Basque Gastronomy Part 3: Mugaritz

Last, but certainly not least, on the gastronomic tour was lunch at Mugaritz. Located about half an hour drive from San Sebastian, in the country side village of Errenteria. Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz established this restaurant in 1998, after having worked as a part of Chef Ferran Adriá’s team at El Bulli. The restaurant is nestled in the hillside surrounded by gardens in which they cultivate many of the ingredients used in the kitchen.

Upon arrival, before even being seated, you are brought into the kitchen where Chef Aduriz himself, along with his head chef, explain their philosophy – they use only the freshest ingredients, tailoring the menu to what they find in local markets each day. Each and every plate is scrutinized for perfection before leaving the kitchen.

After an amuse-bouche in the kitchen we are taken to the table – a huge, circular table with white linen and with no silverware. Mugaritz only serves a 20 course tasting menu and shortly after sitting, and after choosing our first bottle of wine with the help of the sommelier, the first of five amuse-bouche begin to arrive, all of which are eaten sans utensils.

“Edible Stones”  First up, a dish that really does look like two stones nestled in a bowl of sand. The waiter coyly says, “If you find you can bite into them, try dipping them in the aioli…” The “stones” are small baked potatoes and somehow the skin is made to look like a stone. It has us giggling as we try to bite into the stones and encounter a perfectly buttery potato. And thus starts an incredible meal.

“Scarlett Shrimp over Sake Lees”  A take on a lettuce wrap, we must roll up the filling in the leaf to eat it. The sheer uniqueness of eating a leaf with little flowers in it gets us going all over again. It’s surprisingly tasty and we realize we are definitely in for a lot of surprises today.

“Grilled Toast with Bone Marrow, Herbs and Horseradish Ash”  This next one is a doozy – I’ve never seen such a large pice of bone marrow. Its fatty and succulent and just over the top, but in such a good way.

“Flax and Wheat “Kraft” Paper with Marine Accents”  A lump of tender crab meat on a paper thin cracker.

“‘Fishbones’ with Nuances of Lemon, Garlic, and Cayenne Pepper”  Teeny tiny little fish, fried and stuck together with dab of a spicy sauce between each one. Salty, crunchy with a spicy kick.

For all of this we have been sipping on this Ossian 2009 Verdejo from the Rueda region. A light golden, crisp wine with hints citrus.

“‘Bonding…’ Toasted Seeds and Spices Served in a Mortar with Vegetable Broth”  Next up, a sort of make-your-own-soup. We’re served a warm cast iron mortar full of hemp seeds and peppercorns and told we need to mash them up. It seems strange at first, but as we start mashing, a wonderful toasted aroma starts to rise out of our bowls as the mashed seeds come into contact with the heat of the cast iron. Once we’re sufficiently mashed (and by that I mean the waiter has come around to ensure we’ve put enough muscle into it) we are served a couple slices of cod and a small pitcher of creamy vegetable broth, which we add to the seeds.

For this dish we switch momentarily to a beer to complement the nutty flavors of the hemp seeds. Not just any beer of course, a beer brewed especially for Mugaritz.

“Tomato and Sweet Garlic”  And this is how the next set of courses begins – a thick slice of heirloom tomato with black fermented garlic imported from China spread over top. The garlic is surprisingly sweet and has a very mild garlic flavor. It’s a perfect combination with the juicy acid of the tomato.

“Scarlet Prawns, Fresh Pasta, and Tomato”  Next is a couple bites of fresh, possibly rice, pasta in a creamy broth made of prawns and tomato. The broth’s concentrated flavor is intense and complex and leaves you wanting another bite.

“Stew of Lemon Rinds and Grilled Squid”  Ohmygosh, so delicious. The squid is tender and the sauce is so intensely sweet and tangy. There are pieces of lemon rind in there also that have taken on a sweet flavor, like lemon rind candy. It clearly tastes like lemon, but without any sour flavor.

Pause. We need more wine. Sommelier, what’s the word? Ekam 2010 from Castell d’Encus:  a combination of Riesling and Albariño with a bright gold color and with a floral sweetness. It’s a limited production from the Catalan Pyrenees. And it’s delicious.

