Catalonia/Basque Food Extravaganza - Trip Review
- Heeney May 26, 2011 08:42 PM
Well, took me a while to get around to this. But posting a trip report as promised. 9 days, 4 in Barcelona, 1 in Bilbao, and 4 in San Sebastian. I will try to post at least 1 update a day detailing a day at a time. I don't take notes or pictures (think it ruins the experience), so I am going off memory and the copies of the menus we were given at each place (Spain is good about that btw). It will cover (among others) Tickets, Celler de Can Roca, Etxebarri, Akelare, Arzak, and Mugaritz.
Thanks so much to everyone for giving me tips for this trip. It was unforgettable. Hope you all can use this to help you.
EL QUIM DEL BOQUERIA
Went for breakfast after we landed and dropped off our bags. Very busy at 8:30am. Had to elbow our way into one corner of the bar. Chock full of locals. Two Cafe Con Leches to drink. Time to eat:
1. Chiperones in their own ink with fried eggs.
Briney, great texture of the chiperones and the egg yolk blending with the ink. Mopped up with fresh crusty bread.
2. Sauteed mushrooms with caremelized foie
A large pile of wild mushrooms simply sauteed on the plancha. Great variety, but to me a little underseasoned. My wife disagreed. Maybe the Chiperones threw me off. The mushrooms were topped with a fried egg (seems to come on everything) and a nice slice of foie, coated with sugar and caramelized to make a nice crisp crust. Rich and delicious.
Had an early dinner there (by Spanish standards), to get to bed and beat jet lag. Ended up walking there from the bottom of Las Ramblas. Not really in the prettiest side of town. Kind of a long walk. Got there 10 mins early but they were still closed. Stood outside with some other people and some guy in a suit with his bald head fully tattooed talking to himself. :) Kind of unnerving. But once they let us in all the fun started. Multiple bars making all the different tapas. Only one bar actually has seats at them though, and we got to sit at it. You get the famous "tweezers" they use as utensils at elBulli, and this is what you will use most of the night. Our server Manel offered to take our interests and tailor a tasting of around 13-15 dishes to give us a full "Tickets/elBulli" experience. Since we missed elBulli we told him to go all out. And he did. Such a great personality. Loved talking with us about the dishes. This is easily the best place to eat in the city in my opinion. Not to be missed. At one point Albert came behind the bar we were at and supervised a plating. Very neat to see him in person. Here are the dishes:
The famous spherified and cured olives. Brought in a jar, placed onto the special spoon and slid into your mouth. Perfect burst and full olive flavor flooding your mouth. I've eaten a lot of encapsulated items before but this was on a totally other level. Flawlessly done.
2. Watermelon "impregnated" with Sangria, served as a cocktail.
Cubes of watermelon that have been filled with Sangria. Refreshing. Garnished with small mint leaves that give a nice aroma when in your mouth.
3. Jamon de Toro
Thin slices of fatty tuna belly brushed with Iberico Ham fat. Interesting surf and turf flavor. The dominant flavor seemed to be whatever you were thinking of at the time. Think of ham and it tasted more of ham than tuna. Think of tuna and it tasted more of tuna. Interesting. But slices were so think they broke apart very easy trying to pick up.
4. Mini endives in Vinagrette
Manel explained that these particular mini endives only exists in one small part of spain and they entire crop is used by only elBulli and Tickets. They were small, crisp little endives with tart citrus dressing. They had been marinated in milk which came through once you but fully into them. Good.
5. White asparagus with black truffle and iberico ham crust
Thick pieces of juicy white asparagus with some kind of truffle aioli and specks of crisp ham. Flavor was great. But it was very difficult to eat. They did not give a knife and fork and eating it took some finesse. We had to bit all the way through and we got a lot of juice on our hand. Manel explained that Spanish people are more used to eating with fingers, and suggested using the tweezers. It helped. But not much.
6. Air Baguette with Jamon Iberico
A mini baguette, totally hollow in the middle, wrapped in terrific Iberico ham. The fat just melts and the baguette crumbles to nothing in you mouth. Best eaten in one bite.
7. Oyster "with it's Pearls"
A large, juicy oyster, served in the half shell with a tart vinegar and "pearls" of small encapsulated spanish olive oil.
8. Moilete (bread) with dewlap
This was some kind of soft, warm roll of bread, very thin and buttery. Inside was slices of pork belly. Not crispy. But tender and full pork flavor. I don't see how this matches the description. But that's what it was.
9. White Anchovies in Vinegar with Tomato consomme jelly
This was a star of the night: two thick fresh anchovies on a crisp cracker. In the middle was a slice of jelly that tasted of pure tomato. Topped with small flowers. This was made right in front of us and must have been popular because they made lots of them. My wife has never really liked anchovies so I had to convince her to try. She took one bite, closed her eyes, and said "Wow."
10. Liquid Ravioli with Payoyo cheese from Cadiz
Encapsulated cheese, topped with a small crouton and a little olive oil. Nice salty cheese. Good burst again, but not as smooth as the olives. A little thicker given the cheese.
11. Spanish grilled lobster in light pickling
A bisected lobster, grilled and sprinkled with pimenton. The pickling makes it super juicy and slightly tart. The tail meat was buttery-rich. But the treat came from the small pool of brain soup that we spooned out. Really really good.
12. Confit potatoes with pork rib sauce and boiled iberian ham
Confited in olive oil till super-tender. Served with pieces of ham and a sauce made from the ribs of the iberico pig.
13. Cold-Hot Chocolate fritters
Out of sight! These were small deep fried fritters, and when you popped them in your mouth to bite you got a rush of liquid chocolate, hot on one side and cold on the other. The sugar rush was much needed and the temperature contrasts snapped us to attention.
14. Almond tepid cake
Amazing again. You can tell Albert is a major player at Tickets because the sweet world is solid. A small almond cake that collapsed into a pool of molten almond custard in the center when you touched it with the spoon. On the side was a apricot sorbet. Manel asked how it was. We replied "supernatural." We counted each others bites to make sure we got equal amounts. :)
15. Tickets cotton candy tree
Exactly what it says it is. A trimmed tree, leafless, with a variety of cotton candy placed on the tree like clouds, suspended in front of you. Peach, blueberry, passion fruit, raspberry, and other flavors. Essentially the fun here is in the presentation, total strangers were snapping our picture and talking to us. But that's not to say the taste wasn't there. Good cotton candy.
That was about it. Washed it down with 2 glasses of cava each. Walked to see the Magic Fountain and then took a taxi back to the hotel to collapse and get rested.
I'll start off saying this was a Sunday. Which I've come to learn is a tough time eating out. We went to Montjuic and then to Barcelonetta beach. A LOT of tourist trap places open that we tried to avoid. We tried to go to Vaso de Oro (recommended by CWers). But it was packed to the gills and we couldn't even get inside. We headed back to the beach and started to get hot, impatient, and hungry. We walked past a place on the beach and them someone wheeled a just caught shark into the kitchen. We thought "good as any" and pulled up a seat outside. Turns out it was restaurant Salamanca. We ordered a seafood platter for 2 (60 euros). And a jug of Sangria. The waiter suggested a plate of ham to start so we did. It was decent ham. Not stellar.
The platter came out and looked very good. Really fresh. Hake, turbot, prawns, langoustine, clams, etc. All simply cooked. Good. Some boiled potatoes thrown in there too. Not the greatest meal ever. But it was nice to have some fresh seafood on the beach. There were some downsides though, a lot of the prawns had the tracts in place and had a faintly dirty taste. Also, when we were done the waiter asked us to please pay before he left for the day and made sure to comment that tip wasn't included. That left kind of a bad taste in our mouth, so to say.
All in all, a good seafood platter. Cold sangria and the beach. Kind of a tourist-hive. But we spotted locals there too. Will we go back? No.
After we were done we soon came to realize we were so full that we couldn't eat anything else that day. Luckily we had no plans. So we skipped dinner altogether and didn't feel hungry once.
No notes and pictures? You must have a cranium the size of an elephant's, to store all THAT information!
I'm glad I just had b'fast before reading; I can't imagine what kind of damage I would have done to my kitchen (or my diet) if I had read on an empty stomach.
Thanks for sharing. I'm looking forward to Tickets too. Down in Barceloneta, there are just so many tourist traps. I remember walking past a dozen restaurants on Joan de Borbo, all with big posters advertising similar food. We were looking for Kaiku and no one seemed to know the restaurant or the location of its street address. True gluttons, we had also been to El Vaso de Oro right before and witnessed a classic piece of Anglophobic waiter humour. An English-speaking person called up to ask for reservations. (reservations? to El Vaso de Oro? ha ha ha) The waiter said they had a bad connection and banged the receiver on the bar counter a number of times before hanging up. The person immediately called back and another waiter played the same trick on the caller. I guess the waiters figured that if someone knew so little about El Vaso de Oro to think that it would take reservations, well, then they didn't need to be there. Meanwhile, we stood nearby, enjoying our foie, solomillo and pimentons.
Eventually, with much perserverence, we did find Kaiku and had a very nice arroz de chef, dish of uni fritters etc.
