Split Personality

Outside Barcelona, chef—and neurologist—Miguel Sanchez Romera takes moonlighting to new heights at L'Esguard.

I can still remember my excitement when, some years and three Michelin stars ago, word went out about the sea urchin mousse, codfish foam, and other rococo creations Ferran Adrià was serving at El Bulli, his restaurant in Rosas en Cala Montjoi, Spain, about 80 miles north of Barcelona.

A three-star restaurant in Spain is a rarity—only two others exist at the moment—and those who've made the pilgrimage to El Bulli invariably return with raves. In fact, El Bulli has been anointed the finest restaurant in the world by several French chefs who ought to know. Yet, despite three visits to Barcelona over the past five years, I haven't made it there yet. And I don't know when I will.

Actually sitting down to eat at El Bulli is an effort beyond the means of any but the most leisurely—or dogged—traveler. First you must ascertain if the restaurant is open, which it is not from mid-October to mid-March, or on Mondays, or some Tuesdays. Then you need to steel yourself for a $100-a-plate investment lasting at least three and often four hours (currently de rigueur at Michelin three-stars). And then comes the drive: three hours over perilously serpentine roads.

None of those reasons would normally deter me, except that I believe I have been getting much of the benefit of El Bulli every time I pass through Catalonia. Innovative cooking has become the norm as far away as Falset, in the remote moonscape of the Priorat region, where I have been served such exotic dishes as chocolate gnocchi and mushroom sorbet. Now every Catalan chef wants to be the next Ferran Adrià, and each new restaurant that opens in Spain's northeast corner seems more insistently creative than the last.

So on my most recent visit to Barcelona last May, I canceled plans to finally visit El Bulli. Instead I set out to discover Spain's next world-renowned restaurant. To do so, I queried locals, pored over Spanish restaurant reviews, and consulted maps. What I ultimately found was Restaurante L'Esguard, a four-year-old fun house of flavors and textures, presided over by an autodidact chef and his wife and set in a 17th-century manor house on a suburban plot that was once a vineyard. You probably don't know it, but you will.

L'Esguard already has one Michelin star—earned after just two years, and without first getting listed, which is exceedingly rare. In my opinion another star should be forthcoming. That would be a dizzyingly swift ascent for an unknown chef, but the food is that interesting. And that good.

I ate at L'Esguard on three consecutive days, and none of the dishes I tried was remotely like any other. Moreover, each of them had been integrated so artfully into an eight-course menu that I felt as if it had been created specifically to keep that company. (I chose the special chef's menu, a $55 prix fixe, for each meal. There is the additional option of à la carte dining, but nobody ever seems to request it.) Sunday afternoon's bite-sized tempuras of shrimp, squid, and chipirones (tiny squid)—made in a translucent batter of rice oil and water that added just the right amount of crunch—would not have worked nearly as well during either of my other meals, but they fit seamlessly between the house-smoked salmon belly with oyster tartare and a warm sea urchin soup enriched with a poached egg and puréed leeks.

In similar fashion the sweet soy ice cream with a mousse of fresh cheese that capped Saturday night's dinner might have struck a discordant note on either Friday or Sunday. "That's part of the art of a restaurant," said the 46-year-old chef, Miguel Sanchez Romera, when I had finally coaxed him out of the kitchen on Saturday afternoon to talk about his cooking. "It isn't just making plates of food on their own and sending them out into the world."

Nearly everything I was served at L'Esguard appealed to my intellect almost as much as to my senses. The food was compellingly original and yet disarmingly logical. Several times during each meal I found myself wondering why no chef had thought of that particular dish or preparation before. Sanchez Romera's approach to cooking is organized around a principle of creativity that is tempered by a recognition of most diners' comfort level. Food as modern art isn't what he's about; think instead of Impressionism, or even the warped but recognizable reality of Salvador Dali (who lived in nearby Cadaques).

"The problem is, when you keep looking to surprise and surprise and surprise, you inevitably lose sight of the idea that the food is to be eaten," said Sanchez Romera's wife, Cristina Biosca, 40, who works the front of the house. Biosca articulates much of the chef's philosophy while he ruminates, then cooks.

Restaurante L'Esguard is eminently accessible. If getting to El Bulli is the equivalent of organizing a camping trip from New York to the wilds of Maine, getting to L'Esguard is like taking Metro-North to Mamaroneck. It's half an hour north of Barcelona on the train line or the A-19 highway, past the dun-colored Mediterranean beaches of Premià de Mar and Mataró, in the hamlet of Sant Andreu de Llavaneres, population 6,149.

Follow the road up from the water to the town's center, make a left after the soccer fields, and you will come upon a great two-story dwelling that still contains some original winemaking equipment. (The soccer fields were once vineyards). Even better, call the restaurant from the pay phone opposite the train station, as I did. They'll send someone to pick you up.

