Basque Beauty

I was originally booked into Arzak, in San Sebastian, over two years ago. But having lost my passport I had to forego this trip until a new passport was in place. As a result me and this restaurant had some unfinished business! Before I launch into the Arzak critique, I will simply say this – if you love food and drink then you need to get yourself to San Sebastian. A pretty, sedate little town with about 10 restaurants and bars per resident here! Need I say more, it is a foodie paradise! Also a very mild micro climate means that it’s not overly hot in summer and never freezes at winter. Combine that with humidity and you have the perfect conditions for growing beautiful produce, all year round!

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I was initially intrigued by Arzak when it appeared on Masterchef UK back in 2009 (the year Mat Follas won). Run by an enigmatic father and daughter chef combo the colourful and wacky looking food had me hooked! As well as three Michelin stars it’s also been in the top 10 of the best restaurants in the world for the past decade or so, although it’s slipped out this year, replaced by San Sebastian’s Murgaritz (which is next on my list).

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Nestled in a residential suburb of San Sebastian (technically a different village in the old days) – to say our journey to Arzak was epic is a slight understatement. A lot of walking and an overground train later and we arrived slightly sweaty and pink faced to be greeted by our calm and professional waiting staff. When I come on to the food you’ll see that I found it hard to differentiate what 3-star Arzak is doing compared to 1 and 2-star eateries I’ve been to. However if anything gets them the third star then it’s the staff. Warm, friendly, professional and always in control.

We went for the tasting menu as that seemed to be the best value for money way of eating, plus there was still an element of choice within this menu. I started will a cool, crisp Fino sherry which was served in a nice, large portion. Our snacks, as ever, were the treats which highlighted the most innovation from the kitchen, and created opportunity for the chef to show off. They included beer marinated mango, served in the bottom of beer can and scooped out with the world’s longest spoon; a little bottle of gazpacho with a ‘cork’ of melon and ham; and a bright red prawn wanton that was crunchy and sweet. What was evident from this course was Arzak’s style of playing with colour and subtly confusing the brain about what you are actually about to eat.

Arzac gazpacho

Arzac mango

The first starter was foie gras – this is fairly popular in San Sebastian given that it’s part of the Basque Country. This was a play on a popular pinxtos dish that we’d had earlier in the day but much more refined. The pate was smooth and rich and came with sweet apple and crispy potato.

Arzac fois gras

For the fish course we had a choice of mackerel or lobster. I, of course, went for lobster. When an ipad was placed before me I was very confused! It had images of the sea playing. The beautifully presented lobster dish was then put down on top of it on a glass tile. This was a fun way of serving and the sea scene quickly turned to a roaring fire when I had finished the lobster! The fish itself was served with sour ‘acidic’ flavours to cut through the sweet flesh. I thought you got a lot of lobster for a tasting menu which was pleasing.

Arzac lobster

The next interlude was a wacky ‘space egg’ which was a slow cooked egg surrounded by dots of brightly coloured sauces. For me, this was more style over substance but it was fun nonetheless and a bit of a two fingers up to very formal dining restaurants, who probably wouldn’t serve something so zany!

Arzac egg

The last fish course was seared tuna belly with a purple corn sauce. This was stunningly beautiful on the plate and almost a shame to eat. I was expecting a miso style sauce, which would have made this dish perfect. However, as with a lot of Basque cooking, the sauces are all quite sour which can take a bit of getting used to.

Arzac tuna

The meat dish had a number of options – lamb, pigeon, beef or anything else we cared to dictate to the kitchen! I went for the beef as it was charcoal cooked and I had seen the charcoal oven in the front yard on my arrival. This was a healthy chunk of beef cooked very rare but lovely and soft. It was speared with a ‘bone’ of liquorice root that I enjoyed chewing down on and sucking. The hop sauce that the beef came with was a little watery, however when green tea dust was grated over it an intriguing smoke was created. All very visually stunning!

Arzac beef

Desserts were fun and actually left us not knowing what to expect at all. First up was a chocolate course. This included a giant chocolate truffle that had a chocolate sauce poured on it to dramatically melt away the outside. This wasn’t the prettiest of dishes however the richness of the chocolate was perfectly naughty. Also brought out was ‘square moon’ – a cube of chocolate filled with fruity sauce and a passionfruit pouring sauce. We thought that was it until yet more cutlery was put down! This time the offerings were even weirder! A chocolate shell was made to look like a black lemon, which is a tiny little dried lemon, and filled with citrus cream. Finally there were little ring donuts which were actually carob shells filled with an anise cream. The style of the restaurant seems to be to create hard shelled desserts that break open to reveal soft interiors – it got a little bit samey by dessert four, but fun nonetheless.