Uni fritters?!?! I think I just blacked out for a second. :)
Its good I have menus from a lot of these places to jog the memory. Some later reports may be spotty due to not having a copy of the menu. But all the best places should be detailed. I need to get it all on CH soon before it starts to slip. :)
Absolutely salivating report. Thank you.
- In France (dunno about Spain), it is actually proper etiquette to eat asparagus with one's fingers. It is common to see elegant European diners in 2- and 3-star places using their fingers to eat asparagus, even though flatware is provided, probably to reassure American diners.
- "prawns had the tracts in place". Another common phenomenon in many seafood restos in Spain and France and italy. No biggie. I even remember ions ago dining at Set Portes, my then boyfriend, American carefully removed the tract and waiters were - good-naturedly - laughing at him.
- Agree that the waiter who pressured you to pay early and reminded you to tip do not show much class. Sounds like a waiter who is too used to serving tourists whom he counts on never seeing again.
Looking forward to your future instalments...
All in all it was 170 euros including the cava for both of us.
Word of caution, if you are paying with a card and the currency isn't euros...they will convert to your currency ($ for us) at a bad rate and charge a small fee. I asked to pay in Euros and they said "it is in euros, it just shows dollars on the ticket." But when I checked my account later...it was in dollars and at their bad rate.
Annoying, but it ended up being only an extra $10 or so. So I didnt let it bother me. It was worth far more than that anyway.
So, be insistent to pay in euros. Just my tip.
That's the darned Dynamic Currency Conversion system at work. Glad you brought you up, Heeney. Technically, you are supposed to be able to insist that you want the bill in Euros. This applies especially at the ATMs when you are withdrawing cash. I will be on the lookout for it too. I guess last summer, I didn't bother to check.
CE, have a look at Erica's trip report for a breakdown of prices at Tickets.
For lunch this day we went to Tapas, 24. For some reason I see it around the web as Tapa C24/Tapac24/TapaC24. But I didn't see that name anywhere at the actual restaurant. It was always Tapas, 24. So I will call it that.
This was a smaller, packed room. With people lining up to get in. You head down a small set of stairs as the whole thing is below street level, except for what appear to be a small set of tables in the street. We got there just before it really picked up so we got there just as two seats opened at the bar. So we snagged them. Was very lively and fun. You can see into the kitchen where they make the tapas. There is a standard menu on a baggie that contains your utensils and napkin. They also have a specials menu on a chalkboard that they move around. Oddly, they take the menus away once you order so you don't really get to look over them to decide if you want to order more later. You can obviously, but you need to either just know it or ask for the menu again. Here is what we shared:
A simple and excellent grilled ham and cheese. The cheese was nice and gooey with iberico ham and flakes of black truffles. The bread was thin slices, nice and crusty on the outside.
This is apparently a staple at the place. It's a simple beef burger. Smallish patty that comes in a thin bun that has been grilled on the outside. Notice I say "in" because it appears somehow that the top bun connects to the bottom bun, so that halved burger appears to sit inside the bun like a pita pocket. There was no foie in the burger at all, it is served on the side on a small tub as a quenelle of some kind of mousse. You them spread it on the burger and enjoy. It was good. But I felt that the burger had such a powerfully "beefy" taste that it overpowered everything else, including the foie. That was a shame because when I tasted the foie mousse on its own it was very good.
3. Something I can't remember
I've been racking my brain. Bugs me. But can't pin on what it was.
4. Tortilla of potato and chorizo
This was a small individual tortilla. Cut inside and it's very molten, a rush of egg and chorizo pieces oozes out. A solid tortilla.
5. Arroz Negro and cuttlefish
The waiter suggested we get this. And it was good. But I wish we hadn't. Because it was a large pan of rice that eventually got a little boring and I we were getting to full to try others. It was a well made cast iron pan of rice cooked with cuttlefish ink. There were some small ribbons of cuttlefish in the center but I would have liked more.
6. Orange Juice
My wife saw this and had a glass. Big piles of fresh oranges squeezed right behind the bar. Had a taste: very refreshing without being too sugary naturally. Spain has the best oranges (sorry Florida)!
7. Pastry and Catalan creme
This was on a tray in front of us and we had to try it. Flakey puff pastry with powdered sugar, filled with a thick catalan cream. Nice.
8. Chocolate, salt, bread, and olive oil
Their take on classic catalan dessert. Quenelles of chocolate ganache, topped with small rounds of toasted bread, salted lightly, and drizzled with fruity olive oil. Everyone says this (but it's true)…it just works. I will do this all the time at home now. Simple and very satisfying.
Dinner that night was at our Hotel (OMM). And their 1 star restaurant MOO. In my previous posts I had been advised to switch this since Can Roca was the next day. But we kept it for sentimental reasons (way back it was our first experience with Avant Garde cuisine and we liked it, plus it was nice to eat and go back to our room).
Well, the chowhounders were right. We should have gone with something else. Now, I'm not going to say this is a bad review. Only that it was hard for me to write this because I forgot our copy of the menu and it was very hard for me to remember what we had. Though I remembered Tapas,24 well enough without a menu. I guess you could say that it was "forgettable." But I did remember, just not many details. So here it is:
1. Opening snacks
Really don't remember what they were.
2. Russian Salad
This was a deconstructed russian salad, with various components and then a kind of soup poured at the table. It was good.
3. Prawn ravioli with carrot
There was coconut taste in there too. I can't seem to remember the carrots too well.
4. Cherries with Foie and Coffee
This however, I do remember! :) 4 glazes cherries hollowed and stuffed with foie gras parfait. Served in top of a thin line of a sticky sauce composed of coffee. Very very good. Could easily have been dessert.
5. Sole with mediterranean flavors
This I remember because I was expecting it at Can Roca the next day. It was almost the same dish, though with less finesse. The fish had a nice char to it but it was flaked a little in the middle so visually it was a little off when they laid it in front of me. The sauces were good. Though you'll soon read how Celler was far superior.
It was a kind of pigeon hash with vegetables. OK.
7. Cheese with apple and fennel
Kind of straightforward. Hard to remember.
8. Can't remember this dish. Something with flowers.
9. Souffle and fruits
A good souffle.
Anyway, as you can see this wasn't as stellar as we had hoped. I think since we had Tickets first and then Celler right after, it was in a tough spot. Plus, the place seemed kind of half-full. And we were seating off in a corner someplace that was a little too dark, almost near the bar that separates the restaurant from the lobby. At any rate, having experienced Can Roca the next day, we will pass on Moo next time we come to Barcelona. On a positive note though, the wine pairings at Moo were superb.
Our journey to Celler de Can Roca however…was nightmarish. More on that later…
EL CELLER DE CAN ROCA
This was our last day in Catalonia. We slept in a little later than planned. But headed down a few blocks to the Passeig de Gracia station to catch the train to Girona. The plan was to ride the train. Nap on the way. Wander the old town in Girona. Then just walk the 10 minute walk Google maps estimated from the Cathedral to El Celler de Can Roca.
We ended up at the station and asked then for return tickets. They were cheaper than I thought and they were on the regional lines. No big deal to me. An extra 10 minutes. We waited at the underground station, a little too hot and we were a little too dressy. I wore a button down dress shirt and some black pants. Wife was dressed in a skirt with a t shirt and black cardigan. Finally the regional train pulled in and….HOLY &*#^! It was a short and small train. Rolled right past us and everyone starts running like refugees to get on. We jumped into the back carriage and there was nowhere to sit. OK we thought, wait till some people get off at their stops.
Well, that sure didn't happen. More people got on at every stop, and to add to that there was no air whatsoever in the train. So after about an hour and 20 minutes we are standing like sardines in a tin while 3 women with strollers try to get aboard and crush everyone into unbearable yoga positions so we can fit. Sweat dripping, behind schedule, back aching, and gasping for a breeze every time the door would open. Unbearable. Trying to remember how many more stops. NOT. FUN. AT. ALL. Didn't even have attractive scenery passing us on the ride.
Well, finally got there and sat down to get our bodies back in order. Two people in their late twenties feeling like a couple in their late seventies.
Took off and headed to the Call. Wow! Gorgeous. But packed to the gills with tour groups. Plus, it was the hottest day of our trip to Spain. Easily pushing 80 degrees F. But it was nice to walk around and see the sights. Didn't have time to wait to get inside the Cathedral with the crowds though. Still kind of sad about that. So then we walk to Can Roca. FYI google, your walk time is WAY OFF. Took more like 25 mins instead of 10 and we did not get lost of walk slow. Hot as all get out. Still not recovered from riding the train. And honestly, after seeing how beautiful the old town of Girona is. The area you walk through to reach Can Roca isn't all that scenic.
But, we made it, happy as can be to see the sign. We walked in, gave our names, and both headed to the bathrooms to freshen up. The trip there didn't go as planned. Would the meal live up to expectations?
Yes, it did. And in no time we were relaxed and having a great time. A testament to the place.
The dining room is a modern triangle layout with a courtyard that has shutters that can be lowered electronically to help shield sunlight. We sat in the shade though so no shutters blocked our view of the nice courtyard. The kitchen it located in the adjoining old home it was very nice. We spotted Joan Roca and he greeted us and seemed very laid back and nice. Spotted him later picking through a pantry for some stuff. Very funny.
