Eating Out, Travel

The Letdown of Arzak – San Sebastian, Spain

Fresh off the high of excellent fine dining in Barcelona (Disfrutar, Tickets, Enigma), I was looking forward to my first three Michelin star experience in Spain. Not only does Arzak have three stars, it’s one of the rare World’s 50 Best Restaurants to be headed by a female chef (no. 31 of 50). I even skipped Mugaritz (no. 9) the day before to give my stomach a break and fully appreciate the tasting menu at Arzak.

Unfortunately I was very disappointed with my lunch tasting menu experience. The food was fine, but not amazing – I enjoyed the small plates and desserts much more than the main courses which felt too flashy, yet uninspired and dated. A course came out on a color-changing tablet – money that could have been better spent on say, nicer wine glasses instead of their clunky ones.

What really let me down though were the sexist undertones. The sexism of the restaurant industry and general condoning of abusive behavior is no secret, but this was the first time I’ve actually felt uncomfortable as a diner at a fine dining establishment.

In contrast to confident females that were our primary servers at the other aforementioned restaurants, the female staff here seemed relegated to second-class citizens. They barely made eye contact or spoke, only serving to fold napkins with spoons (no hands allowed) and clear plates. A female stage chef hinted at her unhappiness and how she needed to think carefully about where to continue her career.

As for myself, I also experienced some interesting moments. I was taking notes in a small notebook, and the male maître d’ asked my husband if he were a chef. Now it isn’t a huge leap to see a diner take handwritten notes and assume they work in the industry, but I was the one taking notes here, not my husband. I guess I was the secretary?

Throughout the meal, the same maître d’ was very alpha in his mannerisms. When I didn’t finish the overcooked monkfish, he absolutely insisted I have another fish course. He was so confident I would eventually find one I liked.

After the multi-fish course ordeal, came the pigeon nonsense. When ordering, I said I wasn’t a fan of pigeon, but the maître d’ asserted that the pigeon was their star dish, so I got pigeon as my second main course. The female server that cleared my plate showed the nearly untouched remains to the maître d’. Of course he then came over and wanted me to have another course, but this time I had enough and didn’t give in.

Right after this, Juan Mari Arzak (joint head chef with his daughter Elena) came over to greet the table, and Mr. Maître d’ whispered into his ear (in front of us and twice!) about the pigeon. Juan didn’t seem disappointed by that though, he was too busy calling me “nice” and pinching my cheek – yes he actually pinched my cheek! Elena, who I actually wanted to meet, was out of town.

After this experience and the forgettable food, I can’t recommend Arzak. For other fine dining in San Sebastian, Asador Etxebarri is at the top of my must-try list. It’s about an hour outside of the city and has nothing but rave reviews from everyone I’ve talked to personally, including the head chef at Enigma. My husband also enjoyed his solo experience at Mugaritz the day before.

Small Bites

Arzak - Citrus and Mussel Sphere
Citrus and Mussel Sphere
Arzak - "Maseca" Corn Chip, Foie base
“Maseca” Corn Chip, Foie base
Arzak - Bread and olive oil
Bread and olive oil
Arzak - Urban Seafood "talo" - squid ink, corn
Urban Seafood “talo” – squid ink, corn
Arzak - Fortunate Fish - cured red mullet, yolk and peas
Fortunate Fish – cured red mullet, yolk and peas

Tour

We had quite an extensive tour mid-meal, given by a young lady who was staging (unpaid chef internship). This was one of the highlights of the meals – we saw the large wine cellar and the experimental lab.

Arzak - Wine cellar with reportedly 100,000 bottles
Wine cellar with reportedly 100,000 bottles
Arzak - Over 1000 ingredients in their lab
Over 1000 ingredients in their lab

Small Bites, Continued

Arzak - Marinated anchovy and strawberry, cream cheese
Marinated anchovy and strawberry, cream cheese

The bonus fried manioc and caramelized onion puff course was my favorite by far. The savory and sweet filling of the three day caramelized onion and foie gras cream was fantastic.

Arzak - Crispy manioc hydrated with huitlacoche, stuffed with 3 day caramelized onion
Crispy manioc hydrated with huitlacoche, stuffed with 3 day caramelized onion, green tea, foie gras
Arzak - Mackeral with "patxaran" and purple corn, cured liver, chia seed
Mackeral with “patxaran” and purple corn, cured liver, chia seed

Main Courses

My husband’s lobster course was unnecessarily flashy, being served on a clear dish over a tablet with moving blue colors. The tail was a bit overcooked.

Arzak - Lobster with bee's pollen, banana, basil, acorn, berry
Lobster with bee’s pollen, banana, basil, acorn, berry

The prawn was perfectly cooked, but the krill cracker was soggy to the point of being unpleasantly chewy and leathery.

