Arzak is one of those handful of restaurants that, to me at least, represents the most exciting restaurants of my whole entire Michelin 3-Star experience. Ever since watching Netflix’s Chef’s Kitchen episode about the father-daughter team that runs Arzak, I was attracted to their humility, their dedication, and their intense commitment to improving that which was already close to perfect. For example, they keep a "flavor library" in their restaurant to test drive new pairings and combinations for their diners, filled with hundreds of unique scents and tastes they have collected from around the world.
Arzak, at moments, came close to perfect. There were some truly inspired flavors and presentations (the beer can dish really stood out- see below) but elements of the experience really lacked. The dining room is really, really tightly packed. Certain dishes kind of fell down with their own complexity. To be really clear: at no time was Arzak bad, and this is still one of my top ten favorite restaurant experiences.
SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN
PRICE PAID: $241 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10
We were seated in a corner table in a space that, to put it generously, was a touch overcrowded. Though I’m sure they’re eager to remain humble, it’s pretty clear that their massive popularity has forced them to get more from their space. Probably two or three tables too many crowded the tiny room.
A charming waiter named Cesar joined us at our table to give us a full course-by-course description of the menu; a unique gesture that I enjoyed. There were few choices to make on the tasting menu, and he walked us through what to expect for each one. The options were pretty easy- seabass vs. monkfish, pigeon vs. lamb, etc.
Some delicious, thick wheat bread and flavorful olive oil to start. 8/10.
These very colorful chips, complete with flower petals, were a delicious salty intro. They had shellfish flavors and make a pretty picture. 8/10.
Next, some fried anchovies—the anchovies aren’t oily or fishy in the least—that taste fresh, flaky, and lean, with the chives brightening the flavors significantly. I end up eating the tail and don’t even mind. 9/10.
Next, some gyoza of prawns with a batter made from Moringa, a spice from India known as the horseradish tree. Spicy, and the orange and green peppers add a nice texture note. There's a lot going on in these small dumplings, though. 7/10.
Check out this completely amazing presentation of mango and Basque "txistorra" sausage (a thinner, leaner version of chorizo) on the tail of a crushed beer can! The mango flavors pair with the protein perfectly, and I love the delightfully Instagram-worthy plating. 10/10.
Next, some black pudding with cabbage, which I (rather unwisely) ate in a single bite. A very soft mouthfeel and there were so many tastes throughout that the impression ends up being surprisingly neutral; the strongest flavors I could pull out are those of frosted sugar. 7/10.
The choice in opposition to the oysters is a fish of the day, which turns out to be sea bream. It doesn’t disappoint- zingy fresh, with a subtle clear sauce that adds a lot of depth without making it heavy. 8/10.
Like most of the Spanish restaurants I visited during this trip, olive oil is the standard bread pairing. I always ended up feeling slightly guilty requesting butter, because it comes out from the kitchen in these clearly hand-made flourishes. But then I immediately stop feeling guilty and enjoy the hell out of this awesome butter. 9/10.
Next, an extremely delicious plate that pairs freshly cooked lobster with… bee’s pollen? The pollen is also included with some blue honeycomb, and both taste a lot like honey. They add delicious waxy depth to the dish; I can safely say that I never would have guessed that this pairing works out, but it really does. The stickiness of the pollen goes with the crackling, firm freshness of the lobster in a unique and beautiful way. 9/10.
The zucchini tasted smoked, and grilled, yielding something like a barbecue zucchini. Not sure where this came from, or how it's supposed to fit into the flow of the meal, or if it was even supposed to be thought of as a whole course, but it tastes simple and delicious. 7/10.
Nobody on the staff was quite sure how it ended up with the name “Space Egg,” but the farm-fresh egg in this dish was slow roasted at 65° C for 40 minutes, which brings out tons of rich flavor. Surrounded by flowers and tiny dabs of sauces and spices, the flavor is so natural and bright, you can practically taste the seeds and grains the chicken that produced this lives on. I've never had an egg quite this good before. 9/10.
Next up, some sea bass with a graviola sauce, which is a tropical fruit from Brazil. The fruit has a flavor that's a midpoint between pineapples, bubblegum, strawberries, and bananas. It works just perfectly with the light, flaky, perfectly cooked fish. Yet another flavor combination that reflects the incredibly hard work and research done by Elena and Juan Mari. Super excellent. 9/10.
And now the big show: lamb with cypress, yuca, and grapefruit. The base of the dish has amazing flavors of armanac as well. We got to hear a neat story about how Elena and her father were visiting a friend named Vicente Carrillo, who makes guitars. As they stood near him in his shop while Vicente shaped a new guitar out of cypress wood, the shavings flew through the air and created a heavenly aroma that Elena and her dad agreed they had to share with others. So, the shavings of wood that surround this dish (and, truthfully, that occasionally landed on my plate) is an homage to that experience. The scent of the tree pairs perfectly with the lamb. A really cool idea and great execution. 10/10.
In another celestial reference, this dish is titled "Square Moon," and it's basically a chocolate cube filled with mint, neroli, and kiwi, a complex set of flavors that somehow work together perfectly. The server walks over with a teapot full of melted chocolate and proceeds to pour in, collapsing the structure in a big awesome pool. Check out the video to the right. 9/10.
Another dessert, another complex medley of flavors. This dish is a creamy mix of buckthorn (a somewhat bitter herbal) with smoked sheep's milk, sweet potato, and peanut. Everything goes together, but I feel like there's so much going on it's almost overwhelming. 6/10.
A simple, fun bowl of fruit ice creams. 8/10.
A lovely birdcage with folding gate is brought over with small petit fours. The pink is passion fruit with milk, green is apple. A delightful ending. 8/10.
Some pretty excellent coffee rounds things out. This place met, though didn't fully exceed, my very high expectations.