Is it possible to go into Els Jardins de la Mercè and come out in under two hours? Pretty much everybody we know who's ever been there has started with lunch and ended up having drinks in the garden, then a session at the bar. There are lots of reasons to head to this Girona restaurant: the food (good and well-presented), having a few drinks in the garden that it's renowned for, enjoying a cultural event... Indeed Els Jardins de la Mercè is much more than a restaurant. It's a gastronomic and cultural space where they host concerts, poetry recitals, art shows and even secret markets.
Palau Lo Mirador in Torroella is a 14th-century building from where local lords once controlled the Empordà plain. It has been the residence of the Counts of Barcelona, and it's said that King Jaume I (known as 'the Conqueror'), stayed there. Nowadays it's a hotel, and the former carriage house has been converted into a restaurant. Its proximity to both the plain and the sea (L'Estart is close by), means that the kitchen benefits from all the finest elements of the Mediterranean diet. The menu is full of typical local dishes that have been given a modern touch: fish and shellfish soup with perfume of Pastis; millefeuille of foie and Torroella apple; and grilled sea bass with casserole juices. The 'Selection' set menu includes a list of archetypal dishes that mix ingredients from the sea and land in equal part.
Leave your stress at home and relax in front of the sea. La Calma, situated on the beachfront, is a chill-out restaurant, with a tranquil, relaxed ambience. It offers a set lunch menu, but is also a great place to go with family or friends for a long, lazy meal. The menu isn't huge but it is varied and innovative, with dishes such as fried cod with cream of 'morcilla' (black sausage) and lettuce vinaigrette. They have Oriental touches like the yakisoba noodles with vegetables and langoustines, and tuna sashimi. You'll also find classics including steak tartare, fried squid rings, 'patates braves' (fried potatoes with a spicy sauce) and croquettes. The wine cellar is extensive and largely features Empordà varieties. Accompany your moment of calm with a house cocktail (made using a secret formula) or one of their gin and tonics, that are served into the early hours.
Passatges ('Landscapes') is the name of the memorial that sculptor Dani Karavan erected in Portbou in tribute to German philosopher Walter Benjamin. According to the chef, Sergi Gubert, the monument can also be used to reflect the restaurant's cuisine, with its equally close relationship with the natural elements surrounding it. The menu is small because it's mainly a seasonal set menu that changes according to the time of year; similarly, the daily set menu changes each week and is very affordable. Gubert likes to work with local products but he also makes small homages to different types of international cuisine. He seeks out a combination of ingredients and flavours with which, even if they don't initially seem like they will go together, he can achieve a good match and some surprise factor on every plate; this is cuisine that likes to take risks.
A 'masia' (Catalan country house) and a menu full of fish and shellfish in the heart of the Costa Brava - at El Ventall you'll eat like royalty, enjoying the most treasured delicacies of the Mediterranean that feature on their menu. Its closeness to Blanes is a guarantee of the quality of the fish that they serve, and the prawns are the stars of the show. Enjoy Blanes prawns cooked in a variety of ways, such as with their reduction and Catalan 'picada' (a special seasoning added to many traditional Catalan dishes toward the end of cooking), grilled with Camargue salt, and the classic sautée with garlic and parsley. Like any good seafood restaurant El Ventall also has rice dishes, paellas and browned noodles. And among its specialities, the desserts are another stand-out.
Despite being by the sea, there's much more to the Empordà than fish. That's made clear at El Trull d'en Francesc, with its menu featuring traditional Empordà cuisine based mainly on meat from the county and surrounding areas. Duck is the protagonist: the leg is roasted and crispy, the magret cooked on the grill, and the foie comes either in a terrine or in a pan with confit of apple and cabernet sauvignon sauce. Pork also plays a key role, and again El Trull makes the most of every part available - two examples to whet your appetite: pork cheeks roasted in the oven, and a stew of pig's trotters with cuttlefish. And to ensure you know that traditional delicacies can also be innovative, don't miss the warm carpaccio of pig's trotters with foie and olive vinaigrette. On the grill they also cook Empordà lamb and goat, and an 800g ox entrecote, which is only suitable for champion carnivores!
Following the closure of El Bulli in Cala Montjoi, Els Brancs is the only restaurant in Roses with a Michelin star. The restaurant experienced its turning-point in 2012, when, to the surprise and excitement of both directors and staff, it was given the star, its first big culinary award. In charge of the kitchen is Granada chef Javier Cabrera, who trained with both Ferran Adrià and Joan Roca. His speciality is signature, creative Catalan cuisine, and he uses products from the area, sometimes transforming famous regional dishes – Cabrera pays careful attention to ensuring that every last detail on the plate is excellent through the use of the latest techniques. Choose between the full Experiènces menu and a cheaper tasting menu that changes constantly. If the weather allows, try to get a table on the terrace, and dwell on the idyllic setting in the Bay of Roses.
Els Pescadors was an old tavern in the port of Llançà until, some 30 years ago, the Fernández-Punset family transformed it into a creative seafood restaurant. They create 'mar i muntanya' (surf and turf) combinations in line with what's in season. To update traditional seafood dishes, Lluís, the chef, brings to bear everything he's learnt from various haute cuisine restaurants around Catalonia, such as Girona's El Celler de Can Roca, and further afield. Dishes include rice with crab, lobster stew, sea cucumbers with cod tripe and black sausage, and king prawns au gratin with confit of wild mushrooms. In the summer, if you can't bear to spend more than a few minutes away from the beach, you can always get a rice dish from Els Pescadors to take away. The perfect option for picnics on the sand!
Don't wait for people to tell you about this place: you need to experience the charms of La Devesa de Tor for yourself. Visit the small Empordà village of Tor and immerse yourself in this restored 16th-century masia. The atmosphere will take you to an exotic, sensual place and time, from where you won't want to return. Go into any of the rooms, each with their own suggestive name (the Cove, the Intimate, the Clandestine, the Sky...), and if you're in good company, prepare for a romantic evening with chill-out music and candlelight. Enjoy the variety of seductive cocktails on offer as well as the selection of sophisticated gin and tonics, beers and alcohol-free options. And if the experience gets your appetite going, you can accompany your drinks with a selection of Iberian cured meats ('embotits'), local cheeses and foies. An unforgettable place.
This is place was virtually a must-include, because if you can get to 'the end of the world' in less than two hours by car, you absolutely should go at least once in your life. Twenty-five years ago, a British biologist fell in love with this former Civil Guard barracks, and set up a restaurant along with a few bedrooms to rent. Over the years, it's gained a mythical standing, thanks in large part to its New Year's Eve paties and because if you go there at the height of winter, you can battle it out with the 'tramuntana' wind. Some people say that the premises, which have a clear bohemian vibe, need to be done up and that in high season the queues to get served are long. But we don't really think that's a problem because just by getting there, sitting down and looking into the far-off distance, it's worth planning a day trip one Tuesday in February. Although don't forget to wrap up warm.