Arzak, San Sebastian Spain
We came, we ate, we raved about Arzak. Four years on and we returned.
This time the dishes were very different. The trademark egg course remained, but the style of the cuisine seemed to have moved on. A touch of Danish/Noma influence perhaps? Overall I'm not sure if it's a case of gastronomic nostalgia always winning out, but we felt our first visit had greater momentous impact.
We sat at the Chef's Table this time, under rainbow shards of coloured glass and facing the brightly lit main pass. Elena and her father Juan Mari Arzak both came to say 'hello' but were otherwise rarely seen, leaving explanations of each course in the hands of a waitress whose heavily accented English was often difficult to understand.
The language barrier weighed heavily on my appreciation of dinner, as it was often impossible to understand exactly what we were eating nor to appreciate the flavours and technical skills woven into each dish. While some dishes stood alone in being delicious, others were lost on us.
On my first visit to Arzak the dishes seemed complicated at first, with foams and pastes and other forms of kitchen wizardry very much in evidence. But in fact simplicity won out as the tastes and compositions were classic, easy to understand and often locally inspired. We could relate to what was on our plates. This key aspect of our dining experience was sadly missing this time.
Dinner was still enjoyable, certainly, but disappointingly not the tongue tingling sensation I remembered from my first experience. Perhaps three time's a charm?
Beans, bacon and chestnut. I tasted black beans and the thin crisp of iberico fat floating on top. Chestnuts added a subtle sweetness.
Anchovy and strawberry. Served on a slick of fruity balsamic flavoured something. Fragrant, salty sweet and delicious.
Red codfish. On a spiral of crisp pastry, with onion seeds I think? Some kind of emulsified sauce. Salty fish really. With crispy bits.
Kabrarroka pudding with kataifi. Local fish mousse wrapped in fine kataifi hairs and deep fried.
Chorizo with tonic. A purée of chorizo wrapped in a thin slice of mango and bathed in tonic water. Rather recycled presentation, but a lovely little mouthful.
Cromlech, manioc and huitlacoche. Y'What? Okay a cromlech is apparently Welsh for a megalithic or large stone structure. Manioc is better known as cassava, which formed the casing of our mini megalith and was apparently 'hydrated with huitlacoche', a corn fungus used in Mexican cuisine that has a smoky, earthy flavour. Having never tasted this before I couldn't identify it. I did taste the strands of sweet caramalised onions inside the cassava casing and the smooth foie gras paste, but none of the green tea mentioned on the menu.
Hemp, mustard and lobster. With crisp hemp bread and mustard vinaigrette. Lovely lobes of butter poached lobster, paired with sorrel leaves hiding an English mustard emulsion, crunchy hemp seeds baked into a sweet salty crisp and lobster stock clothes pegs. We weren't sure about the relevance of the latter! The dish also came with a refreshing little salad of micro leaves with tapioca pearls, hemp seeds and pink slices of grapefruit.
Oysters with a sea crust. The alternative to lobster. These were browned on one side giving them a half cooked texture and served with paprika fronds. The whole effect was rather too salty.
Ovo-lacto. Egg with a semi crispy shell and baobab, served with lactic leaves and curds. Again y'what? So as far as we could decipher, the egg was low temperature poached and coated in breadcrumbs. The greyish crisps were dehydrated milk, served with a bubble of liquid gorgonzola, a slice of idiazabal cheese marinated in port and an 'oca de lada' leaf. There was no trasnlation for the latter, sourced from Koppert Cress, who import the leaf from Thailand under their own brand name. According to Arzak with was to prevent anyone from identifying it. Stranger and stranger.
Monkfish green witch. Or monkfish served in a green balloon.
Following removal of the rice cracker balloon. The monkfish was beautifully cooked - soft and juicy, meaty without any rubbery bounce. Served with cloves of confit garlic and a parsley seaweed sauce.
Alternatively, there was white sole served white seaweed and a green sea vegetable sauce. The firm and flavourful sole fillets became the highlight of dinner for those who had it.
The Kobe's beer. Another hard to understand wordplay description. What looked like a large lollipop or a cutlet of some sort turned out to be a patty of minced Kobe beef, sourced locally from the first generation of Wagyu cattle bred from a herd imported from Japan. It was cooked medium rare and served with a liquorice bark 'bone', beetroot onions, pomegranate seeds, parmesan crisp and a mildly bitter beer sauce. I found the minced meat to be tender and tasty, but nothing extraordinary. It surprised me to find that the main dish was effectively a burger filling.
Served alongside the Kobe beef, a dish of sweet leek cake and deep fried leaves. Again, nice but not really much of note.
Playing marbles with chocolate. Chocolate marbles with amaranth and oregano sauce. The chocolate balls contained liquid in their centres. I have always liked puffed amaranth, which looks like tiny baby pieces of popcorn, but the chocolate tasted a bit strange, I suppose this was the oregano influence.
The alternative to chocolate marbles - Roots, fruits and seeds. A thin layer of white chocolate flavoured with parsley filled with black chocolate emulsified with kuzu (a starch used by the Japanese as a thickener) and lime flavour, served with Frangelico and Aperol balls.
Golden footprint and ladybird. Caramalised fruits served under black sesame bread (the footprint), pepper and liquorice ladybird filled with vanilla yoghurt pannacotta and olive oil cristal. Caramel crumbs. Served alongside was an Indian gooseberry ice cream.
The alternative to the ladybird dish - Black apple. Sautéed apple finished with an aspect of truffle and apricot. Served alongside a basil sorbet with sweet seeds.
Chocolate ironmongery petit fours.
Av Alcalde Elósegui, 273
20015 San Sebastián-Donostia
Tel: 943 27 84 65