Restaurants: Roca Moo, Barcelona
Just because the three Roca brothers behind the newly anointed San Pellegrino World’s Top 50 “Best Restaurant in the World” are behind Roca Moo doesn’t mean you should stroll into the dining room expecting world class excellence. You will be disappointed. The single Michelin starred Roca Moo in Barcelona isn’t trying to be like its sibling, El Celler de Can Roca, the glittery three Michelin starred destination an hour northeast up the Costa Brava in the countryside medieval town of Girona. Earlier this year, El Celler de Can Roca replaced the Copenhagen restaurant Noma for the world’s best title.
Roca Moo isn’t trying to be El Celler de Can Roca or Noma.
Unfortunately, even reasonable expectations for a restaurant of Roca Moo’s ambition aren’t met. It’s a strange experience that dabbles in its lofty potential from time to time, while altogether making you feel empty. It’s a restaurant currently with no personality. Does it want to be more refined and genre- defying like El Celler de Can Roca? Does it want to be more like a baby “gastrobistro,” of which Barcelona right now seems to have more of than Gaudi designed structures? Does it just want to be a sleek, hipper than thou boutique hotel restaurant with the façade of being an exceptional restaurant? The latter is what I took away walking away to the Passeig de Gracia unfulfilled. I wanted to go to Girona.
You can’t help but ask yourself, “What if René Redzepi opened a Noma bistro? Would it be such a step down like this?”
Roca Moo has its strong points, proven by an absolutely exceptional dish of crawfish with curry and roses that would enchant the most discerning diner out in Girona. So much though was either formulaic or flat out underachieving. A half hour elapsed before I even received a wine list. Supposedly there’s a sommelier since I was told he or she was fetched both to bring the wine list and to offer recommendations after I sat waiting a while with the list in hand. It was a back waiter who finally provided the (very impressive) list and our regular waiter took wine orders with the food orders since impatience does become a factor at certain points.
Maybe I didn’t know something. Barcelona the city was packed and every restaurant I had been to was filled to capacity as well despite “The Crisis.” Barcelona was one big party. Except at Roca Moo. Roca Moo was more than half empty. The counter seating by the open kitchen was vacant. The hybrid bar-lobby-informal seating area had two tables occupied.
This is the Barcelona outpost of “the best restaurant in the world” and nobody seems to notice? How could it possibly be a secret diamond in the rough? Or is it empty for a reason?
Earlier this year the Roca brothers completely changed what was for its first decade simply called “Moo.” The counter seating and lounge seating were added with a new design that borrows heavily from Japanese tranquility and Scandinavian starkness. A gorgeous birch tree garden lines one side of the dining room, a nod to Girona’s countryside environs and the stunning birch tree atrium in El Celler de Can Roca’s dining room.. Each table is covered in thick, elegant white tablecloths. Some modern clay statue stands on each table. Ours’ appeared to be a frozen sprinting man ready to join for the meal. An open book case behind the open kitchen separates the dining room from the “bar / lounge/ I don’t know really know what to call it.”
Give the Rocas points for design. The dining room is spectacular. The connection between the dining room and the bar is a different story. It’s nothing short of awkward. If the bar is empty, the dining room feels chilly. If the bar were to be packed, the formal dining room would resemble a rock concert.
While some things change, some things haven’t. The restaurant is still the restaurant inside the highly rated chic boutique Hotel Omm. Felip Llufriu remains the chef with the Rocas’ influence. How much of a hand they have in planning the menus remains a great mystery. At the Girona flagship, oldest brother Joan Roca runs the savory dishes, middle brother Josep is sommelier, and youngest brother Jordi is in charge of desserts. They influence each of their respective areas of expertise at Roca Moo.
After its re-opening in February, one Barcelona food writer mentioned that the open bookcase between the bar area and the dining room is to allow for the buzz of the Hotel Omm to surround everyone. The Barcelona Cathedral earlier that day had as much buzz as the Omm did.
And this shocks me still a few weeks later. When I lived in Paris, another American I lived with took a vacation to Barcelona and came back raving about Moo. Barely over a year ago I recommended Moo to a family member and he came back saying that he was turned away without a reservation, but the place looked like THE place to be, and the menu was riveting. Moo has held a Michelin star for years and even the new Roca Moo kept the star in its opening months.
When I opened the Omm’s doors, I thought this desolate, eerily quiet room couldn’t be the same place. Heck, give me credit since it’s hard to decipher the letters saying “Hotel Omm” on the front windows. Bad exterior design and all, this certainly was it.
Maybe word of mouth had spread and I didn’t know it 6,000 miles away despite hours of research.
Diners choose from three menus. There is a 7 course 79 euro “Classics Menu,” a 100 euro 8 course “Joan Roca Menu,” and then roughly half of the two menus’ dishes are available a la carte with a few that aren’t available on either tasting menu. For those keeping score at home, the “Classics Menu” at El Celler de Can Roca is 135 euros, a difference of 35 euros from Barcelona.
It was probably a mistake to go the a la carte route. But all of the items I tried would have been on one of the tasting menus, so that wouldn’t necessarily make them any better. Looking at the El Celler de Can Roca menu, there is no overlap at all with Roca Moo. The famous olive tree with olives covered in anchovy caramel and “sea and mountain” dish of oyster with destyllated soil appears only in Girona. Frankly, the El Celler de Can Roca menu looks like it very much deserves to be best in the world.
