It's about a half-hour drive north from Barcelona to Sant Celoni, but it is a move from one of Europe's most metropolitan cities to one of its familiar, charming, small ones. A recognizable city plan; houses, shops, and domiciles that butt right up against narrow streets, built to consolidate advancing forces, then group them in squares with high sides easy to take advantage from. Upon entering these little hamlets you realize they have planned to have the upper hand on tourists for far longer than there have been cars, tires for cars, companies to make tires for cars, or books to guide people between the couple of these bergs where a hometown boy has set up a restaurant significant enough to merit taking a break from wearing down your tires just long enough to have a meal.
The boy from Sant Celoni is Santi Santamari and his restaurant is Can Fabes. Attached to a hotel, it is Europe's smallest Relais & Chateaux and the first Catalonian restaurant to receive three rosettes from Michelin. That's right, at the same time Ferran was taking the helm at El Bulli Santi was setting up a small fine dining outpost in a small town that would take all the accolades the French have to offer.
The last sign before getting off highway C-33 lets you know that France is a little less than 120km away. However sitting in Can Fabes, you could have traveled far past that border. That is not to say that the food is French -- the ingredients and flavors are decidedly rooted in Catalonia. The technique, however, emphatically is. Santi has taken the classic French belief that there is no such thing as too luxuriant to new levels at his little place in the north.
It is a sedate room, almost a study in negative space, entirely done in flat black. There are translucent ochre accents throughout it -- in the water glasses, the partition around the staircase to the tasting room/wine cellar, and the dividing wall to the open kitchen. It approaches almost a Spanish Zen in its ability to be a room for fine dining yet not really by affect so much as by tasteful little touches like the small, individual, representational sculptures that adorn each table where flowers might have been.
The Chef’s Menu was a surprise, and the list at the end was only available in Spanish. For wine, not knowing what the food would be, I deferred to the sommelier who brought me a Fino for an aperitif. Next was the house white made of chardonnay under a private label from a one-hectare plot they have in the Pendes. With notes of ginger and clove, it was wonderfully spicy yet subdued enough for the food. A glass of 150 Barrels Red, by Gamez-Alba followed. A blend of temprenillo and merlot ironically not as woody as the name would suggest, it was juicy, fruity and again good food wine with enough flavor to stand up, but not so much that the food was pushed down.
There was only a Spanish language copy of the menu available, the bold italics are excerpted from it.
Menú Santi Santamaria
Octopus (pressed and coated in a gelatin reminiscent of bacon), mackerel (raw, with a piece of fish liver set on top), almond cream (sandwiched in buttered, toasted phyllo), baby pig belly (slow roasted with a sweet and sour sauce), mini-octopus (wrapped in phyllo and seared), onion confit and lardo (a piece of apple base topped with onion confit and toasted sesame, wrapped in lardo). A terrific thing happens when a guy from the tapas culture takes on an amuse. Many small and variant things take you in divergent directions, prepping you for just about anything.
Cabra de mar con crema de hierbas
Rice-pasta wrap enveloping crab and sweet onion on a pool of herb cream and olive oil. The filling was very deeply flavored of the sea with the onions and crab playing sweet notes. I assume that the crab's (or a lobster or langoustine's for that matter) tamale was used to flavor it. The best part about seafood on the Mediterranean is how the cuisine plays up the fact that the sea is a "fishy" thing and makes no apologies for that. This seafood tastes briny and deep while obviously fresh, even in this lighter dish.
Ensalada de angulas con aceite de guindilla y ajo
Baby eels with cream of soft garlic. A fried parsley leaf and toasted garlic chip were set on a loose pile of baby eels bound with a wilted scallion green. There was roasted garlic cream on the plate and tiny chopped chives were interspersed throughout the eels. I have to learn more about the seasons of the Mediterranean; if these little guys are a spring thing, spring is the time to come. Their chew is not unlike perfectly al dente semolina pasta and their taste is of sea water.
Colminillas y espárragos con foie-gras
Wild asparagus, cultivated asparagus, and white asparagus, all steamed, and served with seared foie gras, morels, butter and sea salt. This was the Frenchest of dishes. As if it weren't rich enough, any chance asparagus tips had at bringing a little chlorophyll bitterness to the dish was handily beaten back with butter. Lest you think this is a bad thing, this dish tasted of foie, butter, sea salt, asparagus, and roasted morels, and what it lacked in highs and lows it made up for in decadent richness.
