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Bravos For The Costa Brava

June 15, 1986|COLMAN ANDREWS

Spain's Costa Brava, that stretch of beautiful but often very crowded "wild coast" that extends southwards from the French border towards Barcelona for some 50 or 60 miles, is known to most of the world primarily for its beaches, its nonstop rows of apartment buildings and hotels, and its summertime population of forgetful young Northern European women who always seem to leave their bikini tops at home. But the Costa Brava also, as unlikely as this might seem under the circumstances, boasts a collection of some of the finest restaurants in Spain--nine one-stars, according to the Guide Michelin, and a good many more that deserve one star, according to yours truly.

The best restaurant in the region might well be Eldorado Petit (Rambla Vidal 11, San Feliu de Guixols, telephone 972/32.10.29), the parent restaurant to the equally superb Eldorado Petit in Barcelona. This one is a bit smaller and cozier, but the cooking is every bit as good, for plain and fancy dishes both. Recent pleasures here have included sweet little red peppers stuffed with salt-cod mousse and cloaked in all-i-oli (a creamy emulsion of olive oil and garlic--not garlic mayonnaise, as it is often described); lightly scrambled eggs with wild mushrooms, truffles and Parmesan; baby sole filets wrapped around baby mussels in a mussel-flavored sauce mousseline , and an ethereal wild strawberry sorbet.

If Eldorado Petit is not the Costa Brava's best restaurant, then that honor must surely go to Sa Punta (Platja de Pals, 972/62.23.89), which is part swim-and-tennis club (open to the public for a reasonable fee) and part extraordinary dining room. As usual in this area, there are plenty of simple, perfectly fresh fish and shellfish dishes, well worth trying. (An assortment of tiny fried fish, calamari and mussels that I had here last summer matched any fritto misto mare I've ever had in Italy.) Where this place really shines, though, is in its contemporary interpretations of traditional Catalan dishes (the Costa Brava being part of Catalonia): The Catalan ratatouille, called escalivada , is here turned into a delicate mousse, for instance, with light anchovy sauce on top; small eggplants are stuffed with their own pureed meat and with more anchovies (local anchovies are much less salty and much more flavorful than the ones we get here); esquixada , a common local dish of marinated salt-cod, is made at La Punta with hake and topped with beluga caviar. This is fine, confident cooking, true to its origins but full of imagination.

The inventor of new-style Catalan cooking was the late Josep Mercader, who worked his magic at the unpromisingly named Motel Ampurdan (carretera N-11, Figueras, 972/50.05.62). His daughter and son-in-law still run the place and still offer all his most famous creations--fava bean salad with fresh mint, deep-fried anchovy spines (which sound like a joke but are wonderful ), grilled salt cod with garlic mousseline , etc.--as well as such traditional local dishes as white bean soup, duck with pears, and botifarra sausage with wild mushrooms.

El Bulli (apartado 30, Cala Montjoi, Roses, 972/25.76.51) isn't Catalan at all--it's pure French. Nonetheless, its light cream seafood soup, baby chicken salad with truffle vinaigrette, chartreuse of local lobster, red mullet with ginger and cucumber, foie gras with lime and other sleekly modern creations make it one of the best restaurants on the coast. It's also perhaps the most beautifully situated, on a cliff above a little cove, near the end of a dreadful winding road that offers some of the most extraordinary vistas of the Mediterranean you'll ever see.

Back to Catalan cuisine, though, the Costa Brava restaurant showplace of the moment is certainly Big Rock (Barri de Finals 5, Platja d'Aro, 972/81.80.12). Opened originally as a young folks' hangout in nearby Palamos, Big Rock developed eventually into a serious exponent of regional cooking, earning a well-deserved star from the Guide Michelin. Last fall, though, the establishment's genial owner-chef, Carles Camos, moved from his rather bistro-like quarters in Palamos to a beautiful 19th-Century Catalan mansion down the coast a bit, in the hills above the frantic resort community of Platja d'Aro.

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