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.
2. Mushroom & Foie Taco
Rich, salty, not very refined. The “taco” shell was slightly stale, but still full of grease. Ok.
3. Cheese & Roe Crisp
Tasty, but again, unrefined. Again, it felt like it might have been made much earlier and/or the previous day. Ok.
4. Phyllo-covered Egg
I have this listed in my notes but no tasting notes. I’m assuming this is it.
5. Foie & Zucchini
Foie wrapped in zucchini. The foie had a nice caramelized crust that was sweet; the foie itself was mousse-like – heavenly. A welcome respite from the various soggy & taste-lacking specimens we had been subjected to throughout our trip. This dish was the first to succeed at a conceptual level but its execution was somewhat sloppy. Very Good.
5 Alternate. Asparagus
The foie alternative – I didn’t taste this as it was the alternate for the foie. Reports are the asparagus was of high quality.
6. Crayfish w/ Corn & Citrus Sauce
The crayfish was of excellent quality & it was cooked perfectly – sweet & moist. The corn seemed like it was dehydrated – it had a bad texture and it lacked any corn flavor – pointless. Like El Bulli a few nights before, why bother incorporating fan-favorite ingredients when they are not at the prime of their season? The citrus sauce brightened up the crayfish that extra bit more. Good (Very Good if corn in season.)
7. Egg Flower w/ Truffle Oil, Mushrooms, & Chorizio
Their signature dish – a modern take on the spanish obsession w/ eggs and mushrooms. This is a roasted egg whose exterior is cut to resemble a flower, all while not disturbing the yolk. High quality egg (the Spainards take pride in them) that had a slight sweet taste. Again, it wins conceptual marks but it still felt sloppy – it could be elevated to a higher plane if it was prepared with a touch more refinement. Very Good.
8. Monkfish w/ Spinal Cord & Bone Marrow
The fish was moist and it tasted fine, but it wasn’t anything one couldn’t seemingly cook in their own kitchen. Good.
Cooked nicely, on the rarer side, and a good slightly gamey taste. Good.
10. The Exploding Milkshake
This is their signature dessert – you see them all around while you’re eating your meal. When they “explode”, they look like they might consume both the plate *and* the table. They pour dry ice into the glass and it turns into a volcano. Great effects but just good to very good taste. Very Good.
11. The Rest of the Dessert Parade
11. The Fancy Old Wine
Overall, despite 3/5 of the main dishes being Very Good, I wasn’t that impressed w/ this meal. It didn’t add up to me – we had some basic glorified “home-cooking” dishes with some pyrotechnics at odd points in the meal. The meal was missing refinement – it was fancy bistro food for the most part. It just doesn’t add up for me. Considering the wealth of alternatives, this won’t be on repeat.