The time is past midnight, after an experience of the highest gastronomical level as we walk down the stairs from Arzak’s upper dining room. Even though the hour is late Juan Mari and Elena Arzak personally see to it that the guests, thoughtfully, can leave the restaurant. Father Juan Mari is beginning to tire but his daughter Elena’s spirits are still high. When the taxi was delayed she called them up personally and asks, this is “Elena” where is the taxi. The taxi arrives momentarily and we can take the short trip in to San Sebastian.
Restaurant Arzak is well deserved of its ranking as one of the world’s top ten restaurants. In a simple house from 1897 the kitchen, dining rooms on two floors with about twenty tables, wine cellar together with the legendary taste laboratory are contained. There are more than 100 000 wine bottles in the wine cellar of which the main part are Spanish of the highest quality. The taste laboratory is filled with plastic trays that contain flavours that innovatively heighten each meal. Arzak received three Michelin stars as the first Spanish restaurant already back in 1989.
Juan Mari and Elena Arzak
Juan Mari Arzak, soon to be 70, is considered to be Spain’s Master Chef. He was taught in the basqueian culinary arts but also by the French chef of the century, Paul Bocuse in Lyon. Juan Mari taught and inspired todays new generation of successful Spanish chefs amongst others Ferran Adria and Martin Berasategui.
Elena has since long worked side by side with Juan Mari and is the fourth generation of the family to choose the culinary profession. In 2012 Elena was nominated as the world’s best female chef.
“If I touch a piece of raw meat in the kitchen prior to frying it, a part of me is transferred to it and enhances the flavour. It is true. Do not ask me how, but it happens,” Juan Mari described in an interview.
A dinner at Arzak
Once seated we are instantly served with the house orange drink, the start of the coming gastronomical experience. After having been served two types of delicious bread with olive oil and sea salt we order our wine. We decide on a bottle of white and red, both from the exquisite winery Remelluri situated some ten miles up the mountains. A white Bianco from 2007 and a red Coleccion Jaime Rodriguez from 2003, which are delightfully poured up by the sommelier during the course of the evening.
The appetizers are cascade of flavours. Saffronrice with scallops, fresh sardines, tempura with chorizo and fried balls of minced fish. The first course consists of broiled goose liver which is served with fried dumplings with a coffee flavour. Delicious and tasty!
Elena passes through the dining room and has time to exchange some kind words with every guest. The next course is lobster in a rum reduction, with a very delicate bouquet and taste. A baked egg in a cup with cacao is a pleasant entremets.
The two main courses are the high point of the meal. The perfectly boiled, fine sole with a reduction that simply melts in the mouth. The lamb filet, medium rare, with mushrooms, onion and potatoes is the best lamb we have ever eaten. Masterful.
The finishing desserts are munificent. A chocolate theme in the shape of chocolate mousse with coconut and strawberries with a chocolate egg, containing a fluid interior, together with kiwi and strawberry sauce. A favourite became the fried dumplings of fresh lemon and banana. Pineapple marmalade and various pralines accompanied the espresso.
After Elena took us on a visit through the kitchen and wine cellar, the meal was rounded off with a tasting of Arzak’s own liqueur, with hints of anise and blackthorn. A complete culinary experience!
Basque – world-leading food region
The Basque region, in northern Spain, has the best and most innovative kitchen in all of the world. San Sebastian have more Michelin stars per capita than any city.
The surrounding Atlantic Ocean filled with fish and seafood, fertile lands for vegetables and the mountains with sheep and cattle together with the wineries is the cause for San Sebastian’s development during the past twenty years into a gastronomical world leading food region.
Words by Paul Dahlgren