Being surrounded in Spain by so much great gastronomy, we’ve made the decision to start exploring more of the country. And, we started with the “other” culinary capital of Spain, and that meant a trip to San Sebastian, in the Basque Country. And, on the top of our list was a stop of the 3 Michelin Star Arzak in San Sebastian.
We drove about 10 minutes out from the center of San Sebastian, into a residential neighborhood. We actually managed to find Arzak, and park, without getting lost, so we were a little early. We walked into the entrance, which was part bar, part lobby, and as we would find out, part contemporary family living room. Everything at Arzak was family-like. And, that is the reason why I enjoyed it so much.
We are not strangers to Michelin Star dining, having previously dined at the number 3 restaurant in the world, El Celler de Can Roca. And, we’ve dined at a few other 3 Michelin Star restaurants, but this experience was, well, unique.
When I made the reservation, I asked for a table with good lighting, or near a window, so that I could take photos for my travel blog. That was my only request. I didn’t even really introduce myself at all. Certainly not a reservation laced with special requests. And, maybe I am fancier that I think I am, particularly with my burgeoning reputation within Spain, but we were treated quite well, solely based on this request.
Going Behind the Scenes at Arzak in San Sebastian
First, we received a detailed tour of the Arzak operation, where a chef walked us through the kitchen, then through a labyrinth of small rooms that support the restaurant. We visited the wine cellar, one of two dedicated to storing approximately 100,000 bottles of wine. We saw another couple receiving a tour, so we assumed it was all part of the experience. After all, every diner at El Bulli received a visit to the kitchen with Ferran Adria. And, we’ve seen the kitchen at Can Roca, with Joan Roca, twice now.
But, our tour guide then took us to the special wine cellar, where they have their oldest and most expensive wines. We did not see the other couple in there. Then, we received a tour of the Arzak Lab, where many would probably say, the magic happens. This is where they create and develop each of their dishes. Having read a considerable amount about Ferran’s lab in Barcelona, this was unique. There was a wall of dry ingredients with spices and seasonings from all over the world. And, all sorts of fancy kitchen contraptions I would have no idea how to use.
I still am unsure whether we received this behind the scenes tour of Arzak in San Sebastian solely based on my status and (ahem) reputation in Spain. But, when we sat down at the table, I assumed it was all normal.
But, What About The Food at Arzak in San Sebastian?
We walked through the menu with the maitre d’, and settled on the tasting menu, with a few modifications. The tasting menu included 7 main dishes, as well as a series of starters, or snacks. Unusual from the tasting menu at Can Roca, is there were two choices. At Can Roca, there were no choices. At Arzak, we needed to choose between Oysters pinned to the grill, and Scarlet prawn with krill. We both choose the Oysters, having seen a preview of both the gigantic oysters, and the grill, in the kitchen. Our matire d’ suggested we choose both, and skip the egg course. Great advice. We also had a choice between Venison kale or “Symbolic duck.” We chose one of each, to compare.
Another difference between Arzak and other Michelin Star restaurants we dined at is that there were no wine pairings to compliment the meal. I am unsure why. But, our sommelier was helpful, and knowledgable. We choose a bottle of cava, which tends to go with most courses easily. He then recommended a glass of red wine for our meat courses, which went well.
Before we even started with our snacks, we saw the man himself, Chef Juan Mari Arzak, enter the dining room. This is when I knew we were getting some special treatment. He made a beeline right for our table to introduce himself. Although he said hello to some other tables, he visited us quite a few times during our meal to make sure we enjoyed our courses. He actually said that if we didn’t like something to just let them know, and they would be happy to exchange it for us. Could you imagine returning a dish at one of the best restaurants in the world?
After our meal, we enjoyed a coffee with Chef Juan Mari himself, and we were allowed to interview him too. Our one hour chat took place in the entrance to Arzak, which made the area feel almost like a family living room. A room in which Chef Juan Mari felt entirely at home.
It’s a Family Affair at Arzak in San Sebastian
What I took away from our experience at Arzak was that, of course, the food was impeccable. They offer contemporary Basque cuisine, and have a strict 0 kilometer dining philosophy. Ferran always said he would try to only use the best local ingredients, but if the best oysters come from Seattle, then he will use the best. Chef Juan Mari is different. He, and his daughter Elena, want to be as local as possible. Obviously, the dried seasonings and spices we saw in the Arzak lab come from around the world. But, the raw ingredients all come from the Basque Country.
In fact, one of the dishes included monkfish, which is a speciality in Costa Brava. I almost didn’t order the “Monkfish Cleopatra” because we see so much monkfish living in Girona. After eating this unique dish, which included hieroglyphs made of pumpkin, I mentioned to the chef why I almost didn’t order the monkfish. He replied that he knows the monkfish in the Mediterranean, implying Costa Brava, is the best in the world. Their monkfish is local, from Northern Spain, but it is as 0 kilometer as he can get.
In addition to having Chef Juan Mari stop by several times, I just felt, overall, that Arzak was a family restaurant. Elena is the fourth generation of the Arzak family to work in the kitchen. Sure, the dining room and the entrance are as contemporary as can be. And, the food is modern and creative. But, the staff seemed a little less formal than we’ve experienced at other Michelin Star restaurants. And, it made the experience that much more welcoming, and yes familiar.
Our Menu at Arzak in San Sebastian
So, I guess we did get some special treatment due to our blogger status, being able to sit down and interview the chef. But, that also meant that we were discouraged from taking “professional” photos during the meal. I was told when we confirmed the reservation that they would prefer no photos be taken in the dining room, to prevent disrupting guests. Instead, they offered me a thumb drive with photos. That means, I only have a couple of professional photos of our meal at Arzak. And, I generally don’t like to use photos that I do not take myself on the blog.
But, it also meant that I actually had a chance to ENJOY my meal, rather than documenting it for the masses. That was almost as unique an experience as being attended to by one of the best chefs in the world.
We dined on contemporary Basque dishes, all of which were carefully prepared, and artfully plated. One of my favorites was the Scarlet prawn with krill, which was a marinated prawn, served over beet root and under a crunchy krill flavored “cracker.” The monkfish was also very good, although I felt bad destroying the hieroglyph writing on the plate in order to eat the pumpkin puree.
The entire meal made our trip to San Sebastian wholly worthwhile.
Read what other diners say about Arzak in San Sebastian on TripAdvisor.
Heading to San Sebastian?
Reservations: Arzak is one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and is open 5 days a week, for lunch and dinner. They are closed Sunday and Monday. The average price per person is €210. Reservations can be made via their website. You are required to provide a credit card to secure the reservation, and must re-confirm one week out.
Where to Stay in San Sebastian: Get hotel recommendations here. Or, we stayed at the Hotel Parma, where rooms without a view start at only €50 in the low season. (Check TripAdvisor reviews here | Book here)