Showing posts with label San Sebastian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label San Sebastian. Show all posts

Monday, October 25, 2010

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.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

San Sebastian Pintxos - Casa Senra, Mil Catas, Hidalgo 56

Casa Senra is not the most celebrated of San Sebastian's pintxos bars. But after a couple of visits, it's proving to be one of my personal favorites. Senra is not in the scenic Parte Vieja, but in the more business-like Barrio Gros,[*] and its layout is simple and utilitarian: a long bar stacked with platters of pintxos, along with several picnic-style benches along the wall, plus a few tables outside. Its pintxos are perhaps not as adventurous or inventive as some you might find. But the staff is friendly, the quality of the ingredients excellent, and the croquetas - well, they're possibly the best I've had anywhere.

The two pintxos closest to the foreground in this picture were a couple of my favorites: bacalao mousse topped with shavings of serrano ham and caramelized onions, and then behind those, soft bacon topped with escalivada-style grilled peppers, fried eggplant, Swiss cheese, and some more onions. Though these are out on the bar for the taking, the bartenders will quickly shepherd them back to the kitchen to warm up before serving.

Additional warm items are prepared by the kitchen as they're ordered, and we tried a couple of these:

Txipirones, served over a bed of chestnut purée, with some confit potatoes, all generously drizzled with a jet-black squid ink sauce, and topped with some frizzy fried leek greens. The combination of squid and chestnut seemed unlikely, but could perhaps be seen as a play on the longstanding tradition of mar y montaña (surf 'n' turf) dishes so common throughout Spain. It was a dramatic-looking dish with equally bold flavors.

Possibly even richer was the "Champi con Foie," with mushrooms and seared foie gras cloaked under a creamy aioli, with some reduced vinegar and a drizzle of green herb sauce for a bit of contrast.

But those croquetas! Available with fillings both customary (jamón ibérico) and perhaps not (almejas con salsa verde, morcilla), these delivered everything you should be looking for in a croqueta: crisp, not overwhelmingly greasy exterior; molten, lightly textured creamy interior; and a generous amount of the chosen filling. The croquetas filled with clams and green sauce were possibly my favorite, though it would be difficult to choose between them and the morcilla ones I had last year.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

San Sebastian Pintxos - A Fuego Negro, La Cuchara de San Telmo

There are enough Michelin stars in and about San Sebastian to make up a constellation, but some of the best eating in this food mecca can be found in its many bars and their seemingly infinite selection of pintxos. We first visited San Sebastian about a year and a half ago, and sampled several excellent pintxos bars. We had the good fortune to be back in San Sebastian recently, and made return visits to several of those same bars, and some new ones as well.

Last year's post conveys my genuine awe at the culinary wonderland that San Sebastian is, and so I won't repeat myself here. I also won't dare try to recount each of the many morsels we sampled, which would be well nigh impossible. Rather, this is just a list of some of the highlights. Before diving in, though, a couple observations that are hopefully not duplicative of my comments from last year:

First, one of the things I found so remarkable is that even with the plethora of pintxos bars in the town - surely well more than a hundred over just a few square miles - it seems that virtually all of them have their regulars. We couldn't sit down in the homiest little hole in the wall for more than fifteen minutes without somebody showing up who the bartender knew (and usually also knew their drink order). Another thing I found interesting is that there is no firm division between "traditional" and "contemporary," at least as far as the customer base is concerned. Even in the most modern bars, serving the most contemporary, unusual bites, you would find bushy-moustached Basque old-timers enjoying a bite next to tattooed, serially-pierced hipsters. If the food is good, that's all that matters to these people - and most of the food is very, very good.

As I did last year, I'll divide my notes between the Parte Vieja (the "Old Town") on the west side of the Urumea River, and the more commercial Barrio Gros on the east side, running into the Zurriola beach. Our exploration of the Parte Vieja was somewhat limited this time around on account of the Bandera de la Concha, a very popular boat regatta which is apparently celebrated by massive crowds of sloppy drunk teenagers afterwards by crowding into the Parte Vieja, strewing about thousands of broken plastic drink cups, and urinating in the streets. Ah, to be young again ...

A Fuego Negro is a slick looking place done up mostly in shades of black and red which offered some of the most creative and delicious dishes we experienced on this trip. They feature both contemporary takes on some Spanish classics, as well as some more esoteric choices in miniature pintxo form. The menu starts with "Txupitos and Apertifs," clever combinations of a bite and a drink in one little item.

