What makes a dining experience the meal of a lifetime? And how do you know when you’ve had it? What yardstick can possibly measure something that amorphous? These questions run through my head anytime I get a chance to indulge in extraordinary cooking and unparalleled service at a restaurant of Michelin-star transcendence.
As I established in my June 21st intro column, I'm an active gastro-tourist. Over the years, I've traveled many miles to be pampered, tasting brilliant food from the world's greatest kitchens. That's what makes my extended stay in Basque country this fall so special and unexpected. Even now, with some weeks to reflect, I’m happy to report on the meal I had at Arzak in San Sebastián, Spain — which I can only describe as the meal of my life.
Perhaps because I'm a serious wine drinker and there's a method to sensory evaluation used by tasters that I've learned over time, I also tend to apply these elements when I'm turning a critical eye toward food.
You use your senses of sight, smell, and taste in combination; first to evaluate color and aroma. Next, when you take a sip or a bite, there's an initial taste impression on the tip of your tongue. Flavors then move to the mid-palate and develop. Great food and wine fill your mouth with ever-expanding layers of flavor like an explosion. When the wine/food reaches the back of your mouth, and you swallow, flavors make one final impression on the “finish.” Ordinary wines die, but great ones linger for minutes and may even continue to evolve. Great food makes similar impressions as your head spins.
As an old friend and I arrive at Arzak — it’s housed in a four-story 1897 building with a hip industrial interior of concrete, metal and glass that somehow feels warm and inviting — we are met with a flute of high-end cava, Spain's version of Champagne.
Then, HE appears.
Juan Mari Arzak, now a spry 70-year-old, is one of the world's most esteemed chefs, godfather of new Basque cuisine, and the holder of three Michelin stars since 1989. His genuine warmth and hospitality fill the room. As an only child, he admits to being a “rascal,” which is, even now, part of his charm. He’s alive with childlike enthusiasm and lights up when he speaks of his daughter and partner, Elena, now the fourth-generation Arzak serving the public on this site. Elena was named the world’s best female chef at this year’s prestigious Restaurant Magazine awards, which last year honored Juan Mari for Lifetime Achievement. Not bad.
Arzak turns us loose with his longtime sous chef, Igor Zalakain, for a complete building tour. After a glimpse of the chef’s table and the line chefs hard at work, we ascend the stairs to the 100,000-bottle bodega — the sleek climate-controlled wine cellar built around the original rustic 19th-century timbers. Then we’re up to the next floor where the Arzak team develops new dishes in their ongoing commitment to produce an ever-evolving, research-based, cutting-edge, signature Basque cuisine. Longtime team member Xabi Gutiérrez conducts experiments in a cooking lab adjacent to the "idea bank" where 1,600 flavors — scents, spices, herbs, oils, powders, and seeds from around the globe — are catalogued. Great chefs source impeccable ingredients and then add complementary flavors to build memorable dishes where the synchronicity of taste is greater than the individual parts. Arzak showcases flavor without pretension, melding rustic, Basque regional tradition seamlessly with the most advanced modern and creative techniques.
Central to Arzak’s cuisine, and to all great food, is balance — a crucial focus while tasting. Looking back to wine as a touchstone, it's about juggling fruit, tannin, and acidity. Some wines are fruit bombs; they may initially seem lush, but overwhelm your taste buds because they lack the acidity to cleanse your palate. Long-aging wines have a "pucker factor" that comes from tannin in the seeds and stems, but softens over time. At that magic moment when the fruit mellows and the tannins soften, great wines display layers of flavor that build to a crescendo that fills your mouth. Food not only has texture and temperature, but flavors that wake up your taste buds of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (a savory meatiness). Not all dishes hit on each of the five tastes, but a chef must always consider how each element of a dish adds to the final impression and make sure that the dish reflects proper ratios to make the flavors sing. And this is what Arzak’s flavor-based research lab is about.
As we finish our tour and head to the table in the intimate dining room, Juan Mari is working the room like an expert politician. He joins the maître d' at our table, welcomes us again to his “home,” and with a nod of his head, the adventure proceeds.
Our meal commences with a cavalcade of five small dishes. Wafer-thin slices of crisp “potato chip-like” coconut on tiny skewers hovering like sails above bright golden sweet-tart cape gooseberry boats, seemingly afloat in a dry ice cloud; lush bites of local scorpion fish pudding wrapped in kataifi (golden, shredded phyllo dough); a tiny sliver of fatty chorizo paired with a small compressed watermelon cube in a bracing tonic pool atop an inverted, crushed Schweppes can (LOL!); crisp sunflower seed brittle atop Basque arraitxiki (sea bream) mousse; and finally, underneath a colorful chiffonade of edible flowers reminiscent of fall leaves, dense sweet corn pudding with fresh fig that yields to a creamy morsel of morcilla (blood sausage). This thrilling mix of colors, textures, and flavors is uniformly delicious and quickens my pulse in anticipation of treats to come.
The first surprise treat comes from the sommelier, who chooses Ossian 2009 to match our early courses. This wine is a revelation — made from old vines, pre-phylloxera Verdejo grapes, organically grown in the higher elevations of Rueda, fermented and aged in oak barrels. It has seductive aromas and, more importantly, on the palate it complements each of the starters and the dishes to follow in surprising ways. What a chameleon! It enhances each bite of these extremely diverse courses like no wine I've ever known. Note to self: find a U.S. distributor and get a case NOW.
Not one for beer, I'll vouch for Eric the cook. I tend to get the…
Awesome job B.T.G.. Can't wait to get out to Florida to try it. I'm down…
My Happier Son!
Congrats Eric!!! BTW the beer is really good!