Two years old and Michelin starred, Moments at Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona is already a Catalan dining sensation, thanks to the direction of celebrated chef Carme Ruscalleda, her chef son, Raül Balam, and their artful, seasonal Mediterranean gastronomy

Parrot fish with cucumber and mustard, served at Moments restaurant

Parrot fish with cucumber and mustard, served at Moments restaurant

Moments chefs Raül Balam and Carme Ruscalleda

Moments chefs Raül Balam and Carme Ruscalleda

It’s a Thursday in early summer and, outside, the sun is already high in a ferociously deep-blue Catalonia sky. Today, the Mediterranean light, bouncing off the modernista buildings on Passeig de Gràcia, usually so benign, is unforgiving.

Step inside Mandarin Oriental, Barcelona, though, where the liveried doorman shoots you a smile that is pure Hollywood, and the hurly-burly of the city instantly recedes. In Moments, the hotel’s Michelin-starred signature restaurant, which the Catalans pronounce ‘Mo-MENZ’ – emphasis on the second syllable – the pre-lunch atmosphere is almost palpably calm, the silent, soothing air conditioning a benison.

Moments is run by the legendary Catalan chef Carme Ruscalleda, the world’s only female chef to hold six Michelin stars. Her three Michelin-starred restaurant, the Sant Pau, in the seaside town of Sant Pol de Mar, just north of Barcelona, has been dazzling diners for more than 20 years, and, in 2004, Ruscalleda opened Sant Pau in Tokyo, which holds two Michelin stars.

Carme is bright, pert and alert, with the archiest eyebrows, and although we’ve never met before, she greets me warmly, with a kiss, like an old friend. I comment on the little yellow rose pinned to her blouse. ‘Actually,’ she corrects me, gently, ‘it’s a hypericum.’ Today, she tells me, is the Feast of Sant Joan, when, traditionally, women in Catalonia collect and wear these flowers. Note to self: know your roses from your hypericums (and probably also your St John’s wort) before interviewing famous chefs; research is the first rule of journalism.

The ‘Mondrian’ dessert, influenced by the artist’s abstract paintings

The ‘Mondrian’ dessert, influenced by the artist’s abstract paintings

When Mandarin Oriental laid out plans to open its first hotel in Catalonia, it wanted a signature restaurant that would showcase the autonomous region’s rich and distinct cuisine. Carme Ruscalleda was the obvious choice to head it up (Mandarin Oriental, as you already know, has extraordinary powers of persuasion). Her son, Raül Balam, who started working with her professionally in the kitchen of the Sant Pau 15 years ago, would wield the whisk, overseeing the day-to-day running of Moments, as the new restaurant was going to be named. He looks like a young Prince Felipe, neat and compact and rather handsome, though as a dyed-in-the-wool Catalan, he might not thank me for saying so.

There’s a wonderful picture of Carme and Raül standing together in their chefs’ whites, leaning in towards each other, both smiling, foreheads just touching, which seems to me to capture their relationship perfectly. It’s a moment of intimacy between mother and son, but it’s also, literally, a meeting of minds.

Michelin confirms a job well done. There are more positives than negatives
Carme Ruscalleda

Iconic Sixties glassware by Tapio Wirkkala for Iittala

Iconic Sixties glassware by Tapio Wirkkala for Iittala

Untypically, for a chef of his calibre and finesse, Raül has had relatively little experience outside Sant Pol. There have been the odd stages away, including a stint at the three-starred Akelarre in San Sebastián, but somehow Catalonia always called him back.

At Moments, he is 50km from ‘home’, close enough to feel involved but very much his own man. ‘If Sant Pau was the creative explosion,’ Balam is on record as saying, ‘Moments is the wisdom.’ A couple of Sant Pau classics, like pigeon or sea cucumbers (espardenyes) – whose peculiar physiognomy Carme rushes to explain – have made their way to the city, but otherwise the menus in the two establishments are distinct. Both are illustrated with Carme’s famous sketches, which distinguish her as an artist almost as much as a chef. Raül, too, is an accomplished draughtsman, who has inherited his mother’s drawing skills – in fact, their technique is uncannily similar.

