After a disappointing experience at Arzak, we feared that dinner the following evening at Mugaritz would again fall mournfully short of expectations. However as we stepped out of the taxi onto the tranquil verdant grounds, we instinctively knew this meal would be different. The two Michelin-starred restaurant made headlines last year when a kitchen fire forced it to shut for four months. Despite the blow, standards have held strong post-restoration; in fact Mugaritz managed to climb two places, from 5th to 3rd in this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards.
Situated at the border of Errenteria and Astigarraga (a 20-minute drive from central San Sebastián), the complex boasts a herb garden, an expansive kitchen that joins onto an equally spacious dining room, and a pretty leafy paved courtyard, where the host led us for pre-dinner drinks and nibbles.
Having discovered the refreshing local aperitif Txakoli (a popular tipple in Pintxo bars) the day before, we ordered two glasses and sat back to admire the surrounding greenery and breathe in the sweet country air. The remote location is appropriately idyllic, a reflection of the emphasis on nature in Andoni Luis Aduriz’s ‘techno-emotional’ cuisine that utilises scientific techniques to accentuate, but not overshadow, each season’s bounty.
After a brief chat to ascertain our dietary restrictions – “we eat everything” – we were presented with what appeared to be (and was described to us as) beer, olives and a few sprigs of thyme. It turned out that the beer was a warm earthy Toasted Legume Broth, and the olives were powdery soft Tapa Beans coated in a glossy Olive paste.
Next came fragile sheets of Starch and Sugar Crystal, artfully painted with Pepper Praline and blobs of Spider Crab mousse. The savoury/sweet combination and crisp snap of sugar was a real delight. As the last shards melted on my tongue it started drizzling so we quickly downed our wine and dashed inside for the remainder of our courses.
We took our seats and were handed two envelopes: ‘150 min… submit!’ and ‘150 min… to rebel!’ to choose between. I chose to rebel, excited to see if picking one over the other would alter my dining experience like the ‘choose your own adventure’ books I used to read as a child. It didn’t – each revealed a different card with words that are supposed to adjust your mindset for the food to come. Maybe I’m not enough of an intellectual, but it was all a bit confusing and anti-climatic.
As I crunched into tempered White Asparagus stalks dusted with fragrant Chrysanthemum petals, enjoying their elegant simplicity, B set to work choosing a wine. He eventually settled on a Krug NV – champagne we find, is often a good foil for degustation menus, especially when the dishes within are varied and unknown.
A small cluster of Tear Peas lightly-dressed with Mascarpone and topped with a nest of thin sorrel ribbons, was a grassier mouthful than expected – the tiny green jewels tasting intensely of pea shoots rather than sweet baby peas.
Silky Bread Stew that followed was a sophisticated take on a local peasant dish. A bowlful of soothing clean flavours, the mild garlic soup was infused with Pink Geranium Leaves and crowned with beautiful soft strands of freshly-picked Crab meat. It would have been even better without the chunks of soggy bread, but I guess those are integral to the original dish.
We were asked to decipher on our own a flower-adorned mess of brown wiry threads. We guessed Beef Cheek, but were informed that it was deep-fried shredded Beef Tongue, piled high on a dab of garlic and onion purée, and garnished with chive flowers. Tasty, and more dry than greasy – not disimilar to a good jerky.
Mystery dish done, the plate was whisked away and replaced by a heavy mortar filled with spices and mixed seeds. We were instructed to work the pestle while our waiter fetched the other components to finish the dish. I obediently started grinding and was rewarded with the spicy aroma of pink peppercorn.
Before my arm had time to tire he returned with fresh herbs and a clear fish broth, both of which promptly found their way into the mortar. We drank the delicious liquor straight from the mortar; the vibrant herbs (mint, lemon thyme, basil) really brought it alive and made it sing.
B and I were divided on the Pork Noodles with “Arraitxiki” (a Basque sea bream) Extract and Toasted Rice. B thought the gummy ropes under-seasoned but I liked that the focus was on their unusual elastic texture. It reminded me of Chinese cold cuts, specifically pig’s ear, so wasn’t surprised to discover that the noodles were fashioned from slow-cooked Iberian pig skin.
The Daily Catch of flaky local Rockfish was simply accented with shredded chard and a dot of Smoked Goat’s Milk Butter, letting the fish speak for itself.
Another fish dish “Textures of Coastal Fish” comprised of a few more elements but was still incredibly simple conceptually. The plate showcases the Scorpion Fish with different parts of the fish prepared in a variety of ways – even the fins were fried and added for crunch.
The most unique and memorable offering was the Sheets of “Entrecula” with Grilled Steak Emulsion and Salt. The cut that surrounds the the kidney toughens when cooked so can only be briefly seared, and the piece I got was perfectly executed – tender rare meat with wonderful robust beefy flavour. The emulsion (fat from the cartilage) added a smokiness and the box of sea salt, left for us to take away as a momento after seasoning was a thoughtful touch.
Ossobucco with Toasted Lobster Emulsion featured soft gelatinous veal tendon in a rich shellfish oil. A nice play on surf and turf, but I imagine not everyone’s cup of tea.
We were given a quick tour of the kitchen to meet the chef and see the brigade in action before being served the Quail Armagnac (an intense game consommé), intended as the prelude to sweets. We were then offered an extra course of either cheese or main, and we choose to stay on savoury as we still had some of the light spicy Dominio de Tares, Bem di Bre 2005 the sommelier poured for our meat course.
I was mighty glad we forsook cheese when our bonus dish of Iberian Pork Tail with Crispy Leaves and Toasted Sweet Millet Oil arrived. The tail had been boned and flattened, and the skin roasted till crisp, yet still moist and slightly sticky. The sauce was deep concentrated pork broth that seasoned both the meat and the cornflake-like barley cracker “leaves” -porky heaven.
The kitchen’s creativity really came to the fore with desserts. The first, a palate cleansing Lemon Cream with Daikon Radish and Unsweetened Sugar (kaolin) sounds strange on paper but worked exceedingly well – the mild vegetable coming together harmoniously with the gently acidic frozen cream.
Cool Vanilla Brioche (brioche-infused snow) and Toasted Cream was equally innovative and refreshing.
Most fun presentation-wise was the Broken Walnuts, toasted and salted with Cool Milk Cream and Armagnac Jelly. The chocolate walnut shells cracked open to reveal amber-hued Armagnac jelly which was a perfect sweet boozy foil to the goat’s cheese and milk ice cream. It was a great combination of flavours that was well-complemented by the thick toffee and caramel notes of the Fernando de Castilla Pedro Ximenez chosen for us by the sommelier.
Contently full I ordered a pot of gyokuro and sipped on the lukewarm brew while B sunk into the extensive digestifs menu with Nicolas, the sommelier (a lovely Frenchman who has previously held stints at Fat Duck and Vineyard at Stockcross), ordering first a Michel Couvreur whisky, then a 10-year old Clément Rum from Martinique.
Service was polished but completely unstuffy – the host of smiling waiters that looked after us were warm, amiable and knowledgeable. As was Nicolas, whose attentiveness puts the sommelier at Arzak to shame (the latter’s contribution to our meal was so negligible I failed to even mention him in the review). An unforgettable meal with consistently excellent dishes that were restrained, refined and clever in both taste and concept. It’s a great reminder that when it comes to good produce, there really is no need to gild the lily. Mugaritz easily ranks amongst the best restaurants we’ve ever dined at and I hope to return very soon.
Aludura Aldea 20, 20100,
t. +34 943 522 455