A Special Menu at the Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona

A few weeks ago my boyfriend and I visited 2 Michelin-starred Moments restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona to celebrate our anniversary. He got overexcited and ruined the surprise the night before but I didn´t mind; it allowed us to read up in advance on mother-son culinary team Carme Ruscadella and Raül Balam, and to get excited about the seasonal tasting menu attached to the email confirmation.

CHEF: Ruscadella is currently the only female chef in the world who has achieved seven Michelin stars, starting with the three she won in 2006 for Sant Pau, a restaurant she opened with her husband in 1988. The self-taught chef opened a second outpost of Sant Pau in Tokyo, which won her another two stars. Ruscadella started at the Mandarin Oriental in 2009, and only three years after Moments was awarded two stars for her very innovative neo-traditional Catalan gastronomy. Within Catalunya, and generally within Spain, she is one of the most loudly lauded chefs and has won countless local and national awards throughout her career. She currently manages the restaurant together with her son Raül Balam, who is also Head Chef at Moments. Balam began his career at Sant Pau, where he was trained in refined cooking techniques, and later moved to Tokyo to help with the opening of the sister restaurant. He joined the Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona in 2009 and is now in charge of the day-to-day management of the team there. He is known to take a break from busy services to say hey to each table of guests individually and to answer any questions they may have about the menu or the inspiration behind it.

MENU/ WINE: The menu is the successful outcome of an attempt to renew traditional Catalan dishes through the innovative use of local products, at times blended with foreign ingredients and techniques. I wouldn’t call it fusion, but rather a modernization of classics with ideas borrowed from other cuisines. Exciting, fresh products are picked from several regions of Catalunya and presented in a way that makes you fully understand them. The kitchen offers an a la carte with appetizers, mains and desserts, along with a tasting menu with a bit of everything. The wine service can be tailored to match whatever type of meal you’re having and their selection is Biblical in volume. Our sommelier Albert recommended a nine-glass pairing, which seemed a tad too much for us, so we told him that four plus a bottle of Cava would do. We ended up having around seven. Albert was quite convincing.

RESTAURANT: The decor of the restaurant is soothing, with soft amber and gold tones, comfortable sofa chairs and a great view of the kitchen through large windows. Service is fantastic (by international standards, not just local ones) and extra care is taken to make each guest feel special. That means a little stool brought out quickly for my purse as I sit. That means a new serviette brought out each time someone goes to the restroom. That means calmly but firmly excusing the new Catalan food runner when she suggests we have our cigarette later instead of now “because the cheese board is already ready.”

Our reservation was for 9:30 p.m. and we stayed until around 1:00 a.m. Here is the story of our night at Moments.

1“Tribute to Xató” salad. Our journey through the menu started with something very sentimental and very Catalan, xató sauce served on a bed of escarole, topped with other traditional ingredients. The recipe of this sauce bears high cultural significance, as it is rooted in some of the most ancient folk customs of the Garraf and Penedes regions of Catalunya. There even exists a culinary route formed by eight towns, each famous for their unique version of the sauce, that begins in Sitges, continues inward to Vilafranca and El Vendrell, then returns to the sea in Vilanova and Geltru. The geography of the winding route is perhaps meant to reflect the combination of ingredients from both land and sea in the core recipes for xató. Each recipe includes anchovies, toasted hazelnuts and almonds, olive oil, garlic and vinegar. Some also add toasted bread crumbs, tomato, paprika and a small sun-dried pepper called ñora. The sauce is usually mixed up with a salad of endives, tuna, bacalao (salt cod), Arbequina olives and black olives. Xató salad is especially popular during the Sitges Carnival in February, when it is eaten alone or with a side of tortilla (Spanish omelet) at xatonadas (xató feasts).

