Archive for October, 2009

Dear Granada

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Dear Granada.  What I missed in Seville… got a whiff of in Cordoba… I found it in Granada.  This city exudes the romance of every Andalusian fantasy.

On the food front, I found the elusive free tapas.  When you order a drink, a complimentary plate comes with it.  Traditionally, each dish gets progressively better so I found myself ordering yet another drink to see what would come next.  At Bodegas Castaneda (Calle Almireceros), it was paella, followed by calamari, followed by a hearty pork stew.  Three drinks later, at 3:30 in the afternoon, I needed to take my first Spanish siesta.

Paella Calamari

Pork Stew Jose, Bodegas Castaneda

I really enjoyed Bodegas Castaneda, the oldest bar in Granada.  It was always packed with a great mix of happy people.  The casks behind the bar are filled with all sorts of treats to try: jumilla, vermouth, fino sherry, sweet orange wine, and more.  I don’t often go back to places when I am traveling, but I revisited Bodegas Castaneda two more times so that I could take new friends there.  It was equally great every time.

Bodegas Castaneda Mojama + Lomo y Jamon y Pimienta

In addition to the free tapas, there is also a full menu.  On my second visit, Greg (who I met in Sintra and then saw again in Seville and Granada!) and I took Jose’s advice and ordered the lomo y jamon y pimienta.  The cured pork loin, ham, and green pepper came stacked on grilled bread.  We also ordered mojama, a regional delicacy of air-dried tuna.  In hot Andalusia, it was once a practical way to preserve fresh fish.  The mojama was more tender and flexible than beef jerky, but the idea was similar.  The tuna flavor was intensified by the dehydration.  Because the slices were thin, the fish was rich but not overwhelming.

Fish Fritters with Coleslaw Patatas Aioli

Gambas Bodegas Casteneda

I went back a third time with Mairead and Paddy from Dublin.  (We had met while trying to find the ticket booth for the Alhambra.)  On this last visit to Bodegas Castaneda, we progressed from fish fritters to cold potatoes in aioli to whole, juicy shrimp.

Outside Spice Market Outside Spice Market

When I saw an outdoor spice market behind the Cathedral, I was immediately struck by its presence.  Much of Spanish cuisine relies simply on salt, pepper, olive oil, and perhaps some pimenton, all of which serve to highlight the main ingredient.  In Andalusia, however, there is a strong Arabic influence on the cuisine.  The aromatic presence of cumin, curry powder, cinnamon, and star anise was almost a shock to my senses.  The seductive smell of tea, after a month of strong coffee, took me by complete surprise.

Lamb Tagine Lamb Tagine

I was determined to find a great tagine while I was in Granada.  The Albayzin, the old Muslim area, has a great maze of streets to wander.  Most of the stores and restaurants, however, are very touristy.  I peered into window after window looking for the least offensively commercial place, eventually picking a tea house on the main strip of Calle Caldereria Nueva.  That night, it was packed with Spanish students practicing their English.  I chose the lamb tagine which was exactly what I had hoped to try.  The lamb was cooked on the bone until the meat could easily be pulled apart with a fork.  There were also green olives, green beans, hard-boiled egg, and dried plums. Ultimately, the dish was all about the perfect bite of sweet plum and lamb.  Crisp pita was perfect for soaking up the meaty juices from the bottom of the tagine.

Sherry Wine

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Jerez de la Frontera, home to a number of sherry producers, is an easy train trip from Seville.  The town, however, is much larger than I imagined.  The tours all start at the same time; it’s only possible to visit a couple if you are going by foot.  Also, many of the smaller producers only have tours in the morning.  By the time I arrived from Seville and figured out tour schedules, it was noon.  In the end, I was able to visit two of the biggest sherry companies, Sandeman and Tio Pepe.  Both are giants of mass production and marketing: not my first preference, but the best I could do.

Sandeman Tio Pepe

Sherry, like port, is a fortified wine.  Sherry is unique in the way it is aged.  Using the “solera” method, barrels of wine are stacked so that the oldest wine is at the bottom and the youngest wine is at the top.  When 1/3 of the wine is taken from those bottom barrels, it is replaced by the same amount of wine from the younger barrel above it.  Similarly, the second-level barrel receives wine from the even younger third level.  Accordingly, the wine is mixed.  There will never be a vintage on a sherry because younger wine is continually mixed with older wine.

Palomino grapes are used for the dry sherries while pedro ximenez grapes are used for the sweet ones.  The grapes for sweet sherries are also dried in the sun to enhance their natural sugars.