A picture of San Sebastian as my dessert pictures were particularly crap

A picture of San Sebastian as my dessert pictures were particularly crap

And so that was it! Interestingly our waiter came to ask if we were full enough or whether we wanted more. I was actually perfectly full, without being nauseous as one can sometimes be after a tasting menu. However the Britishness in me immediately said that I was full and it would have been interesting to know what would have happened had I required more food – what on earth would have come out?! We did have the obligatory coffee and petit four. These came in a pretty little bird cage. Although disappointingly these were yet more hard shells/ liquid centres, as experienced in the desserts. The mousse filled chocolate was very moreish though.

Arzac petit four

Spanish restaurants don’t do tap water and so we had bottles of still. These were very reasonably priced however, so not really an annoyance. Wine-wise we opted for a light local red which came in the form of a 2012 Rioja Crianza – Predicador to be precise. This was perfect for the majority of our courses. Bizarrely it seemed to be the magic porridge pot of the wine world as it lasted for the whole 3 hours of our meal!

This is probably the third most expensive meal I’ve ever had, after Noma and L’Enclume. If I’m honest then I think the food at Noma and L’Enclume is superior to Arzak – in terms of innovation, taste and presentation. Perhaps this is why Arzak has slipped out of the top ten of late? However the service at Arzak was second to none and I’d go back again just for that. What’s more, on the way out our head waiter was disappointed to hear we’d not met the chef and swiftly brought out Elena Arzak to meet us. We discussed Masterchef and then she walked us out to our taxi, which was all rather lovely! Personally I’d hate to be featured in the world’s top 50 restaurants as it opens you up to a world of scrutiny, critique and expectation. When you’re a little provincial taverna you probably just want to get on and make good food without the world watching.

Leeds’ best new restaurant

I’ve got a major tip off for you all and I’ve agonised for ages about whether to go public with this, as if I do then it probably means I’ll struggle to ever get a table again! I concluded that I’d be selfless and let you all know that I’ve found Leeds’ best new restaurant…

The Greedy Pig is an unassuming greasy spoon on North Street (near the Reliance and Hansas). By night it becomes the Swine that Dines. The Greedy Pig has been independently run by Scots Jo and Stu since 2011. They started to dabble in a monthly supperclub last year, which I attended the other week. They’ve taken the plunge to start the move away from bacon sandwiches and lunchtime fare to establish their Friday evening small plates club.

How it works – they open between 6pm and 9pm every Friday. There’s no bookings so you just turn up when you’re hungry. A giant blackboard displays the plates of the day. There are about 10 tapas sized plates to choose from, which includes desserts and bread from Leeds bread co-op. You order what you want, settle down with your BYOB, and await the tasty treats to arrive at your table!

Our menu

Our menu

We greedily ordered everything on the menu, except the bread and the tabbouleh salad, and shared it. Now I’ve had the pleasure of eating Stu’s food before so I was expecting good things. However the standard and quality of what was presented to us last night was out of this world. The plates were generously portioned, expertly presented, full of clean and clever flavours and all extremely exciting. Here’s a quick overview of each one:

A summer salad of crunchy green beans and radish was bound together with a deliciously creamy and piquant duck egg dressing and toasted sourdough bread. This was veg at its most exciting.

Swine beans

Salt hake came firm and fleshy atop a generous mountain of buttery potatoes and greens.

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The pork ribs were so meaty I failed to find the rib bones for the first few bites! They were perfectly cooked with crusty bits of marinated meat to chew down on. Sour tasting mushrooms seemed an odd accompaniment but extremely moreish and tasty.

A leek, walnut and feta croquette was an unexpectedly large rocket (roquette?!) of crispy outside and soft and tasty filling. This had a clever salad with sesame oil which really contrasted against the creamy filling.

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The kid faggot I nearly didn’t order as I’d had similar at the supperclub the other day. However I am glad I did – this was my favourite! A giant dumpling of smooth kid goat meat and offal (it was shoulder and heart last time I believe) came atop sweet and creamy carrot puree and oozing with a rich and meaty gravy. Not the best dish for a hot day but comforting and full of flavour – gimme more!

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Our final dish was the majestic porchetta. A beautifully coiled piece of pork was beautifully marinated and cooked to perfection, it truly was melt in the mouth. The flavours were so complex I needed to have them explained to me. Apparently the meat is given both a wet and dry rub in a myriad of herbs and spices that include sage, garlic, coriander and chilli. It was served with soft braised fennel and shavings of raw fennel to give different textural elements. This was another favourite dish.

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And so we took a pause here, absolutely astounded at how good the food was but yet in disbelief that the dining room was still so quiet. A steady stream did arrive and leave as we ate but there was room for more. In summary, you need to get yourself here, we cannot let this fantastic food go to waste! I really don’t think Jo and Stu appreciate how good they are, it’s the tastiest food I have eaten in a very long time.

