The Best Restaurant in The World....
Do you know where your kids are? All cava bottles and broken drums....
Guys and gals shoulder tapping at Arzak
Morose Supermodel busgirl in Arzak kitchen
The other team
The whole reason for Amanda and me going to Spain was the food. Well, and to get out of Dodge and away from the telephone…. and away from the crackheads. We lined up a dozen Michelin stars for our three weeks, along with some up and comers…..and a few Cachagua Store type places that Michelin could never find on RollerBlades with a map stapled to their……Well, you get the picture. We were gonna EAT!
The culinary center of Spain is San Sebastian. There are twenty Michelin stars within ten kilometers of downtown. Barcelona is staging a big comeback, however…..and there are folks that would tell you that San Sabby is so old-school and so last year. Barcelona has El Bulli….the whacked out super freak home of Feran Adriá. El Bulli sells out a year in advance…..in the single day they take reservations. Of course, they are only open for dinner, and only from April to October….but dinner runs in the high $750 range for two, so hats off to Adriá. Barcelona also has Can Roca, Can Fabres and Sant Pau, mighty three-stars all.
Actually, Barcelona doesn’t have any of them technically…..they are all in the country a couple of hours up the coast. It is as if San Francisco claimed Post Ranch and French Laundry. Barcelona does have snotty hotels run by the principals in all these places, and a ton of New York City style imitators and up and comers. And rotten traffic. Thanks, anyway…..I’ll take San Sabby.
San Sebastian has Arzak and Akelaré. It has Martin Berastegui and Mugaritz and Zuberoa….plus a bunch of one-stars. And San Sebastian is where Amanda and I limped to after getting mugged and pickpocketed in Barcelona and Catalonia.
I already have gone on and on about how much I love San Sebastian. Hang on. The REAL name of the town is Donostia, so let’s switch. Don as in saint in Basque, stia as in real short for Sebastiá. (It is of no small comfort to us that of the two places that we loved in Catalonia one was on Carrer St. Sebastiá…..and the other had a chef from Mugaritz).
At one point, Arzak was rated the best restaurant in the world. This was shortly before The Fat Duck and El Bulli went zinging off into the cosmos….The title is now up for grabs, supposedly because Juan Mari Arzak has turned over much of the running of the place to his daughter.
I don’t necessarily buy this. On our last visit, we actually wept over the food. And what makes the best restaurant in the world anyway?
My view: The Food, obviously. The food should not only be professionally prepared and wonderful to look at and taste, but be informative. It should comfort and nourish you, but also open some doors. It should teach you something. It should inspire. Then, there is service. It too should be professional, but it has to be as adaptive, instructional and as inspirational as the food ….ideally. Finally, there is the ambience: the glassware, the flatware, the plates and bowls and the room. Well, and there should probably be some wine in there somewhere….
Our visits to Arzak always start out problematically. Last time we decided to have a huge fight on the way over. This time there was no fighting, but still, I timed our visit once again to be on the weekend of the Donostia big festival.
The festival….which does not seem to have a name….is one of the coolest and weirdest social gatherings you’ll ever find. It has something to do with Napoleon invading Spain and then making his brother king. Basques are not big on anybody running their shit, much less a short Corsican usurper with a skin condition.
Napoleon’s big deal was his massed Armées and his legions of conscripts…..who would march in big columns directly at any given enemy and pound the living shit out of them. The first few hundred or thousand draftees would be shot dead as they marched up, of course. Never mind, the rest were inspired by and kept in perfect order by drummer boys in the center of the columns pounding out the attack beat….the dreaded Pas de Charge. After a while, and after Marengo and Austerlitz, enemies would just run away when they heard the Pas de Charge…..and Napoleon before long had the run of all Europe. )Shock and Awe was a two hundred year old concept…..no wonder it worked so well! Just like flintlocks….)
Anyway, Spain gave up with barely a fight. Not so much the Basque country. When Napoleon’s troops marched through Donostia, beating out the Pas de Charge….the local housewives and working girls grabbed flour kegs and spoons and followed along behind the Legions, beating out their own rhythms in response and mockery. In otherwords, Basque country was the only place in Europe that not only didn’t run in front of the Pas de Charge…they thought it was hysterical, and followed along behind with a better beat.
