Arzak: the meal of a lifetime

As 2011 starts to wind down to a close, it’s a time for reflection on the highs of the year food-wise. Superb meals there have been, but for me, 2011 will undoubtedly be marked and defined by one foodie experience alone: it’s the year I discovered the glory of San Sebastian and the legendary cuisine of Juan Mari Arzak. I was actually here back in April of this year. However, I think the sheer apprehension of being unable to describe the meal in words and write a post worthy enough has taken me the greater part of a year to get round to blogging about it. I wasn’t about to let 2011 go by without paying tribute though…

As far as fine dining and molecular gastronomy go, Juan Mari Arzak has been a real game changer. Regarded as the founding father of Modern Basque cuisine, Arzak has held it’s coveted 3 Michelin star status since 1989… an era before the Fat Ducks and El Bullis of this world and a feat few others can match. This temple of gastronomy continues to be housed in the same premises that have been kept within the Arzak family for more than a century. Beneath the orangey-beige lick of paint of this modest looking neighbourhood eatery though is a thriving bloodline of culinary geniuses. The reigns at Arzak have since been handed over from Juan Mari to his more than capable daughter Elena, but the old master still continues to roam the dining room to check in on patrons. We felt honoured and lucky to share a chuckle with the man himself in his half-broken English (and my half-broken Spanish) when he stopped by our table.

So here it is… a blow by blow account of Arzak’s extraordinary degustation menu. If you are on a diet leading up to the holiday season’s over-indulgences, I’d suggest looking away now…

First up, Arzak’s amusements  a seemingly endless assault of their trademark amuse bouches. At first there was 1… then 2,3 and 4 in quick succession… then number 5… all laid out before us in their full glory. Where ‘o where would we start first…

AB-1. Ham and Tomato Smoke :  It’s hard not to wonder in awe and be hypnotized by the theatrics of the sublimating dry ice carrying the scent of Iberico ham and ripe, juicy tomatoes straight into the sinuses. Dramatics aside, it was a simple, fool-proof combination to get the salivary glands going.

AB-2. Marinated Anchovy and Strawberry : The freshest, plumpiest anchovies that simply melted away in the mouth, coupled with the juiciest of strawberries. Visually stunning with a beautiful balance of savoury and sweet, it was everything you could ask for in a bite of food.

AB-3. Kabraroka Pudding with Kataifi : A traditional Spanish cod-fish mousse shelled in a deep-fried vermicelli coating. A little underwhelming relative to the towering stand it was served on and probably my least favourite of the 5.

AB-4. Yellow Crispy Rice with Mushroom :  Wonderfully smooth, intense mushroom pate coated with crunchy rice-crispy-like grains. A playful exchange of textures.

AB-5. Corn, Fig and Black Pudding : A corn flavoured veloute spiked with rich Spanish Black pudding (‘morcilla’) and chunks of fig. A rustic, but delicious little bowl.

Next up, the starters. Like the 5 ABs and in true Pintxos tradition, these were designed for sharing and brought out in pairs for us to tuck into.

Starter 1. Cromlech with onion, coffee and tea: Drawing it’s name from the prehistoric monolithic structures of old, these Stonehenge-like parcels had a crispy, air-light tapioca and molecularised squid ink shell. The filling was some sort of foie gras and onion-flavoured mousse. We struggled to understand our Spanish waitress’ explanation of how to eat the ‘thing’ initially, but finally got the gist of it when she mimed flipping it over (with a spoon underneath to prevent the filling falling out) and eating it as you would an ice-cream cone. Extraordinary flavours and textures and one of the best, most interesting dishes of the night. The dusting of coffee and tea was the icing on the cake.

Starter 2. Menhir of Oysters: The only reason I’ve even heard of a ‘Menhir ‘is because I grew up reading Asterix as a kid (and hence knew the name of the large carved upright rock trophy which Obelix lugs around with him). Arzak’s Menhir comes not in grey, but in striking beetroot red, perched on a small podium block of potato confit. Two fresh, beautifully cooked oysters, spiked with lemon zest, lemon confit, and toasted almonds accompanied the rather majestic looking Menhir. All the flavours worked and the scattering of flower petals on the edge of the plate certainly gave the dish a ceremonial feel to it all.

Starter 3. Lobster Coralline: People often ask me what’s the greatest plate of food I’ve ever eaten. Well.. this is it. The chunkiest, juiciest lobster claws, lobster roe jus, chlorophyll ‘clay’, bits of mango, the flavours of paprika, oregano and cinnamon… all served up in little canoe boats of sweet, roasted onion. Rich, explosive in taste and a damn right work of abstract art plating-wise. It’s a dish that almost brought thisboywhoatetheworld to tears. Hallelujah.

Starter 4. Dusted Egg Mussel:  A perfectly poached egg, sandwiched between two layers of fried kataifi. What was particularly interesting was the mussel flavoured gel on top of the egg with a film-like texture designed to mimic that of egg. Served on the side was a ground-up, powdered dust of prawn, oregano and garlic. When all the elements, textures and flavours of this dish come together on the palate, it was quite simply a joy.

Now onto the fish and meat courses. There was a choice of 2 different dishes for each, so the better half and I naturally went for 1 of each in the name of variety.