As dry sherries age, a layer of yeast called the flor develops on top of the wine.  This yeast protects the wine from oxidation.  The wines are tested after several months; the wines with the best flor will be kept as fino sherries.  Fino sherries maintain their original golden color and fruity taste because of this protective film.  Wines with lesser flors are made into oloroso wines.  More alchohol is added to the wine, which kills the flor, exposing it to air.  As a result, olorosos darken in color and their flavors become more complex than fino sherries.  When a fino sherry is aged to the point that the flor dies, exposing the older wine to oxygen, it develops into yet another type of sherry, an amontillado.

At the start of the Sandeman tour, I paid 4 euros more to upgrade my tasting at the end.  I figured that, as a culinary student, I should take the opportunity to taste the best while I was in Jerez.  Unfortunately, I really don’t think that the sherries I tasted were right.  I wondered how long they have been opened… probably since the last chump ponied up for the more expensive tasting.  The royal esmerelda, an amontillado, tasted like penicillin, actually repulsive to my sense of smell and taste.  The Royal Ambrosante, a 20 year old sweet sherry, tasted faintly of the antibiotic.  I asked my tour guide if the wine was right.  She opened the bottle, poured herself some, smelled it, and tasted it.  Then, she told me that was how it was supposed to taste.  ????   At the end of the Tio Pepe tour, I stuck with the basic tastings, meant for the everyman tourist.  These were simple wines, not overly complex, but not offensive either.

Apparently, it will take more than a trip to Jerez to develop my taste for sherry!

Seville & Cordoba

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As I headed to Andalusia, I hoped that I was in time for gazpacho and salmorejo, two soups that are only served when the tomatoes are in season.  I was in time to find them both.

Gazpacho by the Glass

Gazpacho is typically made from tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers, green peppers, and olive oil, pureed together to make a very refreshing soup.  Barely thicker than water, it is often served in a glass to be drunk.

Salmorejo Salmorejo

Salmorejo, which originates in Cordoba, includes only tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil.  These ingredients are then pureed with bread.  The bread thickens the soup, making it miraculously creamy.  Some of the salmorejos achieved the consistency and texture of mayonnaise.  (I mean that in a good way.)  Salmorejo is often topped by chunks of chewy, dry jamon.  Leave it to the Spanish to take something easily vegetarian and add pork.

Tapas has its roots in Seville, although it is everywhere in Spain now.  I had heard that there would be free tapas in Seville: that when you ordered a drink, they would bring you a plate.  Perhaps I ordered food too soon or perhaps I was too obviously a tourist, but I was never gifted with tapas in Seville.  I did, however, find a couple of great tapas spots, full of classic character.

El Rinconcillo El Rinconcillo

El Rinconcillo El Rinconcillo

Opened in 1670, El Rinconcillo (Calle Gerona 40) is the oldest bar in Seville.  They keep track of your tab by writing it in chalk on the bar.

Casa Morales Casa Morales

Tortilla Espanola, Casa Morales Casa Morales

Opened in 1850, Casa Morales (Garcia de Vinuesa 11, Seville) is a big, dusty place with all classic tapas selections.  It is very near to the Cathedral.

Bodega Guzman Albondigas at Bodega Guzman

In nearby Cordoba, at 2pm on a Sunday, I could hear the sound of the crowd at Bodega Guzman (Calle de los Judios 7) from half a block away.  The drink of choice there is montilla, which is like a fino sherry.  It is very dry and a little fruity, perfect as an aperitif, but drunk anytime with anything at Bodega Guzman.  The bartenders pour it from huge wooden casks.  I also ordered the albondigas, incredibly moist pork meatballs, served in a sauce fragrant from cumin and pimenton.

Portuguese Pastries

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Small, tempting bakeries called pastelarias dot every block in Lisbon.  They feature sweets with creams and custards.  I appreciated that a lot of them were bite-size…so I could try more!

Pastel de Nata

The pastel de nata is probably the most famous of all the Portuguese pastries.  At a bakery on Rua do Loreto, it was my lucky day to find a fresh-out-of-the-oven tart.  The warm custard, golden from its eggs, was both firm and as creamy as pudding.  It was rich, but not too sweet.


In Sintra, a beautiful daytrip from Lisbon, I had a queijada at the long-named Fabrica das Verdadeiras Queijadas da Sapa (Alameda Volta do Duche 12).  Technically a kind of bite-size cheesecake (made with fresh cheese, flour, cinnamon and sugar), it tasted like the world’s best snickerdoodle.


The travesseiro from Casa Piriquita (Rua das Padarias 1, Sintra) was also heavenly.  It had an airy pastry exterior and was filled with another perfect cream.  This cream was almondy with the consistency of lemon curd.


