At 8.30pm, as the sun finally set, the outline of Villa Más, one of Europe’s most unusual restaurants, began to take shape.
In the bay of Sant Feliu de Guíxols, an hour’s drive up the coast from Barcelona, the building itself is a tall, high-ceilinged affair, built about 1910. Its transformation into a restaurant has been unobtrusive. During summer the main courtyard acts as the dining room, protected from the sun by umbrellas.
We arrived earlier than most Spaniards and consequently were able to watch the staff prepare their stations: waiters checked all the tables to make sure that each place had the right cutlery and at least one Zalto wine glass. The two managers conferred over the reservation list, as the elder of the restaurant’s two Carloses took his place. This was “Carlos the ham slicer”, who stood behind the most appetising leg of Iberico ham, trimming away so that he and eventually it were both ready for action.
Then nature took over. The sky turned dark and the stars began to appear, followed by the moon. The sound of the waves lapping on the beach no more than 20 metres away grew louder, and strolling couples, families and parties of friends began to walk into Villa Más for dinner.
It was time for the other Carlos, Carlos Orta, former DJ turned chef, wine lover and exponent of a wine-pricing policy so lenient in its mark-ups that it possibly has no rival anywhere, to take centre stage.
Villa Más also has two Argentine sommeliers, who responded to our table of four’s enthusiasm for the contents of the wine list by bringing three more copies.
Orta’s obsession with Burgundy is reflected in the length and breadth of his cellar – there are 12 pages of whites and 14 of reds, and some great champagnes too. While the new list is printed every June with the names of his favoured producers and their wines, the vintage is added in pencil. Over the past decade he has collected so well and so assiduously that he is easily able to replace any vintage that sells out with another. There are 8,000 bottles stored under the restaurant and another 4,000 bottles not that far away.
When the long-haired, hospitable Orta emerged from the kitchen in his chef’s jacket, he stopped and rattled off a list of wine producers from Burgundy who were due to eat with their families at Villa Más in the coming weeks. “They can drink more mature wines here much less expensively than they can in their local restaurants in Burgundy,” he added with an enormous grin.
We too warmed to Orta’s magnanimity and that of our sommelier. He began by advising us against a bottle of Ramonet 1996 Chassagne-Montrachet at €125, on the grounds that it, like so many others of that epoch, could be oxidised, and nudged us towards what proved to be a refreshing, appetising Chablis Les Clos 2004 from Dauvissat at half the price.
By this stage my stomach was rumbling and I broke rank to order some anchovies and grilled clams to accompany it. These were very, very good. The anchovies came draped lengthways on crisp slices of bread with a pungent tomato purée in between. The clams were from Carril, grilled just long enough to open and yield up their flesh and the taste of the sea.
There was no attempt to match anything on the wine list with any dish on the menu – that would have not allowed us to take full advantage of our one visit. Jancis Robinson, the FT’s wine writer (and my wife), had never before been able to choose from four examples of the wine that initially turned her on to the subject, Chambolle-Musigny, Les Amoureuses. We chose Fredy Mugnier’s 2004 at €150 – wildly below any retail price – and then a Domaine Dujac, Vosne-Romanée, Les Beaux Monts 2002 at €125.
I pointed us towards the most mysterious-sounding first course, a salmorejo from Córdoba, the city’s interpretation of gazpacho – slightly thinner and, crucially, without onions.
And then to a style of dish that this particular region of Spain executes better than anywhere else, a rice casserole with prawns, for two. Unlike so many of the main courses that can be shared, a Bresse chicken or a chateaubriand for example, these dishes stand or fall not on the quality of a large hunk of protein, but rather on the dexterity and finesse of the chefs in marrying three ingredients: six prawns, rice and a fish stock that was both pure and powerful. It was a great success – as was the entire evening.
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Passeig Sant Pol 95
17220 Sant Feliu de Guíxols
00 34 972 82 25 26
00 34 972 82 25 62
Open for lunch and dinner in summer, lunch only in winter