A short drive North of Barcelona lies one of Spain’s best kept secrets. Sant Pau, restaurant of chef Carme Ruscalleda in Sant Pol de Mar, serves incredibly creative French and Japanese-influenced Spanish cuisine. My most recent meal with the ulterior epicure sits right alongside El Bulli and Quique Dacosta. It’s one of the best experiences in a restaurant I’ve had. Chef Ruscalleda has a unique ability to isolate and enhance an ingredient’s natural flavors and present them in a very imaginative way.
We sat in the smaller of two dining rooms overlooking the Mediterranean. Subtle crashes of waves mixed with the whispers of waiters sliding about setting the remaining tables and bringing apéritifs for other early diners. The tone was calm and collected, and felt in many ways as if we were eating in a restaurant in Japan. What broke through the quiet was a sound I will never forget, the crisp crackling of our waitress slicing through our table’s loaf of bread.
The bread, made especially for Sant Pau, holds a thin wave of dough affixed to the surface before baking to exacerbate the crispiness of the crust. As our waitress sliced thick wedges for our table our neighboring table looked for the source of the noise. It was a very pleasant head-turning sound. Frankly, it may have been the finest bread I’ve had at a restaurant, a sourdough loaf with a moist spongy inside.
We started with a few amuse bouches.
Courgette flower with yellow tempura - Squash blossom tempura, a delicate hash of squash blossom lightly salted and served hot. This was surprisingly light on the oil.
Cold rice with yellow chunks, potato and cheese yellow cake - A yellow potato gratin gently covered in a crispy layer of cheese served with a quail egg topped with rice.
Starter broth - A fine “pesto soup” served lukewarm. The flavor of pecorino and parmesan was very mild, adding nothing more than a gentle salting. The freshness of basil was apparent, but also muted. On the one hand I would have liked a bit more flavor, but there was something very satisfying about the pureness of the thin broth, its simplicity, and how it let me distinguish each of the ingredients.
Gastronomic Mondrian - Our first course was presented as a protected work of art, shipped from the kitchen to our table.
When the wooden crate was lifted, a gorgeous work of art stayed behind. We were served a cod brandade with red, green, and yellow pepper squares, piped with black olive borders. When mixed the flavor was delicious: lightly salted cod mixed with sweet peppers alongside a mild acidic bite from the olives. The flavor of Spanish olive oil from the emulsified cod was particularly fruity, brought out by the sweet peppers. I loved this dish.
Maresme king prawns, cherries, and chopped cucumber - Succulent barely-cooked prawns swimming in a thick tomato cream, dotted with cherries and chopped cucumber. The prawn was the sweetest element on the plate. It had a sweetness that immediately gave away the shellfish’s freshness. This dish nearly brought our table to tears … in a good way. The mild tangy flavor of the tomato with the lushness of the butter really brought out the sweet, lobster-like flavor of the prawn.
Vegetable ravioli and joselito ham, with carrot, daikon, aubergine, courgette - A ravioli of green vegetables wrapped in slices of carrot, squash, radish, and eggplant. When sliced in half, a thick puree poured out. The thinly shaved joselito ham added a salty meat flavor to a predominately vegetable-based dish. The carrots and radish added a crunch against the smoothness of the ravioli. The flavor was of peas and butter. This was exceptional.
Ray and dewlap - A thin slice of ray with a jurvert sauce and beetroot vinaigrette. This was the least interesting of the main courses.
Cleaver wrasse 2011 - Two wedges of local parrotfish in a light curry with spirals of liquorice with beans and chayote. The fish was lean with a crispy skin, and the curry contributed a tannic element that supported the fresh mouthfeel of the liquorice. This dish was exceptionally balanced.
Pirineo foal with herbs, mushrooms, and a vegetable bale - Fat medallions of young horse with a mushroom and vegetable bouquet. The meat was extremely lean with little to no visible fat. The texture was similar to buffalo meat. The sauce was a red wine demi-glace — well salted — that brought out the natural flavors of the meat.
Cheese course - A selection of local cheeses — each with paired accoutrements. The cheese course came with a guide that explained every element on the plate. Having the key in front of us that explained each cheese, its source, and its pairing, really enabled us to concentrate on the flavor. It was also a lot of fun as it augmented interactivity. Instead of trying really hard to remember the ingredients, they were laid out simple and clear.
Refreshing infusion - A basil-infused water poured over a peach sorbet. The basil water had no sweetness whatsoever. Its simple and pure taste was similar to our first course, the pesto “starter broth.” Chef Ruscalleda has a masterful understanding of sweetness, and how to apply it carefully. The sorbet was only mildly sweet, but as it mixed with the unsweetened basil water its subtle sweetness became apparent. This course was refreshing indeed.
Transparent cube, berries, shiso, raspberries - Four walls of transparent gelatin locking in a cube of raspberry, strawberry, apple, coconut, and shiso ice cream. This was light and refreshing.
Under a green roof tile - Inspired by the shape of Spanish roof tile, a thin matcha tea and white chocolate tile covered slices of strawberry and raspberry sorbet. This was my least favorite of the desserts, but the presentation had a nice contrast of colors.
Blanc - White chocolate, rice, lemon verbena, gin, olive oil, and yoghurt in a glass. The white chocolate cap suspended the lemon verbena sorbet. When cracked, the ingredients mixed together. The rice added an earthy grain component that helped temper the acidic bite of the sorbet.
Moon - Undoubtedly, one of the most imaginative desserts I’ve had. Our waitress instructed us to “slide” the moon from left to right along the iridescent track of white chocolate. The “moon” spilled coconut into the chocolate ganache laced with fresh shiso. The dish was evocative of the night sky.
Black chocolate - A pool of dark chocolate with mint, coconut, fruit, nuts and sweet peppers.
After our meal, we were escorted to the adjacent terrace where we faced the kitchen below and restaurant above. Our ears heard only the sounds of waves crashing behind us.
Petits fours - Raspberry crumble, financier, coconut marshmallow, puff pastry cake and pumpkin angel hair, Portuguese tocinillo, strawberry with sweet wine and pistachio, liquorice and sherbet stick, limoncello jelly, chocolate rice and almond, and a berry macaron.
There’s really only one word that sums up my recent experience at Sant Pau: magical.
This restaurant is currently not getting the attention that it deserves. Everything about this meal, the serene and collected tone in the dining room, the imaginative and inventive quality of the dishes, the pure and precise flavors, and the relaxing finale in the courtyard made the experience ethereal. Sant Pau is worth a trip to Spain alone, just don’t forget about a visit to Quique Dacosta on the way.