Restaurant reviews: Arzak, San Sebastian
By Sonja Lee | The Foodie World Contributing Blogger
Today my mother and I are dining at the world’s eighth best restaurant according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and a lovely taxi driver drops us off at Arzak just before 1pm and assures us we will have a great meal. We enter and a gruff, burly barman asks in Spanish if we want an aperitif. I tell him our name and we’re crossed off the list. No one welcomes us. This isn’t what I expected. We’re shoved into a small drinks area where a group of staff are looking at something like Google glasses and I think Chef Arzak is part of the group.
Mr (or should that be Senor) Gruff pours us a champagne and mineral water with finesse and we continue to be ignored. Are we not dressed up enough, or are we early I wonder? We’re left for a good 15 minutes without a word, so we flick through the Arzak cook books.
Just before 1:30pm we’re ushered into the upstairs dining room and I’m not very comfortable because of the long wait. The ceilings are charcoal, the walls are white and have charcoal feature walls. There are three main rooms and they alternate between charcoal and white. The walls display arty shots of saucepans and dishes in various shades of grey. A waitress brings us to our table and we’re given one a la carte menu as well as a tasting menu (both with aesthetic graphic design). There are no explanations offered, nor is a wine list. I think that’s strange too.
After a few minutes Adolfo, who appears to be the head waiter, asks if we’d like to order and I then ask about the tasting menu and certain dishes. Finally we start to get some decent service. He goes into detail on various dishes, explaining if we do want the tasting menu we can change dishes if we don’t like a certain thing. One of us is lactose intolerant and he is extremely helpful in deciding which dishes are appropriate, and says to us: if there is something you don’t like after you’ve tasted it, please let us know and we will bring you something else. Wow, this is my kind of restaurant.
We go for the tasting menu comprising five pinxtos style dishes, three entrée dishes, one fish then one meat and three desserts. Thankfully we haven’t eaten breakfast. I look around the room. There are three couples on tables near us, a young couple with their baby, and a table of 10 who we assume to be from Singapore. The volume is set at low.
After 10 minutes the sommelier finally approaches us and we ask for the wine list. We aren’t terribly interested as it’s lunchtime and go for a red and rose by the glass but a quick flick shows the list to have lots of very reasonably priced wines around the 30 Euro mark plus more expensive ones. We assume the wine list to be excellent.
We start with “Gyoza of prawns and moringa” and “Kabraroka pudding with kataifi”. These are tasty pieces of art. The hot pink gyoza sits on a black spring, the Kabraroka pudding with kataifi is suspended mid-air on a steel structure. The lactose intolerant of us receives spring mushrooms done in garlic, parsley and olive oil (baby mushrooms, lovely, light and cooked to perfection) and two green peppers fried in the local Spanish style. This is followed by “Black pudding and Beer”. The black pudding is wrapped in a fine layer of young ginger served on a crushed beer can. I don’t like this dish and want to send this back but my mother is so impressed she gobbles it up before I have a chance.
The final two appetisers are “Lentil cookie with ssam-jang” and “Anchovies with pickled strawberry”. The lentil cookie is like a thin lentil biscuit topped with mussels, which are very fresh and smell and taste of the sea. My favourite of all five appetisers are the anchovies with pickled strawberry on a small toast. The anchovy is lightly marinated and sits atop a strawberry and the crunch of the toast contrasts with both. What a start – each dish is unique, they are all small and the combinations are fantastic. It’s like a teaser of what is to come and I sit in hope and expectation.
We move on to our entrees. Mother has “Beetroot blood apple”. The apple is injected with beetroot and accompanied by the potato mother of pearl – a potato mash mixed with a little foie gras then deep fried and covered in finely crushed nuts.
I have the “Crab rock”. It looks strange – like a black rock, served in a thick white crust of warm salt. I’m told to crack it open then mix everything up inside. Once I’ve broken the shell, I can see crab meat and roe and the taste is incredible. It’s spider crab in its juices and a few pieces of spinach at the bottom of the bowl and I start dreaming about having this dish again. The black outer casing is similar to a thick rice paper and this dish is a mini-meal in itself.
Next we move on to the “Lobster with bee’s pollen”, artistically decorated with small flower petals. Like all the food, this is ultra fresh and there is lobster from both the body and claw and the bee pollen (which tastes slightly sweet and powdery) with blue honeycomb foam that tastes of violets, matches perfectly.