Like Adrià, Sanchez Romera is an entirely self-taught chef; the only kitchen he's ever worked in is his own. What he has been trained in, oddly enough, is the science of neurology, and I was astonished to learn that he still works half-time as head of the neurology department at the nearby Hospital Policlínica del Valles. This has to make him the only Michelin-starred chef in the world who runs his restaurant while moonlighting. From Monday morning to Wednesday afternoon Sanchez Romera consults with patients, makes diagnoses, and does research. From Wednesday evening to Sunday afternoon L'Esguard is open and he's in the kitchen.

"I think his scientific attitude has influenced his work," Biosca said. "He stretches his cooking that way. But on the other hand, as a scientist he doesn't have a creative outlet, so cooking can serve as that for him, too.You know, we didn't open a restaurant as a business because we feel you simply cannot do that and expect it to be any good. For Miguel it was a form of expression that complemented his other world. The world of neurology is a world of pain. The world of the kitchen is a world of pleasure."

Having visited Barcelona often I immediately recognized the duality of seny and rauxa, the two halves of the Catalan character. Seny is seriousness, intensity of purpose, propriety, logic. It's what gives Catalans the reputation as the Germans of Spain, explains their intense arguments about something as measured and mathematical as architecture. Rauxa is creativity bordering on frivolity, a sense of fun that can erupt in giddiness, a taste for fireworks, and the puerile scatological humor of which many otherwise sober Catalans are so fond.

From Monday to Wednesday, I theorized, Sanchez Romera is ruled by seny. On Wednesday night, rauxa takes over and doesn't relinquish its hold until after the midday meal on Sunday. When I offered my epiphany to Biosca, she arched her eyebrows in surprise. "Yes, yes, that's very good," she said. "But, of course, he's actually Argentine."

As it turned out, Sanchez Romera is almost neither. Born in Argentina to a Málagan father and a mother from Murcia, he studied fine arts and medicine at Argentina's University of Córdoba, then left for Spain. He interned in neurology, landed a job in a Barcelona clinic, wed Biosca (who works in her family's salmon-importing business), and they had two daughters. It was a life like any other, until this red-haired neurologist, with his thick black glasses and a sustaining self-confidence camouflaged by a reserved air, realized he was only using half his brain.

Sanchez Romera had always liked to cook complex dishes at home, made from scratch to an almost absurd extent. (He once spent weeks learning how to fashion his own rice paper.) The restaurant gave him license to take his adventurousness a step further. When he cooked for Adrià and a number of other local chefs as a trial run, their positive response gave Sanchez Romera and Biosca the courage to open. L'Esguard's first customers, mostly locals who had caught wind of a new restaurant in the area, were nonplussed. "It's more secure to give people what they expect and desire," Biosca informed me. "That's the way to make money. But we cook for us—we say, 'What do we want to create today?' The fact that Miguel is self-taught gives him a very particular vision in the kitchen. He didn't have influences; he never worked under anybody. He's not following any line."

By then, having finished a pea gazpacho with artichoke and tuna belly and also a steamed egg surrounded by caviar with a delicate onion cream (a dish the chef maintains was inspired by Van Gogh's Sunflowers), I realized what she meant. Like all the best cuisine, Sanchez Romera's is both fun and serious, a pleasure but also a statement. It is also laden with risk, which makes sense. You wouldn't abandon half of your workweek as a successful doctor and open a restaurant despite a complete lack of professional training just to serve the same tuna tartare and vegetable timbale as everyone else. Or, even worse, traditional Spanish fare like roast suckling pig or seafood paella.

If Sanchez Romera was going to bother to cook, I thought, he would have to cook food that nobody else was cooking. As if reading my mind, he sent out the arroz de la casa, a seafood paella like nothing I had ever seen before. A small oval of rice, infused with pungent curry powder in place of the usual saffron, had a shrimp, a crayfish, and a clam positioned provocatively at its edges, as if to taunt the diner expecting a more traditional arrangement. Granted, it was salty, perhaps overly so, with a bit of a kick to the finish, but it left me craving more. Such an adaptation of one of Spain's most traditional dishes might be scorned down the coast in Valencia, where paella was invented and where chefs argue about whose version has the most historical antecedents. Yet just one bite would teach any skeptic the error of his ways.

L'Esguard is decorated in such a fashion that it manages to simultaneously feel both familiar and original. Having a charming 300-year-old property to work with is decidedly an asset, and as I looked around I found myself nodding with approval. There are muted green and yellow stripes on the walls, wooden beams, and pastel colors everywhere that deflect attention to the natural setting outside, where, I would learn the following afternoon, birds chirp in the trees and the shouts of the couple's two daughters, ages 12 and 10, can be heard as they play on the front lawn.

My attention was refocused by foie gras with eggplant, peppers, and soy sauce, which commingled perfectly with the mature 1976 Grand Puy Lacoste that I found lingering on the wine list for about $35. (It will doubtless be gone by the time you read this, but other bargains remain.) That was followed by seaweed-wrapped hake and a main course of breast of pigeon, cooked rare, that might have passed for top-quality steak except for an edge of gaminess.

