Mugaritz - The Meal Of My Life (Michelometer at 14*)

It's taken me a while to finish this post. My first answer is to say that it's just taken time - there were over 20 courses, after all. But to be completely honest, I think it's because it was such a personal and intimate experience and subconsciously I want to keep it all to myself. But in reality, if this post inspires someone to visit the amazing Mugaritz then it's all worth it.

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Let me start by saying my plans for San Sebastian were a bit ambitious. Some would even say stupid. I booked us in for two nights and planned to get to three of the best restaurants in the world in on the visit. So, in addition to Akelarre one night for dinner, this also required the herculean feat of visiting Mugartiz for lunch and then Arzak for dinner (more on that one in another post). Yep, that's 12 Michelin stars and over 50 courses in roughly 28 hours.

In any case, let me begin (and apologise for the longest post in the history of man).  

First up, "Fishbones" with nuances of lemon, garlic, and cayenne pepper. It was a very interesting and tasty way to start the meal. Very crunchy on the outside but the lemon and garlic was super smooth.

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I hate to say this, and I feel like a bit of a hypocrite, but the Summer truffle and "solera" was our least favourite dish by far. It was hard to put my finger on it but it was actually fairly bland. But you should have seen the waitress' face when the truffles collapsed before she placed it on the table! We had to reassure her a dozen times that it wasn't like she dropped it on the floor...

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Dish #3 was Small crustaceans bind with seeds and saffron cream. Just have a look at those little prawns! We were absolutely back on track with this dish.

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Now, Chef Aduriz is world famous for his Edible stones. Simple in concept - potatoes cooked in edible clay - but absolutely magnificent in execution. I mean, just look at these...

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The simple but flawless theme continued with Preboggion, which is a Stew of weeds, and crisp potatoes. And by this time we realised that the pace of the dishes was perfect as well. Just fast enough to keep hunger at bay but slow enough to interact with the staff and have a good laugh.

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Can you believe that our next dish was Green chickpeas with salt from the Anana valleys? I mean, seriously... simple ingredients at their finest. 

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This would probably be my second favourite dish of the meal - cold peach and razor clams. Who would have thought that those two went together so well? As soon as I can find some razor clams at the fish markets I'm giving this one a go.

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Things started to get a little weird with Tanned lobster flesh and fermented rice. The fermented rice would be straightout weird and probably not very nice, were it not for the mind-blowing lobster. This dish rocks! And it turns out they use a machine from Korea and its sole purpose is to make this rice.

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Sweet corn, milk cream, and seeds. I know this may not look that appealing, but trust me, it is. Oh yes.

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An interpretation of a shark fin with roasted cauliflower broth was next. One guess what this is?? If you guessed calves tendons then you've been here or you need some sort of prize. Never would have thought it. Never would have eaten it before but this was well worth the risk.

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Ok, this had to be one of the most fun parts of the meal and so indicative of the atmosphere they have created here. It was a dish of Poultry Royale, and a game of Astragals Royale. The dish was a poultry flavoured custard. But wait, we had to play a game with each other where you put a secret number of playing pieces behind your back and each person guesses what the other has. Turns out the Gourmet Female isn't very good at hiding her unused pieces so I won in a landslide. The prize? A massive tub of caviar that matched with the poultry custard in an absolutely amazing way.

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Now, I think they do this for most people but I don't care - I got to visit the kitchen of the fourth best restaurant in the world. It was awe-inspiring. And I even stole an idea about a wall sized chalkboard in our new kitchen.

When we walked in we were greeted with a little macaron. I jumped in a bit too quickly - as it was racing down my esophagus one of the chefs jumped in and asked, "Do you eat everything?". He looked pretty concerned so I started to wonder what I just ate. Turns out these geniuses have discovered that the protein in pig's blood matches that of egg white. So that tasty little morsel was a pig's blood macaron with a foie gras filling. I don't care, it was freakin' amazing!

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Back to the table and some Grilled squid with onion. I love the play on flavours and textures through all the dishes. Doesn't that look like burnt onion? Beautiful.

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Following next was Cantabrian sea Bonito and dark Marmitako juice. That dark juice was so rich and thick but it matched the Bonito perfectly.

