Arzak – 4/5
The Arzak family first opened a restaurant here in 1897. At first, this was a simple taverna, half-way up a dusty hill on the outskirts of town. No doubt the dust was once raised only by the clopping of hooves, but now the traffic’s thrum is shielded by double glazing and blinds. The dining room holds about thirty covers; the bar seats ten at a pinch. Yet this is the current 8th best place to eat in the world, according to the often baffling but much-seized-upon annual list in Restaurant magazine. Juan Mari Arzak began serious culinary experimentation here in the late 60s, gaining his third Michelin star in 1989. Kitchen duties are now shared with his daughter Elena. They've certainly made good use of the small space, kitting it out in a cooling, silver aesthetic.
The bar, especially, has a fairly cramped feel, as we discover when we escape from the broiling Spanish sun into its hyper-air-conditioned interior. J and I begin with the house cocktail: very cold white wine with Madeira and different preparations of lemon. It’s simultaneously sweet, sharp and boozy: an interesting pick-me-up that leaves the palate acidly clear, although it’s on the heavy side for an aperitif. Service is surprisingly slow for a restaurant of this calibre: we’re kept waiting in the bar for a good ten minutes before we get our drinks, and there is subsequently a Bad Moment in the dining room, of which more later.
After some mini wonton amuses, enticingly served on glass plates lit from beneath, and a pretty, fishy mousse served with savoury tuiles, we settle down to the tasting menu. Its opening does not disappoint. Long slices of figs (above) emerge roasted with foie gras and dotted with squeaky-sweet pomegranate seeds and, breathtakingly, segmented blackberry seeds swollen with purple juice. The surface of the foie gras has started to caramelise under the heat, while the oven has begun to soften it. Its texture is thus almost impossibly smooth, exquisite and melting. The ripe fig is a perfect foil, exotically perfumed and with a sweet crunch to its seeds: in all, this is a truly sublime dish, bursting with summer. It’s succeeded, almost bettered, by wild prawn tails with seaweed, sweetcorn and lichen (below): the prawns are firm but yielding, though their delicate sweetness is in danger of being overpowered by the salt, slippery seaweed. The little kernels of sweetcorn and the sweetcorn and lichen jus are an inspired note of vegetable freshness, as is a tiny accompanying salad whose dressing contains a surprising but welcome whiff of very young garlic.
These outstanding dishes are followed by a perfect poached hen’s egg, laid that morning, with subtle shards of crispy local ham and a marvellous, vanishing hat made of egg white. Less successful is a lobster in onion and Madeira sauce and, after that, sole with tapioca. In both of these, the ingredient at the heart of the dish is lost in puddles of cheffy sauce: the onion and Madeira number contains rounds of raw spring onion which sting out the sweetness of the lobster claw and tail. The sole is very well cooked, and the dish looks gorgeous on its black plate, but the poor fish is similarly smothered in a magnolia-coloured tapioca sauce that adds nothing to it. J is more pleased than I am: never a fan of the onion, he is very happy to enjoy it in the lobster sauce, which he describes as a ‘symphony of flavours’. If it is a symphony then, to my ears, this movement needs a little work.
Happily, main courses of lamb fillet with white olive oil and roast pigeon with goji berry and potato purées (left) are both triumphant returns to form. The lamb is perfectly pink, accompanied with an excellent sauce made from its stock and sitting proudly in an outstanding olive oil which lifts the succulence of the meat to new levels. A surprisingly simple salad of very fresh baby shoots, the delightful germinatos, contains some pieces of lamb fat which it could probably lose. But this is still a stunning piece of meat, shown off in all its well-hung, local prime. The pigeon is better still, remarkably tender and rarer than many British chefs would dare. The goji berry and potato purées alongside it have been shaped, somewhat oddly, into the letter E: despite its appearance, the dark sourness of the amber fruit is an effective complement for the rich game.
A phalanx of puddings descends: first is a clever swirl of stewed pineapple (below) served with a double shot-glass of coconut milk. The waiter pours liquid nitrogen into the glass, causing the coconut milk to erupt wildly over the pineapple and giving off a fragrant mist, plump with the scent of the fruit. It is undeniably spectacular, and the pineapple is a triumph too: cooking has sealed in its tropical perfume, which is harmoniously offset by the silken richness of the coconut milk. Another pudding arrives, not on the menu but recommended to us by the waitress: half a dozen chocolate balls, exactly like unsplit egg yolks, bobbing in a wild strawberry soup with a very refreshing wild strawberry ice cream. Technically, this dish is dazzling; I wonder if a greater variety of textures might be introduced beyond the liquid and the almost-liquid; but it’s nonetheless a show-stopping pudding, achingly fresh and original. There is also a very good sweet ravioli made with cava and served with a nutmeg ice cream. Petits fours include caramelised pineapple made gritty from being coated in granulated sugar, a frankly peculiar shot glass of mint and green tea jelly with coffee foam, a chewily sweet beetroot dumpling and an interesting ganache made with soured milk. It’s maybe a little cluttered but, as ever, it displays buckets of originality and flair and is a fittingly varied end to the meal. I like the touch of us both being given a personalised menu to take home, complete with wines.
A quick note about service: half-way through the puddings, J and I discussed whether to order some pudding wine. We called the waitress over, and then thought of an alternative. When she realised she was going to have to wait for five or ten seconds while we made a decision, she flounced off with an audible snort. In a place charging €155 for a tasting menu, this probably isn’t on, even if the rest of the staff were very attentive. (In particular, the chirpy, leather-aproned sommelier rustled up some spiffing wines.) Sr. Arzak indulged in two victory laps of the dining room during our time there, and la hija Elena did a meet-and-greet as well, suggesting that whoever’s doing the cooking back there, it can’t be them. On rare occasions, the chef’s urge to display his virtuoso abilities can threaten to overshadow, rather than enhance, the superb ingredients at his disposal. That said, a couple of off-key notes aside, J was right: this was indeed a delectable symphony.
Alto de Miracruz 21, 20015 San Sebastián. Tel. +39 943 278 465.
Lunch for two, excluding drinks, service and tax, costs €310
Wines: Kripta (€64), half bottle of Augustus Chardonnay (€23), El Nogal 2003 (€58)