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A Culinary Vacation, Part 2.


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Restaurants in the Spanish Pyrenees are the way you like visits to the in-laws to be: few and far between. I knew this before plotting my two-week sojourn to Catalunya, especially in light of the fact that no one on the site could relate any first-hand experience. Those restaurants that the Michelin and Gourmetour rated highly were far apart from each other and quite far away from La Seu d’Urgell where we were staying. We made the most of our six nights, however by taking several meals at our hotel, El Castell de Ciutat, a Michelin one star. Here is a serious, unpretentious kitchen with a chef who has worked there for 27 years. In deference to the gastronomic landscape, the menu emphasizes baby lamb, veal, pork, and, best of all we thought, roasted baby goat. Yet with the coast only a relatively short distance away, there was some seafood to be had, especially a warm lobster salad that we found delicious. There is a serious wine list as well with interesting bottles at reasonable prices along with some well-aged classics. We had six meals there without exhausting the menu. The breakfasts were included in the room price and consisted of a generous buffet along with egg dishes made to order. Just another example of the thoughtfulness we encountered (see my dedicated post about El Castell), we saw for the first time ever on a breakfast buffet table a container that kept milk cold.

The one excursion we made for grand dining was an hour south in the small town of Peramola. The drive there is gorgeous. Hills, small mountains and rivers in unspoiled terrain marked nearly the whole route. Our destination, Hotel-Restaurant Can Boix served a clientele a category a notch below El Castell, and although the construction is recent, the establishment houses one of the oldest restaurants known to mankind, being held in the same family since 1763. The owner-chef greeted us on arrival, probably alerted by Jaume Tapies of our hotel. Our lunch unfolded in a spacious, airy dining room with good views of the countryside. My wife had a very good Parmentier of cod while I had a cold appetizer of a piece of cod made as a chaud-froid covering a timbal of the same fish. It was less stellar than the main courses of delicious lamb kidneys and the veal tongue in a wine sauce. What made the excursion worthwhile on its own was the bunyols xocolata which my wife proclaimed the best runny chcolate or chocolat moelleux dish of her life, which is saying a lot given the ones she has had. All in all this was a splendid address, just short of being among the best Spain has to offer, and worth a return visit.

One local restaurant was all we could manage, but if it is any indication, dining on a less-exhalted level in the region is most sartisfying. Fonda Biayna in Bellver de Cerdanya 30 miles east from La Seu d’Urgell came recommended by a woman in a local specialty food shop. Nothing fancy here in terms of the room or the cuisine, but the menu was copious and the gazpacho and stew of wild pig (not exactly a summer dish) were very satisfying.(Fonda Biayna is a few kilometers from the highly-rated Boix. However, Jaume told us that the restaurant was recently sold and advised us against dining there.)

After six nights and a coveted reservation at a former Relais & Chateaux, Hotel Santa Marta, 45 miles north of Barcelona in Lloret de Mar, we arrived at the hotel in time for the buffet at their beach restaurant. At 48 euros, the buffet was a decent deal. I counted over 100 preparations. While we endured the usual shortcomings of a buffet, this one put to shame the one at the Grand Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, which for seven euros more offered less-than fresh food in a meager selection.

Being a Monday, our choice of where to have dinner was severely curtailed. We had to make due with El Trull, between Lloret and Tossa de Mar. Hoping for a seafood restaurant along the lines of Hispania, further down the coast, we were disappointed. El Trull is a combination hotel and feeding palace that I though of as the Costa Brava’s version of Lundy Brothers in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. El Trull was more upscale and, of course offered more. Yet it was still perfunctory and rushed service. My main course was generous, an entire chapon or hen fish that wasn’t quite impeccably fresh. My wifes gazpacho was ordinary. We were glad to get out of there.

Restaurant Sant Pau in Sant Pol de Mar, half-way between Lloret and Barcelona, in spite of its Michelin two-star rating and being a Relais Gourmand member somehow gets overlooked in the gastronome’s zeal to dine at near-by Can Fabes or even Hispania. It’s a mistake hard to fathom, if our lunch the next day is any indication.

