This was my third visit to the famous restaurant Arzak. It is located in a residential area on one of the hills overlooking San Sebastian, a short drive from the town centre. The building was actually constructed by the grandparents of current head chef Juan Mari Arzak. These days his daughter Elena runs much of the kitchen service, given that Mr Arzak is seventy years old at the time of writing, though he was still in the kitchen this evening. Arzak was awarded a third Michelin star in 1989, which it has kept continuously. There are two dining rooms, one on the ground floor and one upstairs, seating a total of 55 diners at any one time.
The wine list stretched over 46 pages, and had a fine selection of Spanish wines, including many vintages of the glorious Vega Sicilia Unico. We drank the rare and lovely 1995 Rioja Alta 890 at a price barely above its £86 retail price in the UK, assuming you could find it at all. Bread, a choice of white or brown, was enjoyable, with a good crust (7/10). A tasting menu was priced at €179, in addition to the à la carte menu (where starters ranged from €45 to €49, main courses €55 to €70 and desserts €29. The wine list was extensive and was very fairly priced: as Alion 2007 was €65 for a wine that costs €58 in a shop, Chateau La Fleur Petrus 1999 was €199 for a wine that you can find in a shop for about £151, and a wide range of the glorious Unico was available, some below its retail price e.g. Vega Sicilia Unico 1981 at €309 that retails at about €350.
The meal began with a series of nibbles. A fish ball in angel hair pasta was very good but a corn soup with leaves was too salty even to my taste. A marinated sardine with strawberry was a combination that for me just didn't work; although I can see the logic of pairing a fruit with an oily fish, strawberry just has too much sweetness to pair well with sardine, the combination clashing on the palate. Marinated gooseberry with potato crisps was another strange mix, the crisps infused with mint. Potato with amaranth was better, whilst chorizo with melon tasted mostly of melon. This was a very mixed set of nibbles in terms of quality (barely 5/10 on average).
My starter was on surer ground, a savoury cone of crisp yucca plant filled with foie gras mousse. The mousse was suitably rich and the crisp vegetable was a nice textural contrast (8/10). Lobster with hemp seeds had tender shellfish, with a few leaves hiding a mustard sauce, and on the side a rather odd mix of tapioca and salad leaves (6/10). Squid with onion and lemon sauce was good, the squid without any hint of chewiness, and the lemon part of the sauce providing good balancing acidity (7/10). A plate of seasonal vegetables comprised a series of vegetables that had been cooked but were served cold: broccoli, courgette, mushrooms, asparagus, tomato, with radish, red onion, cocoa beans and pear. The trouble with such a simple dish is that it stands or falls by the quality of the vegetables: this kind of thing works at somewhere like Louis XV in Monaco, where the local vegetables are of peerless quality, but here the dish was just a series of pleasant but hardly exciting cold vegetables (4/10).
Monkfish with figs and gooseberry had carefully cooked fish, though the fig flavour was subtle to the point of invisibility (7/10). Pigeon with red onion had very good and well-seasoned pigeon breast, but the smears of sauce had become literally fused to the very hot plate, just dry blotches. This was simply due to the plates being heated too much, but meant that the dish consisted only of protein. The pigeon itself was very good (8/10) but this sort of basic technical error was not what you would expect from a three star restaurant.
Chocolate with citrus and basil ice cream had good chocolate, but I remain to be convinced of combining shrubbery-based elements into dessert courses, and more to the point the citrus element was subtle to the point of absence (5/10). A chocolate sponge with sesame, like and green gooseberry ice cream was good, but far from earth shattering (6/10). Service was, not to put too fine a point on it, off key. There was an uncomfortably long wait before our food order was taken, well after the wine arrived. Topping up was distinctly erratic, and the waiters were visibly stretched in dealing with the full dining room. At one point a tray arrived for another table with the savoury cones of foie gras, and was set down at a waiter station prior to placing on the table. One of the upright cones had fallen over on one plate, and after a brief anxious glance of one waiter to another, there was a shrug and they served it anyway. Of course this was not going to affect the taste, but this sort of sloppiness, acceptable in a pub, again was not what a restaurant of this calibre should be doing.
This visit to Arzak was much less successful than my previous meals here. Perhaps this was just a difficult service where all the diners turned up at once, and perhaps they were short-staffed, but the waiters were clearly stretched. On the food front, there were some minor errors that should not have crept in, but also and perhaps more troubling, no really dazzling dishes. Elena Arzak came out at the end and asked us about our experiences, and was very nice about the issues we had encountered; she seemed genuinely concerned, and admitted that it had been a particularly busy service. This was still an objectively good meal, but I found it less enjoyable than my previous visits here, and I have nudged the web site score down a point to reflect this.
The notes below are from my first visit in 1999 and from a later one in Setember 2002.
This 3 star Michelin restaurant specialises in Basque cooking. It is a family-run affair, with Elena Arzak now sharing the cooking duties with her father Juan Mari Arzak. The original Arzak, always in the same family, opened as far back as 1897. The restaurant is on the outskirts of San Sebastian (a five minute taxi drive), the dining room spread over two floors. Service was attentive and friendly. Breads are of good quality, and as we perused the short menu we are presented with amuse-bouche. On our first visit here in 1999 we had a little, very fresh sardine on a thin pastry base, garnished with tomato and herbs. This was excellent, but even better was a stunning tortilla pancake on a tapioca base; this may not sound appealing but the warm potato melted in the mouth; a remarkable dish (10/10).
I started with langoustine salad, several perfect langoustines sautéed and then served in a little bowl with perfect green salad leaves and a light sauce of the langoustines (10/10). My wife had “potato accordion”, slices of fried potato, served with tender prawns in a saffron sauce (8/10). For the main course sole was served as several baby fillets, with a creamy sauce that supposedly had baby beans in, but which were hard to discern; there were some excellent walnuts as a garnish (7/10). I had pigeon, several tender medallions with a rather oddly matched light stock that was jellied, with a few baby carrots and beans.The pigeon was excellent, but the sauce tasted like a chicken stock and did not stand up well to the pigeon (6/10).
Cheeses were entirely from the local area and were in good condition. For dessert a chocolate fondant was reasonable (5/10) rather than stunning. Coffee was good, served with capable petit fours. The wine list was very deep in its coverage of Spanish wines, plus a selection from abroad, and very fairly priced. Vega Sicilia 1981 was around £100, which was retail price in the
UK, if you could find it. It is nice to see a restaurant cooking regional dishes rather than trying to mimic French, though the limitations of Basque cuisine show in the sauces and the desserts, which do not match the best in
France. Still, an excellent place: very good value. The food (including service) was less than £50 for four courses.
At a 2002 meal the food was still lovely. The price of the Vega Sicilia had sadly risen, but only to a mark-up of around 50%. At this meal a starter of tuna with “blue” potatoes (stained with red onion juice) was cooked rare and was excellent (8/10) while a dish of prawns with prunes was interesting but perhaps 6/10, as was a salad of crayfish. A roast lobster main course was cooked well enough but was very plain (6/10) while sole with a sauce of garbanzo peas was better (7/10). This time desserts shone out as the highlight, with a very fine chocolate fondant (unlike the previous visit) and a perfect lemon ice cream.