At Moments, the salad served as a very light starter and included of green and black olives, two wonderful cubes of translucent and tender bacalao and what originally I thought to be sun-dried tomato but only later realized was ñora unpacked from oil. There was also a fluffy little pillow of tortilla, which served as a nod to the tradition of combining xató with tortillas as a tapa. Perhaps it was also meant to be a reminder of the upcoming Carnival. The sauce itself was delicious, achieving the perfect balance of nutty, sweet and acidic tones, a burst of flavor locked inside a creamy, smooth emulsion. I really appreciated the careful presentation and the smart distribution of the sauce throughout the plate – there were a few delicate dollops pipetted onto the surface to cast a stage-light on the star ingredient, but also a healthy layer of the stuff on the bottom of the plate to douse the last forkfuls of escarole into. An advanced lesson on xató disguised as a delicious salad. An exciting start!

2Rock Fish Terrine. A very pretty course came next – a neat little block of rock fish cake topped with julienned légumes and black sesame seeds. On the side was a gorgeous smear of garlicky green herb jus intertwined with a light brown line of soy sauce. The terrine had a pleasantly spongy, crumbly texture that reminded my beau of his mother´s recipe for a similar dish. It was like a a marine meatball mashed up in the practiced palms of someone that loves you. The texture was fluffy, light and porous with a few tiny bits of fast-melting fat here and there. The cake was very clean in flavor on its own, but its combination with the crunchy and perfectly sliced, very lightly marinated vegetables made each bite etherial.

Rock fish is the most traditional ingredient in the cuisine of Begur, a coastal municipality of Catalunya. Each spring the region hosts a Gastronomic Campaign during which participating restaurants offer special menus made up solely of dishes based on rock fish. They do so to demonstrate the diversity and the rich cultural heritage surrounding this ingredient.

As the first course (xató) went south to the Costa Dorada, this one headed north to breezy Costa Brava to show off an ingredient associated with the place. We’d come to visit several Catalan regions throughout this tasting experience. No wonder it took almost 4 hours…

3Stewed Partridge Dimsum. Next came a dumpling filled with partridge estofat in a pool of cooking vinaigrette. Crunchy bits of pistachio and fresh chive were sprinkled over the top. In my notes for this dish I wrote “chewy seal, whole bowl of stew.” I now remember that to mean that although the ridged seal on the top was a tad too dry and chewy, the bird inside was so wonderfully tender and flavorful that I could´ve eaten a whole bowlful of it. The meat was shredded a bit and the texture reminded me of slow cooked pork carnitas but the leaner, winged version. The taste was mild, slightly gamey, perfectly balanced with the soy in the vinaigrette and the sweet pistachios.

4Scallops. One of my favorite dishes was this gorgeous spread of scallops and cabbages, with a variety of leafy greens represented. There were little bunches of flash-cooked kale, a wrapped up bundle of spicy kimchi, bits of Romanesco broccoli, a deep green puree of spinach leaves, toasted grains and small carvings of fresh pink grapefruit nestling close to two delicate pieces of nearly translucent, pleasantly undercooked scallop. The marine muscles themselves melted in my mouth like butter or soft fat, leaving behind a soft sweetness that went really nicely with the rest of the ingredients. I thought that the stingy acidity and heat of the fermented cabbage might overwhelm these subtle flavors but the solemn earthy flavors of the kale and the slight bitterness of the grapefruit balanced it out nicely. The overall result was a vibrant and deeply flavored background against which the scallops could shine.

55bDuroc Pork. One of the most memorable moments at Moments happened when we first dug into this pork dish, a titillating symphony of warm wild mushrooms and pine nuts topping two perfect cubes of pork belly in a sweet puree of leek and quince. The mushrooms were foraged in the Montseny Natural Park to the north of Barcelona, where our sommelier Albert told us he was from. They were relentlessly tender, juicy and delicious with tremendous forest floor depth that unraveled more and more as I chewed. Add to this the naturally sweet onion in the puree and the nutty bits of pine, and the scene is set for the star of the show, the Duroc Pork itself. Duroc is a breed of red pig originally from the United States and the kind most commonly used in Spain to cross-breed with Ibérico pigs in the production of the famous jamón Ibérico. If the point of this dish was to show that there is more to pork than Ibérico or that other breeds, when treated right, can produce such ambrosial chunks of seductively marbled meat, then it did just that. The stuff melted on the palate, as the scallops did before, and gave us both goosebumps until we eventually flushed our mouths out with a buxom blonde Grenache from Priorat, studded with limestone bling.

