March 18, 2017
A stunning glass edifice above the sea. Two large mysterious red lamps, elegant as tulips, light your way to the door. Approaching San Sebastian’s Akelare, you have no doubt that you are about to enter a temple of food.
But it is more than that. Chef Pedro Subijana is a kitchen wizard who delights in surprising you. Nothing at his restaurant is what it appears to be. A parade of appetizers greets you. First the Bloody Mary up above, a gorgeous clash of tomato, celery and vodka. It is followed by “diabolical butter” to spread onto “colorful bread.”
And olives, that are not mere olives, but burst into your mouth in a great gasp of anchovy liquid.
Now the real show begins. A captain arrives bearing a tray of shrimp, which he proceeds to douse with Orujo, a pomace brandy (100 proof, it’s the local equivalent of marc or grappa). With a dramatic flourish he sets it on fire, sending a whoosh of flame leaping into the air. He quickly smothers it, allowing the flames to die. The result is a few stunning moments of picking the creatures up by their tails as you devour the soft, slick flesh, and then suck the succulent heads.
The show is not over. Next comes “carpaccio of pasta”. This offers layers of texture: pasta, peppers, mushrooms and cheese that combine in the mouth to truly resemble raw meat.
Another vegetarian dish appears: chickpeas, potato and truffle, a glamorous smush of flavor.
The captain is back now for another display of showmanship. He presents filets of anchovy – and what fabulous anchovies they have here in San Sebastian – and proceeds to “cook” them by smothering them in muslin bags containing hot salt. The result is something quite extraordinary: the most delicate anchovies you will ever encounter.
This was followed by another little sleight of hand trick: “risotto” made without rice. Squid has been diced into brunoise, cooked in its ink and served with a “flower.”
Swirl the flower into all that dark denseness and watch it slowly vanish, leaving behind a trail of flavor. You taste butter, Parmesan and a touch of sweetness – sugar perhaps? The waiter insists there is no sugar, no honey, no sweet wine, so you can only surmise that local squid are sweeter than any you’ve experienced in the past.
It’s notable that, in this protein-mad city (San Sebastian thinks nothing of serving you a meal made entirely of meat or fish), we’ve had six courses without a morsel of meat. But here it comes now now in the form of spiced hare Pojarski. I imagine the chef chuckling as he stirs exotic spices into the mix, longing to offer you yet another surprise.
Dessert. A lovely little tangle of exotic citrus fruits: yuzu, tangerine, lime and Buddha’s hand laced wth little pearls of finger lime that explode in your mouth.
This is followed by the most astonishing “apple tart.” Once again the chef wields his magic wand: although you taste apple, this is puff pastry and praline cream wrapped in “apple paper.”
A final little bit of magic to send you into the night.
March 17, 2017
Of the many ways to describe three star Michelin restaurants, the word “cosy” has never occurred to me.
Arzak is sui generis, an insanely ambitious and original restaurant that also feels like home.
Because that’s what it is. The restaurant began life as the family’s home in 1897, and it clings to that sense. Elena Arzak (who shares the kitchen with her father Juan Mari), began working in the family restaurant when she was eleven years old. Today you might walk into the kitchen and surprise her children, crayons scattered across the table as they eat dinner. Walk into the dining room and you’ll find that the people serving you have been there for much of their lives; a waitress in her seventies recently (and reluctantly) retired because the trays had grown too heavy.
And unlike so many chefs, whose egos demand they keep sending food until you are begging them to stop, Elena keeps asking, “are you sure it’s not too much?”
Are you getting the feeling that I loved this restaurant? I did.
Dinner began with a quintet of playful little tidbits like the red gyoza above, filled with shrimp and moringa (an herb most often used in Ayurvedic cooking.) Crisp and fresh, it was a fantastic way to start the show.
A smush of banana and squid was dark and dense with a mysterious funk that felt like a warning: beware, in this restaurant looks can be deceiving.
