Bulli for Cadaques
A pretty fishing village on the Costa Brava is laying claim to Spain’s most talked-about cuisine
‘‘WE’D like the hazelnut coolant, please.’’ Our waiter gives my cousin Georgie and mea motherly look of concern, saying: ‘‘It’s the heaviest dessert we do, and it takes nine minutes.’’
‘‘We’ll have it,’’ Georgie replies firmly, adding: ‘ ‘ We need nine minutes.’’
We’ve already polished off two puddings, but haven’t been able to put to rest thoughts of warm hazelnut sauce oozing into frosty peach sorbet; and if we don’t try it we’ll be wondering what it would have tasted like all the way back to the airport tomorrow.
After all, we’ve only really come here to eat. The Costa Brava, home of the beachside high-rise and T- shirt tan, is now, incongruously, laying claim to the fanciest food in Spain. It all started with the illustrious El Bulli, in the mountains above the resort town of Roses. By the time it closed last year, it had been voted best restaurant in the world a record five times. (You don’t say head chef Ferran Adria’s name in these parts — you whisper it.)
Since Adria hung up his apron, nearby Michelin mecca Girona has been filling the gap: it has 14 starred restaurants, the most famous of which, El Celler de Can Roca, came second in Restaurant magazine’s list of the world’s 50 best establishments this year.
So far, so impressive. The problem with restaurants of this sort, however, is that they’re expensive, prohibitively so: dinner at El Celler costs ($209) a head. What’s more, you need to book six months in advance; El Bulli was so popular, it resorted to a lottery system. Compartir, the latest opening from the El Bulli family, is in Cadaques, a pretty fishing village on the quiet Cap de Creus, a drive of about 90 minutes from Girona and decades away from the package-holiday patch of coastline further south.
The restaurant has nothing to do with Adria. It’s the brainchild of three of his right- hand men, Eduard Xatruch, Oriol Castro and Mateu Casanas, whohave decided to mix things up. Compartir is informal (we could book a table within a week) and affordable (dishes start at My cousin’s upcoming birthday is the perfect excuse to splash out on a trip to the Spanish seaside and a dinner worthy of souvenir food photos.
We plan the entire weekend around meals, warming up with regular morsels of tapas and jugs of sangria before visiting Compartir on our final night. If the drive from the airport is anything to go by, the area is going to be a pretty place in which to dine. We swing upward, around looping bends into the mountains, past sugarcube villages that seem to have tumbled down the slopes and landed in a heap in a hollow. The evening sun turns the crescent of Costa Brava coast behind us to silver foil; ahead, curls of flowing white cloud snag on the peaks.
We’ve booked one of the four little self- catering apartments above Compartir, which cost a purse-pleasing a night. Ours is simply whitewashed, with cobalt trimmings, perfectly in keeping with Cadaques’s Santorini-style blue-and-white colour Tapac 24, Barcelona This tapas bar has a blackboardy market aesthetic but is overseen by Carles Abellan, who also runs the Michelin-starred Comerc 24. Don’t fear the bill as you fill your table with ribbons of divine ham, textbook croquetas, fried rabbit ribs and sardine escabeche. And don’t stop before pudding — the three curls of chocolate mousse sprinkled with chunky salt and scheme. As soon as we’ve unpacked, we are out for our first feed, but the sunset stops us in our tracks, its pink highlighter scribbles bouncing off the dark bay.
We linger until the smell of garlic leads us down a cobbled side street to dinner at cave-like La Sirena.
The massive mussels and salty sea bream are fairly priced and served to stylish Spanish regulars and out-of-towners. (The French olive oil are so good, the dish is also served at Comerc 24. Tapas dishes from ($3) to j8. More: carlesabellan.com. Restaurant Raff, Cuenca, Castilla la Mancha Another El Bulli graduate, Jose Ignacio Herraiz Gil, is behind this minimalist restaurant in medieval Cuenca, southeast of Madrid. Traditional food from the La Mancha region is served at a Japanese-style, U-shaped bar, with an open kitchen. Gil likes to lighten local dishes, so a deer stew or Iberico loin won’t knock you for six. Set menus border is just 45 minutes away.) Until the El Bulli chefs showed up, Cadaques was best known for a famous former resident — blackand-white snaps of Salvador Dali decorate most of the cafes in town. His house in the bay of Port Lligat, a 20-minute walk away, is the area’s only must-see.