“Portion of Home-made Cheese, Cured in Its Own Rind, Mushrooms and Fleshy Leaves”  This next dish again plays with your perceptions. It looks a lot like cheese, but as the waiter sets down the dish he asks, “Is it cheese? You decide. I’ll tell you afterwards…” And… cue tablewide debate about whether it’s cheese or not. We decide it’s not cheese – the texture is just not quite right – and we get a gold star; its not cheese, and though it’s made with milk, the process is different. It has a yeasty flavor, kind of like when you make bread dough, and the texture is similar as well.

“Tagliatelle of Concentrated Milk, Lightly Soaked in a Silky Juice of Roasted Squash and Tomato”  This is another crazy “milk technique” where the “pasta” is made by drying the film of milk that occurs when it boils. The dish arrives with this dry pasta wrapped by a thin slice of cured Iberian ham fat and at the table the broth is poured over, instantly making the “pasta” melt. It’s strangely delicious.

For the last four dishes, the meat courses, we order a red wine. An Artigas 2008 from Bodegas Mas Alta from the Priorat region. A smooth full bodied red with a touch of dried cherry.

“Roasted Loin of Hake with Clashing Grains of Aged Mascarpone, Cauliflower, and Fresh Almonds”  The first of the four second courses is hake, a flaky white fish common in Spain. On top is a ground up mixture of aged mascarpone, cauliflower, and fresh almonds, all of which seem to have the same texture, making them indistinguishable as you eat it, melding all of the flavors together.

“Costal Fish with Crunchy Trimmings of Aged Sourdough and Sweet Pickled Onion”  The next dish is a tender rock fish, the soft texture and mild flavor of which goes perfectly with the crunch and tangy flavor of the toppings.

“Crispy Sweetbread with Homemade capers, Bitter Leaves, and Artisan Praline”  Ah, sweetbreads…can’t really say a bad thing about them. These are amazing of course, crispy outside, tender inside.

“Crunchy Terrine of Iberian Pig Tails with a Bunch of Bitter Leaves and Txakoli Sediments”  The last dish (before desserts, of course) is thin slices of pig tail pressed together to form this disc shape. I have to recognize that I am not a huge fan of pig tails as I don’t particularly care for the texture. At the same time, I must say that this was an excellent example of them – if you had to eat them, these would be the ones to eat. They are perfectly cooked, so that they are soft inside and the fat has melted, the skin on the outside is crunchy. Txakoli, as I mentioned in my last post, is a dry, highly acidic white wine typical of the Basque country, so the tart flavor of this sauce pairs really nicely with this dish, as it breaks up the salty fattiness.

“A Taste of Subtlety. Folded Linen with Toasted Crème Fraiche and Crème Caramel”  The first of the desserts is a paper thin wafer, served on a white linnen napkin. To the side, a butter knife with a delicious frosting of crème fraiche and crème caramel. You are told to spread the frosting over the wafer first. It’s has a buttery texture and just a hint of sweetness intermixed with the tangy crème fraiche.

“‘Traditional’ Almond Fairy Cake”  Next up is a new take on a typical pastry called a mantecado, which is like a crumbly cookie that is traditionally made with ground almond. This is a frozen version made with a light airy almond ice cream that’s then coated with crumbled mantecado and ground almonds.

“Fig Leaves and Lemon in a Creamy Milkshake”  Number three is my favorite by far. The milkshake is served with a small vile of fig extract, which you may add to your milkshake with the pipette. The flavors are incredible: sweet figs and tangy lemon all in a creamy, cold milkshake.

“Candies of Frankincense. The Perfume of Eucalyptus Bark”  Number four is the strangest thing I’ve ever eaten. Out to the table comes a bowl with wispy smoke and the smell of incense. At first glance, it looks like there are three sticks of incense sticking out of the bowl, but then we are told that actually, those sticks are what we need to eat! They remind me of drawing with charcoal sticks in art class and they smell like smoke. But, they taste like sugar and incense and melt away in your mouth like a sugar cube.

