Saturday 3 July 2010

arzak, three michelin stars

This was a marathon in fine dining. It cost a fortune and was worth every scent.

Here we are at Arzak, the three Michelin star restaurant of the Basque Country’s most famous chef, Juan-Mari Arzak. Running this suburban San Sebastian kitchen with his talented daughter, Elena, Arzak has inspired other famous Spanish chefs like Ferran Adrià and Martin Berasategui.

We arrived at 8:20pm, a little bit early for our 8:45pm reservation, after walking from Parte Vieja and hoping to have a drink to quench our thirst.

The restaurant’s metal roller door was down and the only sign of life was the laughter and work coming from the kitchen.

Did we make a mistake? Surely they’d be open already, poised for serving their customers a welcome beverage before guiding them to their seat? Nope.

We stood like fools outside the door, watching the passing traffic and wondering if we were at the right place.

At 8:40pm we heard movement and the roller door slid up revealing a friendly face welcoming us inside a small receiving room with a few chairs. Time for a cava!

Service at Arzak was a strange mixture of gruff and friendly, but it was always charming.

The floor manager, one waitress and one waiter spoke English but our sommelier and other waiters did not, meaning that sometimes our questions were met with a confused stare and answered by silently scurrying away to fetch someone who understood. I don’t think we can fault them on that, because we are in their country speaking our language so of course some confusion may arise. They did their best to look after us.

Our floor manager was lovely (he’d worked with famous Australian chef David Thompson at his London restaurant, Nahm), and after talking to us about food he picked up that Jonas worked in hospitality and asked whether I was a food writer. I explained I wasn’t as exalted as that, with only a food blog to my name, but it was pleasing for both Jonas and I that our food and wine knowledge was recognised. So different from our early dining days when most waiters would dismiss us as kids on a big night out!

We were seated in the upstairs area which seemed to be reserved for foreigners, probably so that all the staff with English skills could be with those that needed them most. There was a friendly American couple from LA celebrating their wedding anniversary, a middle-aged table of four from Hong Kong and a French-speaking couple – all attesting to Arzak’s international fame.

Our floor manager encouraged every table to have the tasting menu and that’s exactly what we did. Although they were happy to provide a complete ovo-lacto vegetarian menu, Jonas decided to try one or two pieces of fish, which was quite brave and exciting.

Here’s what we had:


WINE MATCH: Txomin Etxaniz’s 2009 Txakoli from Getaria was a beautiful example of the young local wine, poured from up high to aerate the tiny bubbles. It has a strong scent of crisp, green apples and a strong acidity, almost like a sauvignon blanc but better.

Morcilla en Tempura
Tempura Blood Sausage

Because Jonas doesn’t eat meat, I got both of these but he ate the anchovies. The tempura outside was very crunchy and worked really well.

Antxoa y Fresa
Anchovies and Strawberries
Jonas claimed this was one of the best things he’s ever tasted and he wouldn’t even share a bite with me. Apparently the anchovy fillets had a tangy creamy sauce between them and the strawberry halves.

Puding de Kabrarroka con Fideos Fritos
Scorpion Fish Pudding with Fried Fideos

The soft, delicate fishy mousse worked very well with the crispy, crunch of the noodle casing.
Caldo de Alubia con Manzana
Red Bean Soup with Apple

Thick, warm, homely kidney bean soup was followed by a slightly sweet apple purée.
Bola de Setas y Polvo de Maiz
Mushroom Ball and Corn Dust

A bubble of mushroom soup burst in your mouth with a salty, almost bouillon-flavoured powder. It tasted a bit salty and raw for my liking.


WINE MATCH: Viñas del Vero’s 2007 Clarion made from buela grapes was a wonderful wine with a sweet-scent and crisp palate reminiscent of an Alsace pinot gris. I really liked this one.

Ensalada de Perretxikos
Perretxikos Mushroom Salad

While I ate the foie gras, Jonas enjoyed this fresh salad of local mushrooms, micro herbs, mizuna, radicchio, carrot ribbons and balsamic vinegar. The dressing was anything but simple and had such a strong but well-balanced flavour.

Cromlech y Cebolla con Té y Café
Cromlech and Onion with Tea and Coffee

This was my favourite dish of the night and one of Elena Arzak’s too. Cromlechs are prehistoric megalithic structures, and these two small pillars dominated my night. I can’t even begin to understand what it was made of, and perhaps that’s why it was so amazingly delicious and magical to me. Usually I can detect each individual component to a dish, but this just floored me. I can tell you the outside was crisp and wafer thin, with a perfect crunchy texture.

Inside it was salty, creamy and rich. They said there was foie gras in it and I saw small pieces of green pepper. Hands down one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my life.


