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Tickets | Barcelona | Jun ’14

31 Jan
  • Rating: 16/20

My meal at Tickets was chaos of seemingly endless variety, as dish after dish was served when I ordered almost the full menu at Tickets. With each of the dishes at modest price points, none of the dishes were extremely-labor intensive in terms of cooking (many of the ingredients had been prepared earlier) – for the dishes had to be quickly assembled. It seemed like popularized modernist cuisine – you do not expect fireworks since the dishes come fast and furious, and really cooking-labor-intensive dishes don’t make their appearance – but the modernist tapas was robustly flavorful. As a fine-dining place, this does not really translate. A rating of 16/20 is justified for the efficient assembly of cheerful, well-composed dishes – within the constraint of cooking very fast, a similar philosophy to L’Atelier Robuchon.

Once a chef sets himself down an unknown path and creates according to his own perception, free as far as possible from predefined rules and breaking through the limitations of stereotypical tastes, however sincere such a chef might consider himself to be, there is always a risk that the result may be extremely personal and subjective, with each individual dish somewhat incomplete, a piece of the larger puzzle of his menu, with less emphasis on the “realism” of ingredients, employing rather a dualistic punning forms (infusions, textures, concentrated tastes detached from their hosts’ bodies, etc.). That is to say that conventional criteria may not be applicable to the “abstractionism” of Adria, whose work seems to be more concerned with how it is carried out as a whole meal than what it is about as an individual dish, contrary to Pacaud, whose classicism still so much revolves around individual ingredients and the aspect of taste in individual dishes. It seems that these two cuisines serve different purposes the same way as comparing Picasso to Velazquez will not yield a meaningful verdict.

What concerns me, however, after reading vmilor’s thoughts, is whether Adria manages to establish some degree of formalism in his cuisine, which is essential for codifying a new trend in any artistic movement (e.g. realistic flesh and blood in the works of Titian or Rubens; the degree of formalism was high in Egyptian paintings with the same superimposition of full and profile views echoed in the duality of Braque and Picasso later in time, or in the conversion of intangible light into solid paint in Impressionism, etc.). The same academic, formal, synthetic and even abstract (deconstructionism) approaches apply to haute cuisine as well. The question is whether Adria puts in enough effort to formalize his cuisine, therefore creating a definitive style perhaps not out of individual dishes, as he did earlier in his career with hot and cold pea soup, tagliatelle a la carbonara etc., but perhaps with entire meals (which seems more characteristic of his current strategy), or flees a subject matter before exploring its potential, creating a brand-new sand-castle every year, washed out with each tide, which, may still be advantageous from the technical perspective for other chefs, but irrelevant for the ultimate judges: his diners. In that case, the next question would be whether Adria’s future lies in the laboratory, not in the dining room. Otherwise, he may be creating a new form in which the entity is not a dish or even a meal, but a sequence of meals.

Thus, as vmilor said, I won’t be able to answer these questions with only one meal, and following this chef’s progression may not be practical, but I’ll keep an open mind. – lxt

I won’t resist one el Bulli comparison: A meal at Tickets preserves a similar spirit in that the entire meal was an unstructured, sprawling octopus of flavor combinations – several good, some excellent. None of the dishes felt really complete, instead it seemed each dish was showcasing an effect (the hollow airbaguette) or a particularly harmonious combination (asparagus with almond milk). And so there were no true masterpieces in the meal – part of it is down to the lack of really labor intensive cooking, but part of it is also down to the style of a meal – Tickets, as it seems with el Bulli, prefers to dazzle with a long series of one-effect dishes as opposed to a few really composed ones.

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  • Cacahuete mimético [false peanuts] (4/5)

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  • La pizza de Tickets [Ticket’s pizza] (4/5)

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  • Cóctel sólido de sandia impregnado en sangria [Solid cocktail with watermelon infused in sangria]
    • Watermelon infused with sangria, similar to how 41 degrees infused theirs with beetroot
    • Bitter liqueur taste – reminiscent of oyster

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  • Tempura de pistachios [tempura pistachios]

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  • Oil texture, anchovies, potato obulato (4.25/5)

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  • Liquid olive + other aromatic herb (4.5/5)
    • More full-bodied, meatier

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  • Rubia gallega airbaguette (5/5)
    • Umami itself, savory and glistening fat. Full-bodied.

