|San Sebastian Playa de la Concha|
Spain.. and we have taken a slightly less than direct route home from Madrid in order to eat at Mugaritz near San Sebastian. Not that the diversion is any hardship, San Sebastian is a beautiful coastal town with its own take on tapas and more shoe shops than you could shake a stick at! Sadly the latter are wasted on me with my predilection for wearing comfy trail sandals but the former, mainly located in the lovely old town, are a treat if not wholly authentic. More on this another time, we are not there for the tapas we are making a pilgrimage to Mugaritz in order to tick it off our list of 'One hundred places to eat before our taste buds diminish and die'. Mugaritz is the last in our Spanish Triumvirate along with El Bulli (blogged about here) and Arzak where we dined a few years back.
Mugaritz is 'experimental cuisine' along the lines of El Bulli so we were expecting exciting tastes and textures and an experience tending towards theatrical. Mugaritz had only recently reopened after a fire earlier in the year and although it had ranked 5th in the World's 50 Best Restaurants 2010 we had read some rather mixed reviews. This had left us in some trepidation that we might be making another expensive mistake to rival our 'worst fine dining experience ever' at Arpège in Paris. Nevertheless, we agreed to keep a completely open mind about the food and view it as a culinary adventure that might occasionally be challenging but at least would give us something to digest both mentally and physically.
A twenty minute taxi ride took us out of San Sebastian to Mugaritz' rural hillside setting. Although the light was pretty much fading we were greeted and seated on the somewhat minimalist, stone terrace with our recommended aperitifs of 'txakoli' - an interesting, minerally white wine from the Basque region. A small dish was bought to us with what looked very much like lithops (living stones) in it. As it was set down something hit me on the head! I thought the waitress had chucked one of the 'stones' at me and was about to suggest that attacking the customer was taking restaurant theatre a bit too far when she explained that it was a nut fallen from the tree above. The 'stones' were in fact waxy potatoes cooked in clay served with an alioli and were pretty good as potatoes go. I think one of the beauties of this dish (as with many of the courses) would have been in the artistic presentation, in this case the resemblance to small ceramic stones. Unfortunately that was largely lost on us as the terrace was so barely lit.
In the uncompromisingly stark interior of the restaurant - Japanese style screens divide the large room into smaller areas. This is not a place to go for a romantic, intimate, candlelit meal - it is mind unclutteringly sparse, the sole decorations on the tables sculptures of broken plates, perhaps signifying Mugaritz's break from culinary traditions. In the middle of each place setting were two small envelopes, one bearing the words
150 min. ... rebel!and the other
150 min. ...submit!
It was all going a bit Alice in Wonderland - would the food arrive with 'Eat me!' and 'Drink me!' on it? We opened the rebel envelope first, a card bearing the words
"150 minutes to feel embarassed, flustered, fed up. 150 minutes of suffering."
I immediately rebelled at the pretentiousness of it! However, the card in the submit envelope bore the words
"150 minutes to feel, imagine, reminisce, discover, 150 minutes to contemplate."
and in truth this was exactly what we had agreed to do before we arrived - submit our tastebuds to new and interesting experiences even if they were not all wholly enjoyable. The menu we choose was a set of ten small courses and we were asked whether we liked meat, fish or any preferences. "Just bring it on" we replied - as with El Buli we were prepared to put ourselves entirely in the hands of the chef. Before we dined we were taken to view the kitchen. It was astonishing - clinically cleaner and shinier than any operating theatre and seemingly suspiciously devoid of any food! In terms of operations this was a slick one with an army of serving staff each knowing exactly where they should be and when, like a team of synchronised swimmers.
At last we begin and our starter for ten was (as described on the menu)
1. Mix of tender leaves, fresh herbs and fried duck tongues. Gravy and leek whites.
"Quack Quack" to this tiny course. We will now happily be able to boast that we have eaten duck tongues but given they were almost entirely without taste we might be hard pushed to explain exactly why! The leaves and herbs were the stars of this dish.