Over this dish Mr Arzak pays homage to the large table from Singapore, one of which appears to be a regular. His daughter also visits them and a couple on another table rush to meet him armed with iPhones but are warned off. Adolfo placates them and I assume he says chef will see you later. I speculate on the origin of the couple and decide perhaps they are Russian. He’s blonde with a buzz cut, sports one diamond stud earring and reminds me of the Bond villain Renard, a KGB agent-turned-terrorist with a bullet stuck in his brain that’s increasingly dulling his senses. His partner however is not glam enough to be a Bond girl and she appears increasingly agitated by the Singaporean table receiving lots of attention from the Arzaks.
Our next dish is the Miro-like “Red space egg”, cooked at 65 degrees for 45 minutes, pictured at the top of this post. It looks almost like a poached egg except it’s red covered by a red pepper sauce. The plate itself is dotted with colourful dobs that I find too pretty to eat. The egg white steamed to perfection – light and just the right consistency and the yolk is runny and creamy and contrasts well with the little pieces of crispy pig trotters.
The sommelier gives me another glass of rose after I say no I will wait and when we ask for more red for mother, he pours only a small amount when she still has a little left in her glass… At this point we ask for a small break and that is no problem. The baby starts to scream from time to time. Thankfully a parent takes it outside when it goes ballistic but I can still hear it screaming from the garden below. I like how the parents have brought their baby but I also wonder whether in a place like this you should. Hard, but this is Europe and it’s healthy for families to go out altogether.
Everyone around me is taking photos of their meals. This is a grand occasion – a symphony of food and we’re building to a crescendo. Each part of the meal is better than the last and as more alcohol is imbibed by all, the volume in the room starts to rise.
Our pretty fish dishes arrive – mother has monkfish, I choose sea bass. Both are very fresh but we prefer the sea bass with its fragrant cardamom sauce over the arty looking monkfish complete with deep fried bones.
At this point Chef Arzak tours the room. He kisses my mother’s hand and seems quite taken with her. He moves on to the Scandinavians and the wife says ‘fantastic, very very good’ which sums up everything.
The crescendo of our food symphony arrives in the final savoury dish. I have the “Beef with green tea” and am presented with a Philips iPad like device which shows a video of flames. A one inch thick two centimetre wide slice of beef served on a framed glass dish is placed above the device so you can see through the centre as if the beef is being roasted.
A hop sauce is poured on the side of the beef, then a green tea crumble is served from a pepper grinder. The beef is topped with a cheese almond crunch. It’s interesting, the meat isn’t strong like Australian or American beef – I think it’s more subtle. As the meat from the juice combines with the sauce, I realise the video beneath my dish has changed into crashing waves and the two images complement each other. Artistic perfection?
Mother has the “Lamb with lotus”. It’s wrapped in a lotus leaf and is served with quinoa and its juice. There are paper thin slices of fresh lotus, along with a separate bowl of deep fried paper thin lotus. It has a very subtle flavour, not heavy as in Cantonese cooking where it’s served chunky and stewed with beef. Mother claims this dish to be perfect.
At this point we pause again to appreciate the show.
The final act doesn’t disappoint. The highlight is “The big truffle”, a large ball of dusted cocoa. A dark orange sauce is poured over the top and the ball quickly disappears in front of your eyes and you’re left with a little mousse and dark cocoa powder with crunch. Divine.
The other desserts are “The black lemon”. This is a thin black crust of chocolate filled with lemon curd and served with black lemons only for smell. The scent is of salt and slow roasted lemon.
The coffee is excellent, smooth and balanced. The English breakfast tea is the best I’ve had in Spain. If there was one thing that could be improved in this whole magical symphony it would be to get a high quality tea to match (I suggest Maitre Tseng).
We are satiated but don’t feel as if we’ve overdone it even though we’ve eaten every single thing on our dishes.
This was possibly the best meal I’ve ever eaten in my life, an extraordinary experience – a form of art like watching opera or going to a modern art gallery. All dishes were aesthetically presented, with a high level of thought and creativity injected into each. It is definitely worth having the tasting menu which is what the restaurant recommends to get a real sense of the food.
Our parting gift is a hard copy menu for each of us and it’s an original touch in the digital age.
PS – a note to Arzak, you may wish to better train your staff to welcome your guests, even if they happen to be half an hour early (by accident). Also your sommelier was rough pouring our drinks, stereotyped us as white wine drinkers (untrue, we rarely drink it), gave us fake ‘stuff you tourist’ smiles and could not understand a simple request in English for a glass of rose.
Avda Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273, Donostia San Sebastian