In part, this dining experience was not about the food. I mean, of course it was. But, having eaten in Costa Brava, and having learned about the history of gastronomy in the region, this was a pilgrimage. And, a surreal one at that. This was our experience dining at Can Roca in Girona.
El Celler de Can Roca
I’ve written about El Celler de Can Roca before. We were fortunate enough to have a little taste from the menu, after meeting all three Roca brothers, back in 2015. That visit occurred just after Can Roca won the number one restaurant in the world, and the whole world was a buzz about Girona.
El Celler de Can Roca is set in a residential neighborhood, just outside the center of Girona. The 3 Michelin Star restaurant is around the corner from the family restaurant and bar, Can Roca. But, the two restaurants could not be more different. Can Roca is traditional Catalan. A family run establishment, for everyday dining.
El Celler de Can Roca is not for everyday dining. It is, indeed, a surreal experience.
We’ve dined at Michelin Star restaurants before, and even 3 star Michelin Restaurants. But, somehow this was different, and I am not sure why. Perhaps it was due to the influence of Ferran Adria and elBulli in the region. Perhaps it was because we were dining at the number 3 restaurant in the world. Perhaps it was because we scored a last minute reservation, and only had less than 10 hours to let it sink in that we were dining at Can Roca in the first place.
The entire evening was almost a blur, like we were dining in a fog. Of course, there was part of us that felt as though we didn’t belong there. Like everyone could tell I was a recovering attorney turned travel blogger. We started with a glass of cava on the terrace, where our Can Roca experience started two years before. But, this was the real deal. We watched patrons start to trickle in for their 8:30 or 9pm reservations.
Joan greeted people at the door. He brought us around on a brief tour (our second) of the kitchen. Of course, I would never expect Joan to remember us from our first visit 2 years ago, but I like to think we left some impression. Even though it was our second trip into the kitchen, it still amazes me. It is so quiet in the kitchen, you could hear a pin drop.
The Feast Menu – Dining at Can Roca
We arrived at our table, and just kept taking in our surroundings. I wanted to see everyone else who was dining at Can Roca that evening, but the tables are set in a way that you can’t really get a good look at the rest of the dining room. Instead, we were sat with 2 other tables in an alcove between serving stations. We observed the rest of Can Roca through the glass walls in the center. I was left to guess what was happening in the rest of the dining room.
We settled on the Feast Menu, which included about 13 listed courses. We joked between us, I think to hide our obvious anticipation. I compared the Can Roca Feast Menu to fast food in the US. “It’s just like the KFC Feast.” You know, a bucket of 13 pieces of thighs and wings instead of a minimum of 13 courses at one of the best restaurants in the world. We soon learned that we would be eating a whole lot more than 13 courses.
The “Snacks” at Can Roca
Our menu included a list of the 13 courses (10 main courses and 3 desserts). But, our dining experience started with the “snacks.”
The presentation for the first few courses was almost identical to the taste we received during our first trip. I feel confident that most of the little bites were each unique though. The server brought these snacks a few at a time. We started with The World, a paper lantern, ceremoniously untied at the table, and opened to reveal 5 bites reminiscent of flavors from all over the globe, including Thailand, Japan, Turkey, Peru, and Korea.
And, of course, immediately after our server told us that the entire dish is very fragile, and to be careful, I promptly knocked one of my country bites off its precarious little perch. Way to stay classy. Of course it was just as I said “I think my Thailand is going to fall off,” which perhaps is a fitting country to fall as we just finished living in Bangkok and decided to move to Girona.
Each bite tasted both true to its traditional flavors (although we’ve never been to Peru), with some explosive flavors coming from such a small bite. Eric started to crave each type of cuisine as he ate it, thinking “now, I want Turkish food” or “now, I want to go to Osaka.”
The next snack was a Can Roca-themed diorama, with black of white photos of each Roca brother when they were young. This presentation is called “Memories of a bar in the suburbs of Girona,” a reference perhaps to the family’s traditional restaurant, just around the corner.
