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Judith Gebhart

Les Cols, cincsentits, Ca l'Enric, Estany Clar &

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Our May/June 2005 trip began at Michel Bras’ hotel/ restaurant in Laguiole, France. It ended in Ostape, the new Ducasse venture in the French Basque town of Bidarray and the Hostellerie Plaisance and Chateau Pavie in St-Emilion. I plan to cover this in a separate posting for France.

The Spanish portion of the trip began in Barcelona, continued north through Catalonia into the Pyrenees and ended in the Spanish Basque region. The first 6 restaurants are, for us, 1st time visits. Later in this posting we will cover 5 other restaurants; all are long time favorites.

cincsentits - Barcelona 1st visit

eGullet postings of this new 1 year old Barcelona restaurant beckoned us to visit on this 2005 trip.

The cream colored, quiet, tasteful decor sets the serious dining stage for this small modern restaurant.

The dining room is intimate and understated. It is an attractive room, with the tables well spaced. Jordi Artal is the chef, his mother runs the dining room and his sister is the sommelier. One minor point - in many restaurants the menu in English is, for us, more confusing than the Spanish menu - not so here; their English menu was extremely well written.

We chose a red wine, Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2000.

We ordered the “Omakase” Tasting Menu. It started with 3 excellent “tapas”; 1) maple syrup flavored cava sabayon with crystals of rock salt, 2) a cold pate of foie gras with a violet confiture and crumbs of what they call “carquinyoli” cookies and 3) a poached quail egg with parmesan cream and a hint of lemon (a candied lemon peel). They were all nicely balanced. The rock salt, cookie crumbs and candied lemon peel accents enhanced each dish.

Already teased with three remarkably tasty “tapas”, we eagerly began with the first tasting of a velouté of jerusalem artichoke accompanied with a marmalade of roasted piquillo pepper finished with a dash of black truffle oil. We both rated this outstanding.

A poached egg on Catalan botifarra sausage and onion accompanied by seared foie gras was excellent.

They described the next dish as “wild Mediterranean tuna” in a lightly smoked fish broth. It was accompanied by shiitake mushrooms. This was a marvelously flavored dish; top quality tuna and a broth just hinting of smoke.

The main savory course was a rack of lamb crusted with porcini mushrooms. The lamb was an excellent cut of highest quality lamb, cooked and seasoned perfectly. The porcini coating further elevated the flavors of this dish. It was accompanied by two sauces, a slow roasted caramelized leek cream and a rich demi-glace, that nicely finished this delicious dish.

The desserts started with a combination cheese/dessert course. A cabrales cream on a brioche was accompanied by white truffle and orange blossom honey sauce along with pear sticks. My husband rated this dish outstanding.

Next was a strawberry and minus 8 (a Canadian balsamic style vinegar) sorbet with a vanilla bean panna cotta and a rosewater gel e with a dusting of pink peppercorns. Another excellent dessert. An aside: my husband who likes vinegar, particularly Balsamic, prefers minus 8 to the Italian Balsamic version.

The last dessert was also outstanding. It consisted of a chocolate genoise with a toasted hazelnut parfait and an espresso granit . I raved about this dessert.

In summary this was as good as any meal we have had in Barcelona.

I would like to comment briefly on three other lighter meals in Barcelona. Two were in the southwest part of the Eixample. Gargantua Pantagruel on Corsega, 200 and Speakeasy (Dry Martini) on Aribau 162 were two choices made after our arrival. We left them with the impression they were acceptable (Dry Martini) and good (Gargantua). We would not rate either a preferred dining destination.

A third choice for a light lunch or supper is Tenorio, a restaurant that we have chosen several times over the years. My husband’s comments follow. Tenorio is on the Passeig de Gr cia in the Manzana de la Discordia block. Where else can you sit at a sidewalk table, on a beautiful day or evening, on one of the greatest boulevards (my #1 choice) and view three magnificent buildings designed by Domenech Montaner, Puig Cadafalch and Gaudi? The menu is rather large; if you pick carefully, you can find a decent dish or two. For example, the salad with warm goat cheese is quite good.

Les Cols - Olot (Girona) 1st visit

Throughout Spain modern architectural updates are being exquisitely integrated into older buildings. Les Cols, an18th century manor and home of the chef Fina Puigdevall, is a perfect example of just how spectacular these transformations can be. The house and grounds are beautiful. The new decor and other design features provide a striking contrast with the old. This is a well deserved, prize winning renovation.

The house is located at the northern edge of Olot in a residential/commercial area. The grounds are totally sheltered from the town by trees and shrubbery. We started our meal with a glass of cava on the terrace which overlooks one of the gardens.

The main dining area is in the shape of an “L” and we were in the room with 8 well spaced tables. The interior color scheme of chocolate colored walls and gold lacquered metal tables and chairs was breathtaking. Diners could view the vegetable garden with its free roaming chickens through the long picture window comprising the entire exterior wall. This provided another delightful visual for the diner.

The other part of the “L” is a room with one long table with 20 chairs on each side. The table and chairs are gold lacquered metal. The interior walls are lacquered in shimmering gold. The floor and 8 small serving stations are cream colored. From the entrance it is a spectacular sight.

