The Cosiest Three Star

March 17, 2017

Of the many ways to describe three star Michelin restaurants, the word “cosy” has never occurred to me.

Until now.

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.

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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.

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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.

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