Span­ish con­quest

Cherry Ripe finds fab­u­lous food with a sense of hu­mour at two of the world’s most lauded restau­rants

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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.

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