One entire wall of the kitchen is a window. Some diners have a view of this gloriously designed modern kitchen, replete with a small reflecting pool in front of a free floating, suspended wall of green ivy.

We ordered a red wine from Priorat, Clos Mogador. The local artisanal bread was exceptional.

We started our meal with a slightly sweet cold pea soup flavored with saffron and a hint of peanuts. I thought it was very good. My husband liked it even more than I did.

This was followed by warm sauteed mushrooms (setas or xinxos) in a light broth with arugula leaves on top. A curious concept for me, as the delicacy of these tiny mushrooms was overwhelmed by the sauce.

The next course consisted of two cubes of potatoes with a somewhat gelatinous texture in a reddish brown, beef based sauce. It had a pleasant flavor.

A black sausage croquette covered in delicately seasoned bread crumbs to which a slice of prune was added was our next course. Another acceptable but uninspired dish.

Our next service were white beans from Santa Pau paired with a botifarra de perol. The beans were in pancake form with the sausage inside. This was accompanied by sheets of dried cheese, gelatinized broth and a light foam. This was an unexpected, amusing and perfectly delicious version of sausage and beans. Excellent!

Arroz de pay s, similar to a vegetable risotto, followed. Another excellent dish. It included young asparagus, tiny peas and fava beans topped with fried arugula. A truly flavorsome combination.

This was followed by codfish with a cock’s crest. It was slow cooked in what appeared to be a chicken stock with pistachios. We thought it was very good.

The main savory course was “espalda de cordero, leche de oveja, tomillo”, apparently a signature dish for Ms. Puigdevall - RGS has a picture of it in the ‘05 guide. It looked just like the picture. This is lamb cooked for 11 hours at 70C and comes with a stock and sheep milk sauce. I rated it very good, possibly excellent.

A cheese course featured selections from northern Catalonia. A blue cow from Olot, can pujols and mas farro sheep were all excellent.

For 3 desserts we started with strawberries with quark of La Pinya orange flowers and Ratafia. This was outstanding. Our first taste experience with Ratafia was love with the first sip. A chocolate, almond and cereal arrangement was made to look like the volcanoes of the area. It was excellent. Finally, a eucalyptus flower marshmallow ended the meal. Curious choice.

This meal provoked mixed emotions. The dining room is stunning. The entire facility is an architectural tour de force. I ranked the food at about the middle of our “very good” category. My husband liked it a bit better and would have placed it near the top of that category.

They will be adding a few guest rooms (hotel) in the next few months. If so, this will provide another incentive to return to Les Cols.

Ca l’Enric - La Vall de Bianya (Girona) 1st visit

Located in a country setting on the road to Camprodon about 10km northwest of Olot, Ca l’Enric has an updated rustic look, with exposed beams and brick columns.

Our welcome was friendly. The service is attentive and led by this 4th generation team. The brothers Jordi and Juan Junca are in the dining room and Isabel is in the kitchen. The table service, designed by the team, is further evidence of their many talents.

For our wine we chose a red from Priorat - Clos Martinet 1994.

The meal started with three small items - parmesan tuile, mushrooms and a black pudding. All three dishes were excellent, as were the artisanal breads.

The foie gras pate in crumbs with dried apple slices, resembling a “sandwich” was our next dish. Another excellent preparation.

This was followed by a puree of shrimp with a hint of mint and a vegetable/truffle foam. Very good.

A white asparagus soup with mussels, dried ham and drops of olive oil was another excellent dish.

Lotte de mar with green onions and spinach and a herb cream garnish was well flavored, but overcooked.

Two slices of rare pigeon breast were served in a rich broth with morel mushrooms and a small amount of rice. Excellent.

The final savory dish was shredded oxtail in a rich sauce or gravy. It was accompanied by an orange confit; a perfect contrast. This was a delicious update of a traditional dish.

Dessert was a dish of exceptionally flavorful strawberries with a strawberry sorbet accented with basil. We both rated this an outstanding dessert.

Our impression of the restaurant is consistent with the comments we have read on eGullet. Other postings recommend it and we would second that view.

Estany Clar - Cercs (Barcelona) 1st visit

This restaurant is about midway between Berga (more prominent) and Cercs at the intersection of routes 16 and 26. We actually parked momentarily in their unmarked driveway to get our bearings before driving into Cercs only to find we had to retrace our steps. Our meal was midday. There seems to be some confusion (in our two minds) over what evenings, if any, that they are open.

The restaurant is in an imposing old manor on attractive grounds in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The estuary is to the east and not visible from the restaurant. The interior is even more rustic than Ca l’Enric with stone walls and supports and vaulted stone ceilings. The feeling is one of comfort. The service was friendly and attentive. The chef, Jordi Cruz, is a very young man.

Our wine choice was an excellent Castillo de Perelada, 2001 Finca Garbet from Empord .

The meal started with a superb eggplant and lobster broth with pieces of lobster and small croutons.

This was followed by a roasted scallop with artichoke and soya. This was accompanied by a Jordi Cruz creation; an olive oil pasta. We both rated this dish as outstanding.

The next course was a charcoal broiled mackerel with mustard leaves and “trumpets of death” wild mushrooms (a mushroom linked to the chanterelle family). It was served on a flavorful very thin wafer. This was a unique culinary gem. I cannot remember a better prepared mackerel. Outstanding!

