The guidebook said that “this is usually everybody’s favorite restaurant”. I knew that was almost always a give a way for a place I’d dislike. It also said, “when the King of Spain had one place to dine amongst the commoners, he chose this establishment”. Strike two.
We entered Ca L’ Isidre and within mere moments no longer doubting.
The dining room was warmly lit in the mid-afternoon time of our arrival. Lunch opens at 1:30. A be-speckled young man who, we learned later, was named “Pep” greeted us with menus and a wine list. He softly explained that he would allow us to read the menus and then he would come back to explain the daily specials. I asked if wouldn’t mind reversing that order in that I wanted to know the specials now. He complied.
Our decision to switch from having our main meal at lunch instead of the wear and tear program of dinner at 11 p.m. was in its first day of trial and I wasn’t sure how far I could convince Janet to take it. I said, as Pep stepped away for a moment, “we are having wine.” She said, “Great!” I took it another step, “Red wine too”. She said, “fine”. I could see the new program had merit. I asked if she wanted to start with a glass of white. Pep returned. She asked him; for he spoke fluent English (in a way that had a unique quality that I began to note as the lunch progressed) “If we don’t finish a bottle are we permitted to take it back to our hotel?”
“Yeeeees”, he answered slowly, letting the word out slowly but positively.
She said. “Well…let’s get a bottle of each!” Love that girl…
And so it began.
As Pep opened the bottle of Riaxas Baixas Albariño, Pazo Senorans, 2004 he explained the specials and answered our questions about some of the menu items.
Pep’s way of speaking that was both soothing and gently comical. It was a mantra that became part of our 3 ½ hour lunch. You might not anticipate it when he approached the table. It was more subtle than that…until he did it again, and then it was like, the “oh yes” of a musical refrain. It was like this and I hope you can “hear” it. He would inquire, “Would you like your wine …. put in the ice” …with the ‘put in the ice’ spoken a half octave lower.
“May I bring you the wine list…to see the red wines” …dropping down on the second half.
“Do you have any questions that I can answer…about the specials” … and so on.
His eyes were nearly flat in terms of expression, but it was not the flatness of unfriendliness or boredom. It was a way of being a waiter in the old way where intrusion was seen as a major break in decorum. And he was a young man. Perhaps his father was a waiter before him. Only once in a while did he allow a bit of light and humor enter his dark brown eyes.
In ‘Ca L’Isidre’ we were only waited on by Pep. He delivered water, bread, wine, and food and answered our many questions. He explained that he worked both lunch and dinner…there were only 50 seats…so they would never do more than 50 lunches or 50 dinners. Your seat was your seat for the service. The L’ Isidre family has owned the restaurant for nearly 50 years. The guidebooks will tell you that the King of Spain ate here and there is a picture to back it up on a table very near ours.
Four kinds of bread are offered by Pep, “Would you like rosemary, Ciabatta, wheat….and, (voice dropping) …or whiiiiiiiite? (Dragging down that last word too).
A small side table with wheels abutted our spacious table. It had a top shelf for our red wine, (I’d ordered the Clos Mogodor Priorat 2002) and beautiful wine glasses that would be filled with that wine later in our meal. A display of gourds in a silver container was the only adornment. On a lower shelf they have a tray for cigar accoutrements.
Men came in…several parties…all in suits…local men. The waiters here wear white tuxedo coats, black pants, black shoes and bow ties. There are three of them working the lunch today.
Our table was prepared for the savory courses; fork, sauce spoon, shellfish cracker, crustacean pick and a fish knife. The stage was set. We drew from our Albariños and clinked our glasses. Who cares? We always toast our glasses.
We received Langoustine Raviolis in a light lime vinaigrette. There were three of the pasta packages and there was really nothing more in the envelopes of tender ravioli than the langoustines. The bowl contained a touch of the cooking fumet, butter, a light olive oil and the lime. It was a gentle partner for the wine.
We also received an item that was not on the menu as written but that they were happy to provide…split in half langoustines…seared on the plancha, (the Spanish griddle so often used for cooking fish and shellfish) and that’s it…no sauce…none needed. The langoustines had Mother Nature providing the spectrum in toto.
Our next course featured some locally harvested mushrooms.
Pep had asked, “Would you like the ‘Mushrooms with Egg and Jamón’ made with tromp d’ la morte, rossinyals…. or…the chan…te…..relles?”
“Chanterelles.” we chimed.
The mix of the eggs, jamón, and mushrooms came in a very deep “belly button” shaped dish to hold the egg that broke decadently over the harvest of the Spanish countryside these chanterelles bloomed not more than a day or so ago. The jamón was a brittle wafer adding a note of porky salt.
Pep came to see how we were faring. I asked him to pronounce the wine for us that we were enjoying and had been for several days in Spain. The “albariño” part was not hard but the “Riaxas Baixas” was a tongue twirler. He did so and that was one of the times the light came into his young/old eyes. “Ree-Us Buy Shus”… or something close he intoned. He went on to explain that ‘Riaxas’ is the “down part of the river” and ‘Baixas’ is “where the river meets the sea”.
We drank some and tried to imagine the river meeting the sea.
Chorizo and potatoes arrived. The dish was simple, albeit a rather gray, off-centered color…calming…quieting…not the river meeting the sea. An animal lying down on the grass.
The table was quietly cleared, and we reached across the table and entwined our fingers. If people in America would only sit and eat and drink a bit of wine with this much peace, reflection, enjoyment and leisure we just might have a chance at getting it…getting why we are here. On Earth.
A gentleman that can only be Sr. Isidre walked the room. He stopped and talked to the men in suits who smoke and nodded their heads knowingly. He poured some olive oil on their tomato bread for them neatly avoiding touching the plate with his elegant tie.
He made his way over to our table by the front. He apologized for his lack of English, but he spoke it well enough for the three of us to converse and for him to show us the picture of the King.
Pep came back and poured the Priorat. The August light poured softly through the windows in reply. The wine was perfect, and he filled them 1/3 of the way up and left to get our main courses.
When Pep had told us about the specials earlier, he explained that since this was a Monday and the bullfights were yesterday, they had “Toro … “Bull”, he added when he saw our surprise.
Pep: “They only get a few portions after the bullfights on the weekend. It is carefully examined and if it passes the inspections Ca L’ Isidre buys the tenderloins only.”
I chose that, and Janet chose the goat. Pep smiled.
While the entrees cooked, we chatted a bit more with Pep. He explained that the restaurant was open five lunches and five dinners a week for service. All of the servers and cooks worked split shifts. He then said, “It is better in America, no?”
I excused myself and headed to the rest room. As in the main dining room the back area and the restrooms are conservatively decorated and exhibit the patina of decades. I closed the door and locked it. I caught myself thinking. “So…the king and I have shared this throne. I’m glad he could lock the door and stand at ease.” I caught my reflection in the mirror. There was beginning to be more of me than when I arrived in Spain. But that would have to be dealt with later!
The goat was a carefully prepared braise. It was not showy in any way. The meat was milder than the goat we ever had in Miami’s “Little Haiti” or in the Caribbean. Its flavor reminded me more of a cross between roast pork and turkey. There was a reduction of the braising juices and some pearl onions. I drank some of the Priorat.
The bull was enrobed in a deep rich sauce. I lifted my steak knife and thought of the “picadors” who began the killing and thus this dish just yesterday in an arena of a sport I don’t understand but cannot pretend I don’t have a connection with in some way. I eat meat. To be squeamish about it being a bull in a country that I am a visitor in would be an act of cultural elitism. Besides…I am a Chef and I have to know certain things…like how does bull taste. It tastes lean and meaty, like bison. And the chef at Ca L’ Isidre knew to do what I would do, make a sauce to make it more interesting.
Desserts arrived and mignardises too. We were so content that we ordered after lunch (!) drinks. A 23-year-old Rhum for me and Janet’s newest passion, Baines Pacharan Navarro de Aroñon…a liquid of herbs, alcohol and spices that make one feel comfortable.
The Cuban cigars were now too much of a temptation. I have laid off all cigars for years now…but I ordered a Hoya de Monterrey Robusto. Pep brought me long matches and wooden tapers and I could hear the voice of Ibrahim Ferrer singing Cuban love songs.
And we are in love…with each other…with Spain…and with Ca L’ Isidre. Pep … he’s a keeper too.
Norman Van Aken, 2005