Nahm | Bangkok | Sep ’14 | “precision”

20 Sep
  • Rating: 18/20
  • Address: Metropolitan by COMO, 27 South Sathorn Road, Tungmahamek Sathorn, Bangkok 10120 Thailand
  • Phone: +66 2 625 3388.
  • Price per pax: THB2500 [set menu + drinks] ($78 at 1 USD = 32.2 THB)
  • Value: 4/5
  • Dining time: 90 minutes
  • Chef: David Thompson
  • Style: Traditional Thai

 

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Three things really impressed me about my first dinner at Nahm. The first was a dessert that was a symphony of heaven, combining icy coconut milk with hot crispy sesame biscuits broken within for an imitatio of the most delicious bowl of cornflakes, with the intermediate soft texture of sweet-sour custard apple. The second was a relish dish that featured two top-class and novel (to me) ingredients, white turmeric and “sour leaves”. The third was a general feeling of precision that pervaded all dishes. No matter whether I loved the dish, or merely liked it, I felt that the cooking was precisely calculated to produce the effect it ended up having. The little touches – the surprisingly satisfying crunch of the apple eggplant, the betel leaf taco in the canapes – all felt thoroughly thought through.

I’ve met a few food enthusiasts since I’ve returned to Singapore. Their reactions to Nahm have on the whole, been polarized. I don’t believe that at such a precise restaurant, the fault is some variance on the end of Nahm. Rather, the root cause is the inflated expectation created by the breathless acclaim it has been receiving recently (culminating in being named Asia’s Best Restaurant for 2014). Any list that claims to pick a #1 restaurant is silly, there are good restaurants, better restaurants, and the best restaurants, but there will never be a #1 restaurant. Rene Redzepi, writing in his recent one-year journal “A Work in Progress”, mentions how much pressure being named #1 restaurant in the World piled on him, and how he was unable to enjoy his work in the first half of 2011. (If there’s one big thing Michelin does right, it’s keeping a non-ranked 1st tier of restaurants – the three stars). I can’t tell how much pressure being named #1 restaurant in Asia brings to the Nahm kitchen and Chef David Thompson, but it changes the diner’s mindset to “once-in-a-lifetime-ism”, setting up expectations of ortolans flying out of cakes and stepping in expecting the last supper.

And Nahm is poorly suited to play the role of “once-in-a-lifetime” experience, because it does not convey to the average international diner (and that includes me) drama and narrative. Firstly, the dishes come out all at the same time, family-style. The tyranny of the tasting menu is well-remarked, but temporal sequencing of dishes allows narrative in a way that family-style serving does not. Secondly, Nahm’s drama and narrative (as far as I can tell) draws upon its revival of centuries-old traditional Thai recipes, written in ancient Thai cookbooks, and therefore set in a culture and language that most international travellers cannot parse. This means that these international diners evaluate the food on a purely solipsistic* basis. And Nahm does Thai food superbly well. But between aversions to spiciness (barbarism or misfortune) and unfamiliarity, a solipsistic basis in evaluating dishes served family-style results in a disjointed experience of “I like this, not so much that”, which prevents the narrative build-up (crystallization a la Stendhal) that is almost surely necessary for “once-in-a-lifetime experiences”.

There are weaknesses. The cocktail program could be improved, for instance, to shy away from tacky combinations like the Coconut Soup Martini, which wasn’t very good. But the unique feature of Nahm is its promise to revive traditional Thai dishes and serve them to the discriminating public – and such a strength, abetted by David Thompson’s precise cooking and laudable ingredients sourcing, justify Nahm’s acclaim.


*[There are a couple of magical moments at Nahm (the dessert, and the wonderful ingredients: white turmeric, apple eggplant, sour leaves) to this dining solipsist. But without the context of reading a very many Thai cookbooks, Nahm does not seem to have the whimsical transport of Alice in Wonderland at the Fat Duck, nor the intense meditativeness of Mugaritz, nor a willful commitment to the dying strains of nouvelle cuisine a la L’Ambroisie. (restaurants which are undeniably of the top echelon in their countries). We have come to expect drama and narrative with our food, but these Stendhal-esque crystallizations will only deepen around restaurants whose histories we care to know, and able to know. As long as the native larder is a cipher to us, we will only engage with foreign food at the level of a solipsist (cardinal sins I have committed liberally, in my write-ups on South America especially). My rating of Nahm here is from the viewpoint of a solipsist aspiring to be an ex-solipsist.]

**Rather amusingly, the next table, a couple, ended up asking for Pad Thai when confronted with the menu. Given the possibly foreign and recent origin of Pad Thai, it would have been out of place at Nahm. But how in the world do you get a reservation at Nahm while remaining ignorant of the kind of Thai food they serve?


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  • Chicken-Pork-Prawn, palm sugar, shallot, garlic, served on a slice of pineapple (4.25/5)

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  • thai sabai (mekhong, white sugar, sweet basil, lime)

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  • CANAPES
    • ขนมเบื้องญวณ (prawn and coconut wafers with pickled ginger) (4.5/5)
    • ปูซ่อนกลิ่น (blue swimmer crab, peanuts and pickled garlic of rice cakes) (4.25/5)
    • กอแระหอยแมลงภู่ (grilled mussels – southern style) (4.25/5)
    • เมี่ยงปลากุเลา (salted threadfin perch with ginger, chillies and green mango on betel leaves) (4/5)
      • a terrific, bitter-ish taste from betel, taco-like around the sour green mango and salty bit of fish.

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  • CURRY
    • แกงกะทิปูม้า (coconut and tumeric curry of blue swimmer crab with calamansi lime) (4.5/5)

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  • SALAD
    • าใบบัวบกใส่กุ้งแม่น้ าหมูรวน (salad of fresh river prawns with pork and asian pennywort) (4/5)

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  • SOUP
    • ต้มย าไก่กะทิ (coconut and chicken soup with deep fried garlic, green mango and chilli) (4.25/5)
      • Unusual, an opaque soup that had green mango to add a sour tinge.

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  • RELISH
    • น้ าพริกมะขามสด (fresh tamarind relish with minced prawns, pork and chillies with braised mackerel, deep-fried quail eggs and fresh vegetables) (4.25/5)
      • This had fresh-tasting white tumeric slices (the best way I kind describe fresh white tumeric is that it has a mild clean onion taste, but without the astringency, firm, and a joy to eat)
      • http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/ingredients/turmeric.html
      • The “sour leaf” (that’s how it was described) was great, possessing a mild and pleasant sourness that is milder than any lemon or lime I have tried. Cooks who enjoy using subtle effects, would benefit from a fresh supply of these sour leaves. Served with banana flower.

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  • STIR-FRIED, STEAMED AND GRILLED
    • หมูผัดน้ าพริกกุ้งเสียบและมะเขือเปราะ (stir-fried pork with dried prawns, apple eggplants and chillies) (4.75/5)
      • The apple eggplant had an enchanting texture, like soft jelly with a satisfying crunch. A brilliant ingredient.
      • Highly spicy

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  • c3 martini (coconut soup martini)
    • slightly too unguent for my taste.

