Juan Mari Arzak is one of the giants of Basque and International cuisine for the last 35 years.
His restaurant in San Sebastian is a temple of gastronomy.
I visited the restaurant in a very cold day of February, when it was snowing and the city was dressed in white. Unusual weather for a sea resort, even in the heart of winter.
My last visit was back in 2004, with my brother, Manolis and his family.
Arzak was and still is the three-starred restaurant where you feel at home. The atmosphere is warm, service is friendly, and Juan Mari himself tours the tables and chats with the guests. The locals honor Arzak with their patronage, as he is one of them, he has never left them. And Juan Mari makes sure he remains one of the locals, by welcoming them for the last 40 years.
The kitchen on a day by day basis is run by Juan Mari’s daughter, Elena Arzak. Elena is the perfect example of a professional whose fame has not gone into their head. She is smiling, friendly and always willing to discuss every aspect of the food she serves.
I forgot my camera at the hotel, and I can show you no pictures, but I will describe the dishes as they came. Elena was kind enough to let me use some of the marketing photos that you see above.
The first dish was caramelized apple disks with foie oil on top. Perfectly balanced, seasoned, each disk a pleasure to watch and taste.
The second dish was a lobster salad with potatoes, which was superb. The key reason was the sauce that came with it, a sauce full of flavors from the lobster and spices.
The third dish was oysters with a crispy shell. Oysters were tender, subtle in flavor and contrasted in texture with the crispy shell.
The fourth dish was an egg with infused flavors.
The fifth dish was “bronzed” monk fish, which was superbly seared and presented with a sauce made from its stock.
The meal concluded with fresh foie, served in a sauce of corn and sweet wine.
There were two deserts, both a combination of cold and warm, with beautiful colors, fruits and chocolate.
Overall, this was an exceptional meal. All dishes were expertly executed. If I had to change something, I would swap the oysters for a dish with baby eels that is superb, but I forgot to ask for it, until I saw it served to the next table, to a couple of gentlemen with whom Juan Mari had a joyous chat.
Having been to Martin Berasategui’s restaurant the day before, I can summarize the experience as follows.
Martin is the Mozart of Basque cuisine. Light, exuberant, playful, endless, a creative genius unbound by convention and technique.
Juan Mari and Elena are the Beethoven of the Basque cuisine. The colors are darker, the taste is heavier, the menu items are more familiar, almost classical, and the overall experience is close to perfection, making you feel a different man.