Mugaritz is hardly a new kid on the block in foodie heaven San Sebastian, having won the Chef’s Choice award from San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s list in 2008 and has been ranked within the top 5 since. Yet, compared to the trio of three starred restaurants Arzak, Akelarre and Martin Berasategui who are much more well established, Mugaritz does seem quite youthful in comparison. Perhaps it is also to do with the average age of the chefs and waiting staff that seems more in keeping with my age than my parents’ for example.
We arrived 10 minutes early as we were told that the compound was quite nice. True enough we spent the time flitting through the area particularly admiring the herb garden and peeking through the window into the kitchen. The interior was in keeping with the cottage-like setting from the outside with plenty of wood pieces around.
Once we were seated within, two envelopes were given entitled:
"150 min. ...submit!" 150 minutes to feel, imagine, reminisce, discover. 150 minutes to contemplate.
"150 mins. ...rebel!" 150 minutes to feel, embarassed, flustered, fed up. 150 minutes of suffering.
Initially, from what we had heard, we thought there were two different degustations available. However before we even made a decision as to whether to fight or surrender, food started appearing on our table. We theorised about the meaning of those cards and confirmed it with Jose Ramon, the ebullient maître d' later when he said those cards is a completely personal choice and has no effect on the food coming out of the kitchen. It merely forces the diner to make a conscious decision about the food: am I going to sit back and enjoy what's given to me; or am I going to sit up straight, analyse and debate about its merits? As the website states, "Only you can choose whether to surrender to the experience or whether to resist". This is obviously not any simple restaurant...
Backtracking a little, before the food started appearing, we were shown to the kitchen where current head chef Rafael greeted us and explained a little about how the kitchen works.
We were looking at the main kitchen but in the basement was the 'cold' kitchen where the preparation work was done while above is the research and development kitchen. He also checked if we had any allergies and dislikes; I explained that I'm not a fan of strong cheeses and he replied that if anything was not to our liking, we can return it to the kitchen and they will change it. Also, as the restaurant had only reopened the day before we dined and all the courses are completely new.
It's also worth mentioning now that during our little chat to the maître d', he explained that Mugaritz doesn't attempt to follow the conformities of the typical formal dining event: the tables upon entry are bare of silver; the first few courses are eaten with fingers; the courses themselves don't follow the standard appetiser-main-dessert sequence; waiters don't necessarily serve women first before men. Basically, their philosophy is that if it doesn't make the food taste better, why bend to tradition?
"Grilled pueraria focaccia". So besides being a breast enhancing herb, pueraria can also be used to make focaccia. This was unlike any other focaccia though as it was almost like a wafer in it's crunchiness but still had that focaccia taste. A little bit of smeared black olive paste (or maybe tapenade, hard to tell) was on it for extra flavouring.
"Starch and sugar crystal spotted with pepper praline and sea urchin". Here the natural briny and creamy taste of the sea urchin was heightened by the slight sweetness of the beautiful looking crystal which formed its plate. Great flavours and contrast of textures.
"Toasted legume beer. Olives, tapa beans and thyme". Introduced at the table as "warm beer and olives", we suspected it was anything but that. Sure enough the 'beer' turned out to be made from chickpeas and green beans, which we couldn't quite identify until after we were told so. The 'olives' too were fake: recoloured beans with a little bit of olive paste around it to complete the trick. If this course is to highlight the flavour of the common bean, then they have a good job while fooling our senses into thinking we were having something else completely different.
"Tempered white asparagus and chrysanthemum petals". The core ingredient is prominently on display here as very little has been done to it; the chrysanthemum effect is very subtle and most seasoning also comes from the mash underneath the stalk. But as the purée is actually made from the asparagus bulb itself, it is emphasising the asparagus flavour.
"The greenness of tear peas animated by blood sorrel and mascarpone". The mascarpone has a minimal effect on flavour and I suspect is mainly to give a little richness and to hold the baby peas together. The effect of this dish depends on your fondness of vegetables as the chlorophyll and pea taste is strongly evident.
"Pork noodles with "arraitxiki" extract and toasted rice". Before anything else, the wonderful aroma floats out from this bowl. The gelatinous pork flavoured noodles were chewy and gooey at the same time but not too strong in taste (the PigPig wonders if the tendons were used to make this). The broth helped make up for this though and the combination of pork and rockfish here was actually simple and earthy in the end.
"Fresh herbs. Mortar soup made of spices, seeds, and fish broth". At first, a mortar, warm to touch, was placed in front of us with the toasted seeds and spices within. We were then told to grind them with the pestle before they returned with more ingredients. The process of crushing released more smells to us particularly the Sichuan peppercorns.
The waiters returned bearing some green herbs and finally poured the fish broth into the entire mixture. The final concoction was a wonderful aromatic spicy broth slightly reminiscent of Vietnamese pho with the fresh herbs.