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family style serving

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  • Green Mango with Sugar
    • Palate cleansing)

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  • DESSERT
    • น้อยหน่าน ้ากะทิกับขนมดอกจอก (custard apple in coconut cream with sesame biscuits) (5/5)
      • A dish to die for. These fresh sesame biscuits were still coated with just the thinnest film of oil when they were served fresh next to a cold bowl of iced coconut cream. When you break up the warm sesame-encrusted biscuits over the iced coconut cream, it feels like eating the world’s best* bowl of breakfast cereal. Instead of cold milk, we get the rich taste of cold coconut milk, and biting into the sweet warm biscuits like crunching into fresh warm sugared cornflakes. A magical contrast of hot-and-cold, crunchy-and-soupy.
      • (*joint-1st breakfast cereal dish, with the Sweet Grain Cereal of birch in Providence, half the world away)
      • Custard apples provide a sour-sweet soursop taste, with firmer texture, a beautiful dish. Truly spectacular.

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  • Thai petit fours (clockwise from top right)
    • Young coconut milk biscuit.
    • Egg flour and almond
    • Grated coconut
    • Caramelized sesame with peanut

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Sant Pau | Sant Pol de Mar | Jun ’14 | “playful surrealism”

31 Aug
  • Rating: 17.5/20
  • Address: Carrer Nou, 10, 08395 Sant Pol de Mar, Barcelona, Spain
  • Phone: +34 937 60 06 62
  • Price per pax: ~€193 ($254 at 1 EUR = 1.31 USD)
  • Value: 2.5/5
  • Dining time: 180 minutes
  • Chef: Carme Ruscadella
  • Style: Creative Catalan
  • Michelin Stars: 3

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SURREALISM. Surrealism is alive and well in Catalonia, only domesticated on a plate at Sant Pau. The kitchen of Carme Ruscadella cooks in a whimsical way that echoes her great Catalan artistic predecessors, but through the necessary precision to maintain 3 Michelin stars forestalling the excesses of Dali, a fascination with communicating geometrical shapes evoking Miro but departing from his primodial soup aesthetic with its liking for geometric precision.

THE ROOTS OF SURREALISM at my meal at Sant Pau:

  1. Fusion: (a Dali-esque technique recalling his 3-dimensional works like Lobster Telephone): “Padrón and rice croquette” Two typical Catalan tapas, the padron pepper and the croquette, were fused into a padron croquette. Seductively mute and provocative, a recently-birthed Venus.
  2. Food-Text Interplay: “Lobster pizza: raw and cooked vegetables, creamy mozzarella”: Lobster “pizza”, overflowing a dough base, had none of the flat pizza geometry, instead forming a tower of ingredients. To describe it as “pizza” was accurate in the technical sense that there was dough underneath, and in the sense that the flavors were broadly what we’d recognise as margherita pizza. The description was off-beat. It was quite a change from my last major meal at Asador Etxebarri, where all the dish descriptions were literal and minimalist (mirroring the food). It was as whimsical as Mugaritz, but the dish descriptions at Mugaritz were literal, minimalist, and the surprise came not from the dissimilarity between the menu description and the dish presented, but purely from the menu description itself: “7 Spice Rattle”; “”Fifth Quarter Octopus”. For “Lobster Pizza”, it was superficially plausible to be served a lobster pizza, but the full effect of surprise was completed only when seeing the dish, since it had undergone at least one reimagining. (This was the same effect as being served “Mac and Cheese” at Per Se: superficially plausible, but the effect is only complete when the creative reimagining shows up)*.
  3. Atypical Geometric Constructions:Gambes on Sailor’s Toast: tribute to the local sailors cuisine”: Instead of serving the dish with prawns on top, the bread is served with prawns wrapped around it.
  4. Chimera: The Dragon at the end, was a chimera of 7 different textures, each sheet whimsically sculpted to resemble dragon-parts.

*(My favorite Food-Text Interplay at Per Se is the clever linguistic pun – “pearls” in “oysters and pearls” being tapioca pearls)

A MEAL AT SANT PAU AS FOOD

As a meal for showcasing artistic vision, Sant Pau is first-class. But tastewise, much of the meal was merely pleasant, with nothing that remains as a strong impression two months later. It is not the case at Sant Pau that dishes are composed to be eye-candy without having a strong taste-backbone – frequently the more visually stunning dishes were the ones that tasted better. Instead, the clunkers were dishes like “John dory and curry: courgette, eringui and potatoes”, and “Vegetal Dim Sum”, dishes in the International Style that tasted pleasant and were precisely executed, but seemed at Sant Pau to lack fireworks in both aesthetics and tastiness.

As a diner my overall impression was that, besides the stupendously delicious bread, every morsel of food at Sant Pau, taste-wise, was precisely calculated to be pleasant. The strongest impressions I carry are the riot of colours and the geometric precision of the dishes – a vibrant surreal feast for the eyes, the literal feast more muted. On the whole, I found Sant Pau worth the trip, there was a sense of play and mischief here I haven’t found elsewhere.


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Sant Pau bakes some of the best bread that I have had. Crusty (+++) , and full of browned flavor, it was among the top 2-3 on the monthlong Europe trip I’ve been chronicling, if not actually the top. I could not resist asking for more, and more, crusty bits (5/5)

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  • Tomato and strawberry velvet, manzanilla, quinoa (4.25/5)
    • tomato/strawberry, gazpacho, manzanilla sherry, and black quinoa, served in a cocktail glass

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  • Padrón and rice croquette (4.5/5)
    • Two typical Catalan tapas, the padron pepper and the croquette, were fused into a padron croquette. Seductively mute and provocative, a recently-birthed Venus with a bit of cheese inside the padron pepper. Why isn’t this combination more popular? Delicious.

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  • Vegetal Dim Sum (4/5)
    • Chive dumpling, with a hint of Chinese ginger (a la xiaolongbao sauce), with a nice sour tomato-ish sauce.

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  • Norway lobster and coconut gnocchi: in tempura with shiso sauce (4.5/5)
    • The gnocchi, gelled as if agarified, a translucent sauce with a pesto-like sauce made of Shiso.
    • This was a good dish, the langoustines (they described it as “langoustines” when serving the dish) nicely seasoned, though it had less of the firm bite of the ones at Ledoyen.

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  • Lobster pizza: raw and cooked vegetables, creamy mozzarella (4.5/5)
    • Basil, mozzarella, tomato, squash blossom. As mentioned, it was superficially plausible to be served a lobster pizza, but the full effect of surprise was completed only when seeing the dish, since it had undergone at least one reimagining.
    • The tastes, while good, was no more than exactly a “lobster pizza”, which did not fire my culinary imagination beyond comfort food. The bread was a robust biscuit cracker.

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  • Miso and foie cubes: champignons, vegetables, umeboshi, lemon (4.25/5)
    • Seared foie, green peas, crisp champignons.
    • The miso was given a bit of sausage-y, unctuous meatiness from the foie.

