Arzak, 3 Michelin Stars in San Sebastian

Monday, March 5, 2012

This is Part 4 to my Destination: San Sebastian series. Other posts in this series includes: Eat: Pintxos 101Eat: A Fuego Negro,  See: Guggenheim Museum, and Eat: Bistro at the Guggenheim.

During my trip to Foodie Heaven, aka San Sebastian, I was fortunate to dine at Arzak, the restaurant that started it all. Arzak has been around since 1897, originally built as a house, later turned into a wine inn and tavern. When the current chef and owner, Juan Mari Arzak, took over the family business from his grandparents, he helped bring to life what we know Arzak to be today.

From the outside, you can see how Arzak blends right in with the rest of the houses on this hill in Basque county. Similar to most of the brick stone facades we drove by on our way here, I was surprised to see Arzak sitting there, unsuspectingly ranked number 8 as The World's 50 Best Restaurants in 2011, with 3 Michelin Stars under its belt since 1989, the first in Spain to receive this honor.

Photo courtesy of Arzak

Prior to coming to San Sebastian, as we were trying to decide which of the three 3 Michelin Star restaurants to try on our trip, something about Arzak's modern interior just spoke out to me. In case you were wondering, as of 2011, the other two 3 Michelin Stars in the city are Akelarre and Martin Berasategui. Strangely, Mugaritz is ranked number 3 as the World's 50 Best Restaurants with only 2 Michelin Stars while Akelarre isn't ranked at all and Martin Berasategui is ranked 29.

Numbers aside, this was my first 3 Michelin Star experience and as we were choosing restaurants, I think it was almost left to fate. It was between Arzak and Mugaritz for me and for one reason or another, Mugaritz had no more reservations. So when Arzak wrote back, confirming an 8:45pm reservation, I knew it was meant to be. There was no better restaurant to expose me to this side of foodie heaven than Arzak.

Side Note: Reservations were made about a month prior to our visit via their website, and it took Arzak about a 4-5 days before they responded. 

Fast forward to October 5th, J and I prepped for a large dinner by eating some of our favorite pintxos at A Fuego Negro for an early lunch, and I went on a nice long jog along the beach to open up my appetite. We got ready, and took a 15 minute cab ride from our hotel to Arzak, just in time for our reservation. Walking in, you'll notice that everything is very well lit with a relatively empty waiting area with no dining tables in sight. Right away, they guided us to our table in their main dining area downstairs.

Downstairs, you will find similar decor as the upstairs, with clean lines, neutral color decor with a lot of stainless steel and natural elements. I loved how modern this felt, like I was walking into a modern art gallery more than a fine dining restaurant. The bright lighting was so unlike what I have come to experience at other restaurants, it was refreshing and energizing. 



Looking around, you'll see that there are about 10 tables in the dining area, with seating for roughly 50 people per service. As expected, everyone here was very attentive though not all of the staff were 100% fluent in English. 



Photo courtesy of Arzak - Their extensive wine cellar.
Coming to Arzak, we already decided to order their Menú Degustación (175€). However, if you wanted to order a la carte (why in the world would you want to??), you can order appetizers and entrees starting at 49€. With the help of their sommelier, we were also able to pick some wine to be paired with our meal.

Our tasting menu was to begin with Arzak's Amusements, followed by 5 other courses and finally desserts and chocolates. So let's see what it takes to earn 3 Michelin Stars...

Arzak's Amusements





Our amusements came to us all at once, dish after dish after dish of tiny colorful bites. Once all the amusements were out, our waitress came to us and poured liquid nitrogen into one of our dishes, and suddenly our whole table was covered in fog. I loved how whimsical the whole experience was, with every dish presented in a different way, like a visual playground for my eyes to feast on. It was a great way to jump start our meal.

The first amusement we had tasted a lot better than it looked. I'm not even going to pretend like I knew what was in it, but it mainly made of tomatoes, and when you bit into it, you could taste the smokiness that came from them probably roasting the tomatoes. Inside there was something else which added more texture. This was J's favorite amusement.

On the tree was bites of fish covered in thin crunchy noodles. We also had tuna paired with melon and other veges. I love how vibrant the colors were on this dish. With the shredded veges and chives tossed on top, it looks like a huge confetti party.



Corn soup is always a winner in my book, and their corn soup was no exception. However, I do wish that it came a bit warmer. Finally, our amusements came with crispy rice on top of a mushroom sauce with dip consistency. It looked fun to eat, but I didn't find particularly exceptional or memorable.



Peeking over to see what other people were getting, I noticed that the presentation was a little bit different, and perhaps amusements varied. For this party of four, they were going to receive some type of lit-up plate of different colors as well as fried balls on pedestals.

I had mixed feelings about being brought 5 different dishes at once, and it felt almost a bit rushed since I didn't know how to go about eating each item since we didn't want anything to get cold, or anything fried to get soggy. I almost wished it was served two at a time so I wouldn't feel so rushed to finish eat bite so quickly. However, it was really fun to look at everything working together on the table. 


Next up was Cromlech with onion, coffee and tea. These were fried hallow pockets which held bits of foie inside. To eat it, you have to scoop it up from the bottom and hold the entire thing like an ice cream cone and bite in. Sadly, I wasn't paying close enough attention, because I thought our waitress told us to break the shell in half like a pinata - I was about to break one in half when J asked me, "Shelly...what are you doing? Why are you breaking it??" Ha! Imagine if I did and my foie came spilling out.

