Hello friends! I apologize for being way past due on the posting. It's been a total whirlwind the past couple days, and I've barely had time to check my e-mails let alone write a post. Lots of running around, not so much relaxing! However, it's been worth the hustle and bustle for sure. To fill you in, Kate and I have hopped around from Madrid, to San Sebastian, Bilbao, and now Zaragoza. We make our way back to Madrid tomorrow for a couple of days and then it's back to the Big Apple! There will be posts to follow on our experiences in all four cities and a special post on my stage at Restaurant Azurmendi. But first, I promised details on our dinner at the world famous Basque restaurant Arzak. The Chefs Juan Mari and Elena are forerunners and inventors of the contemporary Basque cuisine that started a world wide movement. The restaurant is legendary and to be able to eat there is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Here's the facts:

The restaurants exterior was very unassuming. It included a faded blue awning, and a sign that looked as though it hadn't been updated since the mid 1970's. Probably because it hasn't. The interior of the restaurant could be more contemporary. Very sleek, and simple - void of anything excessive. All of the doors in the place were frosted glass that whisked open with the touch of a small button, very Star Trekesque.

Our table was marked with these outrageously long utensils when we sat. Fortunately, they replaced them with something more practical when the first course arrived. Although it may have been fun to try them out. I suppose they were just to get us into that "Alice in Wonderland" state of mind. Believe me, we were there.
The first two amuse bouches were a duo of soup. The left most shooter contained a black bean soup with green apple, and the right had a corn soup with freeze dried fig and black pudding or blood sausage. All very traditional Basque ingredients - both were delicious. Simple and well balanced.

A small glass dish was placed in the center of the table. Inside, two spoons rested on a metal mesh dish. Beneath the disk, a pool of tomato water. Liquid nitrogen was poured from a porcelain pitcher into the bowl. It immediately started to vaporize and the summery scent of tomatoes hovered over our table.

The spoons held a single bite of tomato encased in the thinest slice of Iberico Ham you could possibly imagine. The ham literally became the tomato's skin. Flowers and a slightly sweet herb crisp made this one a delight to eat.
These two bites were eaten with the fingers alone (first dragged through the chili sauce of course). Your teeth first crunched down through a crust of puffed yellow rice before finding a rich mushroom mousse inside.

The last of the amuse bouches was a crispy fried Kabraroka pudding. This is a traditional fish custard turned into a fun modern snack food. Again, simple and delicious!

Our first course was by far one of the best. The server set it down with instructions to first scoop underneath it with the spoon, with the other hand invert it end over end, and to lastly eat it like an ice cream cone. It contained several chunks of incredibly cooked foie gras - each bit tumbling into our mouth as we turned the crisp. The crisp was made of fried masa meal, and the accompanying powders included truffle, mushroom, onion, and tea. On the menu us was described as a Cromlech of Foie Gras. I was baffled. As I have never heard of a "cromlech" before I had to do some extra research. Turns out that a cromlech is defined as "a circle of prehistoric standing stones". Example: Stonehenge. The chefs had brilliantly devised a way to communicate a totally non-edible prehistoric structure in the form of food. Delicious food I might add. We later realized that the tea powder on the sides of the crisp mimicked moss.

This next one took the form of a historic rock arrangement as well. Described as a Menhir of Oysters. Further research showed that a menhir is "a single large upright standing stone" A very similar crisp except this time infused with beetroot was perched upon a block of confit'd potato. Two beautifully seared oysters with a little lemon zest, lemon confit, and almond were there to accompany our "standing stone". Think about it. All the flavors work, there's absolutely nothing weird about the flavor combination here. Why not present it in a way that is also a joy to eat. Discovering surprises with each bite...
A creamy oyster sauce oozes from the potato.
Unfortunately, hollow...

Next up was a refreshing course of lobster, potato, tomato, and copaiba. Copaiba is a yellowish viscous resin found in certain South American trees. Not only did the rich lobster sauce itself contain this aromatic resin, but the potato crisp mimicked the section of a tree, split open and leaking the resin. The tomato turned out to be not a tomato at all, but a sphere of intense tomato juice. It burst in your mouth upon impact.
The lobster course was served with a little side dish of tiny greens and.....tapioca. The greens were solely seasoned with a little olive oil, the plumped tapioca pearls held all the acid for the salad. Tangy with a sweet vinegar. This was one of those things I just shouldn't have liked. But I did. I didn't know why, I just did.

Sticking with the earth and minerality theme, the next course was titled "Egg With Earth Tremor". And it did indeed look as though the slow poached egg has been shaken to the Earth's surface by some kind of quake. The "earth" was bread crumbs soaked in a mushroom and truffle essence little crunchy bits of something (not really sure to be honest) were painted with an edible silver paint to complete the effect. Shaved truffles and flowers made it look as though it had crested right in the middle of someone's garden. No funny business here. This one was delicious and honest.

Titled "Monkfish At Low Tide", this dish looked like just that. Just as much fun to eat as it was to look at. Let me first say that this was the most perfectly cooked piece of monkfish I have ever put into my mouth. So incredibly tender and juicy. The chefs did not sacrifice sound cooking technique for the sheer fun of the plate-up. Upon the monkfish sat a few spheres of caviar - made of roasted pepper juice. The shells were made of a gelled mussel stock, and the seaweed was dipped into a red tempura batter before being deep fried. Best part of this dish: the monkfish. All the other components: meh. Fun to eat though...