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  • Gambes on Sailor’s Toast: tribute to the local sailors cuisine (4.25/5)
    • The prawns were savory, a seafood toast an intense taste of seafood stew. It brought me to the docks of Sant Pol.

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  • Pirinese foal loin, black garlic, banana: medium-rare roasted (4.5/5)
    • Horse meat (why not?) with banana, a surprisingly good accompaniment with savory black garlic soil.
    • However, the meat was tender and relatively flavorless, unsurprising since it was a young foal. (veal often suffers from the same problem, the lack of distinctive taste of the meat) It was prepared well though.

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  • Cheese for June – “Núm. 30 Second Series”: Serrat Gros, 3 combination with gamatxa wine and almonds
    • PRIMER JUEGO: Con cerezas bañadas en garnacha de Allela y almendras
    • SEGUNDO JUEGO: Dos cordones, de mazapán con garnacha y de queso
    • TERCER JUGEO: Macaron de almendra y garnacha relleno de queso
    • Serrat Gros: Queso artesano y de pastor (Ossera, Alt Urgell). Elaborado con leche cruda de cabras de raza alpina. Coagulación láctica, pasta blanda, piel enmohecida. Madurado en cava durante 8 semanas.
    • The first (undressed cheese) was notable for good cherries, juicy without being cloyingly sweet (4/5)
    • The second, with marzipan in a spiral was okay.(3.5/5)
    • The third, a raspberry macaron had good fruit flavor, contrasting with the cheese well (4.5/5)

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  • Pre Dessert: Calisay passion (4.5/5)
    • Passionfruit sorbet and Calysay, the tropical fruit liqueur, a refreshing trope.

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  • Cube: berries, shiso ice cream (3.75/5)
    • While I admire the Mondrian-esque construction, the shiso gelatin with raspberry, coconut, and a solid pillar of apple (I suspect this is important in its structural integrity) was taste-wise nothing special

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  • Tender almonds kiss, sea water (4.75/5)
    • The simplest dish, and the best (for some reason, the simplicity recalls a magical dessert of coconut and carrot at Asta in Boston)
    • Almond cream, fleur de sel, olive oil (fruity and green), with seawater-vanilla ice cream. Dotted with fresh almonds. Superb.

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  • Raisin tomatoes sponge: curd cheese, oregano, ratafía (4.5/5)
    • Tremendously sweet tomatoes (that were intensely raisin-ish, without a trace of tartness),  with sheep’s milk yoghurt, and coca – a sweet pizza-like pastry. The tomatoes had been oven-roasted, and not one bit of sugar was added – very surprising, given how sweet it was. Ratafia (a sweet liqueur) was in there somewhere (tomatoes?)
    • This was a clever dessert-pizza concept dish: the tomatoes functioning more as oversized raisins, the sheep’s milk yoghurt mirroring mozzarella, oregano mirroring basil (for the lobster pizza).
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coca_(pastry)
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ratafia
    • While Googling I also found an advert for a Tomaccio: an intensely sweet raisin tomato: http://www.raker.com/doc/raker.tomaccio.handout.pdf. Was this what I was served?

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  • Black and Green Olives, Aragón, sevillanas, sweet wine (4/5)
    • Olive oils, different types of olives blended with different kinds of chocolates. Minimalist, but I enjoyed the fruity-olive taste with chocolate. Pleasant

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  • The Dragon (4.25/5)
    • White chocolate
    • Black chocolate
    • Puff pastry, angel hair, pine nuts
    • Chocolate cookies
    • Lemon cookies
    • Licorice and sherbet philo
    • Mint brick
    • While reposing with a coffee in the garden, I was served the first in Sant Pau’s mythical beasts dessert series: The Dragon
  • Limoncello jelly – I was also given a tin to take home. Delicious.

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Asador Etxebarri | Axpe | Jun ’14 | “Round Two”

16 Aug 2014-06-15 13.20.45
  • Rating: 20/20
  • Address: Calle de San Juán, 1, 24549 Atxondo, Vizcaya, Vizcaya, Spain
  • Phone:+34 946 58 30 42
  • Price per pax: ~€150 ($202 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining time: 195 minutes
  • Chef: Victor Arguinzoniz
  • Style: Wood-Barbecue
  • Michelin Stars: 1

Previous Write-ups:

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SUNDAY came, and the sun trickled through the windows. It was the day – a second rendezvous with the delights of wood-grilled barbecue – 3 whole days after I had been there. A second visit to a tasting-menu restaurant is like reading a second novel by a favorite author – another opportunity to take in a preferred cooking/writing style, while having the particulars changed.

And I had enjoyed my first meal there very much. The smoke was directed by the hands of a master.

The drive there took 45 minutes – this time I did not miss the turn-off at Durango, and as I arrived on the verandah the meal began.

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  • Marrow Squash (4.25/5)
    • Three salty slices of marrow, with a gentle smoke. I remember the stolid integrity of the green slices, still quite firm

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  • Tomato (4.25/5)
    • A sweet oversized tart berry, salted atop the kiss of the grill
    • When cut with a knife, the specimen exploded with juice,
    • and quickly folded under.

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  • Cracker (4/5)
    • Xixa cepas – sliced raw a top a cracker. Similar to the treatment of St George’s mushrooms in my first meal
    • Quite some confidence, to put sliced raw mushrooms on a cracker!

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  • Brochette of chanterelle (5/5)
    • Great. Each of the chanterelles – A deep smoky flavor outside, but inside the delicate mild-fresh taste of spring.
    • Made crisp at ends of the cap when grilled, the chanterelles were a shade of orange so aggressive on the eye, it recalled the warning shades of radioactive-orange.
    • At the end, I drank all of the mushroom liquor.
    • Simplicity itself. It got me thinking about the source of my happiness – Do we have to travel all the way to a far place, to put enough aesthetic distance between ourselves and simply-prepared flavorful food, that we can enjoy it anew? I think the answer is “No”. The effort in travel, whether it imparts aesthetic distance between ourselves and simple food, or whether it connotes a sense of personal luxury, is not the main reason. I think of the main reason is still the rare talent/genius of chef-proprietors (particularly minimalists like Passard, and Arguinzoniz) who listen to their environment, and know what it can bring. We travel not to impart aesthetic distance or luxury to simple food in order to enjoy eating it; we travel because there are geniuses who have mastered a thousand little details to make simple food that is enjoyable to eat, and even mysteriously – connotes aesthetic pleasure, and luxury.
    • For I have travelled a long way for simple food many a times (e.g. Empanadas in Argentina, bouillabaisse in Marseille) – but have not had the same visceral reaction of aesthetic pleasure and luxury due to a lack of attention from the chef. Too oily empanadas here, too astringently garlick a bouillabaisse there. So it isn’t just about simple food. It is about the interplay of first-class ingredients and first-class cooking. (both of which the empanadas and bouillabaisse generally lacked)
    • And Passard and Arguinzoniz, among others, are showing that first-class cooking doesn’t have to be very noisy. It can be stripped down, but minimalism seems to have its own rules to create a full-bodied experience – that only a select handful of chefs in the minimalist can execute on extremely well -> the varietals of smoke for Arguinzoniz, the vegetable varietals for Passard.