Creamy (very light) peas and prawns with herbs that gave off a delicate scent was the third outstanding course. We were both in culinary heaven.

We came back to earth, a little bit, with a foie gras dish. It was an excellent preparation, served as a small salad with a pumpkin puree and hazelnuts. They also offered a small glass of sweet wine (Tokai Aszu ‘98 vintage); not an uncommon touch in France but rarely offered in Spain.

A combination of prawns, lobster, rice and artichokes were accented with Iberian oil and parmesan foam. Each bite contained all four ingredients balanced perfectly and cooked to perfection. Another outstanding preparation!

The fish of the day was a sea bass with cockles and an oyster wrapped in a leaf in a lightly flavored broth. This was simple and delicious. Another outstanding preparation.

The savory portion of the meal ended with slow cooked lamb and stewed potatoes with a sweet pea and eggplant essence. Although a bit rich for what had preceded, we rated it excellent for the nicely balanced flavors.

Our first dessert was an excellent goat milk curd infused with honey and nuts. This was followed by a coconut, lemon and green apple cream - a perfect blend of flavors for a refreshing concoction. Another outstanding dish. The final dessert was chocolate cake similar to a ganache (heavy cream and chocolate). A complimentary glass of sherry was offered to my husband. I refrained.

Petit fours included dark chocolate seasoned with salt and pepper, white chocolate with lemon, chocolate covered peanut with salt cream and apricot bitter jelly. I’m sure all excellent. We were full!

Michelin and RGS discovered this restaurant in 2004. Gourmetour still seems unaware of this talented chef. I could not find them listed in the 2004 Campsa.

We are cautious in our evaluations, especially after only one visit. That said, we rated 6 courses outstanding (our highest category) and 5 excellent (second highest). For us it was a very special dining experience. If this meal is typical of chef Jordi Cruz’s kitchen talents, then he is certainly a rising star. We anxiously await our next visit.

Panticosa Resort (Gran Hotel - - - Restaurante Del Lago) - Balneario de Panticosa (Huesca) 1st visit

This was a convenient overnight stay on our journey through the Pyrenees. We read about the architectural renovations by Rafael Moneo and learned that the restaurant was under the direction of Pedro Subijana of Akelare! This “team” certainly got our attention.

The road ends at the Balneario de Panticosa. The old thermal spa apparently fell into decline but has now been revived by the owners of the Enate winery. Rafael Moneo Vall s is one of Spain’s finest architects. This superb transformation is testimony to his architectural genius. For those unaware, Moneo is the architect of the Centro Kursaal in San Sebastian, the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano in Merida and buildings for the Chivite winery in Navarra, among others.

The original hotel and annex date to the late 19th century. The natural setting is breathtaking; mountains and waterfalls with mixed forests surround this high valley. Moneo transformed all the interior spaces. The spectacular dining room with 20 foot windows has views of the surrounding mountains, adjoining grounds and a small lake. Several other beautifully appointed public rooms inhabit the ground floor. An elegantly designed, fully equipped spa is below the ground floor. In about a year it will be hooked up to the thermal springs. A little casino is in the attached annex. Two additional dining rooms are also under the direction of Subijana.

The guest rooms are exquisite, each remarkably appointed with furniture and design details all by Moneo.

One current drawback is that this is a huge ongoing construction project in this tiny community, with other hotels and restaurants under renovation or construction. There is a lot of noise. We were told they shut down all construction on weekends.

We choose the Enate Artists Series, red wine, for our meal. This wine was well made but not worth the hefty price.

We decided to order off the regular menu. A complimentary start was langoustine with foam and olive oil, tuna with soy sauce and herbs, artichoke with a slightly sweet cream and caviar with a light cream. All were flavorful, nicely plated and well constructed. A very good start.

I ordered a tuna tartare with olive oil ice cream. My husband had a crepe with caviar and raw almonds. Both were excellent.

I had a roasted suckling lamb with amaranth and three peppers - green, yellow and red - for my main course. A sea bass with percebes and arugula was my husbands choice. Both were very good to excellent.

I had a mango ice cream with a mango tart of sorts for dessert. It was very well prepared. My husband made a better choice: a cylinder of cake filled with a fruity red liquid and fruits (strawberries and raspberries). It is similar in concept to Michel Bras internationally known and copied biscuit chocolate “coulants” with liquid chocolate filling. Several other complimentary desserts were provided including some excellent petit fours.

We have found that satellite restaurants of many excellent chefs have great variance in quality: from the excellent Santceloni in Madrid to the flawed, disappointing Arola, in Barcelona. We were told the whole Panticosa kitchen team spends considerable time in training at Akelare. They are off to a great start. The kitchen is already succeeding!

Marques de Riscal - Elciego (Alava)

On our way to the Basque country we visited the Riscal winery to determine the progress of their new reception center, restaurant and hotel designed by Frank Gehry. Completion is still a year away. This new structure is going to be an extraordinary addition to the Rioja landscape.

We plan to visit for at least one day on our spring 2006 trip.

The restaurant will be run by Francis Paniego of Echaurren in Ezcaray.

El Portal del Echaurren - Ezcaray (La Rioja) 1st visit

The restaurant has two menus; one in the more traditional Rioja style prepared by the mother and one by Francis Paniego who works in a more modern style. For our first visit we preferred the latter.

