Category Archives: Food Reviews – San Sebastián

Fundraising for Japan – A Success, And Yes, We Have A Winner!

Thanks to your generous donations, The Pleasure Monger’s fundraising event for Japan was a success! We may have fell short of the £2000 target, but we did raise a whopping £1510, which amounts to 76% of our target! To be honest, I wasn’t sure if anyone would donate when I organised this, but a number of you did; the funds that we’ve raised together are so much more than I could ever give on my own. I’m grateful for your support and I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart.

The fundraising page that I’ve set up on JustGiving will run till 2016, so please continue to drop a pound or two to help the victims of the earthquake in Japan. I’m sure everyone knows that the people in Japan are still suffering from the aftermath. For people like us who can’t be there to deliver aid, we can help in other ways. Yesterday evening, I was just thinking how wonderful it would be if everyone who stops by this blog could give a pound or spare some change; we could very well raise £20000 in a month! And then we have other bloggers who are trying their best to raise funds (read the updates at the bottom of this post for more details on how you can get involved), bloggers who are way more popular, prolific and well-known than I am, and if every reader of theirs give a pound for every post they read, they could raise so much more. That £1 makes such little difference to us, but for the victims, every penny counts and the success of the fundraiser thus far proves that we can pool our resources together and make a HUGE difference. So please continue to give, within your means, to any of the avenues that are most accessible to you.

Now, let’s realise the promise I made. When I organised the fundraiser, I said that I would pledge a USD100 Amazon gift card to one lucky donor so long as he/she donates before 31 March 2011 (GMT2359h). So today, I used the random integer generator on random.org to pick a winner and the gift card goes to…….

SHIRLEY!

I’ll be in touch in the next few minutes with an Amazon email containing the gift card. Congratulations and thank you for your donation!

xx

 

Fundraising for Japan

Dear readers,

In light of the recent events that hit Japan, I have started a fundraising page on JustGiving to raise some money for the disaster relief efforts. My nominated charity is ShelterBox, which is rallying resources to help the people in Japan. Temporary shelters are getting increasingly overcrowded right now, and if you’ve read the news, many have died in the bitter cold. The Japanese authorities are requesting ShelterBox to deliver emergency shelter and lifesaving supplies to the north of Japan. Thousands of boxes of such supplies are either in Japan or ready to be mobilised now, and we can help to deliver to the needs of the homeless in Japan. Please, let’s not leave them out in the freezing temperatures, and let’s work to give them a home and some warmth, literally and figuratively.

Anyone can donate, you only need a debit or credit card to do so. I can’t make a difference on my own, so instead of donating the money directly to charity, I am pledging a USD100 Amazon gift card to this fundraising event. I will randomly select the gift card recipient (using http://www.random.org/) from the list of people who donate on my fundraising page before 31 March 2011 (2359h GMT). By giving a little incentive, I hope that this will boost numbers a little and make the event worthwhile.  The gift card can be used on Amazon.com and I will email it to you before 10 April 2011. I will also announce the winner on this blog.

Please note that whilst I am not allowed to publicise this gift card raffle on my JustGiving page (as I am bound by terms and conditions), anyone who donates on my page, with a valid email address, will be eligible for this raffle. In order for me to contact you, please make sure you make your email address available to me on the JustGiving fundraising page.

Thank you for your help. Please also spread the word around, the success of this fundraising event relies on our collective effort.

Updated: I would also like to bring your attention to other avenues of donation. Some of my food blogger friends have set up an initiative called Bento4Japan, they have very generously put up some bento-related items up for auction on eBay. Please visit this site and start bidding! Or you can visit meemalee’s kitchen to have a look, she has written a nice summary of how you can help the people in Japan. Chika of the very beautiful blog, She Who Eats, is also giving away sakura ingredients to raise funds for Japan.

P/S: The fundraising page will be active till 2016, but only donors who contributed to this page before 31 March 2011 (2359h GMT) will be considered for the raffle. I am doing this because I am trying to encourage as many people to donate soon as the relief efforts are ongoing and urgently needed – WE HAVE A WINNER!

 

San Sebastián in Pictures

San Sebastián

You guys know how much I love San Sebastián. The city makes me feel alive, more so than I’ve ever been. I walked and combed and prowled the streets everyday on my lazy legs. I should have been awfully tired. I should have wanted to stay in to nurse the blisters and massage my calves. But there was so much to take in at San Sebastián that every step made me want to do more.

San Sebastián

 

San Sebastián

We explored the quaint green carpets at Parque di Alderdi Eder, took in the breathtaking sights of the bay (Bahia de La Concha), and admired Monte Urgull from afar. We sat on benches and people-watched. Children ran after cute puppies, the sun was high, and the sky impossibly blue, a couple got married by the bay. We also saw an unusually high number of twins and reckoned there’s something in the water or food at San Sebastián.

