More Michelins per square meter and one almost forgets because of the quality of the quotidian pintxo available all throughout the Old Part. When you go to San Sebastián, though, you should probably drop in on one of its high profile establishments, if you can afford to [or even if you can’t]: Berasategui, Akelare, Arzak, Mugaritz, Kokotxa, Mirador de Ulia, Miramon Arbelaitz, Alameda, Zuberoa just in Donostia Proper. There’s 7 more in nearby Bilbao, 5 in Biarritz, 3 in Pamplona, 2 in Hondarribia. People’s top choices tend to be Arzak [“first in history to make Basque haute cuiz”], Mugaritz [“not really Basque but cool molecular cuiz”] and Etxebarri [“a bit further but by far the coolest one, impressive BBQ’s and tons of meat”].
I went to San Seb right smack in the middle of tourist season, so reservations were impossible to get at these, my top choices as well. But a friend pulled some strings last minute and got me a single seat at Zuberoa in the ancient town of Oiartzun, a 35 minute ride from Donostia.
The quiet town of Oiartzun sits in a leafy green valley where the clean air itself is your first amuse bouche. It’s not difficult to get lost during the pre-lunch stroll, but ask anyone where the restaurant is and they’ll point it out or walk you right there. The restaurant occupies a 15th century Basque country house, rustic and real yet elegantly decorated. I arrived an hour early and awkwardly wet from unanticipated rain, trailing a suitcase behind me. I was greeted with a kind, authentic smile by a fraternal duo: Chef Hilario Arbelaitz and Maître d’ Eusebius Arbelaitz. They took my suitcase to store and keep dry while I grabbed a coffee nearby. I was the first to be seated at Zuberoa that day at a table for one + 1 book [ironically The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which features starvation and hardship that clashed with this particular setting].
The meal was 7 courses and 3 desserts with an amuse bouche and petit fours. I opted out of wine pairing. The style is modern with traditional touches, easy to eat dishes with many (maybe almost too many) delicate, smooth, creamy components. There’s a lot of no-brainer decadence (foie, truffles, caviar), but there are also humbler, wittier touches (sugar snap pea, basil root, fried celery shavings) to balance those. For me “Basque” came through in sourcing ingredients alone; the preparations and flavor combos didn’t seem particularly regional, though maybe I just don’t know enough about Euskadi home cookin’ to recognize it under all that sherry and coconut broth. But it wasn’t really what I came to Zuberoa for anyway. I came to experience an edible exhibition of pieces by a chef named Arbelaitz and I got it, for better or worse. As does any art showcase, it had its ups and downs. But overall it left a pleasant aftertaste.
Zuberoa’s signature amuse bouche is not a light item in the least. It’s a buttery rich, thick custard of foie infused with black truffle and topped with a thin layer of stiff Pedro Jimenez gelatin. The liver mousse was unctuous and smooth but dense as hell without any air whipped in. The flavor was of concentrated liver made even more complex by the earthy, musky truffle folded in. The sweetness of the sherry lifted the foie slightly from its deep innardsy abyss but only slightly, as the PX itself had a ripe, round, mature sweetness instead of a fresh, young one. Texturally the lighter foam of foie on top saved the day, soothing the palate from the almost painful sting of the other ingredients. But painful in a good way. A bold and unforgivingly indulgent way to start.
Texturally the first dish was just the opposite of the amuse bouche. It was a foamy bubble bath of shellfish paired with an emulsion of wild mushrooms from Basque Country. A little load of bright orange caviar was plopped in the center to bring the marine flavors of the royale to the forefront. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the woodsy fungus with the pleasantly rotten, sweet, marine brine of the shellfish. And the consistency of chalky, smooth emulsion went nicely with the foam over the top.
Next was dish delicate in both texture and flavor. A single curved tail of roasted Norway lobster was served with its own coral, perched in a pool of coconut cream and a brown roasting liquid tasting toasty and savory like the sea. The meat itself was perfectly cooked, tight and snappy with a wonderful clean sweetness and hint of smoke that surprised me since the thing was roasted. The coconut was pleasantly mild in flavor, hinting at tropics without overpowering the seafood. I also very much enjoyed the subtle details pinned on: the mild basil root, the crunch of a tiny sugarsnap pea, the gummy, slippery miniature vanilla ravioli that passively hinted at the dish that came next. The delicate floral sweetness of the ravioli went particularly well with the natural marine dulzor of the lobster.
A single ravioli in the center of a bowl, glossy and smooth. It felt almost like the steamed noodle shahe fen made from rice flour and tapioca, and used in Cantonese dim sum rice rolls. The pillow was stuffed with grilled calf’s cheek and trotter meat and was sitting in a pool of silky, thick ham and beetroot puree that found a gorgeous harmony between smoky, salty pig and earthy, mineral root. The sauce added tons of flavor to the meaty filling, which contributed mostly a flaky texture of flesh but not too much flavor on its own. A single stalk of tender white asparagus was lain over the slippery surface of the ravioli and spicy kohlrabi sprouts were lain on top of that. This was a busy dish, but very well balanced.
