Archive for the Basque Country Category


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My first three-star Michelin restaurant.

It took two attempts to get a reservation, but I was granted a table on Wednesday, September 30 at 13:30.

When I arrived on the appointed date, I was welcomed and immediately offered a tour of the space.  (I had told them that I am a culinary student and requested a tour in my original reservation request.  They didn’t mention it in the confirmation emails so I didn’t know if it would be possible.)

Sneak Peak at the Kitchen at Arzak

Sneak Peak in the Kitchen at Arzak

First, we went into the kitchen.  While it was all shiny stainless steel and state-of-the-art, I was surprised at how small it was.  It was packed with a lot of cooks, many fairly young looking.  I was informed that there are around 40 cooks at a time, including year-long interns.

18,000 Bottle Wine Cellar at Arzak

the spice rack at Arzak

Next, we visited the massive wine “cellar” (upstairs), the experimental kitchen, and the spice room.  (Laurent Gras talks about his spice rack on his blog for L2O.  I’ve seen his.  While well-labeled, Gras’ is only the size of a large pantry cupboard.  Arzak has the same meticulously organized system, but it takes up ten times as much space!)

Finally, we passed through the private dining room and back downstairs through the kitchen.  There, I spotted Chef Juan Mari Arzak eating with a group at a family table.  He watched me come down the stairs.  I smiled at him and he smiled back, giving me a little nod.

the Dining Room at Arzak

the Dining Room at Arzak

the Dining Room at Arzak

Next, I was escorted into the dining room.  For a brief moment, I was the only guest.  Then, by twos and fours, others started arriving.  There were only ten tables in the room so the room filled up quickly.  The décor was silver, black, grey, and white.  It felt sleek, but in an earthy-stony way.  While attractive, it also felt the tiniest bit dated.

The Menu

You can choose from an a la carte menu, but this was an once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and so the tasting menu was the only way to go.  They were very kind to me, fashioning a special tasting menu by offering me a couple of either-or options and generously including an extra course.

Amuse Bouche at Arzak

Amuse Bouche at Arzak

The meal started with two stages of amuse bouches.  The first was a tender oyster, skewered over a shot glass.  In the glass was a swallow of green that tasted surprisingly of orange zest.  Then, an illuminated tray with four more bites arrived.  Each piece was a variation of creamy seafood with a different crispy contrast.

Fig with Caramelized Foie Gras at Arzak

Next, for the first course, there was fig with foie gras.  The quarter-inch slices of sweet fig seemed to have been poached and then topped with the creamiest of foie gras.  The rounds of foie gras were then sprinkled with sugar and bruleed.  The thin candy glaze cracked into little shards when eaten and crunched in contrast to the tender fig and smooth foie gras.  Pomegranate seeds and tiny bits of orange flesh popped in my mouth.

With Juan Mari Arzak!

While eating the fig, I felt a hand on my shoulder.  I looked up and was stunned to see Chef Arzak standing beside me.  He asked if it was good.  I said “yes” and thanked him.  I told him that I was an “estudiante de cocina” which means that I am a student of the kitchen.  He asked where and I answered “Chicago.”  He got excited and said that he was in Chicago three weeks ago.  He had cooked for a dinner at Charlie Trotter’s.  He then asked “Alinea?”  I said that I haven’t been there yet.  Searchingly, he said there was another restaurant that he really liked; he couldn’t remember the name.  He said “they don’t wear whites there.”  I asked if he meant Schwa.  “Schwa, yes!”  With that, he went on to the next table.  I was very impressed that he took time to visit everyone in the room.

Lobster Salad at Arzak

The lobster in the lobster salad was so tender that the meat flaked apart.  Mildly bitter greens accentuated the sweetness of the meat.  A smaller salad accompanied the larger one.  This one had greens, tapioca balls and olive oil.  It was a celebration of the oil: so rich, almost creamy, green, and fragrant of grass.  In a reversal, the greens seemed to dress the olive oil instead of vice versa.  Tiny bits of orange provided a little accent of acidity.  Mustard seeds gave a pleasant pop.

