Akelare - San Sebastián, Spain
Akelare – 5/5
My, what a great place for a restaurant. Set above the trees, right at the top of a lush, sun soaked hill, twenty kilometres from the French border, with the Cantabrian sea dazzling beneath. Tall, Swedishy, wood panelled ceilings. Clever changes in height throughout the dining room, so that every table can admire the views.
There are whispers of cloud between the green fingers of the headlands, and the sea is choppy for July, but the room is still flooded in summer light. It makes a change from the autopista servicios effect of Arzak, whose unsteadying aftershocks J and I are still very much feeling from yesterday as we toddle in, not exactly miserably, for another three Michelin-starred lunch.
Akelare is the brainchild of Pedro Subijana, a magnificently moustachioed Basque, who grows a number of herbs, esoteric veg and weird leafy things right outside the restaurant, ensuring they’re picked only for a matter of minutes before being eaten. The place specialises, it turns out, in ‘food that looks like other food’. Uh-oh, I hear you say. But, dear reader, I’ve no more desire than you do to slurp for a few bewildered, then horrified seconds a lemon sorbet that turns out to be a half-frozen jellyfish. At Akelare, this little trick has an effect that I can only describe as miraculous.
The tone is set right at the start, when two closed chocolate boxes appear, like souvenirs at the end of a meal. They’re opened simultaneously (service is miles better here than at Arzak, and the staff look like they’re enjoying themselves, too), and are seen to contain, ooh, a tiny cinnamon swirl, a little home-made Ferrero Rocher and a mini Battenberg cake. Yet what’s this? The cinnamon swirl is a rich, chewy roll of black pudding, the Battenberg is a crumbly, savoury biscuit, and every Ambassador’s favourite chocolate is really a yielding, creamy fishcake. More than anything else, Subijana is interested in the interplay between sight and taste. When you first see these morsels, they’re such convincing recreations of real-life foodstuffs, you’re completely fooled: pop them into your mouth and you do a strange double-take, the thrill of which only enhances their deliciousness.
Double-takes – trebles even – all round! Pearls of foie gras ice cream (below), generously portioned, liquefy on the tongue and are cut through by a welcome sour salad and long, crispy croutons. After this comes an extraordinary dish, brimming with wit: a circle of individual, beautifully seasoned risottos, one after the other: carrots, pearl barley, broad beans, rice and peas, with a beetroot yolk in the centre. The appearance, shockingly, is that of tinned vegetables with a squirt of ketchup (left). For some, this might be going too far, but I love the humour, the personality inherent in this dish: the thrilling apposition of the presentation (even the broad beans are the flat, murky colour of their tinned cousins), against the fresh taste. This is what great cooking does: it refines your comfort zone, extends your appreciation: it enhances the very senses you use to experience food. Next is a medley of firm wild mushrooms with ‘noodles’ made only of eggs (yolk for yellow ones, albumen for white) and ‘mushrooms’ made out of pasta, complete with little pasta hats. Coriander leaves and seeds provide harmonious backnotes in a nearby soy mayonnaise. It looks and tastes sublime, and the technique is maestro.
By this stage, J has the contended, expectant grin of the cityboy invited into the backroom at Stringfellow’s. The fish, however, sends both of us careering into hitherto unexplored caverns of pleasure. Subijana’s red mullet integral, with skin, scales and bones roasted on its very flesh to provide crunch – the wild fish lightly fried – is the finest I remember eating. It’s sitting back in the chair, eye-closing stuff. Waiters now glide to the table, politely but incomprehensibly introduce new dishes, set down more plates of edible joy; we taste, ponder, chew, ponder: nothing is as it seems, yet everything is exquisite. For the fish, and for the meat courses that follow it (roast suckling pig with tomato bolao; lamb loin with black tempura vegetables), the world-class Basque ingredients are displayed at their very best. Their execution is inventive, as expected, but there are no fussy accoutrements, nothing that tries to shout above, rather than sing in tune with, the peerless natural flavours. These two courses, the fish and the meat, do exactly what they say on the proverbial tin – a damn fine tin, come to that – and it’s right that they should.
The cheese course (below) is christened (without a smudge of irony, I’m sure): Milk and grape, cheese and wine in parallel evolution. Perhaps it sounded better in Spanish. No matter: the cheeses are all Basque: some have been cooked, some made into ice creams, all served with wine transmogrified into biscuits, or grapes into jellies, or caramelised. The labour required to produce this gallimaufry is of course staggering, and it would be a pitiful waste if the results were not so superb. Yet every step at Akelare is as considered and poised as a ballerina’s. Pudding is an apricot and white cherry sorbet, melded and hued like a hyperreal apricot; with a violet cherry and an almond and cherry pastry. It’s as perfect as everything else.
I’m glad there are no petits fours. Piddly macaroons and twee little tartlets, though often fun elsewhere, would jar here, somewhere so attuned to the freshness literally outside its door. Instead, the waiter sets down a plancha of dry, well aged fuet sausage, country bread, some crisps and a carafe of red wine (below). The ‘sausage’ is a wrinkled branch of dark chocolate, dusted in icing sugar, containing bashed up hazelnuts that uncannily resemble little beads of salami fat. The bread is a sweet brioche (a little dry, and seemingly bought-in, it’s perhaps the only weak note in the entire meal), the crisps home-made and with an aniseed tang, the wine a blend of fresh, ruby juices: red grape, black cherry, plum. After all the fireworks, it’s a fittingly down-to-earth end, as well as a delightfully ironic comment on the rustic roots of Basque cuisine. It’s also final proof that what could have been the worst form of empty gimmickry, a chef’s shallow and meaningless self-indulgence, is in fact a witty, sophisticated excursion, true to its roots. Unsurprisingly, and like everything else about Akelare, I simply love it.
Paseo del Padre Orkolaga, 56 (Igueldo), 20008 San Sebastián. Tel: +39 943 311 209
Lunch for two, excluding drinks, tax and service, costs €270.
Wines: Recaredo Brut de Bruts Gran Reserva (€42), La Granja Remelluri Gran Reserva 1999 (€52), two glasses of Naiades 2005 (€12), Gramona III Lustros (€42)