Amics: Friends in Priorat

Amics is the Catalan word for friends, and it’s the name chosen by chef Marc Pi, who cut his teeth in one of the mythical restaurants in Priorat—Irreductibles—which was the center of the gastronomical scene in Gratallops between 2003 and 2010. Sara Pérez and René Barbier Jr. were the creators of this restaurant whose name was inspired by the comics about Asterix and his group of Gaul warriors who resisted Roman attacks. And Marc Pi was their chef. 

After Irreductibles, chef Pi founded a restaurant inside the Buil & Giné winery and hotel, also on the outskirts of Gratallops—you can literally see the l’Ermita vineyard from the restaurant! That’s where he set up his own place that is run independently from the winery, which mostly provides oenological services for others. The wine list is not wines from Buil & Giné; however, what we drank during our lunch coinciding with my tastings in the region was not from their list either. 

I’d describe the food as updated Catalan comfort food: traditional Catalan with fresh, seasonal ingredients, not heavy, with some modern, creative touches. It’s one of my favorite places in Priorat. How more classic can you get than a bowl of olives and vegetable chips while you order your food?

Winter months can be very slow in Priorat, with many places remained closed for a few weeks after Christmas, which was when I was in the region. We were the only table for lunch, and if we hadn’t booked they would have probably remained closed, so phone and book in advance just in case. There is always some kind of daily menu, which is always a good option, and that particular day it suited perfectly—a light-ish lunch as I had to continue working afterwards, and there’s nothing worse than having to go back to work after a heavy lunch.

We went straight for the first white, a wine that thrills me to bits every time I have it. Edmond Vatan is one of those old timers whose wines represent the essence of tradition and the zone where they work as respected, iconic as well as modest and normal as are Noël Verset, Marius Gentaz-Dervieux, Raymond Trollat or Marcel Juge. Like all those, Vatan retired and sold most of his vineyard, but kept making the little wine the French law allows winegrowers to make without losing their pension. But in the case of Vatan he was lucky that his daughter Anne married Nady Foucault of Clos Rougeard fame, who must have encouraged his wife to keep making the few thousand bottles per year that for many represent the best Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre.
The distinct green label of Vatan’s Clos La Néore, the benchmark Sancerre, the sight of which always gives me butterflies in my stomach.

The Clos La Néore has a very distinct bottle and label, but an even more distinct mineral profile, a lot more about the chalky soils of this small clos within the Les Montes Damnés vineyard, closer to a Chablis than anything from New Zealand, a proverbial white that seems made with rocks rather than grapes. The 2014 is sharp and focused, precise and laser cut, a great vintage after some ups and downs in the transition years. If you ever see that distinct green label anywhere, grab it. You won’t be disappointed.
Deviled yucca?

We had a few amuse bouches that were nicely washed down by the racy Vatan, starting with some yuca brava. Patatas bravas—literally, brave potatoes—is a well-known tapa, nothing other than fried potato cubes with a spicy brava sauce, a deviled mayonnaise. Substitute potatoes with yuca (or cassava or manihot esculenta, if you like) a different tuber which was given a kind of tempura coating, as it doesn’t fry as crisp as potatoes, and voilà!
Ebro Delta in one bite: eel on rice.

The eel on rice was, literally, only able to amuse our mouths as it was one bite—a spoonful of boiled white rice with a piece of eel—as if it were a nigiri, which went down in a blink. Eel is a very popular fish in the neighboring (some 40 kilometers as the crow flies, longer if you take the winding roads of Priorat!) Delta del Ebro, a huge wetland area where the Ebro River meets the Mediterranean Sea, where they also grow lots of rice. So very Ebro Delta…
Surf and turf Catalan style: octopus and pork belly!

More substantial was the octopus and pork belly skewers, which followed the Catalan tradition of mixing fish and meat in a surf and turf, mar y montaña, combination. More substantial and also larger as it was a proper dish, three small skewers of grilled octopus and crunchy pork belly (an age-old tradition in Spain called panceta) on a bed of mashed potatoes.