Two desserts concluded the evening, the more interesting of which was a rich banana mousse flanked by caramelized strips of banana in a pool of orange-chocolate sauce. In the mousse Sanchez Romera incorporated a component that he invented in his kitchen and employs to great effect in sweet and savory dishes alike: a thickening agent called a fondo in Spanish. Made from cassava root, it is flavorless, odorless, and free of calories. It contains no animal fats or sugars, and it imparts the qualities of dairy without the lactose.

It startled me to realize that this food I was eating, so pleasurable and satisfying, might actually be better for me than a typical gourmet meal. "But that's important, too," said Sanchez Romera when he visited my table after dinner. "We must be aware of health when we cook. We need our customers to keep coming back!"

One of them who does is Ferran Adrià, who apparently has enough leisure time tobe considered almost a regular. With a seven-day workweek Sanchez Romera can't often get to El Bulli, but he is well aware of the difference in conditions between that august outpost and his own humble one-star operation. "My kitchen is organized chaos, and maybe more chaos than organized," he said. "I have four people, while Ferran has thirty-six. And Ferran's cooking is eighty percent cold. With all due respect, great cooking is hot. The greatest plates of the world are hot."

Sanchez Romera makes good use of his apron time by not bothering to practice new dishes. As unlikely as it might seem, ideas for menu items pop into his head at random moments, and, with a minimum of trial and error, they're soon headed out to diners. Recipes percolate in his mind like poetry; given the chance, they write themselves.

This is possible because he has a knack for predicting how various ingredients will work together before he tastes them, an innate talent which, if it could be taught, would put the entire test-kitchen industry out of business. "There are only about twenty percent failures," he said, sounding more apologetic than boastful. "Eighty percent of the time, it works, and I'll send it out. Occasionally I'll make something at home, but usually I don't have time." On Sunday mornings he arrives at the restaurant at 7 a.m., which gives him a few hours to devise some of his more complicated flights of fancy. "Sometimes I'll come in and design three new desserts at a time, or four new appetizers," he says. "I just imagine them, and then I make them."

He needs an ever-expanding repertoire because he takes pride in never serving a patron the same dish twice, even if the visits are years apart, unless he is specifically asked to do so. The restaurant is evidently small enough and the clientele (by now more international than local) regular enough that he can keep a mental reckoning.

Sanchez Romera hardly needed one with me on Saturday, since I had eaten my first meal there only the evening before. Still, the second menu struck me as being wildly different from the first. It started out with a purée of smoked potatoes accompanied by raw oysters in a puddinglike lemon cream, a perplexing dish that so lacked a point of reference that I had to ask three times before I fully understood the description. But Sanchez Romera rallied just moments later with a so-called pasta salad that was actually nothing of the kind: a stack of half-dollar-sized pasta disks, interleaved with fresh pesto and black truffles, was accompanied by shrimp oil, specks of Jabugo ham, and had two small but piercingly flavorful shrimp in the middle. I could have eaten nothing but this all afternoon, but it was gone in three bites.

A later course consisted of a single scallop with a hot saffron sauce and a scallop-shell cream made from his magic fondo, followed by a piece of salmonete with fried seaweed containing a squirt of the richest, most intensely flavored tomato sauce I've ever tasted. Then came baby lamb and a saffron meringue with apple sorbet. The next day I began again with a marrow consommé with quail eggs, fresh clams, and a tomato vinaigrette—the finest dish I'd had yet. I won't go into the rabbit and lobster with chocolate sauce and tomato paste that turned mar i muntanya, the traditional Catalan mix of seafood and meat, on its ear, or the caipirinha sorbet with essences of mango, orange, and mint, except to say that, as Sanchez Romera had predicted, I enjoyed my third meal most. I drank a robust 1997 Abadia Retuerta Cuvée El Campanario, a new-wave Spanish wine from just outside the Ribera del Duero appellation, and seriously considered renting a room in town and staying a week.

But I had a flight to catch to southern Spain, and more to the point, Sanchez Romera had the clinic awaiting him the next morning. So I loaded my bags into a taxi and reluctantly prepared to leave. As we shook hands Sanchez Romera told me his ambition is to earn a second and third Michelin star. "There are no precedents for that, considering my situation," he said, "but there weren't for one star either."

Yet surely his situation will have to change for him to achieve such success. Running a three-star Michelin restaurant has to be both a job and a hobby, your work and your play, seny and rauxa conflated into a single obsession. Odds are good that within a year or two Sanchez Romera won't be spending three days a week running the neurology department at the clinic. If he's not cooking, he'll probably be editing a cookbook, or flashing his shy smile on television.

Maybe that's not so bad. If life is like a meal, the next course should always provide both a change and a surprise. As my taxi threaded through the Sunday beach traffic, I took close note of my surroundings. I was certain I'd be seeing them again.

Restaurante L'Esguard is open Wednesdays through Sundays. The normal tasting menu and the chef's special tasting menu are both about $55 per person. A la carte meal for two, including tax but not wine or service: $100. 16 Passatge de les Alzines, Sant Andreu de Llavaneres, Spain; 34-93-792-7767; fax 34-93-792-7714.