Akelare, San Sebastián

September 21, 2008

Per capita, San Sebastián with its nearby hills, in the northeast corner of Spain, has more Michelin stars than any other place. So when Linda and I decided to spend three nights there, we had a hard time deciding where to eat. Akelare and Arzak are the two oldest of the multi-starred restaurants so we decided to try them even if they are not currently the trendiest. Both are Relais & Châteaux and have three Michelin stars.

Pedro Subijana opened Akelare in 1974. He has a reputation for excellent, inventive, sometimes whimsical cuisine. The restaurant is built on a spectacular setting on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean west of San Sebastián, but since one doesn’t dine until nine or later in Spain it was dark on our arrival September 16, 2008. We did see a full moon from the parking lot, which partially compensated for the loss of the view. The first four tables were English speakers. The Spaniards arrived about 10:00, but it never did fill up. We ordered glasses of Cava, or Spanish sparkling wine, for aperitif and looked at the English menu. There are two seven-course Gastronomic menus at 135 €. Everyone at the table does not have to have the same one, but we did. We knew that the portions would be small; we wanted to be able to discuss them and keep the blogging tasks manageable. With the help of the good sommelier we ordered a bottle of 1999 Pedrosa Gran Reserva, which was excellent.  The first amuse-gueules arrived in a cardboard box. When the cover was lifted, this is what we saw.

The green one was a vichyssoise-filled Bonbon. The others were various forms of deception called: Egg with Caviar, Black Pudding with Bread and Lamb in a Potato Cloud. All were interesting, but there was too much going on for me to take notes, even if I figured out what they really were. (The English menu translations are Akelare‘s, not mine.)
Then came (left to right) Rice Venere and “Camarón” little Tortilla, its sauce; Squid, Onion Soup with Parmesan; Gin and Tonic.

Gin and Tonic was a famous dessert with powdered juniper and quinine when it first went on the menu. Now it is just sipped out of a straw with the juniper powder at the open end as an amuse-gueule; I found it the least interesting of them.
Falso Risotto de Verduras, Yema Remolacha
False Risotto of Vegetables with Beetroot Yolk
Starting with the carrots on top going clockwise there were artichoke, chard, cauliflower and green beans, which were, surprisingly, the most flavorful. The “beet” in the center is an egg yolk poached in beet juice. A nice dish which brought out the best characteristics of each vegetable.
Ensalada de Pochas con sus Sacramentos
White Beans Salad and Griddle Accompaniments
In this faux breakfast dish the orange “egg” was filled with a cold white bean purée. The package was luscious pork belly which went well with the good, but plain, white beans.

Salmonete Integral con Fusili de Salsa
Integral Red Mullet with Sauce “Fusili”

These were superb pieces of fish, cooked just right with a dusting of spice rub on the crisp skin. On the Côte d’Azur we would call this fish rougets, which do not have as much flavor or meatiness as the cooler water version here. The gel coils had liquid flavors inside; the green one was basil.
Lomo de Cordero asado en los Tizones
Loin of Lamb roasted in Live Coal
The lamb was tender and flavorful. The coals were leeks and red peppers coated and charcoal grilled. This faux coal effect has become quite popular among the advanced chefs in the region. It is achieved by brushing on a concoction that may include squid ink, grape or eggplant skins. The ember on the right was lamb juice poured over a yellow mound of something which created a nice, non-sweet, somewhat caramelized sauce. Good dish.
Leche y Uva, Queso y Vino en Evolución
Milk and Grape, Cheese and Wine in parallel evolution

One ate these six cheese concoctions from left to right. The first with the green dots had almost no flavor, like some mozzarella, but they gradually became more intense. The yellow blob was like a stinky Chaorce and the one on the right a strong blue cheese of some kind. I really liked this.
Melocotón con Torrija y Almendras
Peach, French Toast and Almond

The peach was colored white chocolate filled with peach purée. The French toast was some kind of a bread pudding.
The mignardise was
Chorizo with Potato Chips, Bread and wine.
This was superb trompe l’oeil. The wine was a blend of juices. The potato chips were potato chips, but with a light anise flavor to them. The sausage was chocolate with pinenuts rolled in powdered sugar, giving it the appearance of a hard, spicy sausage. The bread was a sweet brioche.
The chef came around after the meal and chatted with us in French. He regrets that French is no longer the region’s second language, as it was when he was young. His lively personality fits with the whimsy of his presentation.
The obvious question is whether the cuisine would have been better without the fun. I do not think so. His experimentation with forms goes along with creative flavor combinations. It is obviously tricky, but I think he succeeds.
The full moon was still shining as we left and drove down the hill to the city.

One Response to “Akelare, San Sebastián”

  1. Laurent V Says:

    Hmm, the dishes are quite disturbing, looks more surprising and ludic then Berasategui but maybe less accurate or balanced ? Interesting anyway, thanks for the report. I believe that Arzak and Mugaritz will be one level above … looking forward to your next reports now 🙂

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