I mentioned briefly earlier how one of the things I find so enjoyable about Spain is the happy confluence of the old and the new. Ancient buildings stand side-by-side with contemporary architectural creations like the arched glass Bilbao Metro entrances designed by Norman Foster (hence, "Fosteritos"), to say nothing, of course, of the iconic Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao. Madrid's Prado Museum, a bastion of classical art, displays an exhibition of modern master Francis Bacon, in a newer contemporary wing built right onto the back of the 18th century building. And often, even the most cutting edge food has roots that go back several generations.
Arzak is generally regarded as one of the high temples of modern gastromony, and for good reason. But its origins were much humbler. The restaurant is housed in a building which was constructed more than 100 years ago and operated by Juan Mari Arzak's grandparents as a tavern. When his parents took it over, they began to run a restaurant, which Juan Mari Arzak began working at in 1966, and over time undertook the process of reconceptualizing and reinventing Basque cuisine. Now, with Juan Mari's daughter Elena intimately involved in the operation of the restaurant, the baton is being passed yet again from one generation to the next (the fourth generation to be in the hospitality business at this site, spanning more than a century).
Arzak is a humble unassuming place from the outside, and even when you step through the entrance, the scene that greets you is of a very traditional-looking wood bar and a couple comfy chairs scattered around what looks, more than anything else, like someone's living room. From there, we were led into a dining room that was considerably more modern - mostly black and white, with walls of rough grey concrete bearing the imprints of various silverware.* Despite the monochrome scheme, the room manages to avoid feeling too sterile. There's no particular dress code and we saw people in all different states of dressed-up to dressed-down.
The tasting menu as initially presented was amusingly brief - I'm not exaggerating much to say that it read to the effect of "apertivos / pescados / carne / dulce ...". Obviously there was plenty more in store. While there was also a standard menu of apps and mains, of course we were there for the tasting menu, and were happy to learn that there were two options available for most of the courses. As a result, we got to try 13 different dishes, aside from apertivos and post-desserts.
A quick word on photographs before I begin describing our meal. While the restaurant allowed us to take pictures, it was solely on the condition that they be for our personal consumption only. I have sworn to none other than Juan Mari Arzak himself that I wouldn't circulate the pictures, and I will keep that promise. As I mentioned before leaving for this trip, I have mixed feelings about the photography thing myself, and while I can only speculate as to the reasons a chef might have for not wanting pictures of his food circulated - the desire to protect techniques or presentations, the goal of preserving the surprise element of a meal, or even just a reluctance to let some hack's crappy photos make your food look bad - I will respect that wish.
Look, I think one of the more interesting things about what's happening in the current "food scene" is the "open source" nature of it, with chefs like Grant Achatz not only putting out cookbooks that pull no punches as to Alinea's methods and techniques, but going even further and running a website - Mosaic - to serve as an ongoing forum for discussion; plus dozens of other chefs with websites and blogs that regularly and happily share information. But that doesn't necessarily mean everyone has to play along or play the same way. The Arzak family has a lot more invested in their restaurant than I invested in our 2-top tasting menu, and particularly given the incredibly warm hospitality we experienced throughout our meal, I have no problem with their position. As a result we're left with my meager descriptive abilities to try to capture the essence of our meal.
Anyway, on to the food -
We were started with a selection of apertivos (I'd consider using "amuse bouche" but I'm not sure whether the plural should be "amuses bouche" or "amuse bouches"), some brought out on our plates, others on a display box that was lit up from underneath.
On the plate -
puding de kabrarroka con fideos fritos - a light mousse of scorpion-fish (or rockfish?) wrapped in what was described as fried fideos (angel-hair pasta), but which appeared to me to be kataifi or shredded filo. A good example of the old/new thing. The presentation here was completely modern, but given the abundance of recipes I find online for "puding de kabraroka or "pastel de kabraroka," my guess is that this is a variation on a traditional Basque dish.
bola de setas y polvo de maiz - a spherified orb of wild mushroom, sprinkled with crispy bits of dried corn.
caldito de alubia negra con queso - a little shot glass of black bean soup, topped with a frothy head of liquified white cheese.
On the display box -
raiz de loto con mousse de arraitxiki - slivers of lotus root chips, sandwiched around a creamy mousse of "arraitxiki", which I can only discern is some common local fish.
arroz crujiente con hongos - crispy puffed rice crackers (flavored with saffron?) sandwiched around a mushroom mousse.
