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The ever-attendant sommelier, seeking to end our meal in style, pours glasses of Gonzales Byass Del Duque Jerez Amontillado Muy Viejo NV, a rich and distinctive 30-year-old sherry that, while medium-bodied, is intense and complex.
As if to gild the lily, each dessert course is accompanied by a small porcelain square filled with luscious ice cream, taking us on a flavor journey to gooseberry, chocolate mint, passion fruit and coconut. What can possibly top this?
Our server first places a flat rectangular "plate," with a colorful close-up garden image full of flowers and leaves, on the table. What’s coming next? Before we can even posit an answer, a clear glass topper with a "golden footprint and ladybugs" is before us with a flourish. A thin dark chocolate foot-shaped silhouette topped with gold leaf tread sits on a narrow slab of ripe, fresh fig and juicy citrus that "steps" on a trail of honey-laced sugar crystals. Two piquillo pepper gel ladybugs filled with sweet, liquid vanilla yogurt dot the landscape alongside nasturtium petals, fragrant green mint, and two tiny custard pools. The image is striking, the flavors are thrilling, and we finally accept that surprise rules the day.
An airy beetroot cake, resembling a pumice stone, is covered with crunchy, candied pistachios and garnished with an "X" of sweet beet syrup and a party-like sprinkling of colorful floral "confetti." The favors are pure, but the variety of textures and colors catches me off-guard. Finally, after a rapturous three hours, our flavor-tsunami degustation is, sadly, winding down.
For coffee and mignardises, we're invited to move to Arzak's chic reception area dominated by a huge, glowing scarlet "A" worthy of Nathaniel Hawthorne, to await a post-meal audience with Juan Mari. As we sink into the comfy leather sofa, a server swoops in with a shiny piece of sheet metal bent at a right angle, hand-labeled "Ferreteria (hardware) Arzak." The "hardware" is a witty mix of sweetmeats: chocolate nuts, bolts, and keys of differing flavors plus liquid-filled, Coca-Cola flavored edible “bottle caps” topped with pop rocks. And thus, it ends.
So the food blew us away, but the meal of a lifetime must also have attentive service at the highest level. World-class restaurants aim to elevate a table’s mood in different ways, reflecting each restaurant’s unique personality. At Arzak, it begins with a welcoming embrace. While the interior has a slightly austere, modern feel to it, the impeccable service is made up of pampering, middle-aged women in plain, gray and black outfits; it’s as if you were being served this fabulous meal by your favorite aunt or a family member who anticipates your every need, and delivers it in a seamless, understated manner. Crusty bread and cool water silently appear; dishes come and go with choreographed discipline.
As perfect as Arzak is, it’s illustrative to point out why the very finest table service in my experience was at another visit on this trip — to one of Juan Mari's acolytes, Martin Beresatagui's eponymous Michelin three-starred restaurant in the hills outside of San Sebastián. There, the service corps is a virtual army of handsome young Calvin Klein gastrobots in stylish, matching grey suits and ties. As they patrol the restaurant looking like a study in multi-cultural ethnicity, absolutely no detail goes unnoticed and all courses arrive and leave the table with a precise, seemingly effortless unison that betrays a highly drilled and confident staff. But let me share a rare exchange that blew my mind, one that is unique in my experience as a gastronaut, and that serves to highlight the apex of great service.
"Pardon me, sir. Did I notice correctly that you are left-handed?" Are you kidding me? I’m so taken by surprise at this keen observation, that I can barely manage an affirmative nod even as every key utensil is now placed in reach of my dominant hand. I so want to add, "Thank you for noticing; please ignore my gratuitous twitching and what may look like my eyes rolling back into my head. Not to worry, it's just my body's unconscious reaction to gastronomic ecstasy." Dinner with Martin Berasategui is another "peak experience" as any Michelin-starred meal should be.
But something about the whole Arzak gastronomic parade stands out from my many breathtaking foodie memories around the globe. Independent of each other, my friend and I find ourselves unable to forget the experience. Every single moment is meticulously crafted to enrapture guests and arouse all senses at the house of Arzak. What sets this meal apart is that, even with surprises at every turn, each and every bite leaving Juan Mari and Elena’s kitchen, without exception, is visually pleasing, texturally stimulating, mentally invigorating and . . . ultimately delicious. Maybe we’re just lucky, but even at Alinea, Per Se, Alain Ducasse Paris, Le Bernardin et al, there are moments, however brief, that dip below the extraordinary. Arzak’s trajectory is . . . up, . . . up, . . . and away.
After we come back to earth on the short drive from San Sebastián into SW France to the Basque farmhouse that serves as my temporary home, I trek upstairs to process my time at Arzak and make some culinary notes. My concentration on my iPad is broken when I hear a loud, but very contented, sigh outside the window of my second-story perch. As I look out from above, there’s my friend and dining companion stretched out, face down, luxuriating in the soft grass. "Look at the sky," he commands. I turn my gaze heavenward to see hundreds of cloud puffs bunched together like a large pan of Parker house rolls. Some are white, some a pale blue-grey and a few are beginning to turn pink or orange with the afterglow of the recent sunset. "I feel like an ancient shepherd who just had sex," he contentedly moans, staring at the sky. Even though he's gay and I'm straight, I laugh out loud because I know exactly what he means; we do share the same orientation when it comes to transcendent food. Arzak is that good! Yep, it was the meal of a lifetime.
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