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Akelaŕe by Pedro Subijana***, San Sebastian

Saturday, 30 April 2011

The second of our big restaurant meal in San Sebastian came courtesy of Akelare, located on the outskirts of town through a 20 minute taxi ride. I’ll like to point out before anything else that the website and the plaque outside the restaurant itself spells it as Akelare while most online resources refer to it as Akelarre. Regardless of the slight difference in spelling, the brains behind Akelare is Pedro Subijana, a man who is credited for bringing to light Modern Basque Cuisine, along with Juan Mari Arzak.

Akelarre, San Sebastian

We were advised to come early as the view was reportedly excellent. Fair point, but I'll like to clarify that the doors open at 1pm and there isn't much to see if you're stuck in the car park. If you're driving up there though you can always stop by the road on the way up for a brilliant view of the coast; we didn't have that option as we took a taxi.

Akelarre, San Sebastian 2

While the exterior may not be too exciting, it is all modern warmth and comfort within. We had requested a window table and were rewarded with a stunning view of the Bay of Biscay underneath.

Akelarre, San Sebastian view

I would have glossed over the bread as although the nutty bread was quite nice, it felt oddly under-salted. However, the olive oil was perhaps the most aromatic olive oil we ever tasted.

The degustation menu here was slightly different as it had two options: Aranori or Bekarki, which simply represent option A or B according to the Maitre d'. We decided to each try one so we can have as many different dishes as possible.

Both A and B started with "Amenities" as a set of amuse bouche. From left to right, we started with taking the "Onion sponge" and squirting some "Tomato and Basil Gel" onto it. The gel looked identical to a liquid soap but had a distinct tomato and very mild basil flavour whereas the onion sponge had only a mild onion aroma as well. A good start to the meal with a tasty yet mild flavours.

Amenities, Akelarre, San Sebastian

We were then advised to take the packet of "Sea Bath Salts" and pop it directly into our mouths. It was actually powderised prawn and the plastic was edible. It was followed by "Idiazabal cheese Moisturiser", which was like a melted cream cheese. Idiazabal is an unpasteurised sheep’s milk cheese from a village in the Goierri Valley in the heart of the Basque region.

To cleanse our palate was a pomegranate and sparkling cava. The playfulness of the set was very clear and I liked how the intensity of flavours started out mild but then jumped strongly with the prawn and cheese before being neutralised with the palate cleanser at the end to ready us for the first course.

A: "Prawns and French Beans cooked in "Orujo" Fireplace". Firstly the pot was shown to us with the porous volcano rock inside and the southern Spain prawns lying on top. A lit match was then used to ignite the alcohol inside (I think it was grappa) and the prawns were flambéed till cooked. We were advised to suck out the prawn head as the juices would collect inside. The prawn itself was cooked just right and was full of its own natural sweetness. Enhancing the prawn flavour was some powdered prawn and the julienned green bean and green bean cream.

Prawns, Akelarre, San Sebastian

Also worth noting was a little pot which the waiter poured a ginger infused liquid into. The little cloth ball within the pot then blossomed like a flower in those fast forwarded videos seen on National Geographic. We were told that ginger was chosen instead of the typical lemon smell as lemon can linger on the hands and spoil the aroma of future dishes. True enough, the ginger smell was sharp and clean but was gone by the next course.

B: "Xangurro in Essence, its Coral Blini and "Gurullos"". The most prominent feature is the claw meat of the spider crab. Underneath that was a mousse of the most intense crab concoction. The gurullos is a rice-like pasta, a Basque speciality, which had a fairly mild flavour but I think helped smooth out the palate to enjoy the crab meat again.

Txangurro, Akelarre, San Sebastian

A: "Molluscs in Fisherman's Net". Here a variety of shellfish were lying in a light creamy broth. Overlying it was a net made from rice crackers which itself had a sea-like flavour. Great flavours and textures.

Molluscs, Akelarre, San Sebastian

B: "Razor Shell with Veal Shank". This was a dish meant to highlight contrasts yet done in a way where the ingredients still complemented each other. The natural sweetness of the clam played off the meaty savoury veal while the cauliflower mushroom in the middle had virtually no flavour but contributed hugely to the textures.

