Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Best Restaurant in The World....

Chicks with drums...well, flour barrels
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… 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… 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… 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…, 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…….

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Mike and Rafa

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Rafa's in Roses

We are addicted to Spain in winter: the absence of crowds, the more laid back atmosphere you find most places. We tend to prowl the coast and mountains of Basque country, but this trip went for a cross-country charge to Barcelona. The Can’s….Comerc24….Hyssop…..San Pau…..Our friend Txema at Inopia…..

After getting mauled at Comerc24, and blessed at Bar Inopia…..we bailed on Barca headed up to Roses. Who goes to Roses in winter….except true geeks who want to take pictures of the El Bulli driveway? Well, we did… go to Rafa’s. Well….. and take pictures of the El Bulli driveway.

Rafa’s sounded like my dream restaurant: fresh fish, simply and perfectly prepared; reservations iffy, depending on the catch. You make your reservations, then call in the morning to see if they will actually open or not, depending on the fish situation. As a chef who once smacked a diner with a still bleeding halibut carcass after the guy implied my fish was frozen…..I was intrigued. My kind of guy. And, every eGullet El Bulli diner has eaten there and loved it.

The problem was FINDING Rafa’s. Nothing on the Google search but Brett Emerson’s review. Rafa is a Luddite, obviously. I prowled all over eGullet. Lots of mentions, lots of praise. No address and no phone number. Even the concierge at the high priced hotel the Inopia guys bought us after the debacle at Comerc24 could come up with…..nothing. All I had was “across the street from Snack-Mar” in Roses. And, of course…..Snack-Mar was closed for vacation.

We drove up anyway and checked into a beachfront hotel…. for 50 euros a night for a room with a balcony (another reason to go in winter!). No one had heard of Rafa’s….somewhat worryingly. We looked up Snack-Mar and found it on C. San Sebastiá. No one was really sure where C. San Sebastiá was either, but we finally found it… it takes a couple of turns….. two hundred meters from the hotel. And… promised, right across from Snack-Mar on San Sebstiá was Rafa’s.

Well, maybe. There was a small restaurant with elaborately carved hardwood around the door and a sign: “RHODEROSESRAFA” carved over the door. The place was all torn up, and there was a woman inside painting. I screwed up my courage and inquired. Yup. Rafa’s. Might be open tomorrow. Or maybe Wednesday.

What to do? Wait around for a ‘maybe’? Well, on a Monday or a Tuesday in Spain in the winter the options are limited. We decided to wait.

Had a bad hotel meal. Drove the back way to Caidaques…..past El Bulli….then on the dirt roads. The Dali House…..closed for the winter. The Museum in Figueres…

I am one of those restaurant guys who has trouble not working. Every few hours…bored, anxious, hungry….I would stroll past Rafa’s. Now, all the furniture was out in the street. The woman was still there, working like a dog. I screwed up my courage again, and offered to help. Non, gracias. Are you sure….I am just sitting around, I would rather clean than sit…..Non, gracias.

I checked back a couple times, finally at ten at night. The Rafa lady was sitting on the curb, surrounded by furniture, eating shitty pizza from a styro to-go container. “Come on, I can at least cook you a meal!” Non, gracias. All night I had nightmares about storming the Roses Pizza Parlor and commandeering it to make the Rafa Lady a proper pizza…….

Well, of course, Tuesday didn’t pan out, what with all the furniture on the street on Monday night and all. We found a one-star outside town that was open….unfortunately. The only good side of the meal was the hostess/waitress is best friends with the Rafa lady….they are both Rosas. As in Roses. Go figure.

I did not commandeer the pizza parlor.


I did take pictures of the El Bulli driveway. And I stayed away, mostly. I did get reservations for Wednesday lunch. Name? “El Americano Limpio”….the American who must clean, even on holiday.

Wednesday morning I was up at the crack. Prowled the town looking for flowers. By now, I was getting well deserved weird looks from the town folks. Oh, that Clean American…..He is waiting for Rafa to open…..I found a florist. No roses, of course…but I found some beautiful tulips next to the internet place.