The dining room, done in white, is understated and very welcoming with ample room between the tables. The various decorative details such as a fireplace, wall moldings and the oriental rugs on a dark polished floor create a serious dining atmosphere.

Felix Paniego, brother of Francis, was an able resource. Wishing to order a fine Rioja we asked about two on the carte. He agreed our choices would be good but he steered us to a ‘01 Mirto of Ram n Bilbao at half the price of one of our choices. We were thrilled with his suggestion.

The first course was his mother’s creation. An outstandingly flavored croquette was paired with a spoonful of lamb feet. Both were excellent.

A savory Iberian ham ice cream with tomato seeds in olive oil and croutons followed. This was intensely flavored; another excellent dish.

What our English menu called a tomato tartar with lobster with a creamed garlic soup was actually langoustine with an intensively flavored tomato tartar in a delicate garlic cream. This was a superb dish which I rated excellent, possibly outstanding.

A preparation of tiny peas, ham and wild mushrooms in a cream sauce we ranked as a very good dish. It was not particularly inventive.

Pork snout confit with foie gras, cabbage, coffee couscous in a coca-cola reduction could be described as an interesting, rustic dish. Again probably very good.

Jumbo shrimp brochette on crusty bread crumbs with coconut shavings with a Rioja sauce was also very good. It was probably flavored with espelette for a slightly spicy touch.

Monkfish confit with puree of clarified chickpea soup broth and two tiny potatoes was excellent.

The final savory course was a very slow cooked lamb with parmentier potatoes in a cream sauce and dollops of yogurt. Another very good preparation.

Three desserts, all excellent: 1) pineapple soup with caramel and coconut mousse was not overly sweet, 2) toast with “Cameros” cheese, dried granny smith apple and honey ice cream had nice contrasts in texture and flavor and 3) petits fours and flan were a nice finish.

In summary we rated this very solidly in our very good category.

Summary 1st visit category

We were very pleased with all of these 6 new restaurant choices. Truly talented chefs continue to emerge in northern Spain. Not one restaurant choice was a disappointment. We rated Estany Clar and cincsentits as our best new culinary finds of the trip.

We discovered one very special new hotel and restaurant in the Pyrenees: Panticosa resort with its Gran Hotel and its fine Restaurante del Lago. If Les Cols completes their plan for adding a few lovely rooms that could be another desirable destination.

Five Prevailing Favorites

elBulli and Mugaritz continue to be our two favorite Spanish dining establishments. As of this last trip, they continue to wow us – for very different dining experiences. They remain our top dining choices. That assessment of elBulli should not be surprising. We will offer our reasons for this lofty assessment of Mugaritz in the Mugaritz post.

Our next two top choices would be Etxebarri, followed by Akelare. (Note: as yet we have not been to El Poblet, Tristan or Atrio).

We usually spend several days in Barcelona when we visit Spain. We believe Hisop offers the best fine dining value in the city. Our excellent first meal at cincsentits now rivals our enthusiasm for Hisop.

elBulli - Cala Montjoi (Roses, Girona Provence)

This is a truly unique dining event. We started on the patio with several bite size appetizers. This was accompanied by a glass of elBulli’s house cava which is Gran Claustro Brut Nature Reserva 2002 from Empord . For our meal, we ordered a Celler Mas Doix ‘01 from Priorat.

Foodman, at the restaurant the same evening as us, successfully covered the meal in his posting. There have been many postings for elBulli 2005 and their incomparable menu and service. Our impressions are consistent with these enlightened postings. I would like to pass on a few thoughts of my own.

Our elBulli visits, since ‘97 have always been a highly anticipated dining event. We think elBulli is a dining experience without equal. In an earlier visit, we had a guest who hated tasting menus. In those days she was then able to order from the regular menu (they still brought her 10 or so small tasting items). On one of our earlier trips, we dined twice in a three day period, both times ordering the tasting menu. elBulli managed to provide a different menu on our second visit.

Adri , in 1999 or 2000, visited Chicago to participate in a panel of chefs organized by Charlie Trotter. Adri mentioned that he decided to become a diner in his own dining room and assess the dining experience for himself. He found that not enough food was being served and immediately upped the quantity to 450 grams. Several months later while eating in the restaurant at the kitchen table, already feeling quite full, we commented to Luis, our server, that this was more than 450 grams!!! At our next dinner, my husband noticed that our portions were slightly smaller than those at other tables. For us this illustrates the kind of attention to detail that makes this such a great restaurant.

Mugaritz - Errenteria (Guipuzcoa)

Our first visit to Mugaritz was in 2000. This was our 12th visit.

The restaurant’s listed location is under Errenteria - Renteria. It is actually closer to Astigarraga. The restaurant’s setting is in an isolated valley in the mountains/hills about 10km south of San Sebastian. A large rectangle shaped dining room with inviting natural wood walls, modern appointments and large picture windows on two sides overlook the side garden and the front view of the pastoral, hilly countryside. Tables are well spaced; a few dividers are discreetly incorporated. The feeling of this restaurant is one of spaciousness, rustic elegance with a warm, unique reception.

