On Friday night, we had a 10 pm reservation at Mugaritz, (Aldura aldea, 20, Errenteria). The instructions you follow from San Sebastian (from the restaurant’s website) to reach Mugaritz are laughable, but they’re dead accurate. Example: “You’ll go past the Al Campo hypermarket. Drive on for a further 3 or 4 km, going up a mountain pass. When you reach the top of the pass, 9-10km point, turn right at the signpost ‘Errenteria 3 km.’”
Maybe you can imagine the debate Jon and I had about what constitutes a “mountain pass.”
Geologic discussions aside, it took us just 30 minutes to reach the restaurant from San Sebastian, and we didn’t make a single wrong turn. Excellent. The restaurant is a lot bigger than I expected: a low-lying building with a sturdy country look thanks to its stone exterior, and a warm-wooded interior. It’s a dream farmhouse sitting in what feels like the middle of nowhere.
Two sides of the dining room are comprised of floor-to-ceiling windows, and the tables are so generously spaced apart that women have the use of rustic iron stools on which to place handbags. (How thoughtful, especially when you’re a woman with plans to whip out her camera every ten minutes to take photos of the food).
When we sat down, we were confronted with two envelopes. One reads: “150 mins . . . submit!” and the other one reads “150 mins . . . rebel!” Of course I had to choose the envelope about rebelling, and inside was a black card that read: “150 minutes to feel embarrassed, flustered, fed up. 150 minutes of suffering.” Jon, being the good guy, chose to submit, and he got a nice white card that read: 150 minutes to feel, imagine, reminisce, discover. 150 minutes to contemplate.” So the correct choice is clear – here’s to submission.
We ordered the naturan tasting menu for 108 euros, and we were happy when the sommelier said she could offer us pairings for just 30 more euros each.
The amuse-bouche we started with were more interesting and delicious than the first few courses of our menu, and when the portions are this small, the line between what’s amuse and what’s a “course” is hard to spot.
The roasted baby squid amuse was creamy and sweet – no chance of something this delicate coming out rubbery. That it was cooked in its own ink marked it as a play on the traditional Basque specialty, so it was a nice introduction to our meal.
Next came a course that was so charming and fun that it bordered on gimmicky. Can you tell from the above photo what it was? It looks like a bowl of smooth stones, but the two whitish-gray stones standing out among the dark pebbles are potatoes that have somehow been cooked and encased in an edible white clay. When you bite into the potato, the clay crunches like the shell of an M&M, and the potato itself is sweet and steamy, as if it’d just come out of the oven. Of course we had to marvel at how this potato was cooked – was it boiled first and then caked in clay? But then how do you get the surface of the clay so smooth, as if it were a current-weathered river rock?
We didn’t have long to wonder more about this marvellous, funny little amuse, because there was yet another one to think about (and eat):
battered-and-fried baby artichokes in a mussel broth draped in a grapefruit foam. I wasn’t a huge fan, despite my deep, undying love of fried foods. Maybe I should have eaten this one first, before playing with my potato, because the grapefruit foam and mussel broth had dampened an otherwise perfectly-crispy artichoke. I’m afraid whatever interesting combination of flavours that might have resulted was lost in my disappointment over the moistness of my fried goodie.
Our first course of the tasting menu now arrived: the “hot vegetable soup” made with dehydrated tubers. I can appreciate how dehydrating, say, a baby carrot, makes the carrot taste even more carrot-y when you put it back in a hot consommé, but it’s hard for me to get excited over a soup that I thought was a little bit lukewarm. Visually, the shrunken tubers were playfully small versions of their “regular” selves, but I was ready for the next course pretty fast.
The sheep’s milk curd seasoned with hay and toasted fern, served with dehydrated pumpkin glazed in a syrup was my least favorite course of the evening. First of all, Jon and I kept asking ourselves what hay tastes like – we couldn’t find any flavours in the cheese besides the crunch and slight pine-ness of the toasted fern, so it’s all about the texture, maybe.