66bAsia Maresme Coca. A pinch of Asia fused with a whole lot of Catalunya, the Maresme coast to be specific. Another little trip up the coast. This region is known to be one of the richest in Catalonia in terms of agricultural production and the frequent food festivals hosted by the local community can attest to that. Products such as “floreta” and “garrofal” peas, strawberries, cherries and “del gangxet” beans are among the most cherished representatives of the region. In this very dynamic and exciting dish, Maresme prawns were showcased on a very thin coca (Catalan flatbread) topped with shiitake mushrooms, red pepper, karashi and delicate shavings of daikon radish. I liked how the texture of the veggies imitated that of escalivada, which is the smoky combo of grilled eggplant and pepper (and sometimes onion, tomato and garlic) that serves as the topping for traditional coca. The prawns were perfectly cooked, snappy and fresh with a gorgeous color that showed off their quality. But by far the highlight of this dish were the two little globs of Nevat cheese, a pasteurized and soft-ripened goat milk cheese produced in the mountains near Barcelona. Here it appeared in caviar form with a paper-thin casing that melted away to unleash a burst of milky, nutty, slightly fungal goat cheese that then coated my mouth and sent me straight to a state of ecstasy. When combined with the roasted veggies, this creamy cheese was especially delicious and a fantastic addition to a very well though through dish.

78Sea Bream. I don´t often get too excited about (cooked) fish dishes and this sea bream was no exception, although it was really very pretty. A thick and meaty filet of bream was presented with a pumpkin and coffee sauce swirl, with some pretty little balls of pumpkin and toasted pumpkin seeds scatted in a way that made them look like happy ducklings following their mama into a pool of puree. Adorning the fish was a thin and flaky pumpkin wafer, adding a crunch to each bite. This chip ended up being my favorite thing on the plate, though, as for me the fish was a tad overcooked and stiff. I also found the portion too large for a 10-dish tasting menu. I gave half of the thing to my beaux, who took it gladly.

99bDeer. The meat. The ultimate star of the show, deer served in four juice slices. Three of them were perfectly tender and melted into smooth, lean fibers. One was slightly tougher, but by no means too much to handle. The meat was served on a slippery puddle of its own savory juices and arranged in a ring with fresh papaya and starchy khaki fruit pieces, ripe avocado marinated in lime, fluffy chocolate cake and droplets of raspberry syrup  (or something equally fruity and acidic). I enjoyed the this exciting arrangement of ingredients, which made it fun to hop from one to the next and encouraged me to combine them in ways I wouldn´t have thought of doing before.

We took a break to grab a breath of fresh air on their pretty terrace outside and I’m glad we did because it allowed us to clear our tastebuds of the flavors of deer and to fully appreciate what came next, a trio of cheeses dressed with ingredients that brought out their best characteristics.

From the bottom up:

10

Santa Maria: Gorgeous white blocks of raw sheep milk cheese, very soft in the center with a furry blossom rind. Produced by: Bauma. Produced in: Borreda, Bergueda, Catalonia. A very fresh and clean cheese with very little acidity, ripened only 3 weeks. It was served with tiny meringue cookies, fruit jam and mushroom vinaigrette over the top. Crumbly cookies on the bottom added some crunch to the otherwise bouncy, elastic texture of the cheese.

