#17 - Arzak
September 5th, 2015
I'm jumping ahead in our trip. At this point in the writing of the blog, I haven't left Madrid. At this point on the trip, we are in San Sebastián. Three cities later. Come on, I can't travel and keep up with the blog at the same time. I'm trying my best.
San Sebastián was on our list. It was always on our list. San Sebastián is where food lives. It's the place we basically based our entire trip around. Juan Marie and his daughter Elena Arzak are some of the best chefs in the world. They are a staple on No Reservations and other Bourdain programs (he wants them to adopt him), and they are known throughout the world as the Gold Standard in their craft.
We had to go here.
Honestly, neither one of us knew how much it would cost to have lunch or dinner at Arzak. We ultimately chose lunch, hoping it would be slightly less expensive. But was it?? Who cares?? We had a meal for the ages.
First, the logistics. Arzak is outside the center of San Sebastián, not super accessible from the hotel district. We are outside of the hotel district, so we had our hotel call us a cab. €15 later, we were in front of the restaurant.
Our reservation was at 130p. As we arrived a few minutes early, we were immediately whisked into the dining room, barely stopping in the lounge, where another couple dressed up in similar ways to us quietly sipped cava in preparation. We did dress up. Because, we had to. We are at San Pelligrino's #17 restaurant in the world. This isn't a time for jeans.
A woman directed us to our table. Adele took the booth, facing the dining room, I faced inward, only able to see her and to the right and left of our table. We were asked if we wanted an aperitif of cava. Yes, please.
The first menu we saw was the al la carte option. Prices ranged from €50+ per entree. But as I looked at the menu, I didn't see what we came for today. I didn't see the Tasting Menu.
As I scoured the menu, I looked to the right on our our table. A smaller menu was there, touting the Tasting Menu option. Here's the deal, and don't give me any crap about this. The Tasting Menu was €199 per person. This did not include drinks. We came here specifically for the Tasting Menu created by Juan Mari and Elena. Anything else would be less than.
Our waiter came by soon enough, explaining in a very thick accent what we would be getting on the Tasting Menu, and where we could deviate in our menu. Quite honestly, I didn't get it all. So I did have him repeat a few options, hoping I would get the information a second time. When I was really confused, I would latch on to a word I knew. Squid. Lamb. Apple. I regret none of my choices. He also said something that I've never heard before at one of these types of restaurants. "If there is anything you do not like, please let me know immediately so we can make something else for you." Nicely done. Most places pull the "no substitutions" rule.
Arzak is one of the restaurants in a class by themselves. There are a handful of restaurants across the world that do what Arzak does. Adele and I were at Alinea last year. So I will directly be comparing Arzak to Alinea, right or wrong.
After ordering the Tasting Menu, the waiter came back to ask us about drinks. We didn't want a full paring menu, because that is just too much booze. And we had consumed too much the day before (not drunk, mind you). So we mentioned we would be open to suggestions. This is where we could see a bit more behind the curtain here than in other places. Usually the sommelier is seamless. You say you like this kind of wine or am interested in this type of wine, and the sommelier will instantly direct you in the path you need to go. Almost always in the wine part of the journey you (I) need to be directed. This guy almost made us hunt for the options ourselves. We ended up getting to a perfect place, but it took a little longer than expected. Maybe this is an American vs Spain thing. But maybe it is an Arzak thing.
My last note about the service was that it seemed to be a bit rushed, a bit haphazard. Several of the appetizers/amuse bouche all came at once, prior to our wine. Drips of wine flew off of the bottle and on to the table cloth. Servers would take one plate away prior to the other person at the table being done. These were surprising and, quite honestly, noticeable. Does it take away from the experience?? Does it take away from the food?? Lord, no. But it made me wonder what the difference was between Alinea and Arzak?? Adele thinks it is the difference between "fine dining" and "rustic home cooked" food. I call foul. If we are paying this amount for a Top 50 restaurant, the service should be impeccable. Was it?? No. But the food made up the difference.
Our meal started with five appetizers.
Moringa and prawn gyoza. Basically, a shrimp ravioli.
Banana and squid bite. At the time, I thought this was beef. It wasn't until I looked back at my menu that I realized it wasn't. And yes, the picture is out of focus. I was trying to be stealthy and quick. This one did not work well.
Txistorra, with beer and mango. Almost a dumpling type of dish, served on a beer can.
Marinated white tuna and strawberry. This was Adele's favorite moment. There is something about the strawberry and the fish and the marinade that made this amazing. The presentation didn't hurt either.
Strawberry bitter. This had a melon wrapped in prosciutto (jamon), with a liquid of strawberry. Honestly, we thought it was gazpacho. Either way, good.
All appetizers came at the same time and we could choose the order in which to consume. At this time, we were drinking cava and remarking how happy we were. All appetizers were lovely, with the tuna and the gyoza leading the pack.
