Two gastronomic reasons to set sail for Catalonia

Lobster lolling in intense fish broth, eel bursting with smoky flavour – the waters of the Mediterranean are a teeming larder for two outstanding Costa Brava chefs

Raw prawn with seaweed purée at Llançà restaurant Els Pescadors
Raw prawn with seaweed purée at Llançà restaurant Els Pescadors

My first memorable meal on the Costa Brava was in 2003, at Ferran Adriá’s legendary elBulli, a dinner that ran to 42 courses of extraordinarily witty avant-garde cuisine: one of them was a box of smoke. Just as beguiling was the restaurant’s setting among the fishing villages, sandy coves and rocky promontories. 

ElBulli has gone, but the region’s gastronomy is flourishing, as I discovered at Els Pescadors, a superb seafood restaurant in a picturesque corner of Llançà’s harbour. Owners Lluís Fernández Soler and Anna Maria Punset took over this old fishermen’s tavern in the 1980s: they still preside over the dining room, but the kitchen is in the hands of one of the next generation, chef Lluís Fernández-Punset, whose menus neatly straddle the modern and the traditional. 

There were echoes of elBulli in the spherified “olives” that started the meal, and modernist precision in crisp seaweed crackers, tempura slivers of lemon rind and pretty oyster shells filled with raw prawns and mussels, daubed with an emerald-bright seaweed purée. Cubes of tuna tartare sat atop a Mexican-inflected salsa; ceviche of monkfish was daringly dressed with raspberry, red onion and caviar. The next two courses were more classic in nature: joyously sweet, salt-baked red prawns, then local lobster, lolling in a bowl of deep, dark, soupy suquet, an intense Catalan fish broth traditionally made with unsaleable fish from the nets. It demanded a full set of fighting irons but – after a memorable struggle – the beast eventually relented. 

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Els Pescadors also has a fine wine list, showcasing, in particular, the excellent, underrated wines from the local Empordà DO. They were a highlight, too, of dinner at Casamar, a Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms in Llafranc, an hour’s drive east of Girona. Its lofty terrace and smart, modern dining room overlook the bay, a fine spot for Catalan chef Quim Casellas’ terrific food. My dinner featured a succession of finely judged dishes both technically adept and bursting with flavour, including lacquered, gently smoky eel with richly indulgent mi-cuit foie gras – a blissful expression of mar i muntanya, or “sea and mountain” in Catalan – and a chocoholic’s dream of a dessert: warm, cold, smooth, nutty and crunchy.

But it was, again, a rustic fish broth – the suquet this time used to cook risotto rice – that stood out. On top of the rice sat a perfectly cooked langoustine and a tangle of cuttlefish ribbons: Casellas emerged from his open kitchen to plate it himself. The recipe for great food on the Costa Brava? Suquet and sea.

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