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Next up, Red mullet in a butter of its own liver. With almonds and bread. Again, such an amazing combination of flavours and textures. Perfect.

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Sweetbread of suckling lamb with seasonal mushrooms. Not a sweetbread fan? You would be after this one. I would absolutely love to grow those little mushrooms. Not to mention the amazing and spicy flowers.

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Sheets of "entrecula", grilled steak emulsion and salt crystals. Pardon my French, but best-fucking-steak ever. See what's on it? That's a reduced fat emulsion of the steak itself. Come on. I can die now, thank you.

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So, once the savoury dishes were finished we were ushered out to the beautiful garden to enjoy desserts. I'm not sure if it's the wine or the anticipation but someone's ready for dessert!

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The mashed and dressed fruits with concentrated melon juice was so gorgeous I had to take a video of me pouring in the juice. Just beautiful and a perfect palate cleanser to start desserts.

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Following on was frozen almond turron. Very reminiscent of an ice cream cone in flavour and texture. Beautiful!

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Yeah, ok, the wine was kicking in by this point. Almost forgot to whip out my phone for the next photo. So, post-bite this is called "Glass. Sugar and cocoa as a cookie". And yes, it is as good as it looks. Better, actually.

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The next dessert was "Mocha in its lightest version". They weren't kidding - this thing almost disappeared before it passed my lips. So incredibly light.

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The last official dish was candy caviar. See the rocks the cone is set in? Cookie dough. Yep, we've reached "best meal of my life" status.

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We finished with the seven deadly sins. Want to know what wrath was? Empty. Genius.

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It's hard to say just what made this meal so amazing. Part of it was the glorious food, obviously. But part was the lovely and oh-so-friendly maitre d ("Where do you go next?" he asked. Zaragoza. "Ooooooh, th-era-go-th-aaaa". We still mimic it to this day), the interesting diners who were happy to have a chat, the kitchen tour, and the garden. But I think it also was because I finally said "screw it, I'm going to ask what's on my mind". And the end result? Number one was an authentic chef's apron from the kitchen! You can't buy these folks. 

Now I need the courage (and respect) to wear it. 

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But part of it was also scoring my copy of Mugaritz BSO, spotting Chef Aduriz at the end of the meal and getting him to personally sign it.

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Yep, definitely the meal of my life. I don't think I can ever go back as any other visit couldn't possibly live up to this experience. It was emotional. Thank you, Mugaritz, Chef and team. You made my holiday.

Unbelievably, a quick snooze and off to Arzak for dinner! More on that soon. 

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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Victor Montes - Pintxos, Beautiful Pintxos

Back in 2009 we were traveling through Europe at the same time as my friend. He was able to make it to the Basque Country where we couldn’t and he was lucky enough to encounter Victor Montes, a wonderful Pintxo bar in the middle of Bilbao. It’s not hard to find in the middle of the town square and it wonderfully designed.

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If you have any trouble you can easily locate the place by their friendly waiter.

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Locals have one or two bites at a place, wash it down with beer, wine, or Txacoli (highly recommended) and then move on to the next place. But we were enthralled and stayed for a while. We had a mixture of bacalao (salt cod), a traditional Basque dish, some olive and anchovy on toothpicks (called a Gilda), sardines, marinated anchovies, octopus etc. All washed down with a couple beers and white wines. What was amazing to us is that we are very familiar with tapas but the pinxto experience is so very different. A key component is the artistry and elegance of the dishes and each bar tries to outdo the others.

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You order on the honour system, picking what you want and telling the bartender at the end of the session how many you had. One of the prettiest dishes we saw on the day was the marinated octopus. Just an incredible amount of work and artistry on a piece of bread!

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By the time we were well into it I was a bit concerned as I could only see one price wall and it seemed to say each pinxto was well over 10EUR! But no, silly me, each were 2EUR and the beer and wine was about the same. Less than 30EUR for an amazing meal!

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What’s beautiful about this is that the Basque believe that the pintxo culture perfectly matches theirs. Freedom of choice, frequent movement, and honesty are all key parts of their society. It’s a microcosm mixed with their intense love for food. When you’re in Basque country you must try the pintxo bars – if that brings you to Bilbao make sure Victor Montes is on your must-visit list!

BTW, I even snagged a top Spanish Pintxo book!

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