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Plat du Jour Monday April 29, 2013: The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Announced

And the winner is…El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.

After three years atop the world, Noma in Copenhagen flip-flopped today with last year’s runner-up, after the San Pellegrino and Restaurant Magazine World’s 50 Best Restaurants were revealed in London.

The world’s new best restaurant lived in the shadow of fellow Basque region stalwart and longtime “best restaurant in the world” El Bulli, before Ferran Adria turned his legendary molecular gastronomy institution into an institute a few years ago.

Who is El Celler de Can Roca and where is Girona, Spain, and why did El Celler de Can Roca switch with Noma are many of the questions the general public are asking themselves.

El Celler de Can Roca is no secret. Opened in 1986 by the three Roca brothers, the restaurant has held three Michelin stars each year since 2010. Joan Roca is the head chef, while Jordi Roca is the pastry chef, and Josep Roca is the sommelier.

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Yours truly spent a layover day in Girona seven years ago (Ryan Air doesn’t fly directly into Barcelona, so Girona is the closest airport, about an hour northeast of Barcelona), but unfortunately didn’t have the chance to visit the Rocas. Instead, I enjoyed some bocadillos at a vintage tapas bar-coffee shop. The city is straight out of a postcard with its meandering Onyar River, striking bridges, and the spectacular cathedral. I have a feeling Girona will be much more known after today’s announcement.

Roses, home to the El Bulli Institute, is a bit further north up the Costa Brava. San Sebastian may still be the capital of Spanish gastronomy with two restaurants in today’s top 10, but the Costa Brava once again can lay claim to being home of the best restaurant in the world.So, who saw this coming? Nobody. It was largely acknowledged that Noma would be losing its top spot, either because people just get bored after three years, or because of this year’s nonovirus outbreak at the restaurant. Having dined at Noma within the past year, I can vouch that there hasn’t been much, if any slippage.

Even though El Celler de Can Roca was ranked second last year, nobody thought it would be the new winner. The odds on favorite was Tokyo’s Narisawa, who ended up moving up only seven spots to 20th this year. Well, it is at least the “Best Restaurant in Asia” by default.

Noma, Copenhagen

Noma, Copenhagen

Who doesn’t love some fun menu translations? The awards’ website says that the signature dish at Can Roca is: Charcoal-grilled king prawn, king-prawn sand, ink rocks, fried legs, head juice and king prawn essence.

Sand, rocks, and head juice all involved. Now that’s a dish, but I still can’t quite picture it. Two menus are available at the restaurant. One is a 130 euro tasting menu and the other a 160 euro festival menu. Those are downright bargains compared to most of the list.

A chocolate dessert from Astrid y Gaston (this was Santiago, Chile, not Lima, Peru...)

A chocolate dessert from Astrid y Gaston (this was Santiago, Chile, not Lima, Peru…)

Another note from the website. Apparently, Joan Roca gets credit for pioneering the sous-vide technology in the 1990’s. I’m not sure what Thomas Keller has to say to that claim, but we can certainly picture how Roca looks to push the modernist envelope without turning into Ferran Adria molecular gastronomy.

Noma is very well known in the second position, René Redzepi’s Copenhagen game-changer. So who is Osteria Francescana, this year’s third place winner?

The three Michelin starred modern Italian restaurant resides in Modena, Italy (north of Florence in the Emilia Romagna region), with Massimo Bottura leading the kitchen. Osteria Francescana first opened in 1995. Bottura joined later after harnessing his resume with apprenticeships at El Bulli and Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV in Monte Carlo. The Modena restaurant moved up two spots from fifth place in 2012.

Who says Modern Italian can’t be the next New Nordic, that darling of the 2012? Bottura is known as a bit of a restrained mad scientist. The awards highlighted his recent dish of foie gras with hare blood and various powders arranged to look like army camouflage as the best example of his prowess.

Noma's Asparagus and Pine

Noma’s Asparagus and Pine

The top five for 2013 is rounded out by the avant-garde Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain, and the United States’ winner, Eleven Madison Park in New York.

The big question everybody asks with an attention-grabbing awards presentation such as this is, “Who cares?” That is a good question. This is not like the Olympics where there is a definitive gold medal winner. The “Academy” involves 900 influential industry personalities, including chairs for specific regions that break up the world. The Academy’s “manifesto” goes on to explain:

  • Voting is strictly confidential before the awards’ announcement
  • Panellists vote for 7 restaurants, at least 3 must be outside their region
  • Voters must have eaten in the restaurants they nominate in the last 18 months
  • Voters are not permitted to vote for restaurants they own or have an interest in
  • Nominations must be made for the restaurant, not for the restaurateur or the chef
  • Panellists submit their 7 choices in order of preference (and is used to decide on positions in the event of a tie)
  • Other than this there are “no rules”.