Razor clam, Akelarre, San Sebastian

A: "Pasta Carpaccio, Piquillo and Iberic with Parmesan shrooms". It may look like a typical beef carpaccio, with a smattering of shaved parmesan, truffles and mushrooms dotted over it, but it far from the truth. It was a sheet of pasta, prepared in such a way that it had an infusion of ham flavour into it. Playful and delicious at the same time.

Iberic pasta, Akelarre, San Sebastian

B: "Sautéed Fresh Foie Gras with "Salt Flakes and Grain Pepper"". The foie gras plate was first placed in front of me. The waiter then produced a saucer of salt and tossed it all into the plate, ignoring my slightly concerned look at his gross over-seasoning, and followed that up by tossing another saucer of gigantic black peppercorns on top of the foie. He gave a cheeky smile before asking me to enjoy and departed.

Foie, Akelarre, San Sebastian

My fears that the foie was ruined by too much salt and pepper were unfounded though. The salt turned out to be sugar crystals (surprise!!) while the black pepper was wild black rice, providing a nice crunch. The foie itself was glazed with Sauternes wine for a fruity citric taste. Much like the corresponding course on the Aranori side, this was very playful yet absolutely delicious.

A: "Cod Tripe". Bacalao was used to make this dish. The highlight here is definitely the tripes, one made from cod and the other from veal. The veal one is curled up and coloured white to look like fish while the other flatter piece is made from cod meat to mimic the appearance of veal tripe. There were also two flavourings available in the form of a fish broth and white tomato water.

Cod, Akelarre, San Sebastian

B: ""Fried Egg" with injected Truffle, threads of Cheek and Germinates". The egg must have been a technical nightmare to do as it was first poached, then fried, then injected with some truffle liquid. We were told to break the egg, mix it with the shredded pork cheek meat and salad. The truffle aroma was strangely lacking given the abundance of shaved truffles and also the truffle liquid. Altogether it was a great combination with the richness of the egg yolk and saltiness from the pork.

egg with truffle, Akelarre, San Sebastian

A: "Whole-Grain Red Mullet with Sauce "Fusili"". The term whole grain was used here as essences from the whole fish was used in preparation of this plate. The fillet was from the loin of the mullet and glazed with a concentrate made from the head and bones. The liver was recycled into a small pate on each side of the plate, which was packed with flavour. Visually captivating was the fusili, each colour signifying the flavour within: parsley, garlic and soy sauce.

red mullet, Akelarre, San Sebastian

B: "Turbot with its "Kokotxa"". Kokotxa is the meat from underneath the jaw of a fish (analogous to the chin I suppose) and is a speciality of Basque, typically taken from cod in their bacalao. Turbot however is a flat-fish (like sole) so it doesn't have a chin and therefore doesn't have kokotxa! In this case they had to create it from a Japanese plant known as kudzu (I think, it got a bit confusing at this point). To go along with the fish was pil-pil sauce, essentially a garlic mayonnaise. The required textural component was a chip of fish skin.

turbot, Akelarre, San Sebastian

The next course was the meat of which there were two choices on each menu option.

A: "Roast Wood Pigeon with a Touch of Mole and Cocoa". The pigeon had a ever so slightly crispy crust and the game-y-ness of the bird was complemented by the richness of the mole (mexican sauce made using chilli and chocolate) and sprinkling of cocoa powder. There was a little pastry on the plate as well which was supposed to have pigeon leg within but for the life of me I didn't detect any. It must have been blended into a mousse form. Still, the filling was rich and delicious and the crispy filo exterior here gave the dish more balance.

pigeon, Akelarre, San Sebastian

B: "Roasted Suckling Pig, with Tomato "Bolao" and Iberian Emulsion". According to our menu, the piglet had a two-step cooking process, being first braised then finished off in the oven so that the meat remained juicy yet still had a crispy skin. The meat itself was indeed juicy and also a little bit too salty on it's own while the skin was crispy but wasn't as good as crackling can get, some parts were chewy. The bolao on it's own was essentially a sugar ball with tomato flavour. Now what was surprising to us was how great the savoury salty pork went with this sugary tomato flavour. Once the emulsion of ham was added, the entire combination was simply breathtaking.

