Reviews

07.17.2011

Carme Ruscalleda’s Sant Pau

“Are you going to El Bulli?” was the inevitable question that followed each time I told someone I was going to Spain. We looked into it, of course. Ferran Adrià is one of Spain’s national treasures, and his influence can be felt all over the world, not to mention all over Spain. For example, one night in Seville we found ourselves at a formal Spanish restaurant for which we had read excellent reviews online. After Sebastian accidentally ripped a soap dispenser out of the wall in the loo, the first course on the tasting menu arrived: Ajoblanco (an almond milk gazpacho). As the waiter approached our table, I could have sworn I heard a sound emanating from my soup bowl. Indeed, when I leaned toward my soup, a chorus of crackling met my ear. I reluctantly tasted it, and sure enough, I felt little explosions on my tongue that reminded me of the Pop Rocks candy that we used to devour in recess when I was in the third grade at Spence. Sebastian asked the waiter, who confirmed that they had added Peta Zetas (Spanish name for Pop Rocks) candy to the soup. He said that the candies had no flavor (not true; they tasted of pineapple), and that the candy was only added for its texture and for “excitement.” The soup, which was refreshing and plenty textured with its delicious garnishes of minced garlic, chives, crushed grapes and black sesame seeds was ruined by the presence of the saccharine explosive candies.

What I heard in my soup bowl was really Ferran Adrià chuckling at what he has done to change the way we eat. We had the unexpected pleasure of staying with the Marquess and Marchesa of Alea on our arrival in Barcelona. At night we sat in the scented garden enveloped in jasmine and I asked the Marquess about his experience at El Bulli. His first reaction was the archetypal Spanish shrug (a little more animated than the Gallic version). He elaborated that for one course he was served with great ceremony an edible bubble filled with cigar smoke. Perhaps one has to experience it for oneself, but the idea of inhaling regurgitated cigar smoke seems most unappealing to me. If I wanted to inhale someone else’s cigar smoke, I would lock myself in a closet with my father. I don’t mind missing that and I like my olives round not square.

It was Sebastian who arranged for us to dine at Sant Pau, one of Spain’s other fine dining experiences. Chef Carme Ruscalleda started Sant Pau in her home town in 1988, and over the years it has acquired three Michelin stars and an outpost in Tokyo. While we were in Spain, The New York Times printed an article on the closing of El Bulli and the other stars of Spanish cuisine; Ruscalleda was lauded as a chef at the top of her game, who will garner even more attention as El Bulli’s doors are shuttered.

We drove at brake-neck speed down from Begur, in the Costa Brava, trying to get to the restaurant in time for our reservation. Finally we found the town but not the Restaurant. Each time we stopped to ask directions we were told the way, but more we were told from each person their own personal connection to Carme. Ex babysitters, dogwalkers, cousins of cousins abounded. What was clear—if not the way to the Restaurant—was that Carme Ruscelleda was an enormous source of pride to the people of Sant Pol.

On arrival, we were met with unanticipated formality. The dining room was hushed and if the other diners were enjoying their meals, it could not accurately be said that there was an ambiance of fun. Still we were undaunted. We ordered the tasting menu and a bottle of Spanish Rosé.

As an introduction, we were presented with four small appetizers from the June “Micro-Menu,” the most memorable of which was a crystal clear gelatinous cube with red berries (raspberry and tiny wild strawberry) sitting in a shallow pool of subtle vinaigrette. Not only was this amuse-bouche a beautiful object, but also it tasted pure, light and flavorful, and there is something about jellies that I find myself drawn to again and again. The exquisite vibrating creations at Bat’s nieces’ birthday parties and my grandmother’s tomato aspic make me jiggle with joy. In any event, I loved this pretty little thing that was served in a ceramic spoon. Next up, we had a pesto broth, which was superb. It had all the ingredients of a pesto—basil, Parmesan, walnuts, pine nuts, garlic, salt and pepper, but it had been strained so many times with water that it had the consistency of milk but the flavorful impact of pesto.

What followed was amusing and interesting. Beneath a miniature wooden art crate, an edible homage to Piet Mondrian lay shimmering. A layer of red, yellow and green pepper purées bordered by olive tapenade covered Brandada de bacalao below. The white parts of the “painting” were made with milk and the bacalao’s texture was made more interesting by the presence of raw almond slices.