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  • Queso manxego; espumosos dentro de mini airbags con caviar de aceite de avellana (4.25/5)

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  • Iberico Joselito airbaguette (4.75/5)
    • More marbling than Iberico bellota
    • It had a darker salty sweet taste than Rubia gallega

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  • White asparagus, cold almond milk, pumpkin seed oil caviar (4.75/5)
    • Surprisingly good. Smooth almond milk worked with white asparagus – sweetness synergistic. Pumpkin seed sweetness harmonized with almond milk

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  • Macaroni made from basil water [no flour]; parmesan reggiano sauce, pinenuts (4.75/5)

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  • Nori cone, tuna, grannysmith apple cubes, flying fish roe, shichimi togarashi  (4/5)
    • Reminiscent of salmon cornets at The French Laundry/Per Se

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  • Razor clam, tomato + red bean sauce, anchovies + basil (4/5)

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  • (1)Oyster + red wine vinegar + tarragon + olive oil “caviar”; (2) Mojito oyster
    • Oyster + Mojito: Fizzing and cold (4.75/5)
    • Other was cold and delicious (4.75/5)

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  • Octopus + kimchi (4/5)
    • Kimchi had the soft texture of canned pineapple
    • Complimentary

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  • Baby squid with its ink + picada (Catalan sauce: almond, garlic, parsley, saffron)

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  • Black rice; with calamari and beansprouts as the rice (3.75/5)
    • Creamy

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  • Coffee powder on prawn, sauce of (black tea, soy sauce) (4/5)
    • Around here, Albert Adria made his daily rounds and I caught a glimpse of him

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  • “King oyster mushrooms” spaghetti with porcini pil pil sauce (3.75/5)
    • Parmesan

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  • “el manteca” jowl, sandwich bread (4.25/5)
    • Pork chin, mozzarella, munster

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  • Pork ribs in Canary islands typical sauce (4/5)

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  • Green beans with potatoes and fermented red bean sauce

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  • Tickets’ cone, lime ice cream, lemon cream and meringue (4.5/5)

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  • Juniper strawberry with juniper cream (3.75/5)

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  • Sweet maki, lime marshmallow, mango and nori gelatin (4.25/5)

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ABaC | Barcelona | Jun ’14 | “maximalism”

16 Nov
  • Rating: 18/20
  • Address: Avinguda del Tibidabo, 1, 08022 Barcelona, Spain
  • Phone:+34 933 19 66 00
  • Price per pax: ~€190 ($238 at 1 EUR = 1.25 USD)
  • Value: 3/5
  • Dining time: 150 minutes
  • Chef: Jordi Cruz [ex: Cercs Estany Clar (Barcelona), L’Angle de Sant Fruitós de Bages (Barcelona)]
  • Style: Modernist Catalan
  • Michelin Stars: 2

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There are for me two pertinent points about Jordi Cruz’s cuisine. Firstly, he does something memorable with top quality Catalan ingredients. As with the brilliant one-ingredient kokotxas dish at Mugaritz, I found the dish Chef Jordi Cruz made of the Catalan leek calçot absolutely stunning; and the lorito (pearly razorfish) very good. As a food tourist, I dislike restaurants which carry no signature of the region around them, as if they were trying to escape their surroundings, as if they were exiles in their own land. A really good restaurant should push the boundaries of what can be done with local ingredients. Perhaps that is why on this Spanish trip, I liked Mugaritz, Azurmendi, and ABaC more than Arzak and Akelarre. In the midst of modernist anarchy (the rule it seems in Spanish 2*’s and 3*’s) one needs these dishes to remind oneself that one actually is in Spain.

Secondly, he is of that modernist-style of ingredient assemblage, which both rebels against the nouvelle-cuisine idea of purity of taste, and as an extension of that culinary philosophy, a loose fluid plating style. “Nothing is true and everything is permitted”, at least when choosing ingredients for a dish. Chefs experiment, and diners pay for the privilege of trying the most successful of their experiments. Here at ABaC I encountered a cosmopolitan bunch – Momofuku Ko’s shaved foie, the intense savory candy of anago sauce etc. Among the novel compositions, a two part foie dish (foie with mole ice cream, foccaccia + pigeon tea + shaved foie) and a flavorful onion soup paired with spherified gruyere dumplings, were the most successful. Chef Jordi Cruz is one of the most talented chefs in this experimental style. His instincts tend toward bold flavors (there were no quiet meditative dishes, unlike Mugaritz), but the compositional instinct is true. My impression of ABaC is of a meal super-saturated with taste and colour -maximal maximalism.

