Arzak, San Sebastian

Avda. Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273, 20015 Donostia / San Sebastian

A break back to the UK and we really wanted to get away for a few days and decent food was on our mind. Friends of ours suggested San Sebastian and it made perfect sense. Not only could we visit this fine Basque city, but experience several renowned restaurants. Arzak was a must.

We were seated in the upstairs smoking section, which proved not to be an issue. Service was prompt and enthusiastic relying on people who looked to be chosen more for their charm and personality rather than their looks. It was refreshing to see. Some of us had dietary requirements and the restaurant did an excellent job of devising a dedicated menu for each of us. It enabled us to each have our own tasting menu.

The amuses were numerous and intriguing. First of all where

corn veloute, black pudding and figs (foreground) & alubia bean soup with apple matchsticks

These were good intense flavours, almost peasant like. The little tastes were deep and piquant. It boded well.

Next up, scorpionfish wrapped in threads of pastry (on the stand) & crispy rice cakes with a mushroom mouse

Again these were pleasant tastes. The pastry wrapping the fish provided good texture with the fish itself tasting scampi-like, though that may well be down to the presentation. The rice cakes were a little anonymous. Rice cakes are never anything to get excited about and the mousse was a little subtle.

Our last amuse was serrano ham and tomato, wrapped in flower petals, and infused – through the plate it rested upon – with a mint vapor.

This was the highlight of our amuses, probably due to the theatre, with the ham and tomato a classic combination of sweetness and the salty. We looked forward to our first course:

Us boys opted for cromlech filled with foie gras & caramlised onion with powdered coffee and green tea:

These most delicate of stones were upended and eaten by hand. The mouse inside was creamy, rich and sweet. It was a very indulgent few bites and bliss for foie obsessives (like myself). The coffee and tea lifted the flavour. They were excellent.

Instead of the cromlech my wife opted for prawns baked in Lemon with Pachuli

Delightful presentation – with the prawns baked inside a lemon rolled in ash, served with their heads to suck on (a good eastern thing!). The accompanying sauce – Pachuli was perfectly pleasant, but didn’t add too much to the succulence of the prawns.

The next course, served to us all was lobster with potato, copaiba, micro herbs and tapioca balls

Poached pieces of lobster tail served with potato crisps and a pleasant salad with tapioca. Lobster is always a welcome ingredient, but it was relatively neutral when eaten with the potato and copaiba saucing. There was no big sense of flavour, though the salad was perfectly fine. Relatively disappointing really.

My wife’s next course was a forcemeat “wave” made of crab roe, crab heads, tomatoes, and peppers, served with crab meat on barley paper

Loved the presentation – a dish lit from within. I’m a sucker for crab and couldn’t wait to knick this from my wife. The white crab meat was fresh and sweet, but the forcemeat was a bit too strong for her liking. I was only too happy to help her out.

Us boys stuck with an Arzak classic: egg poached with olive oil, showered with a confetti of olive oil and tomato powders and a scatter of micro-herbs

This was seriously good – taking the simple egg and making it the star of brilliant dish in terms of savouriness and texture. It was almost heavenly and every spoonful was savoured. This last dish brought to close the second part of the meal and we moved onto the fish course:

monkfish with mussels and nori flavored “shells,” tempura “seaweed,” liqueur “starfish” and crunchy red pepper balls

The whimsical presentation could not be faulted. It was the seaside on a plate with dainty shells and stars. The monkfish (a favourite) was one of the finest examples I’ve encountered – meaty, yet cooked to the point. Yet it actually served to highlight the relative bland taste of the other ingredients. The fish was exceptional, the rest was just there for show and I loath style over substance. Memorable dish though.

It was at this point having felt a bit rushed with our meal that we asked for a delay in proceedings. We were told that the Spanish like to have a quick lunch which seems at odds of going to a 3 star restaurant, but anyway, the kitchen was only too happy to oblige and we decided to wait for 40mins till our next dish.

And so to the meat course. My wife opted for Veal with a chufas air (not sure what it was).

The veal was tender and well cooked in the sous vide style. Texturally it was like butter, but other than that it was so boring, just completely lacking in any chutzpah. It tasted just like shoe leather really and the highlight was the accompanying souffle potatoes. As for the saucing, they haven’t stayed in my mind long enough to comment on.

My main was venison:

Two small fillets (cannons) of venison which were well cooked and a delight to eat, but just a little anti-climatic as a piece-resistance of the savoury part of the meal. Just expected something a little more substantial and wow.

And then the onslaught of desserts begin, where we were presented with two dishes of each which we shared amongst us:

Soup and chocolate “in the vineyards.”

Chocolate spheres arranged in a pool of a berry soup, along with a scoop of green basil ice cream. It was again a dish about texture. the ice cream was lovely and the chocolate balls exploded in the mouth. I prefer my chocolate a little darker, but there was a good range of flavours and it was pleasant.

Continuing the ball theme  were more rounds of chocolate, firmer, darker and much more to my taste.  It was accompanied with a puddle of an oregano-infused creme anglaise.

Things got more fruity with an citrus curd cake.

Two slices of a lemon curd cake with a shallow bowl with a clear liquid which when introduced with honey (i think) produced lovely fractal designs. Very cute. I’m not sure how it was meant to be eaten with the tart, creamy cake, but both were enjoyed.

And so our final desert was more playful and curious with fruits, sugar and caramel.

A little space-age, it the sugary dessert was interspersed with pools of red wine and the caramel sweets was filled with surprisingly tart orange juice, producing an interesting sweet sensation. It was good, if a little weird, though the star was an accompanying pineapple ice cream.

And to close things out, a playful assortment of sweets straight from the workshop – white chocolate nuts,dark chocolate bolts, white bean truffles, cola lozenges, and mango legos. Some where a little polarising.

And so our 4 hour meal came to an end with a rather hefty cognac. We had enjoyed the time spent, but the meal itself was not really what we had hoped for. The legend of Arzak precedes it and expectations were high, but it just didn’t deliver. The combinations were confused, leading to muted flavours. Sauces new to us, just didn’t seem to add anything. It was also hard to understand what responses the dishes were designed to elicit. Clearly there were some standout plates – the cromlech, the egg, the monkfish (for looks), but as a whole the meal didn’t hang together and lurched a bit from brilliance to bland. It must be said that the wine was very reasonable, but the tasting menu was the most expensive I’d had and it simply didn’t demonstrate the necessary value. I loved the company, but the dishes will not live long in the memory.


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