When we decided to plan a trip to Spain, we have set our sights to visit San Sebastián as one of the must-do stops. Little did we know that the coastal city renown for having highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants is rather “inaccessible” compared to other major cities in Spain. The high speed rail linking Madrid and Barcelona only takes 2 hours 30 mins. But the rail from Madrid to San Sebastián takes 5 hours 30 mins and it’s another 6 hours rail ride to get to Barcelona from San Sebastián. Alternative mode of transport is to arrive by plane. However we soon realised that flights to San Sebastián or Bilbao are rather limited in frequency and pricey.
Having to take a 12 hours detour to stopover in San Sebastián meant that we hope to maximise our limited time there. Unfortunately there’s only a certain limit to how much degustation menus we can stomach within a day… Hence we could only plan for visits to 2 restaurants in the region – dinner on the first day and lunch on the second day.
Our whirlwind Michelin-star foodie tour of San Sebastián commenced with our visit to 3-Michelin star Arzak. They are also ranked #17 on World’s Best Restaurant 2015. Managed to secure our booking about 3 months in advanced for the dinner. My guess was since we visited during winter season, it was comparatively easier to secure a reservation in the popular Michelin-starred restaurants in San Sebastián where it is probably considered a non-peak season. We failed to secure bookings at other 3 Michelin-starred restaurants that we had shortlisted to visit in major cities like Madrid and Barcelona. Guess there are possibly much more visitors vying for a coveted spot in fine restaurants of these metropolitan cities compared to the beach town in San Sebastián?
Arzak is located slightly outside the city centre but easily accessible by bus, in fact we walked back into the city after the dinner which is about 2km away. Started our meal with a glass of Cava – Spain’s iconic sparkling wine. The tasting menu started with a series of snack starting from the beautifully plated Moringa and prawn gyoza.
Next were Ball of sausage with cabbage, Donuts with eel to humada and Banana and squid. The snacks comprised of a mixture of flavours, textures, ingredients as a preamble to our tasting menu ahead.
The most interesting snack in terms of presentation had to be “Txistorra” with beer and mango which was placed on a crushed beer can.
Our first course were Oysters, color Warm and colourful oysters, together with leek, pumpkin and blueberries and Fish of the day with “patxaran” and purple corn Fish of the day marinated with “patxaran” dusted with purple corn. Although the oysters were paired with different ingredients, the flavours of leek, pumpkin and blueberries were rather mild and did not mask over the natural taste of the plump oysters. The fish seemed to be semi-cured, not sure if its because it is marinated using the “Patxaran” which is a sloe-flavoured liqueur commonly drunk in Navarre and the Basque Country?
Lobster with bee’s pollen Sauteed lobster with fresh pollen, sweet and acidic flavours with blue honeycomb The elements were plated to form a pictorial representation of it’s flavours, like the sweet honeycomb shaped bits and the fruity deep yellow blot that resembles passionfruit.
Red space egg “Red” egg cooked at 65 degree Celsius, red peppers, cereal ferments and crispy pig’s trotters was yet another visually appealing dish with its vibrant colours. The special technique used for poaching the perfect eggs, said to be developed by Chef Juan Mari Arzak, is known as “Arzak eggs”. The method allows you to add seasoning to the egg before wrapping it up using cling wrap and poaching it, resulting in a perfectly formed egg.
The Red mullet with oak leaves Crispy colorful fallen leaves accompany red mullet fillet and crustacean stock was offered to us as the 3rd fish option (there were only 2 choices listed in the tasting menu). I’m glad I chose this dish as I’ve seen a clip on the internet about food being plated over a clear glass with an ipad beneath, little did I knew that it was at Arzak. As I was eating the fish, the short clip playing on the ipad screen was that of ocean waves hitting the shore. Perhaps some scientist would be interested to conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis on whether having fish served this way enhances diner’s perception that the fish taste fresher?
Other than the technology fad, I was more fascinated by the dehydrated “leaves” made from different veggies which turned them into crispy chips.
Sea Bass tamale Sea Bass cooked with a mojo sauce, covered with a wine steeped corn husk and purple sauce A traditional tamale consists of masa (dough made from corn) at its essence, but here it’s replaced with sea bass, and steamed with corn husk.
Venison and roe deer with cypress aroma Roasted venison and roe deer loin over a nut and armagnac spread accompanied by yuca and “guitar” shavings which envelop the whole dish in a light cypress aroma The meat was first presented to us in fry basket before being plated and having the jus poured over the meat. Although we paired our meal with a bottle of Quintaluna Verdejo which was recommended by the sommelier, we also asked for a glass of red to go with the protein dish. For this we had the D Luis R 2011 Crianza.
Duck with potato feathers Roast duck with traces of mastic accompanied by feathery textured potato was another colourful dish.
After working through 5 courses we finally arrived at the desserts. Starting with the The Big truffle Large cocoa and sugar truffle with a creamy chocolate and carob filling which looked just like any normal chocolate truffle until the hot chocolate was poured over it, unveiling the filling. Though it looked like an aftermath of a landslide accident, it certainly tasted much better than it looks!
The other dessert was Square moon Lunar chocolate cube with a fluid core of mint, neroli and kiwi. Different from the first dessert which was pure rich chocolate, this one was chocolate paired with citrusy flavours.
If you were to make a guess of what is the next dessert just from the name, you might think that its an Asian-inspired dessert – Melon, hazelnut and red dates Creamy hazelnut covered with melon red date juice and light aromatic herbs smoke. Melon and red dates are commonly used to boil “cooling” drinks in Asia to fend off heatiness. But here the ingredients were used as a dessert.
Ending with Apple doughnuts and anise Rings of roast and creamy apple with aromas of anise and macadamia intxaursalsa.
Took us 3 hours to finish the meal and I’m still squeezing out the last bit of stomach space to fit in these ice cream assortment that came in a pretty bird cage.
Arzak delivered a solid fine-dining experience, albeit not as “molecular” and “over-the-top” as I expected. However it provided good introduction to Basque cuisines as they used many basque products such as txistorra (a type of fast-cure sausage), patxaran etc. Every dish is work of art, visually pleasing and gastronomically simulating in terms of flavours, aromas and textures.
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