On the way to Rafa’s we encountered a group of well dressed older people wandering around Roses’ tiny little streets, looking lost and confused. “Buscando C. San Sebastiá? Rafa’s? Sigame…..” I made them go in first…..Just in case Rosa had called the Guardia about The Clean American Stalker.

Turns out Rafa and Rosa could not have been sweeter. I gave her the flowers as apology for my stalking, and in tribute to her hard work, and the crappy pizza. She was stunned. Note to self: always bring flowers to restaurant hostesses.

Rafa turned out to be the short stocky guy I thought was the plumber two days before. His kitchen is right there in front, and tiny: one oven, a flat grill, a couple of burners and an expresso machine. He has a deli-style display case for the fish. That is it.

I discreetly filmed Rafa working to show my super-star chef son. Brendan’s reaction? “The guy doesn’t move.” Rafa is so at home in his environment that it appears that nothing is being done. The fish arrives (deliveries take place all during service), the menu changes….Rafa growls. Rafa takes his giant knife and filets something. Rafa throws fish on the grill. Rosa deals with the people. The dishwasher is next door….the machine, not the guy….so Rosa busses out the front door, down the street, through another door and into another space. There also seems to be a basement that she climbs down into…..No way Rafa is getting into that space. Rafa goes to his window and has a cigarette while Rosa is charging like a greyhound.

The food was magic. I watched Rafa’s every move…..and there weren’t many. Like Leon Spinks in the 80’s, he had two magic bottles of liquid. Olive oil and seawater, it turns out. That is it.

Rosa turned people away right, left and center…..ruthlessly. We offered to share our table….don’t even think about it…..

The meal? Jamon Iberico…from a friend. Some prawns….from the bay. Some baby razor clams…..the best thing I ever ate. From where? The fuckin’ bay, you idiot. What was the sauce? Olive oil and seawater, dummy. Oh, and sea salt. From where? The fuckin’ bay, dummy!

A fish was delivered. Rafa wacked it up and cooked it for us. Another better fish was delivered…..he gave me the look: You want? Can’t do it….I will explode. A shrug and a growl. They don’t do dessert….

Me either!! Well, kind of…..

Finally the wine hits and I have the nerve to move into his space to gossip. Now, Rosa growls….thank god for the flowers.

Rafa claims that the whole thing with his food is the iron grill. His grill is solid iron…..everyone else is cooking on stainless. You have to watch the steam…..and listen to the fish. The steam starts out white, then goes gray…..and the fish stops talking. Then you pull it.

Rafa remembers Txema, Brendan’s buddy from Inopia, from his Bulli days. A really good kid. Rafa knows all the cooks at Bulli, because they come to him on their day or half day off. I tell him about our horrible experience at Comerc24. He is not surprised. He gestures with a shoulder out the window. That guy Abellan opened a cooking school and restaurant across the street…..lasted three years. Rafa still keeps in touch with a couple of Mexican kids who came to the school from Puebla, Mexico, though…….Maybe I know them?

Rafa’s favorite thing to do is have beach parties with the Bulli guys. They go out to the little coves around Bulli, build fires and cook up the local shellfish, fish fish they catch in nets on the beach, along with wild asparagus from the old Roman terraces surrounding the place and whatever mushrooms they can scrounge from the hills as well. His only bummer is the pans that they have available…..not iron, can’t retain heat. Rafa has heard that American cowboys cooked on iron pans over fires…..Can I get him one? And……Hey, we did this yesterday….where were you?

Uh…stalking your wife….trying to help paint. Damn!

Rafa’s deal is he is trying to make it seven more years….then retire and just do beach parties and relax with his friends.

So, you El Bulli guys who are jockeying for your 2008 reservations…….don’t forget Rafa.

Bring tulips…..

Can’t hurt.

C. San Sebastiá 56 (across from Snack-Mar)
972 254 003