All very nice nibbles to start the meal, the standout for me was the black bean soup, which was light but powerfully flavored, really one of the best I've had. As for the mushroom sphere - I've now seen the spherification technique enough times that it no longer holds any awe or mystery for me. Which is just as well, as far as I'm concerned, because it means I can evaluate a particular iteration based on the most meaningful test alone - does it taste good? Does the technique advance the flavor? Or is it merely gratuitous or gimmicky? Here, I thought the sphere carried the mushroom flavor nicely, and provided a good textural contrast against the light crispiness of the corn dust.
manzana con aceite de foie - three small disks of sliced, sauteed apple, each topped with a round of "foie oil," presumably the fat thrown off when cooking foie gras, though more solid like butter rather than liquid like oil, and then topped with a little sprinkle of sugar and brûléed. A wonderful pairing of flavors and textures, with the slight bitterness of the foie fat balanced by the sweetness of the fruit and the caramelized sugar.
ostras vegetales - two plump oysters bathing in a tart sauce, sprinkled with briny sea beans and capers.
bogavante con aceite de oliva "extra blanco" - a beautifully tender lobster, served over a bed of white olive oil powder (typically made using maltodextrin), which was then topped tableside with a spiraling pour of broth that re-emulsified and partially liquified the olive oil powder. To some degree I thought it was a shame to do so, as when done right I enjoy the texture and flavor sensation of these powdered fats as they "rehydrate" in your mouth. A little salad of tiny greens and herbs was presented with the lobster, in a separate bowl. These little "side dishes" were something of a recurring element of our dinner, and sometimes (as described below) I didn't understand the purpose of the separate presentation.
cigalas sobre liquer de hongos y algas - two langoustine tails, again just wonderfully fresh and perfectly tender. The printed menu we received after our meal says "liquer de hongos y algas" but what I recall is a yellow corn sauce flecked with corn kernels and infused with a hint of vanilla, along with a translucently thin, golden brown crispy chip. Alongside in a separate bowl was another langoustine tail, this one over a bed of tiny sprouts. I don't know why.
del huevo a la gallina - "from the egg to the chicken?" Arzak's answer to the perennial riddle, this was the only course where we both received the same dish, and it was a good one. A translucently thin, bright yellow sheet of egg yolk is wrapped like a cylindrical tent balanced in a shallow bowl. Lurking within is a perfectly cooked "Arzak egg" (wrapped in plastic wrap with goose fat and truffle oil before poaching - and yes, that link is a recipe from AARP online magazine! For another take, here's a spin on it from Ideas in Food), generously flecked on top with fresh black truffle shavings. Tableside, a warm chicken broth is poured over the yellow tent, which softens and begins to melt, making a sauce for the egg. Just a great dish all around, both presentation and flavor, though the egg was wanting of a tiny pinch of salt.
rape bronceado - "bronzed" monkfish. The monkfish itself was given a light glaze that gave a reddish-orange hue on the outside edges (making it look even more like the "poor man's lobster" it is often called), and again, perfectly cooked. It was plated with a medium-brown jus (which again, I believe may have been chicken) which then had another sauce spooned over tableside; as the second sauce hits the first, it produces vibrant, shiny bronze pools, almost like the iridescent look of an oil slick. Accompanying on a separate plate were a couple of bright bronze "crackers," really more like paper, folded into abstract origami-like shapes. I believe Elena Arzak (both Elena and Juan Mari visited each of the tables multiple times throughout the night) explained that the paper is made primarily with onion, and the color comes from a product that is typically used in baking. Very cool stuff, and the use of color was clearly a recurring theme throughout the meal, a subject Elena apparently addressed at Madrid Fusion a couple months ago.
lenguado con aceite de jengibre y pan de coco - two filets of sole stacked on top of each other, surrounded by several little disks of melon, along with several little cubes of croutons (described as "pan de coco" but I couldn't discern the coconut), with a ginger-inflected sauce and a scatter of tiny, brightly colored green and red sprouts on top. Light and elegant.
pato azulón con perdigones dulces - "azulón" means dark blue, I believe, though honestly the duck didn't look all that blue to me. It did have a dark glaze on the outside while still being red within, so maybe this was a play on the American steakhouse order of "black and blue" (though I kind of doubt it) [edited to add: an astute reader has relieved me of my ignorance on "azulón" and "perdigones" - check the comments below]. In retrospect, the shape of the duck was interesting, more like a thick-cut beef tenderloin than a duck breast, perhaps it had been re-shaped with Activa. Surrounding the duck were several spheres (the "perdigones dulces," which I believe translates to "sweet pellets," presumably like some sort of candy) again with just sensational colors - a couple a soft shiny pink, a few others an even shinier silver. The pink ones tasted predominantly to me of sherry vinegar, while the flavor of the silver ones was somewhat indistinct. The duck itself was just a bit tough (though Mrs. F ordered this medium, a degree more than I would have). A delicate little salad of baby frisee, topped with a little crispy cracker flecked with pine nuts and sesame seeds, was served alongside.
