Arzak

ARZAK

Av del Alcalde José Elosegi, 273

20017 Donostia-San Sebastián,

Guipúzcoa,

Spain

www.arzak.es

Overall rating: 7/10

Date of visit: August 2012

Many people call Arzak the best restaurant in Spain, so naturally my expectations were high.They have held three Michelin stars since 1989. I went for the tasting menu, but they also serve a la carte dishes, which seem a bit simpler.

All the food I had was balanced and fairly well cooked, but despite having good (and often amusing) elements here and there, overall the meal was simply just okay – both in flavours and technique. Arzak is considered to be one of the best in the world, but the meal I had was far from one of the best I’ve ever had. The atmosphere of the restaurant was however another story (see more below).

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Before the seven course meal began, I had an appetizer consisting of five small elements, my favourites being the chorizo with tonic (amusingly arranged on top of a squashed tonic can) and the corn soup. I’ve been a bit traumatized by canned corn in my childhood, but this corn soup was definitely some of the better corn I’ve had. The tonic and chorizo was also a good match, the tonic not being overly bitter as it often is.

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The first course was clearly my favourite of the meal. They called it cromlech, as it looked a bit like one. The puffy outer was stuffed with onion, tea and coffee, and a bit of foie gras. It was a really good dish, both because it was inventive, amusing, well-balanced (the coffee and tea flavour was not too over-powering) and technically very well-done, but mostly because the flavours were there. (8.5/10)

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From there onwards, the meal didn’t stay at the same level.

The next dish was lobster. The flesh of the lobster was a bit limp, and it both lacked flavour and seasoning. Yes, it’s true that there was salt and pepper on the table, as Juan Mari pointed out, but seasoning should take place in the kitchen. I’ve cooked better lobster than this myself, but I’ve also cooked lobster with as little flavour as this myself. Lobster can be a bit hit or miss. There really was a long way from this lobster to the superb ones I had at Sant Pau and Le Calandre (Italy). However, the yellow dressing (a mayonnaise or vinaigrette) with curry powder was definitely one of my favourite things about the entire meal. The dish also came with another amusing element: Small clothes-pegs (overall 7/10, mostly due to the dressing).

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Then a poached egg was served. I find the success of dishes with eggs to often be determined by the other ingredients the egg is combined with. The egg at Arzak was perfectly cooked (at 60-65 degrees) and well salted. The crispy lattices of noodles on top was a good texture contrast to the egg, but it simply didn’t have much flavour even though there were several sesame seeds on there. As such there was nothing wrong with this dish, but I couldn’t help but think “this was just an egg”. A dish this plain shouldn’t be in a restaurant like this, and if they had wanted to do it, they could easily have done it as a small appetizer instead (6/10).

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White tuna (bonita) was my second favourite dish of the night, and the tuna was cooked exactly the way I like it. It had also been lightly smoked before being cooked, which worked really well. On the side was a purée of prickly pear (which I found out was a type of cactus – a first for me), and two slices of melon, one with vanilla and one with dried chilli. Both combinations worked well, although the melon lacked flavour. This was easily the second best dish of the meal for me, but I nevertheless quickly forgot this dish. To me, white tuna is also simply not as good as certain other types of tuna (7/10).

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The main course was pigeon. First I was given an iPad-shaped screen showing flames, and then the actual plate (black and transparent glass) was put on top. The pigeon was served with a mango sauce, chives and edible flowers. The meat worked really well with the flowers, which added a nice sweetness. This use of flowers was actually a better pairing than many other cases I’ve seen (in desserts). Still, the best pigeon I’ve ever had was at Herman in Copenhagen. There you could really taste this was pigeon and not duck, whereas here it didn’t taste much different than duck. Mangos in Spain are usually top-notch, but oddly this sauce was nothing special. Nevertheless, a pleasant dish, although I would have liked more vegetables. I had smoked yoghurt on the side, which was pleasant too, but a smoked soft cheese is very common in Denmark (where I’m from), so it wasn’t anything new for me (except for the texture). The thin strips of sauce on the plate were basically burned onto the plate and was  hardly edible (“It’s mostly decoration”, the waiter said when I mentioned this) (6.5/10).

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The first dessert was a strawberry soup with basil and parsley ice cream and chocolate balls. The soup was pleasant and definitely less sour than Spanish strawberries tend to be, but didn’t have the full flavour that strawberries have when they’re at their best (as the sorbet in Mortens Kro in Denmark had). I’m not trying to be patriotic, but strawberries in Scandinavia are really a lot better than in southern Europe. I still haven’t bought a single pack of strawberries in Spain that was really good after living a year and a half here.

The ice cream had good flavour, and the two herbs were well balanced. Probably not an ice cream anybody would like, but for me it was quite pleasant. The chocolate balls were okay, but again just not more than that. On the side was a pineapple ice cream which tasted a bit strange (overall 6.5/10).