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Principe do Calhariz, Lisbon

Porco a Alentejana

At Principe do Calhariz (Calcada do Combro 28-30), I should have considered it foreshadowing when the waiter brought me a steak knife for the porco a alentejana, a traditional dish of garlicky pork with clams.

This place was packed with locals, seemingly happily eating their meat.  Yet, when I looked around, it looked to me like the vestiges of overcooked pork, chicken, or steak on their plates.  The steak at the table beside me could have been bounced on a basketball court.

After that first meal in Lisbon, I started keeping my eye out for the meat wherever I went.  Peering into churrasqueira windows, it consistently looked done, done, done.

I wonder if this is a cultural difference?  Do the Portuguese prefer their meat to be completely cooked through?  If I were to go to a fancier restaurant, would I find the same extremely well-done steaks?  I ran out of time in Lisbon so I am curious to hear about other carnivorous experiences there.  Anyone?

Sopa a Alentejana

Sopa a alentejana, a traditional garlic soup, originates from the same town as the pork and clams.  At Principe do Calhariz, a generous amount of sliced garlic was added to chicken broth.  On top of the bowl, there was a poached egg, along with several hunks of crusty bread.  When I punctured the yolk, it exploded into the broth.  Like oil in water, the yellow stayed separate.  The rustic bread sopped up pretty swirls of broken yolk and broth.  Fresh parsley added a little green.

Food in Porto

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Philly’s got cheesesteaks.  Chicago’s got Italian beefs.  Porto’s got francesinhas.

Francesinha Sandwich Francesinha Sandwich

In Porto, every time I would tell someone that I am a culinary student they would ask me if I had eaten a francesinha.  While I had read up on what to eat in Portugal, somehow this sandwich was not on my list.  When I asked where to get a good one, I was directed towards any bar.

The bar I picked was filled with older men, as all bars in Spain and Portugal seem to be after a certain hour.  I ordered the francesinha “especial” which adds a fried egg on top.  I figured that I was probably only going to have this sandwich once; why not make it as especial as possible?

My francesinha came on two slices of Wonderbread-like white bread.  Stacked between the soft slices, I found bologna, salami, pounded thin steak, Jimmy Dean-size links of peppery pork sausage, and bacon.  All of the above was drenched in a spicy gravy, made with beer and brandy, which tasted strongly of the alcohol involved.  I then had it all topped off with that egg.

This pork filled, beer-gravy sodden sandwich is commonly consumed for lunch, but I’m glad I tried it at dinner.  After only eating half of it, I was ready for bed.

Porto, Portugal

My favorite food in Porto was actually another sandwich.  Available in most bakeries and cafes, the lanche is made from two pieces of delicious, soft, golden, eggy bread.  It reminded me of challah, but was sweeter.  The sandwich is usually filled with jamon york (the least fancy ham in Iberia; it’s like any lunchmeat you’d find in the States) and cheese.  Once, there was also a piece of salami.  It’s often served at room temperature, straight from the window tray.  If you’re lucky though, they might smush the lancha on the grill or press it in a panini machine.  Then, the cheese gets oozy and the sweet bread gets more dense.  It is the perfect lunch to eat as you walk towards the next port lodge or run to get your train.

Bacalao Con Natas

Taking a break from port tasting, I had a delicious lunch of bacalao con nata.  Flakes of salt cod are stirred into a creamy béchamel, topped with a bit of grated cheese, and then baked in the oven until the top is toasty.  It’s comforting in the way of tuna noodle casserole, but more sophisticated.

Caldo Verde Couve Greens

I ate three nearly identical bowls of Caldo Verde while I was in rainy Porto.  Each time, it had a water-based broth, thinly thickened with a bit of potato.  The soup’s namesake verde came from a chiffonade of couve.  These greens, similar to kale, are grown in Portugal and Spain.  (I saw market produce stands which sold the greens, pre-cut into fine strips and displayed in generous piles.)  A single piece of meat was also included in each bowl: a round of chorizo, a narrow piece of ham, or a chunk of fatty bacon.  Whichever the chosen pork piece, it flavored the broth and added one luxurious bite to the soup.  At its heart, caldo verde is a recipe of economy.  It takes a bit of potato, some greens, and a little meat and stretches their flavor as far as it will go.

Arroz a Portuguesa Porto, Portugal

Late on my last night, I stopped in a small bar, busy enough, on my way back to the hostel.  It was pouring rain so I just wanted to find a place.  I knew I’d chosen well when I realized that the husband worked the front while the wife handled the kitchen.  I ordered the Arroz a Portuguesa.  Pieces of meat (a little bacon, a couple chunks of stewed pork, a bite of chorizo, an inch of blood sausage), cabbage, carrots, and pinto beans, were ladled on top of white rice, and covered in gravy.  It was a tasty, homey, and filling final meal in town.