2. Razor Clams flavoured with a rich black bean broth, perfumed with cinnamon oil.
Oh bliss! A magnificence of mollusc. When I was a kid we used to collect these for my Dad to use as fishing bait not realising they could be tastier than the caught fish.
3. Sweet potatoes roasted in their second skin with pork lardon
Anyone who doesn't like sweet potatoes roasting in their second skin with porky scratchings wants their tastebuds examined.
4. Sauteed Arraitxiki (sea bream) fillets with chantrelle mushroom threads
5. Skate filaments bounded in toasted butter glace, Iberian mild sheen
I love skate, I love that old classic 'skate with black butter' and I loved this more than anything else on the menu. It was the best skate ever - with this dish you could almost forgive the Spanish for stealing all the fish. I had to kick off my shoes (I had worn my only pair of decent strappy heels) and curl my toes up in ecstasy. It was simply sublime. My best 'skate' experience (and there have been some good ones) magnified ten times! Not sure what the Iberian mild sheen bit was.. but who cares!
6. A piece of veal roasted and perfumed with vine cutting embers, fragments of thyme and natural anthocyans. Cinders, salts and crisp radishes.
The presentation of this was definitely couture cuisine. A fab bit of veal - we didn't feel any guilt eating it because you could taste that it had had a good life prior to appearing on the plate.What the hell are natural anthocyans?
7. Iberian pork tails and pan fried langoustines braising juices infused with Iberian jamón.
A sumptuous surf and turf! Who could knock that? Certainly not R. who would have kicked off his shoes if they hadn't been lace ups.
After this we were asked if we wanted more meat or fish courses or whether we would like to move onto puddings - except I doubt if they actually said "puddings". We were in the mood for a few sweet nothings so...
8. Warm Artisan tablet with whipped honey and oats.
This was er... well it wasn't my absolute favourite. Fun idea but actually tasted it a bit like a soapy superior version of caramac (and it doesn't take much to get superior to a caramac!).
9. Broken Walnuts, Toasted and Salted, cool milk cream and Armagnac Jelly.
10. They asked if we wanted more puddings - how could we possibly refuse? Particularly since we had ordered some really rather nice pudding wine to accompany them. So we got "Camomila con nectar de cacao". I have no memory of this and am wondering if the dessert wine was actually quite strong.
Although not every course was to our taste, overall each was unusual in its own way and presented in a beautifully artistic style. Some flavours flowed into each other, some fought over each other.
Our main criticism would be the lack of a wine flight as it would have been good to have a wine paired with each course, if there was one it wasn't advertised on the menu.
The only bum note was hit by the rest of the clientele in the surprisingly unfilled restaurant. Mugaritz is expensive (although actually it isn't THAT expensive compared with the Fat Duck for instance and was cheaper than we expected) and is also a destination restaurant. We have noticed that instead of genuine food lovers these places now often attract the kind of wealthy, well-dressed Japanese who are stiff with formality and seem to treat the food with a kind of 'correct' disdain instead of getting stuck in and practically licking the plates like we do. It isn't just the Japanese, there will be business types who feel this is somewhere to be seen, or perhaps entertain clients, who could have a MacDonald's stuck under their noses and called cuisine and they wouldn't know the difference. Or men and their stick thin trophy girlfriends - quite often these males will be attacking the food with gusto whilst their female companion delicately picks a bit here and there leaving most of it. And then the more traditional sight of a Spanish family with young teenagers eating, chatting and enjoying together, until you realise that the younger boy is wearing a baseball hat, shorts and trainers and has been given a computer game to play moronically throughout the meal to keep him quiet. No doubt he would have been able to identify a MacDonald's and been happier with it too.
Out of the Spanish triumvirate Arzak provided us with the most enjoyable food and El Bulli with the most exciting experience. For us Mugaritz lies somewhere in the middle.