Arzak - Scarlet Prawn with krill, lemongrass, mint, beetroot
Scarlet Prawn with krill, lemongrass, mint, beetroot
Arzak - Lit tequila for the Crab on Fire course
Lit tequila for the Crab on Fire course
Arzak - Crab on Fire, lit tequila, stewed crab, fried banana, lingonberry, mace
Crab on Fire, lit tequila, stewed crab, fried banana, lingonberry, mace
Arzak - Egg with freeze dried tomato candy, "pozole" corn, porcini, white mushroms
Egg with freeze dried tomato candy, “pozole” corn, porcini, white mushroms

The next two fish courses – sole for my husband and monkfish for me – were both overcooked. The sugarcane theme of the sole dish was a fun concept but it was jarringly sweet. My monkfish skin was gummy and soggy as well.

Arzak - Sole in the Reeds, roasted in hollowed sugar cane, carrot & white cacoa juice infused sugar cane, parsley sauce
Sole in the Reeds, roasted in hollowed sugar cane, carrot & white cacoa juice infused sugar cane, parsley sauce
Arzak - Dark Monkfish, pistachio shavings, potato souffle skin, black bean sauce.
Dark Monkfish, pistachio shavings, potato souffle skin, black bean sauce.

To make up for the weak course, we got two hake replacements. These were much better – solid cook and nice bright flavors. The hake collar was especially fatty in a good way and went well with the warm coconut and turmeric flavors.

Arzak - Hake with chickpea paints, spinach, turmeric, pickled vegetables
Hake with chickpea paints, spinach, turmeric, pickled vegetables
Arzak - Kokotxas on their own wavelength - grilled hake collar, coconut, turmeric, squid crisps.
Kokotxas on their own wavelength – grilled hake collar, coconut, turmeric, squid crisps.

Then came the meat courses – pigeon for me and lamb loin for my husband. I’m sensitive to gamey cuts of meat, so these were not my favorite. The plating on both were also like an elementary school drawing.

Arzak - Symbolic Pigeon, blue potato, parsnip, oranges, vanilla, kimchi
Symbolic Pigeon, blue potato, parsnip, oranges, vanilla, kimchi
Arzak - Clockwork Lamb, acorn flour trellis, pepper gears, black lemon pulp
Clockwork Lamb, acorn flour trellis, pepper gears, black lemon pulp

Dessert

At least the desserts were enjoyable! Though the after-dinner white chocolates were cloyingly sweet, and I’m usually a big white chocolate fan…

Arzak - Balearic Tonic with Hibiscus - beetroot crumble, hibiscus ice cream, melon juice, dried bergamot, sumac meringue
Balearic Tonic with Hibiscus – beetroot crumble, hibiscus ice cream, melon juice, dried bergamot, sumac meringue

The Big Truffle course was a typical chocolate sphere that opened after being poured on by melted chocolate. A crowd pleaser sure, but not three Michelin star worthy.

Arzak - Square Moon - lunar chocolate cube, fluid core of mint, neroli, kiwi, passionfruit drizzle, lavender, dehydrated raspberry
Square Moon – lunar chocolate cube, fluid core of mint, neroli, kiwi, passionfruit drizzle, lavender, dehydrated raspberry
Arzak - Assorted White Chocolate - caramel, turmeric, avocado, cinnamon
Assorted White Chocolate – caramel, turmeric, avocado, cinnamon
Arzak - Lunch Tasting Menu June 2018
Lunch Tasting Menu June 2018

The wine bottle we were recommended as a great mineral and dry white was fine – light, clean, and not overpowering, but otherwise forgettable.

Arzak - Emilio Rojo, Ribeiro 2015, Galicia, Spain
Emilio Rojo, Ribeiro 2015, Galicia, Spain

3 thoughts on “The Letdown of Arzak – San Sebastian, Spain

  1. So glad you enjoyed Eight Tables last year. Eight Tables was named TIME 100 GREATEST PLACES 2018 just last week :). Found this read as we’re doing a pop-up for Gaggan this Sept 13 at Eight Tables. We were in Spain for 2 weeks during WB50 Awards…tops were Azurmendi, Disfrutar, Tickets, El Cellar, DiverXO…trailing was Arzak and Mugartiz (just didn’t taste great albeit admire the innovation)…quite like Vespertine. There were plenty of cheaper places we loved as well in Spain of course. We’ve improved a lot so hopefully we’ll see you both again soon :))

    1. Hi Chef, congrats on the TIME 100, how awesome! It’s cool you were able to dine at so many spots in Spain. I also enjoyed Disfrutar, Tickets, and Engima, and need to go back to check out Azurmendi. Asador Etxebarri is at the top of my must try list in Basque Country. The Gaggan pop-up is something we are interested in…will try to fit it into a busy weekend, thanks for the heads up!

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