Monday, December 03, 2007

Dining With Arzak

This article about Arzak's restaurant appeared at The New Zealand Herald:

Spain: Basque in the glory
5:00AM Monday December 03, 2007
By Geoff Cumming

How I came to be seated at one of the world's 10 best restaurants is not important. What's surprising is that I didn't feel out of place.

Juan Mari Arzak is the godfather of Basque nouvelle cuisine and his eponymous roadside restaurant, a 3 Michelin star joint on the outskirts of San Sebastian, is booked out for months in advance.

Arzak has resisted the temptation to move to the heart of this popular resort town and foodie mecca on the northern Spanish coast, preferring instead to serve guests in the two-storey villa he grew up in. Despite its formidable reputation, the restaurant retains a homely atmosphere: the main dining room, carpeted with low ceilings and warmly lit, feels more like a snug than a shrine to cutting edge cuisine.

Friendly wait-staff reinforce the relaxed atmosphere.

Then they bring out food from another planet.

How quickly one adapts to food that explodes pleasurably in the mouth, and to inspired combinations that raise staples such as egg, fish and potato to new heights.

Arzak trained in top cooking schools in France and around the world but the most important ingredient was given to him by his mother - passion.

His grandparents opened the restaurant 110 years ago; grandmother cooking and grandfather front of house. Juan Mari's parents took it over and he credits his mum, Francisca, with "revealing the secrets of gastronomy to me".

These days, his daughter Elena is the one pushing the boundaries, in the kitchen and on the plate, although the pair insist they work in unison, taking traditional Basque dishes and deconstructing them to produce sublime new flavour and texture combinations.

The restaurant is a perennial favourite among top judges - demonstrated again this year by its top-10 placing in Restaurant magazine's annual survey.

Our tour guide, Gabriella Ranelli de Aguirre, is a personal friend, so they manage to fit us in before lunch to sample the tasting menu. Each course is food as sculpture, but never at the expense of taste.

We start with an appetiser of peach in a mango sauce embellished with pop rock candy, which tingles delightfully on the tongue.

There is a chilled white bean soup; wild mushroom mousse with saffron; fish on a crisp, blue-potato wafer; lobster with powdered olive oil; poached egg with truffle oil; baby peas, bacon and mushrooms with a freeze-dried egg yolk sliver; sole in citrus sauce; pigeon with blue cheese mash and potato wafer.

Arzak's ways with egg reflects its traditional importance in Basque peasant cuisine, when times were tough, there was always an egg, and most restaurants pride themselves on at least one egg dish.

But I will remember Arzak most for curing me of a lifelong abstinence from desserts. Creme caramel, baked cheesecake, French flans - they're okay but, well, sweet ...

Arzak's take on dessert included: taro with chocolate; pineapple with coconut milk in a cloud of dry ice; strawberry soup with chocolate; tomato and strawberry icecream; roasted pineapple icecream and a passionfruit mousse. But the most elevating experience was an unlikely combination of poached egg, idiazalo cheese and mango sauce, for which the orgasm-in-a-mouth cliche is not only bad taste but inadequate.

Over coffee, with treats including mango crystal, cocoa with lemon, white chocolate, dark chocolate, we meet the father-daughter team and find them charmingly unaffected by their creative genius.

Elena recalls her father's forbearance as she tested culinary limits in her youth. He heaps praise on her ability to take traditional ingredients and create something entirely new. "Without Elena, the dishes we are doing today would be impossible."

The pair spend hours developing new recipes in their upstairs "laboratory" which contains a flavour bank of more than 1000 ingredients. It's difficult to reconcile this unpretentious pairing with their creations - but then, they have nothing to prove. The food speaks for them.

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