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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.