Martin Berasategui opened in 1993, gaining a third Michelin star in 2001. Mr Berasategui trained at cookery school in France in 1977, working over the next few years in several prestigious kitchens, including those of Michel Guerard and Alain Ducasse in Monaco. In 1981 he took over his family restaurant, el Bodegon Alejandro, earning a Michelin star for it in 1986. The restaurant is situated in the next village to San Sebastian, around twenty minutes by car. It is in a dedicated building on a hillside in a residential area. The dining room has smart, modern decor, with a tiled stone floor and generously spaced tables, each covered with an impeccably ironed white linen tablecloth. On each table was a large bowl of tall white orchids, and there was no music to distract from the food. On the à la carte menu the pricing was €36 for starters, main courses around €60 and desserts at €25. The wine list contained choices ranging from Mouton Cadet Reserve 2007 €38 for a wine that you can find in a shop for around €13, Alion 2006 at €120 for a wine that you can buy for around €56, and Torres Reserva Real 1998 at €192 for a wine that you can purchase for about €83. We drank Torres Mas La Plana 2007 at €77 for a bottle that retails at €38.
Bread, a choice of white, corn or cranberry, was pleasant with a good crust, but unexceptional (16/20). The meal began with a neat rectangular slab of eel, foie gras, apple and spring onions, a pleasing combination of flavours with the apple providing just enough acidity to balance the richness of the foie gras (comfortably 18/20). Next was a sphere of raviolo of onion and squid ink, a consommé of squid poured around the sphere with a single squid ink crisp on one side. The flesh of the squid with the consommé was tender, though the technical trickery to contain the liquid centre of the raviolo seemed to me to be just that: culinary wizardry rather than anything that really added to the flavour of the dish (16/20).
Variations on fennel was a better dish: fennel emulsion combined with raw fennel on a fennel risotto. The fennel itself was of impeccable quality, the risotto having good texture, and this seemed to me an interesting and unusual dish (18/20). Also very good was a pretty salad of warm vegetables, with ripe slivers of avocado and tomatoes amongst well dressed salad leaves, with a little langoustine tail tucked under one leaf (18/20).
For main course, sole was served off the bone alongside smoked fish snout and little spheres of mild green chilli. The sole was carefully cooked but the little blobs of almost liquid spheres of chilli seemed to be a way of showing off a piece of culinary technique rather than really being an ideal flavour pairing for the sole 16/20). Much better was pigeon with wild mushrooms and little pasta parcels with truffle. The pigeon was carefully cooked and had good flavour, the pasta was lovely and the assorted mushrooms were an earthy foil to the richness of the pigeon (19/20).
Almond cake with honey ice cream was served with honey croutons. The honey ice cream had smooth texture but the almond cakes, with a liquid centre, had strangely little in the way of almond flavour (16/20). Better was apple tart with Granny Smith sorbet, two slices of excellent pastry containing slices of apples that were carefully cooked but were not quite tart enough for perfect balance, though the sorbet had lovely texture; a little bowl of chantilly cream was served on the side (easily 17/20). Coffee was served with an array of petit fours: lemon and almond biscuit, caramel of chocolate and orange, pistachio with chocolate, a grape infusion with passion fruit and a hazelnut cream cake. These were good rather than great petit fours, the lemon biscuit very good but the passion fruit flavour subtle to the point of invisibility, for example (17/20).
The bill came to €393.80, which works out at £158 a head with a decent but not excessive bottle of wine between us and a glass of dessert wine apiece. Service was impeccable throughout the evening, the smartly dressed waiters providing seamless and unobtrusive service, with water, wine and bread carefully topped up at all times. This was a vastly better meal than the one I ate here a decade ago, with the pigeon in particular a very fine dish. The dishes that seemed to me to work best were the ones, perhaps ironically, that involved the least culinary "technique", whereas the tricksy spherification seemed to subtract from rather than add to the sole dish. Ingredient quality was very good, shown in the excellent fennel and tender squid, for example.
The notes below are from a less enjoyable meal in September 2002.
An unlikely setting in a residential area, with an airy dining room, a tiled floor and plenty of space; it has rather odd bottle-green walls of the style in old London private clubs. Amuse-bouche turned out to be the highlight, with excellent gazpacho, a little tuna on tapenade, a local cheese with bacon and a single clam served in its shell with aioli (18/20 for amuse-bouche).
The cooking here generally aims at traditional Basque, which has a tendency towards gelatinous textures. As in Chinese cooking, these appeal to some but not generally to those used to more conventional foods (such as me). I found a liquefied prawn and scallop jelly therefore interesting but not especially enjoyable (13/20, but perhaps this is the very finest liquefied prawn you will taste?). A cube of puff pastry with smoked eel, spring onions, foie gras and apple was more enjoyable, the odd sounding mix of ingredients providing a quite effective set of contrasts (17/20). However smoked salmon in a cream broth with a couple of egg yolks tasted exactly as it sounds i.e. there was no obvious relationship between the relatively pleasant but very ordinary ingredients (13/20). The local speciality, hake cheek with pil pil sauce retained the gelatinous texture of the fish but this dish is very much an acquired taste. Turbot was more classically prepared but cooked for too long, with a simple pistachio and cream sauce (15/20).
An apple pie and ice cream was a relief, but quite ordinary (15/20) while chocolate fondant with caramel and cinnamon was also reasonable but still only 15/20. Bread was home made and excellent, and service was faultless, but this is a most difficult meal to mark. Really I found it just 15/20 and would not wish to rush back, yet this now has three Michelin stars, something I find almost incomprehensible. On the bright side, wine is priced as fairly as usual in Spain, with Vega Sicilia Unico at around £100 i.e. retail, and a Pedro Ximines sherry 1827 at just a few euros a glass.