There are several reasons why we place Mugaritz, along with elBulli, at the top of our dining list. Andoni Lu s Ad riz and his kitchen team are supremely integrated to produce an outstanding product for the customer. Andoni’s incomparable management style and his rigorous research for unique dishes excite his kitchen workers to work as tirelessly as he does.

Our choice of the tasting menu has always provided the most thrilling innovations available to the diner. Each menu consisted of 10 or so courses. I remember only one recipe stumble a number of years ago - a traditional cod recipe that failed to thrill. The other extraordinary dishes, now well over 100, have repeatedly been excellent/outstanding. We could not make that claim about any other restaurant including elBulli.

The quality of the ingredients is of the highest rank.

Andoni has a concept for a meal that we find exceptional. His menu incorporates vegetables, wild and domestic herbs and other plant life into the menu with such finesse and balance that, when finished, you “feel truly satisfied”. You never feel too full.

Andoni offers a unique culinary direction that embraces the products of the land or Basque terroir. His special knowledge of wild plants coupled with his technical genius in the kitchen commands a unique position in Spain and the world.

Finally, the service was and is always professional, friendly, informed and efficient. At the time of our first visit the service was exceptional. It has never changed.

We settled on a great Spanish white wine, a Chivite 125 from ‘02 - one of our favorites.

Our first course, possibly a last minute inspiration, was not identified on our menu. It featured tiny peas with ratte potato slices. Exquisitely flavored and very simple.

The next dish of sliced raw mushrooms over lightly mashed ratte potatoes, boiled in a yeast broth was a taste sensation. It was enhanced with beech forest herbs; a sorrel-like flavor addition (oxalis acetosella and glechoma hederacea; in season from February to June). An innovative, very well flavored dish.

Grilled rice with small cuttlefish were served with an aspic and a small piece of idiazabal cheese. An incomparable dish!

Borage leaves blanched in a shellfish bouillon were served with pickled garlic petals and borage flowers. This was simply prepared and artfully flavored.

This portion of the meal introduced “burned and curdled cream with fig shoots and citric fruit, powdered with ashes of vegetable and seaweed”. The burned and ash effect was a conceit, achieved through natural coloring and not charring. Delicious.

Our next dish started with an egg served ‘broken over toasted chicken wings and capaccino leaves”. The wings were boneless. It was another extraordinary combination.

Sea cucumber was served with a vegetable “carbon”, sweet shoots of yucca and a garlic casein. This too was unforgettable. Sea cucumber, harvested from the Mediterranean, is not a typical Basque product.

Rare tuna fillet in a concentrated fishbone stock accompanied by lily shoot leaves, allium and tulbaghia flowers was beautiful to look at and delicious.

Foie gras is one item regularly on the menu at Mugaritz. It is roasted, adding a very light, harmonious flavor. This preparation is outstanding. Variations in the foie gras is achieved with the accompaniments. Andoni provided a sliver of toast, hazelnut cream and demi-confit of cherries.

The main savory course was Iberian pork tails with a stew of vegetables and kuzu noodles. The dish was garnished with what looked like arugula blossoms but Josara (dining room manager) said they were cabbage blossoms.

Desserts started with a stellar pistachio cake accompanied by crystalized flowers and an ice cream dusted with orange blossoms. This was followed by a cylinder of chocolate ice cream accompanied by a cream of almonds and a cream of chocolate and lime. All were outstanding.

Etxebarri - Axpe (Vizcaya)

This was another opportunity to experience the extraordinary a la brasa cooking style of chef Victor Arguinzoniz. Etxebarri has not received the recognition it so richly deserves. In 2005, GaultMillau rated a few Spanish restaurants. We were excited that they assigned an 18 rank to Etxebarri. The 8 rating by RGS is, in our opinion, woefully inadequate. Other Spanish guides either don’t understand what he is doing or don’t care. Michelin is clearly clueless having dropped all mention in their red guide.

The Etxebarri menu was originally dominated with superbly prepared protein dishes. We easily corrected this presumed bias with a request for some vegetables and/or salad to enhance the dining experience.

His preparations are always flawless. In our 6 visits we have had 40 or so different dishes and all were excellent or outstanding.

An authoritative source informed us that he has access to the finest Spanish food products available. Our observation and taste experience supports that assertion.

In our experience his “a la brasa” cooking is without equal in Spain, Europe or the USA. It is perfectly balanced, tailored to every dish and, always very, very subtle. Berasategui, Roca and particularly Michel Guerard in France could all take lessons from him.

Our wine choice of Cirsi n ‘01 was 99€. A high price to spend but well below even retail market price. The wine carte has some excellent selections and the prices are unbeatable. You have both food and wine values that are incomparable.

The first item was excellent; and everything else was outstanding. The 3rd and 4th courses were “off the charts”;

The first dish was a homemade chorizo.

This was followed by a salad of zizas (tiny button sized wild St. George mushroom) with mixed greens and chopped pistachios in a gentle vinaigrette.

This was followed by fresh cepes (boletus edulis - wild mushrooms) cooked a la brasa in a light sauce flavored with chives and spring onions. The mushrooms were perfectly cooked and delicately perfumed. I have never had this mushroom prepared this well; anywhere!

Now came the “tour de force” - a cigalas also cooked a la brasa. We have had this on other occasions and it never fails to dazzle. Absolutely nothing is added; nothing else is needed. The flavor is phenomenal.