OK. On to the good stuff:
1. Caramelized Olive
A small tree is laid on the table and hidden in the leaves, hanging from the branches are some caramelized olives, 2 each. Pluck them off their metal hangers and pop them in your gaping maw. So, so good. Olive flavor with a crisp shell. I could swear I tasted anchovy in there too.
2. Mushroom bombon
Perfectly shaped like a mushroom. The outside had the look and texture of white chocolate. But tasted of St Georges Mushroom. Bite it and it floods your mouth with St George Mushroom puree. Very good.
3. Anchovy bones
Anchovy spine fried with something like tempura batter. Served with fried seaweed and served on a net. The texture of the fried bones was good and you got all the anchovy flavor without any of the flesh. But the star was actually the seaweed. Crispy, like perfect sushi nor. The wife commented that she wished we could just by bags of those back home to snack on on the couch. :)
4. Chicken Cracker
This was a large, thin sandwich of yellow cracker that tasted of Chicken skin. The filling was something that escapes me.
5. Ring Calamar adaptation
A small canapé-looking bite of calamari, more dehydrated calamari wrapped around other fried ingredients from the traditional presentation. Good.
6. Vegetable salad
This is on my menu but I cannot remember it. There were a lot of one-bite canapes delivered quickly.
7. St. George's Mushroom Brioche
This may be the reason I can't remember #6. This was a small brioche bun that looked like a steamed chinese pork bun. They forgot to tell us to eat in one bite so I went to bite in half and whoops, a thick creamy filling spills out the other end. Caught it with my hand though. It was a creamy truffled st george mushroom cream again. Got it all back into my mouth and wow, so good. The texture was exactly like a pork bun but the filling was excellent.
8. Escalivada with anchovies and smoke of ember.
On to the first course with silverware. Brought tableside, inside a smoked dome. Lift the dome. I wafted some smoke to me but I didn't need to, there was a lot. Charcoal grilled eggplant, pepper, onion, and tomato. Very tender and tasted great. The broth that sat at the bottom though was a bit oversmoked for me. Overpowered the vegetables.
9. Artichoke, Foie Gras, orange and truffled oil
A bowl brought with fried artichoke and orange. A dark rich soup of foie gras, with truffle oil. Do I even need to say it was good? It goes without saying. Silence at out table for a solid minute after they took the bowl away. Probably because we were so sad it was gone.
10. Charcoal-grilled king prawn with acidulated mushrooms juice
Good tail meat, but we started with the head. We would soon find ourselves sucking a lot of prawn heads on this trip. This was near the very top. The sauce went well with the tail meat.
11. Onion soup, crespia walnuts and comte cheese
Classic french flavors, poured tableside. The walnuts were a great touch and the cheese melted nicely.
12. Sole, olive oil and Mediterranean flavors
A repeat from last nights dinner. This one was how it should be done though. No char on the fish this time. Perfectly white and tasty. The colors on the sauces were more vibrant and better texture. Fennel, bergamot, orange, pine nut. This also had an added olive oil sauce with what looked like an air bubble at the end, but it was a caramel fake-bubble. Great way to eat the fish. Each bite was like a new dish.
13. Baby Squids and Onion Rocks
Small squids with a pile of tiny black rocks, just bigger than sand, of onion. A nice frothy sauce too. Excellent. This was one of my wifes favorites.
14. Red Mullet with suquet and lard
Barely cooked red mullet with a skin that almost unnaturally shiney. Flawless. The suquet is a catalan seafood stew and it was served as a broth with 3 small green lard-based dumplings. Very herbal. Nice.
15. Steak Tartare with Mustard Ice Cream
Best tartare I've ever had, hands down. A long flat slate of tartare of veal, spiced tomato, capers, pickles and lemon, pillows of hazelnut praline, meat béarnaise sauce, sherry coated raisins (nice), chives, sichuan pepper, pimenton and curry, mustard leaves and the mustard ice cream. Oh, the ice cream. Everyone here know "dipping dots"? Well, mustard dippin dots. Incredible. This was a masterwork. I want it right now. It was also paired with a Pardas Rosat '07 Vi de Taula. Quite possibly my new favorite red wine. Wow.
16. Lamb with mint and peas
Neck of lamb, strong good flavor. Crisp skin cracker on top. Bright green peas and pea puree. Another puree that I think was parsnip. Can't remember. Hearty. Soulful.
17. Green colourology
Small quenelle of cheese, baked green meringues of something I can't place. Chartreuse candy. Color was outstanding. And interesting advance from the peas of the last dish. Good flow to the meal.
18. Lemon distillated sorbet
Quick background here: Jordi Roca likes to take classic perfumes and create dishes with the same aroma as them. Eternity, obsession, etc. This time he flipped it, designed a dessert from scratch, and had a perfumer create a perfume with the same smell as the dessert, presented tableside on a small paper cone. Fresh lemon, bergamot, other very clean, bright smells. The dish tasted just like I described. Clean, floral. Very nice. My wife commented that to the waiter that she had to buy a bottle. It really was a perfect ladies perfume. They were happy to sell her a small bottle for 50 euros. I thought our water said 15, but his English was weak. Regardless, it was the ultimate souvenir. They explained that they only make enough for the season, and then it's gone forever. So she said she is only wearing in it very special occasions. Interesting that the nicest perfume I smelled should come from a restaurant! :)
19. Vanilla, Caramel, Liquorice, dried and caramelized black olives
The last full dessert course. Nice plating. Dark colors of the olives. Strong vanilla flavor. I was a fan. Wife was not. Just not her taste.
Chocolate and cocoa bean, vanilla and coconut, peach, honey and rose, melon and orange blossom. All very good.
4.5 hours later (that's a record for us) it was time to pay the check and take a taxi to the station. Made the regional train with 3 mins to spare. On the ride back we got a seat, but it was still cramped and hot as all get out. We didn't care though. Great great meal. Worth all the pain and anguish it took to get there.
Made in back to Barcelona around 5:30. Went back to the hotel for a shower and a rest. Those trains were rough. Then, still pretty full but wanting to send off Barcelona on a great note, we went to 41 Degrees, the Adrias cocktail bar. To get inside you actually have to go past the rope at Tickets, walk through Tickets (Manel spotted us and said hi. Such a great place and staff). And they open a curtain to the bar. We could sit at the bar or a table so we took a table. We each had two drinks. My wife had a Mai Tai and some Cava and I had an Old Fashioned and a Gin and Tonic. The cocktails are not really innovative. Just perfectly made and very good. We asked the waiter to create a tasting of "snacks" for us based on the elBulli classics. I honestly don't remember them all (though I remember loving every single one). Maybe it was the 13 wine pairings at Can Roca and the 2 cocktails, or the fact I didn't have a menu, or the fact I saw Ferran Adria (that's right, more on that in a second), but I can't list them all (maybe 10 total is what we had):
Liquid Olives (a repeat from Tickets, so glad we had it again)
Parmesan Ice Cream Sandwiches
Crunchy seaweed and quinoa
cone of spicy tuna
much more, including 2 small desserts
Halfway though the snacks I am talking to the wife and she stops looking at me, jaw drops open. I say "what is it?" She won't say. This annoys me a little. I say "tell me". She mouths silently "it's Ferran Adria". I nearly snap my neck looking around and lo and behold. It's the master himself. Talking to people at the bar with his famous speech style. Fast, a lisp, wild eyed.
I turn back around to not look crazy but keep sneaking glances. Then he disappears behind the curtain into Tickets.
"Well," I say, "we just saw Ferran Adria. How about that?"
We may have missed our shot at elBulli, but we certainly got close enough to make us feel ok about it.
Finish up, pay, taxi back to the hotel to get packed and get some sleep before our 9am flight to the Basque country.
Barcelona, check. On to Bilbao.
Wow!! All I can say is wow!
Love the food report...I'm counting the days until I can make reservations for September !!
Do u remember how much the food and specially the cocktails were at tickets??
Prices would really help me out...even if u don't remember exactly
Thanks for your wonderful report I can tell u had a wonderful time
And to see the master himself well, that's the cherry on top!
Do you mean 41? that's where the cocktails were.
We had almost the entire snack menu (maybe 10-12) and 2 sweets and 2 cocktails each and it was around 100 euros for the 2 of us. Cocktails seem to be priced at 8-12 euros each.
I'll try to start including prices. In my report.
Tapas/Tapac 24 was around 60euros for the two of us. Moo was 140pp with an included wine pairing. Can Roca was 145pp plus 65pp for Joseps paired wines (a must).
Can Roca was the most expensive meal we had the entire trip.
Well, we only had 3 that I can talk about:
An old fashioned: made with orange bitters and garnished with a single piece of orange rind. Came in a tumbler with a single block of perfectly clear ice. The ice had "41" carved inside it. A nice touch.
A Mai-Tai: my wifes. Tasted perfect and served with crushed ice. Just what you'd want in a hammock on the beach.
