Restaurants: Arzak: Friendly celebrity chefs but not enough pizzazz.

San Sebastian, Spain / July 17, 2009 / dinner

Winederlust Rating (details below): 6.125 out of 10 / Winederlust Worthy: Maybe

Jay and I first tried to get into Arzak during our last
visit to Spain seven years ago, but no luck – it was booked solid. This time
around we emailed two months in advance (yes, emailed rather than had to call,
which was another innovation since our original thwarted visit), and managed to
get a table, albeit in the smoking section since apparently the non-smoking
area was already booked. No matter (or a little matter, but we were willing to
put up with some smoke to eat here). Arzak had gotten even more hype in the
last few years, since the daughter (Elena) of the original chef (Juan-Mari) joined
him in the kitchen and added more modern touches to his already renowned three
Michelin-starred cooking.

But first there was the small matter of actually GETTING to
the restaurant. We spent the day in Bordeaux, in the super-cute wine town of
St.-Emilion and then touring and tasting at one of the most renowned Bordeaux
grand crus, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, before crossing the border into Spain
and arriving in San Sebastian in plenty of time (we thought) for our 8:45pm
dinner. Of course, we didn’t bargain on either the crazy Friday afternoon rush
hour traffic around the city of Bordeaux after our tasting, which set us back
at least an hour, or the torrential hurricane-like downpour with massive winds
that greeted us when we arrived in San Sebastian, or the construction seemingly
all around the city that dead-ended the streets Google Maps told us to take. Amazingly, at around 8:30pm, 15 minutes before our reservation, we somehow
located Arzak, in an unassuming house on a busy city street, but stupidly
decided to find our hotel first so that we could change and freshen up before
dinner. Due to the conditions mentioned above, we didn’t find it until about
9:30, and fearing that our reservation would be canceled, got ready to go in
record time (and took a cab so that we wouldn’t chance finding Arzak again!).

Though we didn’t arrive at the restaurant till 10pm, it didn’t
seem like a big deal – the staff welcomed us warmly and showed us to our table,
upstairs in the smoking section. After the strict rules and formal traditions
of French restaurants, we had forgotten that Spain was so laid back in

Inside, the restaurant itself was very modern, with walls
either painted black or made of glass, a modern take on a lattice ceiling, and
black and white photographs of pots and pans on the walls. It was the most
urban “New York-style” restaurant we’d been to yet on this trip.

Another change from any of the restaurants we’d visited so
far: The server actually walked us through the menu (in English, also unlike
any of the places in France where it was pretty much French or nothing), and
gave us choices for several dishes (lobster vs. squid, as well as choices for
the fish and the meat), and even asked us how we would like everything prepared
– how progressive! And Jay and I didn’t even have to choose the same things,
imagine! Our server also steered us toward a bottle of the house red, a 2001 Arzak
Rios Alta Rioja, which actually turned out to be really good with most of the
dishes – light with red cherry flavors.

We started off with “Arzak’s Amusements” – a take on fish on
a stick, ravioli stuffed with mushroom, what appeared to be taro chips with
goat cheese inside, a tempura chorizo with tamarind, and an oyster in lime
juice. All were very good and fairly light.





Arzak’s Amusements.

Next we moved on to the figs stuffed with foie gras. They
were caramelized and seared on top like a crème brulee and were very tasty.
However, this is also where Jay started to notice some general sloppiness with
the aesthetics and service; the presentation of the figs on my plate was
different than the ones on his plate (mine looked better, his looked a little
off), a slight that would never have happened in one of the French restaurants
we went to. He also noticed that the table next to us got three figs with foie
gras each, while we only got two each, even though we were having the same
tasting menu. Very odd. In any case, the dish was yummy.


Figs Stuffed with Foie Gras.

Next I had the lobster with what appeared to be Scandinavian-type
rye crisps on the side and a small dish of tapioca salad, which had an odd
consistency but was tasty.


Lobster with Rye Crisps.

