Fine food in Spain is so much a part of the furniture nowadays that few can recall the incinerated meat and limp vegetables swimming in oil that were once standard fare. One of the regions that has travelled farthest in terms of thrilling eating is Catalonia, which boasts more than its fair share of ambitious and talented local chefs. There are Ferran Adrià and the Roca brothers, for starters, but also many less-known names such as Antonia Quiñones, whose restaurant Pera Batlla lies just inland from L’Escala on the northern Costa Brava. Housed in an 18th-century water mill, it has a capacious terrace looking out over the mill stream (first picture) for long summer evenings; and a cosy, rough-cast, stone-walled dining room with a wood-burning corner stove in winter.
Chef-owner Quiñones uses words like “simple”, “real” and “honest” to describe her cooking, which fuses influences from her native Andalucia and adoptive Catalonia, interspersed with splashes of colour and flavour from Morocco (she recently did “a month’s total immersion in Middle Eastern cuisine” there) and Asia (where she fell in love with Shanghai street food and “couldn’t wait to experiment with dim sum back home”). Bounty from the beloved kitchen garden (third picture), which turns out an unending supply of vegetables, herbs and fruit, is writ large on the menu, as is fish from the inshore boats of nearby L’Escala and Roses. Rarely far from the menu are L’Escala’s celebrated anchovies (€9.90), criss-crossed on slices of crusty bread rubbed with ripe red tomatoes, and you can count on cephalopods in various guises – this spring brought cuttlefish croquetas with a lime alioli (€7.50); and squid rings in tempura batter with a sweet-sour soy sauce and bite-sized chipirones Andalucian-style with artichokes and black sausage (€14.50).
Sea bass is sashimi-ed and served with wok-fried pak choi (€16.50); and tiny red mullet fillets crown a soupy risotto packed with baby carrots, mangetout and beans (€19.50). For simple beauty, fresh flavours and a riot of colours and textures, the chef’s tabbouleh of broad beans with quinoa, mint leaves and flakes of fresh mackerel (€12.50, second picture) takes some beating. And carnivores, meanwhile, have their work cut out deciding between locally raised Ibéricopork with rice (€18.30) from the Empordà rice fields; and a rich, gelatinous, boneless pig’s trotter with prawns (€16.90) – the chef’s take on the classic mar y muntanya (surf ’n’ turf) combo so beloved of Catalans.
The one problem at Pera Batlla is that by the time you’ve flashed forks at the tapas, feasted on fish or meat and given proper attention to the house vegetables, you may not have room for dessert. Big mistake. Leave a corner, at least, for the frozen mascarpone tart (€5), scattered with edible flowers. And the wine list deserves a look-in, too, as it’s devoted in large part to exciting wines from the rising Empordà appellation – bottles with bags of character and a strong sense of place. Just like the chef.