There are some super heroes that you see in a movie and just fall in love with.
For a little girl, this super hero does not need to beat the bad professor to save the city from destruction. Because, he is her father who comes with a cotton candy in his hands and a big smile on his face at the end of the day.
For her, her father is great. If she ever tries to find a flaw in him, she can only complain about his beard that hurts her when kissing. But this is just an unimportant detail; because she believes she will always feel strong and confident when her father is with her.
And when her super hero carries her on his shoulders, she knows there is no hurdle that she cannot overcome.
In San Sebastian, a Mecca for gastronomy, Arzak too continues its century-long journey started with the great tastes born out of a collaboration between a daughter and a father.
Four Generations in One Kitchen
The story of Arzak started in 1897 as a wine cellar and tavern. This cute building was built in the little village of Alza by the grandfather of Juan Mari Arzak (72 years old) who is now at the helm of the restaurant, and soon it was transformed into a restaurant that has been offering the Basque tastes created by his father and mother.
As he was raised in this kitchen, Juan Mari’s education, of course, continued in that direction. After his school years in Madrid and several internships in restaurants like Paul Bocusse, he eventually returned to Arzak and started to work there following his mother’s words “Appreciate the farmers and fishmongers, protect them; because we would be just nothing without them!”
There is a long list of achievements that belong to Juan Mari Arzak. He, first, hit the roads with his friend Pedro Subijana to seek new tastes in terms of “the New Basque Cuisine” and learned the subtleties of “Nouvelle Cuisine”. Then he contributed a novel perspective to the Basque cuisine and he was awarded with his first Michelin star in 1974. He also appointed a chef to the kitchen who would cut her teeth on this job: His daughter, Elena Arzak.
As she took some serious education in culinary arts with a dedication like her father, there are quite good references in her professional background. This sympathetic young chef can speak four languages. She has a winsome smile which is a proof of her friendliness and humility and she never loses it even when she’s with her father in the kitchen so that you can understand this family is in love with their job and they are born for this kitchen…
The New Basque Cuisine
A food temple filled with colorful “Mediterranean people”, San Sebastian is only a few kilometers away from France whose people are generally described as cold natured. This time, I arrived the city with my two gastro-partners: my daughters.
Before I didn’t get to the restaurant, I sent a short message mentioning my 40-year-old passion for gourmet world and the product of this passion, my website “GEVREK & GINGER”. Thanks to this message and my friend Oskar, the manager of one of the biggest industrial enterprises in the Basque region, that night, we were greeted at the door with a great excitement.
After a brief introduction to the restaurant by Juan Mari, Elena and the Sous Chef Igor, we wanted to take a closer look into the backstage before the meals. We followed the “Arzak Lab” sign and opened the curtain.
There are 3000 kinds of herbs from the Basque region that are dried and kept in the room. The lab proved us the investigative character of the restaurant with all the fragrant smells surrounded us. Following the herbs room, the wine cellars enchanted us with more than 100,000 wine varieties. As 70% of them are Spain-originated and 30% international, the wine-cellar is, no doubt, one of the biggest features of the restaurant.
When we get back to the kitchen after a short tour, we found Juan Mari having a dinner with his grandsons and granddaughters. As he asked us to join in and offered us pata negra as a treat, we had a delightful conversation with the legendary chef for a while.
Holding its 3 Michelin stars for 25 years, Arzak describes his cooking as “the new Basque cuisine that's evolutionary, investigatory, avant-garde and modernized without a break from the past.” Prepared in accordance with these principles, tasting menu costs 195 Euro.
First they served five amuse bouches, three of which were marinated white tuna perfectly accompanied by strawberries; unbelievably delicious crispy and bitter raspberry; a wonderful scorpion fish pudding, again, wrapped with crispy kataifi. These started a gastronomic dance on our palates. Besides them, the amuse bouches that didn’t impress me much were jiaozi of prawns and moringa served in a bottle, and Spanish sujuk “chorizo” paste served with an interesting presentation, in a beverage can with tonic.
After the bit players made a great start, the first dish to get on the stage was slices of apple infected with beetroot. Accompanied by foie gras cream and crispy potatoes, this refreshing dish was indeed an innovative experiment brought to a perfection.
The following dish was grilled lobster accompanied by a crispy star shaped crepe which was flavored with the lobster. Besides these ingredients that represented the sea, the tomato jello, squash blossoms and the little greenery seeds that almost exploded in our mouths represented the gardens.
Light ovolacto was composed of a crab baked in the salt. When I broke its shell blackened by the color of the cuttle fish, there was a nice crab filling inside, added some milk and cooked at low temperature. As a person who loves crab meat, this presentation did not frustrate me.
The rhubarb in the grilled monkfish filet was outstanding. Also grown in the cities such as Erzurum and Kars, the leaves of the plant are actually poisonous and only its root is edible. It is also called “uçkun” around the region. In this restaurant, thanks to a genius touch, it met with the monkfish and created a good combination.
While the fishmongers might mistake squid for cuttlefish, the gastronomy enthusiasts generally want to see the latter on their plates. The presentation of cuttlefish, that night, was befitting the Mediterranean cuisine. Served on a kaffir lime leaf which is native to Indonesia, Malaysia and India, it was crowned with fried potatoes and onion sauce.
I’ve eaten the best beefsteaks in Spain. For this reason, Arzak didn’t surprise me with its beefsteak accompanied by caramelized vegetables and couscous. It left a fine aftertaste on my palate.
The game dish of the menu, pigeon breast looked very basic, however it was like a “kinder surprise” composed of various tastes, because father-daughter duo, again, made use of their secret seeds. This time, these tiny flavors that created a nice harmony were pumpkin seeds, grape seeds and sunflower seeds.
The partner of the last dish lamb with plaster was lychee fruit. Grown in China, the lychee looks like a strawberry on the outside, however there is a white succulent flesh underneath its shell. Its jello-like consistency, sweet and sour aroma did a fine job with the lamb.
It was time for desserts and the first visitor of the table was one of the signature desserts of the restaurant: the big truffle. Filled with carob filling, the large ball of truffle was mind-blowing. As the dessert gave into the aroma of the hot chocolate pouring over the truffle, it melted and made us melt away too. Its taste was enchanting.
Another creative presentation was the famous Iranian black lemon dessert, which was injected with citrus cream. The lemons were dried in the sun and lost their moisture to become black. Although they are called citrus fruits, their taste is a bit smoky.
Before starting to sip on our coffee and digestives, we were served flower soup with jello consistency. It pretty much did the job of sorbet and cleansed our palates.
Petit feurs plate was a tribute to the days when San Sebastian was an industrial city. Arzak ended our visit with a smile on our faces thanks to the visual details in the dessert like screws and keys.
The Restaurant Wouldn’t Exist without Elena
When we had a conversation with the legendary Chef Juan Mari before the dinner; with a mixed expression of pride, gratefulness and humility, he said:
“If it wasn’t for my daughter Elena, this kitchen wouldn’t exist…”
As you would read the story of four generations in between the lines of its menu, Arzak is a proof that “A meal made with love tastes better.”
Created by the father-daughter duo whose eyes are glittering with sincerity and whose words glorify each other in every opportunity as well as a wonderful team, the happy atmosphere is so pleasant that you would want to be a part of it.
That being the case, being a part of this century-old glee in the restaurant for a few hours is definitely one of the things that I recommend to those who visit San Sebastian.
Bon appétit and enjoy the taste of life…