Martín has one of those very, very few restaurants that in all my journeys I would not only be interested but extremely excited to return to. With a bulletproof menu, incredibly disciplined and alert staff, beautiful physical space, and a creative and near-flawless execution, this is one of the best restaurants I have ever visited. It will be difficult to describe the fullness of my positivity without straying into hyperbole, but I will try.
Martín owns several restaurants around the world—in Spain, Shanghai, and the Caribbean—and has a philosophy of discipline, teamwork, and openness. His eponymous restaurant was opened in 1993 near San Sebastián, his hometown. He won his first star six months after opening, his third in 2001, and he has held them ever since.
The chef walked through the dining room to greet everyone post-meal. That particular day, he was wearing an immaculate white outfit with a BMW logo stitched on the nameplate, as though he were just arriving from the kitchen of some F1 team. An imposing but lighthearted person.
Martín grew up right next to the famous Mercado de la Bretxa watching fresh fish, vegetables, and produce get hauled in every day, providing his first exposure to Basque food culture. His father (and later Martín himself) ran the famous restaurant Bodegón Alejandro where he instilled in Martín the virtues of teamwork and tradition. It seems his dad knocked it out of the park.
SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN
PRICE PAID: $200 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 9.0/10
Shitloads of egotistical, self-celebrating metal yard art are rarely a good sign about an impending meal. Luckily, that premonition would be proven wrong shortly, but a small holy-shit moment did occur right as I was snapping these photos.
I really and truly hope that whole squads of brightly colored avians didn't have to die to make this lobby come together the way it does... But somehow, I'm pretty sure they did. I am reminded of the expression: “some days you’re the peacock, some days you’re the duster.”
Floor-to-ceiling windows yield views of riotous greenery. Subtle lighting pervades. One of my favorite dining rooms of all time.
Most of you who follow me regularly know that I’m a total freak about bread and butter. I am exorbitantly pleased to observe the touchdown of some multicolored butters (Beetroot, salty, spinach, and mushroom) alongside some lovely sliced sourdough.
The server takes the time to tell us that the bread is from the same yeast from a many, many years-old long-running ferment. 9/10.
First, a few amuse-bouches; sea crunch tempura, followed by a kumquat, anchovy, and olive combination (on the right). All the flavors contrast yet support each other well- the warm seafood tempura is set off against the sweet and crunchy kumquat in a delightful way. 9/10. Interestingly, the spoon motif is repeated from the metal sculptures outside.
Next, a menu participant since 1995- a collection of smoked eel with foie gras and green apple. The server pours a delightful mixture that activates the frozen nitrogen under the plate, creating a "fog" with lovely aromas. Super cool effect. The server recommended that we take each bite with a bit of cream. The foie has the texture and flavor of cream cheese, and is exceedingly rich. During prep the apple was carmelized giving it both a crunchy and sweet profile- the perfect combination of savory and sweet. The cream has a ton of flavor, complimented nicely by the spring onion. This dish really sings together. Amazing. 10/10.
The last appetizer course—a “red shrimp royale,” with dill and Venta del Baron olive oil. We got some coaching on this one also; it was recommended that we dip the spoon all the way to bottom to get one of each layer. The red shrimp is small compared to the surrounding sauce, and quite salty, and everything is quite flavorful but tastes a bit like Thousand Island dressing. 8/10.
As we get into the main dishes, a new-age version of a surf-and-turf arrives. Sea urchin curd, along with jamón, seaweed, and anise. And, as it is plated before us, another recommendation for how we should consume it: “mix it all together.” The sea urchin and jamón flavors are strong and quite contrasting- the sea urchin almost tastes like lobster, and the ham is rich and salty. Cubed apples jump up the texture contrast, but it's really creamy and overly rich. Tastes like you're eating a sauce with a sauce in it. 7/10.
Next, the beetroot course with its stunning red colors. The beetroot itself is sliced into tiny cubes, and includes some horseradish for a spicy kick. The cream is made from salmon marinated with citrus. The texture is just awesome; chunking the beet into tiny bits was the right call. The dollop of horseradish brings the whole damn thing together, and to top it all off, the salmon was super flavorful. A very exciting dish. 9/10.
The next dish is cheekily named: “The Truffle,” and includes some fermented wild mushrooms and collard greens. There’s a strange, interesting balance going on in this dish between warm and cold. Really rich, deep, and earthy flavors abound. 9/10.
Served on a plate whose surface almost looks rocky. this next dish is called “Gorrotxategi.” It consists of an egg resting in a liquid herb salad with dewlap carpaccio- bright, clean, crispy vegetable flavors and the egg is a deep yellow I’ve never seen from any American grocery store. 8/10.
A stunningly enormous salad shows up next; "vegetable hearts" with cream of lettuce. It’s a good salad for people who don't like salad- strong seafood flavors, crisp and crunchy. 9/10.
On the lower left and then clockwise- a bonbon of liquid squid, a mousse of saffron and then fennel, and finally mullet with crystallized scales on. The mullet is totally delicious- crunchy, warm, and rich (not fishy, like Akelarre), and perfectly fresh. 10/10.
And finally, we move on to the main course—lamb with sweetbreads, presented confidently on this colorful dish. Served alongside some Parmesan whey, a fritter or two, and some asparagus. This dish is literally perfect. Temperature, freshness, everything works together- this dish is crazy good. 10/10.
In a nice recall to the beetroot course- the sticks are meringue of beetroot, and they're so brittle they fall apart like they're freeze dried. The foam is made of tea, which has a delicious, rich, smoky flavor. Pepper ice cream brings it all together for a near-perfect ensemble. 9/10.
Lastly, a “salted rock” of chocolate with pistachio and salty Quinoa. The ice is cold, and the chocolate is mousse-y for a really good temperature contrast. 9/10.
Some coffee, and then a lovely wrought-iron tree with various small last bites of dessert. Milk cinnamon and Armagnac (tastes like Christmas), passion fruit and grape dessert, some striped chocolates with orange custard, plain ones with vanilla. The long, skinny cakes are hazelnut. 8/10.
Overall, one of the most enjoyable meals of the entire trip. Can't say when I'll be back, but it couldn't be soon enough.