The flavors of this was spot on, as it was fried perfectly, and we tasted the onion flavor of the crunchy shell and the smoothness of the buttery foie inside. We each had two of these "ice cream cones" to enjoy.


This is where the sad part of my blog post comes in, where one of our waiters comes over and asks me why I was vigorously taking photos of the food- if it was for personal admiration or for other purposes. Stupidly (and almost proudly), I explained that I do keep a food blog, and would one day like to maybe share of my photos of my experience at Arzak with the world. Right away, he told me that it was against their policy to do so, but in lieu of my photo taking, they offered me a CD which would feature all the food I ate that night. I protested a little bit inside, but knew deep inside that I wouldn't win this battle and that I would have to sadly respect his request.

This was a bit confusing to me since I've come upon so many different food blog with beautiful pictures of their meals at Arzak...was it because they didn't trust that my tiny Canon S95 would match up to the magical qualities of a huge Canon 60D DSLR? Or was it because they wanted you to believe my Cromlech y cebolla con té y café and the rest of my meal looked more like this:

Photo courtesy of Arzak - Cromlech y Cebolla con Te y Cafe



Sad as I was, I wasn't going to allow this little hiccup make me not enjoy the rest of my meal. However, since most of my memory of how the rest of my meal progressed, is a faint memory now, you'll have to take my word for it. The rest I can leave to your imagination and hopefully you'll have a chance to experience this in the near future.

Next up on the menu was, coralline lobster, "egg of the moment", "fish of the day", and "meat or poultry". Of these dishes, Arzak allowed you to choose your protein so of course we chose different ones to get a taste of everything.

The most memorable of the two main entrees was my Cinnamon Smoked Tuna. It was presented to me first on a plate that was covered with a cloudy dome. Once it reached my table, they lifted the dome and the aroma of fresh smoked cinnamon came through my nose. On the side, they poured a cinnamon sauce which accompanied my tuna perfectly. This was my favorite savory dish of the night, and to this day I can still envision how the smell of the smoked cinnamon translated to my tastebuds as I bit into the tuna.

During dinner, we also noticed Juan Arzak going around the tables and greeting guests. He seemed like a nice friendly guy who was greeting you into this home. I wanted to have a photo with him, but I think he was rushing off back to the kitchen, but he told me after the meal, I would have a chance to.

Finally came the dessert round, and for a girl who doesn't have a sweet tooth, I found their desserts more memorable than their main courses. Our favorite dessert of the night was a chocolate dessert which was made to look like grapes in a vineyard. On the plate there were 6 small bubbles, positioned to look like grapes on vines. It sat on a pool of strawberry sauce across from a nice scoop of basil ice cream.

As you bit into the soft outer shell, warm liquid chocolate would ooze out. We were told by the Canadian foodie next to us that it's a balsamic chocolate made to work this way. I'll take his word for it. :)



After dinner, we were served chocolates which looked like nuts and bolts, which continued to showcase Arzak's style of having fun with different shapes and textures with food. As we wrapped up, I asked for a tour of the kitchen. Even though by 11, the kitchen was pretty empty, it was fun to see where the magic happens. If you look up, you'll notice the fun colorful pieces of plastic that hangs along the ceiling. It just seems like they carry this fun whimsical theme all the way into the decor of their kitchen, even if it's just a small detail.

As we finished up the tour, we noticed that Juan was at the chef's table enjoying glasses of wine and other snacks with a couple business partners, so we didn't want to bother him. As we were about to hop into our taxi, the general manager of the restaurant came running up to us, and told is that Mr. Arzak remembered that I wanted a photo with him and told us to come back inside. I thought it really spoke to his welcoming personality to remember this and go out of his way to make sure that he follows through with his original promise. This small gesture really shows that he wants to treat his guests as if they were in his own home.


When we met up with him, he asked us how dinner was, and apologized that his English wasn't any better. This was a great way to wrap up our experience here at Arzak, even though I'm still a bit bitter that I don't get to gawk at my photos of my entire tasting menu so I could better admire the meal.

Summary

All in all, my experience at Arzak was sensational and was a great introduction to eating at the Best Restaurants in the World.

This might be a no-duh tip from me, but really, come to your reservation on time. Our Canadian foodie friend sitting next to us found it impossible to catch a cab and wasn't able to make it for his reservation on time. Of course, Arzak served him, but we noticed that even though he was more than 30 minutes late to his meal, by the end of dinner, we were all caught up in the tasting menu. That means they rushed each of the courses for him, giving him less time to sit and simply enjoy the food, or the time between each course.

Also, depending on who you get to serve you your food, the introduction that you get to each dish varies by server. A server who spends a bit of time to tell you about what you're about to eat really adds to your experience of how you experience the food and adds to your appreciation of the dish. If you can, ask for a dedicated server. Sometimes we had less fluent English speakers serving us a dish, and it was really hard to understand what they were trying to communicate.

I've also been asked if you need to dress formally when you come here. This isn't a mandatory suit and tie place, and I even saw guys in jeans here. So, if you're traveling, a pair of nice jeans and a nicer pair of shoes should be fine.

Feel free to comment below to tell me about your own experiences at Arzak, or if you have any other questions about eating in San Sebastian!

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Alcade Jose Elosegui 273
Alto de Miracruz 21
20015 San Sebastian, Spain

+34 943 278 465

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