Crayfish at Arzak

Crayfish Salad to accompany the Crayfish Course at Arzak

The added course they presented featured two crawfish: one on top of a puffy white cream and the other on a thick black paste.  Despite the very different colors, these two beds tasted similar.  They were extremely earthy, almost mushroomy.  It turned out to be huitlacoche, a fungus which grows on corn and that I’ve only known as a delicacy in Mexican cuisine.  The plate suddenly made perfect sense.  On either side of the plate was a corn cream and a few kernels of sweet yellow corn.  They played perfectly with their natural counterpart of huitlacoche and with the sweet crawfish.  A little steamed seaweed was also mildly sweet.

Again, there was a smaller side salad.  This one consisted of a third crawfish, resting on top of delicate greens.  A brush of huitlacoche was beautiful, but had dried on the bowl so did not really add to the flavor.  There was something else in that salad, something that I couldn’t see but could definitely taste.  Suddenly, I realized it was cheese… unmistakably cheese… a creamy cheese, probably from cow’s milk.  I asked my server what it could be.  She didn’t think there was any cheese in the dish, but said that she would ask.  When she returned, she said, “you have reason” and that it was brie.

"Egg of the Moment" at Arzak

I love the name of the next course, “the egg of the moment.”  This particular egg looked poached, but there may have been an added element of science to its cooking.  The yolk was perfectly golden, creamy and runny, while the white was marvelously solid and set.  I had to really cut through the firm white in order to let the yolk flow.  The egg was served with toasted breadcrumbs, sesame seeds that had been coated in silver leaf, pistachio, a tiny bit of tomato, and a bitter cacao.  While I enjoyed the preparation of the egg, this was not my favorite dish.  The extreme bitterness of the cacao overwhelmed all of the other flavors.  It is interesting that Chef Arzak had mentioned a liking for Schwa in Chicago.  When I ate at Schwa last summer, there were several dishes that incorporated bitter cacao and, in each, I felt that the bitterness was unbalanced and unpleasant.

Tuna at Arzak

The fish course consisted of tuna belly with a light cucumber sauce, accompanied by a single caramelized baby onion.  The tuna actually felt silky in my mouth.  It was juicy, prepared with a sweet marinade of dried fruits, the tuna’s skin, and olive oil.  The two pieces of tuna were skewered together with a piece from the fish’s fin.  It had little taste, but was incredibly crunchy.  The caramelized onion, when I closed my eyes, tasted exactly like the candy.

Lamb at Arzak

Corn Salad to accompany Lamb Course at Arzak

I chose lamb for the meat course.  The meat itself was perfectly rare.  Its flavor was accentuated by two sauces: a jus from the lamb, which was poured over a light chive sauce.  Tender diced carrot and sweet seaweed biscuits completed the main plate.  On the side, there was a simple salad with greens, corn, and the lamb’s incredibly tender sweetbreads.

Basil Ice Cream with Chocolate in Strawberry Soup

The first dessert course was definitely my favorite.  An herbaceous basil ice cream melted into a chilled strawberry soup.  Chocolate balls looked like purple plums.  Some were soft, while some had a surprise hard chocolate center.

To Pour Over The Peach

Peach Dessert

I wasn’t as crazy about the second dessert.  A tart bubbling tea of orange zest and chive was poured over a firm peach half.  In a side bowl, there was an overly candy-like tutti-frutti sorbet, which didn’t do anything to improve the peach.

Chocolate Course

The meal ended with a plate of chocolates.  My favorite was the chocolate wrapped in what looked like a piece of plastic, but tasted like crisped corn.

Leaving Arzak

After my three hour lunch, I felt like I was glowing as I walked back towards the center of San Sebastian.  I must have been; a random Spaniard stopped me in the street and invited me to coffee in the plaza!




Pintxos Crawl

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San Sebastian has more three-star Michelin restaurants per capita than any other city in the world.  It is a food lover’s dream town.  There is little else to do in San Sebastian other than eat incredibly well, go to the beach, and promenade.  (It feels like a more intimate French Riviera.)  I remember hearing it proposed that, because so many great chefs have flocked to this culinary capital, the standard of cuisine has filtered down to even the most plebian spots.  In exploring pintxos, the Basque equivalent of tapas, at bars across town, there is truth to this supposition.

