Jason Atherton, chef-director of London's Maze restaurant, has always had a hunger for food knowledge. He reports on his most recent trip, to Barcelona
I like to travel to different food destinations at least two or three times a year, and always end up with a full itinerary of lunches followed by dinners. I tend to base each trip around one particular restaurant or chef, and when it came to my recent trip to Barcelona, I decided to focus on Restaurant Sant Pau, run by the newly crowned queen of Spanish cuisine, Carme Ruscalleda.
Located in Sant Pol de Mar, about 20 miles along the coast from the city, the restaurant was awarded three-Michelin-star status in 2005. Ruscalleda is also the owner of Sant Pau in Tokyo and the author of several cookbooks.
On reaching Barcelona, my wife, Irha, and I dropped our bags at the Marriott and headed straight out for lunch at the legendary Cal Pep. This has been a long-standing favourite of mine and is a must-visit place if you are in Barcelona. As always, the food was superb - a real lesson in simplicity - everything from fried artichokes to salmonettes and hams, which we washed down with some wonderful local wine. The queues for this place are massive and well-deserved, just like Sam and Eddie Hart's Barrafina back in London, which equally deserves its streams of customers.
After lunch we went for a stroll around La Boqueria market, which is just round the corner from Cal Pep in Las Ramblas. I love this market, as it's such a celebration of food. You see everything there: families doing their shopping, tourists taking pictures, and food lovers like me from around the globe. After buying some things to take home, we headed back to the hotel to change, as we were having dinner with the Roca brothers at their new restaurant, Moo, which has just been awarded a Michelin star.
We arrived at the ultra-chic Omm hotel at 9.30pm, and the restaurant was empty. But then, we were in Spain - by 11pm the place was full. The concept of the restaurant is very similar to my restaurant, Maze: all the dishes are tasting portions, and you are advised to eat four savoury plates and one dessert. But because we were still full from lunch we limited ourselves to three savoury.
To start I had a pigeon carpaccio with beet salad and smoked vinaigrette. The dish came to the table with a glass cloche, and you couldn't see the food, as the cloche was full of smoke. When the waiter lifted it, the air filled with an amazing smell of smoke. Although this was very clever, the actual dish was bland and the pigeon sliced too thick, so the texture and flavours seemed out of balance to me. A big lesson to be learnt about the wow factor is that it's no good unless the actual dish tastes amazing.
Next came cigalas - Spanish baby lobster - which was served with fennel purée and scented with curry. This was simple but delicious and relied on quality ingredients. It was followed by lamb with peppers (the sweet confit Spanish ones), which was again simple but very good.
For dessert I ordered Roca's famous signature dish: Trip to Havana. It is a chocolate cylinder filled with tobacco ice-cream, real charcoal ash, mint granité and lime jelly. While it was well made, for me the ash was too much, and it overpowered everything else - but I'm an anti-smoker anyway, so maybe I'm not doing the dish justice. However, we made our way home after a very good evening, completely full and needing some Rennies.
We headed out early the next morning, as we needed to get to Sant Pol de Mar by midday. We went by train, which is a pleasant journey along the Costa Brava, and when we arrived at the town we were surprised to find how tiny it was. It always amazes me that when I travel to some of the world's best restaurants they are in such small villages. How they support themselves is truly mind-boggling.
We arrived too early for our booking, so relaxed in a café - the café con leche in Spain is always so good. At the restaurant, we were welcomed at the door by the maître d', shown to a table overlooking the sea and presented with menus. We ordered the tasting menu of the month. I have eaten in enough restaurants at this level to know at this stage if this is going to be an amazing experience, and what followed was quite simply one the best meals I have ever eaten. From the service, to the setting, to the cuisine, it was mind-blowing.
The first courses at Sant Pau are labelled as "micro menus", which consist of three tapas dishes: local olive purée with bread local soft ewes' cheese and dried fruits and baby squid and peas with shallot confit - all very high quality.