In the morning, the tide was low at Playa de La Concha, and boys ran out to play football, ever so skillful for their tender age. When the tide came in, the mustard sand was replaced by blue-green water. Boys ran back to land for safety. The landscape changes, yet not so much because it is still beautiful.

San Sebastián

San Sebastián

I especially loved walking through the streets and stumbling upon different textures in San Sebastián. We saw concrete walls splattered with graffiti, and metres away stood walls of stone caked with mud and moss, evidence of new blood running through ancient veins in the city. There was so much to see, so much to ponder, and so much history to steep in.

San Sebastián

We also conquered a fair number of steps to get to Monte Urgull, where the Statue of Jesus looks over the city. It was there, where I learnt the gravity of aging. Four years ago, I used to be able to climb up all sorts of buildings, fortresses without falling apart. In particular, I made it up to the Palamidi Fortress in Nafplio under the blazing sun in one piece, a mean feat for a sedentary person like me. Monte Urgull is a lot less vertically challenged, and yet I almost fell apart. I was huffing and puffing and scared shitless with the heights, but it was worth going up there to share the view of Playa de La Concha with the Statue of Jesus. We even discovered a secret spot where we could admire the beautiful horizon at Bay of Biscay. Here, blue blends imperceptibly with blue-r, and I think heaven might look like this.

San Sebastián

San Sebastián

When we were exhausted and famished from all the climbing, we descended to terrorise the bars at Parte Vieja. We also had one of the best churros and Spanish hot chocolate, ever. If you’re planning for a trip here, I beseech you to return for a second visit, and a third, because you can’t find better churros outside of Spain.

San Sebastián

San Sebastian

After feasting on everything delicious that could possibly exist in the world, we strolled along Playa de La Concha, found ourselves a decent spot for a spot of sunbathing with our clothes on, and marvelled at how San Sebastián was so much more than we could ever ask for. Every once in a while, beautiful lace curtains billowed up the beach. I was rather hypnotised.

San Sebastián

The tide began to come in, and we removed our comfortably seated selves from the beach. We forged on west and found ourselves at Parque de Miramar, another beautifully manicured vantage point that overlooks the bay. When the sun set, we unleashed the inner vampire, ran back to Parte Vieja, and stalked the bartenders till our tummies were blissfully filled. What a gorgeous holiday, in every way possible. The sights are beautiful, the people friendly, the food pretty fricking amazing and possibly the best in the world. I was happy, M was happy, our foodie friends were happy. It was a perfect vacation, one that I cannot wait to replicate.

Bilbao Guggenheim Museum

And here’s us, saying goodbye with Maman by Louise Bourgeois at Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, before we headed back to reality. I wonder why we looked so happy to leave…..we shouldn’t be!!

Check out my other food and travel stories in San Sebastián and Bilbao!

Also check out my other food adventures.

The churros can be found at Santa Lucia, which is located at:

Calle Puerto, 6, San Sebastián 20003


 

San Sebastián – The Land of Promiscuous Eating

Now, now. I have had trouble sleeping over how best to write this post. The words don’t seem to come out right for this draft, I often find myself staring at the screen, typing feebly and jackhammer-ing the delete button two seconds after I thought I was about to start something. I’m no prolific writer, but after suffering from writer’s block for this entry for a fortnight, I’m convinced even the most revered poets wouldn’t be able to do the food at San Sebastián justice. All I can say is I LOVE it, I ADORE it, and damn right, I WORSHIP it. But that doesn’t say very much, does it? Pffffft.

And then I thought, if I can’t put it in words, perhaps I might be able to tell a story with photos instead, because they say that a picture paints a thousand words, no? So if I have 607 photos, which I do, then I would actually paint 607,000 words, yes? NO! I had to smack myself on my blubbery cheeks when I was contemplating the lazy way out of this post, because they, whoever they are, obviously haven’t been to San Sebastián.

Yesterday night, I figured that there was no better way to talk about the food at San Sebastián than to actually fly all of you over for the raw experience, but gee, I’m sorry, I am only a insignificant morsel of a blogger and I don’t have the power and money to make that happen.

What should we do about this dilemma? What should I do?

