El Celler de Can Roca
Carrer de Can Sunyer 48
Overall rating: 6.5/10
Date of visit: May 2012
El Celler de Can Roca is hailed as one of Spain’s best restaurants, so of course I had to go. When I called to book a table there was 3-4 months wait for a table. If I wanted to go a Friday or Saturday, I would have to wait around 10 months for a table! As Restaurant Magazine named this restaurant best restaurant in the world 2013, the wait would probably become even longer.
The restaurant itself might be the most beautiful restaurant I’ve ever been to! Unfortunately, my pictures don’t do it any justice.
(The person standing up is sommelier Joan Roca)
The restaurant serves two menus: One with classics from the restaurant, and the “festival” menu with their newest dishes. I chose the latter one, which was priced at €160. White wine was €7.56 per glass, and red wine was €9.72. Water was free, and they also gave me a glass of cava for free when I arrived.
Usually I don’t pay so much attention to the bread in restaurants, but the breads here were astonishing – quite possible the best bread I’ve ever had anywhere. My favourite was the one with olives. Red wine, apricot and walnut, and the Catalonian one were also wonderful. The thin stick was the only one that was nothing special.
There were plenty of appetisers, six servings to be exact with three consisting of two elements, and one consisting of five elements:
First, a small tree with crunchy caramel coated olives hanging from the branched was served (I don’t have a picture of this one, unfortunately). This was an unusual combination but not one that did much for me (6/10).
“The world” was five small spheres, each representing a different country. The one for Korea was a great pleasure and at least 8/10. The rest were in no way bad, but simply barely had any flavour: 5/10 for those.
Octopus with puffed rice didn’t have any flavour at all (4-5/10), which was still better than the very bitter sphere of campari that it was served with (I’ve since found out that I just don’t like campari) (3/10).
A single clam was served in a spoon. I don’t like clams at all, but this was the best I’ve had, simply because it didn’t taste like anything at all (5/10).
A small mushroom bonbon was absolutely lovely (8.5/10), as was a very fluffy and light brioche with a runny cep filling, although I would have liked a slightly more intense flavour in both mushroom and bread (8.5/10). This was served with a consommé, but I must admit that I don’t remember much about this.
The first proper dish was a foie gras timbale with apples. In general, I’m not keen on foie gras (or liver in general), but this was one of the best foie gras dishes I’ve ever had. The amount of apple to foie gras was perfectly balanced, and it was at the same time both sweet and refreshing without the liver becoming too fatty. It could still be improved, though, by adding more elements to the dish. It was simply a timbale with a caramel sauce around it. What made the one at Sangonereta so great was not just the mille-feuille of foie gras, mango and goat cheese, but also that there was caramelised sesame, a caramelised fig and pickled ginger on the plate (9/10).
Infusion of elder was served with nice cherries, sardines and ice cream (and the dish looked beautiful), but the infusion itself was like water with a bit of olive oil in it. The almonds should have been toasted to bring out the flavour. When I mentioned that the infusion lacked flavour, the waitress said “yes, I know”. Maybe she just didn’t know what to say, but if she really agreed with me, why do they serve this? (5/10)
An olive dish was a mixed success. Admittedly, I like olives but I’m not crazy about them. Often, I simply find them too salty, which also became a problem here. The black olive fritter here was absolutely lovely, but the olive soup was just that: A soup in various colours that only tasted like olives. The olive ice cream was simply too salty and not a pleasure to eat (overall 5-6/10, but a lot more for the black fritter).
Asparagus two ways was regular white asparagus with some truffle sauce on top, and a white asparagus ice cream with grated truffle. Admittedly, I like asparagus but I rarely find them astonishing. The same was the case here. The truffle was not very detectable, and as a whole there wasn’t much too criticise (except for the ice cream being quite icy), but not much to enchant either. Someone else might have liked this dish better. (5-6/10).
Any guesses on what this is?
