"Truffled egg" at Azurmendi. Credit: Azurmendi

How Spain’s tiny San Sebastián became a global force in the food world

A destination for travelling eaters, we go in search of the restaurants that have shaped the region’s culinary scene...

The Basque Country, it is widely accepted, is perhaps the best place to eat in Europe, where the quality flowing out of modernist kitchens is equalled by the pleasures found in San Sebastián’s weathered pintxo bars. “We Basques do things well,” says the chef Elena Arzak whose namesake restaurant – brought to the global conversation by her father Juan Mari – continues to underpin the standard of San Sebastián’s food scene thanks to its exceptional dovetailing of contemporary thinking with a bone-deep commitment to local produce and traditions. 

Although it is a gourmand’s destination that almost bleeds into the coastal commune of Hendaye, in southern France, San Sebastián’s culinary outlook, at least it seems, is the reverse of the traditional Gallic approach, with sauces and creams and fine, heavy meats eschewed in favour of lightness and the purity of ingredient – forearm-length scarlet prawns; ivory-hued cod; eggs considered more treasured than caviar; and a minimal use of herbs, so to allow the produce to sing on its own merit. It is an ethos rivalled perhaps only by the Japanese shokunin obsession with high-level quality.

© Donostia San Sebastian Turismoa

But probably equally significant is what this Basque spirit represents, where the food isn’t just prized for its taste alone, but rather the reveries it can evoke – where the pure smack of seafood brings to mind the sea breeze of fisherman villages; the wine-red xapata cherries’ deep juices express rural, wild orchards; and puddles of thick, bitter olive oil are a celebration of the sloping groves that sit on the region’s plunging hillsides. A taste of Basque cuisine is a taste of the promise of its lands. 

So, localism, foraging and shining a light on the season’s harvest? San Sebastián and its neighbours have long done that, their commitment to superlative, domestic produce well chronicled for years. Before the fleet of food obsessives rushed to Noma for its platings of sorrel and other strange herbs plucked from the ground, The French Laundry for its expression of the Napa Valley, and Central for its composition of dishes themed around the varying altitudes of the Peruvian landscape, Basque chefs have been framing domestic ingredients at least since the mid 1970s, when the Gang of Twelve, a band of chefs spearheaded by the patriarchal Arzak, took cues from nouvelle cuisine and set out to lighten up and refine the Basque kitchen, spreading that knowledge and creating a subset of Spanish fare – nueva cocina vasca – that has oozed its way through global dining rooms. 

San Sebastián is a postcard town, scenic in its appearance, big enough to warrant a certain number of visitors a year but small enough that you could walk each of its three crescent beaches in the time it’d take you to finish your podcast. There is a certain perfection to it here, the kind of art-directed quality you may see in the pages of a Marco Polo guide, a small fleet of yachts bobbing around in each bay, the light that hits the sand worthy of a Sorolla.

The waters run deep here, too, with a history that extends back 25 millennia – “What we were, who we were, we don’t know,” goes a Basque saying, so old is the land – and though there is a close proximity to the cultural pleasures of Barcelona and Marseille, the noise that soundtracks these streets is not of the oppressive slip-slap of tourists sandals, but of the rhythmic batter of sea waves and the afternoon’s gossip, and, every so often, the slug of the barely carbonated cider that’s poured in every bar in town.

© Donostia San Sebastian Turismoa

Is San Sebastián a town populated with gourmets? Yes, but perhaps not in the way that is considered so by those who are plugged into Eater updates, or by those who seasonally spring from Narisawa to Pujol to The Fat Duck.

It is a place where locals and off-duty chefs, it seems, at least when you gather a picture of the town during a weeks-long stay there, have a Trojan-like loyalty to their tastes and their bars; where the all-male, decades-old gastronomic societies – where cadres of local men cook for each other, perfuming the dining halls with the scent of lightly grilled prawns and green sauce; and kokotxas de merluza, the gelatinous meat from the hake’s jaw – continue to underpin social life; and where Bjarke Ingels, the architect whose fingerprints are seemingly found in every major city, is charged with constructing a new culinary hub for chefs, researchers and startups. 

