Wednesday 1 June 2011

Arzak, San Sebastian

Serendipity. Today's meal at Arzak was truly memorable for many reasons. Obviously the food was sensational, the service impeccable but some unexpected company and the turn of events that transpired in the afternoon made the day truly memorable.

Arzak has been owned/run by the Arzak family for over 120 years with Juan Mari currently at the helm with his daughter, Elena. It has maintained its 3 Michelin star rating consistently since 1989 and is repeatedly listed as one of the top 10 restaurants in the world.

The exterior of the restaurant is unassuming and gives little away to the passing pedestrians and motorists. It is humble and unpretentious.

The interior of the restaurant is clean, sleek and modern. The cutlery and glassware are of the highest quality.

I was the first to be seated in the restaurant followed shortly by a couple I had seen in the reception area. The full menu was explained to me in English and I seemed to be quite a curiosity to the staff and other patrons being a young female dining alone at a 3 star restaurant.

After a few smiles across the restaurant, the couple from the reception area asked if I would like to join them for lunch to which I agreed. Residing in Switzerland, Per-Henrik is a freelance writer for Wine Spectator magazine and he was joined by his partner, Annik.

We settled into our conversation and the topic turned to my travel plans and goals and how I planned to tour the world eating at the best restaurants I could along the way. Per-Henrik asked if I would be willing to be interviewed for an article he would write to which I happily consented (on the condition that I am provided with a copy).

Per-Henrik, Annik and I

The menu descriptions at Arzak are very brief (i.e. items on the tasting menu were simply listed as fish of the day, meat or poultry, desserts). Though somewhat difficult for a food blogger as it requires trying to take copious notes as each dish is presented, I think the lack of detail at the beginning adds to the mystery and surprise throughout the meal.

The tasting menu started with a selection of amuse bouche which were all bursting with flavour and highly innovative. Each bite was so intriguing and the combinations so unusual that it was a wonderful foreshadowing of the standard of food yet to come.

The Kabraroka (fish) pudding with kataifi was crisp on the outside with a smooth creamy fish filling inside. It was presented on its own custom made stand and was quite striking.

The marinated strawberry and anchovy had a wonderful intense strawberry flavour and the anchovy was wrapped about what I believe was a remoulade which was delicious.

Ham and tomato smoke which was smoked tableside. It had a very strong chorizo-like taste and the tomato melded perfectly.

My favourite, Corn, figs and black pudding soup was sensational. I could have easily ordered a full bowl of the soup alone and been very very content. The figs contributed the sweet note, the corn the smoke and the black pudding the meaty overtone. All the flavours were perfectly balanced.

The final amuse bouche was yellow crispy rice with mushroom. It was very delicate to eat and the mushroom was mousse-like in texture which contrasted nicely with the crispy rice.

The first course of the menu was called Cromlech with onion, coffee and tea which is a description that really fails to do the dish justice. A "cromlech" is defined as a "prehistoric megalith structure" (think Stonehenge). What the menu doesn't tell you is that the cromlech is a very crisp yet light batter-type cylinder that contains mango and whipped foie gras. To eat it, you are advised to turn it upside-down and eat like you would an ice cream cone. Each bite simply dissolves in the mouth after exploding with flavour.

The second course, Lobster Coralline, was served with grilled onion, sesame crisps and a sauce of chlorophyll. The sweetness of the onion brought out the sweetness of the lobster and the dish was perfectly executed.

The lobster was accompanied by a side salad of greens, citrus and tapioca. The tapioca provided an interesting textural element whilst the citrus gave it zest. Whilst the salad was certainly appetising, it didn't seem necessary.

The third course was Dusted egg with mussel and was served with crisp kataifi pastry. The egg yolk was perfectly runny (whilst the white was properly cooked) and when broken provided the sauce. The egg was topped with mussel gel and a lone mussel was also provided for textural contrast. The presentation was simple and elegant.

For the fish course I chose the Low tide monkfish and red seaweed. The execution of the dish was faultless; the fish was perfectly cooked and it was served with red pepper, crispy red seaweed (to resemble coral), blue stars made from jellied orange alcohol (to resemble star fish) and seashells made from mussels. Unfortunately, my photo does not do the prettiness of the dish any justice.

