San Sebastián: Arzak (Nov. 2013)
Exec Chef: Juan Mari and Elena Arzak
November 2, 2013
Arzak was stop #3 on my list of San Sebastián destinations, and I was a little apprehensive about whether I’d have enough space to eat—I had just finished lunch at Martin Berasategui a few hours ago! (I ended up having more than enough space… I’m getting way too fat for my own good haha.)
Arzak’s east of the city centre, and it’s located right on a major street. There’s no romantic taxi ride with beautiful green scenery like the one you take to Mugaritz. On the other hand, it’s close, easy to get to, and NOT in the middle of nowhere haha.
The restaurant doesn’t feel pretentious at all. The wait staff is pretty friendly, and Chefs Juan Mari and Elena come out pretty often to greet and talk to the guests. Elena came out quite a bit to discuss different dishes with the guests, which I thought was awesome. She gives a lot of insight into the cultural influences and creative ideas behind dishes, and she does it in a very understandable way with no hint of pretense. Juan Mari also came out to greet guests, and he felt more like a jovial grandfather who has accomplished a lot and is just chilling. And let’s be honest—the man is a living legend haha (grandfather of “New Basque Cuisine” and all that).
The menu has an à la carte option as well as a tasting menu. The tasting menu is seven courses, and it starts with around five amuses-bouche. Some of the courses have two options. You can choose between two appetizers, two seafood courses, two main courses (meat or poultry), and two final desserts. Of course, you’re free to supplement more dishes if you feel like eating more (and, more important, trying more of their cooking!). As for myself, I chose to get both meat AND poultry for two main courses haha; I really wanted to try both. I was craving lamb, and the pigeon at Martin Berasategui was disappointing—I was hoping the pigeon at Arzak would end up being AMAZING so that it could counter the terrible-ness of MB’s pigeon (and it did!).
Scorpion fish pudding wrapped in kataifi (a threaded pastry).
Red cod fish on a crispy pastry and brandade.
Sunflower seeds with rock fish mousse.
Chorizo (wrapped in a thin sheet of mango) with tonic.
Bitter raspberry purée, served in a bottle on ice and “corked” with melon and jamón ibérico.
Brown and white breads.
Served with (delicious) olive oil.
The olive oil was great, but the breads themselves didn’t really stand out. Moving on.
Slices of an apple that was injected with beet, accompanied by creamy foie gras that’s covered with crispy potato crumbs, leek sauce, and orchid flowers.
The beet-injected apple slices were good, but what really stood out was the foie. Mmm. It was creamy, and the potato crumbs just added a crust that made it even more delicious (and texturally exciting!) in a different way.
Lobster “Sea and Garden”
Grilled lobster with a crispy star-shaped crepe and tomato water. Served with zucchini flowers, some kind of leaf (that was just like spinach), tomato sauce underneath the leaves, and fresh zucchini (in the very back).
They set up this dish by putting a Philips tablet in front of me; the tablet played a loop of a video of waves hitting the shore. I guess the sight and sounds were supposed to make you feel like you were eating lobster by the sea.
This was an interesting dish, but I honestly didn’t think that the lobster itself was that good. I liked the lobster at Akelarre much more, even though the dish itself was ARGUABLY worse (less complex and texturally exciting). Still… when I eat a lobster dish at an elite restaurant like this, I want the lobster itself to… be juicy, flavorful, and just amazing, you know? Hmm.
Poached egg cooked at 63 degrees Celsius in water for 41 minutes (but the waiter said it wasn’t cooked sous-vide), covered with a mix of Panko and a sheep’s milk cheese, and then caramelized in olive oil. Served with powder from the fruit of the baobab tree, crispy milk, sacha inchi (from Peru and also known as “sacha peanut” or “mountain peanut”), a gorgonzola cheese sphere, sheep’s milk cheese curds with port wine, and a “lactic leaf” (it tasted just like cheese!).
I didn’t quite catch the name of the cheese…
I didn’t know really know what to expect from this dish, but it ended up being pretty amazing. It’s basically an egg katsu. You can’t go wrong with that hahaha. (I’m simplifying it, and it really is more complex than that—the chefs definitely put a lot of time and effort into perfecting this dish.) The crispy milk, curds, and leaf definitely added a nice background of dairy flavor that complemented the Panko-crusted egg surprisingly well.