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They then treated me to an extra dessert which came in two plates: One as a chocolate volcano with a citrus filling, and on the side small bits of kiwi, a few edible flowers and a liquorice sauce. The volcano’s filling’s flavour was so indistinct that I had to ask what it was. The kiwis were just kiwis, but did add some acidity to the dish. The volcano was one of the weakest elements of the entire meal, and it honestly looked like something a five-year old had done. I saw a picture of the same dish in another review, so it wasn’t a one-off incident. (4/10).

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The other plate was a bent disc with a runny chocolate filling, a gelatinous sphere with a runny inside, puffed rice and parsley leaves. The dish’s strongest element was the rice that had nice texture. The parsley also worked well here. The sphere I simply don’t remember what was, but I do remember it being fairly pleasant. More about the chocolate disc later. On the side was served a scoop of cheese ice cream with raspberry sauce. The taste resembled a cheese cake and was one of the strongest elements in all the desserts (overall 6/10).

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The last dessert was a “golden footprint”. It was a small crisp footprint on top of a slice of peach and a slice of fig. The figs I’ve bought in Spain have definitely been inferior to the middle eastern ones, but maybe I have just been unlucky. This fig was nothing special either, and the footprint seemed like a burnt piece of pastry. I’m sorry to say it, but it wasn’t nice. The golden “crystals” in the upper left corner was made with olive oil, but was strangely devoid of taste. The same goes for the light blobs of some cream as well as the lady birds. I can’t remember what they  were, and I couldn’t taste what it was either. This and the chocolate volcano were definitely the weakest dishes in the menu. The three scoops of ice cream on the side made a bit up for it: One with red peppers, one with banana, and one, I believe, with ginger. The red pepper one was the best of the three, but the flavour was still a bit watery, and when I compare the flavour of pepper in this ice cream to the sauce I had at Osteria Francescana in Italy (yes, I know an ice cream and a sauce are two completely different things), the difference was enormous (overall 4/10).

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To me, all the ice creams were too defrosted, but Juan Mari told me this is how they prefer serving it (so it was a bit like a soup).

Petit fours were made as star anise, screws, bolts and keys of chocolate, as well as light creamy balls and a jelly with sparkling pops inside. Although it was visually very well made, the chocolate here was just like the rest of the chocolate elements in all the desserts: It was just chocolate. I think they had just melted the chocolate, shaped it, and then let it harden. No butter (to enhance the flavour and texture), nor any additional flavours. Eating 8 petit fours like this quickly became boring. Except for maybe the chocolate balls in the strawberry soup, all the chocolate was very dry in my mouth. I doubt the chocolate used was Valrhona, Michel Cluizel, Vivani or any similar quality. No great depth of flavour.

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So, was this one of the best meals ever? Far from it. Overall the cooking was fairly uniform and moderately creative. Unlike at for instance El Celler de Can Roca, there were no dishes that were downright bad or that lacked balance. However, besides for the cromlech dish and the dressing for the lobster there wasn’t a single dish (or element, even) that was better than just good, and the desserts were certainly the weakest part of the meal.

There had clearly been put some thought into the combinations of texture and flavours (crunchy and soft textures, or rich and acidic flavours), but the result was rarely more than mildly pleasing. I’m really trying to be diplomatic here, ’cause I had really wanted to like Arzak, especially with these wonderful hosts, but the food simply didn’t impress.

I saw a major lack of flavour, and the ingredients didn’t always seem to be of the best quality (for instance the lobster or the chocolate). The creativity wasn’t as high nor the combinations and the execution as good as should be expected in a place with three Michelin stars – especially when you consider how it looked on the plate. Compare for instance this dish…

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… to this one:

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CD of earth and land (Sant Pau)

Or this one…

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… to this one:

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Foie gras (Herman)

Compare this one:

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… to this one:

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Sea bass (Samsha)

Compare this one:

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… to this one:

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Deer (Geranium)

… or to this one for that matter:

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Pork and beef (Osteria Francescana)

Compare this one:

Chocolate volcano

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… to this one:

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Cube (Sant Pau)

… or to this one for that matter:

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Sorrel (Geranium)

… or to one that is very similar in style:

Chocolate cylinder (Gordon Ramsay, from his book “*** Chef”, although I found this picture online)

Compare this one:

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… to this one:

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Golf (Sant Pau )

Or even to this one:

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Liquorice and berries (Herman)

Compare this one…

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… to this one:

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Flower bomb (El Celler de Can Roca)

… or even to this one for that matter:

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Raspberries and chocolate (Kokkeriet)

And lastly, compare this one:

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… to this one:

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Rhubarb and flowers (Geranium)

…or even to this one:

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Beetroot and prunes (Grønbech & Churchill)

Honestly, does the dishes from Arzak look like some of the best food imaginable?

