When it comes to European city break destinations, Spanish cities rank high on our list. We’ve been to Madrid of course, eaten our body weight in paella in Valencia, made countless flying visits to colourful Barcelona and have even popped to Bilbao twice (and everyone knows Guggenheim‘s about the only thing worth seeing there). So it’s a complete mystery as to why we hadn’t made it to San Sebastián sooner. Touted as the country’s culinary capital with its bounty of pintxos bars, seafood restaurants and Michelin-starred establishments (it holds more stars per capita than any other city), it is home to not one, but three of the World’s Best 50 Restaurants: Mugaritz, Arzak and Martin Berasategu.
Two of the list were on our agenda; the first being legendary old-timer Arzak. Father and daughter Juan Mari and Elena collaborate in a salmon-hued building with old school awnings that has been in the family for four generations, and started its life as a humble tavern back in 1897. It became a restaurant in 1967 and steadily gained acclaim with Juan Mari’s modern Basque cuisine, achieving its 3rd Michelin star a good twenty odd years later. Decades on, Arzak is still thriving – it still proudly boasts all three stars and claimed the title of 8th best restaurant in the world this year.
Our dinner had much to live up to.
Unlike the exterior, the inside art-adorned dining space (spread across two floors) was quite modern. We were led to a corner table in the more cramped upstairs area and within seconds of choosing food and wine, a parade of snacks on various apparatus descended. An opening shot of Corn Soup with Figs and Black Pudding was a touch too sweet but otherwise pleasant.
Kabraroka Pudding with Kataifi, presented to us on custom-made stands, featured scorpion fish boudin rolled in shredded filo dough and deep-fried. It looked and tasted very similar to dragon beard prawn dim sum, but not quite as good – the fish filling lacked bounce and was a touch mushy.
Yellow Crispy Rice with Mushroom Mousse was very fiddly and difficult to pick up – the fragile yellow casing broke upon touch, spilling the creamy contents all over my fingers. It was worth the effort though, I loved the contrasting textures and it was a very tasty bite indeed.
Ham and Tomato Smoke featured small orbs of serrano ham and tomato topped with edible flowers and sugar shards – a nice balance of salty and sweet with a fresh burst of tomato. Peppermint tea poured table side, released a theatrical cloud of vapour, which although fun didn’t add much to the eating of it.
I was least impressed with the Marinated Anchovy and Strawberry ferried to us on a rectangular light box. I didn’t mind the fish and remoulade bundle, but found the addition of the sweet berry odd.
The Cromlech with Onion, Coffee and Tea was a striking crisp cone filled with a silky whipped foie gras. Each bite collapsed in the mouth and almost immediately disappeared. Rather lovely.
Wanting a lighter option, I opted for the Crab with Anise Waves which sadly for me turned out to be richer than the foie. The deceptively airy green triangular towers contained a creamy brown and white meat mousse which was exceedingly heavy.
Beside the pale green peaks lay the “wave” – a neon green film (misted with anise by the waitress) concealing a spoonful of fresh crab meat. The alien-looking sheet was tasteless, had a strange chewy texture and contributed little to the dish.
Lobster Coralline was coated in a delicious tomato-based sauce and I liked the sweetness and crunch of the seed brittle fragments but the bland splodges of green (I can’t remember what they were – basil cream perhaps?) were one component too many.
As with many of the subsequent dishes, the lobster was accompanied by a tiny side salad. This one had a handful of micro herbs over a bed of tapioca pearls. Intriguing? Yes. Necessary? No.
B’s sister, being allergic to shellfish, had a replacement of Asparagus with Beer and Kaolin in place of the lobster. She had no real complaints but noted that taste-wise it paled in comparison to simpler preparations of white asparagus that we had sampled earlier in the trip.
Dusted Egg with Mussels was pretty and one of the less busy plates presented to us (and in my opinion, better for it). A poached egg topped with a disc of mussel gel, broke satisfyingly to combine with herbed kataifi and dustings of prawn and spinach powder. Although conceptually and texturally a success, the mussel flavour was far too faint and the greasy deep-fried threads added an unpalatable taste of oil.