A gin and tonic: they have a whole menu of Gins and then one of tonics. Customer mixes and matches. I had Junipero gin and asked them to pick a tonic. Comes in a large red-wine glass. Good. But I'd pick a different specialty cocktail next time.
Took the 9am flight out of Barcelona and landed Bilbao. Taxi to the hotel, check in, wander around the city. I had read that Bilbao was "not a very attractive city", couldn't be farther from the truth. Beautiful place. Hopefully people who come for the Guggenheim are branching out to see the rest of the place. We of course eventually got to the Guggenheim by around 12 and walked around. Great stuff inside too. Went to the restaurant/bistro for lunch. They have you wear a paper wristband when you leave to go to the restaurant, since it's technically outside the museum, so you can re-enter (why don't they just re-check the ticket?). Anyway:
RESTAURANT GUGGENHEIM (BISTRO)
We went with the tasting menu of 5 courses for 23 euros. It was a bargain and included a bottle of water, bread, and a full bottle of rioja. A 3 course option can be had for 18,40 euros.
This was a small shot-glass size of gazpacho. Not sure how this would really count as a "course" on the menu. But it was good gazpacho.
2. Lightly baked egg, red onion soup, potato puree
Now we're talking! Smooth potato puree bed with specs of chive, topped with a gently baked egg. Onion soup broth poured tableside. Nice runny yolk. Very warming. Our favorite of the meal.
3. Cod balls in Vizcaina sauce
Four golf-ball sized meatballs of cod, served with a rich brown sauce. A heavier dish than expected. But the cod balls tasted very good.
4. Glazed iberian pork cheeks, celeriac puree and vanilla
Two very large chunks of pork cheek. Puree in the side with vanilla flavor. You get your money's worth here in quantity. We couldn't finish. My wife thought the cheeks tasted a little too gamey for her taste. I thought it was good. But not fantastic. They were nice and tender.
5. Light chocolate sponge cake, coffee mousse and iced honey cream
The exact details of this don't spring to mind. But I remember the cake being very delicate and the mousse was very smooth, we smeared the mouse on the cake. The sugar rush was very much appreciated.
We walked around Bilbao the rest of the time. It rained later that night, but what was odd was that it was really the only significant rain we had in our 5 days in the basque country. Many people in Barcelona had told us to watch out for rainy weather, since it has an oceanic climate. We lucked out.
BILBAO PINTXOS CRAWL
OK. I have a decent memory, I think. But there is no way I can detail Pintxos we had in detail, or even comprehensively. From here on out at least one of our 2 major meals of the day consisted of Pintxos. So my report now will mainly focus on the one major meal unrelated to bar-hopping. I'll try to give a few comments though.
Went to Victor Montes, nice decor and fully loaded bar. Looked the freshest and most classic of any place we went. Had a bite of something with egg salad and topped with what looked like angulas. But it was "something similar" according to the barman. Mustardy flavor. Good.
Went into Bar Gatz, wasn't very busy. But had a tortilla with black pudding. Something with anchovies, something else with a green pepper. Very good. Woman behind the bar spoke good English and very very friendly. Liked the place very much.
Went to Irrinitzi, next door. Stayed here for a while to avoid the rain and also because it was very cool. More modern. Younger crowd. Guy behind the bar had a great system of organizing the money (kept the bills under bottles of liquid the same color as the specific bills). Laid back. Nice place. Not too crowded, but not dead. Had some croquettes, a shot glass of a kind of potato salad with blowtorched local cheese on top. Other dishes I don't remember. Also an apple tart to start closing out the night.
Went to Bar Lekeitio on the way back towards the hotel. Stopped in for a cider. Think we had one pintxo that was fried.
Checked out of the hotel and took a short cab ride to the train station to pick up a car from Europcar. They didn't include any insurance on our reservation so we had to pay an extra chunk of change to get that which was annoying, and their prices seemed higher than what I had been sure I read on the website for insurance. Anyway, we were going to Extebarri so we didn't bother too much. Got the car (they upgraded us to a better car for 5 euros). Turns out it was a small station wagon. We pretty much ran the "Griswolds go to Spain" comments into the ground by the end of the drive. :) Couldn't get the GPS to stick anywhere so the wife held it for me and repeated the GPS voice comments in her best Beverly D'Angelo impression: "Stay left Sparky! 400m to the roundabout Sparky!"
Beautiful drive. Difficult to stay focused on the road and also Oooo and Aaaa and how AMAZING the scenery was heading into the mountains. Made it though, 45 mins early (we planned for the unexpected). So we sat in the square in Axpe and basically gushed on how storybook it all looked. The entire town smelled of the freshly smoking coals in the kitchen. We saw Victor Arguinzoniz sat down in the bar when we finally entered. He was sat at a table doing what I assumed was an interview with some kind American reporter who was a Rick Bayless lookalike on his days off, and who soon gradually came to annoy us a little over lunch. He kept going on in Spanish loudly with the staff and was always up and down and up and down into the kitchen for an hour at a time. He had papers all over his table and would stop to read El Pais here and there. Snapping pics with his point and shoot and flashing us in the eyes. His actions made him seem like a reporter on an official assignment. Or he could have just been a foodie gone too far. At any rate, when the meal was over we were wanting to see the kitchen and thank Victor and Lennox. But that guy had been gone from his table and in the kitchen for maybe 90mins by now. So we didn't want to trouble anyone.
Anyway, into the dining room, it was empty, and stayed half empty until maybe 4pm. It's obvious they only do one seating a day and the tables just fill gradually. Oddly, they never asked us our name or our reservation info. We just walked in, pointed upstairs and said "Extebarri?", and they took us up there and sat us. 3 nice middle-aged ladies who spoke very little english, but were very nice, and were pleased to see us enjoying the meal. Which consisted of:
This time it really was an amuse and not a course. A small glass of Gazpacho. This tasted of nearly pure tomato with the accompaniments taking a back seat. You had the full flavor of classic gazpacho. But this was a showcase for really perfect tomatoes.
2. Handmade Chorizo
This wasn't on the menu but we added it as a course. 3 slices of excellent handmade chorizo. Smokey. Very rustic, broke apart in pieces in the mouth. Best chorizo I've ever had. They never charged us for it either. Said it wasn't necessary. They really want you to just enjoy their food.
3. "Grilled" goat butter with toast
A smoked goats butter, thick slice on a plank of toast the same thickness of the butter. Garnished with small flowers and a mixture of salt and ash. Unimaginably good. Can't really describe how the smooth rich butter had the taste of a perfectly charred piece of food from a clean grill. Smooth smoke flavor. I almost ordered another portion. This dish really sums up what their goal for your meal is.
4. Grilled oyster
A large, closed oyster shell is put in front of you. It's scrubbed to a shiny cleanness. You life the lid and there is a much smaller oyster inside. Grilled with a foam of somekind that tastes of seawater. The oyster was tender, juicy, and not at all chewy. Faint smokey taste mingled with open sea. Wife commented it was tied for the best oyster she had alongside the oysters in Kellers "Oysters and Pearls". I mentioned that those oysters had many other components. This was just a pure oyster that had to stand on it's own.
5. Grilled Percebes
Who know good food was so much hard work? We struggled with these little %#&$s. They came out in a wire mesh that you plucked from from the top off. The waitress showed us how to open then since it was our first time. No luck. In less than no time we were twisting and fighting and juices squirting all over the place. The waitress came by again to help and when she tried to open mine she had the same problem, shooting a scalding hot jet of barnacle juice at me. I had to pull a Matrix-style move to dodge it. She seemed mortified but we all instantly laughed about it and I explained that seeing her struggle made me feel better. Eventually we got the hang of it and they tasted fantastic of course. Juicy and meaty. But we had to do some serious hand-wiping when we were done. And there were some spots on the table cloth to remind us of our struggle. Then again; the table of older asian women got the Percebes about 10 mins after us so we got to sit and giggle at their similar struggles.
6. Grilled Gambas
This is what we were really excited about. Two giant, bright pinkish-red Palamos prawns. You can literally see the contents of the heads through the very thin shell near the neck. Oh yes! However, we went to touch them and immediately drew back our hands. Red hot, as in painful hot. This was the same issue with the Percebes but this was worse. We waited a couple mins to let it cool. Then it was time to do work. Flipped the sucker upside down, pull off the tail. And suck with gusto on the deep dark pool of brain and fat from the heads. Strong dark prawn flavor. It was missing something, but then you catch the large salt crystals strategically placed at the base of the neck and it mixes with the juices, suddenly it snaps into focus and it's so good. Scalding hot, but now I wouldn't want it any other way. The tail meat was moist, bright white, shiney. This put every prawn that has come before it to shame.
7. Grilled Baby octopus
"Too cute to eat" said my wife. But we did. And it was good. About 8 small baby octopuses per person, served on top of small caramelized shallots and a dollop of ink at one end. They were smokey and good. But I prefer baby squid to baby octopus. Also, the serving dish was a bit too much. It was a thin strip of ceramic folded at the sides like a tiny canyon. The contents running along the bottom. Difficult to get the utensil inside. I have seen online they have served it on regular plates before. Must just be trying new things.
