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The Catalan Connection

December 14, 1986|RUTH REICHL

"California is such a beautiful country--you have everything here," said Lluis Cruanyas, owner of Eldorado Petit, the most elegant Catalan restaurant in Barcelona. Nevertheless, when Cruanyas and his family arrived here a few weeks ago to cook a dinner (it was his first visit to California, and his first experiment with cooking in the United States), they were carrying baskets filled with food.

This turned out to be a good thing. For despite our wealth of wonderful products ("Your fish are extraordinary!"), Cruanyas was to find that many of the most elementary Catalan staples were nowhere to be found. He was especially dismayed to discover our lamentable lack of cuttlefish ink.

The 49-year-old chef, who began cooking in his father's small restaurant on the Costa Brava when he was very young, had come to Los Angeles at the behest of Christian Brothers Winery.

"We figured Catalan was going to be the next big food rage," says Ron Batore, vice president of the company, "and we wanted to be in the forefront. When we were planning a meal to show off our wines, we thought Catalan food might make a good match. We knew that there was great curiosity about the cuisine, and that few people had really tasted it. So we decided to get the best chef we could."

Batore's hunch proved accurate; there was so much curiosity about this new cuisine that guests came from all over the state to taste what Cruanyas, his son Marc (the entire family cooks at Eldorado Petit), and chef Joan Figueres had cooked. "I'm so sorry," sighed Cruanyas as the lunch began, "but the customs men confiscated our cheeses."

The inspectors did manage to overlook the chef's incredible collection of Catalan olives (these are, I think, the best in the world). Cruanyas served them with Christian Brothers champagne. He also served the delicious "ham" made of duck breast that is unique to Catalonia; the color of old roses, the duck has a smoky flavor that is simultaneously more delicate and muskier than that of ham. With the champagne there were also anchovies from San Feliu; these are so superior to the anchovies usually found here that Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers grocers in Sacramento immediately began making arrangements to import the salty morsels.

"I wish he'd bring in the salt cod," said chef Lydia Shire, newly arrived from Boston, who was enamored of the dish Cruanyas cooked to go with the Fume Blanc. This was a thin, almost transparent slice of marinated salt cod served on a bed of greens, covered with small white beans and drizzled with the olive oil that gives much of Catalan cooking its flavor. "It is," said Shire, "the single most delicious dish I have been served in Los Angeles."

There were also kudos for the dish Cruanyas chose to show off the Chenin Blanc, little red piquillo peppers stuffed with rockfish mousse. The chef had painted the plates with hollandaise and draped the peppers like flowers on the top; with stems made of asparagus the bright red vegetables looked just like little tulips. Each plate was a slightly different still-life, but each was fresh and pretty.

The fideos rossejat were anything but pretty--but they won my heart. These are Catalan noodles broken into little pieces and sauteed in a sort of marmalade of onions, tomatoes and garlic. They are then cooked in a fine fish stock until, as Cruanyas says, "they stand up in the pot." They are then mixed with a garlic mayonnaise. Served in fragrant amber heaps, the little broken lengths turned out to be the most delicious spaghetti I have ever eaten.

"You mean there is more?" people asked as the next dish was paraded out. Indeed there was--a dish called "sea and mountain," a complex mixture of lobster and chicken in a sauce richly thickened with almonds, hazelnuts and unsweetened chocolate. This was accompanied by the Reserve 1975 Cabernet, which proved that even a simple California Cabernet has the potential to age gracefully.

There was even more to come--beautiful nut filled cassata, coffee, Catalan almond pastries. "Do people in Barcelona really eat this much?" the chef was asked. He smiled. "We used to," he said. "But we used to eat at midnight too. Now we eat earlier--and we eat less." But as the first notable Catalan to bring his cuisine in California the chef had wanted to give us an edible tour of his country. And so he cooked a meal which demonstrated the strengths of his native food, from the elegant salt cod salad to the homely fideos rossejat.

The chef was charmed by the enthusiastic reception to his meal. He was, in fact, charmed by almost everything in California. But he did admit to finding one thing a bit puzzling.

"If this were Spain, the room would now be enveloped in a cloud of smoke," he said as the meal ended, smoke noticeably absent. "I'm told you have whole restaurants here where smoking is not permitted. If I tried to do that in Spain, I would be out of business in a month."

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