Honestly, I love creamy mild cheeses, but this sheep’s milk curd made me feel like someone was this close to wheeling me into the retirement home. I suppose it’s pretty interesting that sheep’s cheese (usually so tangy) can be so mild, but this thought isn’t going to make me enjoy the course any more. Once I ran out of the sweet, chewy dehydrated pumpkin to mix with my cheese, I lost interest entirely.
Jon enjoyed the next course of warm chive soup, which came served in a rounded-bottom glass bowl tucked into a cardboard “stand.” When you removed the soup bowl from the stand, the secret herb ingredient was illustrated and described at the bottom of the cardboard: Glechoma hederacea. Good to know, right? I mentioned to one of our servers that the soup would’ve been more appealing if it had been hot, and she replied that the bowl is lukewarm so that you can remove it from the cardboard holder without injuring your hand. Perhaps the restaurant is a little over-concerned about a McDonald’s coffee-style lawsuit?
Now, in my opinion, here’s where the meal got super good. Our next course was a idiazabal cheese gnocchi in a pork broth.
The “gnocchi” were smooth and glassy-looking, like shiny white pebbles, each with a different herb on top to lend different flavours to the creamy, tangy cheesiness of the gnocchi. Without pasta flour, the gnocchi were 100% cheesy goodness and fluffy lightness. I loved the texture, the look and the flavor.
Next came the toasted rice cakes with crab meat and sea
urchins. The rice cakes were crispy and intensely seafood-tasting. I couldn’t identify what the foam was made of, but nothing detracted from the fishiness of the sweet crabmeat. I wasn’t sure what to do with the red chewy bits, which I assume is the “double toasted saffron dressing” described on our menu, but I didn’t think the dressing added much when I mixed up bits of it into each forkful of rice and crab.
The hake fillet with baby garlic, hazelnut praline and sour cream was a great combo. Hake fillet is everywhere in Basque country, but pairing it with
The charcoal-grilled roast duck foie gras with “bomba
rice” was rich and meaty. The rice made its appearance sprinkled on top of the foie, adding saltiness and crunch and functioned a little bit like salty pop rocks, which was surprising and fun. Visually, the slice of foie looked like it was sailing through the sea lettuce broth – an image that made me laugh.
I could have stopped eating somewhere around the rice cakes and crab meat, so when the roast Iberian pork in red curry paste showed up, I thought at best I would have a polite bite or two and lay down my fork for the night. Unfortunately and fortunately for me, this slice of pork was irresistible. The mild red curry paste gave the pork a little bit of kick and sweetness. It was almost like eating the roast pork hanging from the windows in Chinatown, except the flavours were delicate. The pork itself was stellar. Someone needs to tell the Duke of Berkshire, stat. The moisture and meatiness of the pork reminded me of perfect duck.
The desserts were thankfully simple, and maybe it’s because I’m not a dessert fiend that I say the last three courses (all desserts) were good, but not nearly as superb as the courses going back to the cheese gnocchi.Violet ice cream and hot marzipan – violet ice cream was delicious, but hot marzipan was just too dry and crumbly, even with the ice cream. Milk and tapioca ice cream, hazelnut wings and chocolate sand was visually clever and perhaps inspired by the proximity of the San Sebastian beaches. But at the end of the day, it’s only really fresh ice cream (with the small twist of chewy tapioca peals thrown in) with crunchy bits of chocolate “sand.”
Last, but not least, the “interpretation of vanity,” was a huge edible-gold-gilted bowl of bubbly chocolate hiding a gem of a chocolate cake. It was good, but the bubbles were unappetizing-looking. It was like looking at a big space-age tent. The name of the dish is supposed to make you think of bursting one’s bubble, maybe?
Overall, Mugaritz is a great destination restaurant. The warm farmhouse dining room is welcoming; the staff are super charming, helpful and gracious (and did I mention they’re also young and good-looking?); and the food hits enough creative and delicious high notes that Jon and I will try to go back one day.
Our tab, with excellent wine pairings (largely featuring Spanish wines), was just over 300 euros. When I compare our meal at Mugaritz with our meal at the Fat Duck, Mugaritz gets the edge and for just half the price of our meal at the Fat Duck. Enough said.