I ate at the best restaurant in the world. I don’t really remember it that well.
I don’t mean to undersell it. El Celler de Can Roca, the Catalonian establishment run by three brothers which just captured the top spot on the highly publicized if not entirely authoritative World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, has in fact occupied my thoughts for months now.1 But it occupies them hazily, like a half-remembered song, a mess of sense memories rather than a perfect imprint. (The cava might have had a role to play here.) My four-hour meal this February was inventive, surprising, and deeply emotional—but it was not theatrical, in the way too often favored by trophy-hunting gourmands and legions of Instagram-happy food pilgrims. Unlike at El Bulli, its now-defunct Catalonian forebear, here there were no goofy experiments that deconstructed a tortilla catalana into a martini glass or utilized liquid nitrogen to create bizarre (and at times not-too-pleasurable) new forms with names like “air baguette” or “electric milk Sichuan buttons.” Nor are you expected to genuflect before the altar of a chef’s genius. El Celler de Can Roca is a less insistent, more generous affair. It’s the rare elite restaurant where you might actually want to eat more than once—and I hope more American chefs take a lesson or two.
El Celler de Can Roca is located in Girona, a town of about 100,000 people in the northeast corner of Spain, about halfway between Barcelona and the French border.2 My compañero and I arrived after spending the day in the Catalonian hills, blasting Ciara and Beyoncé out of the windows of our silly European car and gaping at the omnipresent separatist graffiti. The destruction of the Spanish economy by an austerity-obsessed and comically corrupt government had further strengthened the region’s secession movement: the word independència, with its accusatorily Catalan accent grave, had been scrawled on wall after wall. We had come to Catalonia as eurozone disaster tourists, and we were not disappointed.
But we also took a detour. The common consensus this winter was that you’ll need a year’s notice to bag a reservation at El Celler de Can Roca—though now that it wears the designation of World’s Best Restaurant, that will only get worse. When Noma was first named world number one, says chef René Redzepi, his restaurant in Copenhagen was flooded with 100,000 reservation requests in a day. Take my advice: just go to Spain, fire up Google Voice, call the restaurant, and shout into your computer like a crazy person. I’m here, I screamed; do you have a table for two? We were eating within 24 hours.
On El Celler de Can Roca’s website the first image you’ll see is a big crepuscular photograph of the Roca brothers wading through the river that runs through medieval Girona, bearing flaming torches like a trio of witch-hunters. In fact their restaurant is housed in a low-slung modern bungalow in a dumpy suburban neighborhood, around the corner from a car dealership. But it doesn’t matter once you’re inside. The tables look in, not out, into a triangular glass-walled garden that recalls the restaurant’s tripartite division of labor: eldest brother Joan is the head chef, middle brother Josep runs the wine, and youngest brother Jordi is in charge of pastry. We had a look in the kitchen, where a corps of young cooks were plating the first appetizers of the evening. One corner was tricked out with tubes and vats like an El Bulli–style chemistry lab, but no one was using it; most of the action I saw consisted of the serious work of grilling, braising, slicing, and dicing.
“Well, we are going to eat the world,” our server told us as she deposited on our table a black paper globe that contained, when we unwrapped it, five chewy or watery spheres that each recalled a geographical region: a ceviche bomb for Peru, a miso-filled tempura sphere for Japan, a Moroccan confection composed of goat yogurt and honey and almonds. They were like little travelogues, these amuses-bouches, and there were half a dozen more to come. I fell particularly hard for an alleged brioche (really more like a Chinese baozi) filled with a black truffle ganache: a glorified éclair, an embarrassingly unadult delight. Other diners were negotiating wine and food pairings with the delicacy of a hostage situation, but I’m afraid to say we just broke open the cava and never looked back.3
A ceviche bomb for Peru, a miso-filled tempura sphere for Japan, a Moroccan confection composed of goat yogurt and honey and almonds.
Only after a full hour of nibbles and bubbles did the real work begin. There was a whole prawn, with seaweed marinated in the juice from the crustacean’s head. A shucked oyster submerged in a spoon of mauve hollandaise sauce that also contained some delectable gamey emulsion. Very serious Iberian suckling pig, the crackling as brittle as rock candy. A truffle-wrapped soufflé, which I struggled to eat since the enclosing ring of fungi wouldn't separate; I had to swallow it whole. Pigeon liver, tangy and ureic. Lamb breast alongside lamb sweetbreads, both to be eaten with the provided steel forceps, or perhaps they were eyebrow tweezers. All told there were eighteen courses, not to mention the three rounds of sweets, and at last, sometime around one in the morning, an absurd quantity of mignardises—bite-sized desserts—distributed from a candy-striped funfair cart like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
I know I ate all this because I still have the menu, but could I have recalled all of these details without that? I certainly couldn’t have—and I think that was the point. The Rocas, throughout, seemed less concerned with dazzling diners via unprecedented inventions than with evoking memories, inspiring relays of thoughts and feelings that made dishes into just one point on an emotional line. A packet of smoke rose up from the lamb dish, and I was a child again. For more sensitive diners this can be overwhelming: The executive editor of Condé Nast Traveler apparently broke down in tears while eating there. I didn’t lose it that totally, but I understand why.
“We have blind faith in the force of feelings,” the brothers write in their new book, a seven-pound doorstop of a publication that combines essays and scientific writing with impossibly difficult recipes. “People grant us their time and open their arms and senses to seduction; we want to be sensible to the management of those emotions.” That’s a surprisingly modest statement in a profession that privileges total control (the word chef means “leader” for a reason). Yet in comparison to the insistence bordering on megalomania of other elite chefs, the Roca brothers’ far less showy cooking—allusive, evocative, and difficult to capture—seems to me a more notable undertaking. I can’t say whether it deserves the silly, meaningless designation of world’s best restaurant, but my meal at El Celler de Can Roca certainly endures with me more than those of showboating chefs desperate to create “unforgettable” spectacle out of stagy concoctions or (at a certain besmirched New York establishment) tableside card tricks. A great meal shouldn’t be theater; it should be just another part of life, though with much more cava.
The list is published by Restaurant magazine, a British trade publication, and voted on by a jury of about 900 writers, chefs, and assorted gluttons. While it’s the most visible ranking of world restaurants, it has many detractors: voters aren’t required to prove they’ve even been to the places they select, for one thing.
Before this week, Girona was probably best known for a massive Gothic cathedral, with the largest nave in the world after Saint Peter’s, though there’s also a well-preserved Jewish quarter dating back to the ninth century.
If you were wondering, the phrase “champagne socialism” is translated into Catalan as esquerra caviar. But there were no fish eggs on the menu.
Jason Farago is a writer and critic living in New York. Follow @jsf.