The Spain that is not Spain has many attractions; and the greatest of all is the food. Somehow, this part of the world has encouraged, nurtured and perhaps bred a level of refined culinary exploration that may be unsurpassed globally.
So first Girona. Amidst a plethora of tourist cafes, serving up perfectly good ham and cheese sandwiches and rolls, and moderately acceptable coffee, are many, many fabulous restaurants waiting to be discovered, if only one can stay awake long enough!
Our bunch of cyclists had some difficulty falling into the Spanish habit of eating dinner at 9pm, with most actual restaurants only opening their doors at 8.30pm.
In fact, the one that took our group booking for 8 people at 8.15pm, yay, actually turned us away because they were still mopping the floors when we arrived – come back in half an hour, they said. The boys were not happy!
Nevertheless we managed to have several great restaurant experiences, both with the cyclists and with Rob when he arrived for the second part of our three-part holiday. I’m not going to regale you with a blow by blow account of every meal… though the 25 course degustation at Mugaritz, with 7 extra bites at the end was surely the crowning glory – more on that at the end.
But meanwhile back in Girona, a few learnings.
Lesson 1. The discovery that ‘gazpacho’ does not need to be made with tomatoes! Well, I guess in classical kitchens it does, but the strawberry & cherry gazpacho I had to start a meal in a restaurant we happened on by chance was a revelation, and something I will definitely be experimenting with when summer rolls around back home. (Turns out this is a “thing” – recipe at http://www.thelastcookie.ca/cherry-strawberry-gazpacho/)
Lesson 2. No matter how well you think you’ve trained your staff, you can’t build a fine dining experience with people who have themselves never dined finely! A learning from our visit to L’Alqueria, currently rated the number 2 restaurant in Girona behind the acclaimed Cellar de Can Roca (with its 12 month waiting list, and the venue for our previous ‘best ever’ eating experience).
This incredibly difficult to find restaurant down a little alleyway was finally found, our booking for 10 acknowledged and the first 7 of us shown to our table two floors up. But where are the 3 amigos? Turns out Don and the boys were downstairs being refused entry, while upstairs we were being roundly ignored by the two staff, who were completely flummoxed by an incomplete table. Eventually Don used his mobile phone to call down a rescue party!
Next Peter orders some cava to start the meal, and asks for a bottle of red wine to be opened in anticipation… waiter rushes around apparently trying to find 10 flutes for the cava, then puts out the red wine glasses, asks Peter to taste the red and shares it out between the other 9 wine glasses – failing to top Peter’s glass up, or to pour the cava at all!
And oh my, when the next bottle of red was something different… clearly he knew he was meant to bring new glasses (but no one had told him to take the old ones away).
Eventually, you could barely see the table for the array of empty glassware! At which point, we formed a chain-gang, passing empty glasses along to Peter who was sitting close enough to an empty side table to arrange them there! The waiters watched us clear the table without intervening.
And inexplicably, having billed themselves as a restaurant specialising in rice dishes, and indeed, with a full page of different paellas and another of risottos on the menu… Sorry, we can only do 2 rice dishes per table. Those who want rice have to agree on two of the many options, which can be served in as many portions as required. Weird! Fortunately at that point most of our table opted for something else, while Kevin, Peter and I selected two different paellas, neither if which, I have to say, were particularly spectacular.
Lesson 3. You should always make space for the degustation menu. Sorry Rob, we really should have had that menu at Nu… Don’t know what I was thinking! Thankfully the waiter persuaded us to order many dishes anyway for all to share, and it has to be said, the food was spectacular, and the service outstanding. As it turned out we did try 6 of the 11 dishes on that night’s degustation – including the interesting guacamole with lime ice cream, and the outstanding salt baked foie gras with cookies and banana ice cream. At Nu, ice cream is not (necessarily) a dessert (maybe that should be lesson 4). Highlight of the night, I think we all agreed, was the scallops, Iberian pork and ham parmentier. As I write this (sitting in Jordan) I’m tempted to head out into the hills to hunt down a wild pig!
Lesson 4. It takes leadership to effect a group decision. At the aforementioned LLevetaps, when we finally returned after they’d finished mopping the floors, I’m slightly embarrassed (but unrepentant) to say I may have forced the whole table into the degustation menu…
(Image from restaurant website)
On the basis that we could only do it if everyone did it, and the alternative, guys, is to wade your way through this Spanish menu and decide for yourself what you’re goin to eat (and by the way, if we take the matched wine options, we don’t even need to worry about what we’re going to drink either). Billed as the best tapas restaurant in Girona, they did not disappoint, with amazing food and the equivalent of the “bottomless pot” when it came to the matched wines. Highlights of the 8 course meal – the octopus? the pork? the amazing lemon verbena dessert… Too hard, I’ll let you peruse the menu and decide, though for me the octopus was a revelation – giant rounds of tentacle, akin to pork fillet, perfectly cooked with a richness of flavour that trumped all else.
And so to San Sebastián, with its amazing pintxos, its ancient cidery where we literally pigged out on a set end with a truly giant T-bone steak as one of several full meals on a plate all seven in succession, with encouragement to visit the barrel room frequently for a refill of cider – every barrel different, try them all! (Not that we did!)
Mugaritz was, as I said, the crowing glory – the primary purpose of our 600km road trip across the top of Spain. A half-hour taxi ride up into the hills delivered us to an airy room, minimally decorated tables set with white cloths and an artfully arranged broken white plate on each. They checked (again) whether we had any food ‘issues’ … ‘Only one’, said Peter, ‘we don’t like bad food’.
Unlike our last “top restaurants of the world” adventure to Osteria Francescana in Modena, which was positively snooty, Mugaritz was friendly, welcoming – ‘we want you to have fun with the food’, out waiter encouraging us to eat with our fingers – cutlery only provided when absolutely necessary.
Over the next 3 1/2 hours, 25 small bites followed, each perfectly presented, almost too beautiful to eat. Some were amazing, some interesting, and only one really weird – the final dessert course of a tiny Michelin Man marshmallow, which was deliciously light, floating in a white broth described as “oxidised wine” which was frankly an assault on the taste buds. Top picks were hard to agree on… For me, the scallops with veal tendon and lemon – the tendon thinly stretched over the scallop in its shell, adding riches which was beautifully cut by the lemon dressing. I was pleased there were two each! The roast garlic which concentrated lamb broth – lamb’y garlic rather than garlicky lamb was amazing…
And just when we thought it was over, the tower of the seven deadly sins arrived on the table. Taking off the first lid, we found pride – three hollow shells of gold plated chocolate, followed by envy – one choc only, leaving the rest envious, and so it continued.
It was also fascinating to watch the other tables having not quite the same things – perhaps they had specified food foibles – and to visit the kitchen to see the lists for each table being efficiently crossed off as courses were delivered one by one. A truly extravagant indulgence, a real foodie experience, and yes, we definitely had fun! Even the slightly hair raising ride back down to the coast in a taxi with limited braking function was part of the adventure!
A week later, as I faced yet another blander than bland meal of “Jordanian specialty”, I thought it was probably just as well that we ended our holiday with lots of exercise and less tempting food. After all, life’s all about balance – and I can’t wait to start experimenting with more not-Spanish flavours when we get home!