No matter how beautifully presented it may be, food is just fuel if it is not delicious. But, what is delicious? There is the brash, in your face deliciousness of food that is like the grinding beat of raucous rock and roll. I love that. There is also the subtle, contemplative deliciousness of the calm and cerebral music of Phillip Glass. I love that too. The food of Mugaritz is more like the latter. It is not the mosh pit flavor punch of driving rock and roll, which is not to say that it lacks flavor. No, the flavor is there, but it is more subtle, nuanced and cerebral. These are flavors, textures and concepts to ponder and savor. The dishes are evocative and surprising, but they are not made with hammers and chisels.
When one sits down at the table for a meal at Mugaritz, Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz offers a choice, laid out in two simple envelopes presented to each diner. The choice is simple – submit or rebel. With submission, Aduriz promises 150 minutes of sensation and emotion as well as the opportunity to contemplate. For rebellion, it isn’t pleasant. He says it will be a time of suffering. The diner’s decision is an internal one and may not be a conscious one. The food of Mugaritz is unlike any other. Little is what it seems and even less is familiar. We received a menu to go along with our meal, in which we read the inscription,
“The titles of the dishes not only describe what they consist of, but also what they contain implicitly, that which we would like there to be…evocative landscapes and moments, imaginary techniques and even new ingredients.”
For those unwilling to bend and expand their minds and senses, Mugaritz can indeed be an insufferable expanse of time. It is not comfort food. But, Aduriz is right, with submission comes an unforgettable experience.
My son and I arrived on a beautiful, sunny spring afternoon. We were seated outside for a cocktail. I ordered a Basque cider. Though I had met Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, one of the most genuinely warm and sympathetic people I know, a number of times before and a visit to Mugaritz had been at the top of my culinary agenda for a number of years, I had never previously been able to dine there. Unfortunately, I never made it to the pre-fire Mugaritz, but I was thrilled to finally be there. Sitting outside, basking in the sunshine and sipping the Basque cider with my son beside me felt good, very good.
Prior to our lunch we were taken to the kitchen to greet the chef and see how it had been rebuilt. I can’t comment on the kitchen from before the fire, but this one was stunning.
We were seated in a corner table overlooking the rest of the room, or at least the rest of the room that we could see that was unobscured by portable screens set up around the room to provide greater privacy to individual tables. Though the style was different – the wood at Mugaritz was lighter and modernist - the decor reminded me a little bit of that of noma. The wood gave a rustic feeling in both places with that at noma augmented by the furs and other Nordic accoutrements. Mugaritz also used white linen tablecloths, which placed it more firmly in the tradition of European elegant dining.
Each table had a fascinating centerpiece – a fractured, twisted plate, perhaps again emphasizing the dichotomy of rebellion versus submission.
Since we had driven there for lunch and still faced dinner that night at Arzak we did not wish to overdue the alcohol and decided to split a pairing between us with the pairing featuring wines from Spain and especially the regions around the Basque country. The first pour was a Txacolina from Beldui in Alava near Vittoria. Crisp, clean and elegant, the wine made with the Hondarribi Zuria grape had good acid and was low in alcohol. We had had a Txakolina the night before with pintxos in San Sebastien, but this was another animal entirely. That one was rustic and coarse, while this was just delightful.Our first snack was a thin crisp referred to as a “focaccia.” With the tomato and a taste of garlic, this ethereally light bite tasted like a pizza. I could have eaten a dozen or more but given that it was made with pueraria flour from a tuber from Thailand that supposedly is full of phytoestrogens and is purported to result in breast enlargement amongst other claims, perhaps it was best that I ate just one. I mentioned earlier that things are not necessarily what they appear to be at Mugaritz. What look like olives here are the beans. The texture was certainly bean like and quite a surprise when expecting an olive. This was similar in concept to Ferran’s famous spherical olive, but there one still got an olive, only with a surprising texture. Here, the olive was present as a paste surrounding the beans. For one inclined to rebel, the rebellion would likely start here, however, with a mind open to surprise and astonishment, this is where the fun began. Served with the “olives” this certainly looked like a traditional beer, however, the first clue that something was topsy-turvy was the fact that it was quite warm. This beer was, in fact, a broth made from toasted legumes and had its own, delicious and unique flavor. This sure looked like sea urchin and even tasted a bit like it, but this was spider crab. I believe this was the roe served raw. The praline and sugar crystal gave it a sweetness to balance the crab or was it the opposite?
The next wine was a nice dry chardonnay from the Alta Alella region of Catalunya. from the 2010 vintage, it was crisp and delicious.Tear peas, or what we know in the United States as snow peas. In the U.S. we typically eat the entire pea, but in Spain, I enjoyed this ingredient in many of the restaurants that we had visited since it was the height of the season. There, though, the peas were taken from their shells, presumably an arduous task given the quantities that were served. This dish was billed as insipid, but I would call it nuanced and subtle with the flavor coming primarily from the peas. The very small roe added a nice crunch and saltiness to this extremely elegant dish. This next course wasn’t one of illusion and mimicry. It was more of an interactive course. Like the fried duck egg at noma, this required the active involvement of the diner to fully come to fruition. The bowl was a mortar and we were each provided with a pestle to grind the seeds and spices that had been prepped and combined in the warm bowl. The aroma coming from the bowl was intoxicating. Once the seeds and spices were sufficiently ground, fresh herbs and then the fish broth were added by the waiter. This dish felt vaguely Middle Eastern or Arabic African to me as it’s aromas and flavors elicited back sense memories of spices and flavors from that part of the world.