The three dimensional diorama held another 5 little snack bites including breaded squid, kidneys with Sherry, meat cannelloni, a pigeon parfait, and a Campari bonbon. At the time it was served, I didn’t put two and two together with the Girona bar concept and the flavors presented. These were very contemporary interpretations of traditional dishes found at local bars and cafeterias in Catalunya.
How to Enjoy Dining at Can Roca
Dining like this can be done in one of two ways. You either just enjoy every bite that is placed in front of you without thinking. To just enjoy the flavors. Or, you do what we did.
We attempted to listen to each and every description, to understand what we were eating. Then, as we ate, we tried to figure out which bite, and which flavor, matched the description. And, in a place like this, where nothing is as it seems, it’s hard to tell. During our tour of The World, we couldn’t remember which bite was which until we popped them into our mouths, and recognized the regional flavor. Similarly, during the Girona bar, we couldn’t tell which was the pigeon and which the kidney. Neither had a strong flavor of game or organ. They both just tasted amazing, creamy, and delicious.
Many times during this meal Eric exclaimed “I don’t want to swallow.” The glutton in me continuously decried “I could eat a dozen of those.” Part of this was because the flavors were so powerful. Part was because I was still trying to decipher the flavors and how they got that way.
Our snacks continued with mussels, octopus and peas, truffles, St. George’s mushrooms, and olive ice cream, among others. But, after the 15 or so snacks, it was time to start the tasting menu. Yes, up until this point we hadn’t even started the Feast Menu.
The Fish at Can Roca
It wasn’t until our first official course from the tasting menu that we received silverware. Thus far, everything we ate was considered snacks, or an elaborate scheme of never-ending amuse bouche. All served as tiny bites of finger food.
The fish courses were plentiful, ranging from white asparagus with mullet roe, to oysters in fennel sauce. The onion flower with comte cheese soup was the first course that truly messed with Eric’s mind. The wine served with the onion flower smelled sweet, but tasted clean and crisp. The sweetness of the onion with the strength of the comte cheese reminded me of a contemporary French onion soup.
Langoustine with sagebrush, vanilla oil, and rose butter. The butter was so creamy, I wanted to lick every drop of butter from the plate. It tasted like a butter cookie. We tried to make the most of this dish, by sopping up the butter with bread once the langoustine ran out. I may have licked the butter off the knife. Maybe. Unless that makes me sound too uncouth. Although Eric ended the course by telling me “I think you’re an idiot if you don’t use your knife to lick up all of this butter.”
The Meats at Can Roca
Dining at Can Roca means the fish and seafood tend to take center stage. That makes sense considering the history of the sea in Costa Brava. But, the three meat courses also did not disappoint.
We started the meats with Iberian suckling pig. “This might be the greatest pig I’ve ever eaten,” came out of Eric’s lips as he licked his fingers, while still trying to remain sophisticated. It was an elevated version of some of the best suckling pig we’d eaten, in, of all places, Dong Ha, Vietnam. For a dish at Can Roca to take us back to Asia in this way is what dining at Can Roca is all about. Once again, I didn’t want to finish it. I had a few little tiny bits of pork left on my plate, that I picked up on my moist finger tip one at a time, again just attempting to keep it classy.
At this point, I had no idea how far we were into the tasting menu. I totally lost track. All I knew was that this was the first meat course, and for Eric, he would have been pleased to end there. To go out on a high note.
The next course was lamb prepared four different ways, and include tripe, brain, and tongue. We’ve eaten tripe and tongue before, but never brain. All I can say is if all offal were prepared this lovingly, I would eat it every day. It lead me to say “If there’s ever a time to try brain . . .” it’s while dining at Can Roca.
The final meat course was a pigeon served a few different ways, and was notable mostly in its presentation. There were decorative pigeons flying off the plate. It was gorgeous.