I looked through the photos for the 104th time and then it hit me. I don’t just love San Sebastián because it’s great. I don’t just adore it because it’s awesome. I don’t just worship it because it’s out of this world. Many places are such, New York City is one of them, Bali is another but what really sets San Sebastián apart from my other favourite countries is that it seduces me. Each time I walked down the streets in Parte  Vieja, my senses were heightened with every bar throwing me a teaser with peekaboos of, you know a sexy leg of ham somewhere, an orgy of pintxos sprawled indecently on the bar tops at another, and at hours when children have gone to sleep, a tight huddle of sweaty bods with arms leaning out to grab the next-sexy-pintxos like hot groupies in the mosh pit of a rock concert. Gosh, just sitting here in my sweats thinking about this makes my toes tingle. I feel like….Angelina Jolie already, pouty lips, tousled hair, sultry eyes, sculpted body and endless legs. Only that I’m really not. But who’s to say what reality is? You do know the world is really how it makes you feel, isn’t it? San Sebastián makes me feel like a bad chick in black, expensive leather, prowling the dark alleys for handsome pintxos, fleeting from one bar to another in search of the most sensual experience that I call promiscuous eating. Cheat on the foie a la plancha with the other foie a la plancha. Feel free. Go wild. All this without the guilt of actually cheating, burning a hole in your pocket or compromising your integrity.

I have never been a fan of pub crawls in London. I turn scarlet red after a few sips of certain types of alcohol and I don’t particularly enjoy the merciless teasing, nor do I love the pub culture of not actually eating but drinking beer till the cows come home. I would much rather sit down somewhere, and have a good meal with good wine than to suffer from low self-esteem and a premature hangover coupled with scraping hunger pangs. I do however fancy the Basque version of the pub crawl, also known as txikiteo or pintxos crawl. In fact, if I could live like this everyday and spend my hours in the dusk indulging in a txikiteo, I might actually not feel as tired after work as I usually do during the weekdays. A txikiteo is basically a food-and-drinks trail through different bars. You snack on pintxos (Basque version of tapas), have a few sips of txakoli (a type of sparkling white wine) or other types of drinks that you fancy, and move on to the next to repeat the experience. How is that not way more appealing than a pub crawl?

We have covered so many bars in the three short days we were in San Sebastián that it is hard for me to list every single thing we ate. It pains me a little that I can’t do this because everything was lip-smackingly delicious. I couldn’t fault anything, and I really don’t want you to miss out. But seeing as to how long this post is getting, and how much longer it will get with photos and all, I will just highlight my favourites here. Before I launch into the food, I would like to thank food bloggers, Goingwithmygut, Heavenwildfleur and website Todopintxos for some recommendations (there was one more blogger who tweeted me too, please let me know who you are so I can acknowledge you here).

Now, moving on to the bars that are must-visits in my opinion. Remember, even if you don’t strictly adhere to this food trail, you’ll still emerge happy as a lark. Just look out for the crowded bars, and note what everyone is eating, point that to the staff (some speak English, so you can just ask them about the food or simply ask for an English menu) for dishes that are cooked to order, or grab a plate and fill it up with the displayed pintxos, and enjoy! Don’t forget to pay for what you ate; most bars operate on trust, and it does get very chaotic in a bar when everyone’s picking out food from the bar top, so just let the staff know what you had (usually they have elephant memory and will remember, if not, they will ask you for confirmation)!

1. La Cepa

San Sebastian pintxos

We were urged to try the jamón here and the minute we stepped in, we knew why. It is probably THE place to go to for Iberico ham, even the beer taps were shaped like jamón. We were there early in the evening, so the bar was rather empty and we managed to get a candy-filled table, all to ourselves (you would usually have to stand…). The jamón de Jabugo, or iberico ham from the town of Jabugo, was excellent, nutty as usual and perfectly sliced. It costs us about £10 for a plate like this, and this was served with crusty bread, as with all other pintxos. I made a mental note to pick some up from grocers for our trip back to London.

Hongos a la plancha

We also tried the hongos in San Sebastián. These are wild mushrooms that taste meaty, velvety and are so incredibly expensive but absolutely to-die-for. We love hongos a la plancha, which means grilled mushrooms, and in particularly, those served with a raw egg yolk. The eggs there were insanely fresh, rich, just look at how orange it is! This dish prides on the quality of the mushrooms, for it is cooked simply with a dash of pepper, salt, some herbs and a drizzle of olive oil. Excellent stuff. A small plate like this would cost €5 at La Cepa, but I say it’s worth it! We returned the second night for 2 large portions, priced at €10 each!

2. La Cuchara de San Telmo

This bar is extremely popular and well-known for its modern take on pintxos. It was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s food documentary series – No Reservations. It’s a little hard to spot, as it’s off Calle de Agosto, but it’s somewhat in a small dead-end street that is perpendicular to Agosto, and pretty near La Cepa or Martinez, so make sure you land on this bar by hook or by crook! Come nightfall, this small, narrow bar is packed to the brim, don’t be turned off by this, instead push forward and order the following (all pintxos here are cooked to order). I assure you that you won’t regret this. If you don’t know already, I absolutely adore this bar.

Bacon-wrapped scallops

You must have the bacon-wrapped scallops. The scallop was very fresh, fat and sweet, incredibly succulent and seared to perfection. The best seared scallops I ever had. I use plural, because we returned on the second night for another round of those. This only costs €2-3.50 by the way. How much cheaper can good scallops get? You can’t get such quality fare in restaurants for this price!

Foie with apple jelly
Anthony Bourdain had the foie with apple jelly and judging from his face, I think this foie kicked his ass. He loved it and so do I. Creamy, rich liver that is really, orgasmic. It is served on a bed of apple jelly (I thought it was more like puree…) and it worked perfectly. Do not share this one. This, my dears, is also about €3.50 apiece, foie this awesome that is even better than ridiculously expensive foie gras served in restaurants? Beat that! Again, we had a foie each the second night we visited.

Squid ink risotto

We spotted many people having the squid ink risotto on our first visit, and so we ordered this on our second. I have never liked risotto, but this, oh this changed my mind!! The rice was perfectly chewy and moist, and packed full of flavours from the sea. Highly recommended. Again, only about €3 for a portion.

3. A Fuego Negro

This is another very popular bar that does modern pintxos. I think it is more than that. I think it deserves a Michelin star on its own! You see streaks of genius in its inventive food, there were traditional pintxos sitting on the bartop that were good too, I would say, do less of those and get a handful of those molecular gastronomy-esque babies they cook to order.

Tortilla

The Spanish tortilla, which is an egg omelette with fried potatoes, is amazing. Simply delicious, buttery, slightly creamy and fragrant, even better if you manage to get it served warm (visit earlier when the crowds aren’t there yet and you might have a chance of eating it warm). We came back on the next day for seconds.

Ham and almond coffee with sweetbread cookies

This was one of the highlights of my trip. Yes, trip. Ham and almond coffee with sweetbread cookies. We know that sweetbread is made of the thymus gland or the pancreas of lamb or calf…but trust me this is delicious despite the ingredients. The almond milk (not that nasty powdered medicine-y off-putting stuff we get in Asia!!) is creamy and rich, laced with a good hint of coffee and savoury ham. Hard to imagine that this tastes good? Well, you have to try this. The sweetbread cookies were like fried morsels of savoury meat and impossibly tasty, they went very well with the coffee. I’m going to try to make this at home at some point.

Dove, shot, pum!

Yes what we have here is a dish that is called Dove, Shot, Pum!. Complete with an exclamation mark. This is a playful interpretation on the hunting of wild doves. You’ll see a tiny silver ball in the upper right corner of this picture, which is the ‘bullet’. This supposedly has hit the wild dove (breast meat) and plum juices are splattered over the plate in bloody-red splotches. The thin wafer writes Pum! and this indicates the sound of the shot made. I didn’t get to try the wafer, but suffice to say this dish was good. The breast meat of the wild dove was very flavoursome, more so than chicken, and surprisingly tender!

A Fuego Negro is a little more pricey than other bars, but perhaps just €1-2 more per dish. Excellent stuff here, be sure to visit!

4. Bar Ganbara

Hongos

Hongos a la plancha

There was a huge display of big-ass hongos of every sort on the bar, and thank heavens, we were perched right in front of it. Some were as big as my hands, and this sight tempted us to get another plate of hongos a la plancha to share. I was disappointed that this wasn’t served with a raw egg yolk, but still it was good, although a teeny bit too salty for me. The meatiness of the mushrooms made up for it.  I was starting to think that hongos are more valuable than foie here, because this mushroom platter upped our bill to €50 (including other pintxos), a hefty price tag that we had yet to see till our time at Ganbara.

Spider crab tarts

We were recommended to try the txangurro here, a spider crab tart that is popular in Basque. These were some very flavoursome and juicy shreds of crab meat put into a pastry base! It’s better to pop the entire tart into your mouth because there are plenty of juices, and when it tastes this good, waste not.

5. Txepetxa

Anchovies with foie

I love my anchovies, and so I had to drop by this bar, which specialises in all sorts of permutations with anchovies in it. I was very intrigued by the anchovies with foie, and it was faaaabulous. Somehow, the sharp vinegary anchovy complimented the creamy foie pate very very well. Delicious.

Calamari

We also tried the calamari which was superb! Impossibly tender pieces of squid in a light and crispy batter – very good finger food and hard to resist.

The anchovies seem to be very popular in this bar, even Juan Mari Arzak and Sir Ian McKellen visited!

6. Aralar

Foie a la plancha

Having being smitten with the foie at La Cuchara de San Telmo, we were determined to look for the best foie in town on our last day. I did my research and found it at Aralar. The foie a la plancha was really, one of the crowning jewels on our txikiteo. We had two each in one sitting, even the boss was amused at our huge order and because he thought we were Japanese, he asked us if it was ‘oishi’. We said yes, obviously!! So fans of foie, you have to camp out here and have as much as your body can take. Knock yourself out!

Right, these are my top picks for pintxos (gosh just spent more than an hour writing this post), try them and let me know of your new recommendations too! Pardon the quality of pictures, most of the time we were eating in dark settings. I hope I did the food at San Sebastián justice! Oh well, if not, I tried my best.

*Updated: This post was featured on Freshly Pressed on WordPress.com! Check out my other Freshly Pressed post here!

Check out my other food and travel stories in San Sebastián and Bilbao!

Also check out my other food adventures.

All the bars I visited are located in the Parte Vieja and some may not be opened on Sundays. Bars may also be closed during siesta hours! Here are the addresses.

La Cepa:

Calle 31 de Agosto, 7, 20003 San Sebastián

La Cuchara de San Telmo:

off Calle 31 de Agosto, 28 Trasera, 20003 San Sebastián

A Fuego Negro:

Calle 31 de Agosto, 31, 20003 San Sebastián

Bar Ganbara:

Calle de San Jeronimo, 21, 20003 San Sebastián

Txepetxa:

Calle de Pescaderia, 5, 20003 San Sebastián

Aralar:

Puerto, 10, 20003 San Sebastián

Arzak = Sublime

So I waxed lyrical on my serendipitous meeting with the Arzaks, now, I shall attempt to be as poetic as I can for the sublime meal we had. The traditional front of the building that Arzak is housed in, is a stark contrast to the modern interiors, the cool gadgets and fun-with-food that were in store for us. We didn’t hesitate when it came to the menu, we had come for one experience only, and we wanted the best. What better way to do so than to drop some substiantial moolah on the tasting menu? *gulps*

Very quickly, we were served a stunning assortment of five types of amuse-bouche. The first, kabraroka (scorpion fish) pudding in fried fideos (a type of vermicelli used in Spanish cuisine), was a clear winner with the four of us. The pudding was essentially a rich, smooth and creamy mousse of scorpion fish, wrapped in a light and incredibly crispy pastry fashioned from fideos. The mousse was so darn delicious, that we all thought it was foie gras. Perched on an avant-garde steel tree, I thought it was a fabulous way to make a grand entrance.

The theatrics continued with the iberico ham & tomato gem served with an incredibly thin shard of sweet clear toffee. Nestled in a bowl on individual serving discs, I thought they already looked cool as hell, then the waitress poured water into the bowl. The smoke from the dry ice that billowed out clearly made for a very good photo-op (see picture for evidence of food paparazzi) and drew gasps from all of us. This amuse-bouche boasted robust savouriness from the ham, subtly sweet and strong tangy flavours from the sugar sheet and tomato. Very good indeed.

More juxtaposition of crunchy and creamy textures laid ahead of us, with a rich and earthy mushroom mousse wedged between two sheets of yellow puffed rice crackers. It was like having an intense mushroom soup with croutons, but in a more solid and fun-to-eat form.

The amuse-bouche course ended off with two shot glasses that were to be approached with the long-stemmed cutlery. One was a white bean soup with green apple strips and the other was a corn and black pudding with figs. I never knew that the tartness of green apples could go so well with something as plain as white bean soup; having said that, the white bean soup was far from plain and was wonderfully seasoned. The corn and black pudding was rich, ever so slightly sweet and creamy, and tasted almost like clam chowder; the sweet figs were a perfect touch to the pudding.

The showmanship and fun didn’t end with the amuse-bouche. The first starter was a stunner, and really one of my favourite courses of the entire meal – two towers that resemble cromlech (prehistoric monument with monoliths, hence the name of the dish) erected on a plate of (what I think is) green tea and coffee powder. We were told to pick each up and turn it over swiftly with our hands. When we did so, we realised why it was essential to flip it over quickly; right at the bottom of each tower laid a generous dollop of foie gras that has been flavoured with caramelised onion, tea and coffee, and this was to be scooped up by the cromlech. I wasn’t sure what the cromlech was made of, but it was crispy, very light and the centre was hollow. The textures worked beautifully with the creamy foie gras. What an ethereal combination! I ate the second one rather reluctantly, because I was trying to save the best for the last, but oh well, we had to move along the tasting menu, didn’t we?!

Next up was lobster, potato and copaiba (shown above) with a small salad of herbs and tapioca pearls on the side (no picture here, forgot about it!). This was a well-executed dish, it wasn’t mind-blowing in that nothing was very experimental and out-of-this-world, but it was comfort food at its best. The sweet, ridiculously fresh and succulent lobster was sandwiched in a crispy potato shell, that was reminiscent of the crispy prawn discs sold at wu xiang stalls in Singapore, sans the nasty bitter and oily aftertaste. This was served with a drizzle of sauce made of copaiba, a South American essential oil with medicinal properties. I couldn’t quite discern the taste of copaiba, but all the same, this dish was very good posh nosh. The zingy and mustard-flavoured tapioca pearls lent an interesting texture towards the end of this course, and certainly refreshed our palette for the next dish.

Yes, egg with earth tremor, a rather unsual name directly translated from the Spanish counterpart. This was sublime. Regular readers of this blog will know that I love eggs, and I have a particular weakness for soft-boiled or poached eggs, or eggs with a runny yolk, period. This has got to be the best egg I have ever eaten in my life, poached to perfection and garnished with subtly sweet crystallised crumbs of cocoa, white truffle and caramelised sesame seeds that were coagulated in metallic silver morsels. I so regret not taking a better picture of this, because this egg rocked my world. When prodded, the egg revealed a deep orange magma that hinted at its incredible freshness, and my gosh, I have no idea how the Arzaks came to realise that cocoa and sesame seeds could complement eggs so perfectly.

For the first of two mains, we were served fish of the day and I opted for the sole while M went for the monkfish. The impossibly tender, savoury and smoky sole was served with creamed spinach fashioned into ‘garlic cloves’ and peppers shaped into walnuts. This dish clearly played with our expectations and visuals. On the side, I was given two sugar sheets studded with walnut and paprika. A very clever way to introduce a little sweetness, nuttiness and a bit of a kick without actually including it with the sole.

M had the low tide monkfish, an adorable dish that had me squealing at the sight of it! The pillow of monkfish looked like it had been washed up the beach with nori-flavoured ‘seashells’ and ‘corals’ made from heaven-knows-what. I didn’t really have a taste of this because M was still ill, but I did steal a bite of the tender monkfish.

For the meat course, I had lamb ossobuco whilst M went for the pigeon with chia. I don’t have a picture of the pigeon dish as it turned out too blur to be published, but suffice to say that Arzak cured my aversion to gamey pigeon meat. It was very well-seasoned and tender, with none of that rude gamey taste that I’ve come to dislike. The lamb ossobuco was beautifully cooked, moist and very flavoursome. The ossobucco part of the dish really nailed the fun factor, this was actually a potato confit that has been painted to look like a bone section, and the ‘marrow’ in the middle was actually onion and mushroom puree! What a surprise this was for me! Another ‘bone marrow’ was served on the side, this time, a potato confit filled with a sweet zucchini ‘marrow’. Excellent stuff!

We move on to desserts and boy, was I in for a treat. I had the soup & chocolate ‘between vineyards’. Liquid chocolate spheres were nestled in strawberry soup and served with a scoop of basil ice cream. This was amazing, the best dessert I’ve ever had! The chocolate spheres somehow held their own on the plate, and once devoured, burst delightfully like bubbles! I don’t know what kind of NASA technology has gone into this, but oh gosh, I wish there were more spheres for me on that plate! The basil ice cream was wonderfully and strongly flavoured, much to my liking, and it worked very well with the dark chocolate and tangy strawberry sauce. A scoop of strawberry sorbet was served on the side as well. M had the chocolate, spinach and parsley dessert which I didn’t get to try, he cleaned out the dish soon after it was served, so that explains why there aren’t any pictures.

For the second dessert, M had the mead & fractal fluid, a name that has given me no clue whatsoever to what it was. The orange squares were actually blocks of lemon curd, and the interesting part came when the waitress poured a red fluid into a bowl of mead. I was incredibly fascinated with the pattern that formed through the mead and I suppose this explained the word ‘fractal’ in the name of this dessert. The pretty fluid was then mixed and poured over the lemon curd. I have no idea how this tastes like, but it was fun to watch.

The second dessert for me was a pistachio and beetroot stone. The ‘stone’ melted in the mouth and seemed to be flavoured with apple puree and plum wine, but I could be wrong. It was sweet in a strange way, and I have to say that beetroot isn’t one of my favourite vegetables, so this dish didn’t work for me. Pity.

Thank goodness, we were served a tasty platter of tools for mignardises to finish of our meal! This was a fun plate to eat, visually exciting and really quite delicious! The bolts were actually good quality dark chocolate bits, and nuts were salted white chocolate blobs that were painted grey. Bottle caps were made of gelatin and topped with pop rocks that sent us into a popping orchestra-like frenzy, and the orange building block pieces were actually mango jellies. The cream-coloured balls were made of  a rich paste and studded with tangy pellets. No idea what they were suppose to resemble and what they were made from (overheard: cheese were part of the balls, but I’m not too sure!), but I guess this is part of the fun of having a meal at Arzak!