 

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Sebastian is a Gazpacho addict and he has gradually gotten me hooked. As we travelled around Spain, we tasted every Gazpacho and Salmorejo we could find. (both Gazpacho and Salmorejo are made of tomatoes, cucumber, pepper, shallot, red wine vinegar, olive oil and traditionally have bread in them. Salmorejo originated in Andalusia, has more bread in it than Gazpacho and is traditionally served with hard boiled eggs and local ham). Chef Carme Ruscalleda’s take on Spain’s classic tomato-based soup is the “Tomato Velvet,” aptly named and unparalled. The disparate temperatures were what elevated this dish and what will stick in my memory. The liquid was cool but not cold; the Meresme king prawns were warm, buttery and so tenderly poached that they managed to be both supple and springy when bitten into; the two pillars of paper-thin sliced cucumber filled with chopped cherry tomatoes and cucumber were refreshingly cold. The different temperatures drew attention to the various elements and embellished each as well as the dish as a whole. Superb.

Sebastian thought that the next course of Vegetable ravioli and Joselito ham was exceptional—the best of the meal. I can’t say that I agree with him about it being the best, but it definitely was very good. The ham beautifully accompanied the puréed vegetables and held the dish together with the necessary saltiness that the sliced daikon, carrot, courgette and aubergine, though crisp and fresh, otherwise lacked. There was a lingering subtlety to this dish, and the treatment of the vegetables—carefully layered to encompass the liquid sweet pea center was artful, as were the dots of purée on each side.

While there were delicious elements to follow, the meal stalled here. While I loved the beet “balloon” containing beetroot vinaigrette, I didn’t like either the texture or flavor of the pork dewlap (dewlap is the fold of skin hanging below the neck in many vertebrae species). Rie Yasui, Ruscalleda’s poised, eloquent and masterful manager, deftly led us through our meal. When she brought out the next course of local Cleaver Wrasse, she also brought two un-cooked versions to whet our appetite. The rainbow shimmering beauty of the raw fish, with their orange and yellow-rimmed eyes, enchanted me. Unfortunately, though the fish were delicious and delicate fried with scales on, the curry that accompanied them tasted as if it was made simply with McCormick curry powder from the spice aisle of an A&P. It’s rather disappointing to travel to a three Michelin star restaurant in a tiny Spanish costal town to have curry that resembles my grandmother’s 1950s recipe (curry powder + Hellman’s mayonnaise = an exotic dip), especially when you’re paying through the tooth for it.

Truthfully I wasn’t in the mood for either of the choices for our meat course, but given all the time I’d spent tasting pork and ham on this trip, and since I had cavorted with Iberian pigs only a week before at Martín’s house in Ronda, I decided on the Pluma of Iberian Pork “Joselito.” It was, as Rie promised, exceptional. The dish as a whole was nothing compared to the preparation of this one ingredient and the quality of the meat itself. This meat, taken from a small area between the pig’s shoulder blades, was the tenderest pork that I have ever tasted, and in color and texture resembled that of highest quality beef. Sebastian’s Inside Out Cannelloni with chicken, pork and veal, was barely memorable.

What I like most about Sant Pau is its history. Chef Ruscalleda and her partner Antoni Balam are both native to the small Catalan beach town in which they opened their restaurant in 1988. I love that the restaurant has evolved organically from what I imagine to be an unpretentious restaurant where Ruscalleda strived for creativity, inspired by her Catalan origins and local produce and products. Just as Sant Pol is sandwiched between two unremarkable towns, it is a surprise to find the restaurant Sant Pau on a tiny street a block behind the train tracks and the sea. Ruscalleda’s passion, artistry and commitment to quality are evident throughout the dining experience, but to use Sebastian’s succinct word, the food was “overwrought” as often as it was excellent.

Sant Pau
Carrer Nou, 10
08395 Sant Pol de Mar
+34 93 760 06 62

I would just like to say thank you to my darling best friend Kate, without whom this meal might not have taken place, and without whom I would be very lonely indeed.

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One Response to “Carme Ruscalleda’s Sant Pau”

  1. Some of these preparations look amazing!
    Also, we can’t wait to go see the El Bulli film this weekend.

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