8. Grilled Egg yolk and St George Mushroom
A perfectly running and warm egg yolk, faint smoke taste, with paper thin shavings of raw st george mushroom. Very good. I am starting to notice how the basque truly appreciate a good egg. Much appreciated by me. I really wanted to ask Victor and Lennox how exactly they grill an egg yolk. If anyone knows, tell me.
9. Grilled Peas
The surprise of the night. A small square bowl of bright green peas and their juices and what seems like nothing else. Intense smokey flavor. But not at all overpowering. Tiny, tiny little peas. The strongest and most perfect pea flavor you can imagine. This could have possibly been the best dish of the meal. We took a LOOOONG time to eat this. Savoring every bite. In the end we both tipped the small bowl, let the juices gather, and drank them down happily. This dish was really a statement on how amazingly perfect their raw products are at Extebarri, and the Basque country in general. Wow.
10. Grilled Anchovies
Two large butterflied anchovies. They were very similar to the ones at Tickets. But these had a great char flavor without being at all charred. drizzled with great olive oil and served with some small greens on the side. Wonderful silvery ocean taste. My wife asked why anchovies in the states never taste this good. We didn't know how to answer.
11. Grilled galician beef on the bone
A full steak. And not a little portion either. This is real meat-eating time here! Grilled on the outside to a dark smokey char. Inside, nearly raw and super tender. After so many grilled things, that most of us are not used to, when this hits your mouth your sense memory kicks in. Suddenly I'm at my Dads backyard cookout with a new charcoal grill and great coals. With a steak we went the extra mile to pay good money for. You remember suddenly "Oh, wow! This whole meal has been cooked the same way we have for centuries. Open fire. wood coals, hold food over fire till done." And you kind of feel astonished for a second that everything before this was done in the same simply way. The steak came with a side of crisp fresh lettuce and a very simple dressing. Though somehow it tasted perfect and unique. The salad helped cut the richness of the beef and made you ready for that next bite of steak. The only downside was it's near rawness in the center caused a small piece of connective tissue to get stuck annoyingly in my teeth. So I excused myself to run to the restroom and get it out.
12. Smoked Milk Ice Cream and berry infusion
Is this a creation of Victor or Lennox? I don't care. It was perfect. Not a hyperbole. PERFECT. Dark purply-red fruit juices at the bottom of a white bowl. Topped with a generous ball of smooth as silk ice cream. The ice cream was smokey, rich, tasted of the woods. This went perfect with the wild fruit taste at the bottom. I couldn't figure out how they got the ice cream so smooth without liquid nitrogen. I leaned over to my wife and went to say something. She said "Don't talk" before the words could come out. So I chuckled. Then we did just that. Didn't talk.
13. Queso fresco flan
This was a creamy yellow round of fresh cheese flan, powdered sugar on top. Sitting on a small pool of what I think was fruit with caramel. They brought it out with a metal ring around it (so it could survive the journey upstairs). Then they removed the ring in front of us. It wobbled, almost toppled. Then it settled, barely holding shape. This happened overtime you took a scoop. It looked like it was on the verge of collapse. But somehow it beat the lawns of physics and stayed together. It was super creamy. Caramel flavor. A great finish.
I don't remember petit fours. But we didn't need them. It was spot on as it was.
Back in the car. Kind of sad to leave. But on to San Sebastian. Which we know has a reputation that does not disappoint.
SAN SEBASTIAN PINTXOS CRAWL
Wow. Jackpot. Old town San Sebastian is basically El Dorado for people who want to eat good, even on a modest budget. We spent the afternoon walking Zurriola and Concha beach and being totally in love with the Ocean. Then we went back to the hotel and cleaned off the sand for some bar hopping.
It's pointless for me to say where we went on a given day or what we had. It's a blur. A wonderful blur. And I recommend the website http://www.todopintxos.com/home/home.php as it was invaluable to me. During our stay in San Sebastian, we went to (among others): Zeruko, Fuego Negro, Borda Berri, Paco Bueno, Zeruko, Gandarias, Bergara, Ganbara, Cuchara de San Telmo, and more.
That will be about the extent of my report on the Pintxos. So for the last 3 days I will just cover the big 3 (Akelare/Arzak/Mugaritz).
Whereas the previous day was overcast and cool. This day was bright, warm, and almost cloudless. Which made for a perfect day to go eat lunch at Akelare. Now, originally we were not even going to go here. We had thought today would be a day to have dinner at Martin Berasategui. But after reading more of Akelare we decided to switch and do lunch here and drop MB. Now, I can't say anything about MB, but I think we really made the right choice. Akelare ended up possibly being near the top of our "greatest meals of our life" list.
We caught a cab from the center of the city. Has anyone else noticed that almost all taxis in SS are White Benzes? Anyway, the driver spoke a little English and with that combined with my Spanish the 3 of us had a good long conversation about San Sebastian and it's history. He basically have us a tour of the entire city as we road up the hill for lunch.
We got to Akelare about 15 mins early. It's a quicker trip that I expected. And since the doors were closed we walked around the parking lot snapping pictures of the ocean. The view is flat-out breathtaking. And the building itself is rather large given that they also have a cooking school there and are working on a small hotel as well. I think it would be a really amazing place to stay.
We were the first people through the door and they sat us at a nice, large rectangular table right in the middle of the full wall of windows running along most of the dining room. We sized up the room and figured we got maybe the best view, being able to see the full way along both coastlines and straight out to see. The view was unbelievable, bright bright blue. Given the weather it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the ocean began.
They brought us the menus and we immediately decided to each get 1 of the two full tastings: the Aranori menu and the Bekarki Menu, and shared. I recommend, nay, insist that anyone who goes here does that. There are so many great things, you don't want to miss anything. The sommelier came out and helped us select our wines, at his recommendation we got a bottle of really good Galician white wine (like 22 euros) and then they would select a 2 glasses of red for us to have with the meat course.
They immediately brought out two slates with toiletries on them. I squinted a second and though "gimme a break, are they having us clean up before the meal?"
Then, I saw he word tomato on one. They brought out a folded paper menu to keep at the table, it listed everything we would have and suggestions on how to eat. That explained the soaps and such in from of us:
1. Tomato and Basil "Hand Soap" with Onion sponge
A squirt pump of clear hand soap, which was actually a tomato and basil gel. You are supposed to squirt as much of the gel as you want onto a perfect recreation of a small sponge made of caramelized onion. The classic flavors of tomato and basil combined with sweetness of caramelized onion.
2. Idiazabal Cheese "Mousturizer"
A small tub of moisturizer, unscrew the cap and it still looks like moisturizer, white, soft, the same texture. Take a spoon and scoop it into your mouth. Tastes like very fresh Idiazabal cheese.
3. Sea "Bath Salts"
A small clear packet with red salts inside. The whole thing is popped into your mouth, the wrapper is edible and the contents inside taste of perfectly grilled prawns. Very good.
4. "Mouthwash" cocktail
A small bottle of bright red mouthwash. With a small plastic cup as the lid. Pours about 2 lidfulls. It was a refreshing fruity cocktail. If there was alcohol it it is was weak. This was the least "wow" inducing of the appetizers. But it made sense with all the rest.
5. Oyster leaf and oyster with cocoa
Another small slate, this time with a bright green leaf with vinegar dew. And a brown chocolaty morsel shaped as an oyster. We were instructed to eat the leaf first. It crunched and then slowly the flavor came to us, it was a fresh, silvery briny oyster. Perfect oyster taste. This wasn't a trick of the kitchen. Just an anomaly of nature. I had heard of oyster leaves before. But my wife was flat out shocked. Then the next bite, a single bight through the smooth casing (which had the texture of chocolate but not the flavor, couldn't place it. And inside was a nice fresh oyster. Very good. But the leaf was the star.
From here we each got separate dishes, eating half and switching plates. My menu (Aranori) with be listed as (a), hers (Bekarki) will be listed as (b). We ended up having a fun game of saying "who won" in terms of the course. And in the end we always agreed. So I will list our agreed results as well. It was funny because after each first bite we would say "I win this one," and the other would say, "nope, I got this one locked up." Here we go:
6a. Prawns and French beans cooked in Orujo Flame
A small cast iron pot brought tableside, inside are 3 nice raw praws, tails peeled but heads intact. They light a fire in the pot and let it cook the prawns, place the lid on to extinguish, and it rests while they present my wifes course. Then they serve the praws on a plate with green bean ribbons and puree, and a red powder of shrimp shells and rice. The prawns tasted of the flame and the puree was smooth and went well.
6b. Xangurro in Essense, it's coral blini and "gurullos"
A very good portion of crab meat, served with a blini that tasted of good crab flavor, natural juices, and a pasta that looked like rice grains. The blini was the best for me. Good fresh meat too.
7a. Molluscs in Fishermans Net
Beautiful dish. Super fresh clams, squid, scallop, oyster, and mussels served under a white "net" made of what I think was crisp rice. Hidden in the net were tiny shrimp heads that gave it a wonderful ocean flavor. Each bite of the mollusks tasted like I just pulled it from the sea a moment ago. I stopped, took a sip of the wine, and looked out the window at the vast expanse of the ocean. It was an unreal feeling, the crisp wine, the view of the bright blue waters, and pure, perfect ocean flavor in your mouth. I was speechless. This was the dish I will remember forever.