Pulpitos con Macedonia de verduras, tocino y botifarra
Baby octopus, zucchini, carrots, braised bacon, fingerling potatoes and black sausage. Throughout Spain you will find flavors of the sea and the land being combined in dishes. Their common ground seems to be levels of salt. Rich sausage, seared pig belly, and baby octopus all share a salinity that, if not necessarily made for each other, can be easily brought together as Santi does here with that best friend of salt, fresh butter.
Langosta con habas y guisantes
Langosta and baby favas with pig ears, pig mouth and seared fennel. Sliced, seared hearts of fennel rested under an enormous bisected langoustine so perfectly sliced that you had exactly half of the liver and the rest of the tamale intact. Over this, a ragu of pigs ears and other facial parts cooked with butter lent a soft richness to the dish. Toasted pine nuts, baby favas, and spring peas added a fresh sweetness and yet another layer of texture to the already fleshy bite of the langosta and the pliable chew of the pig.
Sant Pedro con alcachofas
John Dory with artichokes and chives. I am learning that the great chefs of Spain use chives like some American chefs use parsley. I would say it appeared in three out of every four dishes, chopped very finely as a garnish. Otherwise, this was a pretty straight-forward seared skin-on piece of a fish fillet on braised baby artichokes, sauced with what seemed to be the sauté pan remnants with some of the artichoke braising liquid monte au beurre.
Pato de sangre con escalonias y su jugo
Roast strangled duck with roasted vegetables. A beautifully roasted duck was presented whole and carved tableside, then served with roasted white asparagus, pearl onions and apricot. Rare and all the more gamey for having been strangled to preserve the blood in the meat rather than let it bleed out, there were large crystals of grey salt on the crunchy skin. Anything more would have distracted. Brillat Severin said it best: "any one can learn to cook, you must be born to roast."
For the cheese service, a fromagiere showed up with an eight-foot black cheese cart with about twenty cheeses on it. They were described as mild or pungent, by region, and by their constituent milks. We faithfully put ourselves in the fromagiere's hands to make us a good mix favoring Spain but not at the cost of anything genius. We each ended up with four cheeses different from each other's, presented from delicate to strongest. On my plate, in the role of strongest was a mixed sheep and cow's milk blue that was dark yellow in color and described as "similar to cabrales." Once we had eaten the other seven we dug in with the sherry our waiter had given us and had another of those better-than-the-sum-of-its-parts food and wine moments. Sweet with salty, bracingly astringent with comfortingly sweet, pungent farm valley with sun drenched mountain top raisins. Perfect.
Ralladura de moras
Strawberry granita with fruit marmalade, apples, whipped marscapone, pear, and applesauce. This was a perfect follow-up for the cheeses, lush with the beauty of the fresh whipped cream, light with the flavors of ripe strawberries, better for the contrast the applesauce layer being warm added, with all this goodness sitting atop soft cubes of ripe pear. I find the best deserts are the simple ones, playing with natural sweetness, exactly like this.
Buñuelos de chocolate
Coconut ice cream with chocolate-stuffed doughnut holes. Five beautiful blonde orbs fresh from the fryer, filled completely with molten dark chocolate. The coconut ice cream accompanying these dark chocolate nuggets was served atop chopped hazelnuts, because sometimes you feel like a...
Anise-flavored marshmallow, key lime pie with a very buttery crust, chocolate spearmint truffle, almond pound cake with raspberry, white chocolate curry truffle, mince pie, and chocolate almond torte
Having only eaten one of the chocolate-filled munchkins, I explained the need to taste each petit four in case one was a gem (they were all great) but I truly felt terrible when a small glass with whipped cream and toffee sauce showed up and I couldn't help finishing it. Heck, it tasted like a Werther's without requiring all that bothersome masticating.
A robust man with one of the most pleased visages I have seen, Santi seemed most happy when he showed up halfway through the meal to ask if everything was ok. I am suspicious he has never heard anything less than very good. The truth is, Santi's cuisine is like a beautiful gold watch. It may not be exactly your style, but there is beauty in a classic gold watch you can't help but appreciate for its excellence of style, precision and opulence. If you are a classicist that sees beauty in such things, you should go see what happens in the hands of this gifted Spanish artisan. If you are a devout acolyte of the new school who only appreciates such things as timeless, but for another time, this is still a level worth checking out.