With its captivating bay and charming historical town centre, San Sebastian is a truly beautiful town. It offers a wealth of fascinating possibilities to engage the senses, the “gastronomic” senses above all. There are countless restaurants offering the famous pintxos, the Basque version of the Spanish tapas.
More traditional versions of these dishes compliment the acidulous txacolì wines, whilst others display exceptional levels of culinary creativity. Using imaginative food combinations as well as ingredients of the highest quality, they can achieve truly astonishing results.
This is just one indication of the rebirth that Basque gastronomy is currently enjoying. The ancient roots of this culinary tradition can still be found in the hundreds of specialised food companies dispersed throughout the town, where men come together to cook and eat in conviviality.
This re-birth has become a new and lively force for change, a model that has been taken up by the rest of the country. In combination with the Catalan scene, it has raised Spanish gastronomy to a level of absolute world dominance. In this rosy context San Sebastian has a formidable primogenitor in the form of Juan Mari Arzak, the driving force behind a seemingly un-stoppable growth.
Dining at the “Restaurante Arzak” (+34 943 278465) is a grandiose experience: it has been a three-star restaurant since 1989.
The Arzak family have been restaurateurs for four generations; Juan Mari’s daughter Elena is learning the ropes and promises a secure continuation of the family tradition.
The restaurant is housed in a rather anonymous-looking house outside the town centre. The service isn’t impeccable but is very polite without being too formal. The three stars are merited by a monumental wine cellar and by the cuisine, which has reached a perfect balance between Basque tradition and innovation. It is precisely this last quality that makes Arzak and his contemporaries so interesting. Dedicated and continuous research into the re-interpretation of traditional dishes, is the common factor that unites all the great Spanish chefs. Each one carries it out in his own very personal way, and it is certainly thanks to this diversity that cuisine in the Iberian peninsula is evolving in a way that has never been seen in the last few years anywhere else in the world. Arzak, with his cookery laboratory above the restaurant, is one of the main points of reference.
Above the restaurant a small team of chefs work around the clock trying out new dishes, new solutions and combinations. Each dish is catalogued with photographs and recipes and draws inspiration from a curious source: the “flavor bank”. This is a small, air-conditioned room where over a thousand ingredients from all over the world are stored in vacuum-packed containers. These are collected during trips abroad, whilst travelling, anywhere that an aroma, a flavour or a texture that might be the source of inspiration, is picked up.
This is where Arzak and his family’s great work begins, bringing to your table a sense of creativity that doesn’t stray too far from the traditional Basque flavours. It’s all in the presentation, which draws inspiration from anything that can be perceived walking around the town. The “graffiti di uovo elittico” is one example, without boring you with a long list. This is actually a typical dish, presented in such a curious way as to remind one of the graffiti on the walls of San Sebastian. An intelligent blend of poetry, history, territoriality and imagination: Arzak’s cuisine is perhaps one of the few true examples of how modern haute cuisine should be.
First published in La Stampa on August 7 2004
Carlo Petrini is the president of Slow Food
Adapted by Frederic Andersen