“Monkfish Green Witch”
Roasted monkfish garnished with “crispy lobster caviar” and yellow hawthorn. Served with a crispy seaweed rice “balloon”.
The waiter cracked the top of the seaweed rice balloon into small chips and then put it onto a different plate.
Mugaritz’s hake with tigernut starch still gets my award for favorite seafood dish in Europe, but this one was very, very close. The monkfish itself was INCREDIBLE—it was perfectly cooked, tender, and really flavorful. I… paid less attention to the overall dish than I should have. I pretty much just focused on the monkfish the entire time I ate that dish; it was just so good hahaha :(.
“Longan and Lamb”
Lamb with longan berry (with guava juice filling), pepper, crispy chestnut, yucca, and lamb juice as sauce.
On the side: soy milk curd, lamb juice on top, gypsum (calcium sulfate dihydrate–usually used in plaster), and a sunchoke-like vegetable.
The soy curd provided a refreshing end to the course while also complementing the lamb. (I suppose having lamb juice helps with that haha.)
Roasted pigeon with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, grape seeds, and pigeon juice on top.
On the side: pigeon confit, casted apple, and black olive.
Now THIS is how excellent pigeon should taste like. The pigeon course I had for lunch at Martin Berasategui paled in comparison to this one.
Cocoa and sugar truffle with chocolate and carob core. Melted from the addition of warm orange-chocolate sauce.
On the side: carob ice cream.
It was a huuuge truffle at first, and then they added the warm sauce that made it start breaking down really quickly. I was completely unprepared for this, so my pictures of it starting to break down are crap haha—I forgot to focus it.
This was a ridiculously decadent dessert. It was extremely sweet and rich, but it somehow didn’t feel TOO sweet for me. I just… kept on eating it, and I couldn’t stop myself. I felt terrible after eating it hahaha. My brain was just going, “DIABETES DIABETES!!!” and my body was just going, “Mmmm… So good… Keep on eating!” Needless to say, my body won out. I’m a little ashamed. But that dessert was so, so delicious. My pictures definitely don’t do it justice.
“Golden Footprint and Ladybird”
Caramelized fruits topped with black sesame bread (the “footprint”) and served with two pepper and licorice “ladybirds” filled with yogurt and olive oil crystals.
On the side: basil ice cream.
The fruits were whatever. The ladybirds were fantastic, however, and the basil ice cream ranks as one of my favorite ice creams of all time. Think of Anakin Skywalker’s midi-chlorian count–that’s how intense the basil flavor was! “Even Master Yoda doesn’t have a midi-chlorian count that high!!”
“Ferreteria Arzak” (“Hardware Store Arzak”)
Going counterclockwise from the top left:
-White chocolate with bread crumbs.
-Coca Cola gelatin with pop rocks.
-Dark chocolate keys.
-White chocolate bolts.
-Dark chocolate screws.
The food here was excellent, and I liked this meal almost as much as I liked Mugaritz. I can easily see why Arzak has three Michelin stars—the dishes are complex and creative (and the dishes apparently change a lot!), there is a huge variety of flavor and ingredient combinations, and the cooking is top-notch.
The wait staff wasn’t quite as friendly as Mugaritz’s, but it was definitely more enjoyable interacting with the staff here than at Martin Berasategui. Also, Chefs Juan Mari and Elena Arzak are just so dang friendly. Those two are probably my favorite chefs outside of the U.S. at the moment!
This restaurant has been elite for a long time, and it doesn’t seem to be resting on its laurels at all. The chefs seem to be continuously innovating and thinking of new things. As long as they continue on this path, I’m sure that they will just continue to gain worldwide recognition (and all those awards that I’m sure you know about haha).
One last note: Elena Arzak is Co-Head Chef at the moment, but she’ll probably take over as the solo Head Chef in a few years when her father retires. She seems like an incredibly capable—and talented—chef, so I can’t wait to try this restaurant again when it’s completely under her control! I’m curious to see where the restaurant goes in the next few years (and how Basque cuisine evolves).