“I’m sorry sir, I can’t find your name on the list.”
These are not words you want to hear when you first arrive at a restaurant you’d had to book into three months in advance. ‘Book in to’ is even too simple a description. We had to apply for a reservation. The first time the application was rejected, but our second choice of time – lunch instead of dinner – was accepted, pending our confirmation by phone one week before.
Now I’d jumped through all the hoops and they were saying my name wasn’t on the list. My stomach sank.
The restaurant in question was Arzak, one of several Michelin three-starred restaurants in the gorgeous Basque town on San Sebastian.
Eventually the chap found my name, which is fortunate both for our sakes and for the sake of this story, which would be pretty dull if it was just about us NOT getting let into a nice restaurant and going out to eat tapas and get drunk instead.
It’s such an ordeal to reserve a table at Arzak because it is considered one of the world’s finest restaurants. Like, top 15 – even top 10 or top five, depending whose list you read.
My wife and I can probably consider ourselves foodies but, don’t get me wrong, this is not the kind of place we would normally consider going to. For financial reasons.
Put it this way, the meal cost more than my first car.
But we were on our honeymoon, AND it was her birthday, so we made the decision months ago that we were doing to indulge ourselves massively, this one time.
And just like I’ll never forget the 2001 champagne gold Ford Falcon, this was an experience we would remember for the rest of our lives. So I suppose you could say that makes it worth it. At least that’s what I keep telling myself when I think about the money side of things.
‘Shut Up About Your First Car Already; What Was It Like?’
In short, it was sensational.
I’ll admit, I had been half expecting the food to be outlandish and experimental, and served in such small portions that I’d feel the need to eat a hamburger or something afterwards.
And based on what I’ve seen in movies like Burnt, or on any of Gordon Ramsay’s shows, and what I’d experienced at some of the fancier restaurants I’d been to back in Australia, I visualised a stuffy atmosphere, where we’d be made to feel awkward about using the right fork at the right time or choosing an inappropriate wine.
Surprisingly, though, Arzak was not like that. Maybe that’s because it’s very much a family restaurant, and has been for its 100-year existence. It may have become world famous under the legendary Juan Mari Arzak, one of the great masters and pioneers of ‘New Basque Cuisine’, who now runs the kitchen with the help of his daughter Elena, but its origins as a welcoming neighbourhood tavern and eating house have been retained.
And so when the tasting menu was first described to us, the waiter made it clear that everything could be adjusted to suit our preferences. Everything sounded pretty wild to me, so I was prepared to just go with the flow.
Banana and squid. Black pudding with cabbage. Red space egg with crispy pig’s trotters. Slightly spiced beef with roasted leak sponge cake and green tea smoke. Bring it all on, amigo.
I watched the waiter closely when my wife asked that her roasted lamb loin be served ‘medium to well-done’. I’ve seen chefs throw mini-tantrums before when you request lamb cooked past rare. The waiter paused a moment and found a solution: ‘I’ll have it cooked medium but sliced finely so it’s still tender.”
The sommelier was one of the least snobby of his ilk I’ve seen at a high-end joint. He had the air of someone who’d been doing his job for decades, and wasn’t the slightest bit interested in talking wank about wine. When I tentatively asked him if he could recommend wine pairings, he said he’d give us half a bottle of light Basque wine to start the meal, and another half bottle of stronger Basque wine for the second part. Sorted.
A Meal To Tell The Grandkids About
Everything about the food was perfect. The meal lasted for hours, from start to finish, but there was no chance of getting bored. Yes, the portions were little, but by the time we’d had 12 or so courses, we couldn’t have eaten anything more. It may be a cliché, but the whole thing really was like a journey of tastes and textures.
The dishes were presented in fun and imaginative ways. The Txistorra (a local sausage) with beer and mango was served on top of a squashed beer can. The Monkfish Cleopatra came on a plate decorated with pumpkin and chickpea sauce hieroglyphics. It was excited to see what came up the stairs next, and just as exciting to put it in your mouth and encounter the often-unexpected combination of flavours that just worked really, really well every time.
Multiple dessert courses, such as the lunar chocolate cube with a fluid core of mint, neroli and kiwi filled our bellies to just about bursting point.
As we sipped our post-meal Spanish jerez (why say no, we were already down the rabbit hole?), the esteemed Senor Arzak himself came around and warmly introduced himself to every table, making sure every guest had enjoyed his or her meal.
Lacking the words to express how much we had enjoyed the meal, we thanked him and said he’d made my wife’s birthday a memorable one. On hearing this he insisted we pose with him for a photo, ending the afternoon on yet another high note.
The only thing left was to have the longest and most satisfying post-lunch nap of our lives.
Image credit: Metro UK