The Desserts at Can Roca
Since moving to Girona, we’ve become regulars at Rocambolesc, Jordi Roca’s gelato shop in the center of Girona. He offers a few gelato menu items that are inspired by Can Roca desserts. To this point, I felt pretty confident that I at least knew Jordi’s style. But, even so, the desserts were a surprise.
We finally arrived at “Jordi Roca’s time” with some very unique desserts, including Rainy Forrest, Orange Colourology, and a Cuban Cigar Box. I enjoyed each of them, although the Orange Colourology was my favorite. An orange sphere, which we needed to break open to reveal the insides.
Simply put, at this point, after two dozen courses and bites, and much wine, the desserts messed with my mind. And, they were a perfect way to end our surreal experience dining at Can Roca.
The Wine List at Can Roca
During our first peek into Can Roca, we saw the wine list. Or, more correctly, the wine lists. It’s a large cart that is wheeled to the table with 3 hefty books, each of which could give the Gutenberg Bible a run for its money. One with red, one with white, and one with liquors. As all diners are sat at roughly the same time, I noticed there were several of these wine list carts, whizzing from one table to another.
I imagine if you were to select individual bottles of wine for your dinner, it could take a good hour just to consult the list(s). We chose the wine tasting menu, with a selection of Spanish and international wines. Most were wines I knew I would be tasting once, for this night only. All wines were selected by Josep Roca.
If I were dining with a group, I might have worked with the sommelier, who just won best sommelier in Spain the night before we dined. In this case, we could have chosen 3 or 4 bottles to pair with the entire meal. But, I knew for just 2 of us, we maybe could have finished 2 bottles, being a bit tipsy by the end. I wanted to have the full experience of trying all of the different wines, rather than committing to just one or two bottles. We chose wisely. We drank some amazing wines we never otherwise would have drank.
My Thoughts on Dining at Can Roca
Years ago, I watched Anthony Bourdain’s episode on Ferran Adria’s elBulli, which was once located just up the coast from Girona. Known throughout the culinary world simply as “Ferran,” his legacy on the culinary world is undeniable, even by his critics. Joan Roca spent a summer at elBulli, and is obviously inspired by him, and Ferran’s footprint on the gastronomy of Catalunya.
At the time I watched Bourdain, I didn’t really understand molecular gastronomy. I didn’t understand why someone would want a tomato that looks like a cucumber and tastes like melon. Why is there so much foam? It just didn’t seem appealing to me. I wanted my food to look like food and taste like food.
Dining at Can Roca was surreal, in part, because I was curious about molecular gastronomy and the Ferran influence. ElBulli closed a few years ago, and we missed out on dining there. In this case, dining at Can Roca was not limited to foam and molecular gastronomy. Instead, it is more likely considered avant-garde cuisine. Many dishes were contemporary interpretations of traditional dishes or flavors, presented like artwork, with phenomenal flavors I couldn’t always place. It was certainly a surreal experience, but one I was fortunate to have as a culinary travel writer.
At the end of our 4+ hour dining experience, we walked back to our apartment in Girona, about a 20 minute walk, just before 1 am. I was happy to walk, even at the late hour. It not only gave us time to digest, but it gave us time to DIGEST. We talked about our meal the entire walk home, and isn’t that what it’s all about. Not just digesting food that fills our bellies, but food that makes us think.
The Details on Dining at Can Roca
The Feast Menu at Can Roca is €205. The wine pairing menu is €90. That means a full Can Roca experience is about €300 per person. The classic tasting menu is €180, and €55 for the wine pairing. The price difference between the two menus is not extreme. My advice: go for the Can Roca Feast Menu!
El Celler de Can Roca is located on Can Sunyer, 48, just outside of the city center of Girona, about 90 minutes outside of Barcelona. Reservations required, months and months in advanced!
For more on Ferran Adria and his legacy in Catalunya and around the world, read Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food, available on Amazon.
For more on Joan Roca and his contemporary Catalan cuisine, read El Celler De Can Roca, available on Amazon.