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…