Katie Button met her husband and earned her chef stripes on the seafood-rich Costa Brava. Discover her favorite haunts along this insider tour
Falling in love with Spain’s stunning Costa Brava
THERE ARE TIMES WHEN you feel your life about to change. For me, it was at a little restaurant called Rafa’s on the Spanish coast, when I took my first bite ever of espardenya de mar.
Seared on a plancha (a cast-iron griddle) with a little bit of olive oil, the dish—the closest translation is “sea cucumber”—had a flavor so mild, a texture so poised between chewy and tender, that it made that ephemeral promise of umami suddenly as real as the simple white platter in front of me. Next: tellarinas, the tiny purplish bivalves that reminded me instantly of the coquina clams I used to dig up as a little girl on the beaches of South Carolina. I scraped the delicate meat with my teeth like I was eating sunflower seeds, and built a colorful mound of their tiny shells.
I was enchanted with my meal and with the man sitting across from me, and ready to embrace all of it in a very big way.
THOSE LUCKY ENOUGH to spend time on the Costa Brava in Spain know that it is deeply romantic—the romance feels baked in like the saffron in paella. Translated as “rugged coast,” this stretch of northeastern Spain runs 132 miles from Barcelona to the French border and is marked by small villages filled with whitewashed buildings and terra-cotta roofs, tiny beaches called calas that often lie hidden from view, and incredible food. The Costa Brava was also home, for a time, to elBulli—widely considered the best restaurant in the world. Aspiring to make my own mark in the culinary world, I’d landed a sixmonth apprenticeship in 2008 at the restaurant, located in a Costa Brava town called Roses. While there, I fell deeply in love with a Roses native and elBulli colleague, Félix Meana; with Spain; and with its marvelous food.
The flavors of the Costa Brava are of both the sea and the mountains. The Mediterranean announces itself in dishes like rockfish, anchovies, and, yes, sea cucumbers. From the land come meats crafted into cured perfection and cheeses that are sharp and pungent, mild and
nutty. The region also borders Penedes, the home of Cava, Catalonia’s sparkling wine that pairs effortlessly with the cuisine.
Over that brilliantly humble meal at Rafa’s, I decided to return to the States with Félix to launch our own restaurant, Cúrate, devoted to Spanish cuisine. Even after marrying and starting a family, we’ve made annual trips to the coast that is so much a part of our lives. It remains my favorite destination in the world.
THERE IS NO BETTER PLACE for a taste of the Costa Brava than Roses. While we worked (and I learned) at elBulli, the lively streets of this ancient town amid low-lying hills provided small, unpretentious, and thrilling restaurants to explore. Cal Campaner, which just celebrated its 52nd anniversary, is like a dressed-up version of Rafa’s, with a larger menu and a slightly fancier setting, but with the enduring Roses focus on seafood in the hands of generations of family. La Sirena, another house of deliciously fresh seafood, is known for its tapas classics like
pimientos de Padrón—blistered Padrón peppers tossed with sea salt—and ensaladilla Rusa, a traditional potato salad prepared with tuna, olives, piquillo peppers, and a delicious housemade, olive oil–based mayonnaise.
While lingering over plates might be the supreme activity on the Costa Brava, the ideal complement is to linger on the region’s gorgeous beaches. Just up the road from Roses is one of my favorite haunts: the Platja de l’Almadrava, a pale, fine-sand beach sheltered from the
tramonte—the region’s north wind. With a path along its shallow arc for an invigorating walk and calm, crystalline waters for midday plunges, it’s the world’s best way to work up an appetite. And when it’s time to dig in again, Almadrava has the perfect restaurant: Santallúcia, a whitewashed bistro that spills out onto the palm tree– dotted sand. Sit with a bottle of Garnatxa blanca
(a Catalan white Grenache) and order the fideuà,
a cousin to shellfish-rich paella that’s cooked and served in the same broad, shallow pan but made with noodles instead of rice.
The coast stretching north from Almadrava is a beach-lover’s cornucopia—a bit like a tapas menu of small delights. This is a land of calas: smaller, pebble-covered beaches that form a scalloped shoreline, their confines protected by rocky outcroppings and headlands. Pick your pleasure: the isolated intimacy of the tiny Cala Calís (reachable only via a short hike); the
Chef Katie Button brings paella to table
Beachfront in Roses
Katie and Félix in the kitchen at Curaté