There are many chefs the world over who now do “modern cuisine”.
A couple of years ago, I was blown away by the creations of Heston Blumenthal at Dinner by Heston at the Mandarin Hyde Park in London. As an appetizer he served something that looked like an orange but was in fact foie gras. It was a bewildering yet delightful illusion!
Here in Southeast Asia, Iggy’s in Singapore has become renowned for his “modern European cuisine”. It was here, around eight years ago, that I first experienced the incorporation of Pop Rocks on an elegantly plated dessert. The waitress even made us guess what it was and it was Chef Rolando Laudico, the chef in our party of four, who correctly guessed that it was that favorite childhood candy that was crackling in our mouths. Back when Andre Chiang was still at Jaan at the Swissotel, I had the privilege of tasting his “modern French” creations. And recently, Ivan Brehm, who had worked with Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck, has been making waves at Bacchanalia.
In the Philippines, Chef Jose Luis “Chele” Gonzalez takes the lead in offering modern Basque cuisine at Gallery Vask although you will also see modern techniques employed at the more casual Rambla in Rockwell and the uber fine dining Tasting Room at City of Dreams.
But nothing quite prepares you for Arzak, a home that has been around since 1897 and where modern gastronomy had its beginnings – in the mid ’70s!
There is – oddly – no train that goes direct from Lyon (where we were for the World Pastry Cup and the Bocuse d’Or) to San Sebastian. Instead, the trains go via Paris and Barcelona, which are actually longer routes! So we chose to see Barcelona instead of going back to Paris and then got a car to drive to San Sebastian.
It was an easy but very long six hour drive (mas malapit pa ang Baguio-Manila!). On top of that, the winds were very strong – we had to drive slower because our car was being blown by the wind! We did not realize until our concierge verified it that there was in fact a storm. All we knew was that from the B10 to A2 to AP7 highway, it felt like a never ending road.
But Arzak was absolutely worth the long drive. You understand, after dining here, why it is considered one of the world’s greatest dining destinations.
You are greeted with a can of beer. Andy Warhol would have fallen in love with this. “This is black pudding and beer,” the server explained. “Did you crush this can yourself?” I teased her. “Yes, we play football every morning,” she joked back.
You don’t eat the can of Kellerbier, of course, but can pop the entire pudding on the chard leaf in your mouth. Then boom! Umami with a little dot of spiciness in the end. “How?!” you ask. This is a question that you keep asking all throughout the meal.
At this restaurant, there is no one tiny amuse bouche as is the custom in other fine dining places. Instead, they introduce you to Basque culture by loading you up with at least five of these introductory pintxos that tell you what the restaurant is all about.
Following the black pudding and beer, we were served: 1) Kabraroka pudding wrapped in kataifi. This is a pudding made of scorpion fish, an otherwise overlooked fish because it is described as “ugly” but made famous by Restaurant Arzak (check out this site). 2) Sweet chilly pepper and sardine sphere. The sphere felt like a round Filipino barquillo so it was interesting to note that this was made out of potatoes. And then inside, a burst of the flavors of sardines. These fish appetizers immediately tell you about the philosophy of Arzak of finding local produce and making these come alive in their restaurant through their incredible techniques.
It did not end there. We were also served: gyoza of prawns and moringa. This was an astonishing creation. It takes the concept of the Japanese gyoza but instead of the steamed dough, the cover on this one is crackling. But inside, the meat is sweet. And finally, a lentil cookie with ssam-jang, a spicy Korean paste. These creations show you that Arzak is committed to discovering the unique ingredients each country has to offer, allowing guests flavors that they may never have experienced before.
“It felt like a trip around the world,” I said to the legendary Chef Juan Mari Arzak, who is, to this day, in spite of his lengthy list of accolades, still present every day in the Arzak kitchen. “Yes, we get ingredients from around the world,” he said (through a translator), “but the end product is from Kilometer 0. It is absolutely Basque.”
