Arzak’s 1897 building blends in with most taverns in the Basque country; a simple structure that while some would say bears little reference to modern fine dining, is just like many outstanding Relais & Châteaux restaurants in Europe; authentic and discreet. But I have to admit I was somewhat suspicious when I first saw the nondescript building and its quirky sign depicting a food tray in its still life glory. Can this be the address of one of the most celebrated Michelin 3-stars restaurants of all time; number 8 in the Worlds’ 50 Best Restaurants list? But somehow it all made sense; after all, I was in San Sebastian.
The seaside resort town of San Sebastian is, if not the gastronomical capital of the world, one of the most sought after epicurean destinations. Donostia, how it’s called in the Basque language, has the highest number of Michelin stars per capita and over 30 gastronomic clubs–curiously, all for men only. About 100km east of Bilbao, this small town attracts foodies from all around the planet that come here to experience gastronomy like nowhere else. That’s exactly why I came.
Inside Arzak’s building, the experience is anything but nondescript. As you walk in, you see a small waiting room with a hotel-like front desk. Check in and “Swoosh!” Two sleek frosted glass doors slid open automatically revealing a modern dining room in stark contrast to what you had seen so far. One step forward and you’re a century ahead.
The dining room expands 2 floors with a circular staircase in the middle, about 20 well-spaced tables in total. Their pristine linen tablecloth glowing white against the dark palette with minimalist flower arrangements adding subtle warmth. Close-up photos of pots and pans blown up in black and white on the walls.
The atmosphere is elegant, modern and intimate. And even though this is fine dining at its best, it’s not overly formal; jackets are not required, the lighting is brighter than usual and you’ll find salt and pepper on the table.
The most popular table in the restaurant though is not in the fancy dining room but right in the kitchen. The chef’s table is where personalities, friends and family come to experience Arzak’s cuisine right where it all happens. If you watched Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in Spain, this is where he ate.
Back in the dining room, service is sharp but approachable; the wait staff is courteous and efficient yet there’s no excessive formality. But here too innovation and tradition come together flawlessly. Dressed in modern titanium-colored aprons, the servers take an active role in each dish’s presentation; many times finishing the preparation by pouring the sauces at the table. The chef himself makes sure his guests are happy coming to each table at the beginning and end of the meal and talking to English-speaking diners with the help of an interpreter. He is personable and enthusiastic, a man you can’t help but want to meet, even if you don’t know who he is. But in Spain and in epicurean circles, it seems everyone knows Juan Mari Arzak.
The 66-year-old chef is credited for creating the modern Spanish cuisine. In 1976, after being exposed to the French Nouvelle Cuisine at a roundtable that included luminaries like Paul Bocuse, Juan Mari returned to San Sebastian determined to change the path of his cuisine–and with that he changed the whole culinary world. The New Basque Cuisine was born and in 1989 Arzak became Spain’s first Michelin 3-star restaurant–a status held until this day, 20 years in a roll. In the years that followed, Arzak’s innovations inspired a myriad of chefs around the country; one of them, Ferran Adrià. Today, Juan Mari runs the restaurant together with his daughter, Elena, who is being prepared to continue her family’s legacy for the 4th generation–even though her father has no plans to retire.
The menu changes constantly based on seasonal ingredients and latest innovations. A visit to San Sebastian’s market reveals an amazing breadth of ingredients fresh from the ocean. Just off the boat fish, unrecognizable mollusks and lobsters the size of lab puppies. Like Thomas Keller, Arzak also has long-term relationships with local purveyors that guarantee the restaurant with the freshest produce.
Innovation on the other hand comes from inside; from Juan Mari and Elena’s relentless desire to invent. In the sleek stainless steel kitchen, 30 cooks work nonstop, meticulously preparing each dish and constantly learning from the master. On the top floor of the building is the “Flavor Bank”; a kitchen laboratory containing over 1000 ingredients where the chefs concept and test new concoctions.
Even though à la carte dining is available, you hardly see a table divert from the chef’s tasting menu. Why would you? The tasting menu is described with simplicity and a curious playfulness. “Eggs of the moment”, “Fish of the day”, “Meat”. It’s a menu confiance. Like at The French Laundry, to experience the best of the chef’s cuisine, you should simply let yourself in the hands of the chef.
The experience of eating at Arzak is unlike any other. The enthusiasm of the chef is translated to the wait staff and contagious to the guests. It creates anticipation and higher and higher expectations at every dish. Yet it never disappoints.
The meal starts going back to traditional Spanish roots; bread and olive oil. From there, a myriad of avant-garde amuse bouches are served together, some on custom-made backlit trays that resemble photographic light boxes. Suddenly, you are surrounded by bite-sized treats that peak your curiosity and tease your appetite. You feel like a kid in a candy store.
Caldito de alubia negra con queso. Black bean cream with cheese on a shot glass.
Puding de kabrarroka con fideos fritos. Rockfish pudding fried in a crispy noodles crust.
