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San Sebastian

San Sebastian - Best Meal of My Life (so far)

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San Sebastian - Best Meal of My Life (so far)

estufarian | Aug 27, 2003 10:35 AM

Visiting San Sebastian (Donostia) gave us a plethora of restaurants to choose from. After selecting the reputed ’best’ (see pending article on the whole trip) we had planned to eat fairly light between 3* meals. But a late review, only a week before we left, said that Akelare (a 2*) was the most enjoyable meal in Donostia, so we reserved for lunch (only 10 days before the date). It’s actually 20 minutes west of Donostia (and the bus only runs every hour), so a little difficult to reach – but a gorgeous setting. On top of a cliff overlooking the sailboats on the ocean. Very romantic. A fairly modern room and groomed gardens completed the first impressions. Our reservation was at 1:00, and we were the first to arrive (only 1 other table was seated before 2:00) – these people eat late. So we had plenty of time to peruse the menu and wine list.
Things started well. The staff spoke good English and gave us an English menu (not that common, even in 3* restaurants in Spain). And they had two different tasting menus, each at 88€ so we ordered one of each. The wine list was a pleasant surprise. Predominantly Spanish, it featured both current ‘cult’ wines and a selection of more traditional Spanish wines going back to the 20’s (and covering every decade). 1925 was a possibility, as I’ve had the 25 Marques de Murrieta twice (both times superb), as was 1964 – probably the greatest year for Rioja in the century. And they had wine from Chowspouse’s birth year too (edited to ensure marital accord). After discussions with the Sommelier (incidentally the best and most knowledgeable we encountered in Spain) we settled on the 1925 Marques de Riscal (he advised skipping this as it was too risky). This would take a little time to retrieve and open, so we had a couple of glasses of Cava while we waited (and anticipated).
First came the ‘Amuses’. Iberica ham and sea asparagus with a thick cream accompanying sauce – or was it? The cream contained tiny ‘seeds’ of a lemon ‘pop rock’ – as you ate, it literally exploded in the mouth (you could hear it too). Spectacular flavours and an extra dimension – causing us to smile at each ‘pop’. These little surprises became a feature of the meal. Nothing on the menu hinted at the various twists that were to come.

First courses were
Cold Sandwich of Foie Gras and its hot cup with “Sopako”
Mollusc in Bubbles with Salicorne

What we got were 1) a dish that looked like a diagonal ‘white bread’ sandwich – except the ‘bread’ was a dense apple foam (strong enough to support the foie, but too soft to pick up and eat), and 2) oyster, clam, barnacle and mussel which literally bubbled up like a foaming volcano when the broth was poured over. I know it sounds gimmicky for both, but the flavours were not compromised by any of the trickery.

Next courses
Egg Yolk, Fish Eggs and Broth of “Piquillos”
King Prawns in Perfumed Infusion, Salads Tempura

The fish eggs were puzzling – looking similar to salmon eggs, they were much spicier, but had the right texture – squirting out their juice under slight pressure. We couldn’t figure out what they could be at all (the secret was revealed later in the trip – in my overall report, still pending). The egg yolk was quail. And the tempura salad was a great texture contrast – and exactly what it says.
By this point in the meal we were already thinking that this could be the ‘meal of the year’. Every dish had superb flavour and an extra entertaining dimension.

Now the bottle of wine arrived. The level was excellent (high shoulder), and the label very faded although the year was still visible. The Sommelier attempted to open it at the table, but the cork broke (fairly cleanly) so I gave him permission to take the bottle away to complete the operation. However, (as the staff all gathered round to watch), he persisted and retrieved the remainder, with only two small cork pieces falling into the wine. The first pour contained both of these and that glass was removed. The second was offered for approval (or not) and was superb. All flowers and fragrance, roses and fruit blossoms. The taste was similar – a little fragile but the delicacy was on a foundation of soft red fruit. The only detraction was a slight pruniness in the finish. But a real treat nevertheless.

On with the meal:
Risotto “Venere” and Scampi Tails with Saffron
Warm Veal Terrine with Preserve flavoured with Wine

The risotto was served two ways. One was conventional and the other was a roasted black rice (giving it the texture of rice krispies). The terrine had been salamandered and was covered with a veal ‘ham’.

Red Mullet with little Green Peppers Vinaigrette
Red Tuna Chop with Tomato juice and tender Onion

By this time we were just enjoying (not taking notes) –I recall the tomato juice was really tomato syrup.

Young Veal temperated in Olive Oil with its own Juice and “Tender Fruits”
Breast of Pigeon with Melon Seeds

The melon seeds were roasted, with intense flavour, giving a crunch to the dish. The veal was Blackened.

Little Citrus Box
Frozen Herbs Snow

The citrus was lemon, grapefruit and orange. The frozen herbs came in four textures; an ice cream, a sorbet, a granité and a Popsicle. The flavours were cranberry, beet & redcurrant, tarragon, and mint.

Covered Rhubarb Soup and Chocolates
Pineapple, Ginger and Coconut Ice-Cream

The cover of the soup was a sweet corn crisp. The chocolate was white and dark chocolate nuggets. The ice cream was wrapped in a pineapple roll-up.

As the meal progressed, the note taking diminished. We just sat back and enjoyed each dish – taking notes was a distraction. The overall impression was undoubtedly “flavour”. All of the gimmicks were secondary to the freshness and purity of the ingredients. Essentially they were the icing on the cake.
And finally the coffee/tea. What a selection of teas, herbal teas, infusions etc! The coffee selection included over a dozen different types. We chose a Blue Mountain (Chowspouse’s favourite) and a Papua for me (I love acidity). Served (of course) with an array of mignardises. And a visit from Pedro Subijana himself proved that the chef was in the kitchen – even for lunch. As if there was any doubt!
The a la carte menu dishes were mostly 20-35€ (lobster at 50), and predominantly seafood.

This was the greatest meal of our lives (so far, overtaking my #1, Michel Guerard at Eugenie-les-Bains in the early 80's and Chowspouses #1 (my #2) Masa in San Francisco in early 90's). Every dish wowed. The wine was amazing. The service was exceptional. So why isn’t this a 3* (we went to 3 of these on the trip)? Possibly because the wine list is so Spanish, rather than International. And certainly the atmosphere is less formal (many guests were dressed very informally and several parties had children with them). But if he gets his third *, then he’ll be on the ‘Grand Tour’ and that wine list will soon be picked clean. And reservations will be much more difficult. So take my advice and go soon. It’s amazing value.

Oh yes, three days later we went to El Bulli!

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