Villa Más used to be an unknown venue, an insider's restaurant, a paradise for Burgundy lovers in a very nice town on the Costa Brava in Spain. It's still paradise for those of us who love Burgundy, and the place remains as nice as always, but it's now a well-known secret to the point that, according to chef/owner Carlos Orta, he has had to remove the wine list from their website as parties of wealthy Russians were showing up to drink all the most expensive and rare bottles!
Let me explain a little bit. Villa Más is in a tourist resort, S'Agaró-Sant Feliu de Guíxols, province of Gerona, some 100 kilometers northeast of Barcelona, has one of the best Burgundy selections...on earth? For sure one of the best, as Orta is in love with the region; some years ago he started visiting there and developed very good friendships with some of the top producers in the area. They came and visited his restaurant, enjoying the local produce very much, and he slowly managed to get direct allocations from the most sought-after names, which he offers in his restaurant at very moderate prices, with some true bargains to be found. By no means is the whole list Burgundy; there are other gems in there, but to me, a visit to Villa Más means drinking Burgundy and eating fish. So, here we go...
The first bottle to be uncorked was the 2007 Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonerre from the Raveneau brothers, a powerful vineyard in a cold vintage, a good combination in my opinion, showing zesty, fresh, pungent and young, ultra-balanced, laser-cut with everything in place to age superbly showing those wet wool notes that in my book make it a perfect Raveneau example.
There are clams and then there are clams. The best clams in Spain are said to be from the small fishing village of Carril in Villagarcía de Arosa in Pontevedra, Galicia, and those are huge, juicy and tender, like the ones we had, pan-fried with just a little bit of garlic and olive oil. Whether they come from Carril or not is another story, but it doesn't really matter if they are as good as these were. Clams are a classical starter to share—if there are enough clams! Anyway, they were tender and laden with iodine flavors, and its marine character was perfectly matched by the Raveneau, which despite being young, unevolved and missing the complexity it should gain with years in bottle, it was already providing lots of pleasure.
A tuna zuke is a type of marinated tuna, in this case, red tuna. What we were served also looked quite similar to a tataki, as the outside looked like it had been lightly pan-seared. It was delicious and refreshing and it flew off the plate.
Believe it or not, meat cannelloni are a classical Catalan dish, inherited after centuries of trading with the south of Italy. Canelones a la Catalana are often filled with the leftovers of the escudella i carn d’olla, a typical boiled pulses, vegetables and meats dish which is served as a soup and plenty of meat which is a meal on its own, similar to what you find in many other regions of Spain and countries like Italy or Portugal. Whatever minced meats they are filled with, they are always covered with béchamel and finished under the grill. Well, they are really finished on the table...
There were a few wines on the list from a certain Paul Chapelle, a name that was not familiar to me. As we tried ordering something that had sold out, we quickly needed to find an alternative, and the 1985 Meursault grabbed my attention. Both 1985 and 1986 were available, but I didn't quite remember which of the two vintages had been really good for white Burgundy. After some discussion we went for the 1985 and we got it right. The bottle was pristine, brand new label, perfect level and a color that promised a young, unevolved wine through the green glass. As soon as I saw the shiny light yellow liquid fall into the glass I knew that we were in for a treat. It was a classical white Burg, austere, with incredible acidity similar to François Jobard—for whom he had worked—and while it has developed quite a lot of complexity and nuances, it still feels young and lively, and there is no rush to drink the (eventual) remaining bottles. It's a textbook Meursault with the telltale hazelnut and smoke notes, spherical but at the same time with very good acidity that makes it so easy to drink, developing some saline character with a little bit of time. (Not that we gave it a lot of time, mind you.) It's wonderful to find such an unpretentious—village level—bottle that has evolved so well.
Carlos Orta later told us that Paul Chapelle had been the consulting oenologue for lots of the traditional producers of the Côte de Beaune, the already mentioned François Jobard and also Ramonet, Michel Lafarge, Paul Pernot, Simon-Bize or De Montille, many of my favorite names there! He started making wine for himself in 1976 and still offers—at least to Orta—limited quantities of older vintages, like that 1985 which he purchased only last year. He officially retired after the 1995 vintage (but you know how it is with these vignerons, they cannot stand still!) and I believe his sons carry on with the Domaine. For sure this will not be the last Chapelle bottle I order there.
