Archive for June, 2006

Arzak (San Sebastian, Spain) – Can the Daughter be King?

Arzak is a restaurant I can’t pin down. It is Spain’s longest running three star; a revered restaurant that many consider the best in the country. It maintained its three stars largely on serving the pinnacle of Basque cuisine. But old man Arzak grew tired, and his daughter Elena Arzak took over the reins. It’s still considered by many to be Spain’s best but Elena has supposedly given the traditional cuisine a much more modern twist, taking some cues from her contemporaries.

I went in expecting a formal Basque meal w/ some unexpected fireworks. The vibe at Arzak might be more casual than Can Roca – there’s nothing regal about the building, interior, nor furniture – it could be any random restaurant in Spain. I was contributing to this downfall of fine dining by wearing jeans but I could’ve been overdressed. No formality in this place.The food though, the food will surely have a spark; a refined sizzle that will set it in apart from places like Zuberoa and the myriad pinxtos (re: tapas) bars in the old city of San Sebastian. That was the expectation sitting there at the table – casual place, refined food – a winning combination in Spain.

1. Red Bean Soup
Thick, satisfying, but neither here nor there – it lacked a focal point, no driving force to establish ‘this is Arzka’s legendary cuisine, get ready.’ Ok.

Arzak - Red Bean Soup

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Regis Marcon (near Hermitage, France) – The Mushroom King

We ate at Regis Marcon during the Burgundy portion of the trip but it’s taken me a bit longer to write this review.Close to Hermitage/Tournon, across the mountain, lies an empire run by a man obsessed with mushrooms. The windy roads leading to the restaurant are covered in damp forest, overcast, and some periods of intense earthy smell. Upon arriving into the small hilltop town, one sees the name “Regis Marcon” and his mushroom icon on everything – the hotel, the butcher, the patisserie, and probably more. Where other chefs might like to golf or sail in their spare time, Regis Marcon loves to hunt for mushrooms.

The hotel interior is quite striking – modern architecture gives way to country touches. The corridor to the rooms is dark with aggressive modern painting lining the walls. The room was full of odd angles and matte colors contrasting with amber wood and the striking view.

Regis Marcon view

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El Bulli (Roses, Spain) – The Mad Scientist

El Bulli – I didn’t know what to expect. Our excitement at obtaining an El Bulli reservation for a Sunday lunch late in May led to the planning of a month-long European adventure. Many 2- and 3-star restaurants were added to the itinerary (as you’ve been reading hopefully) but El Bulli was the centerpiece and spark for it all. We knew it would succeed brilliantly or fail miserably.

Why the excitement? Ferran Adria is considered the father of “molecular gastronomy” – cooking that takes its nod from science (and some would say theater too.) Some of his techniques have become ubiquitous in today’s kitchens (can you say foam?) but Adria takes 6 months off each year to retreat to his lab in Barcelona and create new dishes. Some decry it the demise of great food because it relies on chemistry (some would say trickery) instead of great execution and grand ingredients. Nonetheless, El Bulli has spawned a renaissance in Spanish cooking where the Michelin stars are piling up quickly. In America, Alinea (Chicago), Moto (Chicago), WD-50 (NY), and Minibar (DC) take El Bulli as their influence (either directly or in spirit) and try to push the cuisine in explosive new directions.

El Bulli is located a few yards from the ocean in a small bay. The restaurant itself is in an old Spanish building that has been given a bulldog motif. Bulldogs are everywhere – paintings, pictures, sketches, and photographs. It has a charm, decidely Spanish, and the surroundings definitely bely what transpires in the kitchen.

1. Gin & Tonic Cocktail

Lemon w/ skin on ice, gin was syringed into the lemon table-side. Very refreshing way to begin the meal, not too acidic, and the carbonation (maybe it came w/ the gin?) takes off the sting of the acid. Very Good.

El Bulli - Gin & Tonic Cocktail

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Mugaritz (San Sebastian, Spain) – A Unique Voice Among Masters

Upon reading the various reviews, I thought Mugaritz would be some sort of haute fusion – spices, infusions, etc. but our meal had none of it. Some respected diners have described the chef as a one-trick pony but our meal had a very wide range of technique. all of it completely unique. It’s a very “organic” meal that plays on the natural elements, not the periodic table of elements.

Of all the places I have visited in the last month, Mugaritz the location has the most character. The lounge is perfect – sketches on the wall behind the many bird cages. It has a voice where the other 3-stars prefer modern gloss and cool. The restaurant itself has a minimal design, but like the lounge, it has a personality that falls somewhere between Spain and japan.

We opted for the grand tasting menu.

1. Ceramic Potatoes

In the lounge, they served us an amuse of ceramic potatoes as we perused the menus. The potatoes were coated with a very thin layer of ceramic and served piping hot. The shell was crunchy and slightly chalky, and the potato slightly green. Was it a smashing success? No. Did it set the stage for paradigm-changing cuisine? Yes. Good.

Mugaritz - Ceramic Potatoes

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Can Roca (Girona, Spain) – The Master Revealed

Our second meal at Can Roca (the very next day) was sublime. On paper, it sounds the same as the previous meal but there was something more the second time; perhaps, it was a better understanding of the food. This meal was our 2nd best of Spain (El Bulli was 1st) and one of the better meals of our entire trip.

1. Amuses – We were served a plate of 3 amuses:

a – Crustacian Cream w/ Caviar & Fennel – the essence of seawater, if not a bit too salty; no wow, but solid. Good.

b – Melon-stuffed Foie Gras – the foie was of excellent quality & taste with the melon “lightening” the dish up. Very Good.

c – Cherry Soup w/ Ginger Ice Cream – the soup had the right tartness & sweetness, the ginger ice cream was refreshingly mellow. Excellent.

Can Roca - Amuses

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