It was lobster with potato mash with truffle oil, and a sauce of black trumpets. The presentation was the worst of the night. The lobster was put on top of the mash and the sauce poured all over it, making it look like they had whisked all the elements together in a bowl. Eating it was the same experience: On its own each element was fine, but as eating it really was like eating something that was whisked together in a bowl it was quite difficult to distinguish each element apart. To me, the lobster seemed a bit undercooked, but that’s my personal preference, but nevertheless had good and firm texture. (5/10)
Sea bream was served with various vegetables and citrus. To me, bream is an overrated fish that is usually dry. Why eat this if you can have turbot, Dover sole or zander? Anyway, the fish itself was very nice though (but still a little bit naturally dry), flavoured with a bit of lemon (and a perfect amount I must say), and it was definitely one of the best breams I’ve ever had (the best one being at Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea, London).
What ruined this dish were the citrus elements on there. Usually, I’m a sucker for citrus, but, unless I misunderstood the sommelier, they had deliberately made these elements from the white pith of the fruits (along with the zest), making it extremely bitter and almost inedible. To me that made no sense at all. The vegetables were okay, but really nothing extraordinary. (8/10 for the fish itself, but overall 4/10 because of the citrus pith)
A cod soup with onions was much better. The soup itself had very nice flavour without being overly fishy, and the onions were well-cooked and very sweet (8/10).
The next dish was similar in style but not in execution: Red mullet with a soup from its bones. The flavour of the soup was really, really fishy, like eating pure reduced fish stock. I know that some Spanish people like that particular flavour (some of my friends eat it almost daily), but…
The fish itself was fine, as were the three small gnocchi’s (basil, saffron, and orange), although hardly more than mildly interesting, the orange one being a bit too bitter. But the soup was really, sorry for the expression, so disgusting that it ruined the entire dish for me (overall 3/10, although the soup was worse).
Slowly cooked pork belly was served with a braising sauce, beetroot and melon. The pork was pleasant and had nice crispy skin, but the sauce could have been better, and the melon was not the best most flavourful of its kind (7/10).
Lamb was a little bit similar: Slowly cooked and served with a braising sauce and with morels as well as a mushroom purée and lamb sweetbreads (7.5/10).
Pigeon liver mousse covered by a sauce, and served with onions and a thin slice of pigeon breast. Again, liver is not really my thing, so others might have liked this better. If I try to be objective here for a minute, then I didn’t see anything revolutionary about this dish either (5-6/10).
Then started desserts, first with a watermelon sorbet. I’ve always found watermelon to be the least interesting type of melon, but again that’s a preference. The sorbet was crystallised, and the entire dish was not particularly memorable, although the presentation was nice (5/10).
“Flower bomb” looked astonishing, and the flavour of rose water was definitely better balanced than at Riff in Valencia, but the violet candy floss around it was sticky and impossible to eat. A somewhat successful dish that I did, however, quickly forget (6/10 for flavours, 10/10 for presentation).
The waitress told me that the last dessert, an ice cream sandwich, had vanilla ice cream, whereas the menu said anis ice cream. Nevertheless, they could have told me any flavour and I would have believed them, because the coffee they had poured onto the bottom of the plate drowned out all other flavours. Very unbalanced (3-4/10).
Lastly was the petit fours. I didn’t find a single one of these more than mildly interesting. Most barely had any flavour, and the passion fruit ice cream was sour. (4/10)
The service was great, and it deserved my big tip, but it wasn’t perfect. When I was seated at my table, I waited a long time to get a menu. The couple next to me had a menu on their table within one minute. Between dishes, I sometimes waited maybe one or two minutes or even less – other times I waited a lot longer. After asking for the bill, I also waited a really long time. All in all, eating the “festival menu” (11 courses) + appetizers and petit fours took me four and a half hours (they told me three hours, but nothing in Spain is precise ;-)). At Sant Pau, it took me slightly less than three hours, and there they pulled out the chair for me when I returned to my seat, but not at Can Roca. Nevertheless, the service was attentive, friendly and professional. However, they initially asked about my opinion about the dishes, and after I mentioned that the elder infusion lacked flavour, they stopped asking.