WINE MATCH: The Gran Feudo Sobre Lías Rosado (2008) was a spectacular rosé made from tempranillo, granache and merlot grapes. It comes from Navarre and has the most pronounced strawberry flavours I’ve ever experienced in a rosé. Absolutely delicious.

Patata, Bogavante y Copaiba
Potato, Lobster and Copaiba
We both ate this mille feuille structure with its layers of crispy, wafer thin potato sandwiching sweet, perfectly textured lobster, which was so fresh it was almost raw. Jonas found the texture of the lobster a bit frightening but I adored it. The almost gelatinous sauce was made from lobster broth and copaiba, a South American essential oil that I discovered is a stimulant and is used for stomach ailments.

The lobster also came with a tiny salad of micro herbs, tapioca and seeded-mustard dressing, which was a refreshing end and softened the intense lobster flavour that might have lingered unpleasantly otherwise.

Huevo con Temblor de Tierra
Egg with Earth Crumbs
This soft poached egg was another favourite of Jonas’ and Elena Arzak’s. She said she admired the simplicity of the dish while Jonas just loved the way it tasted. It came with caramelised sesame, wrapped in a metallic coating, as well as crumbs of cacao and white truffle. It was interesting that the truffle scent only wafted out once the egg was broken and the yolk mixed through the crumbs.


WINE MATCH: Gran Fuedo Chardonnay (2009) was a very young wine that had not been aged in barrels and therefore didn’t have much of the buttery, vanilla flavours traditionally associated with chardonnay wines. Instead it was very clean and crisp, with distinct green apple and lemon flavours.

Lubina con Arroz Púrpura y Cactus
Sea Bass with Purple Rice and Cactus

The personalised menu I was given post-meal has this name written down, and it’s true that I did have sea bass, but mine came with spinach and walnuts. Either it’s an error or this is a playful name because purple and green does feature strongly in the imagery? Anyway, the dish was confit sea bass with spring-onion sauce, creamed spinach jellies shaped like garlic cloves, and a delicious Basque biscaya sauce of sundried peppers shaped into walnut jellies. Clear rice paper toffee shards held slivers of walnuts and smoky paprika, and a second piece was provided separately as a post-dish palate cleanser.

Rape Marea Baja
Low Tide Anglerfish
This dish was Jonas’ and it had the most amazing presentation. The plump roll of fish sat amongst wet sand and pretty seas shells, like a perfect beach scene. Of course everything was edible and Jonas devoured each element so quickly I had no chance to taste it and tell you what it was made from. I do know it contained fennel and piquillo peppers, but otherwise it will remain a mystery.


WINE MATCH: Arzak’s house red was simply listed as a Tempranillo Crianza (2004). I’m a huge fan of wines produced by the tempranillo grape and this wine was a good example of the crianza style with a heady aroma and light palate with berries and a touch of tobacco (or was it chocolate?).

Pichón con Chia
Pigeon with Chia
I asked for my pigeon to be cooked rare and they obliged with the best pigeon I’ve ever eaten. It was so moist and flavoursome, I was so very pleased Jonas pushed me to choose it instead of the lamb. It came with a shard of chia seed wafer and small bubbles of liquid tomato seeds, bright yellow and tangy to counter the richness of the squab.

Productos de Temporada en Cuatro Líneas
Seasonal Vegetables in Four Lines
While I enjoyed the exquisitely cooked pigeon, Jonas ate these seemingly simple vegetables. Stripes of potatoes and green lentils, leeks and tomato, split peas and mushrooms were decorated with edible flower petals and seemed a little dull to my eye, but Jonas assured me the flavours were quite bright and vibrant in his mouth.


WINE MATCH: The Gran Barquero Pedro Ximenez had the delicious sun-dried raisins typical of this type of sherry, but Jonas detected an extra lift of mixed peel. Perfect with our chocolate courses.

Sopa y Chocolate “entre viñedos”
Soup and Chocolate “between vineyards”

Truly spectacular. Bright, tart-sweet strawberry sauce pooled around soft bubbles of warm, liquid chocolate that burst in your mouth. Paired with verdant sweet basil ice cream, it was not only visually appealing but simply delicious. Our favourite dessert of the night.

Chocolate y Cristales de Colores
Chocolate and Coloured Crystals
This was tasty and yet bizarre. Chocolate mousse with decorated with shards of dehydrated vegetables: the first was milk and parsley and the second was red cabbage. Puddles of green sauce were heavily laced with garlic. Each element on its own tasted strange and disjointed, but eaten together it worked wonderfully.


WINE MATCH: our last desserts were served with a Molino Real Moscatel. It was beautiful and light, sweet without any cloying stickiness. It certainly had an apricot and lemon blossom smell, and I thought I detected a hint of coconut.

