Saturday, June 21, 2008

San Sebastián: restaurants

I guess I’ve waited a sufficient amount of time to talk about Mugaritz and Etxebarri. Not that I meant to, but things happen, people go to Italy, etc. So now that I’ve talked all about the pintxos that make up San Sebastián, let’s talk about restaurants and Michelin stars.

My first trip to San Sebastián, after eating my first pintxo I had already decided that I didn’t want to waste any of my valuable meals on sit down restaurants with normal menus. For my second trip there in May, I had changed my mind (I also had a little more leeway in my budget since I was with my parents and could therefore splurge a bit), so I chose to go to the two restaurants that urged me most: Mugaritz and Etxebarri. We have some friends that have been to Arzak and they said it was one of the best meals of their lives, but whenever reading comparisons between Arzak and Mugaritz, the latter is always said to be more modern, while the former is more traditional cuisine. I wanted modern. I really wanted to be wowed. And I wanted to wear a nice dress.

San Sebastián is said to have more Michelin-starred restuarnts per inhabitant than any of other place, and also more Michelin-starred restaurants per square kilometer, depending on what source you look at. I wanted to get a little piece of the pie and see what the fuss was about, I mean, do you really need so many stars with such great tapas? We’ll see.

So, for our first night in San Sebastián we set off in a cab a little outside the city and pulled up to Mugaritz. It was a bit misty outside, but already past dusk so you couldn’t see extremely well. I wanted to take a picture anyways, and this is when I realized after having charged my camera and erasing plenty of pictures from my memory card, I had left said memory card in my computer in Barcelona. Great. Don’t worry, there are pictures of this meal, thanks to my dad. The room was big and open and each table was very spacious. They even brought out a purse stool so you didn’t have to put your purse on the ground. And the drinks were generous. My mom started with a gin and tonic which was served in a spherical wine glass the size of a magnum and lasted her most of the night. Anyways, onto the food.

There were two tasting menus you could do; naturally we chose the bigger one, which was 11 courses. First off were some amuse not listed on the menu. These included shrimp lightly fried whole. And I mean whole. Heads, eyes, tails, legs, everything. And you’re supposed to eat everything.

Thankfully it comes with a side of aioli, you know the garlic mayonnaise stuff, but I still couldn’t stomach the head. I ripped it off and crunched on the legs and tails and shell (oh, and a bit of shrimp meat too). It was good, it would have been great sans all those bits I’m not used to eating, but the aioli was magnificent. Very light. The other amuses were the somewhat famous rock potatoes. They look a bit like purple stones, and you bite into them, and inside it just a potato. I don’t know how to describe the outside, except saying it’s kind of like a coating on Easter candy. It’s very hard but light, and these were delicious with a touch of aioli.
Next was the pre-appetizer which was a bowl of tiny bright green peas with potato. The peas alone were wonderful and so small and soft and delicate.
Now starts the menu that we did, with our first course of salad. There are small heads of lettuce here called cogollos and they’re about the size of a fist. This salad was half a cogollo, slightly warm and marinated in balsamic vinegar, served with a vanilla sauce and a milky cheese. The lettuce had little flavor but the vanilla was strong and I liked the cheese (I could never not like cheese).
Next was crab and pea ravioli in a consommé of blue fish and vegetables. This was more the inside of ravioli, there was no pasta in sight, but it was so delicate, and once again the peas were so seasonally fresh. The whole table gave this one a thumbs up.
The third plate was an interesting cheese plate that tasted very woodsy. It was a curd or ricotta of sheeps milk cheese and hay, seasoned with burnt fern leaves and squash in syrup. This cheese was very light so what really came through was the toasted flavor of leaves. I didn’t think I would like this at first because the cheese is so mellow, but it’s very interesting, and I ended up enjoying it a lot.
After this we had a plate that was tender leeks roasted on a grill with vine shoots (I’m not sure what those are, but I’m looking up the translation as I have the Spanish menu, and that’s what it tells me). They came in a bit of mollusk broth with citrus notes. I remember liking the leeks, I think the chef does well with keeping vegetables delicate so you can enjoy all their subtleties with their bursts of flavor, but I didn’t think much of the mollusk broth.
This fifth dish was something to remember and I wish I could have it again or recreate it. It was sautéed red mullet on top of a stew of ibérico pork and vegetables, red mullet liver, and topped with a sheet of bottarga, which is dried and pressed fish eggs, so more than anything it adds a salty taste. The crunchy, salty sheet on top was a perfect compliment to the meaty fish, so eating a bite of each component together was great. After that came the duck foie gras roasted over a charcoal grill with sea urchin. Now the chef, Aduriz, is said to have spent sometime in a hospital learning all about livers just so he could properly and accurately devein them, so I was expecting perfection. I usually prefer my foie seared, so that was one thing going against him. And the sea urchin. This was my first sea urchin to date. My mother, on the other hand, had just had some in New York and declared it her least favorite thing in the world. So this was not looking like ‘perfection’ when the plate was set down. I still am not sure how I feel about sea urchin, it wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t wonderful either, it was just kind of there and I don’t know if it added much to the foie. The foie, please don’t be reading this Aduriz, was not the best I’ve had. It was foie, so nothing to sneeze at, but I’ve had better.

