Our day at Plage de Sa Tuna was perhaps the highlight of our Costa Brava trip and easily one of my Top 3 favorite moments of the summer (the other two being rooftop beers with two friends in London and lizard-hunting with my nieces in Périgord). After an invigorating hike to Aiguafreda along the coast on the Camí de Ronda, we found the perfect remote stone block to lay our towels over, far from the crowded and noisy main beach of the cove. We practiced our dives and hunted for sea stars and fish. I finished a book and started another. We observed our already very tan bodies take on an even deeper, darker shade of gold.
Lunch that day was a sandwich of jamón, manchego and tomato, hastily prepared and stealthily slid into a striped beach tote during our hotel breakfast in Bégur. By around 7pm, the sun was lower and our stomachs rumbling for something savory. After a couple of pints of ice-cold Estrella and a huge bowl of my favorite olives in the world (large, green and stuffed with briny anchovies), we headed over to Restaurant Sa Tuna, part of the sea-facing hotel with the same name. This place gets first dibs on some of the freshest Mediterranean seafood on the coast and their menu brims with all the good stuff: lobster, scorpion fish, John Dory, turbot… It all just looks so damn good.
We didn’t hesitate long before choosing their signature dish: the Arròs a la Llauna “del Senyoret.” Arròs à la Llauna is a Catalan rice dish cooked in a shallow, square-shaped tin pan called a “llauna,” also used to cook land snails on the grill (caragols a la llauna). “Del Senyoret” (“gentleman’s” in English) refers to a kind of rice dish that can be eaten without having to roll back your sleeves or struggle too much with a knife and fork. In other words, easy to eat. And that it was.
This dish was perfection. The rice was likely first toasted in a pan together with some tomato, onion, pepper and chunks of fresh monkfish, then hydrated with a tremendously flavorful seafood broth ladled on. The mixture was then spread out over the llauna, topped with six beautiful prawns – peeled except for their heads – and pushed gingerly into a grill oven, where something magically then took place. The starch of the rice and the heat of the oven thickened and dried the broth into a sort of sticky syrup, concentrating the delicious caramelized prawn head, tomalley, crab leg flavors therein. The rice itself plumped up, soaking up the marine flavors of its surroundings, which went beautifully with the slightly nutty flavor from the toasting process. Here and there, bright clumps of frothy aioli had been piped on and the pan thrown back into the oven for just long enough for this aioli to warm through and melt a bit, producing little landmines of deep garlick flavor. The chunks of monkfish were meaty, substantial and perfectly tender, while the shrimps were juicy as all hell, revealing a mild, sweet fllavor. The heads twisted off easily and burst forth plenty of smoky head juice when squeezed.
I still remember that mouthwatering forkful, that best bite indeed: a small mound of rice, a touch of garlicky, velvet-smooth aioli, a bit of bouncy monkfish, all dabbed up against a pocket of excess seafood sap that collected in the corners of the llauna. And when most of the soft, main layer of the rice had been razed off, the second act of this fantastic meal followed: the soccarat, or crunchy crust of caramelized rice stuck to the bottom of the pan, to scrape off with the spatula served alongside the dish. How do they manage to create a layer of perfectly crispy, masterfully dehydrated rice crust as well as fluffy, juicy grains in the very same pan? How do they bake the prawns just long enough for them to be fully cooked but not dry out? How does the monkfish, which stays in the pan the entire time not overcook? Magic, I think, or just a LOT of experience. Either way, we were completely mesmerized by this pan of food.
No trip to Costa Brava is complete without at least one feast of arròses with seafood. This isn’t the dried out, crappy paella of La Rambla, washed down with bad, sugar-laden sangria. Far from it. This is expertly executed rice, transformed in a warm bath of concentrated seafood flavors, served with the freshest marine flesh, still contracting and relaxing energetically in its cool, salty Mediterranean medium the morning before.