This was our final savory course of venison tenderloin and marigold stucco (a dried sheet of seasoned marigold puree). Again, the chefs use the reference of a completely non edible item to get their point across. The venison couldn't have been more tender, and unlike a lot of the deer I've had, it was very moist. Another surprisingly simple dish wins again!

The venison was served with a side bite of tempura cardoon root (a celery-like stalk vegetable that tastes of artichoke), and chorizo oil.

On came the parade of desserts... each and every one involved some kind of liquid incased in something else. This one was titled "Playing Marbles With Chocolate". It did indeed appear to be a few chocolate marbles on the plate. A crushed sesame cookie and a sesame creme anglaise were also present. The "marbles" had a crunchy malt ball like texture, and when bitten burst with a smooth chocolate ganache.

Titled "Between Vineyards", this was the exact opposite of the above dish. Six perfect chocolate spheres were incased in...chocolate! They sat in a vibrant bath of strawberry soup. Next to them a sweet basil sorbet - the freshest I've ever tasted. The flavors worked surprisingly well together, but the most baffling part of this dish was the warm chocolate that flowed from each sphere. Very strange! Here you have a chilled soup, a frozen sorbet, and these warm (almost hot) chocolate spheres exploding in your mouth. "FUN" is the best word I can use to describe it.

The chef, Juan Mari had just a minute to say hello. He didn't speak much English. Regardless, it was a great honor to have been able to meet him.

Here's a video of the server preparing a sauce for the next dessert. One liquid was mead (or honey wine), the other water. The strange effect that resulted only occurred because one was hot, the other cold. Check it out...

"Mead and Fractal Fluid" Again, sticking with the theme here, a fractal is "a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is a reduced-size copy of the whole." Which is exactly what this is. It looks as though some kind of mythical creature zapped the rock with lightening and split it in two. The resulting "fractal fluid" leaked forth (it was drizzled between the two pieces from the server's spoon). The fractal itself was a sugary crust of carrot that contained a soft lemon jelly. Some simple cookie crumbs helped to mop up all the fractal goodness.

Titled "Lunatic Sweet" this dessert was just that. Very sweet and very LUNAR. It actually resembled the face of the moon. The small void circles were filled in with a reduction of red wine. The little moon pods you see were a similar vanilla crust, with a molten citrus center. In a word: refreshing. The white powder was a celery sugar.

Our petit fours came in the arrangement of tools. Yes, tools. Dark chocolate screws, white chocolate nuts, Coca Cola washers, mango pate de fruit, and some kind of crusted truffle were present as well. The powder you see is a celery sugar. Again, it couldn't be more fun to eat, and it surprised us how delicious it was.

A final message: Ferreteria - which means "Hardware" in Spanish. 

Final thoughts about the meal... 100% honesty here - I did not know what everything I ate was, I didn't not understand all of the ingredients, cooking techniques, nor thought process behind them. That rarely happens. But I left filled with a sort of joy and whimsical happiness that no steak and mashed potatoes could account for. The meal was well thought out, beautiful, and most of all delicious. Sometimes I wasn't even sure why it tasted so good. On my way out of the restaurant my brain fought for ways to make sense of it all. It needed to make some kind of comparison to help it to make sense. I immediately thought of a symphony performance. You sit and listen and leave the theatre fulfilled and satisfied. You leave HAPPY. Did you know each note the oboe player was playing? No. Do you fully understand how  the drummer keeps two different rhythms going at the same time? Nope. But it doesn't matter. In the end, the feelings that the performance have set upon you are much memorable and long lasting than any understanding of the technical aspects. This, in a nutshell, is a dinner at Arzak.

All I know is that I left happy. Oh so happy.



  1. Absolutely lovely analysis! We ate at Arzak a few weeks ago and had many of the dishes you did.

    Just a note though, "fractal" refers to the shape that the red fluid made in the clearer fluid (ie the sauce you video-ed). The two orange pieces are not really a fractal. Looking on a google image search for a fractal, you'll see what I mean. In culinary terms, the shape of romanesco would also be a fractal.

    I really appreicated your conclusion. So many times "foodies" go to restaurants such as Arzak, El Bulli, or Alinea and pass ridiculous judgments without having a clue as to how some of these dishes are prepared. Your candor and comparison of the experience to a symphony were quite correct. Rest assured many of the cooks who stage or work the line at Arzak may not know the secrets of every dish.

    Good luck with your cooking and superb writing!



About Cooking Curiously...

This is a place for food nerds to roam free. A place for me to document my tales and experiences concerning that wonderful substance known as FOOD. I find it incredible how many forms it can take, and the impact it can have on our lives. Hopefully, I can make some of those forms tangible here. The following posts will range from travel stories to new dishes and recipes, some restaurant reviews, maybe just an interesting food thought. Regardless, this is meant to be an open forum for both myself and any followers. Feel free to post and comment. Enjoy!

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