Next came something that was a bit of a ‘wow’ dish, to kind of surprise people. It was a piece of veal roasted and perfumed between a grill with vine shoots (yes, again) and sprigs of thyme. Served with ashes, salts, and radishes. First of all, this was not just any veal, they explained, but only 3 months old, which then made me a little sad, but hey, it was already on my plate and dead, so I might as well let it not go to waste. It was this piece of totally blackened meat, and you cut it open and it was a solid pink on the inside. No layering of dark meat towards the edges to pink to juicy red, it was consistent light pink. The meat was really good and tender and all that, but the real wow part was the taste of smokey grill that was captured in the crust and the ashes and salt that came on the plate. They had long curls of ash and I kept picking them up and eating them and exclaiming “this tastes just like s’mores!” Unfortunately the Canadian sommelier walked by and heard me say that and said please not to tell anyone one else that…So it didn’t really taste like chocolate and marshmallow and graham cracker, but it did have that exact taste of the burnt marshmallow, just the very blackened part, where you get all the flavors or the smoke and campfire. It was amazing.

This last savory dish might have been the winner. I was reminiscing about it yesterday, because it was a pork dish which is probably Spain’s national dish, so you can get tired of it and lose the ability to be impressed. But this was a surf’n’turf, which contained stewed ibérico pig’s tail and sautéed crayfish bathed in the cooking juice reduction and infused with jamón ibérico. Wowza. In the picture you can barely see the crayfish, but it was there and soft and tasty, smooth so complimented with the crunchy pork’s tail and the salty sauce brought it all together. Great pairing of land and sea. If you’re a bit hesitant when you think pig tail, just think bacon. A really big piece of bacon. It’s pork, so it’s got that salted, greasy taste, but this is so much more crispy than bacon. Delicious.

Now starts the desserts. There were three, but there was one thing that caught my eye on the other menu that wasn’t on this, so I decided to trade out one of my desserts for it. But we’ll get there. First, there was a further study in contrast of temperature, texture and culture (I’m just reading off the menu, guys): violet ice cream, cold almond powder/paste/turrón-like stuff, and splinters of spiced bread and green tea. This impressed me, and I would order it again, and I’m always the first person to go for chocolate or something rich like cheesecake or crème brulee, but man, this was a delicious dessert. I really enjoyed the violet ice cream, but what I found I really liked was the almond powder stuff, I’m not sure how to describe it, it was like turrón (the almond candy) but without any of the other added stuff, just pure almond paste. I don’t remember the spiced bread curls, but that almond and violet together was magic stuff.

The next dessert is what I decided to trade, and I think I made a good decision because I tried the ones that came to our table and they weren’t all that. I should have gotten crunchy sheets of milk with confit of red beans, a sorbet of citrus peel, and orange blossom and cumin water. I think this had a Japanese flare to it, the beans in a dessert but they tasted like pureed nothing. And the milk sheets also tasted like crunchy pastry sheets of nothing. So instead, I had ordered the chocolate that came on the first menu. I can’t remember what it was called or anything, but it was a hunk of chocolate covered in a chocolate glaze and came out with bubbling chocolate. Does that convince you? I don’t really need to say anything more about it except that it was rich, creamy, and rich. Yum.

The last dessert is the one that sticks in my mind the most, and that says a lot to outweigh that chocolate dessert I just talked about. This was an iced white chocolate sphere over broken almond toffee, and distilled with cocoa. This meant we got a giant ball on a plate and a little bottle of what looked like chilled water and were told to smell. So you smell and it’s like cocoa (for most people, there was one person who swears it was just water). Then, they poke a hole in the sphere and pour in the cocoa water and you eat everything together. It was so strange because the cocoa water tasted of nothing, just water, but for some reason it smelled very strongly of cocoa. And oh man, this cocoa-essenced, cold white chocolate sphere, slowly melting into the crunchy salty toffee was definitely going to stick in your head. Not a bad way to end the meal.

So it took that long just to get through the courses, I’ll go ahead and sum up Mugaritz as fast as I can: it was all about the experience. The food, of course, was top class, as I’ve just explained, but the whole experience itself was noteworthy. The staff were friendly and relaxed, it didn’t have that stuffiness that my parents were saying they had just experienced in New York. We were at big round tables, conducive to nice conversation throughout out meal, and the whole setting was friendly. Some people came in jeans, it’s more of a come-as-you-please, it’s your night out to enjoy. And we did. They kept the wine on a special wine table away from you, and I don’t like that, having to wait for someone to bring me my wine the whole night, so I just asked for the bottle on our table. “No problem, sure,” and we got a sturdy wooden coaster for it, too.