If anything, that is the one thing that I feel could be improved at ABaC. My impression is that Chef Jordi is a flavor maximalist, with the flavor profile tuned to 11 on all dishes. Chef Jordi could yet vary the intensity of flavor in his cooking and deliver a few quieter dishes, in order to deliver a meal that is more than the sum of his flavorful hits, and has its own logical development. The art of listening to a full album may be a forgotten one in these days of Spotify, but the truth that a great album is never just an album of hits continues to apply. But it is a minor point. Overall, ABaC provides a very strong two-star standard meal.

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  • Nitro bloody mary (4.25/5)
    • vodka, tomato juice, salt, pepper, mixed with liquid nitrogen to form a granite
    • paired with slices of cherry and begonia flower petals
    • a good savory start to the meal

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  • the dark bread was crunchy and delicious (5/5) but the olive brioche was a bit cardboard-y (3.5/5), with some flour-y tastes inside

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  • Foie gras foccacia and foie gras butter with sweet corn crumb and mole ice cream (5/5)
    • A dish in two parts. First, a crunchy foccaccia slice with shaved frozen foie gras, with pigeon tea. (5/5) This was a fantastic adaptation of the Momofuku Ko technique of prepping foie. The warm pigeon tea, a consomme, helped to cut the richness of the foie even further. (The shaving already helps by introducing a aerated, fluffy texture to the foie)
    • Second, a foie butter, with corn powder and Mexican mole ice cream (5/5). I remember being hugely impressed by the mole ice cream.

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  • Frozen “Gazpacho” strawberries, tomatoes, basil and anchovies (4.25/5)
    • Spherified tomato water with liqueur

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  • Our Chinese bread, fried brioche, roasted eel, smoked aioli and Japanese mustard (4.25/5)
    • it tasted like its description – a salty anago (salt-water eel) burger.
    • full of intense sweet-salty flavor, the fried brioche and aioli was a guilty pleasure.

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  • Young leeks roasted with coconut ice cream (5/5)
    • genius. barbecued calçots, a kind of Catalan sweet leek, was well paired with balsamic vinegar and coconut ice cream. it seems so simple, but the combination of sweet sourness from the balsamic vinegar, richness from the coconut ice cream really highlighted the mild sweetness of the calçots, which had none of the pungency of leek. simplicity itself, and an apparent variation on the Catalan tradition of calçotada (calçot BBQ)

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  • “Parmesan gnocchi” and morels, acidulated water of mushrooms, bergamot and olive oil (4.25/5)
    • liquid parmesan gnocchi, raw champignon “button” mushrooms, fried girolle/chanterelle mushrooms, mushroom consomme
    • BTW, what’s with menus listing girolles as morels? it’s a common mistranslation.

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  • Oyster with beef, baby radishes and sake (4/5)
    • Gillardeau oyster, veal soup jelly, radish, veal tendon. the veal tendon and Gillardeau oyster were similar in texture

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  • Squid treated as a risotto with hydrated tigernuts and caviar (4/5)
    • Tiger nuts, sweet and crunchy as a chestbut, with rosewater and Iranian caviar. A sweet nut cream for the risotto

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  • Onion soup reminiscence, cured egg yolk, onion water, butter bread and gruyere cheese (4.75/5)
    • Gruyere dumplings, 6 in a row, around a yolk, in an onion soup. Great taste, the burst of mild-flavored cheese coating the mouth when I bit into one of those gruyere dumplings was fantastic

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  • Smoked steak tartare, seasoned beef, cooked egg yolk and a veil of mustard with fine herbs (3.5/5)


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  • Palamós prawn with miso aubergine and scorched aubergine infusion (4.25/5)
    • aubergine water, Palamós prawn a la plancha. a sweet combination
    • the miso-aubergine water tasted of a pleasant savoriness, like soy sauce