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  • Oyster and spinach (4/5)
    • A gently smoked oyster, with no grilling
    • Spinach to cut sweetness of oyster

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  • Caviar (5/5)
    • Smoked caviar. Using a custom-made pan with micro-slits. (I think you can find pictures on Google)
    • The yolk had ever-so-slightly set a bit more than normal
    • The caviar was smoked with a strong robust, wood smoke
    • A complete food in its saltiness. Decadent, perfect. Every bite only prompted more hunger, the hunger that the robust wood smoke provokes, someplace deep and primal in the brain. In my brain, there is a switch for the connection between delicious woodsmoke and hunger, and this dish turned it on.

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  • Goose barnacles (4.5/5)
    • “Percebes” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goose_barnacle
    • With a coating that looks like nylon stockings but is actually an impenetrable rubbery armor, it took a firm twist to open the percebes and… squirt it all over myself. A amniotic-red fluid drizzled over my jacket.
    • And then you’re confronted with striated bands of what seems a fleshy, squat, finger. “Pop-toe” was the word that came to mind.
    • I popped it in my mouth. Delicious, with the tenderness of lobster, with the crunchiness of Maine lobster.
    • This was the one dish where Victor’s grilling seemed to have made the least impact – there was a subtle grilling taste which made it really good. But the star was indubitably the crunchy barnacle flesh. Probably the lack of telling impact from being grilled came from the barnacle’s hermetic seal within its protective casing – it really took a firm twist to access its flesh
    • The little tentacly bits at the base of the percebes had a mix of crunchy textures.
    • An expensive delicacy, its odd looks have also prompted an odd history:

In the days before it was realised that birds migrate, it was thought that Barnacle Geese, Branta leucopsis, developed from this crustacean, since they were never seen to nest in temperate Europe,[2] hence theEnglish names “goose barnacle”, “barnacle goose” and the scientific name Lepas anserifera (Latin anser = “goose”). The confusion was prompted by the similarities in colour and shape. Because they were often found on driftwood, it was assumed that the barnacles were attached to branches before they fell in the water. The Welsh monk, Giraldus Cambrensis, made this claim in his Topographia Hiberniae.[3] Since barnacle geese were thought to be “neither flesh, nor born of flesh”, they were allowed to be eaten on days when eating meat was forbidden by religion. (Wikipedia)

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  • Lobster (5/5)
    • I’m very grateful that the kitchen managed to source a first-class Galician female lobster that hadn’t laid its eggs yet.
    • A tremendous feast, pulsing with pinkish egg sacs that were like sheets of silken tofu skin.
    • A dark, angry purple of hard eggs, seemed like a rock-wand of eggs.
    • The soft gelatinous texture of lobster tail end, mixed with perfect firmness when you bit into it from the top
    • The most concentrated crustacean flavor that came from the claw
    • A bit of toughness from the middle tail segment
    • the nice and frilly gills of the lobster.
    • And more echoes of the tasty claw in the legs.
    • A salty, smokey liqueur from the lobster was just irresistible
    • A great feast and gift of a course from the kitchen

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  • Baby squid caramelized onion and its ink (4.75/5)
    • The tentacles of the squid so crisp; the give of squid body to the knife; Sweet onions

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  • Mushrooms and egg-plant (4.5/5)
    • Sweet and tender eggplant, nutty

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  • Green beans (4.25/5)
    • Paprika sauce, gentle, the beans a bit bitter than the sweet peas

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  • Grouper and Green peas (4.75/5)
    • An incomparably tender and gelatinous grouper, with the sweet green peas.
    • Crisp skin, with pil-pil sauce.
    • It had the gelatinous cooking of sous-vide, without the insipid uniformity of texture from said cooking method. It was great.

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  • Beef chop (5/5)
    • Piece-de-break-my-resistance
    • This steak was a reprise from the first meal, though I would say that this had slightly more tendons and was a bit more chewy.
    • When your rational mind is telling you that this is the best steak you have ever-eaten, and are ever likely to eat; but your stomach is telling you that you are too full, that is the definition of a moral dilemma. If I did not have a flight to Barcelona in 3.5 hours, I would have happily sat down for an hour to regain my bloody-minded-ness, my Man Vs Food resolve, and finished that steak, soaked in a most vibrantly bloody liqueur.
    • I managed about half, before waving the white flag. “no puedo mas”.
    • 2 months later, I still regret not bagging that steak to go. I hope the family dogs ate well, at least

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  • Reduced milk ice cream with red fruit infusion (5/5)
    • I begged for a reprise of the smoked milk ice cream from the first meal, and got it.
    • It refreshed my appetite; I finished it all.

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  • Flan of cheese (5/5)
    • A silken flan, liberated from a metal cylinder,
    • the softness of the flan went right up against edge of structural integrity for a cylinder, and for a brief moment looked like it just might not hold – but of course it did. The absolute silken-ness, and caramelised sweet cheese tastes, made this my Platonic form of flan.
    • Another masterful dish. Asador Etxebarri formed so many happy culinary memories over the course of two meals there.

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  • Mignardise (4.5/5)
    • Raspberry liqueur inside

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The wizard of the grill.

Mugaritz | Errenteria | Jun ’14 | “dialogue”

16 Aug
  • Rating: 20/20
  • Address: Aldura Aldea, 20, 20100 Errenteria, Guipúzcoa, Spain
  • Phone: +34 943 52 24 55
  • Price per pax: €230 ($308 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 5/5
  • Dining time: 180 minutes
  • Chef: Andoni Luis Aduriz
  • Style: simultaneously Modernist and New Naturalist*
  • Michelin Stars: 2

* See Emma Marris’s Beyond Food and Evil for a descriptive essay on fellow Modernist-New-Naturalist travellers, Noma and COI.


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Abstraction. Mugaritz is an abstract restaurant, in several senses of the term. In the first sense of an “abstract idea”, the dishes are like gilded puzzle-boxes, each of which houses a dominant idea or “what-if” in cooking. I saw such ideas in a sandwich composed entirely of one-ingredient – the gelatinous hake cheek (kokotxas); and the lamb with mould growth that approximated wool. In a second not unrelated sense of serving “abstract dishes”, the ingredients are pared down, and quiet moments and momentary effects are allowed to take their place on a meditative stage. The sheer strangeness of discovery, that a turf of grass served as an ornament at the start of the meal is actually edible, struck me on that evening of uncommon stillness. A meditative, quiet place, dinner that evening reminded me of a peaceful afternoon watching rocks at a Kyoto rock garden.

In a third sense, Mugaritz reminds me of “mathematical abstraction”, where the constants of the restaurant experience (the conventional, such as the orthodoxy that every diner is served a dish on his/her own schedule) suddenly become variable (One such dish was “Linking…”, where every patron in the restaurant started making the same aspic sauce with a grinder at the same moment). Such dishes remind me that Mugaritz plays on a larger canvas of effects, a higher-dimensional space than other restaurants. If the heart of mathematical abstraction is to seek a greater generality in order to conceive of how a mathematical system could otherwise be – to produce a series of fruitful and plausible alternative conceptions, then Mugaritz is such a mathematically abstract restaurant. You are likely to encounter at least one dish here that will challenge your preconceptions about dining.