“Cocoa Dusted Hazelnuts”  Lastly, a box of toasted hazelnuts dusted in unsweetened cocoa powder.

To end the experience, the waiter comes by with moist towels for us to wash our hands. But, this is Mugaritz, so of course they aren’t your average towelettes. These are condensed cloths that expand when liquid is poured over them, in this case a warm peppermint infusion.

Ah, it’s all so strange and whimsical… They make you interact with your food, eat with your hands, and question everything you thought you knew about some of the most common ingredients. Chef Aduriz is young and has a fantastic imagination and it all shows in his dishes. It’s somehow less serious, at times it makes you laugh at your own confusion, and at the end you leave feeling lighthearted and amazed.

After a fantastic meal, we took a walk around the gardens, which are beautiful, so below are some pictures of their vegetable garden and edible flowers (many of which appeared on our plates).

Basque Gastronomy Part 2: Kañoyetan

First, a beautiful picture of sunset over La Concha, the circular beach which San Sebastian is most known for. It’s a small bay off of the Bay of Biscay with warm, calm waters. It’s full of little sailboats and every day dozens of people swim the length from side to side. Up above the beach, a sidewalk stretches the whole length of La Concha and then follows the coast out to the rest of San Sebastian on each side, making it a peaceful and beautiful place to walk.

The day after our fabulous meal at Arzak, we spent the following day swimming and strolling along the beach, gathering an appetite for our next culinary stop: a special invitation to dinner at a Gastronomic Society.

Gastronomic Societies are essentially clubs where members are selected, sometimes after 10+ year waits, and each have access to the fully stocked kitchen and pantry in order to host dinners, whether private or for other members of the society. Some of the best and most well known chefs of the area are members. There is no owner, everyone is equal in the club. Except women, who cannot be members and until not too long ago were not allowed to enter as guests, and who now are still not allowed to pass the threshold of the kitchen. Maybe that sounds sexist, but as a female I really felt no need to complain about sipping wine while waiting for the men to feed me.

Kañoyetan, the particular gastronomic society that we were invited to, was founded in 1900 and is one of the first formal societies of this kind. The slogan above the doorway says: “each town its law, each house its custom”. Our chef prepared a feast of only the freshest sea food which the northern region of Spain is known for.

We started the meal with this spectacular buffet of sea food, including jumbo shrimp, crabs, mussels, and langostines. Few things make me happier.

Perfection.

And wine flowing. Riojas, Verdejos and Txakoli, which is a Basque slightly sparkling, dry white wine with a high acidity (somehow I did not get a shot of the bottle).

And, as if that feast was not enough, our chef prepared a second dish of fish seared in olive oil and garlic.

Simple cooking techniques are all you need when the product is so fresh. Such a different experience to the day before, but eating family style with new friends and the privilege of dining in such an exclusive location made it just as memorable.

Basque Gastronomy Part 1: Arzak

 

Back in Spain now, along with my parents and some friends (those wonderful wine pairing ones, to be exact), and the first stop is San Sebastian. The Basque Country of Spain is really hot right now in the food world with a lot of the worlds best restaurants and most famous names. So this year’s plan was to do a gastronomic tour of San Sebastian. Lucky me!

Before I give my impressions of this experience, I have to say that this was the first time I have ever had the opportunity to do something like this. As a foodie in training, I was beyond excited to experience the edible art that these restaurants are famous for. And let me tell you, my expectations were met, and then some.

Our first meal was at Arzak, a 3 Michelin Star restaurant located in San Sebastian. Chef Juan Mari Arzak is renown for his avant garde twist on Basque Cuisine. We were advised as first timers to do a tasting menu, and that’s exactly what we did.

“Corn, Figs and Black Pudding” and “Chorizo with Tonic”  The first and second dishes are two of the five amuse-bouche that started the meal. On the right, “Corn, Figs and Black Pudding”, a complexly flavored soup with a hint of sweetness from the corn that perfectly balanced the intense flavor of black pudding, or morcilla. On the left, “Chorizo with Tonic”, a more whimsical dish, served in the hollow of a crushed Shwepps Tonic can, consisting of a very thin slice of melon wrapped around a chorizo mouse. Both were delicious and really get your imagination flowing about what could possibly come out next.