This next wine moved us from the northeast of Spain to the northwest with a brilliant albariño, the 2008 Terra de Cálago from Benito Santos in Galicia’s Rias Baixas wine region. Wood had not been used to craft this wine, though it had been kept on its lees for an extended period.Andoni Luis Aduriz is, amongst other things, a master of texture, a fact that was supremely evident with the next dish. With the only information given that the filaments were made from two different ingredients one vegetable and one meat, we were left to guess what this dish was composed of. Feeling that the title offered some clue, I initially thought that perhaps it was catfish like I have had prepared in certain Thai preparations, but the waiter had specified meat. We felt strongly that we were correct about the title holding a clue and guessed duck tongue. We were right about it being tongue, but it wasn’t duck. It turned out that the filaments were a special preparation of beef tongue, which had been shredded and fried. The filaments were combined with chive flowers and lay atop a bed of onion and garlic puree. This was a fascinating, delicious and enjoyable dish on so many levels. We were submitting fully to Aduriz’s manipulations. Unlike the straight forward, but sublime cooking that we had experienced the afternoon before at Etxebarri, this was a cuisine of intense manipulation, but the manipulation was not just of the ingredients. We, the diners were also being manipulated. Our minds, eyes and palates were being toyed with, a realization and understanding that truly could go in only two directions as we were warned at the beginning of the meal. Kudzu is a vine that has become an invasive species in a number of locations, including quite prominently in areas of the southeastern United States. I first became aware of Aduriz’ harnessing this vegetation to create a flour to make gnocchi at the Culinary Institute of America’s Spain and the World Table World of Flavors Program in 2006. (If you click the link you will see photos from his demonstration. His assistant for the demonstration was Paco Morales, who is prominently featured, but not named in the photos). Here, Aduriz used the kudzu to make a “creamy” bread, upon which was served a ragout of artichoke and bone marrow. We were instructed to only eat the center of the bread and not the whole thing, which would be “too much.” The texture was the most interesting element of the dish. I could not ascertain individual flavors very well within this dish. For example, the artichoke, did not come across as such. The impression I came away with from this dish was food that would have been at home in a futuristic setting. It is a dish that tasted not so much of what it was, but of what it had become.
The next wine ping-ponged us back to the northeastern Spain and the Penedes Region in Catalunya. This was a complex white made from the Xarel-lo grape with overtones of anise and other flavors.My first thought upon seeing and eating this dish was that it was made from tendons in a fashion similar to a Szechuan dish of beef tendons. The texture, chewy and soft, was similar, but ultimately, my intuition was wrong. This was a preparation made from slow cooked Iberico skin. There was a rich, deep pork flavor that was complemented quite unusually, but nicely by the flavor of toasted cereal along with an extract made fromArraitxiki or sea bream. This was a delicious, hearty bread that was served in the middle of the menu. Odd timing, but welcome and good.
The fish was beautifully cooked with nice, but not aggressive seasoning. The stewed daikon radish and citrus spread added nice flavor. This was the most overtly conventional dish so far, though that is not to say that it was conventional.More fish followed, this time scorpion fish, a typically bony fish most notable for its use in fish stews such as bouillabaisse. This was a luscious filet accented with wonderfully crisp-fried fins and a fine, herb-scented broth.
Our wine selection shifted back a bit further west and north to the Rioja with a 2008 Predicador, a modern styled tempranillo. This was the third time I had been poured this wine in a restaurant. Interestingly enough, both other times was at the restaurants helmed by Paco Morales, Aduriz’ disciple. This was not a problem, however, as I enjoyed the wine each time I had it.What I thought was a dish of tendons earlier wasn’t, but this one brooked no doubt. This was all about texture as it was very gelatinous, coating the mouth with a rich film. More aggressively seasoned than most of the other dishes, I did not find a lobster flavor. Though challenging for a westerner, this was an extremely intriguing dish. It was well paired with the Predicador. The next course was entirely liquid. A combination of essence of quail and armagnac, this was packed with umami. Hot, rich and clear, this was probably the most traditionally delicious dish of the meal. I would have loved this classic bouillon-like sipper as a mid-winter quaff by a fireplace. Neither butter nor olive oil were apparent throughout our meal, nor were either used here. Aduriz likes to use toasted flavors, which in this case was present in the form of sweet millet oil. The gelatinous texture present in a few dishes was present once again here. Andoni had recently returned from a trip to China. Was this focus on gelatinous texture a souvenir or did it pre-date that trip? This delicious dish reminded me of pork trotters. This was the most flavor-rich dish of the savory courses with a very highly concentrated pork essence making up the sauce. The leaves were barley crackers. Though we had declined the offer of an additional course since we would be dining later that evening at Arzak this one was sent anyway. The cut of beef provided a lot of texture in addition to a lot of flavor. Spread with a “butter” made from roasted steak and with a sprinkle of salt from the box of sea salt that also served as a gift, this was indeed a tasty morsel and a superb way to finish out the savory component of our meal.
For Part 2, please see this.