Arzak, Saint Sebastián

September 25, 2008

Arzak was founded in 1897 as a tavern in a town to the east of San Sebastián by the great-grandparents of the current chef, Elena Arzak. As the city gradually expanded to envelope the town the founder’s son expanded it and, after his early death, his widow continued the tradition. She trained her son, Juan Mari, who took over in 1967. The first Michelin star came in 1974, the second three years later. In 1989 Arzak became the first three-star restaurant in Spain. Juan Mari is still present at Arzak, but we could see that his daughter Elena is now in charge. When Linda and I went on September 17, 2008, we were staying at the Villa Soro, an excellent, newly renovated, small hotel on the same street in the east of Saint Sebastián as Arzak, so we were able to walk the half kilometre between the two.
The Villa Soro
On arriving at Arzak we were warmly welcomed and seated in the modernistic downstairs dining room, which was already half-full at 9:00 and was for the foreigners. We could see others going to an upstairs dining room later, who we assumed were the Spanish clientèle. I had read that foreigners could expect to be seated upstairs, but I guess they switched. I object to this division when in France, but, speaking only a bit of Spanish, I wasn’t upset. There was an English à la carte menu, but the English tasting menu was sketchy. It was described to us with the few choices. Later, with the bill, we were given a Spanish menu in detail which I have used below. The tasting menu was 155 €. We ordered glasses of the house Cava and, at the suggestion of the friendly sommelier, a bottle of 1995 La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904, which was okay. I expected better from Arzak‘s famous cellar.

  

Five amuse-gueules followed: 
Pollopera, Congelado de humo con jugo de frutas

A piece of chicken and “frozen smoke” on what seemed like a fruit gazpacho. Nice.
Raíz de loto con mousse de arraitxiki, Fosil de verdel, Arroz crujiente con hongos

Rockfish in a lotus root sandwich, another fish thing and a rice crust filled with mushrooms. They were all good.
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Then the menu courses started:
Higos con aceite de foie

Raw foie gras had been melted on top of rounds of fresh figs. It was terrific. If figs are not in season, they use apples.

    

Linda’s next course was
Bogavante con aceite de oliva « extra blanco. »


Olive oil is mixed with tapioca to make “extra white olive oil,” a white powder base for the lobster and a sauce of Martini Rosso, saffron and onion. The exotic green salad was just right to balance the richness.

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My second was
Cigalas sobre liquen de hongos y algas

Seaweed and mushrooms formed the base for the langoustine with sweet corn. In the bowl the sauce was drier and pea shoots dominated the flavor.
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Our third course was
Del huevo a la gallina

A very fresh egg had been enclosed in an edible membrane with shards of delicious ham and poached. Ham in Spain always seems to taste much better than Spanish ham we buy in France or NY. Here it made the dish excellent.

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Fourth
Lenguado arcilla

A roll of sole was served on a base of edible clay (yes, really) with a little pistachio cake. Excellent.

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Fifth
Pichón con puzle de goji

Two delicious pieces of pigeon were served with a glaze, goji berries and puzzle pieces of potato and tomato. Goji berries are a Chinese product that they have hyped as being a Himalayan health food. They do have a nice sweet and sour flavor. The crisp salad was a needed offset to the rich pigeon.
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Linda’s first dessert
Melocotón con zahareña
The peach was cooked with zahareña, a medicinal herb which only grows along the Spanish Mediterranean coast.
 
My first dessert
Tizón
I don’t remember what was in these coals, but they were good.
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Linda’s second dessert
Piña asada pomposa


Liquid nitrogen was poured on a piña colada in the glass making it foam onto the grilled piece of pineapple. A fun tropical dish.

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My second dessert
Dulce lunático

I never did find out what this crazy dessert was, but I enjoyed it.
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Mignardises
The cubes in front were pineapple; there is chocolate on the right. I do not remember what was in the glasses.  

The service was excellent and the foreigners around us not annoying. During the meal Juan Mari came around once and chatted with us for a while. Elena came twice; the first time she asked where we were from etc and we chatted about a French restaurant. The second time was late in the meal; she stayed and answered my several questions on ingredients etc. They are certainly exceptional people. Juan Mari worked in classical restaurants in France to finish his education and added those techniques to Basque cooking to bring Arzak up to its renown and third star. Elena has worked in top restaurants around Europe, including El Bulli,and is continually updating the recipes. Juan Mari also hired two chefs to lead the research and development of his cuisine and they are still working with Elena. There is a laboratory on site.  

We had a very good time at Arzak and really enjoyed the cuisine.

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