Isle of Mull (2011 World Cheese award): Two hunks of crumbly raw cow milk cheese, dry with the consistency of Parmesan but with a taste more similar to cheddar. Produced by: Tobermory. Produced in: Isle of Mull, Scotland. It´s from slightly alcoholic milk taken from cows in the owner´s own flock, cows that eat fermented grain from a nearby whiskey distillery. It´s cured and pressed and ripened for 18 months. The end result is heavenly: a sharp, concentrated tang and slightly fruity flavor. It was served with delicate leaves of pink endive and pine nuts, a pairing I would´ve substituted with something sweeter and jammier to ease the sharp PANG of the cheese. The pine nut cooky was delightfully crunchy and delicious on its own, though too similar in flavor to the cheese itself to pair well with it.

Picónic de Hoja: My personal favorite was an unabashedly pungent pasteurized blue cow milk cheese, cured and ripened for 60 days. Producer: Colsa. Produced in: Llanes, Asturias. It was served with plum jam and a cake soaked in sticky sweet Pedro Ximenez sherry. A perfect harmony of sweet, ripe flavors from the jam and sherry to curb the itchy funk of the blue. The creamy soft cheese spread like butter over the spongy cake underneath, a voluptuous, luscious, round thing in texture. This was a fabulous last bite, especially when paired with the last sip of my full-bodied White Grenache.

The bitesized entremets was a frosty sorbet made with Calvados, whose temperature and acidity scrubbed our palates clean of the salty, fatty remnants of the meal’s first, savory half and prepared us for the sweets to come. My beaux explained to me that Calvados was a typical thing from Normandy, served as an aperitif before meals, a digestif after, or, most popularly, as a break in a long line of dishes to reawaken the appetite. It’s made by pressing apples and pears into a juice, fermenting that juice into a cider, distilling that cider into an eau de vie and then ageing that eau de vie in oak until it becomes a smooth brandy. The longer it is aged the less obvious the apple and pear flavor become and the more it begins to resemble other aged brandies. This one still had a very fresh and vibrant fruit flavor, though there was not enough of it in the sorbet to taste the alcohol. 1112Our Crème Brûlée. The first dessert was a delicate creation, a ring of tapioca pearl cake topped with tapioca foam, a soft cream of yuzu-flavored goat milk inside and a crunchy lid of caramelized praline over the top. Crunchy bits of almond were scattered in the foam. The bruleed surface snapped and crackled from the subtlest tap of the spoon and the fresh, citrus infused custard flooded out when the tapioca wheel was broken into. I especially enjoyed the texture of the tapioca itself, which did not dry out and stick together, but remained juicy and moist, with each starchy bead maintaining its perfect spherical form. They presented the dish as a creme brulée (first acknowledging the classic French dish) and only then mentioned that there is a similar Catalan dish named “Crema Catalana.” A truly angelic, very light dessert and one I won´t forget anytime soon.

13Mananka Chocolate. And for the boys, a tight little chocolate ball made of mandarin infused chocolate mousse wrapped in Mananka chocolate (62% cocoa) and served with a vibrant orange puree of carrot with a salty, hot dusting of spices and bitter ground coffee around it. I loved the notes of fresh citrus in the chocolate itself, and the whipped butter texture of the mousse inside. I also really enjoyed the combination of the bittersweet dark chocolate ball with the natural root veggie dulzor of the carrot and the spicy chiles. More than anything I loved the presentation, a rough little cannonball rolling through a bright orange puddle and leaving a neat trail behind it.

15

Skyline Barcelona. And then the big finale, a tribute to the Barcelona location of the famous hotel. All the most emblematic buildings of the city, edible in cookie form. The savory skyline was complete with a coffee Sagrada Familia, a green tea Christopher Columbus statue, a white chocolate Torre Agbar, flaky phyllo Plaça d´Espanya towers and a chocolate Arc de Triomfo, with a delicious mandarin infused Mandarin Oriental with dark chocolate columns in the center. We tore the city down brutally but couldn’t finish it all, so we postponed the demolition by doggy-bagging half of the dish and snacking on the structures with coffee the next morning.

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