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Arzak***, San Sebastian

Monday, 25 April 2011

The name 'Arzak' is nearly synonymous with top tier fine dining in Spain and rightly so for Juan Mari Arzak is often described as being one of the founders of Modern Basque Cuisine (the other chap being Pedro Subijana of Akelare, but that story is tomorrow's). Although the Arzak family has been serving food in the same building since 1897, it was Juan Mari who modernised the local Basque food and turned it into an art form.

Arzak, San Sebastian

Arzak obtained its three star status in 1989 and has kept it ever since even though Arzak restaurant is now in the hands of Elena Arzak, the fourth generation Arzak to feed people in the same building. Elena Arzak had done a stint in El Bulli and this year was nominated for best female chef by the San Pellegrino Awards. The same awarding body however has awarded Juan Mari Arzak a lifetime achievement award this year. In fact, Arzak has been in the top 10 ranking of the World’s Top 50 Best Restaurant Awards and is ranked number 8 for 2011.

The building itself is quite nondescript and doesn't really stand out from the surrounding street. Inside though was a warm though darkened interior and we were soon shown to our table in the quite small dining room, perhaps 30 covers on the ground floor although we did see more people going upstairs.

Arzak, San Sebastian interior

Names of dishes are lifted straight from the English menu given to us after our meal.

"Arzak's amusements". At first they brought out three, which seems a reasonable number of amuse bouche. Then another one came out... followed by yet another and then there were five in total. Good for greedy hungry us.

Amuse bouche, Arzak, San Sebastian

1: "Corn, figs and black pudding". A dense creamy rich corn soup with a little cube of morcilla in the middle to give it even more body. The figs added a nice sweet touch.

2: "Kabraroka pudding with kataifi". I think that the kabraroka is some sort of traditional Basque dish made out of fish (I think I was told it's something like cod) and kataifi is made of very fine vermicelli-like pastry. This was nice but the least spectacular of the five.

3: "Yellow crispy rice with mushroom". Nice contrast of textures going on here while mushroom mousse in the middle was wondefully mushroomy.

4: "Ham and tomato smoke". I thought this was tasty but a rather ordinary and unsurprising combination as it has been used many times. The PigPig however loved it and particularly appreciated the sweet juicy burst of fresh tomato. Part of the table prep involved the waiter pouring tea onto dry ice for a smoking effect.

smoked tomato, Arzak, San Sebastian

5: "Marinated Anchovy and stramberry". Yes I'm aware I just typed "stramberry" but that's what the menu said and I'm copying it letter for letter, word for word. Anyway this was both our favourite of the amuses as it was a bold combination of the fishy anchovy and sweet strawberry. Visually it was very striking as well as it was served on a plate with in-built fluorescent lighting.

anchovy and strawberry, Arzak, San Sebastian

"Cromlech with onion, coffee and tea". Cromlechs are prehistoric megalithic structures and from Elena Arzak's recipe online, the cromlech is made of tapioca. The shell is a very thin and light and had quite distinctive two tones of colour, the darker made from baby squid ink we think.

Cromlech of foie Arzak, San Sebastian

We were told to slip a fish knife under the cone, turn the cone upside down making sure the filling didn't fall out and eat it whole. The filling was a blend of foie mousse and other goodies I couldn't quite make out. We also couldn't quite taste the coffee or tea but it probably contributed to the richness of the filling. A brilliant blend of wonderful rich flavour, textural crunchiness and just pure coolness. Definitely a highlight of the night.

"Lobster, potato and copaiba". The potato came in a wafer-like form and had a fairly strong grilled flavour to it. Personally I thought that grilled-ness was too strong for the lobster but the PigPig thought it went well together. We both agreed the sauce made from lobster and copaiba (an oil made from a tree in Brazil) was magnificent though.

lobster, Arzak, San Sebastian

"Dusted egg and Mussel". The simple story is that this is a dish made from a poached egg sandwiched between two layers of fried kataifi. However, as with all the dishes here, there is far more going on: the kataifi is green because of spinach and parsley; there is a layer of concentrated mussel gel on top of the egg; around the mussel on the side are powders of prawn and oregano; hidden away is a little pool of some very tasty garlic. Altogether the elements combine together (don't forget the poached egg yolk) in an amazing flavour c-c-c-combo.

Egg with mussels, Arzak, San Sebastian

The next two courses is fish and meat respectively. They both have two choices and our waiter second-guessed our intentions by recommending we both try one each. As if we would have done otherwise... Each dish also came with a little accompanying salad.

Fish choice 1. "Low tide monkfish". The green 'clams' were made out of mussels (not obvious to taste, tasted more like seaweed), the white clam was sugary, the star was an orange gel and the red coloured thing was tempura seaweed. For me this was visually stunning, but flavour-wise not amazing as I didn't think the whole dish worked well together. I also don't really fancy monkfish much as it's very meaty although the chef did well here as I've had it worse.

monkfish, Arzak, San Sebastian

Fish choice 2. "Sole with head cheese". We both preferred this dish as the sole seemed to combine better with the surrounding supporting characters: the red wine croutons had a fantastic depth of flavour and is a brilliant idea; beef tongue to add a slightly different flavour; orange sauce to tie it all together.

sole, Arzak, San Sebastian

Meat choice 1: "Pigeon with orange and corn". We left it to chef's discretion as to how done the meat should be and was rewarded with a gorgeously pink interior that had a bounciness to it. The texture of the meat was the best we've ever had. The pigeon was paired with a smear of black olives and courgettes; the effect of this with the pigeon was too subtle for me to appreciate.

pigeon, Arzak, San Sebastian

Meat choice 2: "Lamb with Rosemary and turmeric". Much like the pigeon, we both loved the quality of cooking the meat itself as well as the accompanying jus drizzled over it at the table. This dish was simpler than the pigeon with only a sliver of grilled pepper skin flanked by two streaks of rosemary flavoured oil. In a way, I preferred this to the game pigeon as the elements of the whole dish seemed more harmonious and had more teamwork, although that is easier to achieve when there are less players on the pitch.

Lamb, Arzak, San Sebastian

Most of the salads that came with both fishes and meats had bits from the main dish along with some greens: the monkfish salad had those 'clams' and the pigeon salad had a leg of pigeon. For the lamb however, the salad was a tempura of asparagus and jamon - delicious.

I didn't confirm this directly but I think the dessert courses worked on a similar basis as with the mains of fish and meat. There were two courses of desserts; one is chocolate based, the other not; each course had two choices. Again we tried one of each.

Dessert course 1 choice 1: "Soup and chocolate "between vineyards"". On the left side is a scoop of basil ice cream whilst the right end had six little balls of chocolate which was supposed to resemble grapes (i.e. vineyard). Both of these were swimming in a pool of a strawberry jam-like semi-liquid. We were advised to put the entire chocolate ball into our mouths and were duly rewarded with a burst of bitter chocolatey goodness. Somehow, the combination of the slightly warm chocolate burst, the cold basil ice cream and the sweet strawberry combined together oh so well. Absolutely loved this dish.

Strawberry and chocolate, Arzak, San Sebastian

Dessert course 1 choice 2: "Chocolate, spinach and parsley". On the right side, the blocks were chocolate with a spinach filling which wasn't very obvious on my tongue. We did find that the sauce coating the chocolate was too salty though. On the other side was a trio of flavours, only parsley and coconut we could identify. The poached pear stood out like a sore thumb and whether individually or collectively, this dish didn't work for me.

Chocolate Arzak, San Sebastian

Dessert course 2 choice 1: "Mead and fractal fluid". Firstly the fractal fluid was made at the table. The liquid was a combination on water, honey and anise; drops of natural tasteless red colouring were then dropped into the middle of the liquid to produce this fractal shape. It was then spooned onto our plate. From my understanding, the entire process of generating the fractal is purely cosmetic but it is quite beautiful to watch indeed.

hydromel and fractal fluid, Arzak, San Sebastian

On the plate was two cubes of a white chocolate shell infused with paprika to give it that distinctive orange colour containing a lemon curd-like interior. The fractal fluid was actually quite mild, providing a strong hint of sugar and anise/ licorice. This dish didn't work for me as it left a strange aftertaste in my mouth, plus, we are not huge fans of anise/licorice-flavoured stuff. The Pigpig thought the chocolate shell tasted a bit like "lard".

Dessert course 2 choice 2: "Pistachio and beetroot stone". This plate worked much better for both of us, great textures and the pistachio flavour being nicely evident throughout.

Pistachio stone, Arzak, San Sebastian

Each dessert course also came with a little scoop of ice cream. From the first of the dish mentioned and going down in order, the flavours were tutti-frutti, chocolate with oregano/rosemary, apple and lastly pineapple.

Ice-cream, Arzak, San Sebastian

By this time, we were absolutely filled to the brim and we both ordered tea with lemon. The petit fours were a dark chocolate screw that started melting on contact with our grimy fingers (a sign of high quality chocolate I've been told), a salted white chocolate nut (as in, from the nuts and bolts variant, not the type that gives people anaphylaxis), a coca-cola topped with pop rocks, a mango and passionfruit jelly, and lastly a white chocolate with red tea sprinkles.

petit four, Arzak, San Sebastian

Altogether, the bill for our meal was €425 with the degustation making up a large chunk of the cost at €170 each for eight courses. We didn't feel like having a whole bottle of wine and they didn't do an official wine pairing but they offered to serve glasses of wine to match our pace. In the end we only had a sparkling cava and a glass of red for the whole meal.

All top restaurants in Michelin's eyes need outstanding service to get the three stars. In Arzak's case, from time to time both the Arzaks will come out into the dining room to check the situation with the diners. In our case, we had a chat with Elena Arzak who was especially keen once she found out we were Malaysian as she had a Malaysian family for lunch that day as well (proprietor of a restaurant in Indulgence Hotel, Ipoh apparently). We were also given a tour of the kitchen at the end of our meal.

Arzak***, San Sebastian

Overall, everything was visually stunning, the quality of the food was brilliant and I have grossly oversimplified the dishes by stating only what I can identify. However, I somehow expected more from the dishes as I didn't feel the 'wow factor' in terms of tastes for quite a few of them; the desserts in particular having more misses than hits for us, although one of it was spectacular.

Avda. Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273,
20015 Donostia/ San Sebastian,
Tel: (+34) 943 278465

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