Here, "Fino & Ajo Ibérico" took the form of half-frozen "cloves" of ajo blanco, the classic Spanish garlic soup, with cubes of fino sherry gelée and a fine dice of apple.

"Salmorejo Txerry Sobre Migas Ibéricas," meanwhile, was served as a orb of the gazpacho-like soup, infused with sherry, in sorbet form, nestled in a little bed of bread crumbs, and sprinkled with a bit of pimenton. Both of these were wonderful, invigorating bites.

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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.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Restaurante Arzak - San Sebastian

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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pintxos in San Sebastian

tapas bar
From friends, tour guides, and food and travel TV shows, we'd been conditioned to believe that San Sebastian was a kind of culinary Wonderland, with more Michelin stars per capita than possibly anywhere else on earth, and tapas bars lining the streets with riotous displays, each trying to top the next. Well, unlike the South Florida real estate market, Bernie Madoff's rate of return, and many other things that sound too good to be true, San Sebastian really is everything people say it is.

In early March, it was still off-season in San Sebastian, and we were regularly deluged with rain and even hail. But it was easy to see why San Sebastian becomes one of the great playgrounds of all Europe in the more temperate months. Its setting on the Bay of Biscay, situated on two massive, impossibly perfectly curved arcs of beach (Zurriola to the east and La Concha to the west), with hills rising up around either side, is almost ridiculously picturesque. And the sheer abundance, quality and variety of the pintxos (the Basque variant on tapas) to be found in such a multitude of local bars is truly staggering indeed. It really is much like being in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, but without the risk of blowing up into a gigantic blueberry like Violet Beauregard ("Stop. Don't.").

Though we had a couple high-end restaurant meals already booked before we came, we saved a couple days for sampling the pintxos of San Sebastian. It took us a little practice to navigate the etiquette of pintxos-eating. In some places you'd just ask for a plate and serve yourself, while in others the system was point and ask. Most bars have hot items that aren't displayed but are listed somewhere, usually on a board or occasionally on a menu, which have to be ordered. These were often some of the best items, notwithstanding the incredible displays of cold items laid out on the bars. For locating and researching these places, I found the website, Todopintxos, to be a very useful resource. The Hotel Villa Soro, about a 10-minute walk from the Barrio Gros, made a great home base for exploring San Sebastian.

The following are my notes from tours of the Parte Vieja (the old quarter, on the west side of town) and the Barrio Gros (newer part of town on the east side). There are literally dozens of places we did not get to, and it seems you could devote a happy lifetime to investigating each bar's specialties.


Bar Aralar - not particularly on any recommended list, this just happened to be open and in the right spot for us as the rain started coming down especially furiously. Yet it's a great example of what is so wonderful about San Sebastian. We were just looking for someplace to dry out for a couple minutes, ducked through the door, and were greeted with a tableau at the bar of maybe a couple dozen different brightly colored pintxos, a couple gleaming chrome beer taps, and a dozen hams hanging from the ceiling. The tuna-stuffed piquillo pepper was nice, as was a plump artichoke wrapped in bacon. A pintxo topped with a vibrant greenish white seafood spread tasted mostly of pickles, and I couldn't make out what else was in it. A very old-school place, where the bartender simply asks whether you want a small plate or a large plate so as to take items for yourself, and then charges on the honor system as to how many pintxos you had. Clearly a spot that has its regulars - it was amusing to watch as the bartender began to pour drinks for a few people as soon as they'd entered the door, before they'd uttered a word.

Gandarias Taberna - a warm pintxo of queso cabra wrapped with bacon was delicious; even better was one described as "milhojas de manitas y hongos", a layered concoction of shredded pigs' trotter meat and thin slivers of porcini mushroom. A brochette of cordero (lamb) was only OK, as was a pintxo topped with angulas (baby eels) and piquillo. They had a large selection of wines by the glass with all of them held in one of those high-tech Enomatic dispensers.

La Cepa - we caught the tortilla with bacalao as it was coming from the oven, and it was absolutely delicious. A little sampler of their chorizo was also excellent. The "gabilla," a croqueta type thing with big chunks of pork, serrano ham, and cheese, didn't do it for me. We should have taken the hint from the chorizo, as their specialty seems to be their Jabugo ham products.

