Bulli for Cadaques

A pretty fish­ing vil­lage on the Costa Brava is lay­ing claim to Spain’s most talked-about cui­sine

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - LAURA GOULDEN LAURA GOULDEN THE TIMES

‘‘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

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