Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Arzak Restaurante - San Sebastián, Spain
Now, onto some posts from my trip to Spain in September 2009. We started out in Madrid with the requisite day trip to Toledo; headed north to San Sebastián and Bilbao; and wrapped up the trip in Barcelona. I will start out with several meals in Basque country before recapping Madrid and Barcelona.

One of the places that I had been wanting to try for some time now was Arzak, the longest running 3-Starred in Spain and currently #8 on the World's Top 50. The restaurant itself is the childhood home of Juan Mari Arzak, who has since pronounced himself chef emeritus and passed on the scepter to daughter Elena. Elena is often credited for adding some futuristic touches to her father's nouvelle Basque cuisine.

Arzak is situated around 15 minutes away from San Sebastián city center. We were received graciously by our host though we arrived fashionably late, attributable to shenanigans around the spectacular Kursaal Palace and my misadventures with a Vespa. We proceeded to order the tasting menus and out came some nibbles, which we washed down with txakoli, a dry Basque white.

Puding de kabrarroka con fideos fritos - rockfish mousse fried in a crust thin fried noodle and Bola de setas y polvo de maiz - orb of mushroom topped with bits of dried corn. The orb is fragile, and upon entering your mouth, bursts of pungent mushroom juice. Very reminiscent of the "black truffle - explosion, romaine, parmesan" I had at Alinea. We would come to learn that said explosion of juice from orb / bonbon would be a common theme throughout our meal. 

Raiz de loto con mousse de arraitxiki - crunchy lotus root chips sandwiching fish mousse

Mejillon en escabeche con vinagre de arroz - marinated mussel with rice vinegar

Chorizo en tempura con tamarindo - fried chorizo with tamarind. The texture made this an easy favorite of the amuses. Delicately fried with a crunchy crust, the chorizo was earthy, sweet, savory, and smoky, and lingered long in my mouth.

Higos con aceite de foie - caramelized foie gras with a pinch of sugar rests atop disks of fig. The foamy foie was rich yet ephemeral; a refined combination of the Thelma and Louise of ingredients.

Cigalas sobre liquer de hongos y algas - langoustine tails with corn sauce and chip

Prawn with skidmark (Uncouth dish naming courtesy of yours truly. This was not on our printed menus.)

Patata, bogavante y copaiba - lobster in a potato shell


Huevo con temblor de tierra - "egg with earthquake". (Would someone care to enlighten me as to the seismic qualities about this egg?) I can't seem to recall the other ingredients present besides the barely-cooked egg punctuated with savory, crunchy mystery bits, but it turns out I would taste a near identical rendition at Coi (slow cooked egg with crisp chicken skin, chard, and farro) just some two months later.
The epicenter

Lenguado con aceite de jengibre y pan de coco - sole with ginger sauce and disks of melon and croutons

Rape bronceado - bronzed monkfish. The label "poor man's lobster" could not have been more apt here: the reddish hues brushed on the monkfish really did conjure up images of its more prized relative. The filet was nicely seared and velvelty, accompanied by the fragrant and sweet metallic onion sheets. An elegant dish with a thoughtful approach to presentation.

An extra helping of metallic oragami

Taco de vacuno con resina, molleja y vino de bota - beef with with red wine foam

Pichón con perdigones dulces - pigeon with sweet pellets. The succulent pigeon, a lovely medium rare with an intensely flavorful crust, was accompanied by exploding cannonballs of sweet rice vinegar. The presence of these grey metallic orbs brought forth a sense of playfulness less pronounced in previous courses.

Sopa y chocolate "entre viñedos" - exploding warm liquid chocolate spheres swimming in a berry soup "among vineyards," or with a scoop of basil sorbet

Dulce lunático - caramel-encased exploding citrus juice 

Melecoton asado con azucar de flores - roasted peach disk with a floral medley

Bizcocho esponjoso de yogur - yogurt sponge cake with banana notes


Overall, a solid meal, but not quite at the caliber I'd expect for a restaurant of such acclaim. Sure, there were some fascinating, standout courses (the figs and foie, bronzed monkfish, pigeon with vinegar cannonballs), but the majority of dishes were regrettably forgettable. They were very good but unexpectedly ordinary: quality and execution that one could find at some less-celebrated fine-dining restaurants. For me, the precision and refinement of a 3-star establishment just ultimately weren't there. I found the dishes uninspired; and I do understand that El Bulli it is not, nor is it trying to be. While Arzak's focus is far from the mere artistry of experimentation, its tastiness-driven, modern take on Basque cuisine was, frankly, dull. The creative themes -- the various forms of encapsulated liquids, the token crunchy chip -- became repetitive through the meal. I'm very interested to hear if others had similar takeaways.

€155 for tasting menu excluding wine; ~$290 USD per person (Sep-2009)

ARZAK restaurant
Avda. Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273
20015 Donostia / San Sebastian
Tel: 943 278 465 / 943 285 593 - Fax: 943 272 753

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Blogger Single Guy Ben said...

It's funny how the entrance with the awning made me think of a restaurant in Long Island, NY. Otherwise, the dishes were all beautifully presented even though the majority may not have lived up to the reputation. Can't wait to hear about your other eating adventures in Spain!

1/13/2010 9:49 PM  
Anonymous Gastronomer said...

I couldn't have agreed with your assessment more. I was just there in May and am currently writing up my experience on my food blog. Akelerre was my fave three-star modern meal in San Sebastian.

6/23/2010 11:42 AM  

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