Port in Porto

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Across the river from Porto, connected by a pedestrian-friendly bridge, is Vila Nova de Gaia, home to the port lodges.   While the grapes are actually grown on man-made terraces that were built into the nearby Douro Valley, Vila Nova de Gaia has ideal weather for the aging process.  Once upon a time, in order to call your drink “port” you had to have a lodge in this little town.  This historic consolidation makes learning about port exceptionally easy.

Via Nova de Gaia

Port is a fortified wine.  It was originally created to help wine survive transportation from Spain to England, the biggest producers and buyers of port.  After the grapes are crushed, the wine begins to ferment.  When about half of the sugars have turned to alcohol, usually after about three days, a fortifier is added to the wine.  While brandy was originally used, it is now typical to add a clear, flavorless, grape spirit of around 77% alcohol content.  This halts the fermentation process while much of the fruits’ natural sugars still remain.  The resulting port wine is both sweet and high in alcohol, typically around 20%.

There are several types of port:

  • White port is made from white grapes.  The first white port, Chip Dry, was made by Taylor’s in 1934.  As the story goes, it was once common to give the field workers sherry to drink during the hot harvest time.  That year, because they were running out of sherry, they decided to make a white port using the white grapes and give it to the workers.  Happy accident, all of the major producers now make a version of white port to sell.  Unlike rubies and tawnies, whites may be classified from extra dry to extra sweet.  Typically served as an aperitif, they should always be well chilled.

White Port

  • Ruby port is made from red grapes.  It is aged in huge oak casks, sometimes as large as 20,000 liters.  The large size of the vat means that there is little contact with oxygen through the wood’s pores.  Because of the slow and slight oxygenation, the ruby ports keep more of their original fruit flavors and dark red color.  Ruby ports are typically paired with soft cheeses and rich desserts.  It goes especially well with chocolate.

Casks for Ruby Port

  • Tawny ports are also made from red grapes.  However, because they are aged in much smaller barrels, there is more contact with oxygen through the pores of the oak.  As the wine ages, its color changes.  The older the tawny, the lighter the color will be.  The flavors also evolve because of this very gradual oxidation.  A typical tawny might have notes of dried fruits, nuts, cinnamon, toffee or coffee.  It is commonly matched with light desserts and hard cheeses.

Casks for Tawny Port

  • Vintage ports are made from exceptionally good harvests.  After about two years in the large oak casks, a ruby wine is tested to see if it might age well is a bottle.  Only two or three harvests per decade are pronounced vintage-worthy.  If deemed good enough, these wines are then bottled without being filtered.  The grape skins and pieces add to the complexity as the wine ages for ten, twenty, thirty, or even forty years.  A vintage bottle should always be decanted before drinking.  Once it is opened, it should be drunk quickly.  Having aged in a bottle, it has not been exposed to oxygen like the ports aged in wood.  Once opened and exposed to air, the taste will change quickly.

Vintage Ports

  • Late Bottle Vintages (LBVs) are made every year from ruby ports.  They get their name because they are aged in the large oak barrels for four to six years, instead of only two years.  They are filtered before bottling so they do not need to be decanted.  LBVs can be drunk immediately or aged for up to seven years.  Some call these wines the “vintage of the poor.”


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Percebes is translated into English as “gooseneck barnacles.”  The mythical-sounding “percebes” seems more apt.

Percebes Percebes

When I first saw percebes in the market at Santiago de Compostela, I was thoroughly fascinated and confused by them.  On a daytrip to A Coruna, as I ate them at Restaurante El 1o (Plaza de España 8), they reminded me of dragons and Harry Potter.

In fact, they attach themselves to rocks in very tumultuous waters.  They are only available in colder months; I was probably lucky to taste them.  It is dangerous to collect them so they are quite expensive.  I was able to order a quarter of a kilogram, the smallest possible portion, for a whopping 25 Euros.  Though the desensitized locals around me ate them as unthinkingly as peanuts, I took my time with each precious one.

Percebes (Gooseneck Barnacles) in A Coruna Percebes

They grow in little clusters like Shiva’s many arms.  The skin, which feels like synthetic leather, can be twisted and pulled off to reveal a firm, fleshy tube of meat.  Depending on the size, the meat might be coral or pink (the smaller ones) or deep purple and orange (the thicker ones).  An easy suck removes the meat from the claw.  Following the splash of stowaway seawater, the succulent meat tastes of minerals, rock, slate, and salt.  Upon closer inspection, the leftover little claw looks like it is made up of small green shells.  Inside it, there are crunchy, feathery fingers, with not much taste.