Our fish course was a superbly fresh mero (from Cantabria) accompanied by fresh ramps, baby onions, fresh peas and parsley in olive oil. This is a wonderful ocean fish. The preparation was extraordinary.

Our meat course was a chuleta, a perfectly cooked (rare) beef. A light salad was also served. This great cut of meat was perfectly seasoned. The simply dressed salad was delightful.

Our dessert of zizas mushroom ice cream in a light herb infused sugar syrup was an astonishingly delicious surprise. This unique ice cream was memorable!

Akelare - San Sebastian (Guipuzcoa)

This was our 6th visit. Our first three Akelare visits were in 1999 and 2000. All our meals were quite uneven and often erratic. Some dishes were inventive and refined. Other dishes were either uninspired or ill conceived.

Pedro Subijana has been and continues to be a significant Basque chef. We returned in 2003 after some favorable reviews. Convinced that Akelare was an outstanding Basque restaurant, we returned again for two visits in 2005. Both meals were/are testimony to his culinary acumen.

We chose an excellent Clos d’Agon ‘02 (red) from Empord for our wine.

The late June posting by zeitoun describes their Akelare meal in detail. The two different menus they ordered on their visit were duplicated by us (their pictures match ours). zeitoun very accurately described their meals. I will add a few comments.

We were in agreement with Z with the asparagus and peas. We thought the “coulis-like” curdle was overwhelming. I had the percebes, razor clams & mussels. The over-salted dish he described was not our experience, fortunately.

We agreed with Z on the prawn dish.. The head was stuffed with a mussel puree for a nice touch. Note that the prawn had been removed from its’ own shell, which was then replaced with a faux shell made of spun sugar; a whimsical touch typical of Subijana. This is the kind of thing that he does so well.

We second the remaining comments by Z on savory dishes. For the last savory dish “Presa de Ib rico”, they mentioned not having any “practical recollection”. My husbands’ notes indicate that it was a wild roasted pig, porc demi-glace and a caramelized container of olive oil. He rated it excellent.

We agreed with Z on desserts.

Hisop - Barcelona

This was our 4th visit. Over the past 10 years we have had restaurant choices in Barcelona that we ranked highly including Figueras, Freixa, Drolma, Abac and Alkimia. We would consider returning to a few of them, particularly Abac and Alkimia. Except for Alkimia, the other restaurants are all relatively expensive and no longer offer the great value they once provided. Hisop has sustained high quality and inspired preparations. (Note: we have not been Ca L’Isidre).

The food at Hisop has been consistently well prepared, using top quality ingredients to provide inventive interpretations of various Catalan dishes. The minimalist decor is striking: black and white with lipstick red accents. The tables are well spaced. The service is informed and friendly, never stuffy. Jose Miguel Murgui usually attends to our needs. He is an articulate spokesman for this young team from Girona. Both wine and food prices (40€ for our menu) are very reasonable.

Our wine choice was Gran Claustro (red) ‘00 from Empord .

The meal started with a small glass of a cool combination of basil, tomato, anchovy, and fried cheese in a light cream emulsion or “soup”. The balance of flavors, texture and temperature were perfect for this hot day in Barcelona.

A thick square of very rare tuna topped with a small spoonful of balsamic ice cream was our next taste treat. A complex flavored dish; hints of smoke in the exceptionally cooked rare tuna contrasted nicely with the savory ice cream. This dish was well conceived and executed.

A vegetable medley followed with green and white asparagus, zucchini squash blossoms, spinach leaves sauced with a light cream infused with lemon grass. A final touch of black truffle shavings anointed this visually elegant, most flavorful dish. Superb fare.

Roasted hake on a bed of rice followed. The rice, including bits of crunchy wild rice, was enhanced with a herb foam emulsion. Another marvelous dish.

Rare grilled beef with scrumptious cep ravioli in a rich brown sauce was extraordinary dining.

Three dessert offerings were presented. A palate cleanser sorbet of mint lime and rum started our “sweet coarse”. A thyme curd with blood orange ice cream with tiger nuts followed the sorbet. So delicious and satisfying. Our last dessert was fresh strawberries with a camomile gelatin spiked with a memorable passion fruit sorbet.

Overall Assessment

For those who like rankings the following is how we would break down these 11 meals (over time we have Akelare rated higher).

1) Mugaritz and elBulli very closely followed by Etxebarri. Each was very different.

2) Estany Clar - Close to the top and a very pleasant surprise.

3) cincsentits (a new choice for Barcelona), Hisop and Akelare.

4) Ca l’Enric - We agree with others on eGullet about it.

5) Echaurren, Les Cols and Panticosa - We recommend all three.

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Judith, What an incredible and authoritative post! Thank you for your thoughts and impressions.

Were you and Elie (FoodMan) aware of each other's egullet connection when you dined at El Bulli?


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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Judith, what a fantastic report!

I'm glad we agree on both Hisop and Cinc Sentits as great value destinations which offer outstanding food.

I would have loved to read your thoughts on Alkimia. How come you didn't visit it, being a favorite of yours? Was it just "too many restaurants, not enough time"?

The other significant conclusion I get from your report is that I clearly must plan a trip to Euskadi.