The official starter that we had was entitled “Cromlech” because it is made to look like a prehistoric megalithic structure. But in fact it was made of manioc (or what we call cassava!) and huitlacoche (which is disgustingly described on the internet as ‘corn smut’ but in Mexico is a prized kind of mushroom that is considered part of their culinary heritage, used in cooking since pre-Hispanic times). You are instructed to turn these cones upside down and eat it “like ice cream”. It looks odd but inside there are caramelized onions and my sister Goldee immediately detected foie gras. It is crazy good!
This was followed by three seafood dishes: lobster, scallops and red mullet. Remember that San Sebastian is a coastal city and therefore abundant in seafood.
The lobster was an example of gorgeous plating. For some reason it reminded me of impressionist art, with Van Gogh’s Starry Night coming to mind. Probably because of the green crispy crepe that looks like a starfish. But its purpose was to add not just color but dimension to not only to the texture but also to the flavors of the dish, as it had hints of turmeric. Meanwhile that lovely orange dash of color is a zucchini flower and they all lie on tomato water that totally compliments the juiciness of the lobster.
From impressionism they move on to realism with the scallops, which arrives on the table enclosed in two long bamboo leaves. Can you imagine that – we have so many bamboos in the Philippines yet we usually just use banana leaves in the presentation of our food. But the first thing that struck me here was the fragrant whiff of earthiness which I guess was from the leaves. “You don’t eat that,” the server said, laughing, as she opened the leaves to reveal the scallops.
And from realism they end the seafood series with pop art. This one was absolutely avante garde. I was startled when a kind of ipad/tablet was placed before me instead of a plate. It had a video of waves. And then the dish arrived on an elevated glass plate: the red mullet – so it appeared as if the mullet was still swimming in the sea! (Well, minus its head, haha!) Around it were “leaves” – they looked like leaves but they were actually not leaves but made with anis, pepper, beetroot and other spices. What was really fascinating was how the taste of the fish would change with each bite of a different “leaf”. It’s absolutely trippy! Yet in spite of all illusions, the dish was still centered on something very popular in Basque cuisine: the red mullet. It was also accented on the side with a Basque favorite, the “crispy tail” – piniritong buntot sa atin.
The chefs are kind enough to welcome guests into the kitchen after their meals. We saw several groups come in. While speaking to the legendary Juan Mari Arzak, he said that even in cooking, they strive for utopia – that imagined place where everything is perfect. Well, that’s what I felt when they brought out this truffle dish.
You see, truffles are a tricky thing. Unless you get the entire block, you hardly really smell that distinct truffle aroma. A chef once told me he cheated by adding the synthetic truffle oil to the real thing (que horror!). Chef William Mahi (who, by the way, is Basque) over at Tasting Room at the City of Dreams Manila, does an excellent job with shaved Perigord winter truffles with his 52-degree egg starter but the egg is the star of that show. Here, the truffles rightfully play the lead role, with the potatoes and the egg singing glorious back up. Like Destiny’s Child and the truffles here are Beyonce, hehe – and she will make you sing!
Finally, dessert. And they continued their A-game. “It’s a giant truffle,” the waitress joked as she presented a block of chocolate. But it’s not chocolate, explains Elena Arzak, who runs the restaurant in tandem with her father. “This is carob,” she explained. “It is like chocolate but it is not chocolate. During the war, it was used as a substitute for chocolate but now people are also exploring its health benefits.”
I had heard many times in the past about Restaurant Arzak. You can’t avoid hearing about it as it has consistently been at the top of the list of the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurant awards and has been a three-starred Michelin restaurant since we were in diapers. You also hear about Arzak from chefs like Chele Gonzalez of Vask, who had worked at Arzak, and has brought the Arzak philosophy of modern Basque cuisine to the Philippines. So you feel like you have an idea of what Arzak is all about.
But you don’t. Not until you have dined there.
Arzak is like love. You may have an idea of it from what has been written but it is something you must experience to fully grasp and understand.
And it is, truly, a one-of-a-kind experience. Absolutely magical and definitely worth the trip. Even in the middle of a storm!
PS. GOOD NEWS:
Chef Elena Arzak is coming to Madrid Fusion Manila this April! Come back to the Madrid Fusion section of this blog for updates on Madrid Fusion Manila! I will keep you posted 🙂