The dainty pile of mussels in a garlic jus adjacent to the egg were a nice nibble on their own but the egg concoction (with a few tweaks) would have been strong enough on its own.
We were given a choice of two for the fish course of the degustation and I, together with the majority, went for the Sole with Head Cheese. Again, additional plates of salad leaves graced our table.
I enjoyed both the fish and the thin slice of pressed head cheese, but questioned the appropriateness of them being paired together. The red wine croutons on the plate and in the salad garnish were interesting and distinctly-flavoured but very hard and dry so I only managed to consume one.
B had also wanted the sole but the waiter insisted that at least one of our party should have the Low Tide Monkfish as it was very good. The charred chunk of roasted fish was expertly-cooked; B enjoyed the juiciness and meatiness of it but we didn’t think it was earth-shattering. If I were him I would have been terribly annoyed to have been talked out of the sole.
The presentation was certainly a talking point – I guess the marine-themed decorations were supposed to add the wow factor but to me the shells (mussel gel and hard sugar), coral (seaweed tempura) and blue stars (orange gel) seemed a bit tacky, reminiscent of retro shell-embedded plastic toilet accessories. They also didn’t taste of much, apart from the sugar (what was that even doing on the dish??), which made the inclusion of a small side dish of even more shells and coral bizarre.
Surprisingly the best dish was the meat main (I am usually far more enamoured of starters) of Pigeon with Orange and Corn. It wasn’t a looker, but the pigeon was tender, succulent and cooked a perfect pink. Even B’s dad, who had remained quiet out of indifference throughout the meal, commented on superb cooking of the bird.
I also liked that there wasn’t too much extra going on – just a wedge of blood orange and a few cucumber pieces that both matched well with the pigeon.
The roasted leg that came with the accompanying salad garnish was a nice touch.
Desserts kicked off well. The Soup and Chocolate “between vineyards” was a lovely bowl of strawberry soup with basil sorbet and large chocolate “grapes” which when bitten into, released thick molten chocolate. The flavours complimented each other but the chocolate did overwhelm a little – had there only been two spheres it would have been perfect.
Next, our waitress laid out plates of clear liquid (honey water infused with anise) and spooned on red food colouring that made an amazing fractal design. We were informed it was the sauce for our next dessert – solid white chocolate shells that broke open to reveal oozing lemon curd.
I had a few bites before the fractal fluid was poured over. The mild, vaguely sweet syrup wasn’t offensive, but I preferred the dessert sans sauce. It did look cool though.
Pistachio and Beetroot Stone had the consistency of a solid chocolate sponge that I would liken to an Aero.
Every single one of the above desserts was served with a different scoop of ice cream or sorbet of varying flavours – all executed well, but like the numerous savoury sides were frustratingly superfluous.
I think the petits four we wrapped up with – a kitschy mix of chocolate nuts and bolts, mango gel lego pieces and popping candy covered cola jelly bottle caps – perfectly summed up the meal: innovative, thought-provoking presentation that unfortunately failed to follow through on the palate, rendering it all a bit gimmicky. A lot of style over substance.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad. The cooking itself, especially for the proteins, was spot-on and there has clearly been much care and thought put into each dish. However many of the dishes were overcomplicated and confused, with not enough editing and too much emphasis placed on aesthetics to the detriment of taste. Service could do with some work too – our main waiter relentlessly asked if we enjoyed each dish multiple times which was not only intrusive but came off more than a little insincere.
Near the end of our dinner Elena came to our table to chat. She was so passionate and genuine that we warmed to her immediately and it saddened me that I wasn’t quite as keen on her food. With its sterling reputation and many accolades, I had so wanted to be won over by Arzak. Such a shame I wasn’t.
Avda. Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273
San Sebastian, Spain
t. +34 943 278465