Every year, the locals re-inact the whole drama, with the locals dressing up as soldiers and farmgirls. Then, somehow the chefs got involved. My Basque is not so swift……My understanding is that the Donostia version of the Elks and Rotary were eating clubs where the dudes would gather. Everyone would dress as chefs, and they wound up in the mix on Festival Day with each eating club marching along with the chicks and the soldiers, banging with forks and knives on pots and pans.
It is like Mardi Gras….only in January at 5 degrees, so no frontal public nudity. There is definitely nudity at some point, since Donostia if FULL of baby carriages….and the hot chicks are all married at 15.
Like Mardi Gras, the place goes ape shit for 36 hours. Everyone plays. Every school has a band and a group of marchers: soldiers, milk-maids, chefs. Every soccer team dresses up. The boy scouts. The Brownies. Bars have teams. The eating clubs still show up. Grannies and grandpas dress up the two year olds and push them along behind mom and dad in the parades. It is the only parade I have ever seen where there really aren’t many people watching…..they are all in the parade!
And everybody gets a drum. I can do the Pas de Charge in my sleep. Our hotel is right on the main drag. Every band goes past our balcony over the street. Imagine the Rose Parade on crack, and fueled by champagne….and the police all leave and dress up, too. There are no fights, though….and the drinking age seems to be about 12. The bars expand to fill the streets….like Madison, Wisconsin before a football game. Only it goes on for 36 hours…..Thank God for Virgin Airlines’ ear plugs and sleep masks.
It is amazing. The wisdom of the specially designed street sweepers really stands out. The main square was literally knee deep in champagne bottles and broken drums by Sunday night. Knee deep! Acres of glass. A few passes of the little trucks…..presto. Clean and recycled.
So…..Genius boy made reservations for lunch at Arzak on January 20th…..Festival Day. No biggie. Amanda slept in, and I prowled around taking pictures and watching the parades. Our reservation was for 1:30, so we showered and moseyed out about 12:30 to get the car for the short drive to the restaurant. Yeah, right, Genius Boy. Our car was in the carpark under the Cathedral…..ground zero for the parades. It was so insane that we could not even walk to the car. We had to battle grannies with strollers and grandpas with video cameras and a zillion kids and drunks armed with drumsticks and clarinets to fight our way to the river.
No problem. We’ll get a cab. Did I mention that EVERYONE is drunk and in the parade? No police, much less cabs. Arzak is a good three mile hike up a hill towards the suburbs…..like being in downtown Monterey and having to get to Seaside High School up Fremont Avenue. Nothing to do but leg it. Amanda, of course was wearing tiny little cute shoes. And as we realized how late we were, and how far away….we started to run. Uphill. Several times we had to ask directions of little old ladies in fur coats waiting for busses: “Arzak?” “You are running to Arzak? Are you Americans? Good luck….it is that way!”
This is a great way to get to The Best Restaurant in the World: late, running, blistered and soaked in sweat. And, in fear that they would give away our table….the only open table for the entire time we were to be in Spain.
We arrived finally, half an hour late. Idiot Boy told the host: “Hi, we are the Americans….” and started to laugh. We might as well have been painted red, white and blue. We were led upstairs….to the dreaded second floor. Led to Siberia, like sweaty Americans to slaughter.
To a gorgeous big round table by a window in a corner. A quarter acre of cool, thick Irish linen…..hardwoods all around. Big bubbles of crystal. The winesteward, barely able to stop chuckling, instantly plunked down two large glasses of Cava, without being asked. Bless you, bless you, bless you, my good man. I nearly wept with relief.
The forty pound winelist arrived. I figured that a $350 investment in food deserved at least a $75 investment in wine….but I had heard that the winesteward was a devious prick who might try to cheat you. So, I struggled mightily through legions of wines I had no fucking clue about, from areas of Spain I had equally no fucking clue about. Duero? Am I supposed to know this?
Meanwhile, the little treats were starting to arrive from the kitchen. A spoon of something. Amanda started punching my arm. Goddammit, I am trying to find a wine here….I looked up and she was in tears: “Pop rocks! You have to eat this now……..” Finally, I spotted an ’81 Zaco Riserva. Sixty euros….I like ’81 Bordeaux. Halfway between Brendan and Conall…..Amanda was nineteen. Done!
