Licked by Sea Breeze at Restaurant Les Clos de Paulilles

My favorite meal of 2020 was by far this lunch at Restaurant Les Clos de Paulliles in Port-Vendres on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Just a half hour before being handed our menus my travel companion and I had been stretched out on sun loungers on the pool deck of our Argelès-sur-Mer resort, an occasional hand and foot dangling lazily into the crystalline, cool water below. We’d checked out, packed up the car and gotten everything ready to maximize pool time. « Google Maps says 14 minutes, and we can be 10 minutes late, I think… »

A quick drive down winding roads between rocky coves and vineyard-covered hills brought us to the beautiful Clos de Paulliles estate, surrounded by vines. This picturesque complex of Catalan stone buildings is home to a boutique hotel, the tasting room and shop for the Roussillon-based winery Cazes, and the restaurant itself. A breezy terrace overlooks the bite-sized bay of Paulilles, where a steeply sloped vineyard of layered slate soils crashes dramatically into a sandy beach. It really is like « Priorat on vacation » where « llicorella takes a swim ».

The restaurant terrace is sprawled out with its lounge area directly facing the water, while the dining space is slightly more protected against potentially disturbing winds. The menu changes according to availability of seasonal ingredients, which are sourced locally and boast of the bounty of the Pyrénées Orientales. Choose a la carte or a fixed three-course experience and add wine pairing to taste the best hits of Domaine Cazes.

For the entree course, I chose a fish dish that featured juicy, slick slivers of some kind of local white fish, cured and then smoked for good measure. This preparation gave the chilled bits of fish a hearty, almost elastic texture and the feintest lick of a smoky flavor, which was beautifully complemented by a bright violet purée of earthy beetroot at its base. The fish was also topped with bright pieces of orange and green apple for a splash of acidity, and some bitter green herbs over the top, which tasted of licorice. Spattered around the dish was also some kind of tart lemon sauce, a tad too aggressive for my taste. All in all, a very refreshing start to the meal, pairing beautifully with the Les Clos de Paulilles Colliure Blanc. This blend of Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris from Colliure’s sea-side slopes of schist is beautifully fresh and mineral, slightly floral on the palate. A great wine for just this kind of moment.

My dear travel companion continued down the fish path by ordering the catch of the day, which was a picture-perfect filet of local wolf fish with a gorgeous, golden-brown sear gracing its exterior and very flaky, tender flesh inside. This was served with some smooth batons of steamed veg: carrot, purple carrot, eggplant. The fish came in a pool of warm, velvety peach-flavored coulis and was topped with a few refreshing slivers of orange. Served with this one was the Le Clos de Paulilles Cap Béar Blanc 2019, a 100% Grenache Gris with a rounder, more unctuous mouthfeel and very deep, layered minerality. A perfect match with the rich fish dish.

Having skipped continental breakfast and spent the morning roasting under the sun, I was hungry for something heartier than fish, so I chose their Joue de Porc as my main. Pork cheek is one of those magical pieces of meat, transforming with time in the pot and some good old culinary TLC into an ambrosial substance, so tender, so smooth. This one was braised in Banyuls, the local sweet red wine, which added a sinfully sticky, sweet glaze to the bits of fall-apart-soft meat. The pork was served with spears of steamed carrot and turnip, which added a nice firm texture to contrast the melt-in-the-mouth meat. Paired with the banyuls-licked pork was the Clos de Paulilles Cap Béar Rouge 2017, a blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah. This was a medium-bodied, meaty red with ripe black fruit flavors and that unmistakable touch of Mediterranean garrigue. Its undertones of dry herbs, cocoa bean and spice offered the perfect savory touch to complement the sweetness of the meat.

Lunch was capped off with what was probably one of the best crème catalan experiences I’ve ever had (and I’ve had quite a few). The cream itself achieved the perfect consistency, the perfect thickness, a velvety smoothness and a nice gloss. It was flavored with vanilla bean, which added a floral touch, as well as what I suspect was either cinnamon or anise. Its brittle burnt caramel lattice was the perfect shade of golden brown, perfectly paper-thin to pop and shatter under the weight of my spoon, reflecting the summer sunshine in a million different angles like the shards of a freshly smashed mirror. The nutty caramel complemented the sweet cream beautifully, with a nice touch of acidity thrown in from the berries sewn across the top. Reinforcing the nutty caramel flavor of the torched crust was the oak-aged, pleasantly oxidized rancio AOP Riversaltes Ambré 2005 by Domaine Cazes paired with it. Smoky, nutty and honeyed touches mix with wrinkly dried apricots, prunes and figs on the nose of this delicious and dense sweet wine.

We had left two hours free for our lunch at Clos de Paulilles before our tasting at Domaine de la Rectorie and this ended up being just barely enough. A morning tasting at the Clos de Paulilles tasting room, followed by a leisurely lunch, a digestif on the terrace and an afternoon spent on the beach just below… It’s the kind of perfect summer day to dream of on a dreary January evening.

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