This is the third year in which we have embarked on our eating pilgrimage by the way of the San Pelligrino top 50 list, with so many great restaurants in the world and not enough time or disposable cash to do them all in one go we are restraining ourselves and working up the list ticking off one each year. Previously on both trips we found ourselves continually full; in New York we succumbed to the all American classics, delicious things inbetween buns and fried goods and in Paris we clocked up many a cheese and wine pitstop. The thing with San Sebastian was unlike Paris or New York where not one aspect defines their being, this part of Spain is renowned the world over for its food and inability to provide a below mediocre meal. Food is the towns focus; excellent produce, ingenuity in it's use and deeply rooted in upholding this claim, evident from it's streets littered with pinxtos bars to Michelin restaurants nestled around the towns scenic outskirts. It is the only place in the world that is able to claim the most Michelin stars per square foot, of which this year featured in the top ten, making it a mecca for food lovers.
At the side of a busy dual carriageway lies an inconspicuous pastel coloured house with a swinging sign like an old style coach house. Upon closer inspection the sign reads Arzak. The name of a family who have in occupied and cooked here for generations. Over time the decor has evolved from cosy country to now a minimalist grey scale with divisions of sliding glass, whilst the food echoes the modernity of its surroundings in pioneering techniques and presentation the flavours are very much Basque rooted to the bone. It is Juan Mari who turned the building into something more of a landmark, it has been a base for his investigatory and evolutionary food and where he was the first chef to earn three Michelin stars in Spain. Now standing shoulder to shoulder with his daughter they collaborate creatively in the kitchen and work the dining room,Juan sticking to native speakers and Elena to the many others who travel far and wide. Swapping summers off for kitchen work in her teens Elena has grown up at her fathers heels, she knows the restaurants workings intimately. She is evidently taking the steps towards taking on the baton fully in her stride and is already a force to be reckoned with in her own right especially with being named the worlds best female chef this year.
As we snaked around the ground floor dining room set in slate and white our eyes couldn't help but be drawn to the colourful plates, marigold nuggets surfacing from smoke and dishes that looked like perfectly manicured miniature gardens. We were thankful for almost immediately being handed the a la carte menu but decided on the tasting menu to maximise the amount of different dishes we could try. The options of which were talked over with Elena herself, who appeared almost instantaneously, sharing with us her personal favourites and provided a welcoming prelude to the taste sensations that would follow. Promptly, again, the amuse bouches soon filled up the table, speared with a cocktail stick or dangling from more elaborate contraptions. Such as the scorpion fish twirled in fine kataifi pastry, with its creamy whipped middle and crisp outer coils. The use of unusual savoury and sweet combinations was a central theme throughout the meal, the most glorious I thought was the mini samosa shaped parcel which was marinated in tonic and filled with chorizo, there was a muted heat and intense savoury taste pitched perfectly against gentle sweetness from the wafered watermelon casing and miniature prismed strawberries. The seemingly curious combination of sardine and sweet strawberry, ended up being faultlessly balanced with a sweet acidity of a treacle like vinegar. A modest cup sweet corn soup was also a joy, creamy and studded with dehydrated kernels, salty black pudding, fig cubes and topped with ribbons of pink rose petals.
|" Cromlech with onion, coffee and tea"|
|"Dusted egg and Mussel"|
Through the flurry of ordering through Elena we had forgotten what was coming up next, it was the cromlech with onion, coffee and tea. After a quick google search I discovered that a cromlech is in fact a large stone used in prehistoric architecture, luckily it tasted nothing like its description, the marbled puff was light and hollow tasting slightly cheesy, inside were rich pieces of half molten pieces of creamy foie gras and slithers of caremlised green pepper. Truly indulgent and moreish. Less so was the mussel dish, which was less defined with similar textures throughout the dish, juicy mussel, soft egg and mussel gel merged into one. Visually the dish was more punctuated with varying dusts and irregular shaped garnishes, it was a pity that the flavours of them did not withstand one another and became a little lost.