Next was "marine curd and wild flowers" - a jelly wrapped around lobster mousse and a salad of herbs and flowers - which was very good. Then came "zero egg logical" - a deep-fried egg wrapped in potato and served with a mushroom purée. This was the only dish that didn't blow me away, but it was still very tasty.
Smoked for 10 seconds
This was followed by sea bass smoked for 10 seconds and served with ketchup. This was amazing, as the bass was smoked in maple wood, which was still on the fish when it arrived at the table. They plate it at the table, adding the ketchup and serving it with baby vegetables at the last minute. This was a well-balanced and very clever dish.
For main course we had "cannelloni of veal deconstructed", so the meat was used as the pasta and pasta was draped over the top, and the sauce was inside the meat. It was an inspired dish and extremely tasty. The cheese course was five cheeses from the region served with different fruit textures.
Value for money
Back in Barcelona that night, we went to Ferran and Albert AdriÁ 's new tapas bar, Inopia, which was extremely full and everything a place like this should be: trendy, relaxed and good value for money. We found a place at the end of the bar and sat down with all the locals, had a beer and some very good tapas. The patatas bravas were simply the best I have ever tasted. We also had slow-cooked cod and spicy smoked chorizo, as well as a wonderful deep-fried pork dish. At this point we were defeated, so made our way home full but extremely happy.
The next day we went around Barcelona shopping and walking off our food. We visited Oriol Balaguer's famous chocolate shop, which was very simple but the chocolates were amazing. We brought back four boxes of mixed flavours for my brigade to try, including wasabi, saffron, salt and caramel - all of which were superb.
This was a truly memorable trip and completely inspiring. I encourage chefs of all levels to find time to make similar trips abroad.
The Sant Pau story
Carme Ruscalleda's stunning seaview restaurant, Sant Pau, opened in 1988 on the site of a former hostel in the small town of Sant Pol de Mar just up the coast from Barcelona.
She and Antoni Balam began working together in RamÁ³n Ruscalleda's family business - a delicatessen selling mainly home-made produce - before getting married in 1975.
The couple then opened the 35-seat Restaurant Sant Pau, following Ruscalleda's philosophy of constantly improving and working with enthusiasm. Her cooking draws its inspiration from seasonal produce and reworking Catalan culinary traditions.
The restaurant opened with a much simpler menu than that on offer today, but Ruscalleda has always bought most of her produce from the local Maresme region.
In April 2004 the couple opened the new Sant Pau restaurant in the Japanese capital, Tokyo. The restaurant, which is run by original Sant Pol de Mar staff Jerome Quilbeuf (executive chef) and Rie Yasui (executive director), also offers a more informal wine bar with tapas.
The couple's two children, RaÁºl and Mercè, have also now joined the 32-strong team at the original Sant Pau restaurant.
Dishes include boneless stargazer fish in a broth made from its bones with vegetable julienne and strawberry salmis consommé of squid and duck with courgette flowers, beans and squid ink and stuffed boneless whole pigeon with cherry leaves and sour cherries.
Desserts are very elaborate and include El Chiringuito (rice with sangrÁa ice-cream, "citric sand" and green apple) and crunchy pistachio ice-cream with two chocolates, milk and cacao noodles and amaretto perfume.
- Sant Pau, Carrer Nou, 10, 08395 Sant Pol de Mar, Barcelona. Tel: 00 34 93 760 06 62
- Cal Pep, Placa de les Olles, 8. Barcelona. Tel: 00 34 93 310 79 61
- Moo, Hotel Omm, 265, Calle RossellÁ³, 08008 Barcelona. Tel: 00 34 93 445 40 00
- Inopia Classic Bar, C/Tamarit 104, Eixample Esquerra, Barcelona. Tel: 00 34 93 424 52 31
- Oriol Balaguer, Plaza Sant Gregori, Taumaturg, 2, 08021 Barcelona. Tel: 00 34 93 201 18 46