Our trip was entering its home stretch, but we still had a bit more time in San Sebastián, as we returned from a stellar fish-based meal at Kaia-Kaipe in the nearby fishing town of Getaria, starting with a visit to a three Michelin star restaurant.
Since San Sebastián is a city of more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in Europe, we had to experience at least one of its three star restaurants on this trip. I had been to Arzak and Mugaritz (only two stars, but deserving of three), leaving two yet to be explored. The trip’s finances dictated that we could only do one of either Akelarre or Martin Berasetagui. Both chefs are important figures in contemporary Basque and Spanish cuisine and both were attractive choices. Between the two, Gerry and I randomly chose the former, Akelarre.
Akelarre, which translates as a witches’ meeting place or place of magic, is one of the original Spanish Vanguardista restaurants and is located on Monte Igueldo overlooking San Sebastián and the Cantabrian Sea. Opened in 1974, Pedro Subijana came on board as the Chef de Cuisine in 1975, making forty years that he has been the chef, subsequently becoming the restaurant’s owner as well. Over the years, Subijana, along with his Basque compatriots, Juan Mari Arzak and later Martin Berasetagui, pioneered, the New Basque Cuisine, that helped set the tone for the eventual breakthrough of Ferran Adriá, elBulli and the revolutionary Spanish vanguardia. Akelarre earned its third Michelin star in 2006. This particular evening was an personally important one for Chef Subijana, as it was both his birthday and his wedding anniversary!
We had asked for a tasting menu that would combine Akelarre classics as well as some newer dishes. Our very first taste was a riff on the classic cocktail, the “Bloody Mary.” This was tasty, but didn’t astonish me the way similar reconfigured cocktails had at elBulli.
A series of snacks were set in front of us with instructions. First was the “Potato and Prawn Amber,” a crisp that emulated fossils set in ancient tree sap turned into precious jewels. In this case, the “fossils” were slices of potato with prawn cream set in between as a sandwich. It was a very pleasant and enjoyable bite.
Olives stuffed with a cream of anchovy and green pepper brought to mind the famous faux olives of the Adrias and elBulli. The difference is that this was not so much a play on Vanguardist trompe l’oeil chemistry, as it appeared more one of old style painstaking manual technique. While neither as exciting nor as delicious as the elBulli style “spherical” olives, this was nevertheless clever and tasty.
The elBulli olives were one of the first things I had ever eaten that I was instructed to make sure that I ate “in one bite.” That instruction was given here for the “Stuffed Mussels” that gave forth burst of maritime salinity, all while having the appearance and make-up of a Nordic aebleskiver.
In most places foie gras is served with a sweet accompaniment, but as my own sweet tooth has diminished in recent years, I have come to appreciate the virtues of more savory foie preparations, such as this one built within a salad, using the foie itself as faux “leaves” amongst the real ones. The salad contained additional elements to provide textural and flavor contrasts. This was one of the most successful dishes of the meal.
The next course was my least favorite of the night and one that didn’t work for me at all. I love good sardines. One of my favorite quotes is from Ferran Adría, who said, “A good sardine is better than a not very good lobster.” I fully agree. The problem is, that as constituted in this dish, the sardine was not very good, even though it likely started out that way. Perhaps it was the steaming of the fish? Perhaps, I just didn’t like the fish’s liver lying underneath the crisp skin? Perhaps, and most likely, I didn’t find the pairing with cucumber and nasturtium to be at all successful. I had a hard time eating this dish.
Things started looking up with the next course, however. My favorite course of the evening was also perhaps the most obviously Vanguardist. A grilled langoustine (aka “scampi,” “Dublin Bay Prawn) was in the center of the plate, lying along with some herbs atop a dissolvable “oblate” pouch. Lining the bowl were discs of lightly smoked monkfish.
A green broth made from the heads of the scampi was poured atop the enveloped scampi, dissolving the pouch and spreading the herbs and other flavor elements throughout the dish to mix with the monkfish. The flavors were sweet and delicate.
A side element of this course was a tempura scampi head (minus the large claws) to be eaten in its entirety. This was an excellent blend of crisp texture and prawny flavor that helped to truly complete this fine dish.
Stylistically similar in appearance to the foie gras dish served earlier, the dish couldn’t have been much more different in terms of its flavor and textural profiles. This quasi Ibero-Italian dish was creative and enjoyable, while ultimately being a “comfort food” dish. This was one of the Akelarre “classics”
Another of the classics came next, the “Whole-Grain Red Mullet with Sauces Fusilli.” The dish was called “whole-grain” because it incorporated the entire fishin various forms within the context of a relatively straightforward appearing piece of fish. While extremely clever, I didn’t particularly enjoy the fish as much as I had expected or hoped to. The same was true for the sauce-containing fusilli made from gelatin.The plate came with three different “kinds” of fusilli, the hollow gelatin corkscrews having been injected with sauces of parsley, soy and garlic. This was a dish that I really wanted to love and do, intellectually. Unfortunately, it ultimately disappointed me on the palate, though not nearly as much as the sardine dish.