At Tamboril, a pintxo bar that attracts a great number of diners, there are prawns deep-fried in golfball-sized globules of batter, and there’s a balanced take on the gilda, that most emblematic pintxo that consists of olives, guindilla peppers and salted anchovies piked together by a cocktail stick. Bar Sport serves clean-tasting foie gras, an old-world delicacy still popular in these streets.

If you join the queues snaking out from Ganbara, a place to which locals flock like heat-seeking missiles, the calling card is a plate of hongos, an arrangement of wild mushrooms seared on a plancha and thickened together with a raw, golden egg yolk. It is easy to spend the better part of a month in this city, sipping tkakoli, the very thin, high-acid local wine, and joining the throngs who shuffle to La Viña at the end of the evening, the location, it is alleged, where the original Basque cheesecake set in motion global facsimiles of its kind. 

It is not possible to understand Basque people without first understanding our passion for food and cooking. It is a combination of our roots and hedonism, our taste for landscape and traditions,” says Joxe Mari Aizega, the director of the Basque Culinary Center. “We see a lot of talent, daily. And we see the continuity and the future of more than 38 countries’ cuisine in our classrooms,” he adds, regarding the students – and therefore the future of the Basque scene – at the institute.

San Sebastián, it is also well documented, is a unique ecosystem, where within a ten-minute drive in every direction are nineteen Michelin-starred restaurants, the highest concentration per square kilometre in the world. Could this be the best place to eat on earth? It would certainly be easy to think so.

But would I be eating at all these destinations to better understand the region’s gourmet scene in a post-lockdown world, tasting the fruits of chef Pedro Subijana’s half-century career at the three-star Akelarre; Martín Berasategui’s beautifully coordinated French-influenced dishes; or the blistered, melting turbot at Elkano? I would not. But I would be seeking out a trio of restaurants that perhaps best symbolise the flavours – and ambitions – of San Sebastián and the areas that surround it…

Azurmendi

Azurmendi is a sizeable space, a splendid space, the way in which a Mies van der Rohe construction can be, all glass and perpendicular lines and generous proportions, so overwhelming is its presence that you may only notice the haiku poems etched into the reception walls on your second or third visit. It is built into the hillside in Larrabetzu, barely 15 minutes east of Bilbao, or roughly an hour from San Sebastián via gently bowing roads and oscillating landscapes thick with trees.

With its modern museum aesthetic of glass walls, spartan fit-out, a mortgage-worth of chairs, and an air of a Norman Foster building that draws in expense accounts, it is easy to understand it as the type of place for bro-y corporate groups that can pass entire afternoons on the pleasures of Rioja wine, harvested just south of the city, and international couples who’ve been brought here by the guidebooks who promise them a glimpse of new-wave Spanish cuisine. 

According to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants – the unyielding, often groundless ranking system that has thrusted the likes of chefs René Redzepi and Heston Blumenthal to global recognition – Azurmendi is the most sustainable restaurant in the world, its water supplied by collected rainfall, many of its herbs plucked from the rooftop garden plots. 

The garden at Azurmendi. Credit: Azurmendi

So does Azurmendi, like many ethical-leaning restaurants today, abandon taste for a more green-fingered approach, proposing that a turnip could have the same pleasurable properties as a Dave Chang bo ssäm, or that an arrangement of weeds and leaves can nix your cravings the way in which a slice of dripping pizza can? Seemingly not, at least according to its chef, Eneko Atxa, who states that his aim is to go “towards a place simply called pleasure,” a mantra driven by efforts that are as much about satisfaction as they are about high-tech feats. 