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  • Marinated Iberian pork with foie gras and barbecued Potatoes (4.5/5)
    • The filet mignon cut of Iberico pork, foie (with spongy texture) with a good sear, charcoal-ed bread; with rice foam. A coming together of very flavorful ingredients, the iberico had a profound flavor. This was a pleasing duet of dishes, the clean taste of white fish segueing into the rich tastes of iberico pork, dabbed with some more foie (a favorite ingredient of the chef). I came to appreciate here two features of Chef Jordi Cruz’s cuisine:
      • Firstly, his cuisine is not a sauce-driven one. Rather, it is driven by the high quality Spanish and Catalan ingredients available to him. Calçots, iberico pork, Lorito, Palamós prawns are clearly meant to drive their respective dishes.
      • Secondly, his style of cooking is a series of compositions that takes those ingredients as starting points; no ingredient is too sacred to be blended into a pop-culture mixer. Even with top-quality ingredients, he does not hesitate to pair them with bold flavors. Not for this chef the nouvelle-cuisine emphasis on how the ingredient tastes. He does not hesitate to put anago into a fried Chinese bun, or Gillardeau oyster with veal soup. When it succeeds, the result is genius – such as the calçots with balsamic vinegar and coconut ice cream. It is a style of cooking with no reference points except the Chef’s imagination. It must be what Arzak once was.

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  • Yuzu & Meringue cupcake (4.25/5)
    • yuzu sorbet, strawberry meringue cupcake in rice paper (obulato?)

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  • Chocolate, summer truffle, and “Tuber Albidum Pico” with yoghurt, flower honey, rosemary flowers and nuts (4/5)
    • I could not detect the truffle – but vanilla cream, white chocolate, yuzu cream was generally pleasant

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  • A dried-flower glass, crunchy yoghurt, flower honey and violet icecream. (4.5/5)
    • Flower paper, violet icecream, blueberry, yoghurt. The violet ice cream had a most brilliant and unearthly blue colour.

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  • Mignardises
    • Strawberry lipstick; yuzu macaron, liquid truffle (pistachio liqueur), tangerine jelly…

2014-06-20 16.16.06

41° (“41 Degrees” / “41 Grados”) | Barcelona | Jun ’14 | “globetrotting”

11 Oct
  • Rating: 17.5/20
  • Address: Avinguda del Paral-lel, 164, 08015 Barcelona
  • Phone:+34 696 592 571
  • Price per pax: ~€200 ($270 at 1 EUR = 1.35 USD)
  • Value: 2.5/5
  • Dining time: 190 minutes
  • Chef: Oliver Peña
  • Style: Cosmopolitan
  • Michelin Stars: 1

2014-06-17 19.23.24

* 41 Degrees has closed, the concept is to be reworked. Therefore the following review of 41 Degrees circa June 2014 will primarily be of historical interest.

We have had many conversations where he discussed upcoming projects and plans for the future but things are fluid as he constantly tweaks and changes his plans. Pakta, his Peruvian- Japanese restaurant, and Tickets and 41° were not enough and then came Bodega 1900 and he closed 41° in August to announce Enigma to open in 2015. [Source:]

Other write-ups:

I liked my dinner at 41 Degrees very much. The food is technically well-executed, the service was impeccable, and it was a truly memorable experience overall to sit in that vaguely cosmic looking cocktail bar (with marvellous lighting for food photos) and be transported around Vietnam, Peru, Japan, Scandinavia, and back to Catalonia, in the course of 41 little bites. Praise due where praise is due. I think the key to understanding 41 Degrees is that the Experience is over and beyond any one dish. The Experience is a globe-trotting affair, that can drop you anywhere in the world with the next dish, from Thailand to France.

Today, I would like to address myself to a question of pure form: how much did I, as a consumer, enjoy the 40 or so dishes (independently of the Experience), in the extreme long-form, the reductio of the tasting-menu? The answer: Quite a bit, but not as much as shorter 5-20 course menus.

Micro-dishes. You dine on small dishes, one or two-bite wonders, at 41 Degrees. With such small dishes, one cannot know whether one likes it or not. The first bite reveals the 2-3 principal ingredients and textures, and if you are lucky enough to have a second, you pick up more nuance. But once it is gone, another comes to take its place. The advantage is clear: one can sample a broad array of the kitchen’s dishes and ability in a single meal.

But with it comes two problems with this style of serving:

(A) The Diner’s Memory. Before reading the menu again, 4 months on, I remembered less than a quarter of the 40 or so courses that were served, and textures and tastes bled into each other. I only remembered feeling ‘genial’ towards most of the food.

