GIRONA, Spain — For serious foodies who enjoy the sport of chasing the toughest reservations, El Celler de Can Roca is the new biggest get. It’s been that way since April, when the restaurant in this city 70 miles northeast of Barcelona was named the world’s best on the annual San Pellegrino list published by Restaurant Magazine.
The three Roca brothers run the restaurant. The oldest, Joan, is the head chef. Josep runs the front of the house and wine operations. Jordi, the youngest, is the pastry chef. The brothers opened the restaurant in 1986 next to their parents’ bar, but relocated it in 2007 to a nearby custom-built structure. With its natural woods and white walls and upholstery, the new space could be mistaken for a luxurious spa in California wine country.
While the restaurant is often compared to elBulli, where Joan worked in the kitchen in the late 1980s, Josep says it is actually quite different. He explains, through an assistant translating his Catalan, that he and his brothers are focused on “Mediterranean cuisine that reflects the values, flavors, and traditions of the country,” which were instilled in them at a young age. “We were very young when we started playing in our mother’s kitchen and we are still playing in our own kitchen,” he says. “We don’t want to stop playing.”
That explains why these modern-day alchemists turn cacao butter into mind-bending earthy truffles, serve up caramelized olives on bonsai olive trees, and take a local dish like red mullet served with a suquet de peix, a simple Catalan fisherman’s stew, and elevate it far past its humble roots into the sublime. The “milk desserts” use a local sheep’s milk cheese, transforming it into ice cream, tangy milk-curd cheese foam, and a sheep’s milk yogurt and milk cloud, balancing the richness with guava ice. White cotton candy represents the sheep’s wool, and the porcelain bowl, when tapped, clangs like a sheep’s bell.