Trip Report San Sebastian: Arzak and Mugaritz
Short form summary:
Arzak: food was more for show rather than taste
Mugaritz: best meal I had in Spain. I'll definitely be back here if ever I wind up in Basque country again.
Long form summary:
San Sebastian was my last of my 10 day trip in Spain. Besides the regular pintxos hopping, I was able to get a couple of reservations at Arzak and Mugaritz. I chose Arzak simply because it was close to where I was staying. I'm not one who likes to drive when I'm on vacation. For Mugaritz, I was able to catch a cab to get to the restaurant. I did not realize this, but San Sebastian is wet during the fall season.
Arzak: By far the friendliest and family friendly fine dining establishment I have been to. Juan Mari and Elena Arzak come out and chat with you in your table. Elena even came out 3 or 4 times to the table next to mine to talk and take orders from a family of 4 with 2 preteens in tow. They ordered from the a la carte menu and Elena was still happy to recommend the dishes for them. Arzak was also tops for considering diners, who like me, do not drink. Highlights of the menu for me were the beginning courses and the desserts. Their set menu has a couple of options(fish, meat and dessert) that you have to choose when you order.
First course was a series of 5 small bites arranged in one plate. The best of the bunch was the Scorpion fish pudding with kataifi. It was creamy and slightly salty. The other bite that I liked was Sunflower seeds with arraitxiki. The sunflowers were arranged like a vertical wall and made to stand up rather than laying down on a plate. It was the crunchiest bite I've had in my life. Perhaps the least favorite of the dishes that came out was the Lobster “Sea and Garden” The dish comes out in a transparent glass plate. Underneath it is a video player that plays the sights and sounds of the sea. The concept was good, but the flavors of the dish were underwhelming. It made me think that they did this more for show than for taste. I chose the Longan and Lamb for my meat dish. It was fork tender and was served with one of my favorite fruits: longan. For desserts, my server recommended that I get the Super Truffle and boy was he right. The chocolate truffle was as big as my fist. He told me not to worry as it'll melt when he adds the liquid to the chocolate and once the truffle started to melt away, it revealed a powdery carob core in the center. The last dish was Golden Footprint and ladybird. This was a dish made of different caramelized fruits made to appear to look like a footprint and the ladybird was filled with yogurt. In one word: delicious.
Mugaritz: This was my first “nice” day in SS. While it rained heavily in the morning, the sun actually came out for my lunch time reservation when I got to the restaurant. I was greeted by a whiff of smoke emanating from their coffee/guest house which made my stomach growl a tad bit more. You can stroll around their garden before going inside the restaurant. They have several herbs and flowers that they grow beside the restaurant although some are wilting already since it was the fall season.
I was given a tour of the kitchen which comes standard with eating here. The chef talks to you and shows you around and introduces you to the “theme of the day” which for me involved textures. I was also given my first course(I guess this was a free one since they never counted it whenever they tell you how many courses there were). Mine was 4 fried baby turbots stacked on top of each other and held together by a paste of lemon and something else that I can't remember. This is a one bite dish that reminded me of the fried dried fishes that I used to eat back in the day. There were a total of 20 dishes, of which the first few can be finished in one or two bites. As the menu progresses, I also noticed that the size of the food grew as well. Since this was an experimental cuisine, there were some that didn't work for me like ice shreds with scarlet shrimp perfume(Similar to a shaved ice dessert but was more savory. I think the ice tends to dilute the taste of the shrimp broth that was poured on the ice) and the fermented rice(never liked the strong taste of it, although this was surprisingly not salty). The ones that hit the ball park for me were the Chestnut Nougat and Beef Gelatine(made with beef tendon that was slow cooked for hours or days. It was melt in your mouth good and not chewy, unlike those that I have had in the past), Poultry juice with Tofu(looked like a flan but tasted like essence of chicken), Roasted Peach and “Rock Tea”(the peach was plated to look like a potato, sweet and slightly tart), Candy Caviar(think Dippin Dots but yummier) and their signature Edible Stones(a potato that looks like a rock. You're supposed to eat the first bite as is, then eat it with the sauce that comes with it for the subsequent bites).
Mugaritz proved to be the top restaurant during my trip to Spain. Service was excellent and they actually have knowledgeable people who could explain a dish to you in English if you so desire. I also noticed that our maitre would squat down to below my eye level whenever he talks to me. It was also the only place I saw where the restrooms were equipped with toothbrushes and toothpastes. I thought it was a thoughtful gesture on their part.
We had the same experience with Arzak. Felt the food was overrated and one of the worst meals we had, especially for the price. Reading your review of Mugaritz, I wish we would have gone there. We did however go to Asador Etxebarri and were blown away by the food and experience there, it couldn't have been better. Etxebarri is far underrated compared to the 3 michelin starred restaurants we ate at throughout our 3 week trip in Spain.
Were it not for the fact that I didn't have a car/don't like to drive when I'm on vacation, I probably would have gone to Etxebarri instead of Arzak as well. I had another friend who stayed in SS for a year and told me after the fact that he ranked Arzak lowest among all the fine dining establishments/3 star places in SS. I would definitely go back to Mugaritz if ever I go back to Spanish Basque.