San Sebastian - Akelare or Arzak
This is assuming I can get a reservation for either this weekend, but was wondering if anyone had been to both and could compare them? I've heard and seen reviews of both independently, but could anyone recommend one over the other, and why? thanks.
Have Akelare as my best meal ever.
Was at Arzak last month and the menu looked excellent - but the food just didn't deliver. And they tried to serve me the wrong vintage of a very expensive (relatively - it was actually a fair price) wine. Substituted a poor year for an excellent year. Fortunately I noticed (I check these things).
Was at Arzak the beginning of October and was disappointed as well, especially after eating at San Pau a few days earlier.
At Arzak they had trouble matching wine to the dish (their excuse was that it was their new fall menu-- big deal) and the waiter never refilled the wine glasses. Lot of money and didn't wow mw I'm afraid.
Finally getting around to posting my review of Akelarre - went for lunch on a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago. It was excellent. The setting is beautiful, overlooking the Cantabrian sea. The menu and prices are the same for lunch or dinner, so I would really recommend lunch to take full advantage of the setting. We had both of the tasting menus, which are currently on their website. In all it was one of my top meals ever, although there were a few missteps.
They started us out with a tray of what appeared to be petite fours, but were all savory; the two highlights were a crispy morcilla roll and "zurrukutuna." This is a traditional Basque soup made with bread and flavored with salt cod bones; their version was a solid, crispy, doughy ball, which had the appearance of a chocolate bonbon - tihnk Ferrero Rocher. It was a fun way to get the meal started, and all of the components were firmly grounded in Basque flavors, but very inventive and creative. The amuse followed this up perfectly; fresh anchovy and fried egg. The single fresh anchovy filet was served in olive oil, in a tin - simple, perfectly fresh, and humorous. The egg was a small square of fried egg white, but the "yolk" was a puree of orange bell pepper, presumably treated the way Adria has been making his pea ravioli, such that the center was liquid surrounded by a solid outer membrane. Another fun, yet quintessentially Basque dish.
On to the main menu:
Oysters eaten with shell - the one part of the menu which, as a professional cook, still has me completely stumped. A "shell" was made out of something - the waiter revealed that it contained cacao and about a dozen other ingredients. It was gray, resembled a natural oyster shell, and was meant to be eaten whole - the perfectly fresh oyster was entirely encased inside it. One of the most perfect oysters I have ever had - incredibly fresh, it was still surrounded by its liquor and a bit of gelee (perhaps simply an oyster liquor gelee) - the whole tasted perfectly of the fresh sea.
Prawn and shrimps in shell - incredibly flavourful prawns, which were dusted in what I presume was their powdered shell.
Squid with colored sand - my favorite dish on my tasting menu. Perfectly cooked tender squid, accompanied by a quenelle of diced squid and sauteed onion, and three different colors of "sand," which appeared to be three kinds of finely ground bread crumbs. Excellent.
Steamed moluscs - clams, mussels and razor clams in a foam, with a borage puree - also very, very good.
Wild mushrooms - assortment of cepes, black trumpets, matsutakes, etc, with powdered nuts and mushrooms and a soy mayonaise. My second favorite dish on my menu.
Roasted Iberian pork - This was the single best dish on both menus in my opinion. The pork was simply amazing. Served rare, it had an unbelievably rich flavor, tender, and as dark red as beef. It was served with mashed potatoes with gold and bronze leaf. I dream about this pork.
Tuna - The weakest dish of the whole meal. The tuna was cooked a little past rare, where I prefer it. It had a citrusy white sauce, a line of ground spices and a line of barely set egg yolk on the plate. The presentation wasn't all that appealing, and it just didn't seem to come together for me.
Turbot - Also the weakest dish on the second menu, although better than the tuna. Nice piece of fish, served with lentils in a clear mussell liquor. Good, but not outstanding.
Roasted suckling pig - A rack of ribs (I noticed other diners getting other cuts), a white pork emulsion sauce, sugar and tomato meringue-like chunks. Good, but a little disappointing after the astounding pork on the other menu.
Wood pigeon - Excellent roast pigeon, with cider and yuzu jelly, and walnuts
In general, I was not as impressed by the desserts. While my palate does not require the sweetness most Americans are accustomed to, I still found most of these desserts a but bland for my taste.
Rhubarb sorbet - with honey and candied "frosted" herbs, which I liked, but then it had these off-putting little pink squiggles - similar to cookie sprinkles in appearance, but a bit waxy in texture, and the texture of a mouthful of these, perhaps because i had recently been in southeast asia, brought to mind something insectile.
A small glass of berry juices and flower petals, into which warm milk was poured, that then set into a soft yogurt-cheese consistency. Apparently this milk-rennet-berry combination is a typical Basque dessert, but I thought it was a cool effect and the flavor was really good. The standout dessert for me.
Steamed savarin - a tangerine foam surrounding the rather doughy savarin, with a pomelo salad and some candied lemon peel. Again, while this looked and sounded good, I was a bit disappointed in the blandness of the flavor.
Swiss roll - with coconut and chocolate, a mulberry sauce and milk meringue.
The petit four course was a perfect ending to the meal. It brought it back to the humorous, yet Basque-focused beginning of the meal. We were served what appeared to be a simple farmers lunch: a small carafe of "red wine" and a small cutting board with a loaf of bread, a sausage and a small plate of potato chips. The wine was a nicely balanced, refreshing blend of berry, and probably grape, juices. The bread was a sweet, buttery brioche. The sausage was chocolate with pinenuts and rolled in powdered sugar, giving it the appearance of a fat-studded, aged sausage. The potato chips were potato chips, but with an anise flavor to them.
Despite my criticism of parts of the meal, in all, it was amazing. The standouts were exceptional, and more than made up for the few flaws. Going into the meal, I did probably expect something transcendental, and a number of dishes lived up to that - notably the roast pork, the squid, the mushrooms, the oysters. A truly perfect meal could be put together among the offerings on the two menus if one were able to make changes - I didn't ask, and while I of course respect the chef's vision in creating the menus, I have noticed they have changed since I was there and a few of the dishes mentioned here have been moved around in their order and between the two menus.