Mugaritz, as reflected in the international quality of the diners, exists as a reference point in the frontiers of world gastronomy. There is a subversive humor at work, which I love. I have found it difficult to write about my Mugaritz experience. The restaurant seems as meditative as a Zen Buddhist temple; the courses as ineffable as a series of Zen Buddhist koans. Through a series of dishes, the restless intelligences of the chef and his staff engage you in a Socratic dialogue that continues long after you have left the table…

Notable Links:


My June 2014 menu -  “Simplicity, originality, lots of creativity, lots of innovation, lots of risk and uncertainty”

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  • A dozen smeared radishes. (3.75/5)
    • A nice salty tomato paste, full of flavor, but it did not curb the astringency of raw radishes, which left a latex taste in the mouth.
    • The idea: Minimal transformation of ingredients, a la the veggie crudites from Blue Hill in New York.


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  • 7 spice Rattle. (3.5/5)
    • A rattle featuring an outer meringue case
    • The idea: Using ingredients to create a musical instrument.

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  • Cultural textures. Several layers of dressed Kokotxas. (5/5)
    • Brilliant. This toast sandwich of kokotxas, a seemingly one-ingredient dish, had the natural taste of gelatin from the filling, pure kokotxas, as well as two slices of kokotxas chitterling, made crispy from that gelatin.
    • The idea: A one ingredient dish, playing with the potentials of gelatin in kokotxas, both in traditional gelatinous form, and crisp form

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  • Mushrooms: house grown colony. (4.75/5)
    • Baby mushrooms, tempura-ed at the bottom (with sour-lemon tastes changing into spiciness). The meaty texture was an ideal foil for the sour-lemon tastes

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  • Lacquered duck neck with herbs and dry grains. (5/5)
    • Duck neck with fresh herbs. All the natural tastes of duck skin with fresh tasting leaves.
    • I liked that the accompanying plate emphasised that the lacquered skin was the duck’s neck.
    • The idea: A duck neck that sheathed vegetables and not flesh.

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  • Toast of roasted crusts. (5/5)
    • Iberico pork neck dumpling – a mantou bun fused with pork skin, And pork meat atop.
    • The idea: What if a pork bun could include crisp pork skin?

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  • Vegetable tiles. A handful of Highland grass. (4.5/5)
    • All this while, there was a turf of grass in front of me. I was served a bowl of tip, and to eat that turf of grass.
    • It was surprising, and confounded at least two expectations – we don’t eat our table decorations, and we don’t eat grass.
    • The grass turned out to be young Ethiopian teff grass, which had a very neutral flavor, though a fresh loosely packed yet springy texture – exactly what you’d imagine a carpet of grass would taste like. It was a good textural vehicle for pinenut cream and malt crumble.

The idea: A secretly edible dish, was all the time in front of the diner. Mirroring the own epiphanies of Andoni Aduriz: “We realized that even what is closest to us can seem exotic and mysterious merely on account of our ignorance: even though we are surrounded by a specific environment, we’ve never really lived in close contact with it.” “It Is clear that today ‘exotic’ is no longer associated with distance. Today, exotic is synonymous with the unknown. And the unknown, or mysterious, can be hiding right next to us, under that apple tree.” – Aduriz, Mugaritz: A Natural Science of Cooking, p26

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  • …decadentia… (5/5)
    • At this point, I moved into the main building to continue with the meal.
    • I was served a great piece of bread, comforting because it was crusty.
    • And served a delicately textured fork, in a case.
    • Along with a smoked eel mousse, eel crisps, and edible flowers on top. I was instructed to eat the mousse with the fork, and then eat the fork! The fork was made from sugar…
    • Using the fork, it imparted a subtle sweetness to the smoked eel and flowers. Textural contrasts from eel crisps. And then… down the memory hole went the fork, as I ate it in 4 bites.
    • What is one to say to such a dish, except “Bravo…Bravo!” to the imagination and the perfect execution of the kitchen. The whimsy and execution of the dish blew my mind. These are the touches that make the trip, no, pilgrimage, to Mugaritz worth it – nowhere else could you imagine serving these delicate set-pieces, these jeweled puzzle-boxes, these gilded conundrums, except at Mugaritz.
    • I still recall this dish very fondly.
    • The idea: Why should The Edible end at the tine of a fork?

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  • Red scorpion fish marinated in its barrel bottom and sour textures. (4.5/5)
    • Fresh almonds, oxalis leaves, brown almond puree underneath red scorpionfish (sour)
    • The sourness did not rise to the level of a Peruvian Leche de Tigre (used to prepare ceviche), rather a mellow sourness. The fresh almonds were tender, and it was a perfect counterpoint to the fireworks of decadentia, a quieter marriage of two great ingredients – fresh and impeccably firm scorpionfish, and the taste of fresh almonds.

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  • (Pig’s blood meringue) (5/5)
    • Every guest to Mugaritz gets a kitchen tour. In 2010, Mugaritz suffered a devastating fire. But the silver lining was that it allowed the kitchen to be extensively remodelled into the modernist wonder it is today. And the small bite I was served was an expression of the empirical spirit animating the chefs – a pig’s blood meringue.
    • Meringues are formed from egg whites because of their albumin content. But egg whites are not the only albumin-rich food available. Another is pig’s blood. The meringue, whipped up from pig’s blood, was seasoned with peppercorn, onion, cocoa and cinnamon. It tasted so much like an egg-white meringue that when told something was afoot with the meringue, I did not even suspect it was because of the composition of the meringue – rather focusing on the condiments.
    • While speaking to one of Chef Aduriz’s chefs (he was not in the kitchen that evening), I learned that they were preparing at least 40 different dishes. But they could not have had more than 6-7 tables that evening. I learnt later from reading the Mugaritz book that this was because of the kitchen’s philosophy in only sourcing the best produce – often limited in quantity – and thus each diner would get a personalised menu that would not overlap completely with any other diner’s.

“We set out […] to access the produce provided by nature in the most direct and purest way possible, whether of not we could find it in the markets, regardless of demand, and without any concern for the two conditions usually required of a product in order to ensure profitability for the producer and security for the buyer, namely quantity and reliability (most chefs need to know they’ll get a minimum quantity of an ingredient, year in year out). No, we will not need a lot. No, we will not always need it”. (Aduriz, p. 28)

“We know that there is insecurity in providing exceptional produce. However, the comfort, regularity and consistency offered by the market of supply and demand also makes them all products more or less the same. It evens out the differences that make them unique. But we want those peas. We know that they are not always going to be available. We also know that when we have them, they will be extraordinary. Even if we have so few that half the diners will not be able to try them. We will give them something equally wonderful instead.” (Aduriz, p.28)

    • The idea: Meringues are formed from albumin. Science!