The explosive egg on a wooden spoon – perhaps a riff on El Bulli chef Albert Adrià’s groundbreaking spherical olive whose juices were encased in the finest of gel skins, a technique that has become a textbook move in progressive kitchens nowadays – appears like a marbled orb, half of its yolk removed and inoculated with liquid punched up with truffle; plump sacks of Galician sea urchin are enlivened by a purée of its reproductive organs and a foam made from its juices, flavouring the taste with a marine smack; an arrangement of cream and southern-Spanish shrimp, all right angles and dots, arranged in a way that it appears like a mathematical equation, is lubricated by a marinade of oil that uses herbs extracted from the restaurant grounds, its viscid feel something you can’t quite place; a tart is spilling over with tear peas – a highly prized green whose varieties have been famously documented to demand up to £280 per pound – that have been harvested before sunrise so as not to turn their sugars into starch, moistened with Iberian-ham gel. 

From left to right: "Leaf", "Rose and nectar", "'Talo' of flowers", "Dew water". Credit: Azurmendi

Does the emphasis on startlingly good crops and seafood, cooked in ways that only make them taste even more of themselves, make you think of the Japanese approach to cooking? For Atxa, the chef leading the charge for Spain’s new crop of cooks and whose scene-kid appearance comes courtesy of a jet-black crop, svelte jawline and ears studded with black rings, the resemblance has been there for a while, but they’re not necessarily connected. “Everyone says this”, he states with the patience of a man who’s likely been questioned about the similarities throughout his career. “The Japanese do things very well; but also this is a very Basque thing.”

So the liquid of rose and nectar is mixed like a cocktail, frozen, shaped into its spherical form while bathed in liquid butter, and is then spritzed with the essence of rose; there is a cup of morning-dew water, sweeter than love; Galician oyster, blanched and deep-fried to a tempura standard; and the frozen garden, what one can only interpret as Atxa’s interpretation of the Gargouillou – French chef Michel Bras’s artful plating of snips of vegetables, fruits and flowers that looks like a snapshot of the Laguiole terroir – is tricked out with pickled bits, emulsions of tomato juice and olive oil, and coarse speckles of granita, a dish that isn’t just a reflection of the Basque bounty, but is the Basque bounty itself. 

Mugaritz

To get an idea of Mugaritz’s intent, chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’s wildly free-thinking restaurant in a low-slung country house in the hills south-east of San Sebastián, you should try its first dish, the ‘Aromatic Brush’, where a sprig of lavender, fermented with the same mould that’s used in the production of soft cheeses, rests above a brushstroke of tapenade infused with anchovies and black olives. You are directed to swirl the twigs through the puddle of thick, sinister brown sauce and suck – not bite – until you feel a sensation that’s all bitter, acid and vinegar, the herbaceous tang coating your teeth and the inner crevices of your mouth. Is the moment pleasurable? It’s not easy to say. 

At Mugaritz, Aduriz leans more towards elusive tastes, subtle flavours and soft, if not minimum, seasoning, the conventional fine-dining rhythm – snacks; starters; mains; desserts; petit fours – abandoned, and the considered menu is one of low yet provocative notes and juxtaposing compositions, with an obsession for texture that has historically been limited to the remit of the pastry kitchen. “We like to live in the grey area”, says Julian Otero, a test kitchen chef at Mugaritz. “There are many ways to describe other elements in food. But texture? There is only a small number of terms. We want to explore this.” 

The entrance at Mugaritz. Credit: Oscar Oliva

Is Mugaritz the type of place where travelling eaters say that they enjoy visiting so as to not to lose street cred? You could say so. Aduriz made his bones at establishments such as El Bulli, the lodestar of Spain’s glorious restaurant history, and went on to become a hit at gastronomic symposiums; his restaurant shutters for four months each year in order to conduct its R&D; he collaborates with theatre groups for live performances, and he has released a book with accompanying musical scores, with sounds channelled in from Ethiopia and Peru.

When you are shown to your table, an arrangement of shattered plates are placed in lieu of a bouquet centrepiece, and a wafer of leek and sage presents itself in a scrap book of dried herbs with an accompanying Emily Dickson poem. The moment you are handed an index of culinary terminology – “Climax: The end of pleasure” might read one page; “Spicy: Flavor perceived in the bum” on another – you are told there will be no desserts and that you might not – probably won’t – enjoy every serving.

Put another way, Mugaritz tends to lean towards the left of field, and if you are well versed in the pleasures of New World wines, have a default preference for servings of langoustines drowned in lavender-scented butter, and like your servers in starched white shirts, Mugaritz, neighboured by sloping meadows of cows and dry hay, probably feels like a distant universe, where the names of past dishes have included “Perhaps? Rancid” and “A Heart That Does Not Feel”.

The nonconformist approach here can frequently manifest itself as a test of your steel –  “It is not food as you know it, but more like a Bushtucker trial,” one dispirited diner has put it – and one of the first dishes you might encounter is a ceramic face that is heaved in front of you, the top inches covered in a cream of caviar and pine nuts and overlaid with an arcing tuille hardened with caramelised black apple.

The waiter covers the face with cloth and strikes it – SMASH! – until the tuille shatters. You pick up the shards, using it to scoop up and dab, schmearing the slick across the motionless, lifeless eyelids. 

There is a damp handkerchief of sake to be eaten, not sipped, and the dish titled “From Chikugo to Ebro” is an ode to the rice-producing regions of Catalonia and Naga, whereby a lump of koji rice, percolated with the white, fuzzy mould that’s responsible for the production of miso and soy sauce, is mitigated with a raw red shrimp. A bone is hollowed out and plugged with a blend of bone marrow and banana cream. With great effort, a weighty golden plinth is hauled onto the tabletop, revealing a shaving of lamb’s heart wrapped in a clump of leaves – it is a mosh pit of iron tang, cool shards of condensation, thawing meat, and the soft bite of greens. An imitation of a sawn-off finger, the kind of thing Tim Burton likely has a stockpile of, is whittled from a jellied carrot whose gummy exterior leads to a snap, a sensation of pure thrill, fear and something that you most likely won’t ever want to think about again. 

When you are ushered into the sun-bathed outdoor courtyard, an experience that feels like hurtling from darkness back to earth, you might ask yourself whether you will want to return.

It is not for the weak of heart. But, all things considered, the most influential art isn’t meant to be.

Arzak

It is broadly agreed that the northern light of the Basque restaurant world emits from the rooms at Arzak, the thickset one-time tavern whose fish-scale facade was designed to bring to mind the glint of the Basque waters, its handsome fit-out not dissimilar from Europe’s finer dining rooms, but one that’s flavoured with a 125-year history.

The restaurant is co-directed by Elena Arzak, all lightness, unrelenting energy and joy, and her father Juan Mari Arzak, who took over the kitchen in 1966 and put Spanish food on the agenda through his brilliance of finessing the Basque cookbook. Both are extraordinary chefs connected by a family bond and a creative partnership that seem to be thicker than blood, their glass-walled office, to the back of the kitchen, only slightly bigger than a utilities cupboard, and their seminal approach to Basque fare beautifully balancing innovation – created, elaborated and edited in a test lab upstairs – with an obligation to their land. 

Juan Mari Arzak (centre) and Elena Arzak (right). Credit: Sara Santos © 2021

She doesn’t so much as say so, but you get the feeling that Elena Arzak could expand the restaurant’s footprint elsewhere, supplanting her knowledge and the pull of her name to other major cities that scream for another flagship chef. She does, however, seem forever hardwired to this specific microterroir – “I feel it”, she says, looking around the reception-room walls, balling a fist and holding it close to her chest, suggesting that the restaurant flows from within, her sentence trailing off as though failing to even remotely capture the extent of her intense commitment. (Juan Mari is also known to have professed his desire to pass away at the chef’s table, which is jimmied into a small alley in the service kitchen.) 

“The past two years have been strange”, Arzak says of the pandemic, but she’s beaming now that she is able to resume her job of carrying on the restaurant’s narrative. When I ask if she ever feels worn out from the decades in the restaurant world, an industry notoriously known for its unrelenting mental, emotional and physical demands, she says: “When I was younger I was more tired; today, I am more energised! So much needs to be done!”  

