After three nights in Madrid, we picked up a rental car from the Atocha train station and headed north to San Sebastian. The drive through northern Spain was a mix of industrial centers, farmland, and snow-capped mountains. We made two stops along the way for wine tasting purposes, and I will write more about those at a later date.
If you ever watched more than an hour of the Travel Channel or the Food Network, then you know that San Sebastian is considered one of the best eating cities in the world, with more Michelin stars per square mile than anywhere else. There are three three-star Michelin restaurants in the area: Akelare, Arzak, and Mugaritz. Deciding which one to visit involved many hours of research (the fun kind). We were honestly leaning toward Akelare before we realized that they are closed for the entire month of February. Then we considered not even going to a three star because there were so many tapas bars to visit in only 2 days. In the end, my ego would not be denied.
Lunch at Arzak was like no other meal that I had ever experienced. Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena are serving food which transcends any concept that you have of eating. Each dish has been so meticulously crafted not only for precise texture and flavor, but also in terms of visual effect. The result is a multi-sensory experience which forces a diner to reconcile what your tongue tastes, what your eyes see, and what your brain knows (or thinks it knows). The kitchen is as innovative as the NFL replacement referees are incompetent.
I wish that I could recall more details from our meal, but the menu descriptions were minimal, and I had decided that this once in a lifetime experience warranted a hiatus from note taking. Thankfully, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Oysters with citrus.
"Cromlech" with onion, coffee, and tea.
These prehistoric standing stones were balloons of egg anchored with seared foie gras and dusted with onion, coffee, and tea. We were instructed to invert the balloons with our hands and then eat it "like an ice cream cone."
"Fufu" balls and fish of the day.
Hemp's mustard and lobster. Best savory dish of the meal.
Slow poached "dusted" egg with mussel.
TFS was not a fan of this dish at all, and it just so happened that right when our plates were being cleared, Juan Mari Arzak came over and noticed that her plate was basically untouched. He asked our serving captain to serve as translator to inquire why she did not like the dish. TFS apologetically stated that it was simply asked a texture thing. Both Juan Marie and the captain asked if she wanted them to serve something instead - foie gras, vegetables, anything. She said, "No, it's fine. Please tell him it's not a you thing; it's a me thing."
"Most embarrassing moment of my life," she whispered to me after they left the table. I remember thinking that our wedding caterer better watch out. If she can tell Juan Mari Arzak that she don't like his food, then she will have no problem telling anyone else.
Sole curd with wine bread.
Beef with vegetable screens.
Soup and chocolate "between vineyards."
Basil sorbet in strawberry sauce with warm chocolate spheres whose thin skin exploded in luscious liquid cocoa. Best dessert dish of the meal (and there were five of them).
No, the white powdery substance on the mirrored serving stray was not Colombia's finest. But I am sure that if TFS had asked Juan Marie Arzak to swap a few lines of llello for that mussel and egg dish, he probably would have.
Perhaps the most cherished memory from our meal at Arzak is one that we brought home with us. Near the end of the meal and long after we had ordered a bottle of 1998 Imperial Rioja Gran Reserva to drink with our lunch, we noticed that a handful of other tables were all drinking the same bottle of wine with an Arzak label. I asked our serving captain what was the back story on the wine, and he explained that a while back the restaurant commissioned La Rioja Alta to produce a special crianza under the Arzak label.
"Well, I wish we would have known that sooner," we both said. Since we were already in the midst of enjoying our digestifs and were completely satiated from the 10 course meal, we decided against ordering a bottle of the house (literally) wine. Instead, we decided to bring one bottle home with us, and that lone bottle of 2004 Arzak Crianza sits in our wine chiller as a memento of an incredible meal.