As a birthday/holiday treat M and I had the pleasure of enjoying the fabled creations of Juan Maria Arzak and his daughter Elena (who shares the title of Head Chef with her father). So after a 40 minute walk straight out of town along Avenue del Alcalde Jose Elosegi (it would have been quicker but M was wearing heels…) we arrived at the former wine inn and tavern that was built by the Arzak family back in 1897.
It has operated as a restaurant – lovingly managed and nurtured by the various generations of the Arzak family since it was built and it is now operating at the top of its game with J-M Arzak genuinely regarded as one of the very few truly creative chefs pushing the boundaries of modern cuisine. Although the latter is always going to be a point of debate for foodies everywhere – there is no doubt that everybody in the world of food is keeping an eye on what is being developed in their experimental kitchen. So the tasting menu it had to be…
Ham and Tomato Smoke >> Beautifully presented – with the two ham and tomato “meat balls” floating in dry ice smoke. Very simple but very clever and a great way to kick-start the experience. Delicate, subtle flavours – but having spent a week in basque country I’d come to understand that herbs, spicing and seasoning is something that is not a natural element in local cuisine. Instead it’s the natural flavours of the base ingredient that are asked to speak for themselves and this is something that takes a bit of getting used to for someone who is more used to distinct, robust flavours.
Kabraoka pudding with kataifa >> (left, obscuring the rather elegant label of the Insalus mineral water) Monkfish pie wrapped in crispy noodles and served as a bite size morsel on a stick… multi-Michelin starred comfort food; I like a lot!
Crispy banana with fish mousse >> (bottom right) Now I am no fan of the banana or indeed of fish mouse, but I admit that I enjoyed these a lot more than I expected to. I think the dehydration of the banana made the taste a little subtler, and a lot less “furry”… the fish mouse was very light and not too fishy. The pairing was a triumph – unless you crave furry, fishy crispy mouse…
Cromlech with onion, coffee and tea >> Arzak’s playfulness going into overdrive here – inspired by childhood memories which is a feature of this entire menu. I have no idea what “cromlechs” are but if you picture very thin crispy shells covering a mixture of foie gras and apple then you’ll be close. They do love their foie in Basque… no Pintxo bar would be complete without at least two foie engorged Pintxos of varying degrees of richness and suitable accompaniments. The childhood memory is captured in the manner of eating: grab a cromlech (gently) drag it around the plate (very gently) picking up the various tea and coffee flavoured “sands” and then upend the cromlech (careful!) and eat it like an ice cream in two or three bites. What (tasty) fun! Must say though that I would have preferred more oomph! In the flavours – just like the unnaturally flavoured ice creams you get down on the pier.
Lobster Coralline with tapioca salad and citrus >> Ignoring the tapioca salad which was a nice to have – unlike its position in one of my favourite Noma dishes where it is a key part of the experience – the lobster coralline was picture perfect (my photography doesn’t do it any justice at all – so you’ll just have to believe me) and packed a heady sweet punch from the best cooked crustacean that I have ever eaten. It was soft, sweet and full of incredible flavour and each element of the dish worked perfectly. Only complaint? Not enough of it…
Dusted egg and mussel >> Where would any top-end restaurant be these days without the “perfect” egg dish? It doesn’t bother me – not if they are as good as this: a massive perfectly poached duck egg covered in crispy noodles flavoured with black sesame seeds and served with a huge mussel and colourful petals. Perfect combinations – perfectly executed. Yum!
Low tide monkfish with red seaweed >> More childhood memories from the seaside at play here – but take it from me; even ignoring the grin on your face as this is gorgeous plate is presented to you, when you taste that monkfish melting away on your palette you’ll be transported momentarily to another world let alone any childhood memories of beaches and the seaside! The moulded shells – of varying flavours where somewhat of a disappointment and perhaps a little solid in terms of consistency to truly compliment the otherworldly monkfish. But the plating? Magnificent!
Sole with head cheese, wine bread and vegetables >> Another fish dish – but this time it’s not just the main ingredient that excites the palette but the entire dish working as a whole, with the orange jus lifting and bridging the relatively punchy flavours in an unusual and extremely pleasurable way. Even the wine bread added something – although I think the side salad was an unnecessary embellishment.
Pigeon with orange, corn and cuisse confit >> Another beautiful plate but again the main ingredient steals too much attention with the prettiness of the garnish merely an insignificant sideshow. Don’t get me wrong – it all tasted great but I have eaten more satisfying pigeon dishes, if not better and more flavoursome pigeon breast, elsewhere.
Lamb with rosemary and turmeric >> Ah, this is more like it. Perfect lamb with a subtle hint of Moroccan spicing working in partnership with beautifully prepared sweetness of the red pepper “paper”. You can’t quite see it in this photo but lubrication was provided by a very light, white onion jus and despite being simple in the extreme (for a restaurant of this calibre) I’d have to say that it was one of the more memorable dishes in terms of flavour.
Soup and chocolate “between vineyards” >> Believe it or not my photography has captured this dish pretty much as it was and I have to say that I was a little taken aback by what appears to be a rather slapdash plating of three simple ingredients: basil ice cream, strawberry soup and chocolate “grapes”. I’ve only had basil ice cream once before (and it was literally only about a week before this) and this was the best I’d had – the strawberry soup tasted of errr… strawberries and was nothing special. The only extravagance and technical wizardry were the chocolate grapes; soft chocolate shells filled with warm chocolate sauce. Very tasty and unexpected but all in all this desert didn’t conjour up the same happy childhood memories for me as it must have done for the Arzak’s. Disappointing.
Playing marbles with chocolate >> Better – but still not as good as expected. Hazelnut and chocolate marbles, hazelnut “sand” and chocolate/vanilla custards. All great flavour combos and a nice mix of textures but no genius here. Moving swiftly along…
Mead and fractal fluid >> Ahhh! Now this is what I was hoping for genius pairings and masterful execution… honey flavoured mead and crystallising sugar with cochineal colouring poured over to create the prettiest fractal designs ever seen on a plate! And luckily my joy isn’t short lived as the pairing of this with the lemon curd based desert is both eye-catching and utterly scrumptuous. Happiness!
Pistachio and beetroot stone >> and the happiness continues with the earthy pairing of beetroot and pistachio. The pistachio providing the base in the form of melt-in-the-mouth aerated “rock” (just like Noma!) and crystallised nuts for garnish and the beetroot providing the deepest of red puddles in which the rock sits proud. It would have looked a mess but the colourful petals lift everything to the masterpiece that it is. Tasteful art!
Petit fours >> Actually by now I was pretty stuffed – so I was in no position to properly comment on the quality of these chocolates (and yes they were all chocolate apart from cola and mango jellies. BUT you have to admire the presentation – although I am not sure how it fitted with the overall seaside theme? I didn’t see many ironmongers along the Basque coast – but maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough!
In summary then – a fabulous experience with many a plus point and lots of happy memories all wrapped up in playful presentation but for my money at least I think that I need to be converted to the subtleties of the simpler palette with limited seasoning and spicing as it would seem is preferred in this region.