I decided to visit San Sebastian when I found out it has the highest Michelin star per capita in the world. This classy seashore town has been famous for being the summer resort of aristocrats ever since Regent Marie Christine established it and has four well known gourmet restaurants – Akelare, Arzak, Martin Berasategui and Mugaritz. I made reservations at Arzak and Akelare because these two are more conveniently accessible via public transportation.
I arrived at the restaurant a bit early and the manager let me in through the kitchen because the front door was not open as yet. As I passed by the kitchen I noticed the large number of kitchen staff. Later, I found out many were interns since working in this restaurant offers each prospective chef such a great opportunity to broaden his/her horizon and to cultivate, sharpen and refine his/her cooking techniques.
The restaurant is situated close to the mountain top with spectacular ocean views. It offered two types of 8-course tasting menu – Aranori menu and Bekarki menu. The manger allowed me to have a custom-made menu by selecting the items that I desired out of two sets of menu.
It started with Appetizers – “Tomato and Basil Gel, Idiazabal Cheese Moisturizer, Sea Bath Salts: Directly to the Mouth! Mouthwash Cocktail, Sponge: Take the Onion Sponge and Put Tomato Gel on It!” A jar that looked like a cosmetic jar was served with gel in it. The viscosity of this gel was in between soup and bisque. Onion sponge was like a flavored puff. It was a creative dish.
1st course – “Prawns and French Beans Cooked in ‘Orujo’ Flame." Prawns were cooked with Orujo spirit for no more than 2 minutes in front of guest. Once the fire was extinguished, the lid was covered for another minute before they were served onto a plate. In this plate there were beautifully presented greens that appeared pasta-like and had floral and leaves shapes, green cream and dry shrimp powder interspersed with the prawns. Manager recommended to suck the head and to accompany the tail with the greens and green cream. Prawns were fresh, tender with the extra flavor from the powdered shrimp and liqueur. It was an unusual combination both esthetically and gastronomically.
2nd course – “Mollusks in Fisherman’s Net." It was a combination of various shell fish, with open mollusks on charcoal fire and a cream of rice and borage, covered by a net made of rice flour. This dish was served with tasty seafood broth. The fried net was not just visually artistic; it was crispy but not greasy. When I dipped the net into the sauce, I knew I had selected the right dish.
3rd course – “Sautéed Fresh Foie Gras with Salt Flakes and Grain Pepper.” It was a foie gras dish. But, what unusual about the preparation was the little grain pepper served in the plate. It was made of fully mashed truffles and black rice. This mashed product then was shaped into little balls that looked like grain pepper. Of course, they tasted wonderful. But, think of how much work was involved in making them.
4th course – “Xangurro in Essence, its Coral Blini and “Gurullos.” Xangurro was one of my favorite food items in the Basque region. It is their local crab meat cake. Their local crab meat is sweet, without a fishy taste, juicy and delicious. In this dish, the crustacean’s meat was reinforced by its juice and accompanied with the pasta that looked like rice grain (on the left hand side of plate).
5th course – "Turbot with its ‘Kokotxa.” The preparation was made with the entire Turbot, including its cheeks, pil-pil sauce and crispy chip of its own skin. The green and white color items were not pasta, nor were they jellyr. They resembled one oriental item called koniyaku. I wondered how Akalare’s kitchen prepared the crispy fish skin. It probably required certain special equipment.
6th course – “Charcoal Grilled Lamb with the Wine Lees.” Lean big lamb loin was served with wine extract and wasabi thread (at the upper left corner of the plate). The wasabi thread was thinner than the Chinese transparent noodles. However, it melts in your mouth and its flavor was so pungent that you have the individual taste of wasabi and lamb, and still have the fusion flavor of both. I was amazed with the wasabi thread’s appearance, presentation and it potent taste. This course was a real masterpiece.
7th course – “Chesse.” This cheese plate was one of a kind. I haven’t had any cheese plate more elaborate than this one and I haven’t had any more elaborate than this one ever since that day either. Chef Pedro Subijana’s creativity was everywhere in this plate. There were 6 items in the plate, starting from the left to the right:
1) Grapevine, curded sheep milk and walnut;
2) Powdered fresh cream with chive and grapes;
3) Quark cheese with nutmeg and pink pepper aroma, must of tapioca and tomato;
4) Idiazabal semi-matured with quince jelly and wine dust;
5) Torta of Casar’s grape with soaked raisins in Pedro Ximenez;
6) Brandy syrup with Gorgonzola cheese ice cream.
Chef wanted you to recognize each and every of the different flavors that the milk has, as well as the transformations that the grape and milk undergo from the origin up until the maturity.
8th course – “Citrus Shell and Chocolate Shaving.” A little shell was filled with citric cream, it was refreshing. In addition, there was cocoa ice cream and chocolate cigars served on a bed of shredded chocolate cotton candy. Citric cream complemented the sweet chocolate taste.
This dining experience is a unique one to me. I have been exposed to so many exquisite ways of food preparation visually, technically and gastronomically. I truly love this place and hope I will have another opportunity to revisit.