The city of Girona in northeastern Spain overwhelms your senses with beautiful scenery and some of the best food in the world. These days Girona seems to be best known for two things: as a filming location for HBO’s Game of Thrones and home to the famous Michelin three-star restaurant El Celler de Can Roca.
The city of Girona is the capital of the Catalan province of Girona. It is a popular daytrip from Barcelona, being just 62 miles northeast of Barcelona and about a 40 minute ride by train. The Onyar river flows through the city, dividing the modern commercial center on the left bank from the historic center on the right bank. The brightly colored houses looking over the river make up most of the images you will see of Girona, and I can’t resist adding one more.
Girona was founded by the Romans in the 1st century BC. The historic walled city is full of medieval architecture, which I imagine contributed to it being used as a major filming location in 2015 for season 6 of Game of Thrones, HBO’s medieval fantasy series that is filled with castles and dragons.
The Girona Cathedral played the role of the Great Sept of Baelor in Game of Thrones. Construction on the Girona Cathedral began in the 11th century and continued into the 13th century, with a second bell tower added in the 18th century. The massive staircase leading up to the Cathedral will be recognized by Throners as the setting for a pivotal scene with Jaime Lannister riding his horse up to the Great Sept in King’s Landing.
The city also provided some of the street scenes for the fictitious city of Braavos. Many of the scenes with the character Arya wandering the streets blind took place in the historic Jewish quarter. Girona has one of the most well preserved Jewish quarters in Europe, and every narrow street and staircase feels straight out of a Game of Thrones set.
We were amazed at how much of the defensive city wall is still standing. The original Roman wall of the old town was expanded during the 14th century. Missing parts of the medieval walls have been recently reconstructed and form a path called the Passeig de la Muralla. You can walk along the top of the wall around the east side of the city, taking in incredible views.
Our primary reason for this trip to Girona was for the food. Spain is known for its creative avant-garde chefs, with nine Michelin 3-star restaurants in the country. There are five restaurants in Girona with at least one Michelin star. The most well known is El Celler de Can Roca, currently rated the third best restaurant in the world according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. It takes about 12 months to get a table at El Celler de Can Roca, so we are fortunate to have good friends with forward thinking who made a lunch reservation over a year ago. At the time, El Celler de Can Roca had been rated number one for two of the past three years.
We had arrived in Girona the day before our El Celler de Can Roca lunch reservation. After a day of traveling, followed by walking miles touring the city, we wanted a quiet little restaurant to chill with some wine and a few small plates for dinner. Vintages was perfect. This small, quaint restaurant is located on Carrer de la Cort Reial in the middle of the old town. They claim over 150 wines and offered about half dozen nice selections by the glass. They may not have Michelin recognition, but the food really blew us away. The menu consisted of about a dozen creative dishes between €9 and €14, as well as a few specials for the day. What I loved most was that our server, Ramon, was the owner and chef. When he described the way that he had prepared the dishes, I felt like he made them just for us.
We started with the homemade pâté of pork and raisins. Ramon said that he used livers from rabbits. An interested choice, I thought, and after a bit of research I discovered that rabbit liver is sweeter and more delicate than the usual poultry liver. It made for a very flavorful pâté that went wonderfully with the white wine from Rioja that we were drinking. Next we had paper thin raviolis stuffed with a very flavorful sausage called botifarra, a very traditional Catalan pork sausage. The pumpkin cream was a nice contrast to the sausage.
Our final plate was Pig’s foot stuffed with duck confit. Seriously, rich duck confit surrounded by the gelatinous luxury of pig’s foot, all wrapped in crispy pastry and drizzled with a deep dark wild mushroom sauce. Our taste buds were about to explode. Thank goodness we had a glass of Syrah from Navarra to cut through the decadence.
El Celler de Can Roca
The Michelin guide defines a three star restaurant as having exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey. People travel to Girona from all over the world specifically to eat at this restaurant. El Celler de Can Roca is headed by three brothers that are each considered a master of their specialty. Oldest brother Joan Roca is the head chef, Josep Roca is sommelier, and youngest brother Jordi Roca is the pastry chef. They opened their restaurant in 1986 next to the restaurant run by their parents since 1967 called Can Roca.
The Roca brothers received their first Michelin star in 1995, followed by a second in 2002. They moved into a new building specifically designed for the restaurant in 2007, where they earned that magical third star in 2009. After that came more accolades – in 2011 El Celler de Can Roca was ranked #2 by The World’s Best Restaurants, a list produced by the British magazine Restaurant. It took #1 in 2013 and again in 2015. It is currently ranked #3.