There is an obscure white from Penedès, albeit sold without appellation of origin because of the grape mix used, produced by the Familia Nin-Ortiz of Priorat fame. It’s produced with a local strain of Parellada grapes, the Parellada Montonega, which has very high acidity, together with Marsanne, Roussanne, Chenin Blanc and Viognier from the village of Pla de Manlleu around where Ester Nin comes from. They produced small, almost experimental quantities of wine to check on the potential and the evolution of the wine in bottle, as they have the theory that it is a white that is going to have a positive evolution in bottle. I also had the chance to check the 2010 Selma de Nin, which is evolving very much à la Rhône, a white with structure and able to deal with many foods.
Ester Nin was born in Penedès, and although if she lives and works in Priorat, she also produces a white from her homeland.

Escalivada is a classic Catalan dish, nothing more complicated than roasted vegetables of eggplant, red pepper and onion. The version we had at Amics I would say was a mix between escalivada and esqueixada, another icon from the Catalan cuisine, a cold cod salad. Some breadsticks and black garlic gave it texture and an extra dimension of flavor. It’s a very successful dish I’ve had there before, and can be considered one of chef Pi’s signature dishes. The presentation was beautiful.
Marc Pi’s cross between escalivada and esqueixada.

As we were skipping the meat dish, it was time to uncork the red. The 1998 Château Rayas turned out much better than what most of us expected. Around the time Emmanuel Reynaud took over from his late uncle, there was a lot of criticism towards his wines. But Rayas takes time and it usually comes back. That’s probably why it’s never released very young (the latest vintage I see reviewed in our database is the 2012). Anyway, 1998 was a blockbuster vintage in Châteauneuf, but the Rayas is not. It has matured to be a classical, heady Garnacha with garrigue and underbrush aromas, hints of cherries in liqueur with some truffle and decayed autumn leaves. I found it delicious and very drinkable. So drinkable I didn’t even bother photographing it!
Turbot with artichoke and romesco sauce.

The fish course was a bit of a challenge for the red (I had saved a sip of the Vatan!) as artichokes can easily clash with reds. It was a piece of turbot with the aforementioned vegetables, and romesco, a Catalan sauce from the province of Tarragona (where Priorat is), made with dried red peppers, almonds, garlic, oil and tomatoes.

There’s hardly a dessert without chocolate, and today was no exception. The chocolate textures with mandarin, hazelnut and passion fruit explored the great contrasting combinations of chocolate with orange (or similar citrus) and passion fruit. A great chocolate and passion fruit macarón from Pierre Hermé called precisely… Mogador! just came back to my memory while writing these lines and made me salivate immediately, as a benchmark combination of the two ingredients. (Make sure you try it next time you are in Paris.)
Chocolate textures with mandarin, hazelnut and passion fruit.

We had no sweet wine, but we had a liqueur from Tarragona, produced around the year a couple of us at the lunch had been born, over 50 years ago! I’m referring to one of the very few liqueurs that actually IMPROVES in bottle. I’m talking about Chartreuse, of course, a liqueur made by the Carthusian monks, the same order that created the Priorat and the Scala Dei monastery. It’s usually considered a French liqueur, as it’s made in France, but for a long while the monks were expelled from France and set up shop in Tarragona city from where they produced the most sought after and best bottlings of this herbal liqueur between 1903 and 1981. It was the quality of the over 100 herbs, plants and flowers found in this Mediterranean zone of Spain that are part of the secret recipe, plus the particular characteristics of the distillery and the aging conditions it provided that created the famous Tarragone bottlings of this classic liqueur.
Vieux Chartreuse Tarragona, circa 1965.

If you happen to be a Chartreuse aficionado you might already be familiar with the French book Chartreuse, Historie d’un liqueur – Guide de l’amateur, which not only tells you everything you want to know about the famous liqueur, but its visual guide will help you date your old bottles, as they carry no vintage year on them. As with Madeira, I can tell you that for Chartreuse, the older the better, as the alcohol integrates, it mellows down and the curry, white pepper and spice aromas and flavors grow in intensity, making it the most more-ish liqueur on earth. While many search for the more powerful green label (which has higher alcohol), I tend to favor the more elegant yellow which to me, tends to show more finesse and nuance. And it was produced in Tarragona by the same order of monks that created the Priorat.

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