- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

SANT POL DE MAR, Spain — A first-time visitor sees little on the road to Sant Pol de Mar to warn that this quiet north Mediterranean village harbors a restaurant whose chef has dazzled the world.

By night the surroundings are hauntingly peaceful. A lighthouse at nearby Calella flashes across the sea and onto the tower of the medieval hermitage of Sant Pau, illuminating a restaurant of the same name that is set in a white-walled town, nestled in a rocky coastline.

Confirmation of the restaurant’s status came this year when the Michelin Red Guide awarded it a third star, elevating its owner and chef, Carme Ruscalleda, 53, to the highest rank in the culinary firmament and making her the first Spanish woman to attain such a distinction.

She is also one of only two women worldwide to currently hold Michelin’s highest rating.

“The euphoria felt on hearing about the third star came about thanks to a great level of human talent,” said Mrs. Ruscalleda, generously sharing the plaudits with her staff.

It is Mrs. Ruscalleda’s breathtaking creative ability that is making waves. She has blossomed in a country that cherishes food, and she has scaled the heights of a trade traditionally dominated by men.

A typical meal consists of around 26 separate items, starting with five tiny tapas — Spanish-style mini-dishes — that reflect the chef’s mood for the month and often combine Catalan influences with nuances from overseas.

The sea plays a big role in Sant Pau’s tasting menu. Typically, four consecutive dishes echo the best catches landed at local ports Arenys de Mar and Mataro.

One unforgettable creation is Mrs. Ruscalleda’s apple consomme — not a soup, rather an exquisite combination of 13 freshly harvested coast vegetables, perfectly matched to blend with the aromas and flavors of regional sea urchins. The dish is suffused with warm apple consomme, which is poured over the plate immediately before eating, triggering a magical sensory moment.

The fish dishes are normally followed by a single, exemplary meat offering, which could be chosen from beef, venison or Iberian pork, followed by a selection of five cheeses.

Two exquisite desserts are topped off with coffee punctuated by seven tiny fun accompaniments.

Food prepared and presented at this level doesn’t come cheap. With wine, a tasting menu costs about $240 per person.

Among her peers — there are four other three-star chefs in Spain — she is highly regarded.

“To receive three Michelin stars is like touching heaven with your fingertips, dressed as a cook,” said Martin Berasategui, one of Europe’s most revered chefs. “Carme’s three stars highlight the importance of Spanish gastronomy on a global level.”

Cross the threshold of Sant Pau — Saint Paul in the local Catalan language — and you enter a relaxed world of understated luxury, every detail immaculately presented and a staff so large that there is nearly one waiter for each of the 35 diners the restaurant can accommodate.

The dining room overlooks an herb garden where cocktails are served in summer and, in the background, the Mediterranean Sea.

Mrs. Ruscalleda is heartened by the many young couples that come, aware of where they are eating. They question and analyze, she says.

“My father never took me to a restaurant, we didn’t have the social status or the money,” Mrs. Ruscalleda said, emphasizing the changes that Spain has lived through in her lifetime.

The chef said her success went against the grain. “When I was young, a girl didn’t get the same education as her brothers. My brother was trained to take over the family business and I was to marry and look after a husband,” she said.

It was at college that she met her future husband, Antoni Balam, and discovered her talent for cooking.

Mr. Balam encouraged her to pursue her career, and in 1975 they set up a delicatessen offering seasonal Mediterranean coastal fare. Unlike most of the world’s great chefs who study for years under famous mentors, Mrs. Ruscalleda mostly taught herself.

When she and Mr. Balam realized she could go no further professionally with the delicatessen, the idea of a restaurant was born.

Sant Pau opened to a full house on July 1, 1988. “The pressure was so intense I lost my voice,” said Mrs. Ruscalleda.

The first star came in 1991 and the second five years later. Two years ago, she opened another restaurant, modeled after the Sant Pau locale and serving an identical menu, in Tokyo.

The incorporation of subtle Oriental hints into her techniques has reaped further critical acclaim.

Modern Catalan cuisine is, to Mrs. Ruscalleda, “the complexity of simple things, it’s working without a safety net.” She feels Japanese cuisine shares similar attributes.

Aware that environmental change can have an impact on food production, the chef has worried that the world’s best foods may some day be raised on private estates and confined to the tables of the superrich.

Her menus include caviar, a subject that draws a thoughtful expression from Mrs. Ruscalleda.

She believes it is vital to protect the environment and that the natural caviar business currently shows scant respect for an extraordinary product. In future, only caviar from sustainable sources will grace her menus.

“Society is seduced by beauty but food must have a soul, too,” said Mrs. Ruscalleda.

• • •

Sant Pau: visit www.ruscalleda.com or call 34/93-760-06-62. The restaurant is in Sant Pol de Mar, about 33 miles, or a half-hour, from Barcelona. Closed all day Monday, Sunday evenings and Thursday lunchtime, and for the first three weeks of May and the first three weeks of November.

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