Arzak.....Old School? Nah.......
The best meal we had last time in Spain was at Arzak in San Sebastian. But there may be better.
On the FoodFreak sites Sant Pau, on the opposite coast, is king. I haven’t read anything really nice about Arzak in a while. Arzak is/was often listed as one of the top three or four restaurants in the world, along with El Bulli and The Fat Duck. The cognoscenti seems to have deserted, though.
The King is dead…..long live the King?
So here is my Arzak story:
Amanda and I went to Spain exactly two years ago. We had no money, but we had to go away anyway….or in frustration shoot ourselves, or each other, or some hapless Cachagua idiot by proxy.
Now, Amanda doesn’t really like to leave her room, much less the COUNTRY. I knew this intellectually, but……
We arrived in Bilbao in the afternoon. Of course I had already booked a table for four hours after landing from the 15 hour flight at a one-star in Bilbao, over by the Guggenheim That’s relaxing, right?
Getting Amanda dressed was a freak show…..no possibility of just throwing on some random clothes and going out to munch. Fifteen hours in the air and I was ready to EAT and DRINK. Amanda was ready for a quiet, dark closet.
And of course the meal kinda sucked. One or two good courses…..but the sauces kept repeating, and the gnarly maitresse d’hotel kept such a lid on the girls working the tables that the place had all the joy of Tim McVey’s lethal injection chamber: all steel and glass, and starched uniforms with nary a smile to be seen. “Here is the sweet pepper aioli again, Mr. McVey….remember how you really liked it on the sardine three courses ago? Just close your eyes….It will all be over soon……”
By the next day…..unnoticed by me, Amanda was grasping around for some kind of control over her vacation. We battled: out of the parking garage, out of the city, and down the interstate.
By the time we reached San Sebastian war had been declared. The city was in full roar: Jan 20th is the celebration of the city’s liberation from Napoleon. Boys dress as either Napoleonic soldiers or mocking chefs and the girls all dress like maids. The soldiers march beating on their drums with the ‘pas de charge’ (the drumbeat that conquered all Europe), while the chefs and the maids march behind beating on flour buckets in derision…..just as had their ancestors two hundred years ago. The competing rhythms are like some crazy tribal poetry slam with drums.
No matter……We had our own rhythm:
“No….Fuck you!! Why did I come to Europe with you? You should not even have left the HOUSE!!”
“No…..Fuck YOU!! Vacations are supposed to be RELAXING!! You are the UBERSTURMBAHNFUHRER of food!!!! Relax!! Smell the roses!!!”
“Fuck you!! Arzak closes tomorrow for three weeks!! This is our only chance!!! You can sleep tomorrow…..”
All the while surrounded by squads of doting grandparents and aunts and uncles dropping off their exquisitely costumed offspring for the parades. I am fairly sure they all knew what “Fuck YOU!!!” means in American.
Somehow we got to the Pensione……showered and dressed in our shitty wrinkled American jet lag clothes, and headed out in the rental car for Arzak. There may have been white sox involved…….
Arzak is located on the Fremont Blvd of San Sebastian…..the Geary Street, or the 19th Avenue…..or Rt 22 in New Jersey…..a shitty, busy street with four lanes. We parked out back by the dumpster and tried to collect ourselves. I was ten minutes late for the appointed time, and full of fear that the priests at the high temple of cuisine would reject us for some reason.
“Fuck you!! I don’t care if we’re late!! I hate you!!”
“Yeah, well…..Fuck you, too!!”
We walked in to the place at 8:10….all wrinkled and damp. I think I did have on white sox. The giant neon sign “Stupid Fucking Americans” was still hanging over our heads……Damn. No one in Europe eats before 10pm but stupid fucking Americans.
Still, they were gracious. We were shown to a corner table in an elegant but not overbearing dining room. It was empty.
I ordered champagne….and thought about how to ask for a needle and a drip bottle in Castellano or Basque. Amanda glowered from her side of the table.
The Arzak daughter was our waitress….the maitresse d’hotel. She asked if there was anything we were allergic to, or didn’t like to eat: “I know you are a chef, but I must ask…..”
She knew I was a chef? How?
They must have googled us. We had been in town two hours, and knew no one.
Now they had my attention.
Amuse Bouche courses started…..all perfect and different. They came at a dizzying pace. The wine guy bought us something inexpensive and local…..it must have been the white sox. Amanda still glowered.
Did I mention that Amanda was served entirely different dishes than I was served?
About six dishes in I was brought an egg….and Amanda was brought a Miró. No way else to describe it. It was calamari, but it was a Miró. I know: I have the fucking Miró print. Four or five different sauces slashed over the plate with the calamari ever so……
Since Amanda had come to Spain for art…..and peace…..and refuge…..she instantly teared up at the sight of the dish.
Meanwhile, my egg was just a soft poached egg….with a wedge cut out and pulled back….the yolk oozing ever so. It was still hot. There was just a scattering of herb dust and a biscuit and just an egg.
Yeah, well…..It turns out that they had to know the volume and start temperature of the egg, the temperature of the water the egg was poached in, the exact temperature of the plate the egg was placed on…..and the BTU heat transfer as the plate was carried through the air conditioning to the dining room and put in front of me……..All timed with the Miró squid guy, the waitress, the wine guy….and the now half full dining room.
It was a huge Fuck You!! White Boy…..Welcome to My Place. You want Temple Food? Here is a fucking perfect egg……Don’t try THAT at home, Jackass…..
I was overwhelmed……this is what it is all about. Perfect technique in the service of Art. Etienne Merle was right after all!
Now I can die happy…….
I teared up. I looked at teared-up Amanda. We both sobbed…..and laughed. And sobbed.
Sra. Arzak ran over: “Que pasó? Is anything wrong?”
Me: “No hay problemas……No hay problemas…….I am sorry…..”
Entiendes: La differencia entre “llorar”…………. y “orar”…..est muy pequena………”
(The difference between “crying”…….and “praying”…..is very small………..)
Yeah, two letters……and my whole world………
Arzak rocks ass. They got serious after the egg course…..
As a final touch, they brought me a hamburger for desert: chopped 70% single source chocolate as a burger, a tiny little brioche for the bun, a slice of dried apple for the onion, and a raspberry coulis for the catsup.
Still watching you, Yankee Chef Boy……..
Platano con mousse de arraitxikis
Caldito de alubias con manzana
Pitahay con sepia y hongos
Morcilla con berza y vinagreta de bacon
Pina con piquillo
Clips de cogollos con mango
El carabinero con los verdes
Flor de huevo y tartufo en grasa de oca y txistorra de dátiles
Graffiti de huevo eliptico
Rape con taco de sopa de ajo y …….
Luguado con gelatina in esperada e infusion de cocido
Corzo y ceirvo con naranja especiada
Tortilla fea de chocolate con lechuga
Hamburgesa de chocolate
Pan de naranja con espinacas
Tarta de manzana con tapenade de aceitunas
Plus a bunch of other random shit…….