Sunday, March 22, 2009

Akelaŕe - San Sebastian

One of the perversities of South Florida dining is that, despite our location right on the ocean, there are actually few restaurants that offer waterfront dining with a view, and even fewer that provide a quality dining experience. The same is not true of San Sebastian, if Akelaŕe is any indication.

We visited Akelaŕe for lunch to take advantage of those views, which was a good call. The 15 minute drive from downtown San Sebastian takes you up into the hills which overlook the coast of the Bay of Biscay. The restaurant, a cooly modern dark grey structure, sits high in those hills looking out through a wide expanse of glass on an even wider expanse of water and sky.

The staff were happy to serve us in either Spanish or English, and were easygoing and accomodating in every way. There are two tasting menus offered as well as a la carte dishes, and they had no problem at all doing a tasting menu for me while Mrs. F ordered a la carte. I opted for the "Menu Aranori," while Mrs. F had an egg with caviar, cauliflower, and chive butter, followed by a fish soup "a la Donostiana." They also offered a wine pairing to go with the tasting menu, while Mrs. F ordered by the glass. The full set of pictures can be viewed here on Flickr.*

To start, they bring out what looks like a box of bonbons, and indeed even when it's opened, the contents look like little candies. But these are savory rather than sweet: the powdery item is an artichoke "polvoron;" the wrapped item a parmesan "coquito" (little coconut?); the golden one filled with creamy idiazabal cheese with a lightly crispy coating; and the fuzzy item a "momia" (mummy) of carnitas wrapped with tororo kombu seaweed (this one particularly delicious).

An entertaining start to the meal (accompanied by a flute of Deutz NV Champagne to good effect).

Next, another little starter, one component a play on tradition, the other another play on the eyes and palate. To the left, a giundilla pepper filled with an anchovy mousse (I was looking all over for the seam by which they stuffed it, and our server explained that they inject it) over a powdered "soil" of olives. This is a take-off of a traditional pintxo called a "Gilda" which we saw everywhere (even more frequently in Bilbao than in San Sebastian, actually) of skewered anchovy, olive and giundilla pepper. On the right, a morcilla "bonbon" with a sprinkling of cocoa on the outside. Both were excellent.

The first course of the tasting menu was "txangurro frio y caliente en ensalada con su coral," a salad of cold shredded crab over a bed of crab coral "soil," along with a warm grilled claw, with a gazpacho sauce and astonishingly realistic trompe l'œil vegetables. Resting on the cold crab is a miniature carrot (made from a firmed puree of carrot) and a miniature radish (same idea, with a sharp horseradish bite to it too), much like little marzipan fruits, while to the side is a "mushroom" of a mushroom-flavored meringue which crumbles when pressed with a fork.

Visually these were just stunning, but what really impressed me was the flavors. Each item distinctly and vividly tasted of what it represented, and the crab itself, especially the warm claw, was delicious. They poured a nice Pazo Señoráns Albariño to go with this.

Next, "gambas con vainas al fuego de orujo". A cast iron pot is brought to the table. Inside the pot are three raw head-on shrimp, sitting on top of greyish stones. The waiter explains that the stones have been soaked in a distilled liquor made from wine grapes, and proceeds to bring lit match to stones and starts the cooking. About a minute or so of flames, with the waiter holding the lid close to the top to reflect back the heat, and then the lid is put back on the pot for the shrimp to finish cooking for another minute.

They are then plated with some slivered green beans, dabs of green bean puree, and a powder made from the cooked, dried shrimp shells. A fun presentation and some great, flavorful shrimp as well. I was very happy to see that I was encouraged to eat these with my hands and suck on the heads, as they brought a finger bowl out for post-shrimp cleanup. I can't recall the producer of the wine they matched with this, but it was quite nice, a grenache blanc / viognier blend if I remember correctly.

The next dish was "setas con 'pasta al huevo'". An assortment of different wild mushrooms were laid out along a sheet of dark slate, over which "noodles" made of egg white and egg yolk were laid. An emulsified, whipped pine nut oil (texture like a mayonaise) was dabbed on one side as a sauce. Another unique presentation, and the mushrooms were excellent, apparently given mostly dry heat so as to concentrate their flavors. However, the "pasta," while a clever presentation, had a slightly bouncy texture. An interesting and effective pairing for this course - a 30 year old Amontillado sherry. Unusual and just on the cusp of overwhelming, but I thought it accented the earthy mushrooms well.