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  • Lukewarm scallop with sour lentil consommé. (4.75/5)
    • A scallop with fermented lentils. The lentil consomme had the sour taste of off-beer, in the most delicious way possible. It had a gorgeous rounded and complete flavor, its viscosity and intensity of taste reminiscent of the best Cantonese soups.
    • The scallop had the smoothness and integrity of abalone, and interestingly did not even begin to resolve into strands when cut, as most scallops are wont to do. A high quality combination.

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  • Pear. Honey vinegar and toasted milk. (4.5/5)
    • The pear, fragrant and honeyed, hard and crunchy in texture (reminiscent of a calcified Asian pear Pyrus pyrifolia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyrus_pyrifolia), was paired with an aggressive sour-honey vinaigrette.
    • Two roughnesses (the hardness of the pear, and the sour-sweet of the vinaigrette) cancelled each other out, leaving a pleasant synthesis of texture and taste.

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  • The game at the table; gambling a bite of bread and heavy cream. (4.75/5)
    • I played a game with my server Mohamed – we would each have up to three bone pieces, and secretly put 0-3 in our fists. At the same time, we would put forward our fists, and guess what the combined number of bone pieces was. I recalled many childhood games from this exercise.
    • If it was for two people, then apparently the winner would get a large helping of caviar, and the loser none – sourcehttp://kuloksilver.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/gehry-arzak-mugaritz-and-hitchcock/
    • But anyway, I made the exercise academic by winning :P
    • Milkskin, “caviar” made from algas marinas algae, and cream.
    • The idea: Interactive games before food. Game theory in sharing.

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  • Coastal fish with mushroom threads. (4.75/5)
    • Seabream, with crisped seabream bones, and mushrooms, in a pil-pil style sauce (garlic a bit more understated than usual)
    • To me, it was a showcase of supreme confidence from the kitchen to served crisp bones. Any imperfections in preparation could lead to unpleasant consequences, like getting the bones embedded in the throat. I was very pleased to see that at least one restaurant has attempted to use crisped bones.

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  • Cod tongues in a bone marrow emulsion. (4.5/5)
    • Tongue of kokotxas, of the highest melt-in-the-mouth quality, with a garlicky bone marrow sauce. Complementing cubes of salty crisp pork lard, with coriander.

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  • Chicken and lobster Catalan cream. (4.5/5)
    • Catalan cream is essentially creme brulee. Here it was savory, not sweet, bursting with seafood – scallop, shellfish, prawn, something orange that was either uni or lobster brain or lobster roe (you can see it pictured) – and topped with phyllo pastry.

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  • Fifth quarter octopus. (4.75/5)
    • Octopus, incredibly tender between the individual suckers, was pressure cooked to arrive at that temperature. It put in the pressure cooker, and then skinned of membrane. A textural marvel.
    • The idea: Octopus, achieving a balance of tenderness and integrity that you previously thought impossible.

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  • Linking… dip of fried bacon and saffron, cornbread. (4.25/5)
    • Corn, bacon, garlic, and aspic jelly with flowers. Saffron added a gingery aftertaste. The tastes were not what you’d call full-bodied. But the idea was novel.
    • The idea: The entire restaurant performing a rhythmic ritual all at once

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  • Eucalyptus smoked loin of lamb with its cultivated wool. (4.5/5)
    • Lamb with the smell of liquid smoke – black cotton, actually the fuzz from soybean fermentations, inspired by a Southeast Asian soybean dish called “tempeh”. It is a new twist on the “sheep with wool” dish – usually the wool is made of cotton candy (see my post on Borago, Santiago). Here the wool was made with the edible mold.
    • The last two dishes (linking, and lamb), while not purely delicious, are signposts to future developments.
    • Idea: The fuzz

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  • Frozen apple chippings with mature cheese. (5/5)
    • When you first look at this dish, you’d think the shavings were apple, and the crumble on top some crumbly cheese. But it’d be wrong. This is a trompe l’oeil dish.
    • The frozen sheets are actually very cold mature cheese, and the crumble and goo on top, processed apple juice. The effect of juxtaposition is that I just tasted an amazing combination of cheese and apple with every bite, trying to get at the nonexistent apple in the frozen cheese sheets, but gaining it only in the toppings. Delicious.

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  • Starched handkerchief of fruit and flowers. (4/5)
    • Plum tastes in the rice flour.

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  • Lemon Succade with our herbs from yesterday and today. (5/5)
    • A whole candied half of lemon peel (succade), forming a bowl for lemon sherbet. The peel was crisp, and completely without rind. It evoked an egg, playing off egg-lemon similarities.

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  • Caffè latte cookies… Light. (5/5)
    • A light ice cream sandwich – room temperature meringue, and cold icecream. One of the best meringue biscuits I’ve tried (up there with atera’s lobster rolls and saltines). Light taste of coffee – latte icecream

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  • An almost impossible bite: sugary porra (3.75/5)
    • The rocks which had been on the table throughout the meal, were to be grated over a porra (deep fried pastry stick in Spanish, though a swear word in Portugese), in a throwback to the turf of grass in the first half of the meal. It was made of sugar, cloves, vanilla and star anise.

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  • Mignardises: Seven Deadly Sins (Pride, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Greed, Lust, Sloth) (5/5)

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    • Pride: A gilded but hollow chocolate, the gold reflected in the surrounding mirrors.

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    • Envy: If I had been two, then one chocolate would have been a big gold one, and the other a small silver one. Who’s going to take the larger? The smaller? Similar concept to the game for caviar above.

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    • Wrath: A spicy chocolate marshmallow

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    • Gluttony: Lots of chocolate puffed corn.

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    • Greed: Nothing

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    • Lust: Dehydrated strawberry and flower film. Red, and in reaching for lust, the diner becomes “red-handed”

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    • Sloth: A chocolate truffle. Usually people don’t finish this one. I did.

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* I was left speechless – and I left the restaurant with the knowledge that my memories of that meal would be lifelong.


APPENDIX: Mohamed’s recommendations for Denia: Casa Federico in Denia for paella; Aroz Caldoso at Casa Pepa in Ondara.

Akelarre | San Sebastián | Jun ’14 | “not a fan”

31 Jul
  • Rating: 13/20
  • Address: Paseo Padre Orcolaga, 56, 20008 San Sebastián, Gipuzkoa, Spain
  • Phone: +34 943 31 12 09
  • Price per pax: €190 ($255 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 1/5
  • Dining time: 150 minutes
  • Chef: Pedro Subijana
  • Style: Modernist
  • Michelin Stars: 3

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I have two warnings to gourmet-travellers who are considering whether or not to go to Akelarre.

The first is that the Classics menu is a relative disappointment. Akelarre offers three menus, one based on seafood (Aranori), one based on meat (Bekarki)*, and one a series of Akelarre’s Classics. I ordered the Classics menu, thinking it was a menu of signature dishes. Akelarre has a reputation for turning out creative dishes, and I was hoping to get a meal featuring its creative signatures. I found it to be more Classic in the other sense**, with a very classical dish profile (risotto, pasta, beef, lobster salad). Yes, there were some interesting twists on them – a foie-oxtail tiramisu was interesting – but generally they seemed needless elaboration on top of the classical flavor profile. I was disappointed in the Classics menu, and I think I would have enjoyed myself much more with the other two menus, which seemed more creative, as I found out over lunch by noticing what the other tables were being served.

