Before I begin… this is not a review. I am not even remotely qualified to review, critique or otherwise discuss the pros and cons of a dining establishment as refined and superb as Arzak in San Sebastian. But seeing as it was my first, and quite conceivably my last-for-a-long-time visit to a three star Michelin restaurant, I am prompted to share the experience with you.
First, a word about my dining companion, the incredibly lucky Monkey. If he wasn’t so appreciative, and just as excited as I was about this opportunity, there is no way I would have splurged. But he has a love of food, and declares he wants to be a chef, so this was really an investment in his education, or at least, that’s what I told myself.
Plus, I believe there should be at least one formative meal in your teenage years. For me, I can still remember in vivid detail, the night my parents took me to Hambleton Hall, a country manor hotel near my childhood home. It was my first night being treated differently than my three siblings (I was the eldest) and left a big impact on me, not least because I felt, so “grown up” – despite falling asleep at my school-desk the next day. Over 30 years later, it was time to pay it forward.
Given the fact we were slap bang in the middle of some of the finest restaurants in the world, I called down a list of Michelin restaurants on the spur of the moment just as soon as we were ensconced in our San Sebastian Airbnb. The list included Restaurante Mugaritz among others. And not surprisingly,everywhere was booked. But thankfully, Arzak had a 9.30pm cancellation (don’t forget, the Spanish eat incredibly late into the night), so I snapped it up.
Arzak is located in a family-owned house which is now over 100 years. From what I can glean, it started life as a village tavern, but as San Sebastian has grown, it is now in the suburbs – about a 10 minute drive from the center. Run by father/daughter chefs: Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, the restaurant received its third Michelin star in 1989 and the duo have won accolades all around the word, too numerous to list here.
As you’d expect with a house, there are different rooms, both upstairs and downstairs, giving you a sense of intimacy wherever you land—we were upstairs and the people watching began just as soon as we were seated. Behind me, a group of millennial Brits chatting about what only the young can chat about, behind Monkey some serious business schmoozing happening with wives, and to the right of us a romantic, yet not very passionate, date, by the look of things.
The service is amazing, as you’d expect, and the staff are incredibly friendly. And they were all interested in Monkey and delighted to hear of his career aspirations. As with all the gastronomy-led restaurants, before you even start on the many courses, there is a series of amuse-bouches designed to tickle your fancy.
As you can see from my poorly-lit iPhone photos, the element of surprise is at the center of much of the experience. Sardines with strawberries. Raspberry bitters on ice in a bottle plugged with melon. Txistorra sausage served with beer and mango on a crushed can. These surprises are meant to stimulate your senses. Not just your taste buds, but to challenge what you expect to see on a plate of food.
This desire to confront norms is what I found to be so enjoyable here at Arzak, and elsewhere in our travels around Basque Country. It got me thinking that the cooking back in the Bay Area, has, for the most part, gotten quite predictable. State Bird Provisions surprised us with Californian cuisine served dim sum-style, but I struggle to recollect anything else quite so innovative in San Francisco (but would love to hear your response to this).
Back to Arzak. After the taste of what was to come, there was rather a long pause, but that’s okay. The point of these meals is to savor the experience, soak it all in. Not eat while doing three other things— reading email, texting a friend and worrying about work—before dashing out the door.
I let them know I preferred to avoid gluten and there was no fuss or drama about this request: dishes were modified and gluten-free bread arrived warm.
The dishes continued to arrive, challenging our expectations and giving our taste-buds no opportunity to be bored, or feel like this was anything like familiar territory. One of my favorites was scarlet prawn with krill: marinated prawns on lemon grass and mint served with an unctuous preparation of beetroot and crunchy with krill (their words). I mean, we just don’t eat this at home.
Lobster arrived with bee’s pollen. A tablet was placed at my setting playing a video of crashing waves, providing the perfect backdrop, visible through the plate for a fish dish. The scene changed as you worked your way through one delicious bite after another. Lamb with cypress aroma, was brought atop smoking wood shavings.
Monkey ate pigeon for the first time, accompanied by feathers made out of potatoes. The drama unfolded like a play. And along the way different characters would show up at our table, including the famed Elena Arzak, who was kind enough to linger for a moment and chat with Monkey.
In between courses the Maitre’d offered us a tour of the kitchens, which are at the bottom of the steepest, most treacherous flight of stairs I could imagine. But this is what I love about Europe. Here in Cali, an officious building inspector would make you rebuild the interior of a building such as this – to make it meet the code requirements. To hell with all that, I say.
The kitchen was exactly as you would imagine. Hot, chaotic – but in a clearly organized way, and fascinating. Everyone has their job. They all know what to do to bring this together, time after time. And we got the chance to meet Elena again. She is charming, smart and was happy to to talk to Monkey about his ambitions.
The desserts were, without question, a huge highlight. Mine, The Big Truffle, disappeared before my very eyes on the application of a hot chocolate sauce. Such theater.
Monkey’s chose Square moon: a lunar chocolate cube with a fluid core of mint, neroli and kiwi. There’s nothing more for me to say. Yet again a treat for the mouth and the eyes.
But there was more. The final flourish was a cage of petit fours. Chocolates in unusual colors with fillings of lemon, ginger, passionfruit and apple. To die-for. An explosion of flavor in your mouth. Really, this was a like a fireworks show and here was the grand finale. Just watch the joy on Monkey’s face. It made the price tag, all worthwhile.
On our way out the door at close to 1am, tired, satiated, but not completely stuffed—because the portions, really are modest, designed to give you the sensation but not overwhelm you—Elena stopped me.
“How old are you?” she asked me. Taken aback, I answered her. “That’s what I thought,” she said. “We look good for our age! And your son?” I told her he is nearly 14.
“My daughter is 11, she loves to eat at the best places, but I always tell her, Academics first, you have to earn this.”
And at these wise words, I looked at Monkey and knew, that not only had we shared an entirely special, never-to-be-forgotten memory in the presence of immense, world-renown talent, but Elena has remained so humble and real, and that really was the lesson here.
You can reach Arzak via phone and email. Details are on their website.