Our cooking has to be a fiesta in the mouth
Raül Balam

The press makes much of the fact that Carme – with her six Michelin stars – is a woman. For her own part, she doesn’t see it as significant. ‘Masculine, feminine – for me, it’s not important,’ she says, shrugging off the suggestion that there may be something in it. ‘People say a woman cooks more sensually than a man, that oysters, for example, are somehow feminine, but I don’t see it like that. There are men cooks and women cooks, and that’s about it.’

In fact, what really informs Carme’s cooking are the great humanities. Music, art and literature inspire her and place her dishes in a wider context. A song, a painting or a book can all be transposed into a dish, or series of dishes. This is intellectual cooking, a cuisine not only inseparable from its locale (the Mediterranean), but also from the zeitgeist. It’s not a stretch to say that the more familiar you are with contemporary Catalan culture – the singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat, for example; the composer Pere Vilà; the theatrical producer Joan Font; or the artist Riera i Aragó, for instance – the more you will take away from a Ruscalleda lunch or dinner. (Think of Bach – you don’t need to understand ‘contrapuntal invention’ or ‘motivic control’ to enjoy the St Matthew Passion, but it will certainly enhance the experience.)

The drinks trolley

The drinks trolley

I want to know how Moments differs from the original Sant Pau. ‘We could have just transferred the Sant Pau to the city,’ says Carme, ‘but we wanted to reinterpret it. There’s so much competition in Barcelona, you have to be mindful of that, but the philosophy of the cuisine is the same.’

‘At the Sant Pau,’ says Raül, ‘eating is a leisurely affair, but in the city there are a lot of distractions. We try to stay focused.’

I wonder about the pressure of maintaining Michelin stars. ‘There’s no real pressure,’ says Carme. ‘We do this for ourselves, anyway, and Michelin… well, Michelin just confirms a job well done. Certainly, there are more positives than negatives,’ she adds, more cautiously.

Carme has won awards and accolades by the yard and is the author of numerous books, including Cuina per ser Feliç (Cook to be Happy) and Carme Ruscalleda’s Mediterranean Cuisine, which is published in English. With Raül, she has put together a secret address book exclusively for Mandarin Oriental – a gastronomic guide to Barcelona, full of hidden gems and local favourites off the beaten tourist track, beautifully illustrated by Carme. She has been honoured at national level in Spain, as well as by several regional Spanish governments, who have paid homage to her ‘art’ and raising the ante for Spanish cooking, helping to thrust Spain centre stage in international gastronomy. One of her proudest achievements, though, is to have had a sardana, the traditional Catalan dance, written for her by composer Pere Vilà (who just happens to be her husband’s trumpet teacher). It was played for the first time by a band on a summer’s evening in the garden of the Sant Pau, which was, she says, ‘one of the loveliest experiences of my life.’

To eat well, you must eat like your great-grandfather…
Carme Ruscalleda

For all she is a great chef, writer, artist and illustrator; for all she is a good businesswoman, resolute and self-disciplined, she is, I suspect, a softie at heart. Like Catalans, generally, she has a very strong work ethic, but it is coupled with a good grasp of the important things in life. There’s no point in achieving if it can’t be shared with family and friends. Her biography, CR20: 20 Years of the Sant Pau, is peppered with references to family dinners and celebrations, and celebrity seems only to have strengthened her ties to her roots, her culture and her family. In my view, it’s no coincidence that her name, Carme, is pronounced ‘karma’: there’s a remarkable aura around her. ‘She is hyper-modest, hyper-easy,’ a work colleague tells me, pointing out that fame has not affected her. ‘If a journalist emails her with a question she has been asked a hundred times before, she never answers with a “stock” answer, but always a personalised one – and, what’s more, she does it the same day.’

With Dr Manuel Sanchez, of the prestigious Clinica Planas institute in Barcelona, she has recently developed an anti-ageing menu, based on a Mediterranean diet. I put it to her that one, or even two, restaurant meals can’t really hold back the years. ‘Of course not,’ she says, ‘but it’s an idea, a way of living. To eat well,’ she says, quoting Dr Sanchez, ‘you must eat like your great-grandfather, only with a contemporary approach.’ What she means by this is that 70 or 80 years ago, the bulk of our diet would have been grown locally, with little or no processed food. We need to emulate this, she says, only using better recipes. It makes a lot of sense.

