This is part 7 of the series on San Sebastian, Girona, and Barcelona, Spain. Other parts of this series (as they become available) can be found at this link.
After years of eating at a wide variety of restaurants all around the world, I’ve realized that it’s extremely difficult to nail the perfect symphony of excellent food, warm service, inviting decor, and reasonable price point to continually bring customers back.
Most restaurants never reach the pinnacle of achieving all of these, but yet are able to survive because, at the end of the day, most customers are not so picky, especially if competition is scarce. Even in San Sebastian, arguably gastronomical capital of the world, we still noticed differences in the above-mentioned four key areas.
This is what makes Arzak so special and unique. It’s clear to me why so many people (such as Anthony Bourdain) are so loyal to this restaurant.
We arrived at Arzak, which is located just a few kilometers from the city center, by car. The parking lot behind the restaurant has extremely tight corners and maneuvering within it is not for the faint-of-heart. Thankfully, we had learned from an earlier car trip through the narrow, cobblestone alleyways of Bordeaux that our friend Peter was an expert driver and could navigate anything.
Upon entering the restaurant we could immediately sense the warmth of the place. The staff were professional, friendly, and attentive. Unlike many other Michelin-starred restaurants in the San Sebastian region, Arzak welcomes kids of all ages. Even the menu itself has parts that look written by a child with crayons. The feel of the place also has a sense of warmth and laughter. Instead of thinking you are entering a quiet museum where you must be quiet, Arzak evokes the feeling of visiting an old friend’s home.
The warmth is not without the utmost professionalism and knowledge, and they balance it surprisingly well. We felt like we were long-time regulars, even though it was our first time. There was much laughter and excellent service happened around us without us even taking notice. This is the pinnacle of service, when things “magically” happen without you consciously being aware of the people around you.
We started our meal with a series of small, playful bites. Arzak’s rendition of a Chinese bun had the consistency of a Chinese steamed bun (“bao”) on the inside but the baked exterior of a brioche bun on the outside. Though it had some ají (chilli pepper) sprinkled on top, it was not that spicy but beautiful balanced. Definitely a brilliant bite.
I loved the flavors and textures of the “crescent” (a moon shaped thin cookie) with sweetbread. The sweetbread, an offal that is usually the thymus gland, was cured and thinly sliced, having the texture and flavor similar to a beautiful Spanish jamón or ham.
The “Maseca” consisted of prawn-flavored ground corn chip topped with shaved cured egg yolk. A deep umami of prawns was strong in this tiny bite.
Whimsically called chasing "karramarros" which means carrots in Basque language, this next dish evoked the feeling of going fishing, "chasing" for a spiced crab-shaped gingerbread cookie topped with a seafood spread. Even though the combination sounded strange to us, it worked surprisingly well and everyone really enjoyed this bite.
I loved this next course which consisted of fresh mackerel slices marinated in shio koji and served with sea grapes and sauce made from piparras, a type of pepper (i.e. a type of Romesco sauce). The sauce had a lovely blend of intense yet bright flavors which paried perfectly with the oilier, heavier flavored fish. Beautifully balanced.
Scarlet prawn and "tidal wave" with krill from Antarctica (!) was full of ocean flavors. The krill chip was bursting with prawn flavors, reminding me of those gourmet prawn rice crackers you can buy at gourmet shops in Japan.
The next course was called Egg with Corn and Tomato Candy. The egg was a tribute to the famous “Arzak Egg”, made by a technique invented at Arzak which involves lightly poaching an egg in a plastic wrap with a bit of melted fat. We happily broke the perfectly poached egg to release the runny yolk, which we mixed with pozole (a type of hominy or ground dried corn) and tomato “gummies”, which were more like sun-dried tomatoes that what we would call “gummies” at least in the US.
For the seafood course, we had a choice between fish or squid. Naturally, each couple ordered one of each in order to try both.
Squid in Papaya involved squid prepared two ways: grilled and deep fried and came with a shrimp cracker and an herb sauce. Both preparations of squid were perfectly cooked and overall it was a very enjoyable dish.
Palo Santo (translated as “holy wood”) is a wild tree native to the Yucatán Peninsula in South America. Its wood has gained popularity for its medicinal and “cleansing” properties of supposedly combating negative energy. Our next course was roasted tuna lightly smoked in Palo Santo and served with melon and lemon pine sauce. The dish was excellent, particularly how the bright lemon pine sauce complemented the rich, woodsy smoked tuna. Even though this dish was not as visually appealing as the squid, I preferred this dish more, largely because of the fantastic lemon pine sauce.
For the meat course, we also chose one of each from the two choices: lamb or pigeon. The lamb was soft and tender and came with a black current sauce and an abstract cracker of sorts.
The pigeon was roasted and served with elements from their forest, such as mushrooms. Both were executed well and pleasant to eat.
Our palate cleanser was lovely and oh-so-refreshing. Named “Seasonal Frost”, our version was a guaba granita with fermented lemon ice cream and acai powder. I absolutely loved it.
The next dessert, called Mezcal Sweet, was sort of like a "Ratatouille" moment for many of us. If you've seen the movie, it's where the food critic is transported back to his childhood with one bite of the dish. This Mezcal "frost and snow" with almond praline and raspberries totally reminded us of cereal + milk, or perhaps cereal with cocoa crispies and strawberry marshmallows.
Cacao Debris was next, consisting of smoked chocolate (literally lit in front of our eyes!), vanilla ash, and cocao shavings. Chef Elena Arzak had come out to talk to us right before we started dessert and had told us how her famous father loved his sweet desserts. Despite the fact that she would prefer less sweet desserts, she said her father insisted on his traditional concepts of dessert. This one did tend on the sweeter side (for my personal tastes), but it was OK.
The last dessert Square Moon consisted of a lunar chocolate cube with a fluid core of mit, neroli, and kiwi. “We recommend you eat it all in one bite” the server forewarned, for good reason!
We ended with playful frog chocolates in multiple different flavors: avocado, turmeric, and possible regular chocolate, though I can’t exactly remember. These were creamy and sweet and perfectly enjoyable, though we were so full at this point we were not able to finish them all.
A final digestif of a licorice type liqueur completed the meal.
Chef Elena Arzak came out to visit us near the end of the meal and showed us such warmth and hospitality. She asked if we were from Singapore (sort of . . . one member of our party was), and also told us a little bit about her experiences running the kitchen, especially what it was like working under the watchful eye of her famous father, Juan Mari Arzak.
The food is excellent but not the most innovative I’ve tried. Nor do all the dishes achieve transcendent “wow” status. However, they are all very good, leaning more towards impeccably executed “comfort” style dishes. Everything is prepared at an extremely high level, and I think their warm and elegant service makes dining at Arzak one of the most pleasant ones you will have in San Sebastian. I can totally see why Anthony Bourdain loved this place so much, calling Juan Mari Arzak a father figure to him.
We left with our bellies full, our hearts warm, and our minds beyond impressed with this restaurant. Arzak has achieved the utmost level of perfection when it comes to food, service, and overall experience. The only anxiety we may have had all night was when we had to drive back out of that tight parking lot!
All kidding aside, this is a great place and definitely worth visiting!
Arzak San Sebastian
Avenida del, Alcalde J. Elosegi Hiribidea, 273,
20015 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain