At first glance Martín Berasategui (pronounced as Mar-teen Ber-a-sa-tei-gee) is a burly man with a commanding presence. He is good at what he does and doesn’t take shit from anyone. Today, he boasts the title of the Spanish chef with one of the most, if not the most, Michelin stars through a very successful international horizontally integrated empire.
At his eponymous restaurant in Lasarte just outside of San Sebastián, an entire wall in his kitchen houses a massive television screen to watch Real Sociedad football matches. And during service, his mostly-male front of house team’s respect and admiration for the man is thoroughly evident with any comments or questions answered as if he was all-knowing and ever-present.
In many ways, you can say that Martín Berasategui is your very definition of a man’s man.
So when we had the Great Tasting Menu at his restaurant (a ‘greatest hits’ of his best dishes of the past and new additions from the present), it was very easy to see the similarities to what I initially thought of the chef himself – imposing presentations, unorthodox combinations and a certain self-assuredness. But digging deeper, also displayed an elegance that I did not expect and a maturity only brought about by years of study. Starting with an item that has been around for almost 20 years in the form of a mille-feuille of smoked eel, foie gras, spring onions and green apples, it was not difficult to tell why this delicate dish was a staple on the menu for so long. A thin layer of sugary crust similar to the burnt sugar on a crème brûlée complimented the layers of tartness from the apples which cut the meatier portions that came from the foie and the eel. A classic masterpiece and perhaps an item that could remain on the menu for many more years to come.
What followed was a rich squid soup not as intricate as the former but instead more hearty. Created the year he received his third Michelin star in 2001, it was, if anything, a very unique display of the various offerings of squid. A creamy and tender ravioli made of squid skin was filled with the jet black squid ink. The same squid skin used to make the ravioli was then also used to form light pieces noodles that swam alongside the ravioli in a bath of squid consommé. And to the side, was a squid crouton. Playful and delicious yet not overwhelming in one squid note flavour.
Then came a slew of seemingly irregular flavour combinations that could not not meld more perfectly together. An oyster, for example, was served with subtle hints of kafir and coconut, chlorophyl from watercress gave it a nice cold refreshing tone and cucumber brought an added lightness.
A dish of sautéed black garlic that followed too was unorthodoxed in conception. Smeared all over a hulking unconventionally shaped platter and topped off with a beet ceviche, lumps of sour ice radish and raifort cream. With just the right amount of each item mixed together, the contrasting temperatures, textures, colours and aromas, produced a pleasantness that offset each item’s overriding profile. It worked in every sense of the word.
Or even more notably atypical was the roasted foie gras served alongside seaweed resting on horseradish curd, a fermented soy broth and hazelnut salt. As seaweed is not very prevalent in the Basque Country, its marriage with foie gras was quite unexpected. The horseradish curd too, at first felt odd, but in the soy broth felt like a kick of wasabi. And together, they yielded so much umami that the foie gras, usually the star of the show, was relegated to simply a co-star.
Martín’s significant play on textures was also quite noticeable in the evening’s menu. A serving of red mullet resting on a salty cracker made of cuttlefish had scales fried to a crisp. Then served alongside it were bean sprouts that sat on top of chewy semolina formed into pieces of pasta and lathered in squid ink. All of which contributed differing kicks of crunch and texture.
But the item that epitomized the play on textures came several dishes earlier when fennel was served three ways: raw, as a play on “risotto” and as an emulsion. The “rissotto” version was formed into grain like structures and prepared like a rissotto, yielding a chewy but very rich cheesy concoction, then was complimented by crispy thinly sliced raw pieces and a light airy emulsion of fennel.
Unfortunately however, the only item I would prefer not to repeat the evening of our visit was my final dish, a serving of hare royale. Not because of the bullet that I bit into, but because of the very gamey nature of the hare which its thin but abundant layers of fat and drenching of sauce could not mollify. The bitterness of the brussels sprouts heads cut the richness of the meat and mushrooms added a nice textural component, but they too, could not appease the overriding gamey taste.
Luckily, the meal did not end here and the theme of contrasts continued onto desserts, with the first of two being composed of apple, lemon, celery, cucumber, gin and mint. Again, ingredients were smeared all over the plate and encouraged to be mixed together to form their version of an edible gin and tonic. After a heavy piece of hare for myself and pigeon for my brother, the lightness combined with the ice and sweet tanginess of this dessert was extremely refreshing.
When the meal came to an end and the main man himself made his way down the line of tables in his dining room, I watched as he reached out to the adoring patrons with his burly callused hands and hugged them, kissed them and showered them all with the sincerest grace. When he completed the evening’s ritual, he thanked the doting staff with words of encouragement and a shake of the hand. His calming modest demeanour was the antithesis of his aesthetics, and beyond the surface was a gracefulness, humility and elegance. His passion for his work and willingness to improve thoroughly shone through even after the meal when I received an email from his restaurant asking about our thoughts on our time there. In many ways every aspect of this meal was a reflection of the man himself – classically elegant and mature. And with such a positive experience, I questioned our previous decisions to ignore this restaurant. I am now dumbfounded as to why this restaurant is relatively neglected by the hoards of travellers seeking gastronomic adventures to this part of the world. But at least for our part, I am happy to have righted this ship and is a mistake we will not make again.
To view pictures of our meal in its entirety, please click here.
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Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny