There are so many things you can say about Arzak.
The father-and-daughter team of Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak. The daddy is the pioneer of Basquese gastronomic innovation. Three Michelin star since God knows when. The place holds the 8th spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. Juan Mari has recently won the lifetime achievement award from the said list. The accolades gather gourmet-tourists from all over the world (myself included).. yes pretty much everything you can say.
All I want to say is I don’t enjoy my experience at Arzak.
A smart reception room I was led into. Quirky wall decor. A bartender that mistook my orange juice “naturelle” for a fizzy one but he couldn’t quite speak enough English, nor I enough Spanish, in order that I could rectify my order. Then a sleek dining room. An Asian corner (as I was seated next to Singaporeans)? A courteous guy who kindly explained me the tasting menu in detail IN ENGLISH. A slim, elderly lady who were so mumsy that I would love to give her a gentle hug (and perhaps to ask if she could lend me a Spanish-English dictionary as everything – all the descriptions of the dishes – coming out of her mouth was Spanish). I could understand perhaps half.. and for such a place as Arzak (and the €€€ I paid) I would have loved to understand more..
The Tasting Menu.. it was. 9-course or so and with a terrain of amuse bouche. Ham and Tomato Smoke (1), Marinated Tuna and Strawberry (2), Kabraroka Pudding with Kataifi (3), Corn Figs and Black Pudding (4) and Yellow Crispy Rice with Mushroom (5). I liked the corn soup with pieces of Morcilla. Layered sweetness complimented by the black pudding and many crunches from the meringue-like toppings. The Yellow Crispy Rice with Mushroom was a Wow of the five. Tapioca-made wings of crispiness encasing intense mushroom paste. The tuna+strawberry was awkward – tender tuna on strawberry with a brush of reduced sweet Sherry (I think) – while the Kabraroka which turned out cod-like mousse in deep fried Spanish vermicelli wrappings was underwhelming.
Cromlech with Onion, Coffee and Tea (6) delivered at another more superior level. Stonehenge pillar-like parcels made from crispy tapioca and dusted with molecularised squid ink contained .. well. . pieces of foie gras. There was more dust around – green tea, coffee. To eat this you’ll have to insert the spoon under the “cromlech”, flip it over (so the thing doesn’t fall out), hold and eat it with your hand. Having a Spanish-talking waitress didn’t help me much with this. For all her kindness she did walk over and demonstrate it! Miraculous taste and texture. Savour-licious sweet and jellified foie gras with degrees of bitterness from coffee and green tea dust. All biteful, mellow-y, grainy (from the dust). It was a sensation I’d love to reprise.
Lobster Coralline (7) appeared a plate of art (an Impressionist one which you have to look at from a distance to make out what’s what). One chunky claws and few lobster bites immersed in a polychrome of jus – lobster roe jus, mango and onion cubes. Sesame wafers resembles crackling lobster tails. I didn’t like the combination. While the lobster was well cooked, there wasn’t enough acidity in the dish to soar above the rich jus and make the dish balance. The side salad of tapioca (again but not in a crispy form) had this sharp balmy sourness that (for me) did not pair well with the lobster main.
Dusted Egg and Mussel (8). A poached egg yolk lay hidden under a disc of crispy kataifi. On the other side of the plate was a brightly orange mussel under a flowery bush. It was a sight to behold. And the taste? Gorgeous. Runny yolk turned very saucy and gelled all elements. Texture perfect. Many bursts of kataifi. Velvety with an essence of eggy-ness (the egg, the roe). It could do with more scattering of mussel meat (in any form perhaps), for I found slowly dissecting a tiny piece of mussel quite tiresome.
Smoked Cinnamon and Tuna (9). A dish that could be a sensation. Seared prime quality tuna belly arrived in a cloud of burning cinnamon cigarette. I was utterly excited. As the lovely waitress uncovered the lid, the smoke gushed out. BUT.. I couldn’t really smell much. Tasting the dish, it was very good tuna. The drizzling of soy and many elements, however, became a dysporic experience of eating a seared tuna belly with sour soy sauce – Otoro Tataki as the Japanese would have it. No more, no less. It’s not bad – fatty tuna melting in my mouth plus relatively refined (but not brilliantly so) sauce – but it’s not THAT special. Oh, the tuna skin was oily and full of scales.
Lamb with Rosemary and Tumeric (10). A simplified dish but it delivered full flavours. Beautifully pink lamb in tumeric coloured jus. A skin of roasted pepper and dots of rosemary puree. Pretty, so pretty! A wonderful combo of peppery sweetness, herbed bitterness (which at times tasted like wheatgrass) and lamb-y flesh. It didn’t need the side of (quite stringy) Asparagus Tempura of Black Sesame and Ham, though.
First dessert “Mead and Fractal Fluid” (11) and I did hold my breath observing the waitress pouring this red flavourless thing into an infusion of honey, water and anise. The red crept through the very molecule of the fluid creating an ever expanding flactal shape…
OH YOU PRETTY .. . NOT!!
The extra-terrestial piece of gastronomy was then abrasively poured onto this Lemon ice cream. The ice cream was coated with something rather wax-like. The fractal fluid tasted very much, as described, like diluted honey. Together they became too sharply contrasting flavours.
Then came the Playing Marbles with Chocolate (12) “Marbles” of chocolate lava with a garnish of soft chocolate dish and white chocolate sauce. A well-executed dish with childlike richness and playfulness. I loved it – that sensation of warm chocolate exploding everywhere and the tingling delight of toasted popping rice in my mouth. It came with a sorbet the detail of which had successfully escaped my notepad. I faintly recalled orange or grapefruit.
The meal concluded with “Nuts and Bolts” (13) Chocolate of many kinds. Marshmallow. Coke jelly with popping rocks. Very memorable
IT WAS A GOOD MEAL..
Marvellous ingredients but risky innovations. In other words, many dishes at Arzak were oddly complicated; accordingly, flavours did not leap out distinctly enough for my liking. Simpler dishes – the foie gras, the egg, the lamb, the choc balls – worked wonders. Others were too pretty to be eaten.. WELL and once eaten they did not taste as memorably as they looked. In their defense I had never seen such a miracle as the red fluid forming a fractal shape.. a serene sight. Thinking about this meal a few weeks after (where I had eaten at other places in San Sebastian too) I still do not feel Arzak is the San Sebastian in-town destination. I would not discourage you from trying (as I had been by the ever reliable GT) but I would not recommend it…
Bill paid.. (€219 something with a bottle of water, one glass each of wine and Cava)
A very bustling dining room. But. I left very quietly.
No one seemed to care..
My head rating says, “6 out of 10″.
My heart rating says, “5 out of 10″.
Avda. Alcalde Elosegui, 273
20015 Donostia/ San Sebastian
Tel. +34 943 278 46