After the first few sensible dishes came one to really lose your mind over. A silky-smooth, thick white cream of goose liver and a loose, wet poached egg screaming to be poked open so that its golden yolk may ooze into the surrounding pool, mixing blindly to impregnate the delicate foie with its protein dense texture. Watching the romance unfold were earthy bits of truffle crumbled over the top and paper thin slivers of celery fried for a wonderful crunch that provided much needed contrast to the otherwise smooth, soft dish.
A dish that didn’t blow me away was the grilled baby squid, prepared with what was designated a “Pelayo” style gelatinous stock. While the rings of baby squid themselves were pleasantly delicate, the sauces didn’t stand out too much in flavor and there was no textural contrast on the plate to make the dish complex. Sure, a nice ink based black sauce and red pepper based sweet and sour thing looked good aesthetically, but I don’t really remember what they tasted like at all, and that’s never a good sign.
Next came the first of the two fixed menu mains, a filet of hake licked with an airy glaze of very mild stock that was flavored with a touch of lemon. Over the top were herbs and shaved legumes that balanced the acidity of the lemon but held back significantly in terms of flavor. The fish didn’t have much flavor on its own either, so overall the dish was lacking the kick it needed for me to enjoy it to the fullest. But the texture was there, a perfect showcase of the power of sous vide. The flakes of fish were barely held together and slid apart when bitten into. They were clear white and almost spongy in texture, having soaked up the aromatic soap of lemon and herbs. Shockingly soft but overall lacking in character, this dish wasn’t one of my favorites.
The gentlest thing to flutter out of the kitchen was a roast pigeon and probably one of the best pieces of poultry I’ve had anywhere, ever. Really. While the rest of the dish was inventive but not particularly memorable, this bird will stay with me for a while. Descriptors like “soft” and “tender” and “juicy” fail to describe the quality, the superlatives of these adjectives are miles away from what this piece of meat was actually like live, one-on-one. The closeup above maybe gives you an idea but does the thing no justice either. Imagine the most delicate chunk of bleeding meat, the fleshy fibers stroking your tongue like downy feathers or the tongue of a loved one locked in a French kiss. The mineral of the blood was mild, touching the palate as gently as a low tannin Pinot. There might have been wine in the sauce poured over the bird; I was too distracted to notice. Not far away was a smooth cream of potato, toast piled high with pigeon liver and a little tower of turnip stuffed with locally foraged mushrooms, then roasted al dente. The potato and turnip were both mild enough to let the bird shine and the savory jus mixed beautifully with the bone white puree, the latter carrying the flavor of the meat across the plate. The pigeon livers offered a good boost of flavor, like a miniature side dish on its own crunchy base. A beautiful, complex course and the one true highlight of the meal.
I do not applaud the strawberry that emboldens itself to play the role of a tomato. But there’s nothing wrong with combining the two, especially in a dish where the vegetal touch of one (though technically a fruit) balances the bright sweetness and acidity of the other so nicely. This was a wet compote of tomato and strawberry flavored with a bit of olive oil and a single scoop of strawberry sorbet melting its glacial juice over the bits of fruit. A crunchy almond merengue lain across for texture. A great pre-dessert dessert to start the desserts with.
I wasn’t too impressed by the second dessert, which played on the classic combo of chocolate and citrus. Gooey and dense dark chocolate fondant with grapefruit sorbet, a crunchy sugar lattice and a cream of citrus peel at the base. The sorbet was too bitter and its surface slimed over and syrupy. Plus, I was expecting something more creative.
The next course was a surprise, maybe a kind of compromise between dessert and cheese platter. Hilario brought it out himself and told me it was the pastry de la casa. A very gooey cheese tart with a lightly browned top and crumbly, buttery base. On any other day this would’ve been something very special as it was in itself tantalizing in texture with a taste of clean cream only barely ripened into cheese. A quick-melting quenelle of vanilla ice cream balanced that faint ripeness with its own floral dulzor and added a coolness to wake up the tongue from the trance brought on by viscous, glossy, still-warm-from-the-oven filling. I say “on any other day” because I recall being too full by the end of the meal to completely appreciate this third dessert. I could barely swallow my coffee and sat breathing laboriously and staring at the neatly arranged, elaborate petit fours, half planning to shove them into my backpack and take them with me for later.
I didn’t do that in the end. But I did keep one of the super sleek complimentary dental hygiene kits I found in the ladies-room. As I sat waiting for my bus back to San Sebastián my mind was already racing through all the pintxo bars where I could potentially have dinner just a few hours later. The city is what folks like me dreams of. I’m glad I got to experience so many niches of its filthy rich dining scene.