As foodies, amateur chefs, avid restaurant-goers and two+-months-in-advance resy makers, my husband and I finally made the pilgrimage to the so-called food mecca, San Sebastián, Spain. I had read all of the reviews and listened to all the raves, rants and endless comparisons, so it was time to check it all out firsthand and see what all of the fuss was about. The coastal Basque region is home to the highest number of Michelin stars per capita in the world and boasts a lively pintxos scene to boot (more on that later). Although the contrary would be a far more fascinating story, I have to admit San Sebastián was a memorable experience that most certainly lived up to the hype.
Getting reservations at the top restaurants in Basque country is no mean feat, but it can be done with the right planning and persistence (feel free to email me if you’d like some advice). The first stop on our culinary tour was the one and only Arzak. The scene: a balmy August Saturday, lunch, 13:30. Of all the restaurants, Arzak (ranked No. 8 in the world) has perhaps one of the most charming stories and needs little introduction. It is run by legendary chef Juan Mari Arzak, who practically invited new Basque cuisine, and his daughter, Elena Arzak, voted best female chef in the world just last year. Our lunch was an extraordinary 3-hour adventure of tastes, flavors, colors and excitement. During our visit, Juan Mari visited each and every table and was even at the door to wish us well as we left. The best way to describe the journey is course-by-course, with the help of some photos. I have included feedback from my husband (AMM) since he had a few different dishes than I had and has a keen eye for fine cuisine.
Lunch began with a summery aperitif: chilled dry white wine with amaretto, mint and shaved orange rind. It was light, crisp and refreshing. Before I even finished it, I was thinking of how I could recreate it at home. We were seated upstairs, in a contemporary and minmalist dining room, next to a table of late-20-something folks from New York and London. We felt at home.
I was totally wow-ed by the cutlery. Are we in Paris? Extra-long, contemporary and fashionable in shiny silver, you would be the envy of all if your dining table was set with these beauties at your next dinner party. I want some.
The sequence of amuse-bouche started right away. I was like a giddy school girl when the very first arrived (“omg it’s a soda can! smashed! how cool!”). The dish was called “Chorizo and tonic”: a thin slice of chorizo wrapped in shaved mango, marinated in citrus juice, set atop a crushed Schwepps can. This was a highlight and set the tone for the meal.
The amuse-bouche continued… Next up was Sardine and Strawberry.
AMM: Don’t let the colour fool you – a sardine with strawberry and a delicious cream to hold it together – on a balsamic strawberry. Have I ever thought to put these together? Then again, I’ve never been to Arzak
AMM: The red codfish sat nicely on a emulsified (1st of many) fish sauce – the vehicle was a star here, a crisp, crunchy pastry – can I eat the rocks too?
And, Kabrarroka Pudding with kataifi…
AMM: Not sure how else to describe fish mousse in kataifi hairs (a greek / Turkish cheese pastry)… took more bites to eat then recommended – didn’t want to stop.
Then came what I like to call, “Message in a Bottle”: 2 glass bottles on ice, filled with bitter raspberry purée and “corked” with a juicy piece of melon and strip of jamón. The flavors from the jamón had completely infused the raspberry juice, so it was surprise to drink because you of course expected the juice to be sweet. This is one of the many examples of how Juan Mari incorporates classic local specialties, such as jamón, into inventive and modern interpretations. This dish, and many others at Arzak, caused you to want to stop after each bite and try to identify all of the different flavours and ingredients.
After this, the “official” courses began. First off is one of my favorites, the decadent “Cromlech, manioc and huitlacoche,” a shell of crispy manioc (a root vegetable), hydrated with huitlacoche (a corn mushroom) and stuffed with onion, green tea and foie gras. We were instructed to eat the dish “like ice cream.” Upon biting into it, your mouth is filled with a rich, soft and buttery sauce, with a subtle crunch from the shell. Almost like a soup dumpling gone haute. The mix of flavors and textures in this dish is unreal. A true Arzak classic.