7b. Razor Shell with Veal Shank
A shelled razor shell clam, with a veal shank run on parallel. In the middle was shavings of "mushroom" made of cauliflower. The meaty razor shell gave texture and the gelatinous veal shank melted to give flavor. Good surf and turf.
Winner: 7a…no contest
8a. Pasta Carpaccio, Piquillo and Iberic with Parmesan shrooms
Sheets of red pasta made with Piquillo pasta and "iberic flavors". Garnished with greens, parmesan, mushrooms, and black truffle. It tasted like eating cold meat, but it was purely vegetables. Great texture, also a beautiful presentation.
8b. Sauteed Fresh Foie Gras with Salt Flakes and Grain Pepper
Two well sized chunks of perfectly seared Foie brought to the table. The waiter asked my wife if she likes salt. She said yes, and he dumped what must have been 4 tablespoons of giant salt flakes into her Foie. Almost covering it. She gasped and then the waiter winked at her. He asked "do you like Pepper?" She smirked and said "yes." and he dumped about 20 full sized peppercorns onto the plate. Now, we were to find out that the salt was actually broken sheets of sugar, and the peppercorns were fake and make of a kind of rice. They looked flawless. The sugar initially melted on the foie and then set into a caramelized crust. The texture in the foie was smooth and rich. Not melted, even though the outside was seared dark brown. The peppercorns lacked much flavor. But gave a good crunch.
Winner: surprisingly, it was close. But the Foie won. 8b.
9a. Cod Tripe
This dish was made purely with Cod. That was it. A nice chunk of perfectly cooked cod, served alongside white "veal tripe" that was actually just more cod shaped into tripe. It was an interesting dish. But the tripe was just OK. The chuck of cod was perfectly cooked. But the flavor was the same throughout and got a little boring at the end.
9b. "Fried Egg" with Green Peas, little Farm Vegetables
This dish however, was an explosion of variety. a group of baby veggies with the roots done in tempura, the leafs left raw and meant to be eaten as a salad. A pile of baby peas, and a egg that was "fried" but appeared to be soft-poached. You were instructed to try everything by itself and then break the yolk and mix with the peas. Everything was wonderful. But the peas…wow. They were the same peas as at Etxebarri. We couldn't get over it. We asked the waiter to talk about the peas but his english and my spanish were not good enough to get the point across. We didn't know how to word it. We needed to know what was so special about them. I asked "where do you harvest the peas?" He pointed out the window, down the shore about a quarter mile, and said "there." Wow.
10a. Whole-Grain Red Mullet with Sauce "Fusili"
Filet of Red Mullet, with a variety of sauces to combine as you wish. A praline made from the head, bones, and liver. Several fusilli made from sauces. Parsley, soy, ajo blanco. It went very well. together and you got to sample different sauces. Like the sole at Can Roca. The praline was the best.
10b. Turbot with it's "kokotxa"
Good filet of turbot with it's collar. The collar was fake. A pil-pil sauce. And a crisp chip of turbot skin. It was very good and a reference to classic Basque. The chip was unreal.
Winner: We decided a tie. It was too close for us to agree.
11a. Charcoal Grilled Lamb with the Wine Lees
A lean lamb loin. Perfectly medium rare. I cannot remember what came with this as a side, because the lamb flavor was so excellent. The Wine sediment crystal were plated tableside, though they were not actually sediment, but a red-wine sauce re-done.
11b. Roasted Suckling Pig, Tomato "Bolao" and Iberian Emulsion
The pig was cooked in an iberian broth and finished in the oven to get a texture that was crispy and juicy. Very very good. I should also mention that course 11 was paired with a very nice red picked by the sommelier. Also inexpensive.
Winner: I was going to make the case for the lamb, but when I tasted the pig skin, I folded. Victory goes to 11b.
12a. "Xaxu" and Coconut Iced Mousse
A traditional little cake of egg and almond that looks like a little brown golf ball, and on either side are very large blocks of a white sponge. I couldn't figure this out. The sponge was light and airy, and you could ply it apart with your hands if you needed. It was room temp, but the inside was cool. And it tasted like good coconut ice cream. Mystifying.
12b. Milk and Grape, Cheese and Wine in Paralell Evolution.
An assortment of different preparations of milk. Starting from very young to highly aged. With countless accompaniments. Including Sherry, quince, soaked raisins, tapioca, tomato, pink peppercorns, and more. This was an interesting tour into the life of milk and cheese. My wife disliked some parts very much. Loved others. You ate it in a specific order and it did get better as you went. I liked it more than her.
13a. A Different Apple Tart
A tart of puff pastry with apple cream. Topped with an edible apple paper colored silver and bearing the name "Akelare" on it. It was a good tart, and the paper was like a good apple fruit roll-up.
13b. Citrus Shell and Chocolate Shavings
A little white shell, resembling a snails, with citrus flavors, and chocolate cotton candy with coca ice cream. Like eating hay made of chocolate.
Winner: Close. But 13b.
That completed the menu. And to finish we were brought a bowl covered with a blue edible paper (again like a fruit roll-up). This time of pear. They cut the top of the paper and inside are a variety of chocolates and candied fruit, which I sadly don't remember. But they were all very good.
Pedro Subijana came out and spoke with us. He is very friendly and humble and spoke in English, Spanish, and French interchangeably with the whole dining room.
This was really almost a pinnacle of our food trip. It was great food, but it was also a combination of a whole number of things. The dining room, the service, a humble and likable chef who loves to talk about his work. And a view and weather that simply could bring anyone to their knees. Could this meal stand up in a more normal dining room? Yes. Without question. And it was superior in taste and creativity to many places that would cost twice as much.
But the fact it, the whole package is part of the meal. Dining is multisensory. And this meal blew every one of those senses away.
If you are San Sebastian this place is not to be missed.
Thanks for your amazing reviews, they make me look forward to my trip to San Sebastian in October even more. Can't wait for the next ones!
After your review of Akelare it does make me sad though that they will be closed exactly the first fortnight of October which is when we are there :-(
But we do have reservations at Etxebarri, Martin Berasategui, Mugaritz and Arzak, so I guess I'll have to save Akelare for another time...
This day was spent mostly around the beach. And lunch was a Pintxos crawl, which lasted off and on through the whole day. Now, we may have overdone it, because by the time dinner rolled around we were not exactly "hungry", not stuffed or anything. Just not really in the need to eat. Let this serve as a warning to everyone, big lunches seem to work better than big dinners here. Pintxos can suddenly make you feel full on the turn of a dime.
We got to Arzak at 9pm, the outside has a nice old-tavern feel, and does not indicate at all the kind of modern innovation that lies inside. You go through the door to a kind of old bar and lounge, which matches the outside. But when they take you to your table there is a "whoosh" of a automatic glass door and suddenly you are in very modern and avant-garde decor. Very nice. We were sat upstairs and throughout the evening Juan Mari Arzak would pop in and out of the room saying hello, shaking hands and kissing cheeks, then heading back into the kitchen. We did not see Elena once, as I expect she was staying busy in the kitchen.
We were handed menu's, but we knew we would do the tasting, as the menu says itself that they recommend the tasting on a first visit. It was 175 euros pp which is somewhat higher than everywhere else, including Can Roca and Akelare. But I anticipate that you are also paying a premium for the history and reputation of the place. This place seemed to be filled with older and wealthier people, who were far more dressed up (though we were not underdressed). However, there wasn't a "snobby" feel about the place. Very relaxed.
After ordering the tasting menu the waitress commented that several courses were choices of 2. For those we each chose one option and shared. And we were told explicitly that anything we decided we didn't like or didn't want would be swapped out. We just had to let them know. This kind of went contrary to what the menu said (which was no substitutions). But it was nice to know they are so flexible. The sommelier asked what we wanted to do for wine, and since we enjoyed our wine experience at Akelare so much. We asked for the same thing: a bottle of white and 2 glasses of red for the meat. We asked for a local wine and they suggested a house Txakoli which was very nice and about 26 euros. However, we had had so much Txakoli at the Pintxos bars that we kind of had a bit of overkill. Though this bottle was of very high quality.
On to the meal:
1. Kabrarroka pudding with kataifi
A kind of cod-pudding with a thin pastry net wrapped around it. Nice, though hard to remember.
2. Corn, morcilla and figs
A wonderful corn soup with a small bite of blood sausage and bits of fig. Rich creamy corn taste. This was terrific.
3. Marinated anchovies with strawberries
Visually stunning, bright red strawberry topped with a silvery anchovy and speared link a Pintxo. Served on a illuminated white box. The strawberry was the most powerful flavor, clean and sweet. The anchovy lent a light saltiness to it.
4. Crispy yellow rice with mushrooms
A bright yellow crispy rice cracker with saffron, on top of a mushroom mouse. The saffron of the rice was the dominant flavor with a nice crunch.