"Lenguado en el mar de coral" (sole in a sea of coral) was another visual treat, filets of sole with the top and bottom filets re-attached to each other like a recomposed whole fish (presumably another Activa trick), plated with the sole's roe, along with black and green "caviar" made from spherified squid ink and algae, respectively, as well as an emulsified sauce from the fish's cooking juices. The fish was juicy and flavorful, enhanced even further by the sauce. The squid ink caviar I thought were very good, the green ones were a bit too "grassy" tasting (like spirulina). This was paired with a young Ribera del Duero that was still somewhat rough around the edges, a pairing that didn't jibe for me at all.

"Cochinillo asado con 'bolao' de tomate y emulsión de ibérico" was some of the best suckling pig I've ever had. The pork was wonderfully tender, the skin golden-brown and crisp but not leathery and hard. It was plated with puddles of "Iberian emulsion," a thick glossy sauce with a rich hammy flavor, another more tart (balsamic?) sauce, a few slightly pickled tomato "petals," and a couple chunks of a semi-sweet meringue sprinkled with a tomato powder. A great combination and an inspired takeoff on a classic dish. A nice young Priorat went nicely with the pork.

Interpersed throughout these were Mrs. F's a la carte orders. The egg with caviar and cauliflower was another beautiful presentation, a fat sheaf of vibrant yellow egg pasta (?) stuffed with a smooth cauliflower mousse, topped with a generous spoonful of caviar and crowned with a curlicue of chive butter and resting in a pool of almond milk dotted with olive oil. Very elegant and luxurious. This was followed with the seafood soup "a la Donostiana," which paled by comparison. It was basically a traditional Mediterranean seafood soup, with shrimp and fish brought out in a bowl and then the seafood broth ladled over. The one nod to contemporary cookery was a "spherified clam," which just seemed out of place and also ineffective, yielding a clammy (not in a good way) gush of tepid clam juice. I was interested to see that the sphere could withstand the heat of the soup and maintain its structural integrity. If this had just been a great seafood soup we would have been perfectly happy - but it wasn't that either.

"Leche y uva, queso y vino en evolución paralela" - milk and grape, cheese and wine in parallel evolution. From one end of the board to the other, pairings of milk/grape in various states of fermentation and development are paired together. First - solidified milk, dotted with a little green gel (of grape leaves?); powdered requeson (a ricotta-like cheese) with halved green grapes; a soft quark cheese strongly flavored with nutmeg and rose pepper, with jellied grape juice and tomato; a firm, semi-cured Idiazabal sandwiched with membrillo, along with a powder of wine; a ball of soft Torta del Casar balanced atop some raisins; and finally, a scoop of Gorgonzola ice cream with a hint of brandy. A great concept, but the flavors of the dish sort of missed for me. Some, like the solidified milk, were simply bland, while others, like the nutmeg-flavored quark, were overwhelmingly strong. For a pairing, here they went to a sherry again, this time a 30-year old oloroso. Nice and not overly sweet, which worked with the cheeses.

"Otra tarta de manzana" - "another apple tart." Not sure what the other one was like, this one involved layers of crisp puff pastry, in between which was an apple-flavored "pastry cream" made solely from apples and sugar with no flour or cream. A liquid praline sauce was swirled around the tart, along with a couple pools of an apple jelly flecked with apple seeds. Over the entire thing, a sheet of edible apple-flavored grey paper with the restaurant name printed upon it in cocoa. The tart itself was quite good, with a vivid apple flavor (despite no actual apple in sight, as noted on the menu); the paper, however, while a good gimmick, tasted much like a fruit roll-up (the edible printed paper is a trick that Homero Cantu at Moto in Chicago has been doing for some time.) An eiswein paired well.

The final "petit fours" were something of a disappointment. In a glass dish the size of an ashtray are balanced a couple of walnuts and a couple chestnuts, on top of some little silver pellets. Another trompe l'œil trick? Not quite. These are, in fact, nut shells, split and hollowed and filled with an idiazabal/walnut/quince mousse and a chestnut/chocolate mousse, respectively. Both were somewhat bitter. A couple of other little candies came along as well, the best being little chocolate and raspberry nuggets with pop rocks that fizz in your mouth as you chew. Fortunately, our server warned us that the silver pellets were not edible!

The amount of labor that must go into the production of some of these dishes is fairly staggering, and many are truly remarkable visually. The use of savory meringues is something I'm not sure I've seen anywhere else, and I thought it was very effective. But what I most enjoyed - with a few exceptions - was that the flavors were well-honed and vibrant. The crab, the gambas, the mushrooms, and the suckling pig in particular were all just delicious and really worked to enhance the quality of their key components. Even without the visual tricks or clever presentations, these would be great dishes.

Paseo Padre Orcolaga 56 (Igueldo)
San Sebsatian 20008
943 31 12 09

*They had no issues with photography at Akelaŕe, and even set up the box lid again to show off the display of apertivos when they saw I was taking pictures.

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