For a cutting edge restaurant the ‘get up’ that the waitresses are required to wear at Arzak is quite backwards, in fact so ‘amish’ in style I thought each course was going to be delivered by horse and cart. The staff however must like the way the said uniforms feel as there are many loyal staff that have been here for at least the 8 years that we have been coming here, and it shows in the maturity of the service.
The wine list has some good international selections and there is value to be had. I tend to think the way to go is old Rioja (at most generous pricing) and ordered the 1981 Lopez de Heredia Gran Reserva Bianco to kick off with. It was really very good, behaving a little like an aged Hunter Semillon with plenty of toast to aroma along with some mushroom and grilled nut development. There were notes of honeycomb and apricot as well as plenty of lemon that has waxiness about it. In the mouth it was very much fresh and alive with bright acidity and excellent poise. It was a terrific all-rounder with many of the courses from the degustation menu. Our red selection, the 1961 Riojanas Vina Albina Rioja Reserva started off with some volatile acidity punching up into the nostrils and plenty of antique furniture smells. It had some tar and leather notes along with something sweet and vinous in the mouth. It was lacy of texture with good vibrancy and breathed to show some floral traits. The finish was like sucking on a salty plum.
The degustation starts with much colour and movement, with all sorts of tasty morsels placed on the table. A small cup of liquid sweet corn, figs and black pudding had incredible intensity and was the essence of sweet corn. A gooseberry with shredded coconut and a potato chip ignited the senses and goats cheese with turmeric had been melted down and reconstituted in some sort of rubber formation but was extremely tasty. I have absolutely no idea what ‘ kabraroka pudding with kataifi’ was but if I spot it on the menu at my local pub I’m all over it and marinated white anchovy served with a fresh strawberry was succulent and sweet.
The first course proper was a delicious warm oyster for Heidi on some local ham with a citrus and champagne sauce. It was fine, elegant and beautifully balanced. I had a weird tuber called ‘Cromlech’ that was filled with caramelised onion, foie gras and coffee and tea, which you inverted and ate like an ice cream cone, very decadent, rich and delicious. Next was delicious lobster tail with mustard and a tapioca salad and a local fish served warm with a salad of fresh mixed leaves. There was an edible clothes peg with the lobster that seemed to serve no purpose other than to remind us that there were clothes in the washing machine back at our apartment that needed hanging out after lunch.
Elena Arzak came out from the stoves and had a brief chat with us just as the egg course came out. I’m not sure I know of other famous restaurants that constantly have a brilliant egg course but they do here. The egg is poached at some temperature that ‘molecular gastronomists’ deem the perfect heat to poach such protein and then served with mushrooms and a perfectly cooked mussel (I suspect done sous vide). The whole dish was incredibly good.
Dish of the day for me was perfectly cooked sole with a piquant fruit sauce and marinated beef tongue. There were little croutons of what were termed wine bread and a cute little accompanying salad. It was a dish of great freshness and vibrancy. The final savoury course was the silkiest breasts of pigeon served with duck leg confit in a hibiscus sauce. It had a strange root vegetable called yucca served with it that tasted like gnocchi.
We had a very good language conduit between us, the sommelier and waiting staff via an extremely good bilingual front of house, and we decided to push the friendship a little. I had earlier in the day tried to book at restaurant in Bilbao that spoke no English or French or Italian (heck, we’re going to need somewhere to eat there if we’re doing a day trip to visit the Guggenheim). My Spanish doesn’t venture much further than saying ‘I am from Barcelona’ in an accent like Manuel’s from ‘faulty towers’ and saying such a silly thing will not secure a table for 5 people for lunch at 1.30pm. Our most excellent language conduit first checked with the kitchen that the restaurant that we had in mind was indeed fit for our visit and then booked us in with the minimum of fuss. I nearly asked him if he could get my suit dry cleaned as well (I didn’t really as that would just be silly).
Desserts were a selection of weird and wonderful things. Playing marbles with chocolate exploded in one’s mouth, coating the gums with sensual liqueur. Mead and fractal fluid covered the palate in sweet and savoury strangeness and pistachio and beetroot stone had candied pistachios that made Heidi go weak at the knees. Various ice creams were fresh, balanced and sublime. The petit fours were a selection of strange looking shapes including keys, nuts and bolts but were complex and diverse in their flavours with plenty of sweet chocolate intensity as well as salty savouriness and fruity freshness. Coffee was exceptional.
Elena Arzak’s cooking is as self assured as ever, relying less on the theatre of various foams, explosions and mists (perhaps we are less sensitive to these as there was some dry ice action) and letting the remarkable complexity and balance of her flavours do the talking. She has a great imagination and flavours are vivid, bright and bold. The service team is mature, well drilled and friendly and the whole experience is comfortable and engaging.