Restaurante Arzak - September 2010

Last month was our second visit to San Sebastian and likewise our second visit to Restaurante Arzak. Our first Arzak meal was about a year and a half ago, and the timing proved to be just about right. Though the format of the tasting menu was pretty much identical, roughly 3/4 of the actual menu items had been changed, so the experience offered a sense both of familiarity and freshness.

The menu progression is a fairly customary one: an assortment of "pintxos" or "tapas" to start, followed by a series of dishes primarily focused around various proteins, concluding with a couple sweet courses and mignardises. One of the pleasant things about ordering the tasting menu at Arzak is that nearly every course actually offers at least two options, giving the ability to either tailor the menu to individual preferences or just to provide multiple diners with some additional variety.


At our first Arzak meal we were seated in the more modern downstairs dining room, while this time we went upstairs. For those who have requested seating in the "non-smoking section" at Arzak and been advised that it is not available, I can only tell you that I have now eaten in both dining rooms, and both times we were in the "smoking section." I am starting to think that the "non-smoking section" may be apocryphal.

Like our first meal, this one started with a selection of little bites.[1] (You can see all the pictures from this meal in this flickr set: Arzak - September 2010).

Puding de kabrarroka con fideos fritos
Puding de kabrarroka con fideos fritos
A couple of these were repeat performances from our last visit: the ones in the foreground of this picture, described as "puding de kabrarroka con fideos fritos," are a signature Arzak dish, a mousse of scorpionfish wrapped in crispy, light threads of pastry. Arriving on separate plates were a tartar of bonito (a lighter-fleshed tuna relative) with corn pancakes, little sandwiches of crispy rice crackers around a mushroom mousse, a shot of a frothy white alubia bean soup with matchsticks of apple, and perhaps the best bite of all, a little mound of serrano ham and tomato, wrapped in flower petals, and infused - through the plate it rested upon - with a mint vapor.

Jamón con tomate
Jamón con tomate
I enjoyed the presentation of these, with each on their own dishes mimicking the feel of casual abundance you find at San Sebastian's many tapas bars, and each was a delicious bite.

Cromlech y cebolla con té y café
Cromlech y cebolla con té y café
This was certainly one of the more unusual-looking things I've ever eaten. Described on the menu as a "cromlech," I assumed this was some culinary term that was beyond my savant-like multilingual food vocabulary. I was wrong. A "cromlech" is a megalith or stone slab - like Stonehenge.[2] That would explain the peculiar shapes. Though named after gigantic stone structures, these were incredibly fragile, with a delicate paper-thin casing (reminiscent of the "tent" over the egg dish we had last year) enclosing a filling of creamy foie gras and caramelized onion. These had to be picked up with the hands and eaten quickly in a couple bites before they fell apart completely. A sprinkling of powdered coffee and green tea provided a welcome delicately bitter note, playing the contrasting role to the rich foie often played by a sweet fruity component.

(continued ...)

Capa con xixas y fondo floral
Capa con xixas y fondo floral
As an alternate course, we also had this salad of mushrooms ("xixas," some type of wild mushroom which I assume is prevalent in the Basque region), lettuces and flowers, wrapped in a translucent orange vegetable sheet, plated with a strip of leaves and petals embedded in a transparent gel sheet. It was gorgeous and delicate, but I often find the texture of cool or room temperature mushrooms difficult to make too appealing.


Patata, bogavante y copaiba
Patata, bogavante y copaiba
This lobster dish featured tender tail meat, tucked underneath a delicate crispy sheet made of potato, into which was nestled more lobster meat and some micro-greens. The sauce was made with copaiba, a product derived from a South American tree resin that seems most commonly to be employed for medicinal purposes.[3] The lobster was nicely cooked and the potato provided a nice crisp/soft contrast, but the flavor of the copaiba was lost on me. The lobster was accompanied by a small salad of delicate greens, underneath which were citrus-infused tapioca balls.

Huevo con temblor de tierra
Huevo con temblor de tierra
The "Arzak egg" is another signature dish, though obviously one that is not immune to some tinkering. When we visited last year, the egg had been poached with truffles, then draped with a thin sheet of egg yolk which melted as a chicken broth was poured over it. This time around, instead of a flood, the egg was visited by an earthquake, showered with a confetti of olive oil and tomato powders, gravelly looking silver pebbles flavored with cocoa, and a scatter of micro-herbs. The egg itself had a firmer exterior than your typical immersion circulated or poached egg, as if it had been briefly fried or at least splashed with hot oil to crisp up the white some. I am a sucker for egg dishes, and this was a good one, though I preferred last year's "del huevo a la gallina."

Rape marea baja
Rape marea baja
 This was one of the most visually stunning dishes I've seen. As seems to so often be the case, the Spanish "marea baja" sounds much more appealing as a description of a dish than its English translation, "low tide." The conceit was carried out perfectly, the monkfish looking as if it had just washed up from the surf into a tidepool of starfish, shells and coral. The darker shells were molded from a mussel purée, while the white one was harder and I believe molded from sugar (both of our fish dishes used sweetness as a complementary note). The little blue stars were cut from a (curaçao?) gelée, while the "coral" was molded around some sort of wiry plant (?) that unfortunately I found inedibly hard. The fish itself had that touch of meaty firmness that gives monkfish the nickname of "poor man's lobster," and the little orange balls of a pepper "sauce" worked well with it. An extra little dish of the nautical decorations was presented as a sidecar.