Next up is “Lobster Sea & Garden,” consisting of grilled lobster with a crispy star shaped crepe and fresh greens. This was light and a refreshing change of pace after the last, much heavier, course. The lobster was grilled nicely and the sauce was slightly tart and fruity, but not overly so.
Then… “Ovo-Lacto,” an egg with semi crunchy shell and baobab accompanied by “lactic leaves” and curds. The egg was cooked perfectly, with a bright orange runny yolk, and the fried shell was light and airy. The sides worked well. Fabulous and memorable dish.
We loved the playfulness of the next course, white tuna with colorful garlic petals. In honor of the first seafood course, the waitress set down an iPad on the table, sound on, playing a video of crashing waves. A raised glass plate was then placed over the iPad, so you are essentially eating the fish in its own habitat… or something. Regardless, this is something I’ve never seen before proves how the chefs are constantly reinventing themselves. Super cool and a real conversation course. As for the taste…
AMM: Among numerous protein choices, the tuna belly was a must – although it came sans-mysterious green orb that encompassed the monkfish, the garlic petals and sauce were a perfect complement to the protein. Yet another reason I am shopping for an emulsifier.
For the meat course, I had a juicy Kobe burger and Aaron had the Pigeon. When I first heard “Kobe burger” I was skeptical. How could they make a good Kobe burger in Basque? Immediately after I ordered, disturbing things started to come to mind, such as Kim and Kanye scoffing down overpriced and under-delivered Kobe sliders at Miami’s flashy Prime 112. Anyway, I don’t know where/how they got the wagyu meat, but I do know this burger puts all the others to shame. The sides were light and didn’t distract from the main focus of the dish, a tender and juicy burger, free of bready buns and ketchup. An absolutely fantastic dish!
Aaron chose the roasted pigeon with a touch of eucalyptus, served with infused citrus and pine sauce.
AMM: The bitterness of the fruit, herbs and veggies perfectly matched the pigeon. Make sure you eat them together – these dishes are about creating the perfect bite.
With the savories over, it was time to order more wine and get started on the dessert extravaganza. First off was one of the best chocolate desserts I have ever had and definitely my favorite of the weekend… the Super Truffle. Upon first look it really does looks like a massive truffle (dreamy). When I cut into it, it was fairly hollow and lined with powdery white sugar and carob. A mix of runny and crunchy dark chocolate, it was truly a chocolate-lover’s delight and just too amazing to put into words. Sadly, I don’t think Aaron was able to get in more than a bite 😉
Aaron had the “Playing Marbles with Chocolae” for dessert…
AMM: I represent the savoury side of the family, but when a rigid ball of goodness explodes with flavours that make you ask “what the hell was that”, you can’t help but show your appreciation for the pastry chef is a big ear to ear smile.
The second dessert, “Golden Footprint and Ladybird,” was visually stunning. The 2 “lady bugs,” made of licorice and filled with yogurt and olive oil cristal, were set on a piece of elegant, floral glass. They were creamy and mousse-like. The footprint was a caramelized pineapple served with black sesame bread and pepper. The flavors were unusual and interesting and as always, a brilliant mix of textures. It’s hard to beat the artistry in this course.
Next up were “Sweet Fruits & Vegetables,” consisting of enriched melon with wrinkled tomatoes, sumac, lime and crunchy chia. The tomato was so sweet it was like a piece of candy.
For the grand finale, we got a “Hardware Store” full of tiny chocolates and candies on a slab of glass, in a effortless-chic scribble… Each bite stayed true to the theme–screws, keys, nuts, bolts. The coca-cola “cap” candies (on the bottom left) were particularly interesting and did indeed taste like soda. The chocolates were simple and with a high cocoa content, as they should be.
All in all, Arzak was a magnificent experience I would recommend to anyone lucky enough to travel to San Sebastian. I like to compare the meal to going to the theatre– in this case, your senses are entertained and delighted for a full 3 hours. Next up I’ll be reviewing Mugaritz. Stay tuned for another food extravanganza…