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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
Arzak is located at:
Avenida Alcalde Elosegui, 273, 20015 Donostia-San Sebastián