In a town chock with restaurants that have scarlet Michelin signs pinned outside their front doors, where a server can as affectionally tell you about an Andalusian catch of the day as he could about the thriving soil from where the menu’s fruit grows, and where life revolves more around the dining table than a television set, a journey to Arzak can almost feel like gliding through the Prado, past the bodegóns and portraits of saints, and charging to the El Greco, the master of masters. 

“We have very general flavours and we stick to our roots, but we are always wanting to push it forward,” says Arzak, her right hand making a revolving motion, her upper body leaning forward as though being pulled by the gravity of her gesturing. Her dish of a local egg is scattered with clippings of bright petals and a handful of scorched zizania grains, a wild rice – food staples older than time, explosive with crisp and crunch and congealed with golden yolk, a hard thing to put into words, a bit like portraying starshine with a paint by numbers.  

Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak. Credit: Mikel Alonso

Arzak is one of the most lionised figures in the industry: “Without a doubt, Elena is no longer ‘the daughter of…’ Elena is Elena Arzak. She has managed the difficult task to maintain the tradition and history of her house, while making it evolve and grow without halt,” Albert Adrià, the El Bulli creative director and chef of Enigma, in Barcelona, tells me.

Arzak did terms in Paris, at Le Gavroche, in London, with the Troisgros family, under the direction of the Adrià brothers and their lieutenants at El Bulli  – and today, a focus on shining a light on the purity of an ingredient, a notion pioneered by both her father and the Adriàs, still seems to be her first concern. Her mandarin pigeon may be embellished with myriad sauces – orange and ginger; coriander and honey; rhubarb – that have been applied thick on the plate like a colour theorist’s swatch, but the roasted bird remains the principal focus, whispering softly with juice and a light-purple tincture. It is seared, slapped in the oven and left to rest – “this is very important”, Arzak emphasises, bypassing the opportunity to discuss other fanciful methodologies in favour of talking solely about this rudimentary, yet critical, three-step application, the type of procedure a journeyman linecook would appreciate. 

A dish called “Unclothed Prawn” is exactly that, not much more than a crustacean of gleam and shine and the size of a small log, its Alien-looking head containing the murkiest, brownest of juice that is deeper than a Plath poem and transcendent like an epiphany. 

“It’s all calm now, but, in twenty minutes, it will be… crazy”, says Arzak, as she ushers me around the kitchen, which would otherwise have the surgeon-room sterility of any other fine-dining kitchen were it not for an array of technicolour acrylic slats dangling above the main pass – “my father said we needed this for colour!” The brigade of cooks – a mix of bright young things and seasoned sous chefs – are working sauces with rhythmic shakes of the pot, snipping fennel, setting creams of yuzu and cherry, obsessively cleaning their prep stations with rags, readying themselves for the day’s lunch service. 

"Marbled egg". Credit: Magdalena Staurino

Up several flights of stairs, whose pokey, crooked, century-old steps are seemingly on the verge of crumbling, is the research floor, in the middle of which stands a set of black shelves that holds a filing system of small lidded containers of various dried ingredients, the alphabet from which the team can construct their elegant prose: cassia; dry lily bulb; sansho berries, the dry pocked shrub; triphala, a herbal remedy; diced papaya. 

When Arzak steps towards her reference library, she reaches for a black catalogue and heaves it onto the table – it’s a document filled with many of the past dishes created here. There are pixelated images, including an early version of a dessert shaped like ancient ruins, and a prototype of a chocolate starfish that’s paired with an edible, syrupy take on sea dew, an arrangement that looks like a tidal pool and is meant to bring attention to the collapse of the global marine ecosystem. “It was originally pink, but my son told me it looked like we were eating Patrick from SpongeBob!” Arzak says. 

As she flicks through pages of these past drafts – the culinary equivalent of a novelist rifling through her bin of crumpled notes – she laughs gently, as though to say, “What were we thinking?!”, the way in which a mother studies her past outfits and hairstyles when thumbing through a photo album. It was similar to the tender look she had when stating how she and the walls of the restaurant are both one and the same. This time, however, her right hand is not balled up – rather, it’s lovingly stroking the pictures in front.

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