*(Reference: Entry on “Akelarre”, Where Chefs Eat, Joe Warwick,)

**(This double-meaning seems accidental, for that menu is indeed a compilation of Akelarre hits that have graced the Aranori and Bekarki menus in previous years. They seem to have selected a conservative set of dishes as their “classics”.)

The second is a warning about ingredients. I was served frisee leaves in the lobster salad, that had clearly reddened at its stems. This is a tell-tale sign of old-leaves that have been prepped a long time in advance (maybe hours or days ahead, who knows.) That it made its way to my plate is either a failure of Quality Control from the kitchen, or ridiculously zealous cost-saving from the kitchen. Neither reflects well on Akelarre. I choose to believe the former, since the whole raison d’etre of haute-cuisine is to sample great ingredients, or at very least, better-than-normal ones. I hope my dish was an isolated lapse from the kitchen, and that this is not a systemic pattern at the restaurant.

My meal here plodded with the ordinary. It was less accomplished than a disappointing Arzak meal I had the previous day. While I might return to savour the view (Akelarre is situated beautifully on the Basque shore), I would not order the Classics menu, and in the mean I hope Mr Subijana can ensure that less-than-optimal ingredients will not leave his kitchen.


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  • Sea Garden
    • Prawn’s Sand (4.5/5)
      • Delicious. Sweet, salty, prawny
    • Oyster Leaf.
      • with local wine jelly. Tasting remarkably like oyster.
    • Mussel with “Shell” (4.75/5)
      • Shell of cocoa butter
    • Sea Urchin’s Sponge
    • Beach Pebbles (Shallot and Corn) (4.5/5)
      • Nice corn flavor
    • Codium Seaweed Coral (goose barnacles tasting tempura) (4.5/5)
      • Supposedly tasting like percebes.
      • Good

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  • Lobster salad with Cider vinegar (4.25/5)
    • The lobster was well-prepared, savory and appropriate on the lobster claw, tail and other assorted parts. The whole emphasis on the luxury-ingredient, lobster, made it seem like hotel cuisine.
    • Upon inspection however, I found oxidised salad leaves. Not just one, but multiple oxidised leaves, the red ends of which were not trimmed. That this found its way to my plate in a 3* restaurant is very questionable. Presumably, Chef Subijana does not intend to send out days-old frisee salad leaves (after all, they are one of the cheapest ingredients, a fraction above the price of air). Who then prepares the salad leaves? His sous chef? And how can Mr Subijana allow this dish, using clearly old salad leaves to leave the kitchen? I am forced to conclude that either the Quality Control of the kitchen has dropped, or Akelarre is economising on even the cheapest ingredients (then how can a diner trust that the kitchen is providing the best?)
    • Neither possibility reflects well on the kitchen. This is not a failure of technique (which would be understandable), but of ingredient-quality, the foundation of haute-cuisine. That the days-old leaves made it to my plate, would be questionable at any Michelin-starred restaurant. Even more so at 3* Akelarre.
    • Very disappointing.

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Reddened stems

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  • Pasta, Piquillo and Ibérico Carpaccio, Mushrooms and Parmesan (4.25/5)
    • A carpaccio of pasta, not entirely successful, for the dough-sheet had a starchy texture in the middle, probably a bit undercooked.
    • The truffle had little taste (understandably, given they were not Australian truffles and we were in June), but was redeemed by the earthier dark mushrooms.

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  • Rice with Snails and Periwinkles in Tomato and Basil Film (3.5/5)
    • Carnaroli rice.
    • A lukewarm risotto rice, a bit crunchy, seemingly undercooked, with some sausage-like meat (periwinkles and snails).

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  • Whole-Grain Red Mullet with Sauce “Fusilli” (3.75/5)
    • Red mullet fillet, head and bone praline, liver and onion. Fusilli stuffed with parsley, soy, ajo blanco sauce
    • Whole-grain = use the whole red mullet, head, bones liver
    • The red mullet was good, though a residual shiny sheen of oil on its skin was a bit thick for my taste. The conceit of using fusilli for the different sauces was creative, though the jelly tasted like tasteless water, and it was hard to get into the sauce.

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  • Carved Beef, Tail Cake, “Potatoes and Peppers” (3.75/5)
    • Tail Cake with Foie
    • Coppered Potato and Piquillo peppers
    • A tiramisu of foie and oxtail, bitter. And some beef with jus, and pepper and potato crisps. Okay. Very classic flavor profile. I guess I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I guess I assumed classics meant signature dishes. Given Akelarre’s reputation for creativity, I was hoping for their signature creative dishes, but what I got was classic dishes with a little twist.

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  • Gin-Tonic on a Plate (3.75/5)
    • Jelly of gin and tonic, juniper sauce (the gin parfum). Mix as desired
    • Bitter jelly, with lemon ice cream. It was okay.

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  • Warm Red Fruit Cake, with Candied Fennel (4/5)
    • A nice fruit/spice cake, flavor profile like British mince pies, except with a bit more raspberry. Good fruit spice.

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Bar Zeruko | San Sebastián | Jun ’14

26 Jul

Fifteen quick minutes
To Spain’s World Cup opener
versus the Oranje

I was in SS
Recuperating after
Lunch at Arzak

I went downstairs and
Googled for “mejor pintxos
I found Zeruko

2014-06-13 20.57.59I had ten minutes
Rushed over and found it packed
Time only for one

2014-06-13 19.59.48 2014-06-13 19.59.56 2014-06-13 20.00.48 2014-06-13 20.02.12 2014-06-13 20.02.27Football fan I am
I choose you, hoguera
Highly rated one

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(4.25/5)

You smoke bacalao
On a grill, then eat it with
bread and herb puree

Down it with lime juice.
Think of a Patisserie
For modern pintxos

That is Zeruko:
Bewildering assortment
Of colourful things.

2014-06-13 20.07.16Went back to my room
The streets ready to party
One-nil Spain ! Xabi!

Oh dang van Persie
Equalises with header.
One-all. It gets worse.

Daley Blind plays a
“blinder”. One-five. It’s full-time.
I expect sadness.

But Donostia is
Still buzzing after the match
The party goes on.

A loss won’t deter
The determinedly festive
Who’ve made it to Spain

2014-06-13 22.51.57

 


  • Address: Calle Pescaderia, 10, Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain

Arzak | San Sebastián | Jun ’14 | “un-Basqued”

26 Jul 2014-06-13 12.40.03
  • Rating: 16.5/20
  • Address: Avenida del Alcalde José Elosegi, 273, 20015 San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa, Spain
  • Phone:+34 943 27 84 65
  • Price per pax: €217 ($291 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 1/5
  • Dining time: 130 minutes
  • Chef: Elena Arzak
  • Style: Modernist
  • Michelin Stars: 3

Notable links:


 

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Arzak has had mixed reviews in the last few years. Michelin continues to rate it highly. But reviews by some food bloggers (Andy Hayler, Elizabeth Auerbach) are less complementary. I was determined to enter Arzak with no expectations, and approach Elena Arzak’s cuisine with an open mind. (and I do not think comparisons to the Arzak of Juan Mari are relevant at all.) Where would this Banco de Sabores take me?