pork, Akelarre, San Sebastian

A: ""Xaxu" and Coconut Iced Mousse". Xaxu, an almond tart with a creamy egg yolk filling, is a famous pastry of Gorrotxategi patisserie. Now I'm sure that some things have been lost to translation, but I think chef was attempting to make the Xaxu in the middle resemble an egg with almond flavours; hence the flowing ooze upon puncturing the pastry was like the egg yolk. The mousse flanking the Xaxu is even more impressive as it was like an aerated ice cream, delivering the tastes of a coconut ice cream but in a nearly foam-like texture.

xaxu, Akelarre, San Sebastian

B: "Milk and Grape, Cheese and Wine in Parallel Evolution". The mentality behind this dish is to demonstrate different flavours of both the milk and the grape, starting from it's 'origin' on the right to increasing levels of 'age' or 'oldness' on the left. By far the best cheese course we've had.

cheese, Akelarre, San Sebastian

From right to left:
1: "Grapevine, curded sheep milk and walnut". Very very mild start, just the natural taste of milk here with a slight bitterness from the grapevine.

2: "Powdered fresh cream with chive and grapes". The sweetness of the fresh grape is very much in play here, with a little milkiness from the powder underneath it.

3: "Quark cheese with nutmeg and pink pepper aroma, must of tapioca and tomato". A little bit similar to cottage cheese, the taste is now starting to appear. I'm not sure where the grape is supposed to be here though.

4: "Idiazabal semi-matured with quince jelly and wine dust". The cheese here is a Basque local made from sheep's milk and is fairly nutty in flavour, well complemented by the sweet quince.

5: "Torta of Casar's grape with soaked raisins in Pedro Ximenez". This cheese is another Spanish local to Extremadura and is usually creamy when fully matured. So on puncturing the shell, a gooey creamy rich cheese flows out. A strong pairing is needed here and is in the form of raisins further sweetened by sweet sherry.

6: "Brandy sirop with Gorgonzola cheese ice cream". This ice cream, made from this famous blue cheese, was far too strong for me but I would imagine some cheese lovers might enjoy this iteration. There should also be more of the brandy sauce.

A: "A Different Apple Tart". The Maitre d' said that everything on this plate is made from apple (not sure about the pastry itself) including the apple “cream” (no milk or cream) and everything is edible. Yes that includes the 'paper' itself with Akelare's name emblazoned all over it, made naturally with apple amongst other things and thusly had an apple taste to it as well. Technically it was more of a mille-feuille with layers of pastries sandwiching the apple cream. The brown sauce surrounding the tart tasted like pastry while the little dollops of jelly on the sides reminding me of apple liquor.

Apple tart, Akelarre, San Sebastian

B: "Citrus Shell and Chocolate Shaving". This reminded me of a chocolate-decadence type of dessert where different types of chocolate are plated. Here though, it never gets so rich where I felt like I had been overdosed on chocolate. The chocolate cotton candy at the bottom is certainly rich and chocolatey, but because of it's shape you never really shovel too much into your mouth to feel like you had too much. Similarly the ice cream also restrains itself and is delicious while not being too rich. Balancing the chocolate are the little shells of citrus.

chocolate, Akelarre, San Sebastian

After the eight courses, we just needed some coffee to help ease our swollen bellies. Akelare didn't make our life any easier though as we were presented a menu of different digestives (I have to say that the menu is pretty large and the waiter had presented us the menu already opened to the coffee section; small touches do count) and there was a whole page just on coffee.

Along with the coffee were some petit fours. Ingeniously presented here as a bowl with a sealed lid. The waiter then did a cruciate incision to reveal the little goodies within. The lid itself was also edible, a pear 'paper' similar to the apple 'newspaper' in the apple tart dish.

Petit four, Akelarre, San Sebastian

Altogether, the bill came up to €315 with the degustation costing €140 and we opted not to have any wine this time. Service throughout was excellent and our waiter was extremely patient with our incessant questioning of the dishes.

At the end of our meal, most of the other diners had also finished and Chef Pedro Subijana came out to meet and greet each table. Upon finding out that I'm a doctor, he quipped that he too wanted to be a doctor when he was young but now he feeds all his old friends who are now doctors. He also graciously agreed to have a photograph with us.

Overall, the food was simply and utterly breathtakingly magnificent. From start to finish, each dish on both menu option was met with wide eyes, raised eyebrows and drooling mouths. The only other time both the PigPig and I were like this during a meal was dining at The Fat Duck and we're having a difficult time trying to decide which is better.

Paseo Padre Orcolaga, 56
San Sebastian
Tel: +34 943 311209

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