Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Homage to Catalonia

The journey to the greatest place on earth is easier than you might imagine. You start your journey in Barcelona by finding the red bricked Arc de Triomph. As you walk up the Passeig de Lluis Companys which hugs the Arc, passing old men bickering, bitching, and cajoling one another over intense games of boules, look for the Metro station. Buy a round trip ticket for the Rodalies 1 train. It will take you out of the city on a north east ramble through beach towns shuttered for winter. Sit on the left hand (neutral ground side) for an ever changing slideshow of why the people who lived on the shores of the Mediterranean developed civilization.

You get off the train at the St. Pol de Mar stop. The town of St. Pol de Mar is built steeply into the surrounding hills. Take a walk around, snap a photo or two of the terraced gardens which have a commanding view of Homer's sea, and wander aimlessly. Build your appetite. You still have some eating to do before your journey is complete.

You will be able to pick out the building that houses Carme Ruscalleda's Restaurant Sant Pau from a safe distance. The exterior is bright yellow with royal blue trimming. Outside waiters in dark Nehru jackets and pressed pants survey the street. It is not out of boredom. Anyone walking down Calle Nou at 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon in the fall, is here to dine at Sant Pau. Consider them advanced scouts.

You enter a modern atrium and as if on command a maitre d' will ask you to follow him. You do. And this is when you get the first glimmer of the prize at your journey's end- your Valhalla. A garden, a level below where you sit, looks out passed an iron gate and onto the wide stretches of the Mediterranean. But careful, the temptation is to look ahead. Avoid it and focus on your task ahead: lunch.

Settle in with a glass of cava. Of course, you could order a la carte, but I will let Lindsay explain it better, "We didn't travel all this way to eat one or two dishes. We are getting the tasting menu, right?"

Here comes a starter broth. It sounds incredibly simple when explained. Just peppers, onion, garlic, olive oil, and water, a traditional dish of Menorca. It is bright orange, the color of the setting sun. You take a sip. It is not so simple. Complex with flavors alternating between the slight sweet spiciness of the peppers to the grassy overtures of the olive oil. Water has never tasted so great.

Next up is a collection of four small appetizers. You learn that Ruscalleda will be in Harvard in November teaching classes on the Maillard reaction which takes place when sugars meet heat. Therefore, all of the treats follow the Maroon color theme of that scientific occurrence. There are crispy noodles with single sweet prawn, miga,s a traditional breakfast dish of fried bread crumbs, with grapes and raisins, spiced almond candies enveloped in a tissue paper wrapper, and this stunner, a golden orb of liquefied garlic sitting atop a puck of biscuity pastry spiked with pine nuts.

Every chef of any renown has a dish they are rightfully famous for, a dish people travel across the globe to eat. At Sant Pau that dish is the Gastronomic Mondrian, Ruscalleda's take on the confluence of the great rivers of art and food. The dish is presented to you like so.

A second or so later, another waiter will remove the box to reveal a dish which sounds basic enough - salt cod brandada with orange, green, and yellow peppers and black olives. Only the peppers and olives have been turned into thick coats of oil paint to contrast the white canvas of cod. The creamy cod is punctuated with hidden slivers almond which provide a textural contrast. This dish is simply outstanding and worth your journey alone, but press on.

There is a dish of squid inspired by the Ruscalleda's trips to Japan. In a bowl sits white as copy paper balls of ground squid surrounded by mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and nose tingling herbs. A dashi broth poured tableside will marry harmoniously the disparate elements. Next comes the vegetable portion of this odyssey. A ravioli filled with juiced carrot, daikon, eggplant, and zucchini (and probably a fair amount of butter or oil) is wrapped with delicate strips of the same, then topped with a crown of Joselito jamon. "Even the vegetables come with ham...I think I love Spain," Lindsay said.

There are wines with each of these courses, sublime whites (and one red) all from within sixty miles or so of the restaurant. They arrive with precision often thirty seconds or so before the back waiter brings forth your next course. Which your next course happens to be a langoustine and dewlap (the floppy part of a pig's neck), Jurvert sauce, and beetroot vinaigrette. Jurvert sauce is a sort of precursor to pesto or salsa verde. Basil, nut, and garlic sauces are hallmarks of many Med based cuisines, each cuisine claiming they invented it first. "We invented it first," adds the captain. A touch of caviar adds a sharp, salty punch.

Next up is a rectangle of seabass roasted in fig leaves and unfurled tableside before being sauced with chayote puree, figs, smoked salt, and poached mirliton. The fish is firm. Its interior just beginning to cook. Its flesh is fragrant and the chayote and figs add crisp sweetness.

You will have the option between two meat courses. We made it easy and got one of each. The pig trotter was a gelatinous and heavy handed terrine, perhaps better as a light lunch with a crisp salad than the eighth course in a marathon. Luckily Lindsay ordered that one. I got the duck from Challans, the peppery, rich beef wrapped around a fried squash blossom stuffed with cubes of apple. The maple syrup reduction will make this dish one of your most impressive accomplishments on this odyssey. It tastes of fall, holidays, crisp nights and is delicious.

There will be a cheese course with five offerings and five contrasting flavors to distract you from your goal. The most intriguing is a Bleu de Vercors-Sassenage paired with a coffee marzipan, the best a Bauma with pumpkin, lettuce, and mustard. The cheese course comes with a handy guide for your reference. 

After that, will come a palate cleansing sorbet of raspberry and rosewater. Keep pressing, you are almost there. Now your first dessert, a sweet sorbet of pineapple on top of a creamy tocinillo and surrounded by raspberry puree. The flowers are edible and will give you the strength to continue.

The world is a small place. How do I know this? Smart people say so; but also, because of this dish. On the coast of Catalunya comes a dessert inspired by the greatest liquor made in Kentucky and maybe the world. The dish is just called Bourbon. Each of the elements the thin cookie, the creamy ice cream, and the dense cake are based on the flavors of a good Bourbon. There is pepper, vanilla, chocolate and coffee. Into the trapdoor, the waiter pours a shot of Bourbon and elevates the dish to the magical. You will savor this dessert wishing each bite could be repeated over and over again.

At this point in your journey, the captain will ask you if you would like to have your final snacks outside in the garden, "Perhaps with a coffee, espresso, or a digestif?" You will of course say yes. If you are truly committed, go with the Fernet Branca. She will lead you through the dining room seemingly floating through time, space, and lunch out the door, down the stairs, and into the garden. There, under the canopy of three white maple trees, is a platter of treats from the confectionery (the mushroom and chocolate macarons a delight) awaits.

Grab a comfortable, cushioned seat, enjoy your drink, and watch the kitchen at work through the large plate glass windows. At your back is the sound of the Mediterranean colliding with the occasional whistle and rumble of a passing train. Congratulations, your journey is complete.


John said...

Need to go here right now

Becky said...

Good "point/counterpoint" with Felipe's.

Fump and Manny said...

Man, don't leave me hanging, what brand of bourbon did they pour. surely you asked what bourbon they would choose to serve?

can we get a ballpark on the check, it can be somewhat vague, for example dinner for two would require foregoing roughly 542 lucky dog lunches, or something to that effect.

Rene said...

All good questions F&M's...

Bourbon was Woodford Reserve.

As for the check, it was not as expensive as lunch at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon from last year and it was only slightly more expensive than last meal at Stella!

docsconz said...

Excellent post, Rene! It is, indeed an inspired restaurant and a perfect choice for lunch with its magical view onto the Mediterranean. The cheese course remains my benchmark for cheese courses.