The Holiday Hangover

I hate the holiday hangover. It feels like shit to go back to work after the completion of an amazing trip abroad. Recently we spent a month going around the world, visiting fantastic places, seeing incredible people, and eating some of the best food of our lives. We spent time in Hong Kong, Milan, Rome, Positano, Bilbao, San Sebastian, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Girona, Zurich, and Boston. We ate at Bo Innovation, Tim Ho Wan, Cracco, La Pergola, Imago, Akelarre, Mugaritz, and Arzak with many others in between. Now that’s one hell of a trip!

But once we return home, face the reality of regular life, the enormity of the credit card balance, and the growing expanse of my waist, a sinking feeling sets in. Wouldn’t it just be easier and much less expensive to simply stay at home? Why do we have this insane obsession with seeing the world?

And then we reflect. We spend an afternoon gazing through the thousands of photos we took on the trip. We open the gorgeous cookbooks and remember some of the incredible dishes we tasted. We read some of the tweets from the new friends we made around the world. And then it hits us – these are the reasons we travel.

It’s the so friendly and helpful people of Hong Kong, who not only helped us find Tim Ho Wan (1 Michelin starred dim sum madness) but spent time translating the full menu into English for us. It’s chef Alvin Leung (Bo Innovation) sitting down with us and giving us tips on the Spain part of our trip.

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It’s seeing the Alps for the first time on the train ride from Zurich to Milan.

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It’s standing on our balcony next to the Duomo in Milan, Nastro Azzuro in hand, watching the world go by.

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And it’s standing in the middle of the Colosseum, right where the gladiators walked into the arena thousands of years ago. It’s talking ourselves into spending a couple hundred Euros each to visit La Pergola and being seated outside in time to see the sun set over Rome and the Vatican. And it’s the look on my wife’s face when she sees the dessert surprise. It’s also another amazing sunset at Imago, above the Spanish steps, and having the most incredible ravioli we have ever tasted.

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It’s arriving at our room in Positano and having our breath taken away by the view. It’s listening to my in-laws (they crapped on about it for years) and taking the little-red-fish boat to Da Adolfo and having one of the best seafood lunches on earth. And it’s growing some balls and climbing up to a little rock arch and jumping off into the Mediterranean. It’s also about spending the night on our balcony, eating luscious prosciutto, and drinking fantastic Italian wine.

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It’s seeing a pinxtos bar for the first time in Bilbao and diving right in.

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It’s checking into our room in San Sebastian and realising that not only do we have a gorgeous balcony but it looks right over the sea. Not only that but realising that it’s festival time in the Basque country and that we’re smack in the middle of a weeklong party! It’s the sunset at Akelarre and then having some of the best food of the trip, top that off with meeting Chef Pedro Subijana!

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It’s being complete idiots and booking the #4 and the #8 restaurants in the world, Mugaritz and Arzak, on the same day… for lunch and dinner. Yep, that’s thirty-nine courses, and seven hours of eating later! But it’s having simply the most enjoyable meal ever at Mugartiz. It was the food, the kitchen tour, scoring an authentic apron, enjoying dessert outside, buying a copy of Mugaritz BSO and then being lucky enough to have Chef Aduritz sign it in person and then thank US for coming.

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It’s meeting both generations (and genders) of Arzak chefs the moment we walk into the restaurant for dinner. And senior Arzak telling us he loves a “little restaurant in Sydney called Tetsuya’s”.

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It’s making the best decision of the trip and spending an extra 60EUR a night to get a balcony in our room at Hotel 1898 in Barcelona. And then eating mammoth amounts of tinned seafood with cheap-ass sangria each night. It’s also having the best sandwich on earth – nothing but tomato smeared bread and jamon Iberico.

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It’s being convinced to hire a car and visit Dali’s house in Portlligat. And being greeted by a freaky stuffed polar bear as we walk in the front door!

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It’s being bummed that we couldn’t get into El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, no matter how much I harassed them by email and Twitter. But it’s then finding an amazing gem in NU Restaurant, where we sat at the bar and the chef cooked a mind-blowing degustation menu for us.

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And then him loving our Spanish attempts so much that he started ad-libbing dishes for us, taking a photo of us together, and plying us with shots of an alcohol available only in Girona.

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It’s finding out that Zurich is fucking expensive. No, really. Really.

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It’s seeing my parents and best friend for the first time in two years and my mother putting on her annual luau. And it’s my best mate looking like a complete dumb ass.

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It’s $12 lobsters in New England.