Thanks much for the wealth of detail you've provided us.

SD


We''ve opened Pazzta 920, a fresh pasta stall in the Boqueria Market. follow the thread here.

My blog, the Adventures of A Silly Disciple.

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Judith - thank you for sharing this wonderful gastronomic journey with us! I have two questions:

First, you mentionned having cod with cock's crest at Les Cols. I have never eaten cock's crest before but recall seeing it on a Ducasse recipe prepared deep fried. How was it prepared when you had it?

Second, I am very intrigued by the idea of "monkfish confit" which you had at Echaurren. Would you mind telling us more about it?

And thank you for your notes on Akelare :smile:


"A chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg." Samuel Butler

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Judith, What an incredible and authoritative post! Thank you for your thoughts and impressions.

Were you and Elie (FoodMan) aware of each other's egullet connection when you dined at El Bulli?

Thanks John for your response. Actually we did know of each others eGullet connection. I had forgotten, frankly, until Elie actually posted online after our elBulli dinner.

When at elBulli one (we do) gets caught up in the immediacy of the moment. It is so heartening to connect with elBulli personnel that have remained important Ferran team members for so long. We are not friends but we recognise the talented service people we met so many years ago. This is both heart warming and a tribute to Ferran's superior leadership. IMO at least. Judith


Edited by Judith Gebhart (log)

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Judith, what a fantastic report!

I'm glad we agree on both Hisop and Cinc Sentits as great value destinations which offer outstanding food.

I would have loved to read your thoughts on Alkimia. How come you didn't visit it, being a favorite of yours? Was it just "too many restaurants, not enough time"?

The other significant conclusion I get from your report is that I clearly must plan a trip to Euskadi.

Thanks much for the wealth of detail you've provided us.

SD

Thanks SD for your enthusiastic response. I have pictures, but I have not mastered those skills needed to post both text and pictures.

You raise an interesting question about Alkimia; we originally preferred Alkimia for many of our BCN visits. We still think it has a talented kitchen team. Our more recent visits were somewhat disappointing. The food is always our first focus.

The last two visits were very good. Something was lacking in Alkimia's ability to produce the unique dishes they had originally produced. This disconnect we have not been able to understand.

We never felt Alkimia welcomed our repeated business. There seemed to be an indifference to our apparent enthusiasm for this talented chef and the dishes he produced. We tried French and English but never effectively connected with servers or managers. The food issue is always central to our primary evaluation of any restaurant anywhere. The combination of a less than stellar menu and an indifferent staff dimmed our enthusiasm for Alkimia.

I cannot add more specific detail, mostly because I cannot find our notes that more effectively support our position. We still believe Alkimia is a fine dining destination; but we have revised our preferences. Alkimia no longer has the premiere position for our dining interest.

Hope this provides some explanation of our latest BCN choices. Judith

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Judith - thank you for sharing this wonderful gastronomic journey with us! I have two questions:

First, you mentioned having cod with cock's crest at Les Cols. I have never eaten cock's crest before but recall seeing it on a Ducasse recipe prepared deep fried.  How was it prepared when you had it? 

Second, I am very intrigued by the idea of "monkfish confit" which you had at Echaurren.  Would you mind telling us more about it? 

And thank you for your notes on Akelare  :smile:

I also appreciate your support for my rather long report. You must know that this for us both was our first experience with cocks comb/ crest. Looking over my notes and a picture of the dish, it seemed quite simply a Catalan traditional recipe, somewhat updated. The cock's comb was mildly gelationous. slightly sweet ( as in chicken flavor) and a subtle addition to this typical Catalan traditional dish. The cod was perfectly cooked and the crest/ comb was a nice flavor combination. I have no way of knowing what is a good cock crest/comb recipe. Frankly, the Ducasse rendition of a fried cocks comb makes sense--in culinary terms. The texture of a cocks comb without frying is soft.

Now the Echaurren menu which included the Rape confidado which is a monkfish confit in a puree of chickpea clarified broth was delicious. I think the use of confidado or confit is a conceit or misnomer. IMO. I studied the picture of this dish and it's hefty piece of monkfish in a clear broth of chickpeas with a tiny accent of piquillos peppers with a scallion draped over the monk fish fillet. This is an accurate description of this dish.

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Judith, I am coming to this post late as I wanted to allow a good stretch of quiet time to read it. Actually absorbing all of the wonderful detail you have provided (both culinary and architectural) is going to take a lot longer!

Just one question, and I hope you don't think it is rude: How do you pace yourself for so many overwhelming meals?

And thank you so much for this great post.


Corinna Hardgrave aka "Corinna Dunne"

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Judith, I am coming to this post late as I wanted to allow a good stretch of quiet time to read it.  Actually absorbing all of the wonderful detail you have provided (both culinary and architectural) is going to take a lot longer!

Just one question, and I hope you don't think it is rude:  How do you pace yourself for so many overwhelming meals?

And thank you so much for this great post.

