I soon realised, as I launched into the multicourse menú degustación, that here was a restaurant I could fall in love with. The dining room had all the apparatus of luxury but the atmosphere was cheerful and friendly. My notebook raves about the cold mushroom consommé with pine nut ice-cream, the squid parmentier, the grilled pigeon with strawberries and rose confiture, and a poached fig interleaved with slices of foie gras and Pedro Ximenez jelly. “Cooking at this level involves a heightened experience of place, season, culture and selfhood,” I scribbled, somewhat tipsily.
Somehow, even with three Michelin stars, it never became one of those restaurants everyone knows about, but it was only a matter of time before word got out. Last week it finally happened: El Celler de Can Roca in Girona was declared the best in the world in Restaurant magazine’s annual league table, knocking Copenhagen’s Noma off the top spot after three years.
When the story broke, Spanish national media revelled in a rare piece of good news. It was seen as a triumph not only for the brothers who run the restaurant – Josep, Joan and Jordi Roca – but for Spanish cuisine in general.
Back in the Rocas’ home town, on the far northeast corner of the Iberian peninsula, the restaurant’s big success tasted a little different – though just as sweet. Girona is the Spanish provincial capital furthest from Madrid, and there’s a sense in which Can Roca has more to say about Catalan identity, culinary and cultural, than Spanish. Interviewed on Catalan television, renowned local chef Carles Abellan predicted a knock-on effect on exports of Catalan products, as well as a boost to Catalan cuisine’s long-time campaign for inclusion in Unesco’s World Heritage scheme. “Catalunya is once again on the podium of world cuisine,” enthused one regional newspaper.
This flurry of interest may mean that Girona and its surrounding county, the Empordá (a sort of Catalan Tuscany), are finally emerging from Barcelona’s shadow. Gastro-tourists will find stylish wine bars specialising in big-hearted Ampurdanesa reds, such as the famous Clos d’Agon, while bistro-style eating-houses, such as Can Marquès and La Penyora, offer good value daily menus of Catalan soul food: rice with rabbit and spareribs, perhaps, or roast chicken with prunes and pine nuts. Fans of curious charcuterie shouldn’t miss Girona’s botifarra dolça, a sausage made sweet and sticky with lemon, sugar and spices. (Look for it in the butcher’s stalls at the Mercat del Lleó.)
Can Roca, the city’s biggest foodie draw, lies in the suburb of Talaià, where Montserrat Fontané and Josep Roca opened a humble casa de comida in 1967, and their three sons set up their own place next door in 1986. In its earliest incarnation, the restaurant served rib-sticking traditional dishes such as escudella, a hearty soup, and canelons, pasta stuffed with meat. Today the Rocas’ creations are fabulously sophisticated; pastry chef Jordi’s astonishing recreations of perfumes, in particular, have revolutionised the art of patisserie. Yet beneath all the technical brilliance lies a deep connection to the terroir, clearly seen in dishes such as “Olivada”, paying homage to the Mediterranean olive, and “Toda la Gamba”, an exaltation of the Palamós prawn.
The brothers are on a roll. On Monday, they will give the first performance of their 12-dish “culinary opera”, Somni (or Dream), incorporating video screens, virtual reality and futuristic food. The 12 special guests for this avant-garde banquet, to be held at Barcelona’s Centre d’Art Santa Mònica, are rumoured to include Pep Guardiola, Robert De Niro and Ferran Adrià.
There is only one snag. In the 24 hours following the awards ceremony, El Celler de Can Roca received more than 2,000 emails and 600 phone calls from all over the world, pushing the next available table towards summer 2014.
Paul Richardson is the author of ‘A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain’ (Bloomsbury)