I pounded the spoon. Flavors literally exploded in my mouth….Fourth of July food. I have no clue what it was…..but it was interactive. Pop rocks. Baby mushrooms…..cream….foie gras….who knows?
Juan Mari has a partner, Xabier Gutierrez who has a lab and studio in the back somewhere. Xabi is not a cook…he is an artist. He is in charge of concepts. He has two books, Asfalto Culinario and Bosque Culinario that outline his technique. He goes around the city (Asfalto) or the woods (Bosque) watching, listening, smelling, touching…..and relates his visual, aural, auditory, etc experiences to food in some way. The idea is to keep the door open….to expand the idea of food, and to play it off against other experiences. Festival Day….so, fireworks in your mouth.
We drew the he earnest young winesteward intern….who immediately broke the cork on our old wine…..long, old school cork…..new, ADD winekid. The main wine honcho, came over….made a couple of jokes to put everyone at ease (us, the kid, the tables around us) and gently coaxed out the stub. I had the two sommeliers taste the wine first, and they responded with an elegant duet of which I wish I understood a single word. It was just fine…calm, refined, light on the palate. Whew.
And the parade began:
Melón relleno de queso
Puding de pescado con fideos
Caldito de alubias con manzana
Arroz crujiente con setas
Arraitxiki con rabanitos
Celofán de ostras templadas
Manzanas con aceite de foie
Cigalitas tibias al corte inyectadas de maiz
Flor de heuvo y tartufo en grasa de oca con trufa
Lenguado con brasa de citricos
Pato bien azulón
Foie de pato y platáno
Ostras de chocolate pateadas
Sopa y chocolate “entre viñedos”
Torrija anaranjada con espinacas
Piña asada pomposa
What was this stuff? I was as lost as a Mormon at the Opera……The food changed and moved as you cut in to it. Arroz crujiente was rice crispies….. Cigalitas were baby spiny lobsters injected with corn essence. Celofan de ostras templadas was a evanescent net of potato veiling oysters resting in a gelée made of seawater. When you put a fork to the net/celophan it floated up and disappeared. I asked the wine guy: “A Xaby thing?” Yes.
Everything was perfect, simple with clear flavors ringing like little bells. The waitress delivered each course together with the pouting supermodel busgirl, dropping the plates as one, and describing each course in a beautiful, mellifluous Castillian that kept me so rapt that I did not understand a word she said. I just drank in the sounds….and the devil take the rest.
At the foie course….interestingly wrapped in banana and fried or roasted perfectly….I found myself wishing I had a sweet wine to go with the richness of the dish. The supposed badguy wine honcho materialized at my shoulder with a new glass and offered an obscure sweet Spanish muscato. When I acted pleased, he brought me two more glasses of different sweet reds to go with the foie and the four desserts. There was no charge. What an asshole, huh?
One of the desserts was auditory and olfactory: a fruit soup was poured into a silver service chilled by liquid nitrogen…and a fragrant foam erupted over the whatever whatever. Take me, Jesus……
In the middle of all this….a band of drunken chefs (boys and girls) materialized out front of the restaurant and started to bang out the Pas de Charge and blast away with trumpets and clarinets. They completely blocked the busy four-lane industrial street out front, and cared less. Everyone got up from their tables and went to the windows and clapped and cheered. The boys played four or five tunes while the traffic dealt with it. Juan Mari sent everyone out beers and bottles of Cava and some snacks……Arzak snacks. Everyone cheered some more…..and when the boys finished eating and drinking, they played another tune. All the traffic backed up the road….no one caring, everyone cheering, even the people stuck in the traffic.
That is all you need to know. We got a tour of the kitchen with 30 chefs banging away to produce 10 tables of food; the vast temperature controlled modern wine cellar; Juan Mari and his daughter both came out and said hello to us. The wine guy took me aside on the way out, and pointed out that the #13 bus stopped out front and went right back to Plaza Guipúzkoa.
So, Amanda and I rode the bus back to the hotel…..from a $500 lunch. Somehow it was fitting. A family restaurant with stunningly perfect, complex and challenging food, mind-reading service, a place full of humor and life and generosity and irony, intimately tied to the community…..and public transport can take you home in style.
The Best Restaurant in The World, I am thinking…….