Fine Dining in Priorat: Amics Restaurant at Buil i Gine

An enthusiastic foodie I met sitting at the bar at Tayēr + Elementary in London this past autumn asked me, “If you had to recommend just one wine region in Europe to visit, which one would it be?” He was surprised how directly my answer came. Priorat. I did, after all, live there through the 2014 harvest season, visit once per year on average since moving away and write a 200-page book about the region, not to mention a 76-page Business School dissertation entitled A Closer Look at Wine Tourism in Priorat: The Struggle to Create a Cohesive Destination Image just a few years ago. So yeah, if you ask me it will always be Priorat. It’s a place to which I remain spiritually connected to this day, and I jump at any chance to visit again. I especially love eating and drinking in Priorat, be it at an outdoor calçotada with a couple of porrons-ful of wine or at one of the region’s many fantastic restaurants.

On my last trip there in March, my friend organized a calçotada with a great group of Priorat wine lovers and local winemakers. Sandra Doix presented her 1902 Carignan under her new label Mar La, Josep Piñol Fustero brought a funky natural wine made of 100% Macabeo. Thirteen bottles of wine later, Sandra invited us to her winery in Poboleda and we continued the tasting and merriment there. It was a typical Priorat afternoon, complete with calçots wrapped in newspaper and dipped in bright orange romesco, local pork sausage and lamb ribs sizzling hot off the freshly-pruned-vine-cuttings-fired grill, a generous pour each of over 5 or 6 wines, barrel tastings, old vintage tastings, debilitating car sickness on the drive to Reus to drop off a friend at the train station, in bed by 10pm, up before 8am and a very mild hangover in the morning considering all that had been consumed. After just one lavish gulp of that crisp mountain air, always tinged with an appetizing hint of woodsmoke, I was back en forme, ready to visit Clos Pachem and Daphne Glorian’s winery in Gratallops.

For lunch, my friend booked “Amics” restaurant, situated above the Buil & Giné winery in Gratallops, just past futuristic Trossos del Priorat and with a spectacular view over the legendary L’Ermita winery. The place is run by Chef Marc Pi, formerly of now-closed culinary institution Irreductibles. In a modestly decorated space, which allows the majestic Priorat landscape to shine, Amics offers a choice between a simpler lunch menu for around 40€ and a more extravant tasting menu for around 50€. Both feature Catalan comfort foods with a creative, modern touch, using fresh, seasonal and local ingredients. It began with a little rammekin of Arbequina olives (very Priorat indeed) and some veggie chips to snack on as we chose our wine, taking in the fresh fragrance of the freshly pruned blooming almond branch decorating our table.

We had a trio of little appetizers to share. The first white asparagus of the season came dressed in a delicate mustard vinaigrette and topped with foraged mustard seedlings. Then, a surprising combination: salty and briny local anchovies and sticky, sweet fig jam (especially good in Priorat) on a crunchy whole-grain wafer. I loved this mar i muntanya combo, which was drizzled with some fantastic cold-pressed olive oil. And then, a crunchy tempura of the season’s first artichokes, sprinkled with crispy dried seaweed. A great juxtaposition of crispy and tender.

The next dish was exquisite, with a lovely texture I still daydream about on occasion. A golden-colored raviolo with a slick, slippery, very smooth dough wrapped loosely around a mouthwatering filling of roasted-then-shredded chicken, seasoned with wild mushrooms. This was topped with a generous dose of freshly shredded sheep’s milk cheese, fragrant shavings of black truffle, bright green snap peas (both in and out of their pod) and delicate microgreens. This already very juicy, moist dish was served in a delicious chicken broth, which provided an extra bit of hydration without messing with the wonderful texture of the raviolo skin. A beautiful display of early spring in Priorat, a joy to both look at and devour.

I was thrilled to see one of my favorite ingredients on the menu at Amics that day: pluma ibérica, which is a very special cut taken from the neck end of an Iberico pork loin. Pluma is by far one of the most flavorful cuts of an already exceptionally delicious pork breed and its juiciness never ceases to bewilder. Here, it was grilled, drizzled with some kind of sweet and savory sauce, served with a potato tartlet and topped with early spring vegetables – bits of asparagus, small florets of caulifower and more snap peas. Spotlight on this delicious pork cut, which I so miss seeing on menus.

 

Dessert was a piece of modernist art titled “Expressions of Chocolate,” which actually brought together a bunch of interesting non-chocolate ingredients on a single plate. A dark chocolate cake with a mossy, spongy texture was served with a frosty quenelle of pumpkin ice cream, some crunchy bits of toasted corn, spicy Jamaican pepper dust and elastic bits of gelatin also flavored with chili peppers. I’m not usually a big fan of sweets, but this one hit the spot just right, perfect with a cup of bitter espresso and a last sip of Vichy Catalan.

On the way to the parking lot, I took one long last glance at the majestic Priorat landscape, its busy mosaic of terraced slopes, patches of forest, rocky façades and medieval villages. I took another mental snapshot before sliding into my friend’s pick-up and bracing myself from the winding road back to the real world. Separated by just a wall of glass from this panorama I love so, I really enjoyed this expertly executed and very local meal at Amics.

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