 Calle Fermin Calbeton Pintxo spread

A pintxos crawl is like a pub crawl.  In my opinion, it’s even better because it focuses on the food.  Many of the bars are concentrated in San Sebastian’s compact Parte Vieja (Old Town) so it’s easy to go from one to the next, casually picking up a single beautiful pintxo (and probably a vino, sangria or cerveza) at each.  People mostly stand around the bar or at high tables; some places don’t have any chairs at all.  As at Haizea, it’s customary to toss napkins down so floors are cluttered by early evening.  All attention is on the pintxos which are laid out on platters like little single-serving works of art.  The cold creations are ready to eat; those designed to be hot are thrown on the grill or into the fryer before serving.  Most cost between 2 to 3 euros.

Pintxo Pintxo

Pintxo Pintxo

Pintxo Pintxo

Pintxo Pintxo

This is a fabulous list of places that Pili, who runs Pension Balerdi, recommended to me for pintxos:

Astelena (Euskal Herria 3)

Bar Tamboril (Calle Pescaderia 2)

Goiz Arei (Calle Fermín Calbetón 4)

Iturrioz (Calle de San Martín 30)

Haizea (Calle Aldamar 8)

Hika Mika (Calle de Etxaide 4)

While I loved “crawling” from one bar to the next, my two favorite places were definitely Haizea (see previous entry) and Astelena.  Astelena plated the most remarkable hot pinxtos, both delicious and stunning.

Pinxto Pinxto

Pinxto Dessert Pintxo




Culinary Kismet

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Haizea in San Sebastian Pintxo at Haizea in San Sebastian

Pintxo at Haizea in San SebastianPintxo at Haizea in San Sebastian

It was Sunday afternoon when I arrived in San Sebastian.  After finding Pension Balerdi, I turned my thoughts to finding food.  One week earlier, it had been nearly impossible to find a meal on Sunday in Valencia.

Amazingly, across the square from the pension and open, was Haizea (Calle Aldamar 8).  I recognized the sign from No Reservations.  Chef Juan Mari Arzak and Chef Elena Arzak had taken Anthony Bourdain to this place for pinxtos, the Basque equivalent of tapas.  I’d googled Haizea before my trip, but I’d only found a comment from a traveler who hadn’t been able to find it.

Moments later, standing at its doorway, I could see that the area around the bar was crowded.  The place looked dirty to me; I was surprised to see that the floor was littered with paper.  (I discovered that this is the habit in San Sebastian.  It is normal to throw your used napkins on the floor of the bar!)  I went inside anyway, trusting it must be good if both Chef Arzaks go there.

I ordered txocali, a very green, highly acidic wine, that is poured from high to create bubbles in your glass.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the pintxos.  They were beautiful, all sitting on platters, just waiting to be chosen.  I saw others help themselves so I asked for a plate and chose a skewer of grilled vegetables and jamon.  I started to pick up another that was alone on a plate, but the bartender stopped me.  She called back to the kitchen; I realized the one was just a showpiece.  When mine arrived, I was blown away.  A circle of bread was topped with a round of grilled goat cheese which was then topped with pear puree.  On the side, there were sweet pieces of cooked pear and carrot.  It was astoundingly delicious.  My appetite was satisfied, but I had to try one more… a large mountain of something that looked like custard, sitting atop a comparatively minuscule triangle of toast.  I asked the bartender and she told me it was “gambas,” which are shrimp.  Given it’s green color, I couldn’t imagine shrimp, but I took one anyway.  It was creamy and sweet, but I knew there must be some vegetable in it.  I went back and forth with the bartender and discovered that it was a custard of egg, gambas, and leek!  Amazing.  I was totally blown away but the creativity of the pinxtos at Haizea.  I couldn’t believe that the place was across the square from my pension, visible from my little bedroom window!