There were common themes of theatrics and magic molecular gastronomy tricks that ran through the entire meal; in my humble opinion, these are wonderful products of the culinary research the Arzak team has done. A lot of times, we thought we were having something based on the visuals, yet the flavours would take us by surprise. I had lots of fun during this meal and even though I am €200 poorer now (the tasting menu costs €170 per head, and we left tips), I would say I bought an incredible experience with that money. Our meeting with the Arzaks certainly topped this experience, and because of this fantastic meal, I can only say that I’m going to have to save up more for a more prolific dining experience in the upper echelons of the molecular gastronomy world in the far-flung future (because this hobby is just too expensive).

Check out my other food and travel stories in San Sebastián and Bilbao!

Also check out my other food adventures.

Arzak is located at:

Avenida Alcalde Elosegui, 273, 20015 Donostia-San Sebastián

 

San Sebastián: Meeting the Arzaks

Arzak

One of the highlights of our trip to San Sebastián (and probably, my life) was our meal at Arzak, a three Michelin-star restaurant that ranks No. 9 on the 2010 San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Day One at San Sebastián, the city with the highest density of Michelin stars, started less than ordinary, unpleasurably so, if I might add. M was hit with stomach flu on the day before we left, and I had to take care of him through the night. I ended up having zero sleep even though I was all snuggled up in bed, and was exceptionally grumpy when I had to pry myself from the bed at 2.45am to get ready and make our way to Stansted airport for check-in at 4.55am. By the time I got to the plane, I was severely deprived of rest and blamed this on my age. A few years ago, I could have survived a few nights without sleep. Then I wistfully thought about aging, and urgh, don’t even get me started on how much I want to wring anybody’s neck whenever I think about my plunging metabolism. As if to do me in, the guy across the aisle on our Easyjet flight turned out to be a snorer, decibels of his deep rumbles soared above the impossibly loud engines of the jet. So there goes the sleep, my sleep. Two hours later, we landed in Bilbao and then we had to hunt for the bus that takes us to San Sebastián. We got on a PESA bus, bought us some tickets at €15 apiece, and commenced the hour-long journey to San Sebastián. Thankfully, the day started getting better then. We were greeted with undulating hills in Bilbao, densely packed with tall trees of mossy green and deep jades, and occasionally dotted with windmills at the crests and cute cottages halfway up. The landscape slowly gave way to more and more industrial buildings and before we knew it, we arrived at the Estación de Autobuses de San Sebastián, right opposite Astoria 7, the hotel we were booked at for the weekend. It was about 12 noon when we arrived. A quick shower and change into more Michelin-star appropriate clothes later, we took a 15-minute walk to the Parte Vieja (old town part) of San Sebastián, hopped into a taxi and sped our way to what turned out to be a gastronomic experience of epic proportions.

Arzak

Arzak

Located in the outskirts of San Sebastián, I noticed to my amusement, that Arzak was located in a humble building that gave no clue to its prized status in the culinary world. Once ushered into the restaurant, I was surprised at the modern interiors, automatic sliding doors that swish open, walls made of titanium-coloured stone with imprints of cutlery carved into it, white flowers in contrast vases, actual forks and spoons with impossibly long stems (you’ll see in my next post when I do the food review). I really wasn’t expecting any of this beneath the peach tavern exteriors of the building.

Elena and Juan Mari Arzak

As we sat down, I secretly hoped to wrestle a good meal out of the €170 I was dropping for the tasting menu at Arzak. I’ve had pretty stunning meals at a fraction of the cost, so I was pretty anxious about the lunch we were going to have. I kept my fingers crossed and thankfully, the food was sublime. I was relieved to have walked the unknown and thoroughly enjoyed it. What I hadn’t known was that I was about to meet the two brilliant minds behind my experience-of-a-lifetime, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak.

“TÓTEM” DE FOIE

Patata, bogavante y copiba

The waiters struggled slightly as they explained the dishes to us in English, and so I asked for the English menu after the amuse-bouche was served; I wanted to know what I was eating because whilst everything was delicious, my uneducated palette failed to identify some of the ingredients. The waiter said that he would arrange this for us, and lo and behold, a fine arrangement he did make. Elena Arzak waltzed out of the kitchen to greet us. I was in awe and stupidly dumbfounded, took a moment to compose myself and chatted with her for a bit. She learnt that we were Singaporeans, that I was writing a review on our meal here for my personal blog (also given away by my crumpled sheet of paper and cheap pen, I wished I appeared more professional with posh stationery instead…) and she was visibly excited. She then said that she would provide me with the menu I needed at the end of the meal. I took that comment with a pinch of salt.