El Celler de Can Roca is known for its avant-garde cuisine using experimental methods with traditional Catalan ingredients. Eating at a restaurant of this caliber was not something we had planned on before this opportunity. It was preceded by months of anticipation and a bit of anxiety over whether the meal could possibly meet our high expectations.
When the big day arrived, our group of eight friends was greeted outside in the courtyard of the restaurant, where we enjoyed glasses of El Celler De Can Roca Cava, a Brut Reserva by Albet i Noya made exclusively for the restaurant.
We were then led to a private dining room that was bright and understated, with glass walls looking out into the gardens. We never saw the main dining room. Since we were all friends, it was nice to have the personal space but we couldn’t help wondering what was going on in the rest of the restaurant. We did get a chance to tour one of the kitchens, were chefs were busy working on prep for the upcoming service.
Our meals had been ordered in advance. There are two tasting menus to choose from: the 7-course Classics menu for €180 and the 14-course Festival menu for €205. Since this might be a once a lifetime experience, we went all out with the Festival menu.
The cava flowed freely throughout a series of creatively presented amuse bouches. There were approximately 16 of these little bites, each a single complex mouthful. Highlights included a cardboard cutout reminiscent of the brother’s childhood in the family bar Can Roca, the little tables set with a medley of tiny snacks like breaded squid, meat cannelloni and a Campari bonbon.
One of the most memorable flavors came from an olive tree hung with “olives” made of green olive ice cream flavored with anchovy – a delightful take on a common Spanish bar snack. The amuse bouches were visually interesting and interactive. Some exploded in mouth, flooding your taste buds with a profusion of flavor. We were definitely entertained. However, we still had 14 courses with wine pairings to go.
The dishes that followed ran through the full spectrum of edible animals. You name it – bivalve, crustacean, cephalopod, fish, poultry, pig, lamb – it was on there. The only vegetarian dish was a green chickpea hummus composed from a consommé of chickpeas sprinkled with hummus powder.
Some of the dishes were memorable because of their pure deliciousness. Prawn marinated with rice vinegar was luscious with an intense sauce made from the head juices of the prawn and the legs fried crispy.
My personal favorite was the squab civet, a perfectly cooked slice of baby pigeon that was unbelievably tender and sumptuous.
Other dishes will be remembered for the curiousity that they stirred. Charcoal grilled lamb consommé presented lamb’s tongue, brain, and tripe served separately alongside a cup of rich broth (not pictured). In another adventure for the senses, a dessert adapted from Lancome’s Miracle fragrance challenged you to associate flavors with the perfume’s aromas.
A few dishes inspired love/hate reactions around the table, like the strongly flavored mackerel served with tempeh beans fermented for four different amounts of time. No worries though – lovers were happy to scarf up the mackerel left behind by the haters.
The finale was just plain beautiful. A glowing golden orb called “Orange Colourology” that broke open with the tap of a spoon to expose ice cream pearls and flowers.
Each of the fourteen courses was paired with a wine. We had lengthy discussions beforehand on how to go about the wine and ultimately decided to go with the pairing at €90 per person. A hefty price, but when faced with choosing bottles from a three volume wine list of about 2,800 bottles at the last minute (the wine list was not available to view in advance) it seemed like the best option.
The wines served were fabulous and well matched to the individual courses, but we would like to have had more time with each wine. The sommelier presented and described each wine while the dishes were being served. She poured the wine around the table, we estimate about 1.5 ounce pours each, and then whisked the bottle away to a different room. Completely understandable considering that she had multiple tables to serve. However, by the time we had a chance to analyze the wine on its own, and then have a taste with the food, the glasses were empty. Requesting another taste required sending someone for the sommelier, which was clearly discouraged. This was our one disappointment.
So was it worth it? That is a difficult question and the answer will be different for everyone. I think it depends on your expectations. If you are looking for a big satisfying meal, then this might leave you disappointed and wondering what you spent your money on. But if you approach a meal like this as a work of art or a Broadway performance, then the $600 price tag for two would have been worth it.
I’m absolutely delighted to have had the chance to dine at El Celler de Can Roca. Other members of our group that are veterans of 3-star restaurants felt that this was the best tasting menu they have experienced. On the other hand, I’ll remember the taste of that pig’s foot stuffed with duck confit from Vintages for a long time. Thanks Ramon.