While others were involved, including such still well known chefs as Pedro Subijana and Karlos Arguiñano, no one has been more influential than Juan Mari Arzak in bringing contemporary cooking ideas and style to the Basque Country and the rest of Spain. The movement started in 1975 with these Basque chefs and others introducing concepts of nouvelle cuisine from France. These quickly became adapted to the formidable Basque pantry and culinary traditions. The Restaurant Arzak has been at the forefront of the Spanish vanguard ever since. Though he remains intimately involved in the restaurant and works in tandem with his daughter, Elena Arzak is the one who is now the driving force of creativity within the restaurant along with key members of their staff such as Igor Zalakain and Xabi Gutiérrez, both of whom have been there for years.
I first visited Arzak in 2004 and had a remarkable meal, the highest light of a trip that also included Carme Ruscalleda’s Sant Pau and the late Santi Santamaria’s El Raco de Can Fabes, amongst others. I remember being dazzled by flavors, colors and dazzling pyrotechnic displays of Modernist technique. It was a meal that was as much fun as it was delicious. This past spring was my first return to San Sebastien since that trip and I was determined to revisit Arzak, now firmly in Elena’s hands. I went for dinner with my son, Andrew, the evening after an incredible lunch at Mugaritz. As such, neither of us were particularly hungry, but that was a fact that we both forgot as the evening progressed.
When we arrived, we were greeted by Elena herself, who took us on a tour of the kitchen, their creative spaces, the wine cellar and the dining rooms, much of which had changed since my previous visit. The restaurant is situated in an old building that was originally constructed in 1897 by Juan Mari’s grandparents to serve as a wine shop and tavern . Under Juan Mari’s parents, the building was transformed into a restaurant and began to gain notoriety. Juan Mari began working with his mother at the restaurant in 1966 after finishing his culinary studies in Madrid. He won his first Michelin star in 1974, his second in 1977 and the third not until 1989. After studying in Luzerne, Switzerland and working at many of the top restaurants in Europe through the 1990’s including elBulli, Pierre Gagnaire and others, Elena returned to Arzak in the new Millenium to work beside her illustrious father. In 2007 they finished a major re-design of the restaurant. Elena’s husband, an architect, designed a major overhaul of the kitchen and along with their longstanding interior designers, a significant revamping of the dining rooms, which are now much more in tune with the food coming from the kitchen. The designers accomplished an interesting feat in the dining room. They have taken an industrial look of concrete, metal and glass and somehow made it feel warm and inviting.
The first bite to grace our table was these filament wrapped sticks. Kataifi is shredded phyllo dough and is of Greek origen. Here the filaments are wound around a pudding made from scorpionfish. Crisp and flavorful, this bright yellow morsel started us off well. It was followed in rapid succession by a slew of additional bites including a chawan mushi- like bowl of corn, figs and crunchy morcilla bedecked with flower petals on top, anchovies marinated with strawberries, yellow crispy rice with mushroom and balls of tomato and Spanish ham with a mint infusion presented sitting upon a dry ice cloud. These bites, one presented more interestingly than the next produced a flurry of flavor, washed down with a nice, dry Palomino Fino sherry from Tio Pepe.
As we waited for the first official course, my son and I ate some of the delicious bread served with some Spanish olive oil in a small well on the plate. I have maintained for some time that if a great restaurant is going to bother to serve bread, the bread better be damn good. Arzak didn’t disappoint. This is a problem I rarely encounter in the better restaurants of Europe, though it is far too common in the United States. If I’m going to be tempted to use precious gastric space on bread, I don’t want to regret it.