Next up, we had a beet root blood apple. This apple was injected with beetroot, to give it a bit of color (and I'm assuming flavor). I don't normally eat beetroot, so I don't really know the flavor it gave. I enjoyed it though. The dish included two fried dollops of creamy foie gras and a thin potato, called "mother of pearl." This potato was tasty, but a bit oily. Then again, I didn't complain one bit. All pieces were consumed. Quickly.
It was around this point that we switched from cava to white wine.
Our next dish was a lobster. The first part of the dish was a small video screen. Of course, this is the best thing you could have out in front of me. The video showed waves. Constant waves. Then, over the video was placed a clear plate, with lobster in the shape of shrimp. Included was fresh pollen, sweet and acidic flavors and blue honeycomb. Presentation on this one could not be beat.
The Red Space Egg was next. This was an egg cooked at 65 degrees C, red peppers, cereal ferments, and crispy pig's trotters. I don't know if I mentioned this before (though I probably will when I talk about a previous hotel), but 65 degree eggs are a thing here. I have had them three times in the last three days. And I don't want to live in a world without them. It makes me wonder what I am doing wrong on my egg poaching (besides using a contraption...I don't have the life skills to poach an egg freely right now). But I am down with eggs on all occasions. While I'm not thrilled with red peppers, the runny egg will always make up for a slight in the egg dish.
This is where Adele and my meal begin to differ. And I'm not talking about her meal. I had the "Txipi-txapa" line caught squid. The server brought out a dish where the squid sat on a banana leaf on a bed of salt. They brought a liquid over and poured it on the squid/salt, and had the entire dish boil for a minute or two. The smell was amazing. As I inhaled everything, the server brought my plate over, decorated in a lovely pattern. They took the squid from the banana leaves and placed them delicately on my plate. The serving dish, still aromatic, was taken away as I looked longingly at what this was all about. Cutting the squid into smaller pieces, I could tell the aromatics elevated this dish into what it actually was.
The red wine came out next. I had a glass from the La Rioja Alto winery. This was a winery we tried to visit yesterday, but it was too late in the day. It's a shame. Because this was an amazing wine.
Again, Adele and I zigged and zagged on the next course. I could have chosen the Pigeon for the final savory dish. But I'm no dummy. I had the lamb with lotus. This lamb had cooked lotus around the dish and was covered in a lotus leaf. The juice with this meal was Thai-inspired and included coconut milk and lemongrass. The lamb was served medium rare (as it should be) and was amazing.
Dessert began around this time. The sommelier came by to see how we were going. We easily were swayed into a glass of dessert wine. I mean, we are here. Why shouldn't we?? Our bottle of wine was similar to the one we had at Alinea. So both Adele and I were happy campers.
Our first dessert was The Big Truffle. This was a large color and sugar truffle, surrounded by a creamy chocolate and carob filling. When the truffle is presented, it is a perfect item. Then, chocolate is drizzled around the sphere, causing the sphere to disintegrate into chocolatey goodness.
Minutes later, the server brought out a container with black lemons. They took out two items (the only edible ones??) and out them on our plates. They explained that black lemons are used in savory cooking across the world. But ours, our lemon was a dark chocolate on the outside and a lemony goodness on the inside. This wasn't ice cream, but it wasn't a curd. More like a mousse?? It was amazing, that was what it was. We dug this dish hard.
When there was a break in the action, Adele took the time to use the restroom. We knew we would have some tea, but before the tea arrived, the server brought over a bird cage with some kind of ice cream inside. We had a lemon, passion fruit and apple choice. For our last bite, it was lovely.
The sommelier returned to ask how we enjoyed our dessert wine. When we gushed, he topped off our glasses with a bit more from the bottle.
The tea arrived and we paused while consuming our final savoring bites. Our server presented us with the check and as I was busy taking the picture of our menu (for posterity, obviously), Adele has a strangled look on her faces Juan Mari Arzak was with our server, asking how we enjoyed our meal. He and Adele communicated easily. I, in my wine haze (and having been caught in the act taking pictures of food), pulled the "I'm sorry, what??" card. Arzak placed his hand on my shoulder and asked if I was happy. Yes, yes I am, I said. He shook his head and we both said Gracias. Our server moved Juan Mari on to the next table.
Juan Mari left the dining room shortly after that, leaving us starstruck and trying to reign in our emotions. Soon enough all of the wine was consumed. All of the remnants of food were eaten. We needed to go back to the hotel. A cab was called and we sadly left Arzak for the last time.
Was it the best meal I'd ever eaten?? I don't know. Adele says yes. I feel like there are other things that worked better for us. Was it an amazing meal?? No question. Would I do it again?? Of course. And while there was a little feedback at the beginning, it does not affect the food in any way. We loved it. And we definitely understand why the restaurant is in the list of Top Restaurants in the world. The food...out of this world.