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It’s taking my mom, dad, and wife to a Red Sox game and my dad wearing his Australia hat for the whole day. It’s dad and my wife pissing themselves with laughter during the sixth inning. And it’s the Sox winning and my dad smiling like a little kid.

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It’s finishing our trip with a freaking cool ice cream sandwich at Coolhaus LA...

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and then having what some consider the best burger in the world at Fathers Office.

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And it’s giving each other a kiss on the cheek on the flight home.

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Guess all that travel is worth it after all.

Akelarre - Revered San Sebastian Cuisine (Michelometer at 12*)

In most guides to top end cuisine in San Sebastian you’re faced with the decision of the “holy trinity” restaurants you’re going to visit. This includes Arzak, Mugaritz, and the ever-classic Akelarre. To me, this was an easy decision – do all three! In two days! Yikes!

Our adventure kicked off with Akelarre, which has been a staple of San Sebastian for over 30 years. Chef Pedro Subijana is revered in these parts and is considered one of the patron saints of the new Spanish cuisine. The restaurant also holds three Michelin stars and has been in and out of the top 100 in the world for a number of years. I was told  by Chef Heinz Beck before I came that the three restaurants and experiences would be very different and this certainly held true.

Akelarre is located in the hills just outside of San Sebastian, about fifteen minutes in a cab. It’s a beautiful drive and you get to see some pretty views on the way. But nothing can prepare you for the view once you enter the showcase of a dining room. We were lucky enough to have the best seat in the house, up against the glass with a full view of the sunset (this was about 9pm in August). Just stunning.

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In retrospect, this was definitely had the most formal feel to it of the three we visited here but we still enjoyed the unique experience. Your choice is one of three tasting menus, one of which contains their classics and the other two being new creations. The good thing is that each guest can choose from different menus so the Gourmet Female and I decided to split the decision and each try one of the new tasting menus. You can do a la carte here but seriously, why in the world would you?

We started with what we considered the most playful and “cool” dish of the trip. It was a zen garden of different playful items – an oyster leaf, a caramelised mussel, covered chickpeas, etc. The most clever aspect was the prawn “sand”. Delightlful!

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I chose the Bekarki menu. The Gourmet Female started her dish with tableside roasted prawns.

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My first main was, “Xangurro in Essence, its Coral Blini and ‘Gurullos’. This was essentially a large crab claw on a Blini with

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Next up was, “Green Broth Infusion, Red Prawn and Smoked Monkfish”. As I mentioned with La Pergola, this is another dish that appears to be one that could be straightforward to recreate when viewed. But when tasted it’s a completely different matter. That green broth infusion is one of the most complex I’ve tasted yet it still allowed the prawn to stand out on its own.

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This is where things started to go crazy for me. Firstly, I have had foie gras before but it has always been mixed with something else and delivered in small quantities. This was two whole pieces of foie with “Salt Flakes and Grain Pepper”. Now I guess they have to use the quotes when the words they use are not actually what’s used but it was a giveaway to me that something was up. Still, I was horrified when the waitress brought me two beautiful pieces of foie, only to drop two small bowls of “salt and pepper” on them. But I quickly realised that they were something altogether different. I couldn’t decide what the “salt” was made of but I’m pretty sure there was a cocoa element to the “pepper”. Black-out good.

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As I have mentioned in other posts, salt cod (or bacalao) is a key part of Basque culinary culture. Akelarre didn’t drift too far away from those roots in, “Desalted” Cod Box with Shavings”.

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I think the prettiest dish of the night was “Roasted Pigeon with a Touch of Mole and Cocoa”. Having gone through Mexico a number of times I can appreciate how mole and cocoa can work with poultry. But the presentation here is world class.

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The “cool” factor for me on the night was, “Mile and Grape, Cheese and Wine in Parallel Evolution”. Effectively, this is a dish that combines grapes and cheese as they move through age and maturity. The cheeses get more rich and heavy while the grapes slowly become sultanas. Brilliant!

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We finished up with, “Orange ‘Tocino de Cielo’ Sheet with Fruits Leaves”. In this creation the chef has created an edible and “scratchable” plate of orange with chocolate fruit leaves on top. A great combination of citrus and chocolate to finish the meal.

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Not the greatest shot of us with chef Pedro Subijana but I think the light above his head is fitting! BTW, chef was kind enough to come in the next morning and sign his cook book for me so that I could take a copy home.

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In the end, we loved our trip to Akelarre. The views were spectacular and the food was inspiring. This is a new Spanish food institution and chef if respected with reverence by all those who have come after. We did enjoy Mugaritz and Arzak more, but for different reasons. In the end, it was a meal we will cherish forever.

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