The key point of contention has always been the third point. If judges have only been to a handful of restaurants, how can they really be certain Restaurant A is better than Restaurant B?

The short answer is, of course they can’t be certain. They have to follow their experiences to the best of their abilities and hopefully it paints an accurate portrait after the Academy collaborates. One thing is for certain, these Awards factor atmosphere and service a lot less into the equation than Michelin stars. The classic case is how Noma always was the best restaurant in the world, but has never received three Michelin stars. Perhaps, it’s because so many of their dishes are eaten without a fork and there are no white tablecloths.

Big day for Paris baby bistros

Big day for Paris baby bistros

Why should we care? Well, everybody likes lists first of all. Really though, we should care because it’s an excellent litmus test of where cooking is right now and where is it heading. The jet-setters will be the ones who use this list as a guide. For the rest of us, it’s a peek into what might be coming towards our cities in a few years, courtesy of young chefs inspired by these winners or the young chefs who train with these winners.

The World’s 50 Best focuses first and foremost on what the chefs of the restaurants are doing to add to the worldwide cooking dialogue. They want to see revelations. They want the envelope pushed. They want that game-changer who is re-shaping a cuisine and how people interpret the art of cooking.

Presently, it’s the Roca brothers in Girona who best exemplify that.

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A few other Awards- related notes:

  • Interesting how sequel restaurants did better than the original (Dinner by Heston Blumenthal over The Fat Duck, Per Se over The French Laundry).
  • A little surprising to see D.O.M. move down from fourth to sixth despite the worldwide attention recently given to Alex Atala.
  • If we’re comparing Eleven Madison Park versus Alinea, two friends who collaborated on a dinner series last year where one restaurant occupied the other: New York wins.
  • Big win for Gaston Acurio as the highest climber from 2012, with his Astrid y Gaston flagship in Lima taking 14th (previously 35th).
Girona, Spain, now home of the Best Restaurant in the World

Girona, Spain, now home of the Best Restaurant in the World

  • Big applause from here for Enrique Olvera and #17, Pujol in Mexico City. That being said, I can’t put it ahead of The French Laundry or numerous others any day. It should be neck and neck with Biko at 31st.
  • Attica of Melbourne, Australia, 21st place, is certainly the one to pay attention to Down Under.
  • Amazing how “baby bistros” like Chateaubriand and Septime make the top 50 from Paris, but so many heavy hitters in that city are left off the top 100 entirely (Guy Savoy, Le Grand Vefour…). That’s Paris 2013 I guess. L’Astrance and L’Arpège did make he list at 23rd and 16th respectively, but neither is haute cuisine whatsoever.
  • Surprising that the cult Swedish favorite Fäviken is only 34th.
  • Is Stockholm the new Copenhagen?
  • Does anyone know anything about The Tasting Room at Le Quartier Français in South Africa (53rd)?
Relae's Chicken Wings, White Aspargus, and Anchovies

Relae’s Chicken Wings, White Aspargus, and Anchovies

  • More love for Copenhagen’s Relae at 56th…great restaurant, but it wasn’t as life-changing as it seems to be for the rest of the world.
  • Where is Oslo’s Maaemo?
  • Interesting to see Albert Adria’s Tickets make the list at 77th, far from El Bulli territory though.
  • Lots of diversity on the list, from the modernist Coi at 58th and Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet at 60th, then quickly switching to the more rustic Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Martin Berasategui at 63rd and 64th.
  • David Chang Trifecta: Momofuku Ssäm Bar at 86th, Momofuku Seiobo in Sydney at 89th , and Momofuku Ko (supposedly his best) at 93rd.
  • When I was in Moscow last summer, not one local I asked about Varvary (100th) had even heard of the restaurant.

All in all, a great list. There will be the usual heated debates to follow, but let’s really take this time to applaud the very deserving, extremely hard-working chefs, restaurateurs, and their staffs on this year’s list.

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In addition, a big congratulations to the Chef’s Choice winner Grant Achatz (Alinea), Alain Ducasse for the Lifetime Achievement Award, Tokyo’s Narisawa as the most sustainable restaurant winner, The Test Kitchen in Cape Town as “The One to Watch” (we’re watching you!), and the “World’s Best Female Chef,” Nadia Santini of Dal Pescatore in Mantova, Italy (a category the Awards should certainly do away with…this is 2013 after all).

We’ll have more analysis in the days to come. For tonight, the moment belongs to El Celler de Can Roca. That sound you hear is the celebration going on in Girona.

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