As we enjoyed our wine I reflected a bit on the venue, which probably wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a very no nonsense, humble, honest venue. I personally love this as it means all focus and attention can be on the brilliant food. The informality is such a contrast to the fine dining style food, I love it! It truly is Leeds’ ultimate casual dining venue.

Desserts were not advertised on twitter so I was excited to see them added to the blackboard on arrival. We stuck to our trend and ordered both to share. A prune and Armagnac tart was bitter from chocolate ganache and sweet and sour from the prunes. It had a light and creamy ice cream and salted caramelised almonds for texture. Jo’s pastry was almost like a crumbly shortbread biscuit.

Swine tart

An elderflower posset was perfectly set and creamy. I couldn’t get much elderflower if I’m honest but the stem ginger shortbread biscuit was out of this world – buttery and crumbly. I loved spooning the posset onto the biscuit for a perfect combination.

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And so at this stage we declared ourselves full, having eaten nearly the entire menu! And now for the biggest shock of the entire night. Our bill came to less than £20 each. Now I know this doesn’t include booze, as we brought our own. But this meal was by far better than the one I’d enjoyed at Heston’s last week and was a fraction of the price. I love a bargain but the guys could easily charge more for the top quality food they serve. I’m guessing the low prices won’t be around forever, which is another reason to get yourself down there!

So I hope I’ve been able to convince you to get yourself down to North Street next Friday and every Friday after that. You won’t regret it. I just hope Jo and Stu save me a seat when everyone’s queuing out of the door! They don’t have a website yet so I recommend giving them a follow on Twitter – @SwineThatDines. You can thank me later!

Christmas Lunch at the Manor

Saturday 5th December 2015, 1pm to 4pm

Yes it may be July now and the hottest day of the year so far but we know how diaries can start to fill up in December, so we have decided to get in there early :) . This event will be a decadent Christmas lunch, using Yotam Ottolenghi’s new book, Nopi as our inspiration. We went to Nopi for lunch a couple of years ago and you can read our review here.

Tasty small plates, with a festive twist. £30pp will get you 8 small plates and a welcome drink! If you want to celebrate Christmas with us, then book on using the link below.

BOOK NOW

A Middle Eastern Afternoon Tea – November

Saturday 14th November 2015, 2pm to 4pm

In November we’ll be bringing some beautiful spice to the Manor for afternoon tea! Using the stunning book by Anne Shooter, Sesame and Spice.

For £25pp, we’ll be serving up a range of savoury and sweet delights plus a welcome cocktail. If this takes your fancy, book on using the link below.

ONE SPACE AVAILABLE – email dinneratthemanor@gmail.com to book

4th Birthday Party – Nanban and Beer!

Saturday 10th October 2015, 7pm to 11pm

We’ve been running our little supperclub now for almost four years and we’ll be celebrating our birthday with a real treat!

Using the beautiful book by Tim Anderson, Nanban is a celebration of Japanese Soul Food. We’re super excited to find out more about Japanese cuisine! However, not only will you get a relentless onslaught of food in the form of 8 delicious courses, we’ll be pairing the food with beer from one of our favourite breweries…. Beavertown!

Beavertown

8 courses, 4 cans of Beavertown’s finest all for £50pp. There are 12 places around our table, so get in there quick by clicking on the link below.

BOOK NOW!

Dinner round at Heston’s

For a birthday treat we took a trip to London to experience Dinner by Heston in the Mandarin Hotel. We’re in London fairly infrequently, despite having lived here previously. This has been on my to do list for a while as the historical recipes do intrigue me, plus after we had booked it was swiftly announced as the 7th best restaurant in the world!

Based in Knightsbridge, it’s in a fairly high end part of town. The Mandarin Hotel itself is ornate, grand and full of glamour without being tacky. It was a classic muggy evening in London and we just wanted to be somewhere cool and light, of which there are not a lot of these kinds of corners in the hotel!

View of the kitchen from our table - no sign of Heston though!

View of the kitchen from our table – no sign of Heston though!

On arrival it was obvious that this was a seamless and slick operation. We started with cocktails in the bar. Seats were found for us in seconds, as were menus. The cocktails themselves were swiftly made and brought over before we had time to take breath. Had this been a cocktail bar in Leeds I daresay we would have fought for a seat for a while before deciding whether to stay or not, and the bar would take hours to get to you and make your drink! This was certainly not the case here. At £16 a cocktail these were not cheap but the list was fairly intriguing. I went for a bon vivant, which was a very grown up cocktail. Smoked vermouth and aged amontillado sherry gave the tobacco and leathery tones that I love in a drink. It came with a little skewer of stilton cheese dunked in it, which sounds odd but was a wonderful savoury pairing. Susie had a pretty little green concoction made with Japanese tea infused gin and matcha tea. Set in a bamboo steamer it had all the pomp and ceremony injected into it with the obligatory dry ice display! Plus the drink was tasty too! To accompany drinks we nibbled on nuts, seeds and berries anointed with truffle oil, moreish to say the least!

