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The stars are out in Spain

And they belong to Sant Pau restaurant and Carme Ruscalleda, the country's first female chef to earn the highest rating from the Michelin Red Guide.

By HAROLD HECKLE, Associated Press
Published June 4, 2006


SANT POL DE MAR, Spain

There is little on the road to Sant Pol de Mar to warn a first-time visitor 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 Ruscalleda, generously sharing the plaudits with her staff.

But it is 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 about 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 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, for example, 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 will set you back about $240 per person.

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.

The chef acknowledges that 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," Ruscalleda said.

At college she met her future husband, Antoni Balam, and discovered her talent for cooking.

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, Ruscalleda mostly taught herself.

When she and 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 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.

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 super-rich.

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

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

"Society is seduced by beauty,'' Ruscalleda said, ''but food must have a soul, too."

If You Go

Sant Pau (www. ruscalleda.com) is located 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.

GOOD TO KNOW

Three stars is the highest rating in the Michelin Red Guide. It means the food is exceptional and is worthy of a special trip.