I was deeply saddened when Philippe Engel died in May 2005. I loved his wines and he was already very friendly with Orta who was crushed by the bad news. Fortunately there are still a few of his wines on the list, and we ordered a 1997 Vosne-Romanée from the deceased Domaine René Engel, another superb village level wine, fully mature now, with some vegetal undertones together with some notes of ripeness, but not showing heat at all. In fact, with time it seemed to be getting fresher, revealing aromas of blood oranges and Asian spices. Very Vosne-Romanée if you ask me.
After three small starters to share, we decided on a large fish as a main course...also to share! Pagell is a white-meat fish called breca or pagel in Spanish (pagell is its Catalan name), common Pandora in English, from the sea bass family. There is a technique for preparing fish in the oven and keeping the moisture and all the flavors inside, by baking the whole fish under a crust of salt. It's done more or less like this. Cover a large baking tray with a layer of coarse sea salt and put the whole fish on top. Then cover the fish with the remaining sea salt until it's completely enclosed by the salt. Wet the salt with some water to help form a crust. Put the dangerous-looking tray with the mountain of salt in the oven until cooked. (Ask your fishmonger how long depending on size of the fish—I have no idea.) When ready, take it out of the oven and break the crust being careful not to break the skin of the fish so the salt doesn't come into contact with the fish. Use a knife, palette, brushes or whatever, but please, be careful! The result is never salty—unless you mess it all up when breaking the crust to extract the fish—and this Pandora's box delivered tender but firm white meat with delicate flavors from an ultra-fresh fish, most probably fished that very same day.
I had only had a Bass Phillip wine once before and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The surprise of the night was provided by the 2009 Bass Phillip Pinot Noir Premium a cult wine from Gippsland in south-eastern Australia (yes, someone had brought the bottle...to share). The wine was truly Burgundian, with great complexity and subtleness, no noticeable oak (just a hint of cinnamon), no extremes and no heaviness, elegant at the level of a Grand Cru from Burgundy.
A great night of sharing should end up sharing the desserts, so we ordered a mellow, lukewarm crema Catalana, the local version of crème brûlée and a chocolate financier, a classical French cake that seemed somehow appropriate to finish a drop of red that we still had in our glasses. After the service was almost finished Carlos Orta came out of the kitchen to talk to us. He told me in his broken voice (he had had an operation on his vocal chords five days before and was not supposed to talk at all) while sipping some vodka, about people wanting to drink all his Montrachets and Musignys, and how he purchased the 1985 from Chapelle.
We had bumped into a couple of friends that were also dining there that night, and we all sent glasses of our respective wines to the others' table. On Fridays and weekend nights during the summer season, after everybody has finished dinner, the restaurant turns into an afterhours drink and dance place: Carlos Orta is a former Ibiza DJ and he cannot help himself! One of our friends mentioned he had a half bottle of old Chartreuse in the back of his car, and he wondered if we'd like to drink it. Was he kidding? Chartreuse is an herbal liqueur that has been produced by the Carthusian monks since 1737. The monks were expelled from France in 1903 and moved to Tarragona a mere 200 kilometers south of where we were, where they set up shop and continued producing their bottles until 1989.
The flavor and quality of the herbs they found locally was much better than the ones they had used before (and after) in France. The secret recipe is only known by two monks that transmit it to the next generation; it's said to contain 130 different herbs, plants and flowers. So the most sought-after bottles are those produced in Tarragona (Tarragone in French), the older the better as it's one of the few spirits that improve in bottle: they are a cult drink, difficult to find and frightfully expensive. The flavor is so intense, spicy, pungent, sweet and penetrating but at the same so elegant and subtle that hide the very high alcoholic content, making it one of the most pleasurable digestive drinks on earth. It seems to age endlessly, becoming mellower, more precise, delineated and polished with years in bottle, as if all the ingredients would become more and more integrated with time. He went to his car, got the bottle, we chucked out our gin and tonics and found some clean white wine glasses. We asked the DJ to give us some rock and roll, so it also went with the disco music, and we sipped our monk's elixir while air-guitaring to the Eagle's "Hotel California" and AC/DC's "Highway to Hell." We were in heaven! A drop of Tarragone Chartreuse goes a long way, but a half bottle surely flies... Our driver arrived as we finished the last dash of the incredible liqueur and he drove us home safe and sound. What a night!
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