Schell: Service choreographed, presentation beautiful, food devine
I’ll wrap up my visit to San Sebastian, Spain, with the highlight, and reason, of the trip—dinner at ARZAK Restaurant.
Food aficionados will be well aware of ARZAK, as it is renowned for utilizing molecular gastronomy and techniques making their cuisine one of the most innovative in the world.
With our reservation made months in advance, I could hardly contain my excitement about dining in this revolutionary restaurant. After mentioning our reservation to Liere and Carmen (our mother and daughter hosts at the Pension Belles Artes) they simply bubbled over—they happened to be going there that evening and would tell the owner/chef that we were coming!
Embarrassed, I begged them not to mention what I did for a living—why the heck would a three-star Michelin Guide Restaurant care about a food writer from a tiny corner of Canada? Remarkably, they did.
We were greeted at the door by chef/co-owner Elena Arzak. Daughter and partner of the esteemed chef Juan Mari Arzak, she is the fourth generation of chefs in the Arzak family and rated the number two female chef in the world! (I’m not worthy!)
The Arzak family history runs deep here. The house where the restaurant itself resides was built by Elena’s grandparents in 1897. We were treated to a private kitchen tour that included a peek into their amazing research lab (looking more like a science lab) with amazing dehydrating machines, Da Vinci-esque sketchbooks (and a Thermomix!). Then on to the international spice room with a staggering number of boxes labeled by spice and country.
The finale was a crushing tour of their 100,000 bottle wine cellar containing some bottles worth a fortune (alas only one Canadian bottle—an icewine from Quebec).
After being seated in the cool and calming ambiance of the main dining room, Elena again joined us to help choose our tasting menu—the menu de degustación: seven courses of sublimity.
She called over their head sommelier, Mariano Rodríguez, who is also Spain’s top sommelier, and he agreed to pair each course (I’m not worthy!).
Humming with anticipation, the courses begin to arrive. Oh my, on whimsical multi-level stands, plates with flashing lights, or sometimes dramatically created before our eyes—we had never seen or tasted anything like it.
True to their reputation, the food is as beautiful as it is divine and the service, a well-choreographed ballet.
I loved the smoke filled dome that arrived covering a piece of perfect tuna speared with a smoking cinnamon stick.
I am still reeling over the magical Cromlech y Cebolla con Té y Café (Cromlech and Onion with Tea and Coffee)—impossible to describe, but perhaps the best thing I have ever tasted in my life. The shells are made from dough of yuca and huitalacoche that puff and crisp when fried. Inside, a foie gras nugget mingles ethereally with the other ingredients. You’re instructed to quickly flip them over as not to lose the filling from the open base and out of hand.
One of the desserts (there were three, bless her heart) looked like a cluster of red grapes. The globes, jiggly yet firm, exploded inside your mouth revealing their true nature—amazing sacks filled with liquid chocolate. Sigh!
Each Spanish wine paired perfectly, ending in a crescendo of palate pleasure with a sherry from Jerez.
We invited Elena and Mariano to come to our world for a visit—lets cross our fingers that they take us up on the offer.
In the meantime, I will fantasize about returning to ARZAK. Their brand, offering the highest level of innovative food and highest quality of wines and service, is combined with an astonishingly gracious and humble family spirit. It was a dinner of a lifetime. www.arzak.info.
Eskerrik asko San Sebastian.
Jennifer Schell is editor of B.C. Wine Trails Magazine.