Percebes (Gooseneck Barnacles) in A Coruna

Percebes (Gooseneck Barnacles) in A Coruna


It was like eating something not of this earth, or exceptionally of this earth.

Santiago de Compostela

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The Cathedral

Many people know Santiago de Compostela because its Cathedral is the end destination for a major pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago. The town is in Galicia, a unique region in the northwest corner of Spain distinguished by its Celtic roots and rough weather from the Atlantic Ocean.

Pulpo Pulpo a Feira

In terms of food, the fishing industry is still very important in the region of Galicia, where Santiago lies. For example, octopus is all over Santiago. I saw it presented two ways. The full, long tentacles might be presented on a plate or, as with Pulpo a Feira, the tentacles might be sliced into bite-size rounds meant to be eaten with a toothpick. To prepare Pulpo a Feira, the octopus is tenderized, either by banging its tentacles or by freezing it for a short time. It is simmered and then generously doused with olive oil and pimenton. I’d never had octopus so of course I had to have it.  I ordered the Pulpo a Feira at Sobrinos del Padre (Rua da Fonte de San Miguel 7). The octopus had two textures. The white center meat was firm and chewy, without being tough, while the outer purple “skin” and the “suction cups” felt pleasantly slippery in my mouth. The pimenton, on the spicy side of the spectrum, added a little kick to the dish.

Tetilla Cheese Carmen's Cheese Shop

All over Santiago, there is cheese shaped like huge Hershey’s Kisses. Called Tetilla, meaning “little tit,” it is actually meant to depict the shape of a breast. As Carmen, from a cheese shop in Mercado de Abastos (Plaza de Abastos, Nave 7) explained to me, “In the cathedral is a monument which had prominent tits. The priest made them cut out the tits because they were scandalous. The shape of the cheese is a protest.” Tetilla is made from cow’s milk. It is very mild with a slight tang. While it looks solid, it is creamy enough to spread. A cheese with such a shape and story could be just a tourist trap, but this is really delicious.

Tarta de Santiago IMG_1439Tarta de Santiago

Tarta de Santiago is made from flour, ground almonds, butter, sugar, eggs, cinnamon, and lemon zest. You can buy the whole cakes, always topped with confectioner’s sugar and decorated with a cross, all over town. Outside of going to a restaurant, it is more difficult to find just a slice. When I finally found one, it was delicious, mildly nutty, not too sweet, with the warm flavor of cinnamon. Its outside was crispy and reminded me of a madeline. The inside was moist, dense, and reminiscent of the texture of marzipan.

Empanada Tuna Empanada

Empanadas originated in Galicia. There is one carved into the cathedral, though it was covered by scaffolding when I was there. The pastry turnovers, most often filled with fish, seafood, or meat, were designed to be portable meals. I was familiar with South American empanadas, which are fully sealed, individually portioned pastries. In Galicia, however, empanadas are typically baked into large rectangles or circles, cut to the desired size, sold by weight, and wrapped in paper to go. (They also make smaller, single-serving versions, but they call them empanadillas.) I tasted a number of empanadas while I was there, including ones stuffed with tuna, octopus, and bacalao (salt cod). Each one was wildly different than the next, mostly because of the crusts. Some were flaky and buttery, while others were more bread like. To me, the most crucial element was the balance of crust to filling. I found a number to be overwhelmed by crust, concealing what was inside. When the balance was there, however, the empanada was a simple, satisfying, inexpensive, portable meal, still perfect for a traveler.

Pimientos de Padron Pimientos de Padron

These beautiful peppers are from Padron, a near neighbor of Santiago de Compostela. I wanted to taste them, so I asked a woman at the market for three peppers. She looked at me like I was slightly crazy, put a handful in my hand, and shooed me off, refusing my money. I nibbled one as I walked away. It was bitter and not very good. I knew there must be more to this pepper. At the cheese shop, Carmen saw my half-eaten pimiento and laughed at me. She told me that they have to be cooked quickly in olive oil.

Pimientos de Padron Pimientos de Padron

At dinner, I ordered the peppers, along with my pulpo de gallega. A huge platter arrived. They had been sauteed and sprinkled generously with salt. I ate one. No longer bitter, it tasted fresh and bright. As I made my way through all of them, each was slightly different, like pepper snowflakes. Some were bright and fresh; some were a bit bitter; some had a spicy side. They were addictive, like popcorn, but much more interesting.


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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!