Before we go on with the next dishes, we must talk about wine. Remírez de Ganuza Reserva 2003: a wine made from only the hips of the best bunches from vines that are 60 years old. A rich, smooth red wine that paired nicely with the whole meal.

“Kabraroka Pudding with Kataifi”  Kabraroka is a type of fish and we were told this was a pudding wrapped in fried fideos, or very thin noodles. Like a crunchy and savory lollypop.

“Gooseberry with Coconut”  You can’t see the gooseberries due to the wispy white fog pouring out of the dish, a chemical reaction between dry ice and a coconut infusion which the waiter poured at the table. In one bite a sweet gooseberry and crispy salty potato chips.

“Marinated Sardines and Strawberries”  The last amuse-bouche, a side of a sardine, covering a dollop of cream with herbs and a strawberry. This is a combination one would not immediately think of, but again, Arzak knows what he’s doing by ending this portion of the meal with an elegantly plated challenge for the senses.

By now we have all ooh-ed and ahh-ed at every plate, and then again after tasting them, and can hardly wait to see what else is in store.

“Cassava Cromlech with Foie Gras, Onion, Coffee, and Tea”  And we are not disappointed. In my opinion, one of the best. It’s like an ice cream cone, they told us, you have to pick it up and turn it over quickly and then eat it like an ice cream. The outside “cone” is cassava and it’s stuffed with caramelized onion and foie gras – so much flavor in each little bite. And you get two of them!

“Hemp Mustard and Lobster”  Next up, choice pieces of perfectly cooked, moist lobster atop a dollop of slightly sweet mustard. Next to them, hemp seed crackers with mixed greens. The clothespins are made out of the delicious “essence” of the lobster found in the head – I suppose mixed with a gelatin and put in a mold. The lobster was fantastic and was complimented and not overwhelmed by the mustard.

“Tapioca and Citrus Salad”  Accompanying the lobster, a little salad of tender mixed greens, lightly dressed with citrus, over tapioca pearls. Definitely a different combination of textures – a unique take on classic flavors.

“Dusted Egg and Mussel”  A perfectly poached egg. When you cut into it, the intense orange yolk soaks into the crisp sitting on top, melting it. I’m pretty sure everyone at the table put manners aside and sopped up that goodness with bread. The mussel, perfectly steamed, and dusted with pulverized parsley and red pepper, was a bonus bite.

The last of the first courses. Now onto the main dishes. You got a choice of one of the three. At our table, two were chosen, so I have pictures of both.

“White Tuna, Prickly Pear, and Figs”  I had this one because when I see tuna on a menu at a restaurant I have to have it, especially if that restaurant is Arzak. The tuna is perfectly cooked so that the layers just slide apart. It’s heaven. The sauce is sweet and savory and it’s all accompanied by triangles of prickly pear, a slightly sweet fruit. I could eat this tuna every day, and that’s a fact.

“Gooseberry, Spelt, and Monkfish”  What I missed out on was this Monkfish with two different sauces. On the separate plate in the upper left are gooseberries poached in cured iberian ham fat. I didn’t taste this plate – I guess I was too enthralled by my tuna…or perhaps someone “forgot” to give me a taste. I wasn’t even mad about it, too happy to care.

Second courses now and we got a choice of one of four dishes. Between us all, we ordered three – and this time I got to taste them all!

“Pigeon with Anthocyanin”  Pigeon was not my choice, but one must try these things when they are offered to you. The meat is similar in texture to duck, but with a much stronger flavor, maybe even a bit gamey. But, of course, if you’re going to eat pigeon, eat it at Arzak where it’s perfectly tender and moist. You’re probably wondering what anthocyanins are (or maybe you’re a biologist and you’re like, “What? You don’t know what anthocyanins are?”) so just in case you’re more like me, they are the pigmentation that occurs naturally in plants. And you can seem them painted on this plate. They are flavorless, so their purpose is only to make this dish look like a modern art painting. Pretty nifty!