(B) 41 Great Dishes?. A second problem is the ability of the kitchen to come up with 41 great dishes. Of the 41 dishes, how many of them are mind-blowing, and how many of them were just good? I would say that almost all the dishes were just good (nothing really blowing me away – the airbaguette coming the closest). The good dishes seemed to be permutations of good ingredients, and good technique, with an unnecessary presentation gimmick. For example, take the 13th dish “Fideos with Enoki”. It had good taste, particularly in having a strongly flavored pork rib broth, spherified. One might praise the chef on capturing the strong taste of pork ribs in the cone. But is that mimesis of the real thing enough? Does it significantly better a pork rib? No, it is just a repermutation of the same idea. I rated it a 4/5, because it was enjoyable – by technical standards it was well executed, as an idea, vaguely interesting but not something that would stick in the memory.

(C) The Food serves the Experience And yet I would say while these two problems (subjective memory, and objective merit) are encouraged by the form of a 40-50 course tasting menu, part of the problem is the specific Experience of 41 Degrees that brings you around the world. Evoking so many different regions (Peru’s ceviches and pisco sours, Scandinavian carrots, French steak frites, Vietnamese banh mi, Chinese Peking duck) generally means that the food serves the experience – a global journey hitting multiple regional memories. The food was not the end in itself, but the entire experience was. To this amateur quizzer,  being able to  recognise after a moment or two – dishes I have encountered on my travels (e.g. ceviche, steak frites, fusion nigiri, Catalan prawns) was a meeting of two forms of pleasure – gustatory and quizzical.

The search for avant garde regional food at 41 Degrees makes me think of the term “Minimum Viable Product”,  very popular in Silicon Valley after the publication of Eric Ries’s book the Lean Startup in 2011 (but now probably on the wane, the flavor of the year being Peter Thiel and “definite optimism”). Many people (mis)understand “Minimum” to mean “throw shit on a wall and see what sticks”, but in the book, “Minimum” is left to the discretion of the market it is addressing. 41 Degrees addresses itself to a foodie crowd aware of its el Bulli heritage, and the “Minimum” standard of food is some well-executed avant-garde stuff. The restaurant itself focuses on a globetrotting Experience, and so in the quest for 41 interesting avant-garde regional dishes, many of the dishes are not mindblowing – but permutations of what exist.

The Experience however is something that I have not felt at any other restaurant, something very unique – a greatest hits compilation of culinary experiences that will appeal to the cosmopolitan foodie who is equally at home in Tokyo or in New York. Despite seeming critical here, I really enjoyed my overall meal there. I had planned on returning when in Barcelona again, but with its shuttering, I will visit some of the other Adria places next time instead.

Cocktails, Fruits, and Flowers

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  • 1 Spring Cocktail (4/5)
    • “Spring elixir” – caramelized pine bus, gin berry  paste, rose marmalade syrup, French white vermouth, Lilet Blanc
    • 41 Degrees started out as a cocktail bar. so it was fitting our meal started out with cocktail.

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  • 2 Lime Leaf and Sage Flower (3.5/5)
    • kaffir lime

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  • 3 Infused Pine Flower (3.25/5)
    • Blood orange gel

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  • 4 Licorice Cocoon and Strawberry Rose (3.75/5)
    • Rose strawberry amaretto

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  • 5 Humming Bird (4/5)
    • Milk /carrot/ orange/ gin/ shiso

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  • 6 Black Sesame Pearl (4/5)

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  • 7 Infused Watermelon
    • Infused beetroot licorice, yuzu flavors. Watermelon sweetness enhanced by beetroot’s, and yuzu gave a nice scent

East Asia

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  • 8 Buhto
    • Another cocktail in guise of a tea ceremony (though I can find no Google references to Buhto)
    • Sake/Sochu/cardamom/lemonquat. Shisha scent underneath those cups

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  • 9 Spicy Corn Tentacles (4.75/5)
    • Rice kimchi quinoa/ no octopus involved. Ingredient mimickry. Highly tasty

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  • 10 Tuna Millefeuille (4.75/5)
    • Nori, sushi rice, avocado, wasabi, tuna, millefeuille effect from puffed rice and crisp nori
    • Precise
    • This East Asian sequence was highly enjoyable. (5/5)

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  • 11 Oyster with Tiger Nut Milk (4.5/5)
    • Lemonquat (hybrid between lemon and kumquat)/ poached tigernut milk/ oyster seagrapes.
    • Lemon scent/pleasant globules of walled salinity/milky background

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  • 12 Aubergine with Caviar (4.5/5)
    • Osetra caviar, eggplant chip, hazelnut cream, spicy sesame olive oil.
    • I especially liked the eggplant chip, thin enough to be crisp. thick enough to have secondary texture.