Now onto the next restaurant in my Donostia tour (Donostia=San Sebastián in Basque, so I guess it’s actually the proper way to say it). I had driven through the Basque Country, but only between Bilbao and San Sebastián, and it’s really a site, completely different from other parts of dry, flat Spain. There are hills covered in all kinds of green, clumps of different trees and sheep and cows on mountains that look like they could topple over. My favorite part is being in San Sebastián with the beach and behind it green mountains, so you get both of these natural beauties. Anyways, I wanted my parents to see some of the greenery because to get to Etxebarri it’s a little drive, about an hour or more, closer to Bilbao than it is to Donostia (I think I’ll just switch back and forth between the two names, keep it exciting). I also wanted them (and me) to see Asador Etxebarri. Asador just means, in American terms, steakhouse. It’s a restaurant that does lots of grilling, or in the case of Etxebarri, only grilling. And word on the street is they have the freshest and best ingredients. I was about to confirm this. When we got to the little town of Axpe that the asador is in, it was misty and cool, no surprise for the Basque country. But it was just a cluster of a few buildings around a square surrounded by green hills on all sides. Very much Sound of Music-esque.
There’s a tasting menu at Etxebarri, but we decided to get whatever we wanted from the a la carte instead. So here it is.
Each person starts off with half a loaf of bread. This will last you the whole meal. We ordered some homemade chorizo and bombas of butter covered in ash. The chorizo was definitely up there with some of the best chorizo in Spain, dark and soft with a bit of grease. But for the butter I was expecting more. It was definitely good, I can’t complain with flavored butter, this one coated in ash and ashy salt, which spread nicely onto a chunk of bread followed by chorizo. But I was expecting some magic tricks involving grilled butter, as everything is supposed to be grilled. Then we had a seafood salad, which might evoke picture of some nasty mayonnaise and rubbery shrimp cocktail thing, but this was no such thing. Green lettuce, jumbo shrimp, and some of the best lobster I’ve ever had. My dad started off with grilled oysters and I took a picture but did not try, so let your eyes be the judge.
Now come the mains. My parents split a sea bass, and I was lucky enough to get a bite. The proof (of the freshest ingredients) is in the sea bass. It was simply grilled with butter and parsley and was still easily the tastiest fish any of us had had. I think someone must have gone to the coast and fished, caught it, and come back and grilled it in between the time that we ordered it and it got to our table. Everyone was very impressed with this.
Then came my plate: beef. Well, it wasn’t all mine, I was splitting with D and we wanted a bit ole hunk of juicy steak. This was called chuleta, which is like chop, and I’m not so good with my cuts of meat, but it’s like a t-bone steak perhaps? Anyways, this is Flinstones-style rare, juicy red meat, and a big hunk of it, on the bone with bits of fat here and there. It was mighty good, and I felt a little at adds eating it while wearing my dainty white dress. D still dreams about this meat. I have a new dream now. Shortly after we got ours, my dad’s solomillo arrived. So he got a thick, round salted circle of rare filet with a few peppers and potatoes for garnish. This is my new dream. I hadn’t had steak this tender in a long time. Never in Spain, that’s for sure (their dedication to pig doesn’t leave much room for other animals). But this filet blackened on the outside and soft and pink on the inside, melted away in my mouth. There’s now a debate between D and I whether you want something with a little more bite, something to chew on with loads of flavor, or if you want beef so delicate and tender that you don’t need a knife. I’d throw all my knives out for that.

That was the end of our Sunday lunch feast, we didn’t order dessert, but some little tiny almond muffins came out at the end. And you should go for lunch so you can see all the countryside. On our protein-highs, we went outside to discover the sun had come out and walked around a bit, to the bottom of the mountain where there were sheep eating, over to a little farm with hens and a rooster, and had a little after lunch snifter. I talked about the experience at Mugaritz, but this too is its own completely different experience. Menu items are usually summed up in one word like solomillo or lubina, and if they come with a side, then that’s a rarity. There were two items that didn’t contain meat or fish (butter and pimientos de padrón). Etxebarri is for a certain kind of person. We’ll say that’s not a vegetarian. It’s also someone who appreciates quality. And might be in for some nice green hills along the way, cooler weather, but also the chance of sun. I wish Etxebarri had giant French doors, or floor to ceiling windows because when the sun shines, it’s amazing. To take in some hillside sun and a steak isn’t so rough.

If you ask me to make a decision and to pick between the two, I’d tell you they’re completely different experiences. It depends on the mood you’re in, if you want to know every detail and taste every part of each plate, and be presented with varying combinations of textures and tastes and perhaps be surprised and amazed, then you probably know where you would go. On the other hand, if you want something straightforward, hearty, and pure, and maybe a little bit rugged, with a dash of scenery, then you too know where to go.


Anonymous said...

Great post about Mugaritz! Congrats. I'm a big fan myself, your description was superb.

Anonymous said...

Those clay-covered potatoes are great fun. And silky soft spuds with alioli is obviously a good thing.

But what about that meat at Etxebarri? The fish was perhaps the best ever (so much grill flavour in spankingly fresh sea bass), but the chuleton was on a different plane. Chewy, but the flavour...