Jay had the baby squid in bean juice with grilled onion and potato. He liked his dish, but didn’t think it was anything that amazing.


Baby Squid in Bean Juice with Grilled Onion and Potato.

Next came what the menu had described as the “eggs of the
moment” – apparently whatever egg concoction the chefs chose to whip up that
day. Unfortunately, this was the weakest and most unappetizing dish of the
evening (and we saw people at other tables making faces when they tasted this
one, too). The large egg was mixed with way-too-sweet toast crumbs and candied sesame
seeds, and we think our server said there was also beer involved somewhere in
the mixture, though we couldn’t taste it. It was just too overdone and not at
all tasty.


“Eggs of the Moment.”

The fish course was up next. Jay had the sole with olive oil
and coco bread, which he pronounced only “ok,” and I had the tuna (bonito) with
puree of parsley and served with a baked onion with a melon ball in the middle.
I also thought that my dish was only ok – well-prepared, but nothing


Sole with Olive Oil and Coco Bread.


Bonito with Puree of Parsley.

For the meat course, I opted for the pigeon, which was
served with little onions, mini pickles, and what the server said were “blue
onions,” which turned out not to be onions at all but little balls of something
that squirted vinegar when I bit into them. The pigeon itself was good, but
comparing it to some of the other pigeon I’d eaten in the last week, it
definitely could not stand up to the version served at Troisgros (with the
fresh apricot).


Pigeon with Onions.

Since Jay was sick of pigeon (as well as lamb, the other choice), he asked for the beef, with came with sweetbreads and a foam of red current. Unfortunately, he thought this dish was nothing special.


Beef with Sweetbreads and Red Currant.

Then it was time for the desserts. We were brought plates of
many things at once, including a yogurt cake with passion fruit sauce, dark
chocolate balls (that oozed soft chocolate when we bit into them) with
strawberry sauce and a basil sorbet, chocolate mousse with a sweet candy bark,
and small dishes of strawberry and peach sorbets. All were good, but nothing
made us go “wow!” (though I did enjoy the chocolate balls that squirted in our



Assorted Desserts.

Finally, the petit fours arrived: what tasted like pineapple
and sugar on a spoon (way too sweet); candied dried beet, which was an
interesting mix of bitter and sweet; chocolate studded with corn, really unique
and good; rice pudding in rice skin, also tasty; and a white bean mousse with
red tea, which was very odd tasting (and not in a good way).


Petits Fours.

Our verdict: While the dinner was good, it felt more casual,
more New York even, than any of the other places we’d been. The others had all
felt special, like we were embarking on a grand culinary adventure where the
chefs had created everything with precision and care. Here, dishes felt a little
more thrown together, and though there was definitely a lot of effort put into
their creation, they didn’t always work. We had higher hopes for Arzak, and we
wondered if they were resting on their laurels a little with all of the amazing
press they’ve gotten in the last few years. Hopefully the magic will return to
them soon.


 – by Liz Humphreys, Winederlust Eater in Chief


Winederlust Rating Details (out of 10):

Food6.0 (preparation, presentation & taste)
Wine6.0 (selection, recommendations, pairings & taste)
Service6.5 (helpfulness, attentiveness, knowledge & pacing)
Place: 6.0 (location, view, decor & vibe)

Price Range: $$$$ (Incredibly Expensive)


Essential Information: 

ARZAK / Avda. Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273, 20015 Donostia / San Sebastian, Spain [map]

Direct Line: (34) 943 278 465 / 943 285 593

Website: (email through the Website for reservations)

Closed Sunday and Monday; Reservations Essential.




“I just don’t see Big Wine allowing labels on wine reading something like this: This wine was dealcoholized by reverse osmosis and smoothed out with micro-oxygenation. Ingredients: Water, alcohol, grapes, chestnut tannin, oak extract, oak dust, genetically modified yeast, urea, enzymes, grape juice, tartaric acid, bentonite, and Velcorin.” – Alice Feiring, The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization

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