- 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
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.
Indeed, 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)
- Scorpionfish mousse with katafi (4.25/5)
- Scorpionfish in a wispy noodled croquette. Not bad.
- Bitter raspberry (3.75/5)
- Melon-ham cork, raspberry mixed with a bit of apple. Visually interesting, tastewise though ingredients were fairly normal.
- “Gilda” of carrots and ssam-jang (3.5/5)
- Carrot and black olive
- Sweet chilli pepper and sardine sphere (4.25/5)
- Chorizo with tonic (3.75/5)
- Ginger ale with ham taste. Ham taste a bit muddled under the ginger ale.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- Black lemon: Crispy black lemon image with a sweet citrus cream interior sprinkled with the same fruit (3.75/5)
- Ice-cream assortment (4/5)
- Carrot ice cream and carob ice cream
- 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.