No words can describe what I feel whenever C and I visit Arzak. Three years ago, we visited Arzak for the first time, and the impression that it has left on me has been one of the happiest ones in my life. It is the main reason why I insist on eating at Arzak every year we visit San Sebastian, and this year marks the third straight year we have gone.
Arzak has been awarded 3 Michelin stars since 1989 and has consistently ranked in the top 10 of The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants list. It is owned and operated by Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena Arzak. Juan Mari is a living legend in the culinary world and is considered by many as the godfather of New Basque Cuisine. His importance in the modern gastronomy scene can not be underestimated, as many chefs today have in one way or another been inspired or influenced by Juan Mari’s work. Elena is no slouch either having trained and cooked in some of the best kitchens in Europe and recently she won the Veuve Clicquot World’s Best Female Chef award.
From the outside, Arzak looks like any regular, unassuming house in San Sebastian. It has been part of the Arzak family since Juan Mari’s grandparents (both Elena and Juan Mari were born here), and I can only assume that very little has been changed since then. However, once you step inside, you are transported into a very modern restaurant. The dining room is split between two floors:
and the upstairs
The best way I can describe the food at Arzak is a recipe of part Basque (using ingredients native to the region such as anchovy, pigeon, lobster and foie gras), part scientific (experienced through the preparation of certain components used in the desserts, salads and appetizers), part artistic (the use of bright and vibrant colour palettes in each course) and part playful (having food shaped as clothe-pins and ladybugs is not uncommon in Arzak). Not one ingredient overpowers the others, but instead blends together nicely through years of fine tuning and experimentation. This is most evident in the appetizers they serve, small bites that epitomize the entire tasting course at Arzak.
The tasting menu at Arzak this year seemed to be lighter than previous ones. C, who has a way smaller stomach than I do, noticed this as well. Despite being lighter, we found this years tasting to be the best we’ve had to date. And being that this was the first time we visited Arzak in September, we were able to experience a whole new set of ingredients that was not served to us before, such as the white tuna belly and the crab.
One staple in Arzak that is on the menu every year is the egg course. Arzak is the first restaurant that we’ve been to that dedicates an entire course to an egg. It sounds simple enough, but the results are just outstanding. The first year we visited we had a dish called the “Egg Quake” and the past two years we’ve had the “Egg and Mussel”.
Now, in my mind, what differentiates Arzak from all other restaurants (and why I consider it my favourite restaurant) is the amount of time Juan Mari and Elena spends with their diners. It’s this personal touch that is unique with Arzak and something that I have not seen replicated yet. Usually, either one of them will greet you when you enter the restaurant, Elena will sometimes take customers’ orders, and they will always stop by your table during your meal or before you leave to say hi and tell you stories about their lives and the restaurant. There will not be one prolonged moment of your stay in which you will not see Juan Mari or Elena interacting with the diners, and this is why they do an impeccable job of making sure that you feel right at home. However, due to personal reasons, this year marked the first time that Elena was not in the restaurant when we visited.
A story I love telling about Arzak happened during our visit in 2011. As we entered and gave the name for our reservation, Elena was at the front desk and mentioned she remembered us from the year earlier. Now at the back of my mind I was saying to myself, “how can she remember us since they probably get over a thousand new diners each year?” Later on when Elena stopped by our table to see how things were, we asked how she remembered us and she said that it was because, like her, we look way younger than our actual ages (which is true because people still mistake C and I for 15 and 17 year olds). She then tells us a story of how she never judges people’s ages because during culinary school in Switzerland she went skiing and was given child ski lift tickets instead of adult ones because of how young she looked.
These are the moments that push Arzak over the top. Because at the end of the day, there is only so much you can remember about each restaurant, each course and each glass of wine you have, but you’ll always vividly remember the time you were able to personally relate to Juan Mari, Elena and Arzak.
To view pictures of our meal in its entirety, click through the photo set below. If you are using a mobile device, please click here for compatibility.
Thanks for reading,
S & C