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my yummy valentine
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My Yummy Valentine 2
Photo by Richard Owens
At the risk of sounding somewhat jaded, don’t you just hate Valentine’s Day? I don’t know anyone that likes it. Not the bright-eyed young lovers, nor the married-for-forty-yearers. But in an attempt to get into the spirit of things and use it as an excuse for a lovely treat, let me take you to the most glamorous dining room in town.
Caelis is like going to one of the grand old hotels of London or Paris. Located at the Palace Hotel (formerly the Ritz) in a gilded ballroom with huge pendant crystal chandeliers and a fireplace, it is overseen by Romain Fornell, a precocious young chef who got his first star in 2001, making him the youngest in France to ever receive the accolade. When he joined Caelis he had a vision, and that was to make fine dining accessible to everyone by offering an affordable lunch menu that showcases his skills. Add the cosseting style of service generally reserved for the very rich or very famous, and you have yourself a slice of lunchtime luxury for under €40. You don’t even need to be on a date, because they are so well versed in making lone diners feel comfortable that at the very first whiff of someone flying solo, staff offer newspapers or magazines to help you to look business-like rather than lonely. My favourite bit of all? You can get all dressed up, just because. Yes, there’s much to love about Caelis.
I wasn’t alone, just early to meet a friend for lunch that includes two generous glasses of very good Franco-Catalan wines (Bouquet de blancs—Mas Montel 2011 from the Languedoc-Rousillon) and an absolute cracker of a red (Cuvée Bernard—Domaine Vaquer 2011, also from the Rousillon), water and coffee. That the menu would kick off with several amuse-bouche was a nice extra: a slate topped with an olive spherico (for those who never caught up with the whole molecular gastronomy thing, that’s a sphere of intensely flavoured olive jelly that bursts in your mouth and oozes out olive oil), a ‘lollypop’ of foie and hazelnuts, a couple of macadamia nuts dipped in gold leaf and truffle oil (inspired) and a crackling ‘pizza’ straw. It was followed by a bowl of salmorejo (the Cordoban cold soup, similar to gazpacho), perhaps infused with a pod of vanilla, and a silver skewer threaded with two chunks of monkfish in tempura. Talk about classy.
What I enjoyed most about Fornell’s food was that it was interesting, but completely accessible. With the exception of my starter—a playful take on the ice-cream sandwich, a couple of savoury wafers filled with smoked salmon and cream cheese infused with fennel and lemon—which I found overly sweet, it was all proper, heart-warming stuff. My pal had the ‘capuccino of Puy lentils with smoked pancetta and chive oil’, a delightfully frothy and frivolous dish brought down to earth with the deeply savoury flavours of lentil and pig belly lifted by the sting of the chives.
Sturgeon from a farm in Vall d’Aran that’s got all sorts of accolades for its caviar, cooked sous vide and topped with a champagne foam and some Avruga eggs (from said sturgeon) was a plate of real food, not some namby-pamby, miniscule portion. Think two match-box sized slabs of fish, cooked rare and tender and topped with the fizz foam, dots of roe and an intensely meaty jus, all cut through with the jewel-bright seeds of pomegranate. I ordered the picantón (poussin or baby chicken), boned, meltingly tender with a honeyed yet crisp skin, some artichoke quarters to lend just the faintest note of bitterness, and a smear of hollandaise sauce so bountiful you might call it a dollop, infused with tarragon.
My friend’s lemon meringue pie and a raspberry sorbet wasn’t bad, but the cheese board from Toulouse that included a hard cow, a tart goat and a stinky blue was stupendous. We congratulated ourselves on a job well done. After all, Caelis may be as posh as Downton’s dowager, but it makes you feel like you’ve entered a bubble where all is well in your world, even if just for a couple of hours. It’s an escape from reality and Fornell’s seriously satisfying food comes with just enough pomp and new wave garnish to make it feel ultra special.
One last tip: if you want to experience Fornell’s handiwork first hand, reserve the chef’s table in the kitchen (seats 6-8).
Caelis, Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes 668, (Eixample Dreta). Tel. 93 510 1205 www.caelis.com
Open Wed-Sat 1.30pm-3.30pm (lunch);
Tue-Sat 8.30pm-11pm. Closed Mon & Sun.
Lunch menu €39, Evening menu €75/€120. ✪✪✪✪