5. Ham and Tomato smoke
Two spoons of a tartare of ham and tomato. On top of a bowl that contained dry ice. a tea was poured tableside and the whole table was filled with a light mist. Visually very pleasing. Though the mist didn't really have an aroma. The tartare was nice with very fresh tomatoes.
6. Cromlech with onion, mushroom, coffee and tea
Two prehistoric looking boulders, yellow and black colored, made of very thin tapioca. You were instructed to slide the fish knife under the rock and flip it. This exposed it's contents which were onions, mushrooms, and foie gras. Eating it took a little skill since it was so delicate. But the foie was almost like a thick cream and the mushrooms nice and chunky. The coffee and tea were a very delicate background taste. Nice.
7. Lobster Coral & Tapioca and citrus salad
On to the mains. For some reason I cannot remember this lobster. But I do remember the salad served in a small bowl on the side. It was very bright and tart. And provided an interesting compliment to the main dish.
8. Sprinkled Egg and Mussel
I really love how these Basque menu's give such respect to a good egg. This was a poached egg between two layers of kataifi that was green from spinach and parsley. On the side were powders of shrimp and oregano. And on top of the egg was a fake "sunny side up yolk" made from gel of mussel. It was a good egg, but I couldn't taste the mussel from the gel.
9a. Sole with mamia
A good filet of sole with a slice of head cheese and orange sauce. Also included red-wine croutons and some green vegetables.
9b. Monkfish at low tide
Visually excellent dish of grilled monkfish with red pepper balls, bright red fried seaweed, blue orange gel stars, an shells of mussel and sugar. The monkfish was meaty and wonderful. The sides however tasted just odd. The one shell of thick crunchy sugar seemed totally out of place. I should also point out that these courses each came with a small side bowl, but it seemed to only contain more of the accompaniments that were already on the plate. Also unusual.
The verdict on this course was that the monkfish was the best fish, but the sole had the best accompaniments.
10a. Pigeon with roasted corn and orange blossom, thigh confit
Perfectly pink breast of pigeon with some black olive puree and zucchini. The pigeon was nice but we don't remember the sides too well. The confit thigh was served in a side bowl with salad and was excellent.
10b. Lamb with rosemary and turmeric, black sesame tempura asparagus
Slices of pink lamb with a sheet of red pepper and rosemary oil. On a side place was two pieces of tempura asparagus with jamon and black sesame. This little side was out of sight. And was actually better than a few of the actual main courses we had. I would like many more of those. Wonderful.
11a. Soup and chocolate "among vineyards"
A terrific dessert. This was encapsulated spheres of chocolate with a liquid strawberry sauce and a basil ice cream. The 3 flavors went perfectly together, and the basil ice cream was wonderful.
11.b Chocolate playing marbles
Harder to remember this one, but it was solid ball of chocolate resembling playground marbles and jacks. The taste escapes me, but it was an interesting contrast between the soild marbles and the liquid spheres of the other dish.
12a. Pistachio and beet stone
Also hard to remember. Some kind of crisp sponge, with beet sauce and pistachio on top.
12b. Mead and fractal fluid
A small bowl on the side with a liquid of honey an anise, a red food coloring in dripped inside to make a pretty geometric shape. Then everything is mixed and poured onto the main plate which had a white chocolate with paprika and some kind of lemon inside. The fractal fluid didn't really add anything and the dish itself was very forgettable. Visually interesting, not all that great overall. Both dishes on this course came with an ice cream that was nice.
This was very nice and fun. A steel sheet brought out with what looked like nuts, and bolts on it. They were chocolates but looked like perfect recreations of dirty nuts and bolts. There was also what looked ilke an orange Lego, but it was a mango and passion fruit jelly. There was a white chocolate with tea dots, and lastly our favorite, a coca-cola jelly topped with pop-rocks. That gave you this fizz you are used to.
On our way out we got to say hello and shake hands with Juan Mari, who thanked my wife in Englsh for coming and said he hoped we had a great time. Juan Mari was a very friendly guy, and if I have learned anything about cooks in Spain, it is that they really respect their customers and feel grateful to have them. They also really enjoy conversing about the food and love it when customers "get"' what they are doing.
I think our experience at Arzak was a good one, but a little of a let-down after Can Roca, Extebarri, and Akelare. I think that they had some of the most interesting food I've ever had…visually. But they seem to be missing something or off the mark in places when it comes to flavor or texture. Granted, there are parts where it really hits great highs. But for it's price, and with Akelare as competition, it's not the one I would pick to visit again if I could only do one.
Later, my wife confessed that she just didn't like Arzak. And while I couldn't fully disagree, we both agreed that it's quite a statement on Arzaks part that it can give such modern and innovative cooking after being at the top for so long. Many other places and cooks at Arzaks age have begun to rest on their laurels, churning out dated dishes over and over, but Arzak keeps reaching for new things. Not always reaching it, but working towards it.
DAY 9 - FINAL DAY
Day started off pretty rough. I think the Pintxo-fest, large dinner at Arzak, and a lot of Txakoli took hold over night. And I fely myself feeling very uncomfortable through most of the night. I think the high-acidity of the Txakoli is what did it, because I felt like there was battery acid on my stomach at some times. By the time mid-morning rolled around I had managed to beat it, and was doing ok. Though I did not fell hungry at all. But we had reservations at Mugaritz, which we were all very excited about. So it was time to buck-up I guess. :)
We called down for a taxi, but when we finally got there they had not called it for us. Which made us very nervous because we had about 20mins to get to Mugaritz and no taxi. We finally got one and the driver (who also gave us an audio tour of San Sebastian the whole way), drive quickly and got us there in hardly any time at all. My wife commented that she was actually hungry (since she was wise about Pintxos the previous day). And I was finally starting to feel ready to eat. So we were good to go.
Mugaritz is located in the hills just south of San Sebastian. And whole not in as remote of spectacular a location as Extebarri, the "compound" itself is gorgeous. More so than Extebarri. You almost get the feel that Mugaritz exists as a "commune" with all the staff and chefs living only for that place and giving their whole soul to it, which is wonderful. The grounds themselves are so relaxing. And I read someone who commented that Mugaritz is a "gastronomic spa" which I think is spot on.
We were greeted in the courtyard and they took our names, and the escorted us into a small little home, separate from the restaurant. It had 2 medium sized coffee tables and a wooden bar at the other end. It's own bathrooms and a bookcase of books about the culinary philosophy of Mugaritz. It was here that we had two glasses of Cava and they began to bring the opening snacks. It was nice to sit back and relax as though you were in someones living room and enjoy some bubbles and the meal:
1. Edible stones
A signature dish here. Two perfectly polished stones. Now, we had had many food disguised as something else. But I cannot tell you how perfect this was. It was uncanny. I even held it right up to my eyes and it was flawless. It looked like it had been plucked from a river and dried. The texture of the outside that spot on. What was even more strange is that it seemed to have the same weight and density as stones of the same size. We literally had a moment of concern before we bit in, even though we knew what was inside. The outside flaked a little and we bit into a small yellow baked potato. Now, on to the flavor. Meh. It wasn't anything. The shell was kind of dry and a little chalky, the potato had a good starchy taste, but kind of bland. Then, following the instruction, we dipped it into a golden aioli that came with it and that fixed it. Good flavor, solved the issue. It went from plain potato to a nice creamy garlicy mashed potato flavor. The first bite was purely for the experience and the surprise, the 2nd was for the flavor.
2. Grilled Pueraria Focaccia
Looked like bleached tree bark. Topped with small dollops of a red tomato puree. The favor was of a well made focaccia. But it was a little dry, the bites that contained the tomato were nice.
3. Fleeting crunch of Oregano and egg yolk.
A small curricular cracker of oregano with dried toppings that tasted of egg yolk and flowers. This was really nice.
4. Starch and sugar crystal spotted with pepper praline and corals.
A clear sheet, with large creamy drops on top that tasted of pepper and crab. This was welcomed because it was nice and moist in comparison to a lot of dry preparations we had had. The sheets was very delicate and had to be eaten with care.
At this point the service seemed to stop, and we were left in the house for a little while, now and then someone would come in to get glasses. It seemed as though they were still setting up the dining room in the other house, but we were there on time and we could see other people in the dining room. After a little while a waiter came into the room and said: "when you are ready, we would be happy to serve you in the dining room." We got up and walked into the other room where they showed us to our table. It was a large round table which was secluded from other parts of the dining room by white dividers. The dining room is one very large room, so these dividers provided a kind of nice intimacy. The dining room was also half-full. Which was interesting since we showed up for the first seating and seemed to be only 1 of 2 couples that were served in the small house separate from the dinning room. We saw people having the stones at their table.
Our table had two cards laid down: one saying "150mins…submit", the other "150mins…rebel". If you want more info on this you can find it online. But this wasn't actually a menu choice, just a personal choice you had to make as to how you intended to dine. The waiter then proceeded to tell us the philosophy of Mugaritz. That they source everything within a roughly 100km radius. That they serve a tailored menu which can be expanded or contracted given your appetite, and that they try to break with service conventions. They don't serve women first, instead serve at the same time. No serviceware on the table unless needed. Bread course served in the middle of the meal, because to serve it early is to affect the appetite negatively.
