Cherry Ripe finds fabulous food with a sense of humour at two of the world’s most lauded restaurants
IAM at the celebrated restaurant Mugaritz in the wilds of northern Spain and chef Andoni Aduriz is playing tricks with our palates. I’m here with a friend and we’re waiting to be called to our table. Out come four grey, perfect ovoids looking like pigeon’s eggs and nesting on hot pebbles in a white napkin-lined bowl. We are encouraged to dip them into a garlicky mayonnaise and eat them, shell and all’’. It is not until we bite into them that we get the joke. They are perfectly cooked tubers dusted in clay. Yup. Potatoes in mud.
Food with a sense of humour? Obviously things are not going to be what they seem at Mugaritz.
We have a reservation for 1.30pm, the usual time for Spaniards to eat lunch, but driving north from San Sebastian and having allowed ourselves an extra hour to find this remote place, we arrive early. The restaurant is not yet open, so we explore the herb garden in the autumnal mist and drizzle. Then, taking pity on us, staff usher us into the detached bar, more of a summer house, across the courtyard from the restaurant.
We order a bottle of the local cider ( sidra ), a refreshingly tart, slightly sparkling brew that comes as a cleanskin, made from particular varieties of small, tannic apples, and it’s here that the mud-coated spuds are brought to us.
Called to our table a half hour later, we are the first to be seated and so have plenty of opportunity to look around. Set in a hacienda-like former farmhouse with exposed wooden beams, the restaurant features widely spaced tables shielded by screens of woven twigs. Whimsical table decorations run to a few pebbles and a sculpture of wildly suspended antique cutlery.
Our first dish is a bouillon of tuna flavoured with citronella, with sea sponge floating in it and sprinkled with seaweed powder. Subtly flavoured, it’s a sublime contrast of intriguing textures and tastes.
Next comes a huge wedge of raw ox-heart tomato, largely unadorned except for a topknot of shredded berro de prado, a very hot Brazilian herb, and a pinch of paprika dust on the side, punningly served with a steak knife.
Then comes a salad of brightly coloured petals and leaves such as nasturtium flowers, baby beetroot greens, unidentifiable wild herbs and lightly cooked vegetables — we’re informed between 70 and 80 in all — afloat in an Emmenthal broth.
Next, presented on a black slate tile, is Spanish caviar from Adriatic sturgeon farmed in Granada’s River Frio, offset by daikon poached in rice broth.
Course No 6 is a quartet of gnocchi made from kuzu, a type of starch, flavoured with the local sheep’s milk cheese, Idiazabal. Each raviolo is inset with a different herb leaf and they float in an Iberian pork broth. These dissolve on the tongue as if they are jelly.
Then comes the high point: burned steak. It is totally black as if it has been charred to the point of incineration on all sides. Yet when we cut into it, it is crimson, soft and moist throughout. It has been slowcooked in anthocyanins, a natural colouring found in red grape skins but, in this case, derived from black maize. Poached in a sous-vide pouch at 70C for up to five hours, it appears to have been finished in a hot oven to crisp the exterior. The meat, we are told, is from a 15-year-old cow, but it is as tender, moist and flavourful as wagyu.
The black grissini surrounding it like pick-up sticks, have been soaked in squid ink, then dried and crisped over a fire of smoky vine clippings. It’s an extraordinary combination of textural contrasts and full of flavour.
Following a selection of six superb cheeses, including two varieties of Idiazabal, and two desserts, one a fig milk ice cream, the other yellow, crimson and purple raspberries, with rose-watered petals: we are sated.
Chef Aduriz’s wit and subtlety in the kitchen have doubtless helped his restaurant reach fourth place in this year’s S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, up three places from last year (and leapfrogging Sydney restaurant Tetsuya’s, now at No 10). It’s an extraordinary achievement for a chef in his mid-30s who has only two Michelin stars.
Spain boasts three of the top 10 restaurants in the list, more than any other country, outnumbering France, which has two. Spanish chefs do not seem to be constrained, or hidebound, by a tradition such as France’s haute cuisine. Spanish cuisine isn’t codified, with culinary bibles such as Auguste Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire or the Larousse Gastronomique, which lay down culinary lore for the French. The Spanish are not afraid to take artistic risks: witness Dali, Picasso and Gaudi. There are also Spain’s Moorish cultural influences and the drama of flamenco.
Of the three Spanish stars, Catalonia’s El Bulli tops the list and eighth is Arzak in the west coast Basque country. Mugaritz chef Aduriz apprenticed in both kitchens before opening his own establishment.
A few days after our Mugaritz visit, we head for Arzak, the restaurant of Aduriz’s former mentor JuanMari Arzak and, on the outskirts of suburban San Sebastian, much more accessible than the remote
Hot shots: Arzak’s coconut milk volcano, top; Elena Arzak Espina and Juan-Mari Arzak, left; Andoni Aduriz, right Mugaritz. Its modern, dimly lit, black-walled dining room exudes elegance. Arzak’s daughter, Elena Arzak Espina, runs the kitchen, although papa is still very much in evidence, cruising the floor in his chef’s whites.
The latest craze here is dehydration. In the upstairs laboratory there’s a hi-tech contraption, a lyophilisation machine, which cost tens of thousands of dollars, we are told. With it, they have been desiccating everything from olive oil (which becomes olive oil powder and is served with a lobster claw on a dramatic black plate) to dehydrated egg.
The egg is formed into parchment, similar to a fine raviolo skin, then filled with a poached egg and served with chicken jelly, which is the essence of roast chicken. Both dishes have the wow factor in flavour and presentation. Elsewhere there is tuna powder as a garnish, potato parchment as an accompaniment to pigeon breast, and dehydrated pineapple used with explosive effect in a coconut milk volcano. The coconut milk is poured into a glass of dry ice, which erupts over the plate, the final effect tasting like a pina colada.
Here, too, there is visual humour. What appear to be poached eggs on a dessert platter turn out to be apricots floating in a milky syrup, garnished with transparent slices of dried mango.
This drollery and whimsicality, drama and surprise, is nevertheless underpinned by skilful technique, and flavour is paramount. No doubt it is this daring and creativity that have helped Arzak and Aduriz streak ahead of their peers and culinary practitioners in other countries. Cherry Ripe is a former judge of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.