The difficulty of being a (basque) classic: Arzak

Oysters, color | Warm and colorful oysters, together with leek, pumpkin and blueberries

On our first trip to Basque country Arzak came up immediately as a destination. Juan Mari Arzak made this restaurant an institution of fine-dining by bringing traditional basque cuisine to a whole new level. The restaurant holds 3 Michelin stars since 1989 and is now run toghether with his daugther Elena.

After a wonderful, warm spring day on the beach of San Sebastian we made our way to this monument of Spanish high cuisine.

Outside Arzak
Outside Arzak

The evening started funny. When entering an elderly lady stepped toward us and asked with a big smile: „Do you want a drink?“ – After some seconds (and maybe a strange face from us) she corrected herself…“No, may I take your coat!?“ We all burst with laughter.

The restaurant itself is huge and has it’s nooks and crannies. The overall design has slightly come in the years.

Inside Arzak
Inside Arzak
Table Setting
Table Setting

We were brought to our table. The communication with the staff sometimes needed hands and foots but we managed. We went for the tasting menu, alongside with a Gran Torelló Lealtanza Reserva 1998 – a recommendation of the sommelier from the very interesting wine menu with a lot of aged bottles for decent prices. The wine service itself was rather rushed.

The menu began with some starters:

Moringa and prawn gyoza | Fried anchovy
Moringa and prawn gyoza | Fried anchovy
"Txistorra" with beer and mango | Ball of sausage with cabbage
„Txistorra“ with beer and mango | Ball of sausage with cabbage
Banana and squid
Banana and squid

Then the main courses:

Fish of the day (mackerel) marinated with "patxaran" dusted with purple corn
Fish of the day (mackerel) marinated with „patxaran“ dusted with purple corn
Oysters, color | Warm and colorful oysters, together with leek, pumpkin and blueberries
Oysters, color | Warm and colorful oysters, together with leek, pumpkin and blueberries
Lobster with bee's pollen | Sauteed lobster with fresh pollen, sweet and acidic flavours with blue honeycomb
Lobster with bee’s pollen | Sauteed lobster with fresh pollen, sweet and acidic flavours with blue honeycomb
Red space egg | "Red" egg cooked at 65°C, red peppers, cereal ferments and crispy pig's trotters
Red space egg | „Red“ egg cooked at 65°C, red peppers, cereal ferments and crispy pig’s trotters
Sea Bass tamale | Sea bass cooked with a mojo sauce, covered with a wine steeped corn husk and purple sauce
Sea Bass tamale | Sea bass cooked with a mojo sauce, covered with a wine steeped corn husk and purple sauce
Monkfish cleopatra | Grilled monkfish together with pecan nut paste and hieroglyphics forms of pumpkin and chickpea
Monkfish cleopatra | Grilled monkfish together with pecan nut paste and hieroglyphics forms of pumpkin and chickpea
Lamb with cypress aroma | Roasted lamb loin over a nut and armagnac spread accompanied by yuca and "guitar" shavings which envelop the whole dish in a light cypress aroma
Lamb with cypress aroma | Roasted lamb loin over a nut and armagnac spread accompanied by yuca and „guitar“ shavings which envelop the whole dish in a light cypress aroma

After that a lot of sweet courses followed:

The big truffle | Largue cocoa and sugar truffle with a creamy chocolate and carob filling
The big truffle | Largue cocoa and sugar truffle with a creamy chocolate and carob filling
Melon, hazelnut and red dates | Creamy hazelnut covered with melon red date juice and light aromatic herbs smoke
Melon, hazelnut and red dates | Creamy hazelnut covered with melon red date juice and light aromatic herbs smoke
Desert rose
Desert rose
Apple pudding
Apple pudding
Ice creams
Ice creams
Petit fours
Petit fours

During the meal Elena Arzak came out and visited each table, a very nice gesture. We talked a bit (her German is amazing), but she seemed very tired.

It is quite interesting to see what remains of a dining experience after some time. Since my visit some time has passed – and this stayed in my memory:

Arzak is a lot about presentation: Tablets with videos as plates, a lot of colorful painting and even hieroglyphs on the plate, „creative“ tableware, many plates with additional small dishes on the side. Colorful explanations of the dishes in the menu. Unfortunately the plates often looked like more than they actually held on the palate. Some dishes showed flaws that a 3 Michelin-starred restaurant should not bring (greasy aftertaste from fried starters, only average freshness of fish, too many sweet components). Arzak is also a lot about the name, and maybe this rose high expectations. But still, the difficulty of being a classic seems to be to keep the game up and not lose grip. Arzak could be about heritage: But it is hard to grasp. Even if you have read basque culinary tradition and eaten there, you don’t grasp easily the connection between Arzak’s cooking and the basque culinary heritage. Maybe this was the biggest disappointment for me this evening. Do I regret it? No – it was a very nice evening, but one that most definetely lacked the unique culinary quality of three stars.

Visit: April 2016
Michelin stars at time of visit: ***
Budget: 300€/person (including aperitive and one bottle of wine)
Location: 6/10
Service: 6/10 (mostly due to language barrier)
Food: 6.5/10

Timon
Timon
Spracharbeiter. Kommunikator. Sprecher. Trainer. Historiker. Leidenschaftlicher Koch. Foodie.