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I opened the heavy wooden door to El Celler de Can Roca in the suburbs of Girona, northeast Spain, and allowed my wife to enter before me for what was to prove to be the most exciting meal of the year.
All three Roca brothers were standing side by side at reception: Joan the chef, Josep the restaurateur and wine lover, and Jordi the pastry chef. What struck me immediately was that they all shared the same facial expression: shell-shocked.
The reason why soon became clear. As we chatted with Josep, we couldn’t help but overhear the receptionist at the front desk telling callers that they were very sorry but they could not accommodate their requests for a reservation for the foreseeable future.
The brothers’ talents had already garnered a raft of awards but coming top, six months ago, in the 2013 World’s 50 Best Restaurants rankings has had unexpected repercussions. The restaurant, said Josep, has had to hire three more receptionists just to cope with the extra calls and emails they now receive – up to 3,000 a day.
What ensued over the next four hours was a masterpiece of culinary dexterity – a brilliant demonstration of food and wine matching, perhaps best exemplified in a glass of 2009 Morgon from Domaine Jean Foillard that smelt of cherries with a dish of smoked eel, slivers of fresh almonds, the last of this summer’s cherries and, above all, a sense of fun.
It was impossible to keep a smile off our faces. Bonhomie prevailed as soon as our waitress presented a wooden stand surrounded by a black magic lantern, printed with an outline of the world. She unclipped the lantern to reveal five snacks inspired by Joan and Jordi’s travels: their interpretation of ceviche from Peru; a cornet of pickled vegetables from China; a guacamole-stuffed globe from Mexico; a Moroccan mix of almonds, rose and saffron; and, finally, Japanese tempura.
The next presentation was more local. In front of each of us was placed a faux olive tree growing out of a rock, from which hung anchovy-stuffed olives, coated in an anchovy glaze. We were told to help ourselves. An upmarket version, I scribbled, of “pick your own”.
Four fish dishes followed (and this was just the €155 tasting menu, not the €195 one). A single peeled langoustine, steamed on a brazier in front of us, with an intense langoustine bisque; delicately cooked squid with mashed potato and saffron; a white fillet of sole on a white plate punctuated by sauces in five different bright colours; and a red mullet floating in suquet, the juicy Catalan fish stew.
The second of Jordi’s desserts was also remarkable: whipped sheep’s milk yoghurt on a caramel base with a candyfloss topping engulfing a slice of ripe guava.
Our final savoury dish was a combination of lamb with tomato-rubbed bread and a grilled garlic purée. “It’s Joan’s variation of a dish our Granny used to serve us all when we were small,” said Josep. “I remember loving it every time.”
A pause followed, which enabled me to ask if there are many disagreements between the brothers? Josep smiled. “Well, yes and no. Jordi, as the youngest, is the most radical. But although Jordi and I have our separate passions, we acknowledge that Joan is the leader. He is the chef and the eldest, and he was the one who showed the patience and the generosity at the outset by waiting for us to catch up so we could all work together.”
This combined expertise is obvious not just in the cooking and service but also in the restaurant itself. Five years ago Barcelona-based architect Isabel López Vilalta and interior designer Sandra Tarruella created a triangular layout with glass walls that encase a central courtyard, ensuring that every guest has a fascinating view. Seize any opportunity you can to eat here.
El Celler de Can Roca
Can Sunyer 48, 17007 Girona, Spain
+00 34 972 222 157, www.cellercanroca.com
More columns at www.ft.com/lander