Admittedly, I tend to favour food with great depth of flavour. For restaurants like that, Quique Dacosta (also Spain) and Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea, London were a lot better. For elegant food, Sant Pau (also Spain), Pierre Gagnaire (Paris), Herman and Geranium (both Copenhagen, Denmark) were a lot better.

There is also luck and taste. The menu changes at Arzak often, so I might just have had one of their weaker menus. In this context, this is what I mean by luck.

It seems to me that people in Spain tend to favour mild food. An acquaintance of mine lived in San Sebastián for a couple of years and said that in the Basque Country people barely use salt and pepper, as they want to “reveal” the “true” taste of the ingredients. This is simply not how I like my food cooked.

Besides, this wouldn’t explain the practically perfect seasoning at Sant Pau, the depth in flavour that I found at Quique Dacosta and Sangonereta, nor the intense flavours in the tapas I had at Borda Berri in San Sebastián just the night before going to Arzak.

Looking at descriptions and pictures from previous diners, it does look like I had one of their simpler and less creative menus. I can easily enjoy simple food, but simple food is not the same as plain food.

This was my first visit to Arzak so I can’t comment on any previous achievements, but I have seen several reviews stating that the level is not what it used to be.

The service was great. I cannot say exactly what it was, but for some reason I didn’t feel that it was quite as good as in certain other restaurants, but everything you expect of a three star restaurant was there, such as topping up water and helping me sit down when I came back from the toilet and so on. The pace of the meal was perfect. Not too much waiting, nor rushing.

The sommelier was great too. I described what types of wine I liked, and he said that if I didn’t like what he brought, we would just find another one. The first white wine was exactly the type I liked. The red wine wasn’t so much to my liking, so he just poured me another one which I liked much better. He said I could just keep the first red wine as well for free (he poured almost a full glass). I’ve tried “taste before you decide” several times in cheaper restaurants, but this was the first time in a three star restaurant.

The white wines I had at Arzak were €7 per glass and reds €9. The price was the same at Sant Pau and El Celler de Can Roca (although at Arzak the price was plus VAT). When I bought the white wine in a shop the next day, an entire bottle was €7, but I wouldn’t say €7 for a glass of wine in a restaurant like this is steep, no matter what an entire bottle costs.

Then there’s the price: At €179 + VAT for a menu (making it €193,32 for the menu, and €222.48 in total with wine and water), I believe this is the most expensive restaurant in all of Spain. The menu at Arzak is also shorter than in both Sant Pau, El Celler de Can Roca, and Quiquie Dacosta (also three stars). Although I was given a free dessert (+ almost an entire glass of wine, albeit not one to my liking), I felt this was low value for money for a very simple reason: Food this plain shouldn’t cost €193 + drinks.

Despite the very good first course, despite the nice atmosphere, despite the wonderful hosts, and despite the good sommelier, the food was overall simply neither three stars (rarely even one) nor worth €193 + drinks.

There were two other things about Arzak: One was humour, and the other was the atmosphere.

It’s always nice to have a meal that tastes nice, but it’s even better to have a meal that both tastes nice and also plays with your other senses. Arzak might have been the restaurant I’ve been to with the most humorous food.

I always like meeting the chef. Some don’t make an appearance (some because they’re not there, like Gordon Ramsay), while others just say good evening (Pierre Gagnaire). Some just ask if the food has been okay (Quique Dacosta), while others chat about the guest’s country (Joan Roca at El Celler de Can Roca) or tell a bit about the food in the restaurant (Carme Ruscalleda at Sant Pau). Juan Mari and Elena Arzak are definitely the most hospitable and talkative chefs I’ve ever met. They seemed so genuinely interested in meeting people and getting to know their guests. Both Juan Mari and Elena seemed reassured about their own abilities and visions for the restaurant, but they also seemed very happy to receive feedback on the food, ’cause they knew that they will always be able to learn and improve.

I had ordered beef for the main course, but Elena came out and suggested pigeon for me instead as this was better and more interesting. Although I find it strange that they would serve something that they didn’t feel was as good as the rest, I did like that she came with suggestions for something she was particularly proud of. Both of them came to ask me several times about my opinion about the food, as did the waiters. I have never before been to a restaurant where I have felt so welcome as I did at Arzak, and where the atmosphere has been so relaxed and warm. The atmosphere definitely made the whole experience better. If it hadn’t been for the atmosphere and Juan Mari and Elena, my score would have been lower (the average score for the food is approximately 6 + there was the low value for money). If you go to a restaurant for the atmosphere, none is better than Arzak!

Lastly, I’ll end on a more amusing note: I like to show people the following two pictures from the Danish book “Alle Europas trestjernede restauranter” (“All of Europe’s three star restaurants”), as I just find the glaring contrast in the facial expressions of northern Europeans to southern Europeans quite amusing. I really find that in general people in southern Europe seem much happier and more carefree. The first picture is Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, the second is from Schwartzwaldstube in Germany.

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