La Cuchara de San Telmo - this place had been recommended by numerous sources and perhaps our expectations were too high, or perhaps we ordered poorly. It's a shoebox of a place, and difficult to find, with a barely discernable sign, and a street address on the "Plazuela del Valle Lersundi" which perhaps ought to be called a "Plazuelita" as it's not much more than a tiny indentation off Calle 31 de Agosto. Once inside there's a narrow, drafty bar area with room for about 8 place settings and at the back of the room a tiny, roughly 4'x8' kitchen. More contemporary in approach, everything is made to order. A canelon de morcilla was pretty good, the pasta filled with a rich oozy blood sausage, and the dish brightened up with a stripe of an herbaceous green sauce. The problem I had was that pretty much everything we ordered had almost the exact same presentation. The foie with manzana brought a seared hunk of foie gras served over a bed of apple puree, with again the same stripe of green sauce; and then a duck breast (slightly overcooked and tough) came over a bed of orange puree, with yet again the same green stripe of sauce. Any one of them individually I would have thought were good, but when ordered together gave the impression of a one-trick pony. Again, maybe just a case of poor ordering.


Aloña Berri - perhaps in contast to La Cuchara de San Telmo, I thought Aloña Berri was absolutely everything it was cracked up to be. They describe themselves as "alta cocina en miniatura" and the description is apt. It seems almost absurd to call a one-bite item a "dish," but many of Aloña Berri's creations are so remarkably layered and architectural both in flavor and literal structure that it seems appropriate. These were some truly awe-inspiring and delicious things.

guillerThis is a pintxo that came in an Asian soup spoon, one bite, more than a half-dozen components. From bottom to top, a puddle of creamy confited bacalao, topped with a smooth eggplant puree, hollandaise sauce, quail egg, aioli, trout roe, crispy fried spinach leaf, and a sliver of fried purple potato. Beautiful and delicious.

This one was possibly even more impressive. Mackerel, stuffed with foie gras and glazed with what I believe was a pan sauce bolstered with some vinegar, on top of which is balanced a long sliver of fried leek, sprinkled upon which are various salty, sweet and other flavor components - green herb powder, demerara sugar, trout roe ... you fold the sliver of leek upon itself and eat the whole thing, getting the sensations of each of the powders as you find them. All of which is to say nothing of the combination of the rich oily mackerel with the rich oily foie, a great take on a mar y montaña similar to the combination of eel and foie you see in some higher-end Japanese restaurants these days.

Bar Bergara - Bergara is a much more straight-ahead kind of style than Aloña Berri but everything we had was quite good, including a pintxo topped with juicy sweet diced tomatoes and a scatter of slivered fried onions, another with a bacalao "meatball" and a similar topping of fried onions, and one topped with salad rusa, shredded hard-boiled egg and a shrimp on top.

Casa Senra - when you see more than a half dozen different croquetas listed on the menu, including with clams and green sauce and with chipirones (baby squid), the clear message is "Get the croquetas". By an accident of translation we got the morcilla croquetas rather than the almejas I had sought, but they were still very good, scooped using an ice cream scoop, lightly crispy outside, tender and oozy inside, studded with bits of sausage. I wasn't aiming for the croquetas de morcilla because we'd also ordered the "morcillitas," a skinny home-made blood sausage that was creamy and redolent with spice, served with a green garlic olive oil emulsion and piquillo peppers. A bocata of fried eggplant, sauteed onions, bacon and cheese was also very satisfying.

The amazing thing to me is that for every place we tried, there are probably a half dozen we missed. Even more amazing, for every pintxo we tried at each of those places, there were probably a dozen or more that we skipped. Consistent 12-13% return, year after year after year? Don't believe it. San Sebastian, culinary mecca? Believe it.

Bar Aralar
Calle Puerto 10
San Sebastian
943 42 63 78

Gandarias Taberna
Calle 31 de Agosto 23
San Sebastian
943 42 63 62

La Cepa
Calle 31 de Agosto 7
San Sebastian
943 42 63 94

La Cuchara de San Telmo
Plazuela del Valle Lersundi
San Sebastian

Aloña Berri
Calle Bermingham 24
San Sebastian
943 29 08 18

Bar Bergara
Calle General Artexte 8
San Sebastian
943 27 50 26

Casa Senra
Calle San Francisco 32
San Sebastian
943 29 38 19