foie con "tejote" - several triangles of nicely seared foie gras, plated with several little "lozenges" of a jelled raspberry along with some crispy little chocolate bits, then supplemented tableside with a vibrant yellow corn sauce. I loved the combination of the foie with the crispy chocolate bits, but this really sung with all of the components combined. A glass of Sauternes was poured to accompany. Another of my favorites for the meal. (Can anyone help with the "tejote" reference? The only translation I can find refers to a "molcajete y tejote", or mortar and pestle).
From here, we shifted over to the sweet side of things:
sopa y chocolate "entre viñedos" - (soup and chocolate "among vineyards") it seems Arzak has been doing variations on this dish for some time. This particular version took the form of six chocolate spheres, arranged in a triangle like billiard balls in a rack, in a bowl with a sweetened red (wine, I presume) soup, along with a scoop of a vibrant green basil ice cream. The item that really jumped out, in a good way, here was the basil ice cream, whose flavor matched the vibrancy of its color. I would have liked a more potent chocolate flavor in the chocolate spheres, particularly to hold their own against the ice cream.
esmeraldas de chocolate con láminas de rosquillas - three disks of an incredible dark, slightly iridescent green were plated within a ring of lightly golden powder (presumably a powder of doughnuts, which it seems is the translation for "rosquillas"). The disks contained fluffy chocolate within and the emerald color of the outside casing was, we were told, derived from spinach (always nice to get some vegetables with your dessert). While these were beautiful to look at, I thought they were - like the chocolate spheres in the other dessert above - somewhat muted in flavor. A sidecar of a chocolate ice cream infused with rosemary, on the other hand, was just fantastic, providing an interesting reiteration of the chocolate and green (herb, this time) combination.
bizcocho esponjoso de yogur - another absolutely beautiful dessert,this one was composed of yogurt sponge cake (I'm guessing this was made using a variation on the Adria microwave sponge cake method described, among other places, here), along with pools of coconut pudding and shards of thin dried pineapple, along with little branches of chocolate, all arranged to look like a coral reef. Just stunning, and great flavors too.
dulce lunático - what looked like three caramel turtle candies in fact were just a thin candy shell enclosing a brightly tart gushing liquid center. Served on a plate with several round darkly colored, slightly jelled discs of sauce, and a white powder, however, I had trouble making out the flavors of these. Didn't fully "get" this dish. However, I did love the calabaza ice cream that came as a sidecar, further enhanced, I believe with mace.
At some point, one of our servers heard Mrs. F mention that this was something of a 15th anniversary dinner for us (though not actually our anniversary, we do try to take our "sans kids" trip every year around our anniversary, and it was reasonably close) and they brought out a beautiful box constructed of milk and white chocolate sheets, enclosing within them a lovely layered chocolate cake, topped with a chocolate "15". An incredibly thoughtful and unbidden gesture, and delicious too. No gripes here about lack of flavor, this restored and revived my love for good milk chocolate.
A nice selection of petit-fours closed the meal, including chocolate candies with finely chopped corn-nuts, chocolate shards layered with caramel, cubes of pineapple jellies, and very nice little white bean truffles.
The wine list had a broad selection of young and old wines, we went in the latter direction and had a 1982 Bodegas Lan Rioja Viña Lanciano Reserve, which was absolutely beautiful, still with lots of life in it. Also a couple glasses of muscatel to accompany the desserts.
It is impossible to describe the experience of dining at Arzak without mentioning the gracious hospitality of Juan Mari Arzak and daughter Elena Arzak as well as all of the restaurant staff. From the moment you walk through the front door, you feel welcomed as a guest, not simply a customer. Both Juan Mari and Elena walked through the dining room and greeted each table, but it was not merely a quick cameo appearance. Indeed, both of them came back and visited again multiple times throughout the meal, making sure everyone was happy, and gladly answering questions and providing explanations of the dishes. And not to take anything away from Juan Mari, but Elena Arzak is quite simply one of the most gracious, graceful, warm and endearing people you will ever meet - as well as prodigiously talented. The future of Arzak seems to be in good hands.
Avenida Alcade Elosegui 273
San Sebastian 20015
943 278 465
*We were, despite being non-smokers, seated in the smokers' dining room as the non-smoking room was already fully booked. Ironically, there was only one table of maybe a half-dozen seated that I noticed lighting up, and while it was a brief and unwelcome distraction, it wasn't that big of a deal.