South in the big city, a few of Llufriu’s Modern Catalan dishes were thrilling. That crayfish incorporated brilliant curry and rose tastes and fragrances, along with a magnificent deft touch to the seafood to create a dish that surely will be on my year end best bites list. A rollicking second amuse bouche of herring caviar in sesame mayonnaise and drops of basil oil wasn’t far behind. Another amuse of dehydrated potato skin wrapped potato and mayonnaise evoking the tapas staple patatas bravas should replace all versions of the usually mundane dish at tapas bars across the country. A bite of squid ink puffs (think squid ink stained chips) certainly was the perfect opening accompaniment to some Fino Sherry.
Most of the meal was good, though far too often unremarkable. And yes, there were foams everywhere. Molecular gastronomy will never go away.
Sheep curds as solid cubes, foam, and yogurt form joined tender lamb shoulder that boasted the exact right proportion of crisp fatty skin to meat that a great suckling pig would have. Not that you noticed the yogurt elements, but at least the meat was stellar. The lamb was cooked sous-vide briefly, executed to moist perfection with none of the grey, soggy notes that tend to mark sous-vide side affects. The few large capers were the only flavor addition to the lamb though, failing to make the dish more than one note.
More foam came as a truffle foam that didn’t taste remotely of truffle. The faint dab of bubbles covered barely a corner of a slightly dry sea bass. Bland artichoke sauce did nothing to perk matters up for what was hands down the most disappointing dish from the kitchen. It tasted like the entrée for a de-tox diet.
The highly recommended meat cannelloni with milk skin starter did nothing to re-store my lack of faith in pasta’s black sheep cousin. Again, everything tasted like nothing with the skin’s texture disturbingly rubbery. If there’s any close comparison, it would be to a somewhat dry, coarse tamale. I don’t think the milk skin intended to evoke starchy masa. This was a far cry from its friend the crayfish across the table.
I thoroughly enjoyed a large plate’s cylinder of pigeon liver in a pool of sweet corn sauce next to petite baby corn towers and a few dehydrated corn kernels. The meat was head-strong, almost too vivid in pigeon flavor with a hefty dose of liver’s dramatic flair. Imagine a gamey steak bordelaise coasted in foie gras. I couldn’t stop. Then on the other side of the plate were slices of blood rare, chewy, sinewy pigeon breast. It’s not good when eating meat has the same sound as chomping down on walnuts. How the liver could be such a masterpiece and the regular meat so neglected escapes me.
An amuse bouche of chilled on the rocks Campari truffles seemed to have been rushed in experimentation, too. The herbal- sweet Campari flavor is delightful, but the fragile truffles exploded upon finger tip touch which doesn’t bode well for a liquid center truffle. We’ll just say at least one tablemate didn’t get to eat her truffle.
Jordi Roca is arguably the most renowned of the three brothers, even drawing adoring praise from Ferran Adria. He’s daring with savory flavors frequently incorporated in traditional pastries. His experiments flirt with music or even evoke the sensation of scoring a World Cup soccer goal while eating a chocolate creation. Getting to eat a Roca dessert and be Lionel Messi at the same time? Count me in.
What we had for dessert was an acceptable chocolate dessert that at least visually was striking and a strawberry dessert that lacked any spark. I didn’t win the World Cup I guess.
Chocolate foam (surprise) and what appeared to be chocolate mousse mud book-ended a serpentine white chocolate strand with various chocolate wafers, branches, sponges, and other textures conveying the “Chocolates of the World.” You couldn’t help but enjoy the various chocolates. However, there was no real fork-dropping stunner amidst the half dozen chocolate iterations. Piece by piece each component was fine while being far short of special. There was no killer instinct or daring innovation you’d expect from a relentlessly chocolate themed orchestration. There has to be a knockout punch.
I don’t have much to say about the “strawberries and cream” other than the various forms of wild strawberries, strawberry sorbet, condensed strawberries, and strawberry soup didn’t move anyone at the table. Calling this a let down would be fair. It was like a big bowl of cloyingly sweet maraschino cherry broth with a few fresh, juicy strawberries, and a few unripe bitter ones. Move on.
Should I have sat in the empty bar instead? The menu there tempts with “street food” that flirts between what you might find if Southeast Asia merged with Spain and blended tapas with street vendor items. You can get a trio of hamburger sliders and patatas bravas or an oxtail in red wine sauce bocadillo (mini sandwich), all of which are found throughout Spain. Then there’s the category-less chicken tandoori with yogurt sauce. At least it’d be more tempting if there was a big tandoori oven in back. The bar even has a menu section devoted to “healthy dishes.” After a few days of gorging on croquettes and Iberian ham, quinoa with vegetables and green curry doesn’t sound so unappealing. Most of us though don’t travel across the Atlantic for a week to eat yoga cuisine.The empty restaurant may have caused Roca Moo to feel uninspired to bring a grand performance this evening. This indeed is a dramatic setting, one that fits both the hip dinner crowds that Barcelona has no shortage of and families and couples looking for a calmer, mature sending. Any nightclub- scenester reputation Moo had during its decade run, Roca Moo doesn’t seem to have carried on.
There are some spectacular highlights from the crawfish to the birch trees, but not enough of them. The disconnect between the hotel lobby, the bar, and the dining room makes you wonder what exactly Roca Moo is and aspires to be. No matter what Roca Moo intends to become, don’t come here expecting an experience similar to El Celler de Can Roca. If the re-model this year aspired to make Roca Moo more closely resemble the flagship’s gastronomic excellence, there is still much work to be done.
Roca Moo isn’t the best restaurant in the world. That’s to be expected. But it should be closer to being one of the best restaurants in Barcelona.
Hotel Omm, Rosselló 265, Barcelona, Spain
+34 93 445 40 00