We were poured a Chardonnay from Chivite in Navarra, the 2005 from their Colección 125. This was full of oak, a trait that I don’t particularly favor as it has a tendency to obscure the characteristics of the grapes within, masking their inherent flavors. That was true for this wine. While it had flavor, all I could really taste was the wood.One more amuse came our way – this one demonstrating a bit of culinary “black” humor. Clams with “Chapapote.,” which was meant to visually evoke an oil slick or tar in dark reference to The Gulf oil spill and other environmental disasters. Fortunately, the dish did not taste at all as if it came from such an origin. It was in reality quite delicious. Were all oil spills like this, they wouldn’t be considered such disasters. A cromlech is a stone obelisk like the towers at Stonehenge, many examples of which can be found around the Basque Country. This first course was meant to evoke their timeless mystery. Indeed, just calling them by that name evokes a sense of mystery as I dare say few patrons know what a “cromlech” is until after they look it up (like I had to do). The main ingredient of the shell of the cromlech was a flour made from cassava, which was mixed with some huitlacoche. Powders of coffee and tea were used to give the black, moss-like coloration and other powders including parsley, onion and sea urchin were spread around the dish. It was prepared and twice fried to achieve a crisp, though fragile exterior. To eat the dish, it was suggested that we slide a fish spoon underneath and turn it over to eat like an ice cream cone. The interior filling of foie gras and onions was soft, hot and delicious. This was a spectacular preparation that was witty, evocative and totally satisfying. A signature of a meal at Arzak is a dish featuring a locally farmed egg laid that very day. The details may vary except for that. This iteration married the low temperature poached egg with mussels. Laying directly on top of the egg was a gel disc of mussel with pimentón and atop that another flash-fried kataifi, this one of parsley and seaweed. To the side lay a mussel in an escabeche. The yolk was a brilliant orange and made a wonderful sauce for the gel and kataifi. This was a delightfully Spanish dish that combined a variety of textures and flavors into a harmonious whole. While I was not entirely enamored of the wine on its own, it worked well with the dishes with which it was paired. The next dish was one of imagination and imagery. The monkfish was coated with a mojo of onions, almonds and monkfish liver. This mojo was continued onto the plate evoking the sandy beach. All the components of the dish were edible including shells made in silicone molds with mussels, sugar, salt and seaweed. The small, orange balls meant to resemble roe were made from red pepper, the red strips were fried seaweed and the blue stars were made from Curacao. While this was a bit of an odd concoction, it actually worked. It was playful, fun and tasty. It wouldn’t have taken much to throw this dish into deeper water, but to the kitchen’s credit, it kept everything balanced and tasty. The monkfish, in particular, was delicious with perfect texture. fractal geometric shape. The bottom layer, or hidromiel, was cold and made from water, honey, star anise, birch sugar and xantham gum. The red liquid was a warm solution made with vodka, water, sugar and carminic acid from cochinilla dye, a natural colorant taken from a particular beetle in South America. This was very cool, but not the end of the story. The hidromiel was lightly stirred together to make a streaked slurry and spooned over lemon “sculptures”, which were basically shaped lemon ice cream. The sculptures had been coated with white chocolate, chili pepper and a touch more cochinilla and sat atop a base of crushed cookie. The net effect was startling. I very much enjoy a dish that can make me laugh and swoon at the same time. The citrus acidity of the lemon broke up the general sweetness of the dish and left it with great balance.
The meal ended with some clever and tasty petits fours shaped like nuts and bolts, but we didn’t take it at our table. Partway through our meal, I recognized a gentleman who had been seated at a table close to us as Carlo Petrini, the Founder and leader of Slow Food, an organization near and dear to my heart. I had met Mr. Petrini several times before, most recently last fall at Eataly in NYC. When I went to say hello to him, he invited us to join them at their table, where they were at about the same point in their meal as we were. We managed to close the restaurant several hours later having chatted well into the night!
Arzak is a unique restaurant. It has a long family tradition, which under Juan Mari Arzak gained international notoriety from his fun loving approach to modern food. He is one of the people who squarely placed Spain in the center of modern world gastronomy and did so without taking himself too seriously. One of the distinct pleasures of Arzak is that it is not a restaurant that presents its food on an altar for worship. It is a luxurious restaurant, where, much like it’s cousin. elBulli, one goes to have fun and truly enjoy every aspect of the meal. At Arzak, that is represented by how the food is presented on a plate. It is not enough that the food be delicious – it is. It also must, and does, excite the senses and the mind. The food is vibrant and colorful, affording a sort of multi-sensory synesthesia. Some may decry the approach as gimmickry, but I strongly disagree and suggest that those individuals are missing the point. Pleasure should involve all the senses and at Arzak it does, with the possible exception of the aural senses. Unlike Heston Blumenthal’s famous beach sounds from an ipod while eating a plate inspired by the beach, the Arzaks have not utilized this approach (to my knowledge). Rather their food is intensely visual and focused on color as a sensory adjuvant. It works for me!