Thank you for your interest. You do raise a great question. We have both decided that we deserve one great meal per day. We try to walk 2-3 miles before our main meal. We also urge the various known cooks that welcome our visit that we have the tiniest portions possible for our tasting menu. I must admit that on occasion we are so enarmored of the superlative menu, that we fail to achieve our perfect balance. When we exceed our balance, we cut back accordingly. We eat very little. Hope this is helpful. It is certainly a problem which we both regard as a true issue that troubles us when travelling anywhere in the world; we want to eat enough but not too much. A delicate balance that only exercise can solve. Judith

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Hello, Judith, and thank you for your MARVELLOUS report. :blink:

Two years ago, me and my wife, went to Catalonia, and we eat at Alkimia, Hisop, Hispania, Les Cols and El Celler de Can Roca. For us, the best of all was the last, but we enjoy all of then, except L'Hisop. In our visit, the staff was very slow, and the menu didn´t surprise us. Only the cheeses was fantastic.

Alkimia had very good food, but we didn´t found "soul"

But Les Cols was very pleasant, with these marvellous chairs and tables, the very good servers (including Fina`s husband), and a very reasonable menu, with so many well-thinked dishes. We really enjoyed it so much.

This year we planed to be at september, and we want to go to Roig Rubi and Moo..... do you know some of these???

Thank you.

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Hello, Judith, and thank you for your MARVELLOUS report. :blink:

Two years ago, me and my wife, went to Catalonia, and we eat at Alkimia, Hisop, Hispania, Les Cols and El Celler de Can Roca. For us, the best of all was the last, but we enjoy all of then, except L'Hisop. In our visit, the staff was very slow, and the menu didn´t surprise us. Only the cheeses was fantastic.

Alkimia had very good food, but we didn´t found "soul"

But Les Cols was very pleasant, with these marvellous chairs and tables, the very good servers (including Fina`s husband), and a very reasonable menu, with so many well-thinked dishes. We really enjoyed it so much.

This year we planed to be at september, and we want to go to Roig Rubi and Moo..... do you know some of these???

Thank you.

Hello Tonalin: Thanks for the considered feedback. We have always been El Celler de Can Roca fans and we rate it very highly. My recent post was to explore the marvelous Catalan restaurants that rarely seem (to me) to get the acclaim they deserve.

Sorry to hear about your negative experience at Hisop. It wasn't our experience. Every restaurant has difficulties that negatively impact the diner; I would like to think that your experience at Hisop was just that--a bad day/meal.

I have no experience with Roig Rubi. Sorry I cannot offer an opinion.

We have visited Moo. I have already posted a response to our 2004 dining experience sometime ago. We visited Moo Jan 2004, not long after it opened. It is a lovely space and the menu was/is the consulting product of the very talented Roca brothers of Girona. The menu captured the parfums of his 2001 menu--in fact it was a duplication of the 2001 fare offered in El Celler de Can Roca's menu in Girona. It was for us a pale imitation; we found the staff uninformed and disinterested in the consulting chefs talents. We would not return because it failed to meet the standards of the Girona home base restaurant which is exceptional. The question is, has the restaurant improved since last year? Is the staff better educated? Do the Roca brothers continue to exert their culinary vision with greater success? We certainly hope so. We have not returned to Moo since our first visit. I don't have the answer as of today. I would give it a try and urge that you report your impression to eGullet. I would like to know as I am sure would others. With candor, Judith

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Judith: I'm sorry to say that my two last visits to Moo in February and April 2005 duplicated your visit. On the latter occasion I was hosting a group of colleagues and friends and the service was totally off any pitch. The waiters, maitre d' and bartenders have the unique ability to act busy whilst achieving and doing absolutely nothing... After 1,5 hours we had received our first appetizer, had been proposed the wrong wine 3 times and had to beg for some bread...

This promoted me to pull the maitre d' aside and politely in Spanish suggest to him that both service and attitude left rather much to be desired, at the same time pointing out the flaws I had experienced on this and former occasions...

The maitre took our point and from there on in the service improved to such an extent that my colleagues whispered whether I had any connections with the mafia..:-)

Alas: The food: Less than inspired, and as mentioned before, its sibling further north provides a far better experience.

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Judith: I'm sorry to say that my two last visits to Moo in February and April 2005 duplicated your visit. On the latter occasion I was hosting a group of colleagues and friends and the service was totally off any pitch. The waiters, maitre d' and bartenders have the unique ability to act busy whilst achieving and doing absolutely nothing... After 1,5 hours we had received our first appetizer, had been proposed the wrong wine 3 times and had to beg for some bread...

This promoted me to pull the maitre d' aside and politely in Spanish suggest to him that both service and attitude left rather much to be desired, at the same time pointing out the flaws I had experienced on this and former occasions...

The maitre took our point and from there on in the service improved to such an extent that my colleagues whispered whether I had any connections with the mafia..:-)

Alas: The food: Less than inspired, and as mentioned before, its sibling further north provides a far better experience.

It is always disappointing news to learn that a deserved chef has failed to successfully connect in another place specifically El Celler de Can Roca in Girona to the Hotel Omm in Barcelona. We always want the fine chefs to transport their culinary wisdom to other venues. The moral of the tale is revisit the Roca brothers marvelous Girona establishment. Avoid the Barcelona satellite. THanks for another much needed culinary assessment. Judith Gebhart

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I have been in Catalunya for the past two weeks (mainly Barcelona area). Today I had the Menu at "L'estany clar" and I have rarely been this surprised and excited about a meal. I will post later but Jordi Cruz, only 29, is an incredible artist.

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