Dulce Lunático
Sweet Lunatic

This was a yoghurt sponge sitting atop homemade yoghurt and stuffed with passionfruit and banana ice creams. It was topped with more dehydrated vegetable shards and wasabi rolled sesame seeds. It was very fluffy and had a mild, tropical flavour that was gentle and comforting, but not a great ending to such a marvellous dinner. I think it should have been served before the chocolate dishes.

Hidromiel y Fractal Fluido
Mead & Fractal Fluid

This was an intriguingly named dessert, but not one I enjoyed very much because I’m not a fan of sweet lemon. Jonas really liked it, and I can admit it was good, just not my preferred cup of tea. The exterior seemed to be coloured white chocolate moulds, filled with the sweet lemon curd usually in a lemon meringue pie. It was served with a sweet sauce, or fractal fluid, so named after the pretty shapes made by the food colouring.

The last two desserts were served with roasted pineapple sorbet that was sublime.

Chocolates Artesanos
Artisan Chocolates

Stuffed full, we still made a little space for petit fours.
White chocolate and bean purée are coated in tiny pellets of freeze-dried red tea.
Dark chocolate ganache dusted with sweet smoky paprika and topped with a sliver of passionfruit jelly.
Shards of chocolate-caramel were dusted with bitter cocoa and had a gorgeous rich burnt flavour.
Squares of velvety milk chocolate are studded with salty popcorn are one of the best of the bunch.
A paper-thin sheet of dried apricot, similar to qamar el-deen, was wrapped around cinnamon-scented rice pudding. It had a comforting, homely flavour.
A wedge of candied pineapple was a sour-sweet refreshing contrast to all the intense chocolate flavours.


Throughout the meal, owners Juan-Mari and Elena wandered around the restaurant chatting to diners. In fact when Jonas visited the bathroom Juan-Mari kept me company with stories about his good friend, Australia’s famed chef Tetsuya Wakuda. I completely understand their connection, both being internationally celebrated with similar styles of cooking and presentation even though Juan-Mari is inspired by his native Euskadi and Tetsuya focuses on Australian-Japanese-French fusion.

Our conversation with Elena was even more interesting. She talked about her plans to visit Australia for the first time during Melbourne’s Food & Wine Festival and we recommended some of our favourite Melbourne restaurants (especially Vue de Monde).

After hearing Jonas was Swedish, Elena dashed off in excitement and brought back Mathias Dahlgren’s “Det Naturliga Köket” (The Natural Kitchen), a recently released Swedish-language cookbook that she said had so many beautiful images she was desperate to understand the recipes. Jonas talked her through some of the pages and we admitted that we’d tried to reserve a table at Dahlgren’s restaurant when we were in Stockholm in January but it had been all booked out.

Spending time with Elena and Juan-Mari was not some cheap parlour trick. They were truly interested in their guests’ experience and their presence in the dining room added a cheerful vibrancy.

Our meal at Arzak cost us a lot of money (€450 to be precise, including a good tip), but as I said from the outset: it was worth it.

Why was it worth it?

Because . . .
• the chefs are two of the world’s finest and have inspired so many other international chefs
• the restaurant is an institution, a gastro-temple, a foodie mecca
• the dishes were inventive and playful but perfectly balanced
• the staff are professional, warm and open, and clearly proud of their work
• the owners want every guest to feel special, excited and invigorated by their experience

But, most importantly, because the wine and food are delicious.

Avenida Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 237
San Sebastian
+34 943 278 465

Photos of the restaurant and Juan-Mari & Elena Arzak were provided by Arzak.

Other Spanish posts:
Food from the Basque Country
Feasting in Galicia
A Fuego Negro, San Sebastian pinxtos bar

View Anna's San Sebastian map in a larger version


  1. We've been at Arzak in May this year and enjoyed most of the dishes you have mentioned too. So, I can absolutely understand why you are so thrilled. :)

  2. Great pictures! My (meat eating) boyfriend has his heart set on this restaurant for our upcoming trip, but I am ovo-lacto veg too, but no fish. Do you think I will still enjoy it? Do you think the Arzak's will be irritated by that? (some chefs prefer not to deal with us veggies) Thanks!

  3. daniela - it was awesome, wasn't it!?!

    veggie - they were more than happy to make an ovo-lacto meal and they are so kind and hospitable that you have nothing to fear. i know the arrogant chefs (who won't cook veggie) that you're talking about, but family arzak are not those people! i'm sure they see you as an interesting challenge :)

  4. What an amazing post Anna, I had missed this the first time around so thanks for letting me know. I love that Elena and Juan-Mari come out and talk to the guests. She seemed so lovely at the MFWF. And hehe now I understand why she told the woman who was asking them about how they make money "Don't worry madame" ;)


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