Chef Balam preparing sea cucumber

Chef Balam preparing sea cucumber

What, I wonder, is her take on altering the classics? ‘I might use similar but more refined ingredients, and with a different treatment,’ she says. ‘The smallest peas and beans, the freshest olive oil, the babiest garlic, a sofrito cooked for a shorter time… It’s evolution, not revolution.’

‘And every flavour needs to be distinct,’ adds Raül, who keeps disappearing into the kitchen but is now back around the table with us. ‘Our cooking has to be a fiesta in the mouth.’

In the restaurant, the lunch service is getting into its stride. You have to see this room to appreciate it: the palest of pale blue ceilings is reflected in the palest turquoise handwoven carpet, all shot through with gold. The staff uniforms – pale blue, of course – are Fifties air stewardess-meets-Givenchy-meets-Star Trek, classic as well as ‘now’, but also somewhere in the future. A metaphor, perhaps, for Carme’s cucina.

Lunch begins with the ‘Micro-menu’, four tiny ‘courses’, in size somewhere between an amuse-bouche and a first course, which has become a personal hallmark at the Sant Pau and also at Moments – four little dishes that encapsulate an entire meal in miniature, always with a theme. Today, the theme is pink: a Pink Martini with macadamia nuts, olives and pink grapefruit; marinated anchovy in pink mayonnaise; a baby ‘baguette’ with Catalan sausage and pink pepper; and a cherry and rose salad. These dishes are, by the way, almost ethereal.

The CR20 cava was made by Mont-Ferrant, using Carme’s coupage, to mark the 20th anniversary of her Sant Pau restaurant

The CR20 cava was made by Mont-Ferrant, using Carme’s coupage, to mark the 20th anniversary of her Sant Pau restaurant

Raül sniffs out the best cheeses at La Teca de Vila Viniteca in Barcelona

Raül sniffs out the best cheeses at La Teca de Vila Viniteca in Barcelona

Next up, a dish of cod tartar, inspired by a painting by the artist Riera i Aragó, is brought out (along with the postcard of the painting, propped up in a little wooden frame – food imitating art), a shimmering tartar, wrapped, so it seems, in cellophane, though this being Catalonia, the land of Miró and Dalí, nothing is ever exactly as it seems. Then, a gazpacho. If you’d ever told me gazpacho could be improved by adding strawberry, I’m afraid I would have laughed out loud. But yes, it works. (And how it works!)

A dish of sea cucumbers comes with tiny beans and a cream of baby spinach, a dish of utter refinement, with grated daikon turnip, which seems Japanese-y, but in fact is grown here, near Barcelona, in the Maresme. A parrot fish, from the warm waters of the Balearics, is presented in its entirety, before being whisked away and filleted (thank goodness, because life is too short to deal with tiny bones) and brought back as three small strips, golden on one side, blinding white on the other, with cucumber and mustard, a mini miracle of a fish dish. And so it goes on – food that is brilliant in the sense of intellectual conceit and aesthetic presentation, but never, never at the cost of culinary compromise.

Moments is also glamorous in a way Barcelona restaurants – even the very smartest – generally aren’t. You can dress up in heels (there’s a branch, after all, of Manolo Blahnik right here in the hotel), or down in flats, and still feel right at home. Looking around I see a pair of bankers (you can clock the handmade suits), a girl who is a doppelgänger for Marisa Berenson, a Catalan grandee with a silver-topped cane, and a lady dining alone, with a ruby ring the size of a small island. Like Carme Ruscalleda herself, Moments has style in spades.

After the lamb, and the cheese, and after a tropical salad of red fruits, and the chocolate tibio with spicy pine nuts, and after ‘The Eight Pastry Divertimenti’, which is Moments-speak for petits fours, I am sipping a sensational PX 1982 pudding wine when Raül makes his rounds. And, untypically, words fail me. ‘This was… this is…’ I stammer. I mean, where to begin? So he helps me out.

‘A fiesta in the mouth?’ You got it. A fiesta in the mouth. And, thanks to mother and son, a moment in time I will be unlikely to forget.

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