Bon Vivant

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As soon as we had finished our drinks we were whisked away to the dining room. The main dining room is quite dark, however there is a corridor bit which lies next to the kitchen and which looks out on to Hyde Park. Luckily this was where we were sat, I may have found the dark area far too claustrophobic. We’d already dissected the menu on the train down and were fairly confident of our choices. The menu was a pretty little concertina with dishes on one side and stories of their historical origin on the other. For starters most of us went for the house dish of meat fruit. This was an amazingly realistic mandarin orange set atop a board with grilled sourdough bread. The orange was in fact a sphere of light and fluffy chicken liver parfait set inside a gel of mandarin orange. This was a taste sensation, light yet rich and nicely offset by the tangy gel. It was, however, a massive portion for one, but we wolfed it down. Our dining partner went for the salagamundy which had wonderful spicy aromas and woody bitter flavours from the salsify, marrowbone and horseradish – she was very happy! We noted that to supply the chicken oysters for this one dish alone would have required 2-3 chickens, so we’re not sure where the rest of the chicken goes!

Meat Fruit

Mains wise I hope we weren’t too boring but most of us went for the ribeye beef to share. This was a huge piece of Hereford beef, cooked medium and served with fries and mushroom ketchup. If I’m honest, the beef was nice but I’ve had better. The fries were well seasoned but nothing spectacular. The mushroom ketchup was the star of the dish, sweet and umami at the same time. A side of cabbage was stingy but again well-seasoned. Susie went for the Iberico pork chop. This was the thickest pork chop we’ve ever seen! She had a side of filthy mash with it, full of butter. It was creamy and comforting and I could have eaten just a bowl of that! She looked broken by the end due to there being so much food. As an aside, it’s worth noting that despite the prices and the Michelin stars, the portions are huge – you will not go hungry!

Ribeye

Only half of us went for dessert. The others looked crestfallen at having to turn it down, but they simply had no room after our meat fest! I went for the brown bread ice cream. This was a beautiful little quenelle of sour tasting ice cream. It came atop a massive wedge of salted butter caramel. Eaten all together, as advised by the waiter, this was stunning, if a little rich. I had to leave a lot of caramel once the ice cream had gone, plus I was reaching breaking point too! The best dessert I think was the marmalade pudding. This was a pretty little set cream made in a fun vintage jelly mould. It came spiked with bitter and sour elements from Campari and orange pieces. It was extremely tasty and refreshing and is what I would pick next time I’m dining there.

Brown bread ice cream

Marmalade pudding

Wines are particularly eye watering. Ranging from £35 to £4550! Majority are priced at the top end but we managed to select a very good Muscadet at £35 and a Beaujolais at £45 and this was more than enough to keep us watered throughout. The waiting staff were not snooty about us preferring tap water and they kept our glasses well filled.

Just as we thought we were fit to burst a secret course was brought out in honour of my birthday. I thought some of us were going to break down in tears at the thought of eating another morsel!! However this was a dainty little pot of earl grey infused chocolate ganache with a fine shortbread biscuit. This was beautifully floral and surprisingly refreshing but definitely the last thing I was going to eat that night!

Birthday ganache

The bill came in at about £110 a head, which given the high profile of the restaurant and its namesake I was pleasantly surprised. We paid a similar amount at Man Behind the Curtain (which was a completely different experience) and left a bit hungry! It did get me thinking though about what I want from a meal. And I think thesedays I’m more about trying lots of different flavours, textures and experiences in food, rather than just going to be filled up. There were some fantastic flavours in this meal, but perhaps not enough to get me really excited – that’s probably my fault for going for the beef! Having said that, if I can get a table, I would definitely return, but I would pick some different things from the menu.

New Dates Alert!

We’ve had quite a bit of traffic on the site of late so we thought we’d give all you supperclub fans some new dates to book onto! Bellies at the ready! We’ve got a range of foodie celebrations to tempt you with. These will go on sale on Wednesday 1st July at 7pm.

Events available will be:

Saturday 10th October – This will be one of our classic evening supperclubs in celebration of our 4th birthday. At £50 a head you’ll get our famous gut busting 8 course meal based on Nanban Japanese soul food with craft ale paired to four of the courses from a brewery yet to be confirmed.

Saturday 14th November – This will be a Middle Eastern themed afternoon tea based on Anne Shooter’s beautiful Sesame and Spice book. £25 will get you a range of stunning sweets and savouries as well as a welcome cocktail.

Saturday 5th December – Our Christmas event this year will be a lunch inspired by Ottolenghi’s new cook book Nopi. This will be lots of Middle Eastern inspired small plates, with a festive twist. £30 will get you 8 small plates and a welcome drink!

So keep an eye out on 1st July to bag your spaces. See you soon!