Sant Pau is a small restaurant. We ate in an intimate room with four tables that looked down on a playfully-decorated garden that ended a few feet from where the commuter trains for Barcelona stopped. Our meal would have been near-perfect if I hadn’t forgotten that I am not a big fan of espardenya, an invertibrate that we call sea cucumber. My wife went over the rainbow with her locally-caught hake, calling it one of the most memorable fish dishes of her life. It came with tomato, dry sherry and a light garlic cream. My mosaic of pork was an intriguing, composed combination of both the meat and gelatin made in a spicy sauce of green tomato and apple with verjus. One dessert came in two servings; the first called “junior taste” because it had components children like (raspberries, Coke, strawberries and vanilla) and “senior taste” with tiger nuts, coffee, brandy and coffee dregs. The second dessert was chocolate in two servings that included sorbet, sweet corn ice cream, pink pepper ice cream (fabulous) and a hot dark chocolate ganace. As we were finishing, the chef Carme Ruscalleda made the rounds. I asked her straight-away if she was self-taught. She told me she was and that she grew up in a large peasant family for which she did the cooking. She decided to become a chef, and that cooking and her restaurant was what she lived for. We wanted to hug her and take her with us.

With an unexpected opportunity to have dinner the following night at el Bulli, we left Lloret de Mar (a surprisingly overdeveloped and commercial town, much to our surprise) for Roses. We returned to the Hotel Vistabella, somewhat overpriced and lacking crashing surf in spite of its position right on the water. Yet it is a friendly place and the room are adequate. Without going into the long detail of 31 courses, I’ll simply say that of the four meals we have now had from Ferran Adria, this latest one was at or near the top, on a par with the one Jonathan Day and I wrote about in the Daily Gullet. The service was remarkable. Four servers brought out everything in under three hours. Adria was at the top of his game, with many dishes showing a finesse, execution and conception at a level I had not previously experienced.

With a dinner at el Bulli we hadn’t counted on and only three days left before taking two days to return to Nice, we made sure to have two meals with our man Rafa, the a la placha seafood artist without equal. When we arrived, however, Rafa wasn’t happy. He had the height of the tourist season on his hands and a time of the year that wasn’t optimal for his catch. He was glad to see us, but he made it clear we would better off seeing him later in the year. It wasn’t our favorite two visits since he was too busy to talk at length or answer our questions. Still, his cigales de mar are without equal, and it was worth the visits just to have them. Our last formal meal in Spain was lunch of our last full day at Hotel Emporda in Figueres. Details escape me for the moment. We enjoyed our meal, though, and would go back. It exemplifies the ambitious nature of Spanish restaurants that are off the tourist beat; places where you can eat very well and that challenge your gastronomic aspects.(It’s the way France used to be almost no matter where you were.) That to me is more significant than what a few Spanish chefs are doing.

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Great post, Robert. You have succeeded in whetting my appetite even more for my trip to the region next week. Of the restuarants you mentioned, Sant Pau is on our itinerary. I am very much looking forward to it. we are on the wait list for El Bulli. I am not counting on that, but your account makes me pine that much more. As posted in your other topic covering this trip, I was at Can Boix last summer and enjoyed it immensely. It is a great part of the world.

I have yet to have espardanyas. Realizing that you may not be the best person to ask for a glowing report, what are they like?

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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John, they're not like chicken. Espardanyas are somewhat like razor clams and kind of chewy, I would say. I would think they always come with a sauce. The restaurant offered langouste in some kind of jelly, I seem to recall. I would have been better off with that. Pedro was at Sant Pau a couple of weeks before I was and wasn't enthusiastic. So you will have to see for yourself. I don't like to say to people what to order, but if the halibut is still there, I believe it's a sure-fire winner. I wish you all the best in gaining a table at el Bulli. Call every day and let them know where they can reach you. This is the best time of the season to snag a table. I gave this advice to a friend exactly a year ago and she got lucky. If you get a table, you have to spend the night in Roses since the restaurant is in a beautiful, but far from anywhere else, especially at 12:30-1:00 am. Have a great trip.

