The Guide

Katie But­ton met her hus­band and earned her chef stripes on the seafood-rich Costa Brava. Dis­cover her fa­vorite haunts along this in­sider tour

Coastal Living - - CONTENTS -

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

Rafa’s

Cadaqués

Fresh-caught tuna

Cadaqués

Katie and Félix in the kitchen at Cu­raté

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