He invited us to the kitchen, where we met Rafa, who runs the kitchen in Aduriz absence (he was not there, sadly).
Rafa showed us the kitchen, which was filled with the younger staff that all looked about the same age as my wife and I. He showed us a black board with white writing which showed the list of all the ingredients they had for the day. And explained that due to their high standards and local sourcing, each table gets a slightly unique menu based on tastes and how much that have available. He asked if we had any dislikes or allergies, we said we would take whatever he threw at us. This seemed to please him. He thanked us for coming, and said if he sent us anything we didn't like, to tell him and they would send us a replacement course, no problem. As we left, everyone in the kitchen said called out to us and thanked us for coming, not in a kind of weird "pre-arranged" manner. Or in robotic sync. But casually and truthfully, it was a wonderful feeling of family and my wife beamed at it.
Back at the table, they handed us a copy of the menu. Descriptions were cryptic. And honestly the menu wasn't accurate. Many courses came out in a different order and some were substituted for others. My memory needs to fill in the gaps. It's almost like the kitchen game us the musical notes, but they played jazz in the back and sent what they thought on inputs. It was a nice experience. Our main courses began:
5. Pickled onion, tendon, and tuna essense
We saw this being made for us in the kitchen. A 2 inch chunk of pickled onion, veal tendon, and a brownish light broth that tasted of really good tuna. The onion was crunchy, mild, and the tendon was amazing. Not gelatinous. But tender and meaty. Nice. You soon find that many of the dishes at Mugaritz are intensely herbal and floral. Based in no small part on the surroundings and the amazing herb garden on site.
6. Mugaritz hazelnut soup with pearl
A small bowl of 5 perfectly tender hazelnuts, glazed with a dark red stock. And served with these thin slices of silvery crispy sheet, which we were told were the inside of a shell (oyster I think). It tasted wonderful. Wife said it was the "wow" dish of the meal. The texture was nice and tender. The taste of the hazelnuts was outstanding. A spectacular dish.
7. Fresh herbs, mortar of spices, seeds, and fish broth
A black cast iron mortar, very warm containing toasted sense and spices. You are given a steel pestle and crush them to our liking. This actually took some elbow grease and the aroma was wonderful. You could hear people grinding off an on in the dining room throughout the meal. They then came back with a paper cone filled with fresh herbs picked from the garden outside, and added them to the mortar. To finish they poured an intense fish broth on top and you let it steep for a few seconds. Then ate it all as a soup. The aroma was intense, the flavors very herbal and the broth was warming. It was very very good.
8. Shredded crab with broth, creamy kuzu bread.
This was not on our menu (neither was #6), but I remember it. It was another bowl of very fresh strands of crab. A broth that tasted of rich shellfish. And hidden at the bottom was a mound of very creamy, doughy, bread. Pulled apart by fork and spoon and eaten with the crab and broth. Again, herbal, the crab was very nice and the broth rich. The bread was probably the star though, wonderful texture.
9. Pork Noodles with "arraitxiki" extract and toasted rice.
Excellent clear noodles with full pork flavor, gelatinous and with a golden broth. Topped with golden puffed rice. The crisp rice went well with the slightly chewy noodles.
10. Daily catch, smoked goats milk butter and chard
A piece of perfectly cooked fish, so fresh it tasted as though it may have been alive 5 minutes ago. And served very simply. The whole dish had a clean white color and tasted very good. I believe the fish that day was bream.
11. Textures of coastal fish
Good sized filet of rockfish, this had more texture variance than the last dish, hence it's name. Crispy, smooth, tender, and chewy in different ways. It had fried pieces which gave a nice crunch. Very very good. One of the best dishes and one of the most memorable.
By now something began to happen, I began to feel really good and with a good appetite. All problems from the last night were gone. My wife on the other hand, began to look at me worried. Where she had been hungry, she now began to feel kind of full. The meal still had two meats and 2 desserts to go. So she asked me to finish her rockfish, which I did happily. Though I now began to be a little distracted and worried about if she was OK. All the extensive meals we had seemed to finally catch up with her.
12. Sheet of Entrécula, barbecued meat emulsion and salt crystals
A piece of black slate, engraved with the Mugaritz logo, and on it was sat a simple sheet of beef. We were told it was Entrécula, which is part of the muscle around the kidneys. It was searched on one side only a raw on the other side. They asked if we needed it cooked more but it was perfect. The sheet was twisted slightly. The image plating was almost zen-like. It had a strong beef flavor, nice caramelization on the one side. Very tender. It came with a small scoop of what looked like a thick white cream, and it had a slight cream taste. But it was an emulsion of roasted beef flavor. It went well with the beef. Being a small course, wife was able to eat the whole thing and actually enjoyed it very much. She knew that if she could make it to the sweet courses she would get an appetite back. But was struggling.
13. Rich Ossobuco with toasted lobster emulsion
This was not what what she had planned on. It was a thick piece of ossobuco with a kind of sticky golden sauce at the bottom. The sauce had a faint lobster taste, but it was kind of gummy and sticky. The ossobuco seemed kind of stringy, chewy, and tough in some places, mixed with the gelatinous taste. I took one bite and said to her: you won't be able to have this. She took one bite and said "I can't." The texture was just something she could't do. I managed about 3 and a half bites and had to quit myself. I love ossobuco but this was just too different. The tough texture place and stringiness put me off. But mostly it was the really sticky gummy texture of the emulsion. But neither of us "got it". It may have been over our heads. Honestly, I'm dying to try it again, to see if I liked it in a different frame of mind. When they took the plates away unfinished the waitress looked at us and said "wait it OK?" I waved my head a little and half-heartedly said "yes." It wasn't the truth, but from speaking with Rafa I know if I had said no, he would have sent a different dish. Which would have been great for me. But the wife was growing more and more uncomfortable.
14. Quail Armagnac
We were worried that the next course would be too heavy for her again. The waiter brought a stemless wine glass to the table empty and asked us to smell. It smelled of Armagnac. Then he poured in a light golden consomee of quail. I said "Oh! This is a course." And the waiter smiled at both of us and said yes, he was obviously pleased at our surprise and could tell we enjoyed that it was unexpected. We were expecting a meaty quail, but instead got a glass of warm, soothing broth. It was exactly what we both needed. The broth was excellent, great aroma, and very relaxing to drink. It was actually one of my favorite courses, since I enjoyed the surprise of it.
The waiter came back and said that they reached the end of their savory courses, but if we wished they'd be happy to send out additional ones they think we'd like. We said we would go with the sweets courses now. My wife was relieved.
15. Cup of chamomile dressed with cocoa-necter. Candied fruits from the market.
A very nice dessert of a kind of cold cream that tasted of chamomile, we ate the whole thing easily as it was very soothing. The candied fruits were excellent and provided nice little firm bites to the cold cream.
16. Broken walnuts, toasted and salted, cool milk cream and armagnac jelly
This seemed to be an evolution of the last dessert. A smooth white cold cream of goats milk with small bits of goats milk cheese. toasted salt walnuts. Some walnuts were real, others were fake ones that were actually chocolate and inside were filled with an Armagnac jelly, an interesting progression from the quail, to the chamomile, to this. Very very good.
That concluded the meal. There were no petit fours, and the waiter asked if we would like tea or coffee. We both figured we should have tea since it made sense with the herbal tone of the meal. We are glad we did. They brought out a menu and a tray of about 40 different infusions. The menu corresponded to a number on the jars, and you could smell the aroma to help choose. It was a lot of fun. I picked a dark caramel one, and she picked a light, fruity one. They asked if we would like to relax outside in the courtyard. So we walked out of the dining room into the courtyard, choose a nice secluded bench with a coffee table. We were alone outside and it had gotten nice and sunny outside. It was wonderful to sit under the trees and feel the warm air while they brought the teas. They were the best teas we have ever had. Nothing short of spectacular. Some of the waiters came out to talk to us. Asked us how we enjoyed it, what were our favorite courses. We talked about the fire and the told us amazing stories of how they put it all back together. One waiter seemed particularly happy that we enjoyed everything. I think some of their experiments tend to put people off and they have some customers who simply don't like it and don't get it. But besides the one ossobuco course we thought it was all excellent. At Mugaritz you really get the feeling that everyone who works there puts their whole heart into everything, and feels particularly happy when they see people enjoy what they are doing.
We could have sat there all day, but after another 4 hour meal we wanted to get back and enjoy San Sebastian one last time before we had to leave. The cost of the menu was 140pp. And we paid it in the courtyard after we had tea. They called taxi and we went straight from the courtyard to the cab. Waving into the kitchen that you can see from the parking lot. We got several smiles and waves from the chefs. It was certainly one of the most relaxing meals we have ever had.
After we got back and packed we spent the rest of the day at the beach, watched the sunset at Concha beach, and then went back and tried to convince ourselves that we could get onto the plane to go home without being physically dragged onboard. :)
Well, that sums up my report. Needless to say we had a great time, though I think it may be actually impossible not to have a great time in any of those places. I hope that all this has been an enjoyable read despite it's length. And that it will be useful to anyone who may need it for reference in the future.