Pilgrimage to a culinary carnival

Jordi Roca, a dessert chef at  Spanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca makes cotton candy for a dish while visiting Sydney.
Jordi Roca, a dessert chef at Spanish restaurant El Celler de Can Roca makes cotton candy for a dish while visiting Sydney. Photo: Marco Del Grande

IT IS not a stellar start to a day spent consuming food from four of the world's leading chefs. Instead of arriving for lunch at a restaurant rated the second-best on the planet, we are in a cabbage patch.

Our red Honda had hurtled at 150km/h in a rocket-straight trajectory from Barcelona towards the French border. We had punched the restaurant's name, El Celler de Can Roca, into the GPS and it had jauntily pointed the way.

But here we are on a patch of dirt attached to a town named Girona, inland from the glinting Costa Brava. It's the right town, at least. Contemplating unkempt crops, we wonder whether it was a good idea to have crossed the world and made this pilgrimage to what Restaurant magazine (in its rating of the world's top 50 restaurants) describes as ''possibly the least well-known restaurant to have ever held the much-vaunted No.2 spot''.

Doubts are not allayed even once we find El Celler (I run into a cafe and ask directions in kindergarten Spanish). We pull up in front of an oblong wooden edifice, like a rustic wine crate with windows. Reception staff perfunctorily greet and seat us at a table next to a glassed internal courtyard planted with youthful poplars. Waiters stride robotically past us without smiling and barely blinking. Two glasses of cava land at our elbows. But we don't want cava, we need water and someone to explain how this works.

Frankly, it's all a bit daunting. Spain has been at the vanguard of international cuisine thanks largely to the madcap efforts of Ferran Adria, who changed the way chefs cook with his radical, experimental approach to food, dubbed molecular gastronomy. His restaurant, elBulli, was anointed the world's best for four years until he closed it this year (he has recently opened a tapas bar in Barcelona; more on this later), handing top honours to Noma in Copenhagen.

El Celler de Can Roca, in the same region of Catalonia as elBulli was, is now the flag-bearer for the decade-long rise of modern Spanish cuisine. But we can't seem to attract anyone's attention.

Finally, our waiter arrives with a blessed hint of Spanish humour in his eyes. In his wake comes a menu, a wine list in three thick volumes (ferried in a magazine rack on wheels) and tall glasses of water. Swiftly and greedily we choose a 14-course degustation, with matching wines. We could have opted for a nine-course or a six-course degustation, or just several dishes from the a la carte menu, or any permutation and combination of listed dishes. But it's my first time in a three-Michelin-starred restaurant and, at $250 a head (for eight amuse bouches, 14 courses and at least 12 glasses of wine), it is cheaper than many of Australia's best restaurants, so it seems only right to get into this culinary boat and push it out.

With the tide in, the day's fortunes having turned, we relax and take in more of the surrounds, particularly a cluster of three rocks on the virginal-white table linen. These rocks (rocas in Spanish) symbolise the three Roca brothers who own and run this place. The eldest is Joan, the chef, who started shaking the pans in his parents' restaurant when he was 11 years old.

The second brother is Josep, who is the restaurant manager and head sommelier. His cellar, adjoining the dining room, is stacked with 40,000 wines, housed in rooms according to their region. The youngest brother, Jordi, is the pastry chef with a penchant for creating desserts based on perfumes such as Calvin Klein's Eternity and Dior's Hypnotic Poison. The Roca brothers command a team of 14 waiters and 30 kitchen staff working to feed 50 diners, at lunch and dinner sittings.

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Their parents opened El Restaurant de Can Roca in 1967 - more working-class than molecular gastronomic - and after studying at Girona Catering School, the boys opened El Celler next door in 1986. Four years ago, they moved into the purpose-built restaurant. The kitchen is housed in a gracious vine- and shutter-clad villa, and the restaurant is in a minimalist, modern timber structure jutting from one side.

Joan's food has evolved as dramatically as the restaurant's surrounds, from roots in traditional Catalan cuisine taught to him by his mother and grandmother (a diverse cuisine that draws from the bounty of the Mediterranean to basic ingredients such as tomato, garlic, capsicum and, of course, pork) to dishes that push creative, technical and textural boundaries. Although he uses modern, lab-like techniques to concoct his food, his aim is not to create bizarre new taste sensations but to enhance the flavours of the basic ingredients.

To begin the meal, we are each presented with a bonsai olive tree. Hanging from its tiny branches are caramelised olives stuffed with anchovies. It is gorgeous and fun.

Then comes a Campari bonbon - an ice-cold sugar sphere that bursts in the mouth to release a Campari cocktail. Then a brioche ball filled with creamy truffle paste. We have not yet properly begun the degustation.

Most of the dishes - such as quenelles of olive sorbet with melon and cucumber, chartreuse, eucalyptus and green shiso; and velvety lamb fillets with tiny, earthy wood-pigeon livers, caramelised hazelnuts and juniper berries; and a milk cloud resting upon a sheep's-milk curd foam and milk caramel - if eaten alone would have left us dazzled. To consume 14 such dishes at a sitting (we retired to a sun-dappled courtyard halfway through) confirms this an experience we will remember for the rest of our lives.

Seven hours after arriving, we return to Barcelona. It is our final night there and our only chance to eat at Ferran Adria's new venture, Tickets. Our hotel concierge laughs when we ask for directions. ''You'll never get in,'' he says.

We turn up and miraculously the queue on the red carpet out the front is tiny. The man who changed world food is running a tapas bar with a circus/carnival theme (some sort of comment on the world food scene?). We explain to the ''ringmaster'' at the ticket-booth entry that we have come from Australia and were unsuccessful booking online, so could we please have a drink at the adjoining bar, 41°? He disappears and finally returns to say we can eat at Tickets if we like. Astonished, we sit in front of a wall of gold Chinese waving cats, sardine cans and a plasma TV screening nature shows.

There are five chef stations, canopied with red-and-white-striped circus canvas and strings of light bulbs. The food is similarly crazy and fun - ''air baguette'', a crisp, empty crust filled with Iberico (a prized breed of black pig) ham; a mini-burger with wafer slices of roasted pork; and ''cotton-candy tree'', a fairy-floss cloud studded with fruit and elBulli essences. It is childishly delicious without being earth-shattering. But, to my eternal regret, I'm really too full to eat anyway.

El Celler de Can Roca

Can Sunyer, 48, Girona.

Phone +34 972 222 157

cellercanroca.com

email: restaurant@cellercanroca.com

Ardyn Bernoth emailed six weeks before her visit and had a confirmed reservation within two days.