I thought it was the head chef that came out to speak to all the guests, but it was actually the sommelier, Josep Roca. When I afterwards asked to see their wine cellar, which is supposed the biggest one in any restaurant in Spain, he showed me around.
I was a bit disappointed by the food at El Celler de Can Roca. Despite some very nice dishes, and some not so nice ones, the general problem was the lack of flavour. I’ve said in other reviews that I believe this to be a common problem in Spain, and people in Spain seem to prefer mild food (where else do you see people put soda into beer to make the beer more mild?), so of course Spanish restaurants make food for Spanish tastes. The sommelier told me that he almost cried out of happiness when he first tried the olive soup that I had. The restaurant can of course only serve the food that they like.
El Celler de Can Roca is not a place I would go back to – at least not for the food, as in general it simply lacked the “wow factor”. Salt and pepper makes everything better, but putting seasoning into a bowl of water doesn’t make it wonderful (e.g. the elder infusion).
When I go to a restaurant that has three Michelin stars and is by some considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world, I expect nothing but the best.
Is it possible that the food here was simply not my taste, and that they succeeded in what they were trying to achieve? Yes, of course. BUT let’s make some comparisons here:
The very next day I went to Sant Pau. There wasn’t a single bad dish there. I had a dish with a fish soup/sauce similar to the one I had with the red mullet at El Celler. At Le Calandre in Italy I also had a similar fish soup. Both of these were very pleasant. I can’t say the same thing about the one at El Celler.
Then I had a dessert at El Celler where the coffee overpowered everything else. At Le Calandre in Italy I had a dish with pork with a sauce with coffee. At Pierre Gagnaire in France I had a liquorice ice cream with a bit of coffee. In both instances, the amount of coffee was nothing short of perfect and in perfect balance with everything else.
The first dish at El Celler de Can Roca was small spheres, where only one of them had any flavour. At Quique Dacosta I had several spheres (Bloody Mary, Dove’s nest, Cow’s heart, Iberian explosion, etc.) that were all bursting with flavour.
At El Celler de Can Roca I had an olive dish with various elements that overall just tasted like olives and were too salty. The next day at Sant Pau I had an olive pure that were perfectly balanced and not too salty at all.
So, when you see all these examples of how it can be done, then El Celler de Can Roca simply didn’t hit the mark very well. So, it’s simply not only because I didn’t like these particular dishes. Quique Dacosta was not so much different, but the food was simply better there.
The food at El Celler de Can Roca was definitely very creative, elaborate and modern, and this is actually the type of food I prefer, but it simply wasn’t as perfected as it could have been. Afterwards, I was thinking that maybe I would have been happier if I had chosen the classics menu. Some of the dishes in the festival menu seemed like they hadn’t been fully developed.
Sant Pau was in all aspects a lot better: Better service, more flavour, better balance, better petit fours, better presentation on the plate. Only for breads was El Celler de Can Roca superior, and the restaurant might have been just a tad more beautiful as well. And yet, everybody wants to go to El Celler de Can Roca (maybe because it’s on that stupid top 50 list), while barely anybody in Spain has ever heard of Sant Pau. What a pity!
I’ve been to several restaurants with only one star (Herman, AOC, Geranium, Kokkeriet, Riff, and Ca’ Sento just to name a few) or even restaurants that didn’t have a single star (Samsha and Sangonereta in Valencia) that I liked better than El Celler de Can Roca.
This was my first meal here, so I can’t say if I had just been unlucky or if the restaurant was better in the past. However, on the Spanish website Verema I did read several reviews from people who had been there more than once and who said the restaurant was better two years ago. I can’t say. But looking at pictures from autumn 2010, at least the presentation generally looked better back then.