I couldn’t help it: those jaunty little shells peeking out of their hidey holes made me think of Sponge Bob. Pure clean deliciousness. Pumpkin and clams is an inspired contrast of color, taste and texture.
Another surprise: strawberries and anchovy don’t seem like a perfect match. Until you try it. The fruit’s acidity turns out to be an ideal foil for the silvery fish. The textures are lovely too: the crisp bite of strawberry, the smooth slippery anchovy and the softness of fish mousse go somersaulting merrily through your mouth.
Again, the playful presentation belays the seriousness of this combination. Duck ham and smoked eel – two varieties of smoke- come wrapped inside a chickpea flour crisp.
They call this “Mondrian oysters” – very crisp warm oysters in a field of herbs and flowers. Have you ever seen a prettier dish? The little sweep of sauce is made with maca, which is sometimes called “Peruvian gingseng.” (In the lab above the kitchen, the Arzaks constantly experiment with new ingredients.)
Tiny eels – angulas – just lightly warmed, on a crisp slightly sweet cracker.
Hiding inside that crisp green cracker – made with krill it is the Basque version of an Asian prawn cracker – is the most extraordinary red shrimp. Just a bite, it’s been marinated in mint and lemongrass and then set on a beet puree. In some ways this is the epitome of Arzak cooking: colorful, inventive, textural and delicious, all at the same time.
“Monkfish Cleopatra.” A smooth little chunk of grilled monkfish hides beneath a clever lattice of cracker. (Are you getting the impression that crackers are often employed to add an element of crunch?) The hieroglyphics are made of pumpkin and chickpea.
Potatoes, Truffles. Egg Yolk. The most whimsical luxury.
And now for the main event. I have never had a better piece of venison. Roasted roe deer and tenderloin of venison in an anchovy sauce with bits of celeriac and broccoli stems. On top, a crisp ruffle of tendon.
They call this “Square Moon”‘ a cube of chocolate crackles open to spill its liquid heart of mint, neroli and kiwi across the plate. This is what dessert should be: pure fun.
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a chef who created more beautiful plates or used color in a more decisive fashion. But in the end, it’s neither the pretty plates, enticing textures or fantastic food that you’ll remember most. What you’ll think about, and think about again, is the warmth of the Arzak welcome. And you will long to return.
March 16, 2017
This is the fish market in San Sebastian. It tells you a few things. For one, that this is a city where women are often in charge: have you ever seen a lovelier display? (Please notice the tulips and bay leaves scattered about.) For another, that you will never find better fish – or chefs who are so adept at cooking it. The only fish market I’ve ever visited that smelled as deliciously fresh as this was Tsukuji in Tokyo.
I fell in love with San Sebastian. Easy to do; this is a beautiful coastal town filled with kind, charming people and fabulous food. Over the next few days I’ll post detailed notes from the restaurants I visited, but for now, just a few highlights.
Infant peas (with white asparagus and an egg poached just to trembling at Bodegon Alejandro. The peas were sweet and so tiny they floated into your mouth, delicate as raindrops.
A tangle of tiny eels at Arzak (with pomegranate seeds and minuscule broccoli florets). These angulas are usually cooked in olive oil and garlic, but here their amiable slither had an opportunity to shine.
The tortilla at La Vina, a pinxtos restaurant most famous for its fabulous burnt cheesecake. (More about that later.) Caramelized on the outside, still runny inside, when you poke it with a fork soft little cubes of potatoes come tumbling out. Where you’re supposed to go for the tortilla is Bar Nestor – but the place makes exactly one each day, and if you miss it, you’re out of luck. I missed it. But I did not miss Nestor’s even more famous steak
You pick the one you want, Nestor cooks it to order, and this is what you get…
Afterward you go around the corner to La Cuchara de San Telmo, to experience this suckling pig: all crackling skin enfolding meat so tender it is barely there.