By the way, if you plan to see Dali's house in Cadaques, it's best to book ahead. It's a memorable place to visit. And thanks for enjoying my post.

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Our last formal meal in Spain was lunch of our last full day at Hotel Emporda in Figueres. Details escape me for the moment. We enjoyed our meal, though, and would go back. It exemplifies the ambitious nature of Spanish restaurants that are off the tourist beat; places where you can eat very well and that challenge your gastronomic aspects.(It’s the way France used to be almost no matter where you were.)

Just a note: the Empordà no longer has a Michelin star (it had one for many years). It's a good example of the way the little red guide routinely underrates restaurants in Spain.

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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By the way, if you plan to see Dali's house in Cadaques, it's best to book ahead. It's a memorable place to visit. And thanks for enjoying my post.

I've never been to his house in Cadaques, although I have been to the Dali Museum in Figueres. That too is memorable. He was quite the character.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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Even more a character in his own house. We were more blown away by the house than the museum in Figueras. I think you can book on the website, although with the tourist season over, you may not have to. (Better safe than sorry, however). Regardless, Cadaques is very charming and picturesque. Marcus has some dining recommendations.

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Great report, Robert, and Spain (once again) beckons my palate, especially a revisit to both San Pol de Mar, El Bulli, and Rafa's for a first time!.

It'll have to wait though, as my 3rd child was born just two days ago :biggrin: and if she turns out like the other two they'll all enjoy feasting on ventresca de atun, bellota, chorizo iberico, bacalao, St Marcellin and pa' tomaquet!

But to my main point: This also shows our tastes' individuality with espardenyes (as far as I know this is part of the intestinal organ of sea-cucumber, vserna correct me if I'm wrong) being one of my favourites every time I come to Cataluna. Best served a la plancha wih a little olive oil, parsley and garlic they have a superb crunchy yet soft texture that gives a fresh contrasting texture on the palate, with a wonderful slightly sweet taste without any iodine postgusto..

Just goes to prove that we're all individuals!

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Great report, Robert, and Spain (once again) beckons my palate, especially a revisit to both San Pol de Mar, El Bulli, and Rafa's for a first time!.

It'll have to wait though, as my 3rd child was born just two days ago  :biggrin:  and if she turns out like the other two they'll all enjoy feasting on ventresca de atun, bellota, chorizo iberico, bacalao, St Marcellin and pa' tomaquet!

But to my main point: This also shows our tastes' individuality with espardenyes (as far as I know this is part of the intestinal organ of sea-cucumber, vserna correct me if I'm wrong) being one of my favourites every time I come to Cataluna. Best served a la plancha wih a little olive oil, parsley and garlic they have a superb crunchy yet soft texture that gives a fresh contrasting texture on the palate, with a wonderful slightly sweet taste without any iodine postgusto..

Just goes to prove that we're all individuals!

Congratulations! I enjoy nothing better than seeing my children eat well. Unfortunately, I am not always left in a state of bliss. :laugh:

I will ry to find and try espardanyas for myself while there. My best bet may be in the Boqueria, although they may have them again at Sant Pau or elsewhere. Now, I am really curious.

As far as Dali, I'm sure the house is incredible if you found it even more interesting than the museum, Robert. We'll be on a tour with the CIA, so unfortunately, I doubt we'll have time. Nevertheless, Catalunya has become a frequent a visiting spot for us, now that we have good friends there, so I will have to make a point of getting there in the future.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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John, you're not going to spy on chefs, are you? Dr. Viking, you described espardenyes perfectly. I doubt I ever had them before, but I'll give them another go with a more classic preparation.

I hope to spy chefs quite a bit :laugh: I just made a reservation for our one free night in Barcelona at BCNchef's Cinc Sentits. I am looking forward to that as much as anything else. It should be fun.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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