Fish Course A. Sole with head cheese: A beauty of a Dover sole fillet, served with a mild-flavoured cheese curd (thats the white stuff). The supporting cast of red wine croutons and beef tongue (both of which had a great depth of flavour) gave the dish that added dimension. A clean-flavoured orange sauce tied all the different elements of the dish down together very well indeed.

Fish Course B. ‘Low tide’ monkfish: A psychedelic, dreamy dish that brought back memories of playing by the beachside as a child and seeing the occasional fish wash up during low tide. Unfortunately, the monkfish itself was a little tough as it sometimes can be. On the side were green clams made of mussels, white crispy seashells made of sugar, blue curacao-jellied stars, and red tempura’d seaweed… On top, and scattered around were little spheres of roasted red pepper-flavoured ‘caviar’. Though playful and witty, all the elements just didn’t come together as well as some of the earlier dishes.

Meat Course A. Lamb with Rosemary and Turmeric: Yet another gorgeous looking dish where the juxtaposing colours were seemingly alive and jumping off the plate. Two portions of nicely seared but still pink lamb fillet were accompanied by a razor thin layer of grilled red pepper skin, teardrops of rosemary salsa verde, and a turmeric and mango-flavoured lamb jus sauce. Big on flavour and absolutely dee-licious.

Meat Course B. Pigeon with orange and corn: The Pigeon was cooked clinically with precision and left wonderfully pink on the inside. With a bold-flavoured, gamey meat like pigeon came stronger flavours on the side: an artistic smear of black olive paste… a strip of zucchini… a segment of blood orange…. and a generous drizzling of pigeon jus from the pan. It wasn’t as visually stunning as some of the other dishes by any means, but the flavours and quality of the produce was hard to fault.

With our tummies close to bursting, it was time for the final act. The beauty parade was by no means over and there were still 2 dessert courses (each!) to go. Like the mains, there was a choice between 2 different desserts per course (which we opted for one of each again).

Dessert 1-A.  Soup and chocolate ‘between vineyards’.  This was another one of Arzak’s appearance vs reality dishes which pushed the boundaries of one’s imagination to the absolute limit. Seemingly floating in a pool of strawberry soup were six chocolate balls with a gelatinous skin… the ‘grapes’. On the left, a scoop of fresh, basil sorbet… the ‘vine’. We were told to put the chocolate balls into the mouth whole. As the gelatinous skin broke, on came an explosion of warm, dark, gooey chocolate. Then came the sweet and sour of the strawberry soup and fresh zing of the ice-cold basil sorbet. A beautiful combination of hot and cold, sweet and sour, rich and fresh, and an ingenious reconstruction of the grapevine.

Dessert 1-B. Chocolate, spinach and parsley: If there was one dish I would rather forget and erase from my otherwise very happy memories of the evening, it would be this one. The spinach filled chocolate tart just did not work full stop. Neither did the poached pear standing upright like a soggy potato, or the parsley and coconut like sauce on the side. FAIL.

Dessert 2-A. Mead and fractal fluid: I’d seen a preview of this dish on Anthony Bourdain’s ‘No Reservations’ episode where he visits Arzak, so the surprise was somewhat ruined for me. Nonetheless, there was still something incredibly hypnotic about this little chemistry experiment on the dinner table and witnessing in real life the parasitic, branch-like growth of the red fractal. The transparent base liquid was a combination of water and mead. A few drops of red colouring were then dropped into the middle of the liquid, and suddenly, as if alive, the red fractal started to grow its branch-like arms. This honey-like sauce was then spooned onto a lemon curd-like tart. Drama of watching the fractal unfold aside, I didn’t think the flavours worked on this dessert course either. The lemon curd was a bit heavy and licorice-cey in flavour (I HATE LICORICE btw). Even the magical, red fractal fluid couldn’t save the dish.

Dessert 2-B. Pistachio and beetroot stone: After a couple bum notes in the previous 2 desserts, this was a return to the glory of some of the earlier courses. The combination of sweet beetroot sauce worked perfectly with the pistachio flavoured honeycomb-like ‘stones’ and nuts. Looks-wise, it was a stunner of a dish as well.

Petit fours from the ‘workshop’: Mango lego pieces, Dark Chocolate Bolts, Fizzy Cola washer rings and White Chocolate and Aubergine nuts… these were petit fours from a planet where mechanics ruled the world. Mind-blogging but absolutely brilliant. When a meal ends like that, what can you do but smile.

All in all, damage came up to €425 for the 2 of us (the bulk of it was from the €175 per head degustation menu, but we also had 2 glasses of cava and 2 glasses of wine). Reflecting on the experience, Arzak is about more than just a great meal. It’s about pushing the boundaries of food to the limit… it’s about bites of food that will trigger happy, surreal memories, like the first time you glanced a fish washing up on shore or that first ever grape you took a bite of. Most of all, it’s about a family’s undying passion to elevate modern Basque cuisine into an artform. For these reasons, I think it’s worth every € of the equally extraordinary bill and every minute of the 2 – 3 month waiting list it takes to get a dinner table here.

An unforgettable meal that will probably be up there with the best meals I’m ever going to have in this lifetime.

G.

Av. Alcade Jose Elosegui, 273, 20015, San Sebastian| www.arzak.info | Sabado, 30 Abril 2011

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