Squid “risotto” at Akelare: no rice, just squid, cheese and butter. The squid is cut into brunoise the size of rice and barely cooked.
At the table, you stir in this butter flower, which slowly vanishes into the dish, leaving behind an ethereal trail of flavor.
And to end the evening in San Sebastian, the drink of choice is gin and tonic. You want to go to the Dickens Bar to experience true obsession: the barman worries over the shape of the glass, the size of the ice, the temperature of the tonic. And they buy only organic limes, which he stops to zest at least three times during the construction of the drink.
Tomorrow- cocochas, anchovies with strawberries… and this lunar chocolate moon.
March 12, 2017
This is Aitor Arregi of the restaurant Elkano in Gaitara, just outside San Sebastian. And that is one of the turbots for which he is justly famous. If you can eat only one fish in your life, this is the one you want. But only after Aitor has explained it to you, for he can find the entire world in a fish
If only I could capture Aitor’s passion at the table, the way he talks about the turbot. “I don’t like the little ones,” he will begin, “they need to be fat to get flavor.” He will go on to tell you that they are influenced by the temperature of the water, the time of the year, and mostly by what they eat.…
I want you see Aitor waving his eloquent hands to demonstrate how these flat fish swim. Turning the turbot he will show you the black skin on the bottom “the side that looks toward the sea,” and then over again to display the white skin on top. “That side looks toward the sky.” And yes, tasting carefully you do discern the difference, the slightly algal taste of the black side which has spent its entire life under water, compared to the more cosmopolitan white side, which has had the whole wide world to see.
Aitor will gently filet the fish, separating the left side from the right, pointing to his own body as he explains that the side with the organs – the liver, the heart – has a more complex flavor than the side that is pure flesh.
Pulling out the bones he will hand them to you, insisting you eat with your fingers, pulling the soft, slick flesh from the crunchy bones with your teeth.
Then he will take the larger bones at the head and crack them, exposing the marrow. “Taste it,” he will urge, holding it out.
When you have finished you will not believe that a single fish can offer such variety. And you will never eat another fish without remembering this one.
Before the turbot you will eat cocochas – the tender flesh from the throat of the hake – which has the texture of the most perfect oyster you have ever eaten. He will offer them cooked in various ways, and you will love them all.
What else will you eat? Almost nothing. A bit of bread. Some of the restaurant’s wonderful olive oil. And perhaps to end, their cheese ice cream with strawberry sauce.
Aitor will insist you drink the local txakoli, but from different years so you can taste the way it changes over time. You will drink another glass, and then another, thinking how lucky you are to be here in this wonderful restaurant.
And leaving, you will wonder how soon you can come back.
March 9, 2017
Americans have a reputation for being the most outrageously gluttonous eaters in the world. Translated that comes down to this: we eat an incredible amount of meat.
That has been a defining characteristic of American food culture since the very beginning. In Frances Milton Trollope’s cooly disdainful Domestic Manners of the Americans, first published in England in 1832, she notes, “The American poor are accustomed to eat meat three times a day.” Which proves, mainly, how extremely unusual that was.
As our population – and our economy – has skyrocketed, eating meat has never gone out of style. As calculated by the World Food Organization, most years the United States leads the world in per capital carcass availability. In 2010, that was 120 kilos per person; as a comparison, India’s was a mere 5 kilos.
But reading Cvoco Secreto di Papa Pio Quinto (Cookbook Secrets of Pope Pius V) written by Bartolomeo Scrappi in 1570, I’m reminded that the only thing new about this is that Americans do not reserve meat exclusively for the rich. In most corners of the world, throughout history, those who could afford it have indulged in eating meat.
Take a look at this menu for an official Papal meal with its lavish variety of fowl and game; there are 27 savory dishes and not a single one lacks meat. (A few interesting features to note. For one, dessert was served both first and last. And for another, beef appears only in the form of calf or veal.)
Domestic Manners of the Americans