PIEDRA LUNAR

Bonito en hoguera de escamas y cebolla

Elena left to get her father, Juan Mari, the man who earned and kept three Michelin stars for Arzak since 1989. When the jolly man came over and put his hand on my shoulder, I think I might have looked better if I were an actual pool of butter. Donning his flaming red glasses, and a happy smile, he shared, partly with halting English and via the maitre ‘d, that both Elena and him are great friends of Ignatius Chan (of Iggy’s). Since I am a nobody in the food blogosphere, I suspected that it was our Singaporean citizenship and Ignatius Chan’s connection to Singapore that earned us a tour in the Arzak kitchen. The maitre ‘d whisked us into the kitchen of four sections at the end of our main courses and prior to desserts, as the kitchen was closing soon and Elena didn’t want us to miss out on real kitchen action. The tour started with the holding area, which led to the bustling starters and meat/fish courses sections. The chef’s table, then occupied by some very distinguished-looking men in suits, was situated directly opposite the meat/fish sections, and incidentally, was the same table that Anthony Bourdain ate at in the San Sebastian episode on No Reservations. I was getting tingly vibes by then. We were then led into the desserts section, and I swear to you, my heart almost stopped. I love pastry-making, and whilst I am far from being an expert (and I know I will never be good enough to be a pastry chef), it was beyond my wildest dreams to ever visit the pastry section of a three Michelin-star kitchen. I saw Elena in action with a team of other pastry chefs. I was in heaven.

Aceite de oliva blanco y bogavante

LUBINA CON CONFETIS VEGETALES

Whilst in the kitchen, I asked the maitre ‘d a few questions and he shared that there were 40 people in the kitchen, and 20 wait staff in the dining areas. That works out to a 1:1 staff-to-diner ratio for Arzak sits 60 diners at any one time. This explained the attention to detail and how seamless the service was even in the face of generally less-than-fluent English-speaking staff and an international clientele.

After we paid for our meals (bye bye hard-earned money and hello, cheap home-cooked meals for months to come), I was honestly not expecting the English menu from the Arzaks, but they stopped us before we left, and sat us down for a chat. Elena explained that Juan Mari’s grandparents, José Maria Arzak Etxabe and Escolastica Lete, built this building as a wine inn and tavern in the village of Alza, which now belongs to San Sebastián. Juan Mari’s parents, Juan Ramon Arzak and Francisca Arratibel, then took over the tavern and ran it as a restaurant. In 1966, after Juan Mari’s studies in the School of Hostelería, he started working in the restaurant and since then, he won the first Michelin star for Arzak in 1974, the second in 1977 and the third one in 1989. It was during the years of 1975-1976, that Juan Mari Arzak led the revolution of La Nueva Cocina Vasca (New Basque Cooking) with Pedro Subijana of Akelarre. Arzak has maintained the three Michelin-star status since for over 20 years. Elena joined her father in the early 1990s after short stints in renowned restaurants all over the world, such as Le Gavroche and El Bulli, and now works with her father in creating research-based, cutting-edge  and constantly evolving Basque cuisine. The research is carried out in another location, with two other chefs.

With the Arzaks

M asked Juan Mari if he intends to open another restaurant, and he remarked with a resounding ‘no’, that this will be his one love for as long as he is around. Juan Mari also asked in Spanish if we were chefs, and I said we weren’t, but we like to cook and M is the better chef. The amiable chef pointed to M and remarked in delight, ‘Then you’re the chef of the house’. He asked if I liked to cook as well, I said I love to make pastry, and for a moment, he sighed ever so slightly and replied in a sombre tone that he too loved pastry-making. Juan Mari then spoke fondly of Singapore, saying that he had visited our little island once about 40 years ago, and on another instance 20 years ago. He said he is planning to visit Singapore again sometime later this year, or next. We parted, following some photo-taking, and with a heavy heart of some sort, I wonder if we would be back to sample such wonderful cuisine (got to break the bank again) and if we would ever meet the warm and giving Arzaks again. I guess, this is what we call, a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I will hold onto this memory dearly, as if this is my first and last. Thank you, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak.

Photo credits: Arzak (except for the group photo with us)

P/S: My review on this meal will follow in the next entry. And just look at the stunning dishes in the pictures above!!

Check out my other food and travel stories in San Sebastián and Bilbao!

Also check out my other food adventures.

Arzak is located at:

Avenida Alcalde Elosegui, 273, 20015 Donostia-San Sebastián