2014-06-17 20.06.38 2014-06-17 20.06.49

  • 13 Fideos with Enoki (4/5)
    • Little cone, spherification pork rib jus/ enoki julienned/ wild garlic flower
    • Good pork rib taste.

2014-06-17 20.09.04 2014-06-17 20.09.182014-06-17 20.09.24 2014-06-17 20.09.322014-06-17 20.09.40 2014-06-17 20.11.242014-06-17 20.09.462014-06-17 20.08.57

  • 14 Parmesan and Porcini Forest Floor Pistachio and Berries
    • In multiple parts: ravellos -coconut ferrero rochers with parmesan cheese were all right (3.25/5)
    • Berries caramelized with wasabi (palate cleanser – 4/5)
    • Porcini mushroom leaves (3.75/5)
    • Pistachio, honey of pistachio – there was no nut, just a pistachio-shaped sculpted ganache (4.25/5)
    • Red currant with lemon orange powder (3.75/5)

2014-06-17 20.17.31 2014-06-17 20.17.37 2014-06-17 20.17.50

  • 15 Lily Flower with Romescu (3/5)

2014-06-17 20.21.24 2014-06-17 20.21.39 2014-06-17 20.21.57

  • 16 “Rubia Gallega” Airbaguette (4.5/5)
    • The only el Bulli era dish that made an appearance (from the 2003 season), bread, with Rubia Gallega cow “ham” – unctuouous and full-bodied, the satisfying taste of great ham
    • The “baguette” was all crust, and enjoined the best of bread with one of the best hams.

2014-06-17 20.28.08 2014-06-17 20.28.26 2014-06-17 20.28.45 2014-06-17 20.29.04

2014-06-17 20.34.23

  • 18 Miso Asparagus (3/5)
    • Braised white asparagus, black garlic, white miso + sesame oil
    • The sauce was like drinking the sesame oil used for stir frying bok choy. Intense

2014-06-17 20.38.27 2014-06-17 20.38.38

  • 19 White Asparagus Bone (3.5/5)
    • Bone marrow with pork rib jus, boiled w asparagus, suckling pork rib sauce.
    • Neither white asparagus dish was very good.

2014-06-17 20.44.04 2014-06-17 20.44.20

  • 20 Chicken and Crayfish (3.75/5)
    • “Surf and turf” fried chicken skin and crayfish, crayfish consomme jelly.
    • Crayfish was of unexciting quality.

2014-06-17 20.48.37 2014-06-17 20.49.07

  • 21 Suquet (4.75/5)
    • Any dish graced with Catalonian prawns can simply go on cruise control – because these prawns are simply the best in the world. Here in a shell, there  was a suquet soup, with prawns from Maresme (2/3 of the way between Barcelona and Sant Pau restuarant in Sant Pol de Mar).
    • The prawn was softer than the Palamos prawns at Etxebarri – but was succulently sweet. Bewitching quality.

2014-06-17 20.58.55 2014-06-17 20.59.12 2014-06-17 20.59.07 2014-06-17 20.59.17 2014-06-17 20.59.27 2014-06-17 20.59.37 2014-06-17 20.59.34

  • 22 Nordic Toast
    • Baby carrot, beetroot gel, horseradish, sour cream, (3.5/5)
    • beef carpaccio, vegetables, sour cream, vinegar powder (4/5)
    • Inappropriate comparison: The vinegar, sour cream tasted like a deconstruction of the Big Mac special sauce, and the beef carpaccio lended it a further Big Mac-ish quality.

2014-06-17 21.09.30 2014-06-17 21.09.36 2014-06-17 21.12.18 2014-06-17 21.12.23 2014-06-17 21.12.47

  • 23 Nitro Bloody and Agave Amber
    • Bloody Mary Sorbet: tomato, pineapple coffee.(4.25/5)
    • Bloody , mezcal. (chipito and white coffee) (4.75/5)

2014-06-17 21.19.33 2014-06-17 21.19.48 2014-06-17 21.19.37

  • 24 Prawns “Aguachile” (4/5)
    • Ceviche/chilli, peppercorn. Lemon/lime/chilli, avocado
    • The “tiger’s milk” of ceviche, dominated, strong sour tastes. I don’t really like that sharp kick. My favorite ceviche dishes (see my write-up of Maido in Lima) temper this sharp kick (e.g., by liquid nitrogen)

