Pedro Subijana is a Spanish chef-celebrity, and Akelarre is his San Sebastián headquarters. The man has had his own cooking TV show since 1992, and a third Michelin star since 2007; going on almost a decade. He started at the restaurant in 1975, and has maintained an absolutely fantastic mustache throughout.
Pedro has been instrumental in the re-discovery and re-invigoration of Basque cuisine- he and a group of friends began working a few decades ago to explore the lost art of Basque cuisine, and attempt the following (I'm paraphrasing):
- learn why older dishes had been lost, and recover the recipes
- learn to make those recipes in the most authentic way
- contribute something to the Basque culinary legacy.
The drive along the coast from San Sebastián to Akelarre is one of the most beautiful imaginable- you’re on a high mountainside that cascades all the way down to the Cantabrian Sea, and taking this route around sunset leads to some of the most gorgeous views I have ever witnessed.
SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN
PRICE PAID: $235 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 6.0/10
The restaurant itself has a simple, semi-circular format to emphasize its high clifftop perch and fantastic views. Lots of wood and glass; a gorgeous interior with smart lighting. The space is comfortable, warm, and welcoming.
As we were seated at the table, the sun was still high enough to show off the ocean’s vastness. Totally stunning.
A few words on service. Our waiter seemed extremely put-upon in his role— he needed to be a quadrilingual waiter, server, table-clearer, water-pourer, and menu-explainer along with serving many more tables than would seem reasonable (maybe they were short-staffed that evening?) Stretched as he was to the limits, I wasn’t surprised to see him literally toss silverware in front of us, stack dishes that were headed back to the kitchen like an Applebee’s, and forget us for half-hour stretches. As I said, I get the feeling that the restaurant itself was understaffed rather than he himself was a poor performer, but service at Akelarre absolutely did not belong in the 3-star category. It really needs work.
The restaurant offers three menus, all for the same price- “Aranori,” and “Bekarki,” which are forward-looking, experimental menus, and the Classics of Akelarre, designed to show off the traditional plates that made the restaurant famous. We chose the Classics menu, in order to (hopefully) best experience the restaurant on our very first visit.
Some lovely first bites are brought out almost immediately- first, a vodka-tomato-mussel combo. A very foamy dish, the tomato comes through well. The olive flavors buried within are very, very subtle. I would go so far as to say this dish is peppery. 7/10.
In what would turn out to be the first of several implementations of the idea that “looks can be deceiving,” from left to right- the cucumber-slice-shaped dish is actually potato and shrimp with basil on the outside to make the green skin. Totally excellent, 9/10. Next, black olives with anchovy that looks exactly like black beans. 9/10 super creative and really flavorful.
Those chocolate truffles are actually stuffed mussels- rich, a bit spicy, and also excellent. 9/10. It’s nice to start with such a clear message; a reminder of how subjective our reality is. At least, that was my interpretation, and I'm sure it's open to many more besides that.
The bread was fresh, crunchy, and warm, but also quite plain. 7/10.
Because we were in Spain, the condiment on offer for bread was olive oil. We requested some butter, and a mere three reminders later were presented with this clearly hand-scooped arrangement of butter flowers. I felt a bit like a whiner for having asked, to be honest. 8/10.
On to the first course- lobster salad with very quotidian mesclun salad plunked in the middle. It's made with San Sebastián classic cider, and the apple flavors come through quite nicely. As a quick sidenote- San Sebastián itself was formed hundreds of years ago as a plantation for growing apples for cider, so it's a Basque culinary touchpoint. The bitter mesclun leaves go well with the dish- they offset the sweetness of the apple and lobster very well. 8/10.
Next, another implementation of the looks-are-deceiving idea- a “carpaccio” of Ibérico ham with mushrooms and parmesan that is actually a pasta, and it both looks and tastes exactly like ham. A really incredible effect. The pasta even emulates jamón's characteristic bits of fat and marbling. The effect is playful and interesting, and the strong parmesan flavors balance the dish nicely. 9/10.
The third course is foie gras, and in an oddly charming gesture of showmanship the server then pours an entire dish of “salt” and “pepper” directly onto the foie. On the surface, it appears that the server is intent on murdering the guest by way of heart attack. Turns out, it’s not real salt and it's not real pepper- the “salt” is sugar, and the pepper corns are puffed rice balls. The sugar has smooth apple flavors, an echo of the previous course's cider roots. Another really interesting course. Trickery abounds. 10/10.
Next, white rice with snails in tomato and basil. Some very strong aromas going on here, but the flavors don't quite line up- the snail bit doesn't taste like snail, it tastes like a rubbery mild mushroom. The overall taste, if I had to label it, is like a bouillabaisse with a bunch of paprika. Hearty, savory, and interesting. 8/10.
For reasons that aren’t clear to me, the chef chose to cook this red mullet (normally a mild, flavorful fish) with crushed-up heads and scales on the outside, I suppose to add texture. This leads to an extremely fishy flavor that tastes like it was sitting in the fridge for a day-and-a-half too long. We only ate a few bites, and I was quite surprised by the interaction that followed. The server asked us why we didn’t like it, heard our response that approximated the above, and seemed unsurprised, shrugging, “Yes, that’s because we cook it with the heads and scales…” and then just looked at us, as if the problem wasn't that the dish tasted poorly and more that we were too dense to appreciate it. He then made a decidedly half-hearted effort to offer us another course, and immediately dropped the issue when we politely declined. Another strike against service. Overall, truly not good; the fish wasn't fresh, and the fake fusilli doesn’t make sense. 4/10.
Next, a beef course with a “cake” of foie gras. The beef itself is firm and well-cooked, but nothing terribly special. Alongside, a powder-dry cake of chocolate and foie gras that desiccates the mouth on the first bite. It's yet another continuation of that oh-so-zany trickery formula that's actually getting pretty old by this point; the technique is less interesting when it doesn't taste good. 6/10.
And now, on to the desserts. First up, a deconstructed gin and tonic on a plate. There's a super, super tart sorbet in the upper right corner and it's paired off with a jelly tastes like dehydrated gin. The flavors work pretty well together, but the only problem is that the proportions are off- there's way, way too much jelly. Like, a quart of jelly. 6/10.
Next, an apple tart with edible paper that Akelarre has chosen to print their name upon. It's one of the first truly made-for-social-media dishes I have ever come across, and I really like the idea. The paper itself is actually quite flavorful, and underneath the paper is a buttery crust, like a croissant. Lots of apple sauces to round the dish out. 8/10.
Lastly, a charming group of petit fours. 8/10.