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

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.

Arzak - Cheese & Roe Crisp

4. Phyllo-covered Egg
I have this listed in my notes but no tasting notes. I’m assuming this is it.

Arzak - Phyllo-covered Egg

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.

Arzak - Foie & Zucchini

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.

Arzak - Asparagus

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.)

Arzak - Crayfish w/ Corn & Citrus Sauce

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.

Arzak - Egg Flower w/ Truffle Oil, Mushrooms, & Chorizio

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.

Arzak - Monkfish w/ Spinal Cord & Bone Marrow

9. Pigeon
Cooked nicely, on the rarer side, and a good slightly gamey taste. Good.

Arzak - Pigeon

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.

Arzak - Exploding Milkshake

Arzak - Exploding Milkshake

11. The Rest of the Dessert Parade

Arzak - Dessert Parade

Arzak - Dessert Parade

Arzak - Dessert Parade

Arzak - Dessert Parade

11. The Fancy Old Wine

Arzak - Wine

Arzak - 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.

- chuck

  • http://www.ulteriorepicure.wordpress.com ulterior epicure

    Great photos, ChuckEats! Great friends of mine were in Spain on my birthday and asked for a recommendation for a place near San Sebastian to celebrate my birthday. I recommended Arzak as one Spanish restaurant that I regrettably missed on my last trip. They went and toasted me all the way on the other side of the world and sent me a menu – sans photos. From your pictures, I’m really quite shocked at how sloppily everything is plated there… not what I imagined. Have you been to Extabarri?

  • Administrator

    Ulterior, i haven’t been to Extebarri – that is near the top of my to-do list. I suspect it will be one of my favorite restaurants in the world given how much I love seafood.

  • http://anotherheader.wordpress.com/ Dave

    Chuck, I have to agree with you on this one. Our meal Arzak was underwhelming for many of the reasons you describe.

  • Jon

    Chuck, I know it’s been about 3 years since your visit to Arzak, but even for 3 year old cusine I don’t think these plate-ups are well composed at all, the food looks very unorganized and somewhat unappetizing at times. I hope they’ve re-vamped their cuisine and plating techniques since your visit.

    -Jon

  • otto

    Hello friends, first of all sorry for gramatical and expressions mistakes but i`m basque who studied spanish language before english language so….. welllll i´m a cook and i worked in Arzak Restaurant with Juan MAri and Elena , i say that they are fantastics cooks and better persons but in fact their cousine is ralentizing,,,, i think they need new pushing….. these photos could be better i´ll write again and take you a new photo gallery Thank you
    Basque country for ever

  • chuckeats

    otto – thanks for your insights. the pictures were taken with an old camera and i couldn’t agree more they could be better. the “pushing” comment is interesting and it could be they need new challenges – for now, i see no need to return – but i would love to understand what i am missing.

  • Matt Mark

    Hey Chuck,

    First time commenting – Renee mentioned you hooked up in SF recently for Quince and I was reading UE’s site and had to drop by :)

    Interesting review, we went in July 2009 and had a fantastic and exciting meal. Your pics do reveal some pretty sloppy presentation and prep i have to say. We had a very different menu from the looks of it, none of these dishes look familiar at all.

    One of the highlights was a foie oil on thinly sliced apple. Will never forget that one.. Arzak was definitely one of our favorities from our Spanish tour. I wish we all had the cash to go back to every regarded restaurant a bunch of times to see if things change :)

    On another note, couldn’t snag a non-smoking room reservation, which was a little annoying and we had to sit beside the stairs. The other issue was the non-English speaking ladies and non-descriptive menu :)

    Matt

  • Cat

    Hey Chuck, since it’s been 8 years since this disastrous experience ( ok, below average, but seriously that’s disastrous if you’re talking about Arzak right?) would you consider giving it another go? I’ve had friends rave about it and was planning to go this year in October. Yours is the first negative report I’ve read and admittedly, those photos do support your judgement! Cat

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    yikes, you’ve forced me to re-read this – this blog has seen better writing :-)

    it depends on how many days/nights you have in San Sebastian. i haven’t been back since but, judging from the dishes i’ve seen paraded through conferences, the food is just a bit anachronistic.

    i would focus on Etxebarri, Elkano, a night just drinking & eating pixntos, and/or maybe Azurmendi in Bilbao.

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