At this point some bread was offered along with some extra virgin olive oil, specially made for Mugaritz.
"Over a gelatinous pine nut cream, glutinous cod fish and mastic resin". The pine nut cream was similar to tahini, but much less intense. The piece of fish was actually tripe and pretty tasteless in fact. Our conclusion is that this course isn't so much about the flavour but to enjoy the gooey texture of the fish along with the creamy sticky pine nut cream. Not my favourite, but the PigPig enjoyed it. Rebel versus submit...
"Daily catch, smoked goats' milk butter and chard". The fish was a black seabream, probably cooked sous vide we think as it was quite juicy and no signs of pan-frying or grilling. I thought this was a dish of extreme simplicity meant to highlight the flavour of the fish itself in it's purity with the chard just providing a little freshness and crunch. One of the few times I've just enjoyed the fish for the fish flavour itself.
"Textures of coastal fish". A sizeable fillet of rockfish was quite similar to the seabream before but less sweet. The aim of this plate is given in its name, as different textures from the same fish can be appreciated. The cubes of rockfish are prepared in such a way (we forgot to ask; I thought it was cured like in a ceviche while the PigPig thought it fried) where the meat felt grainy instead of the smoothness of the main piece. Also present were fried bits of the fin to provide crunch.
"Quail Armagnac". First, an oversized brandy glass was placed before us and a little bit of Armagnac (like Cognac, but from a different part of France) can be seen and smelled. Next, a consommé of quail was poured in. Immediately appreciable was the aroma of the resulting liquid and it felt like we were drinking the essence of the bird (also reminded us of a luxurious Brand's chicken essence).
"Shhhhh... cat got your tongue!". Our fears that chef Rafael would serve us cat meat proved unfounded. Instead it was beef tongue, something not unfamiliar to us, shredded and fried along with a caramelised garlic bulb beneath. The garlic was very aromatic but I couldn't taste the beef much.
"Iberian pork tails, crispy leaves and toasted sweet millet oil". The tails were prepared in a longitudinal rather than transverse manner so a big piece can be presented without any bones to contend with. The strips have crispy skin much like crackling with a gooey layer of fat underneath. I'm not sure exactly what the crispy leaves were but they provided more crunch again; needed especially as the gravy underneath was very rich, thick and gelatinous. Not a drop was wasted and we mopped it up with our bread.
At this point the maître d' inquired as to our desire of a cheese course. I declined while the PigPig greedily agreed to a sample. Six different cheeses were brought out and she was advised to start from bottom to top in increasing strength. The bottom-most was a cow's cheese, the top was goat while the middle four were sheep. The PigPig felt they were all good but she particularly liked the third from bottom (an Idiazabal); it has a smoky spicy aroma and felt akin to chorizo.
"Cool vanilla brioche and barley cream". A brioche is a French bread more similar to a pastry as it has milk, butter and eggs. Here, there is no bread but I think the same flavour of the brioche is remade in an ice cream form (ergo, cool brioche). We didn't taste much of the barley cream underneath though it did add some richness.
"Lemon cream with daikon radish and unsweetened sugar". The strip of daikon was prepared so that most of its innate radish taste has been eliminated leaving just a subtle hint of "daikon-ness". The apparent coating of icing sugar is a red herring as it was made of white clay powder (kaolin) and totally unsweet. Surrounded by the radish, the lemon cream was rich and creamy while balancing tartness and sweetness. Individually, neither the lemon nor the daikon were particularly tasty. Collectively though, they work together very well and seem to downplay the other's weaknesses while emphasising their strengths.
"Broken walnuts, toasted and salted, cool milk cream and armagnac jelly". As with some of the previous dishes, the ingredients in this course are not what they seem at first sight. The ice cream had a faint salty tang to it but was still sweet overall. The big clue was chunks of cheese hidden within the ice cream; it was goat's cheese and goat's milk ice cream. Similarly a couple of the walnuts were actually chocolate shells, one of which had the armagnac jelly within. Collectively the entire plate worked well in combination with one another although we would prefer less cubes of cheese within.
We finished off our meal with an espresso each and dutifully waited for the petit fours... which never arrived.
Altogether, the bill came up to €320, the degustation costing €135 each. We didn't have any liquor, only a bottle of still and the aforementioned espressos.
Overall, it feels that while the techniques and preparations used were probably very advanced and complicated, the final execution of the plates are actually quite basic. I assume this is for us to enjoy the element of the main character on each dish; the aroma of quail broth, the freshness of the sweet baby peas, the textures of the cod tripe or the rockfish.
I can understand why people rave about Mugaritz; it has real character in its aims and as Jose Ramon said, the food here is for the soul. It is also unique and that will ultimately be its biggest problem; you either love it or hate it.
Rebel or submit!
Otzazulueta baserria Aldura-aldea, 20,
Tel: (+34) 943 522 455 / 943 518 343