Food at it's best can bring joy to all senses, a great dish can conjure up pleasure before you even see it let alone eat it, the smell alone stirs up nostalgia and transport you to times gone by. The lobster dish was a definite highlight of the meal, you could smell the sweet smokiness before the dish came to the table and when it did the plate was like summer on a plate. Brilliant vermillion was dotted around tender pieces of lobster, whilst a trio of narsanitum lily pads concealed mayonnaise like mounds of sweet mustard. Lemon hinted through from the narsantium and dressed leaves, cutting pleasantly through the bountiful flavour from the pegs which was extracted from the head then intensified. Altogether it was a playful composition of fresh flavours as well a visual treat. Both of our fish courses had a common sweet versus savoury aspect to them; the sole was paired with red wine croutons which worked texturally and provided a subtle sweetness, whilst my monkfish held its own against the tartness of gooseberry and physalis.
Gruff yet friendly, was something I had read prior to our meal about the service, which I would completely agree with but would also add prompt. At times a bit too much so,with such landmark meals there should always be an opportunity to linger or feel comfortable in doing so. We had now reached the halfway point and to accompany the meat dishes requested the recommendation of a suitable glass of red at the beginning of the meal, to which the sommelier noted with a grunt and nothing more was said throughout the duration of the first courses. We thought he was maybe going to surprise us at the last minute with a wine that complemented the flavours for both the lamb and pigeon. Instead he failed to notice his cue and after much awkward arm flailing from me, I failed in catching anyone else's attention but thought we better tuck in anyway. Midway a glass of Rielo 2004 unapologetically appeared beside us, altogether disappointing as it did nothing to elevate the richness of our meat dishes if anything its subtlety took away. My lamb dish was accompanied by a colourful troop of cylindrical towers fashioned out of potato and various melons, shredded berry jelly and was shouting out for something to round off its delicate sweet flavours. The pigeon was served with little else but dots of hibiscus purée and a now trade mark side salad, but when cooked expertly sometimes a sauce is all you need, perhaps this too was the thinking behind the sommeliers actions. Atleast with the promptness of the servers you could put it down to over efficiency, but lack of attention to detail is just a shame.
|"Pigeon with anthocyanin, with side pigeon leg and hibiscus and citrus leaf salad"|
With a double dose of sweet courses and the obligatory additional side dish, which was an ice cream for each dish, it felt, dare I say excessive. We were on that side of treat which was more like being spoilt, like a child sneaking in sweeties before birthday cake. Positively there were more opportunities to witness the playful use of textures, flavours and presentation. Unfortunately in an anomaly of a dish, style overcame substance, the printed floral plate topped with another glass layer adorned with edible treats managed to turn my frown to a wide agape smile but lacked in flavour direction. The gold printed wafer was just a crunch and ladybird filled with yoghurt was a non descript granular cream. More successful was the Roots, fruits and seeds dish, made up of different guises of complimentary red and green. Despite its bright colouring it remained unassuming, like an oddly coloured version of the kiddie favourite jelly and ice cream. This, however was its grown up seductively wobbly sister; freckled with puffed rice and mint dust, sandwiching the white chocolate coloured with parsley were thin jelly cushions encasing a Campari and maraschino cherry flavoured liquid, which was in fact white port, when popped flooded the plate with a moreish booziness . From the unseen and unexperienced to the familiar winning combination of chocolate and fruit, but spun on its head with the incorporation of fine pineapple custard, kiwi pieces and a green tea like cream which kept the dish balanced and not overcome by chocolate which can often the case. Across the table a mound caramel crusted pistachios sat upon cardamom hinted honeycomb, in a pool of fantastic crimson, they acted harmoniously with the beetroot sauce providing the little encouragement the other elements needed to melt in your mouth.
|"Roots, fruits and seeds"|
|"Pistachio and beetroot stone"|
|"Workshop Arzak - petit fours"|