Report: Arzak, Etxebarri (San Sebastian)
Just came back from four days in San Sebastian and had a few gem meals.
Arzak: The experience of eating at Arzak is unlike any other I've had. I loved it. Everything from the avant-garde amuse bouches, to the poured-concrete walls of the dining room, to the leather apron of the sommelier, to the spins on Basque (and non-Basque) ingredients were fantastic. From the outside, the restaurant doesn't look all that interesting. It's on a busy road in a bland neighborhood. But once through the sliding glass door to the dining room, you find yourself in a completely different world. We opted for the tasting menu, starting with a bottle of Jose Pariente Sauvignon Blanc, moving on to a bottle of Gran Reserva 904 from Rioja. Everything just seemed to fall into place without any effort. There was no excessive formality in the flawless service. Some of my favorites from 16 courses were the caldo de alubia con manzana (shot of black bean soup with apple), antxoa con fresa (achovy with sliced strawberries), huevo con temblor de tierra (runny egg with breadcrumbs), rape marea baja (monkfish), pinchon con chia (pigeon with little sprouts), sopa y chocolate "entre viñedos" (exploding warm liquid chocolate spheres swimming in a berry soup), and finally hidromiel y fractal fluido (a dessert consisting of two liquids that when poured together made a fractal design). And, as is the sign of a good restaurant, Maria and Juan Mari each came out to visit with the different tables, switching between German, Spanish, French and English effortlessly. The only downside to the entire meal is that I'm still paying off my credit card bill ($600 USD for lunch for two).
Asador Etxebarri: The food at Extebarri gets the top billing, as the decor and the service are not in the same league. As everyone comments, the setting of this restaurant is nearly picture perfect. The mountains above the town of Axpe are breathtaking. The town consists of little more than the stone building that houses the restaurant, a church, a fronton court, and lots of sheep. We opted for the tasting menu which was so straighforward and simple: one ingredient at a time, and that ingredient is either grilled or smoked. The simplicity of the cooking really worked well and was unlike anything I'd had before. Some of my favorites were the grilled prawn, the grilled mussel, the smoked egg, and one of the stragest courses I've ever had, smoked butter with sea salt. Litterally, you ate this smoky, rich, smooth butter with your fork and knife. I supposed you could have also added it to your bread, but the point really is to taste each ingredient separately. The piece de resistance in my book was the grilled steak, and a simple green salad on the side. Again, no sauce, nothing fancy. Just beef. On the downside, the decor is pretty spartan, and the red rose on the table a little dated. The dining room is quite large so if there are only a few diners, the place feels a little lonely and can be painfully quiet. The service was efficient and the servers got the job done. However, they seemed rushed, not taking the time to stop to talk when I engaged them in conversation (in Spanish). Overall, great food in a beautiful setting. However, I wouldn't say it is worth a trip to San Sebastian or Bilbao just to eat here. Arzak is a different story...
Just ate at Etxebarri in November and had fantastic food. The setting is very beautiful with the surrounding pasturelands and stone buildings. The food was definitely the star. I ate the entire menu and kept asking for anything that I had heard about even if i didn't see it on the menu. His wife was running the front and was very nice but the other woman server was a bit rude to us. probably because we just ordered food as we wanted and didn't really follow any order. Price was no object. We spent $300.00 per person all in. He did make me a very nice chocolate birthday cake for my 50th. I made the reservation about 3 months in advance and mention that I was coming to Spain for my birthday but I did not reiterate it when confirming. It was a spectacular way to end the lunch. Dined at Arzak the next night and while it was very good and Juan Mari ans Elena were very hospitable...several dishes were just trying too hard. My monkfish dish had blue curacao gelatin stars and sea shells made of some undistinguishable flavor. Both were hard as bouncing balls. The fish was perfect but the garnishes seemed so 1970's. I was surprised! Definitley not the calibur I anticipated.
However, Mugaritz, elBulli, Etxebarri were absolutely awesome!! The huge dissapointment of the trip was the gastronomic restaurant in the Guggenheim. So expensive and the preperations were iffy. I had read so much about it from my own restaurant guests and the NY Times article in late October. Anyway, my tomato salad consisted of 4 cherry tomatoes (peeled)
with one being dusted in an olive powder...25 euro!! Yikes. My horsemeat steak was absolutely wonderful but thats all that came on the plate...40 euro! Yikes!! I'm all into chefs being simple and presenting a simple well prepared plate but thats a little too simple. My ding mates were horribly dissapointed. The gastronomie section of San Sebastian was a gem. Hard to find all my favorites but we had fun cruising the tiny streets checking out all the food.