiala-Germans Sabat.
Josep is in charge of front of house and the wines. He is flanked by his brothers Joan, 49, the head chef, and Jordi, 35, the patissier. A restaurant owned by their parents is just around the corner, and all three were born and bred in the neighborhood, where they still live.
There’s no sign that the title -- which followed the award of a third Michelin star in 2009 -- has gone to the heads of the siblings. They are softly spoken and shy, waiting their turn to speak and saying they always get on because they have to.
The restaurant is a beautiful and uncluttered place. There’s a small garden with natural light at the center of the room, which has wooden floors, large windows looking out onto a leafy street and small spotlights picking out the tables. It comfortably seats 50, with about 30 chefs in the kitchen.
There are two menus, with reasonable prices for this level of gastronomy: 140 euros ($184) or 175 euros. Matching wines are 55 euros or 85 euros. The wine list -- so large it arrives on its own piece of furniture -- is particularly good value.
I’ve met Joan twice previously, most recently three days before my meal. It was an event in Berlin where he was cooking with Ferran Adria of El Bulli, which won the World’s Best Restaurant title five times. (I head the U.K. and Ireland panel for those awards.) Joan worked at El Bulli in 1989. The friendship and mutual respect between the chefs is clear.
Adria’s influence can be seen in Joan’s food. Yet El Celler de Can Roca is not another El Bulli.
I ate at El Bulli twice, including a 48-course dinner in the weeks before it closed in July 2011. Adria pushes culinary boundaries. His cooking is about exploring the creative process: sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, always experimenting.
Roca’s approach to avant-garde gastronomy is to couple his imagination with modern techniques to enhance Catalan gastronomy. His dishes build on expectations as much as they challenge them. He seeks to marry modernity with tradition.
A meal at El Celler de Can Roca may begin with five canapes representing Joan’s travels, including a ceviche broth for Peru; guacamole, tomato seed, tomato water and coriander for Mexico; and almond, rose, honey, saffron, ras el hanout spices, goat and yogurt for Morocco.
After that, candied olives stuffed with anchovy are served on a miniature olive tree, then crispy shrimp -- like a luxury prawn cracker -- followed by zucchini omelet and vermouth candy, then summer-truffle bonbon and brioche. Finish these nibbles, and you are ready for the actual meal.
The highlights include a signature dish called Mandala: Slivers of Iberian suckling pig with the crispiest skin are at the center of a plate with artichokes, artichoke flowers, orange, lemon and beetroot. It’s colorful, light and delicate, each flavor distinct and yet part of a harmonious mix.
Razor clams come with nine kinds of seaweed; grilled king prawn with seawater and a sponge cake of plankton; Amontillado-steamed langoustine with bisque veloute and Jerez caramel; lamb breast and sweetbreads with eggplant, coffee and licorice. Each dish is inventive and enjoyable.
Just when you think nothing can surprise you more, the first of Jordi’s desserts shows up. This is ice cream with cocoa pulp, fried lychee and sherry-vinegar meringue. The flavor is complex but the most distinctive fact is that the ice cream dances like a slow-motion disco ball above a lump of what looks like sourdough, powered by a concealed motor.
I’ve had two of the most amazing meals of my life at El Bulli, and another two inventive and delightful ones at Noma, which won the World’s 50 Best title for three straight years. El Celler de Can Roca is a match for those two establishments.
Book now and you can look forward to one of the best meals of your life -- in July 2014.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? From about 200 euros a head.
Sound level? Hushed, below 70 decibels.
Inside tip? Be patient.
Special feature? World’s best restaurant.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? It’s a place to propose.
El Celler de Can Roca, 48 Can Sunyer, Girona, 17007. Information: +34-972-222-157 or http://www.cellercanroca.com/index.htm.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on opera, James Russell on architecture, Martin Gayford on European art and Hephzibah Anderson on books.