It turns out, I was transported in an Asian direction, unintentionally or intentionally. More specifically, Chinese cooking. A soy-sauce-inflected seabass, nut & seed sauces for pigeon, a scorpionfish dumpling and a sardine sphere that hinted at dim sum, sesame seeds infused with soy and wasabi. Regardless of whether my guess of Chinese experimentation on the part of Chef Elena is correct, I also noticed a lack of an identifiably Basque style to the cooking. And this is perhaps what disappointed me a little about Arzak. The oriental features of the meal were not particularly strong (the nut & seed sauces for the pigeon aside), and I ended the meal thinking that Arzak would have had a stronger meal had they chosen to put their own spin on some dish rooted in Basque country.

2014-06-13 12.40.03Indeed, a 2004 report by the lady “lxt” mentions how Arzak builds on traditional Basque ground:

Under no condition does Arzak fall under the category of those fickle travelers who bounce from corner to corner in their attempt to fit the “current trend.” Perhaps someone dining at Arzak for years may feel nostalgia toward the times when its cuisine was more in accord with the restaurant’s rustic décor, but it hasn’t lost its “personality,” and its development represents nothing but a steady, undeviating, long evolution of contrasted flavors, precisely articulated structures and decisive details, as a result of a highly developed aesthetic intuition while standing sturdily on the raw ground of tradition, letting each dish convey a unique rhythmic movement of a beautifully harmonious ballad. Elena managed to break “the traditional box by sliding out from beneath the roof and extending into the landscape” (Philip Johnson) rather than breaking the foundation of the old “house” completely to rebuild the new cuisine. – lxt

Dining at Arzak 10 years later, it feels as if the pressures to remain innovative has created a restaurant abdicating its Basque roots, experimenting with both oriental gestures and the trappings of modernism. It’s a new ship, this ship of Theseus, and one that’s not recognisably Basque.


*(A special mention for the service, which was excellent)

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  • Scorpionfish mousse with katafi (4.25/5)
    • Scorpionfish in a wispy noodled croquette. Not bad.

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  • Bitter raspberry (3.75/5)
    • Melon-ham cork, raspberry mixed with a bit of apple. Visually interesting, tastewise though ingredients were fairly normal.

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  • “Gilda” of carrots and ssam-jang (3.5/5)
    • Carrot and black olive

2014-06-13 12.52.18

  • Sweet chilli pepper and sardine sphere (4.25/5)

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  • Chorizo with tonic (3.75/5)
    • Ginger ale with ham taste. Ham taste a bit muddled under the ginger ale.

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  • Cromlech, manioc and huitlacoche: Crispy manioc hydrated with huitlacoche stuffed with a preparation of onion, green tea and foie gras (4/5)
    • A bit unwieldly to eat, since the foie gras et al. was underneath a manioc/yuca pastry creation. The fin made a it impossible to flip it over. I settled for flipping it onto its side, and eating it with an undersized spoon.
    • foie’s richness was cut by caramelized onions.

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  • Lobster “Sea and Garden”: Grilled lobster with a crispy star shaped crepe and fresh greens (4.75/5)
    • The best dish of the meal, lobster with tomato water. A star-shaped crepe. A side dish of zucchini (?) roasted with paprika. Spinach leaves with juniper. And various sesame seeds, infused with soy and wasabi, to get a rainbow of different colours.
    • The main axis was the lobster-and sesame seeds combo, enhanced with tomato water. The visual effect was quite stunning.

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  • Ovo-lacto: Egg with semi-crunchy shell and baobab accompanied by “lactic leaves” and curds (3.25/5)
    • A poached egg with crispy milk, and a circular dab of gorgonzola-idiazabal. The idea presumably was to showcase the intersection of milk and egg, two common proteins. But it tasted undistinguished, remaining just a poached egg, a bit of cheese, and milk.
    • The kitchen might also consider not putting so much powder on the crisp itself. While raising it to my mouth, I happened to inhale at the same time, breathing in a lot of powder, and coughing.

2014-06-13 13.29.55

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  • Fish steak with potatoes: Fillet of seabass lightly marinated with gin and served with several flavors of potatoes (4/5)
    • Seabass in a light soy sauce. With dehydrated potato films (green potato, blue potato) and candied pistachios.
    • A dish reminiscent in presentation to The Fat Duck’s Sound of the Sea, only this one outdoes it with a visual movie of waves!
    • The seabass was a bit fishy – which I didn’t like, and actually very similar to a Chinese steaming of whole seabass in soy sauce. It was in fact, disregarding the potato films and the candied walnuts, a very Asian-influenced preparation. What did the additional ingredients add? Little – the potato films were mostly tasteless, there for eye-candy and texture, while the candied pistachio bits had crusted sugar on them – good bar snacks, but very little reason to be on the same plate with seabass.
    • I found Fat Duck’s Sound of the Sea to be successful because of the entire marine theme of the plate, but with only one marine item on Arzak’s plate (seabass), the rushing of waves did not enhance the dish. I think these extrasensory items, really only work if all the ingredients transport you to a certain remembered place. Arzak’s avant-garde dishes are at best rooted only in Arzak, and so the visual movie transported me nowhere, and was actually a bit of a distraction.
    • To the extent I was transported, I was transported by the taste of soy, to a crowded outdoor Chinese restaurant, eating a steamed fish in soy. Not really the seaside!

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  • Pigeon and seeds: Pigeon breast over a selection of dried fruits accompanied by an elaboration of seeds like pumpkin, grape or sunflower (4.25/5)
    • Pumpkin seed sauce: delicious. Grapeseed sauce (green dabs): delicious. Sunflower towers: nice. Pigeon leg, with papaya-black-olive-almond, sprinkled with chives: Not bad. Pigeon: with orange sauce. Good.
    • Reminded me of the nut candies I used to gorge on as a kid during Chinese New Year, mixed with pigeon.

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  • The big truffle: Large cocoa and sugar truffle with a creamy chocolate and carob filling (4.5/5)
    • Cotton candy surrounding a creamy filling, with chocolate poured on it. With orange flavor. Comforting.

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  • Black lemon: Crispy black lemon image with a sweet citrus cream interior sprinkled with the same fruit (3.75/5)

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  • Ice-cream assortment (4/5)
    • Carrot ice cream and carob ice cream

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  • Ferreteria
    • A nice selection of visually stunning odds and ends for mignardises. Though the tastes did not wow.
    • Coca-cola gelatin and pop rocks, Bolts, keys, screws. Other stuff.

2014-06-13 15.03.23 2014-06-13 15.13.03

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