Neuz roja y lenguado
Nuez roja y lenguado
Though perhaps not as visually dramatic, I preferred the sole that was an alternative to the monkfish. The fish itself was wonderful - tender but not mushy, delicately cooked but with a nice sear on the exterior for a touch of contrasting texture. It was plated with trompe l'oeil "nuts" of a pepper-inflected purée, as well as "garlic cloves" of green spinach. The sauce picked up notes of the flavors imitated by those shapes. A side plate with delicate, transparent sugar (isomalt?) tuiles sprinkled with nuts provided an intriguing additional component, with the subtle sweetness and nuttiness enhancing those same features of the fish.

sugar tuile

The meat course, like the fish course, also offered two alternatives: an "ossobuco de cordero," and "pichón con chia."

Ossobuco de cordero
Ossobuco de cordero
The "ossobuco" offered more visual trickery. Instead of the traditional dish of a long-braised veal shank (the cross-cut shank bone, with its rich marrow, is the literal center of the dish, and "ossobuco" translates literally as "bone with a hole"), Arzak serves a medium-rare lamb loin, with the "bone" being played by a cylinder made of potato, with a mushroom and onion mousse in the role of the marrow. The dish is a tribute to its namesake in appearance moreso than in flavor, but no less successful as a result. The lamb loin was perfectly cooked, rosy within with a nice sear to the exterior, needing no sauce but its own juices, though herb and pepper powders made a nice addition. An extra "bone" was served alongside as well.

Pichón con chia
Pichón con chia
I was less excited by the pigeon with chia seeds that was the alternate to the lamb. Though the bird was seared to a nice medium-rare, the rest of the components of the dish didn't do much to elevate it. The golden-brown spheres with gelatinous chia seeds suspended within them had only a very subtle, grassy flavor, and the chia seed cracker on top of the bird likewise brought texture but little flavor. This was a dish that could have used one more note to make it more interesting, though a little salad of greens and petals presented alongside, within which hid a roasted leg of the pigeon, did provide some contrast.

Sopa y chocolate "entre viñedos"
Sopa y chocolate "entre viñedos"
Dessert brought still another "signature" item, soup and chocolate "in the vineyards." The presentation here was virtually identical to our first visit last year, with six chocolate spheres arranged in a pool of a berry soup, along with a scoop of vibrant green basil ice cream. A scatter of brightly colored flower petals crowns the dish. Where last time the basil ice cream stole the show, I found this time that the chocolate flavor was proncounced enough to stand up to the other flavors, and each component was perfectly balanced. It's a fantastic dish.

Jugando a las canicas de chocolate
Jugando a las canicas de chocolate
The alternate chocolate dessert was dubbed "jugando a las canicas de chocolate" ("playing the chocolate marbles"). These rounds of chocolate, instead of being oozy spheres, were firmer, almost crispy. A puddle of an oregano-infused creme anglaise provided a curious contrasting note. I've previously enjoyed the interplay of chocolate and herbs at Arzak (I would buy the chocolate-rosemary ice cream we had last year by the bucket), but I found the oregano overpowering.


Bizcocho esponjoso de yogur
Bizcocho esponjoso de yogur
Like the chocolate spheres, this yogurt sponge cake was also largely a repeat from last year. The technique for the sponge cake, borrowed from Ferran Adrià, produces a lightly fluffy cake that is torn into large shards. It was interspersed with shards of delicate tuile-like cookies shaded with oranges and purples, and puddles of a creamy banana pudding.

Hidromiel y fractal fluido


Lemon curd cake
Hidromiel y fractal fluido
This final dessert was something I'd definitely never seen before. Two slices of a lemon curd cake were brought to the table along with a shallow bowl with a clear liquid. As a second, vibrant red liquid was spooned into the first by the server, it produced a perfect fractal pattern. My fuzze photo doesn't begin to do it justice. The flavors of tea and honey in the sauce made a nice pairing with the tart, creamy lemon curd cake. I'd love to hear any speculation as to how the effect was achieved. More ice creams of various flavors (memory fades) accompanied the last round of desserts.

Mignardise
Mignardise
And to close things out, a playful assortment of sweets - white chocolate "nuts," dark chocolate "bolts," white bean truffles, cola lozenges, and mango "legos."

Arzak comfortably occupies a middle ground between traditional Basque cuisine and the hyper-experimentation of, say, the Arzaks' Catalan culinary cousins at elBulli. The cooking is not convention-bound, and some of the techniques are novel and unique, but it is always done with a delicate hand. This is a meal that looks to coddle rather than confront. It was neither as thought-provoking a meal as our experience at elBulli nor as viscerally and starkly ingredient-driven as our lunch at Etxebarri. But it was an immensely pleasurable one. It is some of the most visually striking food I've seen, the technique is always precise, and the flavors are usually on target, and occasionally transcendent.

Restaurante Arzak
Avenida Alcade Elosegui 273
San Sebastian, Spain 20015
943 278 465

[1]During our first visit, Chef Juan-Mari Arzak asked that we not publish any of our photos - and I honored that request. It was interesting to see that on this trip, literally every table in the dining room had somebody taking pictures, ranging from iPhone snaps to hardcore DSLRs. Given that there are literally thousands of pictures from Arzak posted online, I can't think this is really a big concern.

[2]"Noone knows who they were, or what they were doing."

[3]I'm not sure what to make of the fact that a medical dictionary indicates it is "much used for gonorrhea."

Comments

  1. can't help you on the technique used for the last dessert, but the curacao described in the starfish is probably this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curaçao_(liqueur)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Looks amazing as always. Thanks for the post!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Loved this post! Have you read Colman Andrews' new book "Ferran" that came out this month yet? Quite good and it talks about Arzak as well. Worth a read considering you seem to love fine dining in Spain! Check out my review on my blog Savoring South Beach (www.savoringsouthbeach.blogspot.com)

    ReplyDelete

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