2014-06-17 21.23.19 2014-06-17 21.23.32 2014-06-17 21.23.25

  • 25 Nigiri Nikkei (4/5)
    • Smoked red mullet, tapioca, fried corn, dried lemon with stuffed kumquat
    • Woody smokiness

2014-06-17 21.28.14 2014-06-17 21.28.17 2014-06-17 21.28.24 2014-06-17 21.28.35

  • 26 Ceviche Norteño/ Atahualpa 3.0
    • White seabass, yellow aguachile/ crispy yucca chip/sweet potato mash/ choclo corn (4.25/5)
    • Pisco sour, pineapple juice, apple liqueur, purple corn (4.75/5)

2014-06-17 21.34.57 2014-06-17 21.35.13 2014-06-17 21.35.01 2014-06-17 21.35.07

  • 27 Duck Bagel (3.75/5)
    • Brioche Bagel w sesame seeds, peking duck, pickled gennel, cucumber

2014-06-17 21.41.04 2014-06-17 21.41.21

  • 28 French Bite (4.25/5)
    • Meat and potatoes, souffle potato with bearnaise inside, iberian pork belly, macerated black trumpets, charcoal oil, sweet wine reduction
    • A ha! What was puzzling before reveals itself as Steak Frites! A clever dish, the reference of a French Bite only made sense when I crunched into the potato souffle, releasing the bearnaise.

2014-06-17 21.43.41 2014-06-17 21.44.00 2014-06-17 21.44.05

  • 29 Vietnamese Roll of Squid (3.75/5)
    • Pepper, shiso, rice, squid with sauteed garlic chilli/peanut/ugly grapefruit
    • Dip: lime juice, thai chilli, fish soup

2014-06-17 21.51.56 2014-06-17 21.52.13 2014-06-17 21.52.20 2014-06-17 21.52.25

  • 30 Vietnamese Tea (4.25/5)
    • Shitake tea – salty

2014-06-17 21.52.36 2014-06-17 21.52.42 2014-06-17 21.53.01

  • 31 Banh Mi Cookie
    • Foie

2014-06-17 21.58.33 2014-06-17 21.58.51 2014-06-17 21.58.43

  • 32 Redcurrant Meringue and Sweet Potato (3.75/5)
    • Mustard cream (reminiscent of the signature beetroot meringue with horseradish cream starter at the Fat Duck ***)
    • Sweet potato cooked in quicklime to give it a skin, mashy inside, Kumquat jelly and chilli oil outside

2014-06-17 22.02.09 2014-06-17 22.02.52 2014-06-17 22.02.19 2014-06-17 22.02.45

  • 33 Thaiquiri/Coconut Mató (4.5/5)
    • Texture of coconut cream
    • Honey: Rum daiquiri, lemongrass, pineapple, honey

2014-06-17 22.06.59 2014-06-17 22.07.07

  • 34 Soy-Temaki (4/5)
    • Sweet temako, black quinoa, soy sauce ice cream, lime zest

2014-06-17 22.10.502014-06-17 22.10.38

  • 35 Mango Dried Peach (4/5)
    • A large amount of liquid mango with an impressively robust skin

2014-06-17 22.12.41 2014-06-17 22.12.47

  • 36 Fresisuisse (4.25/5)
    • Yoghurt biscuit, pleasant strawberry flavor

2014-06-17 22.13.43 2014-06-17 22.15.18 2014-06-17 22.15.28 2014-06-17 22.15.32 2014-06-17 22.15.39

  • 37 Dragon egg/ Chai Lassi
    • Baby dragon eggs – orange zest/cold/meringue (4.5/5)
    • Lassi- chai mango, curry, almonds, yoghurt powder, curry powder (4.25/5),

2014-06-17 22.17.47 2014-06-17 22.17.56

  • 38 Classic Lemon Pie Cup Cake (4.25/5)

2014-06-17 22.20.27 2014-06-17 22.20.33

  • 39 Quico Rocher (4.25/5)

2014-06-17 22.22.43 2014-06-17 22.22.57

  • 40. 41 Grados Tronch (4/5)
    • Gingerbread brownie/chocolate /matcha green tea soil

2014-06-17 22.25.13 2014-06-17 22.24.53

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

2014-06-17 12.26.13 2014-06-17 12.27.21 2014-06-17 12.28.09

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. Whimsical descriptions: “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 from the menu description itself: “7 Spice Rattle”; “”Fifth Quarter Octopus”. For “Lobster Pizza”, the description was doubly absurd – firstly, no one does a lobster pizza; secondly, that wasn’t a lobster pizza.
  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)


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.