Raíz de loto con mousse de arraitxiki. Toasted lotus root slivers with fish mousse.
Morcilla en tempura. Blood sausage tempura.
The first course; Manzana con aceite de foie. An exceptional combination of crispy apples with a foamy caramelized foie gras. The rich foie is nicely complemented by the acidity of the apples, raspberry segments and finished with foie oil.
Alternatively, Ostras vegetales. The name of this dish (vegetable oysters) is a play on a Spanish vegetable called “oja de ostra” (oyster leaf); a single crunchy leaf is served with 2 beautiful plump oysters over a delicate tartar, sea beans and olive oil.
For the second course, Patata, bogavante y copaiba. Lobster in a crunchy potato shell served with a flavorful lobster sauce.
On the side, a delicate tapioca and orange salad.
Alternatively, Las formas del asparrágo. A minimalist presentation of peak of the season white asparagus in all its forms. And here’s when you realize how the simple respect for the ingredient can result in outstanding flavors. How can asparagus be this good?
Next, Del huevo a la gallina (from the egg to the chicken, or “Egg of the minute” as called on the English menu). A play on what came first; the chicken or the egg. Here, the beautifully poached egg is served under a thin yolk film and finished at the table with a rich chicken broth. Delicate yet intensively flavorful.
Then, the fish of the day. A filet of monkfish so perfect it appears it took a whole fish of carving to get to it. Accompanied by a lightly gelatinous vegetable sauce so flavorful it could convert the most devoted of carnivores. The Rape bronceado (bronzed monkfish) as it’s called, is brushed with a metallic bronze color that complements its perfectly seared flesh. I don’t recall ever in my life eating a fish dish this good.
On the side, a blade of onions and bronze that packs the surprising flavor of the sweetest of onions when it dissolves in your mouth. Let me be clear, this is no gold leaf garnish–those you see on top of chocolate cakes. It has form and function. Prize and purpose. Here, what looks beautiful tastes even better.
As an option to the monkfish; Lenguado con aceite de jengibre y pan de coco. Also perfectly done, the sole is served with ginger oil and coconut bread–think meringue.
Diners can select the protein in the meat course between beef, lamb, foie or pigeon. I had the latter; Pichón con perdigones dulces. Another playful title that pairs the bird with “sweet birdshot pellets”.
A sweet rice vinegar reduction is encapsulated in metallic lead colored spheres. Mixed with round cut potatoes and blue potato spheres, they form a colorful backdrop to what may very well be the best meat dish I ever had. Tender, juicy and deliciously seared with a salty, crispy skin. Absolutely unforgettable, in every flavor note.
For dessert, Sopa y chocolate “entre viñedos”. A wonderful combination of warm liquid chocolate spheres and basil ice cream on a red berries soup.
Chocolate y lombarda. Thin, colorful red cabbage pastry crisps surrounding a rich, creamy chocolate ganache. Served with chocolate and rosemary ice cream.
To finish, Dulce lunático. A bonbon of caramel and orange juice served with red wine reduction. Each bonbon explodes at first bite releasing the sweet juice. On the side, pumpkin ice cream.
The chef’s take on a pina colada. Piña assada pomposa. Grilled pineapple served with coconut milk poured over dry ice to creates a frothy, sauce à la minute. On the side, grilled pineapple ice cream.
The meal ends how it begins; with a myriad of bite-sized sweets that are impossible to resist–even if by now you are completely full. The mignardises include Dulce de pina (pineapple preserve), Bean truffle with white chocolate, chocolate with caramel, chocolate with beet film and a rice pudding on a thin apricot blade.
When Juan Mari Arzak returned to the dining room and stopped at our table, he was grinning cheerfully. Like a maestro that had just finished a perfect performance. His satisfaction only second to mine.
In Europe some of the best restaurants are far from the main cities. Arzak is one of them. And possibly the reason it is so successful is because of exactly where it stands. In San Sebastian, and nowhere else. There are no other addresses, no branches, no franchises. The chef on the cover of the cookbook is the chef in the kitchen. Everyday, for every dish.
In an interview with the Spanish magazine Club de Gourmets, Juan Mari was quoted by saying “Beyond stomachs, we feed the souls.” Arzak’s cuisine goes far beyond surprising, it is endlessly rewarding. A beautiful play of flavors, textures and temperatures that involve all senses like no other cuisine I have ever tried. Everything has a purpose, innovation is never gratuitous.
In rare occasions I use a tape recorder instead of taking quick notes, I let it running in my pocket for the whole duration of the meal and later play it through to jot down my impressions. When listening to this 3-hour long recording, it was amusing to hear my spontaneous, almost child-like reactions dish after dish. Among exclamations that are not quite fit to print, what I kept saying over and over was a single word: “Wow”. And for someone that tends to dwell at length about exceptional dining experiences, I have to admit that that sums it up better than anything else I could possibly say.
Arzak is at Avda. Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273, San Sebastian