First Barcelona Trip: Restaurant dilemma
I'm planning a 5-day trip to Barcelona in March and wish to dine at one of the Michelin 3-star restaurants. I know there's a bunch of information on this board, and I'm guessing people will have different opinions as to which (excluding El Bulli) would be the most worth the effort, but is there a clear and obvious choice between Can Fabes, Sant Pau, and El Celler de Can Roca?
Because the three restaurants are so distinctly different, the choice of the three depends on what you are looking for in a 3 star restaurant.
Can Fabes is probably the most conservative of all the 3 star restaurant in Spain. The cooking, while inventive, is grounded in classical technique, hence, very little molecular stuff going on. The food is impeccably prepared using the best ingredients. One will have no trouble knowing how the ingredients are transformed and what one is eating. A first course might be the freshest langoustines coated one side with semolina and lightly grilled with a very light lemony allioli or tiniest squid cooked with bits of pork belly and dices of jamon Iberico or a main course of split roasted pigeon with a classic red wine sauce and wild mushrooms. It even has a traditional cheese trolly with some of the best cheeses, serve simply with good walnut bread. Dessert on the tasting always has a selection of the wonderful ice creams and sorbets then follow by something simple as the freshest marscarpone mousse with bits of insanely rich almond cake and red fruits.The service reflects that: a team of seasoned professionals, formal but not stodgy. There are two rooms, a larger modern one looking into a glass enclosed kitchen and smaller cozy rustic room that was the original house. Weekend lunch is a very low-key and mostly locals and friends of the restaurant. For me, this is the most consistently excellent of all the 3 star restaurant in Spain than excellent food. Others find it a bite old-fashioned and conservative.
El Celler de Can Roca is a polar opposite. The food is probably closer to El Bulli then another other 3 star restaurant, though the presentation is different; much fewer but more fully realized courses in their tasting menus rather than lots of small tastes. One will see foam, gelatin, spheres of liquid enclosed in thin sheets, sous-vide cooking; smell plays a big part as there is always a course coming out of their 'smoker'; desserts follows the same theme; a seasonal dessert fashioned after a famous perfume or their signature 'trip to habana', emulating an ashtray, a chocolate/smoked cigar and ashes. Given that, there is somewhat of a inconsistency to the food. I've had some courses that are less then stellar, for example: a slimy smoked eggplant course, mussels with different condiments that were overpowering. But the foie gras, the fish and meat courses and desserts are so good that one tend to forgive the mishaps. The service is not as polish as Can Fabes with a much younger staff, but they make up for it with their enthusiasm. Josep Roca, one of the brothers, is always in the dining room to make sure things go smoothly and he has an incredibly knowledge of wine but is very approachable. The wine list is one of the best in terms of new drinkable vintages and producers that matches well with the food; also very well priced. And the way wine service is handled is also 21st century. The move to the current nearby location couple years ago really elevated the ambience. The dining room is airy and modern with well spaced tables. Another plus is the restaurant is in Girona, a wonderful preserved medieval city worth a visit on its own.
Sant Pau is harder to pin down. The food straddles between modern and Chef Carme Ruscadella's take on more traditional Catalan dishes. She might take a dish such as samfaina, de-constructed it while still using the traditional ingredients and serve it as a first course. Then follow with something modern like a sous vide cooked pork with a very light nutty foam sauce, garnish with citrus. Her cooking is difficult to characterize but I would put it personal, delicate and poetic. Her cheese course is a revelation, pairing each cheese with something savory and something sweet. Sant Pau is probably the smallest of all of Spain's 3 star restaurants, seating about 32. The single second floor dining room is simple and elegant. During the day, one can see out the garden and into the sea. During the evenings, the discrete dining room lightly and gardens gives it a very romantic feeling. Her husband runs the dining room with a staff that's been there for years; a wonderful balance of properness and informality.
I hope the above is a good starting point to help decide which fits what you are looking for. I would do some research on other food blog, many devoted to high-end restaurants, and get a clearer picture of each of the restaurants. The most important advice that I can give is not give into simple superlatives, but to read between the lines to flush out of aspects of the restaurants that fits what you are looking for. For most high-end food blogers, the food is the paramount criteria and they dissect it to little bitty details. For most of us, food maybe the most important criteria, but others contribute vastly how much we enjoy a restaurant. A restaurant might serve the most memorable food but the whole experience can feel like being in a tomb.
PBSF has really done a great job of describing the differences, but I would add a few points. I have not been to Sant Pau so cannot comment on that one, but had lunch at Can Roca and dinner at Can Fabes the same day so was able to experience the extreme contrast between the two. Can Roca was definitely more adventurous, but not always succesfully. As PBSF says, it is inconsistent. Our dinner at Akelare in San Sebastian (which is just as adventurous and molecular) was head and shoulders above Can Roca. Some dishes at Can Roca were just plain weird. Can Fabes on the other hand was perfect in every way. Yes, it is more traditional, but more traditional than Can Roca does not mean "traditional". It is really quite innovative, particularly the canapes, amuses, and other small plates sprinkled throughout the meal. One memorable dish was an appetizer of "ravioli" of langoustines, in which the "pasta" was thin slices of raw langoustines. It was by no means traditional, but very delicious. The most traditional part of the meal at Can Fabes was the roast leg of kid, which was outstanding. Overall I just felt the dishes at Can Fabes made more sense.
PBSF, your reply was leagues beyond the kind of response I had expected. Thank you. And rrems, thank you for the additional input. Both of your responses will help when I try to make reservations. I really wanted to fit San Sebastian into the itinerary but didn't work out this time.
Another question is, what is the acceptable dress code in these kinds of restaurants for both men and women? I think I read somewhere that upscale jeans would be okay for men, but I think that post was referring to restaurants in Barcelona that are below the caliber of these three restaurants.