2014-06-17 12.28.13 2014-06-17 12.28.45 2014-06-17 12.29.18 2014-06-17 12.31.09 2014-06-17 12.31.35 2014-06-17 12.35.39

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)

2014-06-17 12.36.35 2014-06-17 12.36.38 2014-06-17 12.37.33 2014-06-17 12.42.12 2014-06-17 12.45.40 2014-06-17 12.45.44

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

2014-06-17 12.50.42 2014-06-17 12.51.13 2014-06-17 12.51.20

  • 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.

2014-06-17 12.53.03 2014-06-17 12.56.22 2014-06-17 12.56.24 2014-06-17 12.56.32 2014-06-17 12.56.47 2014-06-17 12.56.43

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

2014-06-17 12.58.32 2014-06-17 13.01.53 2014-06-17 13.02.05 2014-06-17 13.06.24 2014-06-17 13.06.34

  • 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.

2014-06-17 13.16.02 2014-06-17 13.16.27 2014-06-17 13.16.10

  • 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.

2014-06-17 13.25.21 2014-06-17 13.25.25 2014-06-17 13.25.38 2014-06-17 13.25.50 2014-06-17 13.25.54

  • 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.

2014-06-17 13.29.48 2014-06-17 13.32.57 2014-06-17 13.33.21 2014-06-17 13.33.01

  • 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.

2014-06-17 13.34.14 2014-06-17 13.37.21 2014-06-17 13.42.11 2014-06-17 13.42.24 2014-06-17 13.42.32 2014-06-17 13.42.21

2014-06-17 13.52.25 2014-06-17 13.52.36 2014-06-17 13.52.41

  • 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.

2014-06-17 14.01.34 2014-06-17 14.02.00 2014-06-17 14.02.08 2014-06-17 14.02.36

  • 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)

2014-06-17 14.06.52 2014-06-17 14.09.14 2014-06-17 14.09.19 2014-06-17 14.09.23 2014-06-17 14.10.09

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

2014-06-17 14.16.49 2014-06-17 14.16.56 2014-06-17 14.17.04

  • 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

2014-06-17 14.21.35

  • 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.

2014-06-17 14.35.51 2014-06-17 14.36.03 2014-06-17 14.35.57

  • 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).
    • While Googling I also found an advert for a Tomaccio: an intensely sweet raisin tomato: Was this what I was served?

2014-06-17 14.46.10 2014-06-17 14.46.32 2014-06-17 14.46.33

  • 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

2014-06-17 14.54.05 2014-06-17 14.54.21

  • 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.

2014-06-17 15.11.39 2014-06-17 15.13.33 2014-06-17 15.13.57 2014-06-17 15.33.36 2014-06-17 15.33.39 2014-06-17 15.34.35 2014-06-17 15.34.39 2014-06-17 15.34.59 2014-06-17 15.35.20 2014-06-17 15.35.32 2014-06-17 15.34.54

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

16 Aug
  • 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:

2014-06-15 12.10.59 2014-06-15 12.11.26

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.

2014-06-15 12.13.49 2014-06-15 12.13.53 2014-06-15 12.14.08

2014-06-15 12.20.13 2014-06-15 12.20.23 2014-06-15 12.27.54 2014-06-15 12.28.04 2014-06-15 12.36.59 2014-06-15 12.37.23

  • 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

2014-06-15 12.37.12 2014-06-15 12.38.46

  • 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.

2014-06-15 12.39.59 2014-06-15 12.40.08

  • 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!

2014-06-15 12.46.59

  • 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.

2014-06-15 12.52.54 2014-06-15 12.53.13 2014-06-15 12.53.16

  • 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.

2014-06-15 13.05.52 2014-06-15 13.06.06 2014-06-15 13.06.31 2014-06-15 13.06.53 2014-06-15 13.10.03

  • Goose barnacles (4.5/5)
    • “Percebes” –
    • 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 –, 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 – source
    • But anyway, I made the exercise academic by winning 😛
    • 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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