Next morning, we negotiate the steep roads and vicious, falland-you’ll-crack-a-kneecap cobbles after digesting a patisserie from j30, mains around j13. More: restauranteraff.es. El Lagar de Isilla, Aranda de Duero, near Burgos In the big cities, a full-bodied red from the Ribera del Duero region is the tipple of choice for washing down tapas. Trace the grapes to the town of Aranda de Duero, where this underground bodega serves hundreds of bottles and roasts milk-fed baby lamb in a brick oven. You’ll pay
for sopa castellana (garlic soup), roast lamb, dessert, coffee and half a bottle of wine. Mains around j15. More: lagarisilla.es. breakfast of custard doughnuts the size of rubber buoys. Dali’s sprawling home is nearly as mindbending as his paintings, with stuffed swans, a penis-shaped pool and plenty of mesmerising homages to his wife and muse, Gala. But it’s the views framed in his oversized windows that are most distracting — pristine fishing boats in the circular bay, placed as if he’d painted them there.
Taking a lead from its La Cuchara de San Telmo, San Sebastian The Basque city can be expensive, but this corker of a spot is not. Although tucked away, it’s always clogged with sous-chefs from the serious restaurants nearby, who take their places at the bar to fill up on perfect pintxos (Basque tapas), good wine and the vibe. Order from the blackboard: seared foie gras with apple compote, creamy risotto and duck pate are wise choices. Tapas dishes from j2.55 to j6. More: lacucharadesantelmo.com.
arty patron, Cadaques has a good handful of forward-thinking galleries hidden down impossibly perfect alleyways, where the washing draped over balconies matches the shades of the woodwork and the blooms of pot plants. We poke our noses into a couple — Marges-U and Galeria d’Art Patrick J. Domken — then, culture ticked off, get back to our main schedule. Lunch is chunks of bread smeared with olive oil and tomato at waterside Es Cau, and nutty ice creams on the beach, where a couple of toddlers tentatively dip toes into the water.
Should you feel the need to combat the kilojoules, there are plenty of lovely ambles to secluded beaches and lonely bike rides to weird, wind-whipped rock formations. We choose to nap our way towards hunger on the pebbles instead.
Considering the calibre of the chefs, Compartir has opened with a remarkable lack of fanfare. There’s no mention of the three men or of El Bulli on the restaurant’s website.
‘‘I can tell you what they don’t want — they don’t want it to be the next El Bulli,’’ Mark Llach, head chef in training, explains as we take our seats excitedly.
Despite their efforts, word seems to be getting around. It’s two weeks after its April opening and the place is packed, with dropin diners being turned away. Those who have bagged a table take up positions in the jasminescented courtyard, dressed in linen shirts and smart jeans, talking a couple of decibels too loudly (something to do with the complimentary peach mousse cocktails and wine at a bottle). All the while, plates are passed across tables — the smallish dishes are designed for sharing. The food doesn’t have the razzamatazz of El Bulli ( there are no gorgonzola balloons on the menu), but Compartir is friendlier and, as Llach tells us, we’re not supposed to be comparing.
Even so, I notice a chef charged purely with making things look pretty — fashioning arty swirls of sauce and sprinkling deliciouslooking dust. Things kick off with a creamy tomato and strawberry salad, smothered in basil oil and parmesan, followed by truffled anchovies, razor clams laced with lemon and balanced on pebbles, chicken doused in heady Catalan spices and oysters swimming in a suquet sauce that tastes like a warm sea breeze.
And this is all before the hazelnut pud. Everything is light, fresh and delicious, and our bill comes to each.
Later, after we’ve staggered upstairs and fallen asleep to the ribbit of frogs and muffled chatter from below, I wake to faint groans from Georgie’s side of the room. Suddenly, she leaps up and races to the bathroom. I’m not sure what is to blame: that third pudding, or the second bottle of wine (or the pre- dinner boquerones and sangria by the bay). But next morning, as we select supplies in Spar for an airport picnic, I can tell that she doesn’t regret a thing. compartircadaques.com salvador-dali.org theworlds50best.com
Eduard Xatruch, Mateu Casanas and Oriol Castro, the three El Bulli chefs who have set up Compartir restaurant in Cadaques
Simple, rustic elegance at the affordable Compartir
The restaurant’s dishes are designed for sharing