“Lamb with Corks”  I did not choose lamb either, though this proved to be delicious lamb. It’s garnished by a variety of fruits (melon and watermelon) and vegetables (carrots and potatoes) all shaped into cylinders of varying size and length. In my very humble opinion, this dish was not as exciting as some of the others just because the flavor profile, though hearty and delicious, was pretty standard for lamb.

“Beef with Vegetable Screens” and “Smoked Yogurt with Micro Greens”  So that means I had beef. It was tender, it had a sweet gooseberry glaze, it had cous cous with pretty edible flowers and dried gooseberries, and it had screens – yes, like sugar glass with vegetable “essence” (because I’m not sure what to call it) in it. They melted away as they came in contact with the juices from the meat and just added another flavor. It also came with yogurt – smoked yogurt, actually – in the form of a little side salad. Talk about different. Usually you equate yogurt with tart or sweet flavors, but smokey…I guess it makes sense when you think of smoked cheeses that also have that intense smell and taste.

And that ended the savory portion of the meal. Now on to the six desserts they have ready. You don’t choose the desserts, the desserts choose you. Actually the waiters decide who gets what, though I’m not sure if it’s based on what you ate or whether you just have a “she’ll-like-chocolate” face. Things also get a little confusing flavor-identification-wise, so bear with me.

“Roots, Fruits, and Seeds”  This is the first dessert that found me. The center is white chocolate mixed with parsley (I think – like I said, many things are a mystery at this point in the meal) and next to it are “cocktail spheres” – that’s the name I’m giving them, at least. I was advised that each of these must go in whole and that’s pretty much because they each hold about a tablespoon of port wine. There’s a gelatin skin around them and when you bite or just put pressure on them, they pop and you can then drink the liquid. I don’t even know – it was weird and exciting at the same time. Food chemistry skills were put to work in this and all of the desserts.

“Playing Marbles with Chocolate”  The “marbles” are chocolate on the outside and, like my port bubbles, are totally liquid inside. These had a chocolate liqueur in them, I think…

“The Cocoa Forest”  This was my favorite dessert, though it was sadly not mine to devour. The “tree” is filled with a fruit custard – maybe passion fruit – and dark chocolate and fruit are always a winning combination for me. The other chocolate piece is again full of liquid, but I didn’t eat it, so I can’t describe that particular burst.

“Castles on the Sand”  My second dessert, plated over a backdrop photograph of San Sebastian’s most recognized beach “La Concha”. The castle on the left is carved out of watermelon and the pink is a strawberry custard. Again I’ve got gelatin water balloons – the green is basil, and my-oh-my was it basil, and the red was strawberry.

“Pistachio and Beetroot Stones”  This dessert is a pistachio cake that is full of air bubbles. Little circular air bubbles – again, food chemistry. It’s topped with candied pistachios coated and sits on a sauce made of beetroot.

“Golden Footprint”  Lastly, a golden footprint made of chocolate and stenciled edible gold along with two ladybugs full of a piquillo pepper liquid. Very intense flavor, your brain really thinks you are eating a pepper. Not my favorite thing when I’m in dessert mode, but fascinating all the same.

Speaking of piquillo peppers, each dessert was accompanied by a scoop of homemade ice cream, which somehow I forgot to photograph, and one of them was in fact piquillo pepper. Again, tasted just like the real thing. I had a flashback to watching Iron Chef when the secret ingredient is crabs and one of the chefs gets the ice cream maker out and you’re at home thinking “what the heck is that going to taste like?!”. Well now I know. It tastes just like crab and cream. Anyway, I’m getting away from the point. The ice creams ranged from grilled pineapple to basil and piquillo peppers.

And last but not least, an assortment of chocolate nuts and bolts and even gelatin bottle caps topped with pop rocks.

What else can I say about this meal. I think it speaks for itself that I just described all of that to you from memory, two weeks after the fact. It’s a meal that involves all the senses – yes food always involves first seeing it, then smelling and finally tasting, but here at Arzak they play with textures and chemistry. Sometimes your eyes deceive you and your palate is surprised by new flavors. Four hours later you emerge and it’s like you’ve been sightseeing in a new place and seen and experienced things that you hadn’t before.

And this was only part one…