While planning our trip to San Sebastian, Arzak was one restaurant recommendation that kept popping up. However, this Vacationist is a picky eater and the hefty price tag of 200 Euros per head for the tasting menu (all of which I wasn’t sure I would enjoy), was putting us off from taking that leap of faith. Dithering over a few weeks brought us to a situation where getting a table became an impossibility and the decision was taken out of our hands.
A random reconnect with an old Spanish, college friend (who turned out to be a close friend of Juan Mari Arzak -the owner and head chef) allowed us to change our minds and wangle a last minute table at this much sought-after culinary institution.
We have to admit, our first impression wasn’t remarkable. The exterior of Arzak is pretty unassuming and as nondescript as the suburban neighbourhood it’s located in. If it wasn’t for a queue of well-dressed folks on the pavement outside the restaurant, waiting for the doors to open, we would have certainly overshot.
The simple exteriors were mirrored by the clean, un-fussed interiors. We were quickly escorted to our table by the stiff, yet pleasant staff who reconfirmed the food allergies that I had communicated to them over email.
With three michelin stars, our expectations from Arzak were justifiably high. This was the big celebratory dinner of our vacation and we had restrained ourselves from bingeing at the pintxo bars earlier in the day to ensure that we had enough of an appetite to do justice to the twelve-course tasting menu.
Having already cracked open a bottle of the local Txakoli back at the hotel we continued the evening at Arzak with the Agerre San Martin – a crisp yet reasonably priced white wine that is native to the Basque region.
Our meal was kickstarted with five beautifully-plated appetisers. The Kabraroka pudding (a traditional Basque fish dish) with kataifi (vermicelli type pastry) was an interesting mix of textures. The use of kataifi in a savoury dish was a first for us given that this is what you usually only see in mediterranean and Indian desserts.
The black pudding with beer came next. It was artfully served in a crushed beer car that could simply be tipped over directly into your mouth. A kick of spiciness rounded up the initial umami flavours of this dish.
The gyoza of prawns with moringa that followed was our favourite appetiser that night. It was a modern take on the traditional Japanese gyoza and instead of a steamed wrapper, this was a crackling fried casing filled with some sweet shrimp meat.
The last pintxo was the only vegetarian dish on the tasting menu. A lentil cookie with ssam-jang (a spicy Korean paste). These lentil cookies were very similar in texture and consistency to our Indian papadums but lacked the spice/bite of their Indian counterparts. Unaccustomed to associating papadums with sweet or acidic flavours, this dish took a little getting used to. Thankfully given its bite sized portion – we didn’t have long to make the adjustment.
The second course offered was a choice between the beetroot blood apple which was basically an apple injected with beetroot and accompanied by creamy foie gras and potato. While the foie gras sounded tempting, the overall fruitiness of the dish made me opt for the Cromlech and I wasn’t disappointed. This was a two toned crispy, thin shell filled with melt in your mouth foie gras with the darker tones being contributed by baby squid ink. A very strange looking yet exquisitely flavourful dish, it was a reminder not to judge a book by its cover.
We then moved on to the more substantial courses and one of my favourite dishes of the evening was the lobster with bee’s pollen and these beautiful little blue honeycombs. Perfectly cooked, seasoned with the acidity of the pollen and cleverly offset by the sweetness of the honey, this was the one dish that I wanted more of! Lots more!
Next up was the perfunctory egg dish that seems to have become a staple at every starred restaurant. While each chef has their own style of preparation, the one thing that now seems to be universally accepted is that an egg must be cooked at 65 degrees to be cooked to perfection. And perfection it was. This red egg was a shimmering, silky orb of egg white surrounded by a rich liquid egg yolk. This was also so prettily presented that one was reluctant to cut it open. Needless to say our stomachs won the battle with our eyes and we devoured this dish in short time.
The next course was the fish course and we each got a different dish to make the most of our visit. My grilled seabass rubbed with a coffee paste and served with crispy milk bits was plated on an iPad with waves playing in the background. The gimmicky plating made for interesting conversation and while the fish was beautifully cooked, the attempt at combining fish with cappuccino flavours didn’t really work all that well for me.
My dinner companion though ordered the monkfish with rhubarb and lilies and this fared slightly better than my seabass. Once again beautifully plated, the undertones of sourness of the slightly sweetened rhubarb paired well with the gently cooked piece of fish. This dish was good but not great.
The meat dishes brought an end to the food parade and once again we made different choices to get the full experience. My lamb served on a lotus leaf with a side of quinoa was served medium rare (as you can see from the pink centre in the picture) and despite usually avoiding bloody meat, this piece of lamb melted in my mouth. The quinoa was served with some lotus root and a mysterious, milky juice of unknown origin.
My better half opted for the pigeon with guitar shavings which had these beautiful, very real looking, edible wooden shavings as a side. Not having much access to well cooked pigeon meat in our country, this was a treat.
At this point of time we also had the pleasure of the owner and head chef – Juan Mari Arzak making the rounds of the tables and while his English was limited (one of the stewards served as a translator) he did manage to clearly communicate that while his English language skills might not be great, he spoke through his food. We couldn’t argue with this as each dish that been brought out was clearly a labour of love.
The labour of love continued into the dessert courses and these were certainly amongst the highlights of our meal. The big truffle was a large ball of cocoa and sugar with a creamy chocolate filling which was served as a giant orb that slowly collapsed into a puddle of melty, liquid, chocolate gold when some hot sauce was poured into its centre. Pretty cool and tasted good too.
However the star for me was the black lemon dessert which was a crispy black lemon exterior filled with a sweet citrus cream and shavings of the same fruit. Perfectly balanced in both sweetness and acidity, it totally hit the spot especially with my love for tangy desserts. This dish was a winner.
By this time we were beginning to feel like beached whales and quickly asked for the check which was brought to us along with a colourful cage of petit fours and a personalised print out of our menu and wine pairing. We did our good deed of the day and allowed a few of the petit fours to break free and gave them a new home in our stomachs.
In summary, this was without doubt the most beautifully presented and creatively put together meal that we have ever eaten. It was also without doubt the most expensive meal we have ever eaten. So much so that we often felt guilty for destroying (devouring rather) these pictures of artistic perfection. The combination of flavours was for the most part eclectic and unexpected but somehow worked really well together. Having said that, somewhere down the line I think this place missed a trick or two and some of the dishes lacked the punch of flavour that one was expecting. Maybe our taste buds aren’t refined enough or maybe our Indian palates just require bigger bursts of flavour to be satisfied. Whatever the reason, I’m not sure if I would go back to Arzak when there are so many other great dining options in the area.
Was the experience enjoyable? Most definitely. Was it worth the money? Probably not. Should you try it anyways? Absolutely, if budget permits.