For the meat course, I had the option of lamb or pigeon and I chose the Pigeon with blood orange and corn which was served with a black olive paste. Like the fish, the execution of this dish was without fault. The pigeon was tender and perfectly cooked, remaining moist and succulent. The combination of flavours matched the pigeon well and it was satisfying.

The pigeon was accompanied with salad of cuisse (thigh) confit, asparagus and sweetbread which I felt complimented the pigeon much more than the previous salad complimented the lobster.

At this point of the meal, however, I did feel a little disappointed with the last two courses. The bar had been set so exceptionally high by the preceding courses, that the fish and meat courses just didn't meet that bar. Unfortunately for Arzak, the customers' expectations are stratospherically high. In any other restaurant, if I had been served both the fish and the pigeon, I would have been extremely satisfied - balanced flavours and perfect execution. However, for me, both dishes just felt too "safe" and did not meet the innovative reputation that Arzak is world famous for.

This "lull" in innovation did not last long and the desserts exceeded all my highest hopes. Luckily for me, sitting with Per-Henrik and Annik allowed me to sample twice the desserts I would have normally had the opportunity to taste.

The first dessert was Soup and chocolate "between vineyards". The chocolate spheres were warm and swam in a strawberry sauce served with basil ice cream on the plate and chocolate and rosemary ice-cream separately. Each sphere would burst open in the mouth and ooze warm smooth chocolate around the palate. The basil ice cream was refreshing and paired perfectly with the sweet strawberry sauce. This dish embodied "the science of cooking" and was delightful.

I had the pleasure of tasting the alternate chocolate dessert which was described as chocolate and spinach with capsicum ice-cream and pear. It sounds unappetising but I found the taste to be more enjoyable that the chocolate spheres. I preferred the whimsy of the spheres but felt that this was a stronger dish taste-wise.

The final course (for me) was listed as Mead and fractal fluid, which again is a horribly brief description of a very complicated dessert. The fractal fluid was presented (and created) tableside as the waitress drips red food colouring into a clear liquid (honey water).

The combined fluid was to be the sauce for my dessert: Lemon tart with cocoa butter and paprika. The lemon tart was very zesty and contained in the hard shells, oozing out once pierced. The lemon tart was served with apple sorbet that was velvety and smooth.

Annik's dessert was orange liquid encased in caramel served with aubergine and sugar powder and red wine reduction. Again, once pierced, the fragile shells collapsed and the orange flavour burst out.

The mignardises were presented on a silver platter entitled "Ferrgteria Arzak" loosely translated to mean "hardware". The plate contained dark chocolate screws, nuts made of white chocolate and aubergine, mango lego, bottle caps made from coca-cola and popping rocks (you could hear the popping rocks hiss at the table and hear the pop in your head as you ate it) and a red tea and white chocolate sweet (which I couldn't ascertain the desired shape).

Being a wine expert, Per-Henrik expertly selected a red wine (Ceres Ribera Del Duero) and a sweet wine for the desserts which he insisted I share with him and Annik: both were wonderful. Throughout the meal, Per-Henrik, Annik and I talked as though we had known eachother for years in a combination of general discussions but also probing interview-type questions.

The Maitre, Jacopo (pictured below) was very attentive to our table and answered all our queries. He was impressively multi-lingual and easily switched between french, english and italian (to name a few).

He was kind enough to share his insights into why San Sebastian is the culinary capital of Spain and the centre of Michelin stars as well as some of his favourite locations to eat. He also stated that there is a real spirit of cooperativeness amongst all the top restaurants in town and a sharing of ideas that he believes helps to lift both the quality of the food and status of the town to the benefit of all. Amusingly, Arzak has a football team of the kitchen staff that recently played the kitchen staff of Mugaritz. Although leading 3-0 at the beginning, Arzak ended up losing 8-10!!

Due to other commitments, Juan Mari and Elena were not able to meet us today however Per-Henrik did set up an interview for later in the week. Although I was the first to arrive at the restaurant, I was the last to leave after Jacopo kindly gave me a tour of the kitchen and also explained that they have 3,000 varieties on wine and 80,000 bottles in the cellar!

Today was truly wonderful. The food was innovative, cutting edge and each combination of flavours was inspired. The meal was the complete opposite of Etxebarri yet both meals were astonishing. In addition, the fantastic company of Per-Henrik and Annik (whom I will perhaps visit in Switzerland) made the experience that much more memorable than when dining alone as it was now a shared experience.

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