One of my favorite things to eat just about anywhere in Spain is suckling pig. Most of this dish worked just fine. The suckling pig was beautifully cooked – the meat juicy and flavorful, the skin crisp and delectable and the emulsion along with the confit garlic a total savory delight. A potato soufflé shaped like a pig was good. The bone, however, while a clever conceit, lost me, as it was a sweet candy shell filled with, I believe, some of the suckling pig. For me, this super-sweet element destroyed, what would otherwise have been a superb dish.
Gin and Tonics are ubiquitous in Spain and often taken as digestivos. Here one came as a reconstructed pre-dessert with a jelly, a juniper sauce and a few accents as might be found in a bespoke Spanish Gintonic. This type of treatment, at its best, is better than the original. While this was good and fun, it certainly wasn’t an improvement on the fully liquid examples available all over the country.
The final dessert was a mix of traditional and Vanguardist technique. One of the more successful dishes of the evening, it combined puff pastry, apple cream, praline and edible apple flavored paper. None of the apples used for this dish were fresh, though I am unaware of the specific techniques used to convey the apple flavors present.
I suppose that this was bound to happen at some point during the trip. The sheer quantity and quality of the food caught up to me. I wasn’t very hungry to begin with for this meal and having been a long-time fan of Vanguardist cooking, the surprise element that can really elevate a Vanguardist meal, wasn’t so strong for me. The best part of the meal for me was sharing it with several members of the group, who had not previously had experience with this type of Spanish Vanguardist food presentation. Watching their reactions of surprise and child-like joy, reminded me of why this style of cooking appealed to me in the first place and why, under different circumstances, it still does. For those members of the group, the meal was a huge success and no disappointment at all. I was also reminded why all subjective criticism, including my own, must always be taken with a grain of salt. A positive or negative restaurant experience isn’t just a one-sided phenomenon. As much as the food, service and ambiance are all extremely important components, the personal aspects of experience, mood and satiety that a diner brings to the table, not to mention the company situated around the diner, are all at least equally important.
On the way back to the hotel, we noticed that Dickens Bar, the purported origin of the Spanish Gintonic, as we now have come to know it, was open. Needless to say, there were at least a few of us who had to give it a try, especially as the cocktail is considered to be primarily a digestivo in Spain..
Maestro Fernández supplied the flair. The cocktails, not necessarily better than those that have followed in other places, were still superb and indicative of why and how they became so popular. Sipping them in the upstairs lounge provided a satisfaction that only being in a site of culinary/mixological history can provide and was a great way to close out the night of what was another overall fantastic Basque day.
Once again, the next morning dawned bright and beautiful. We would be leaving San Sebastian/Donostia before too long, but the morning was simply too beautiful to not take advantage of. The previous morning I had strolled to and along Playa La Concha, but on this day, I strolled in the opposite direction, crossed the river, passed by the infamous Kuursal cultural center and descended onto the Playa Zurriola, where much of the local surfing and water-borne athletic pursuits take place.
It was a great morning for just walking and soaking up the sights, which were legion, from sun splashed boulders to old men fishing from the jetty to dogs frolicking in the sand. San Sebastián is a beautiful city, amply demonstrated on days like this.
I hadn’t had breakfast yet and despite the excesses of the previous day, I had developed an appetite. I circled back towards the hotel and the plaza outside of La Bretxa market and rediscovered the bar that provided us some delicious vermuts on our first night in Donostia, Bar Gorriti. As then, it was abuzz with activity and all sorts of delicious looking pintxos lined along the bar.
I knew that we would be eating again and quite well at that in the not too distant future, so I kept my widened eyes in check and limited my selections. A skewer of albacore tuna with artichoke hearts, peppers and olives in a vinaigrette was not something that I would typically have for breakfast, but it was superb.
A bocadillo of French style omelet topped with Spanish ham, called a “Francesa con jamón” was equally satisfying, yet much more typical of my usual breakfast aspirations. I could easily have gone through quite a few more items, but, alas, it was nearly time to leave and other fine meals stood in the offing.
Once again, San Sebastián/Donostia excelled in every way. It has become one of my favorite places anywhere because it has everything and all of it of incredible quality, from the food and drink, to the climate, to the sites, to the people and more. To Donostia, I say, thank you, or eskerrik asko!