This is a retrospective post, so my memory (and hence the details, and unfortunately the pictures) are all a little hazy.  Sun-soaked San Sebastian – and Mugaritz, hidden away at the end of a long, winding drive through lush, green Basque hills of Errenteria, dotted with pastures and farmhouses – both happened what feels like ages ago, in September 2011.

My friend Patrick and I were in the middle of a jaunt through the Spanish basque country, and most of the advance planning I’d done was around food.  San Sebastian is a culinary hotbed, home to several of the world’s best restaurants.  With my what-was-then relatively newfound obsession with food, I thought it would be enlightening (read: f***in’ delicious) to visit a few of them.  When in Rome, right?

The catch was, Mugaritz was my first three-Michelin-star joint, and thus, very new territory.  When you walk into a really good Italian restaurant or steakhouse, you know in broad terms what you’re getting – ingredients, flavors, dishes, service.  But having seen a few articles and documentaries on El Bulli, a patriarch of modern Spanish cooking, and having watched the Spain episode of No Reservations, I had a hard time imagining what to expect out of the meal.

Things I did trust: (1) that Mugaritz, which has been for the past two years San Pellegrino’s third-best restaurant in the world, would deliver inventive, tasty food; (2) the restaurant would be elegant; and (3) that service would be impeccable.  Beyond that, I was completely ignorant.

Notecards to begin the meal
Restaurant interior
Ridiculous tea selection
Tableware art

I felt a unsettling mix of hesitation and excitement about spending that much money down on a meal.  I wouldn’t call it self-loathing, but a few years ago, at least before I started working, a $200+ tasting menu was a totally foreign concept.  On some level (or many levels), my parents would be confounded, if not disappointed, at that level of consumption.

Still, I also couldn’t help but be excited by the novelty of what Mugaritz had to offer – and if I was being introspective at all, that kind of cash money just as well marked a commitment to higher forms of culinary experience, the price of admission to an exhibition of craft, an extravagant carnival of dishes and waiters, and for the possibility of encountering genius.  Something like a cultural skydive.  My rationalization, of course, but who’s to tell me otherwise?

After all that, the menu, then:

Toasted legume beer / olives, beans, and thyme
The texture of frozen water with licorice and fennel

The meal started slow, with small, subtle glimpses at an impending departure from the norm.  I don’t remember much of the first two dishes, only being intrigued by Mugaritz’s first sensual vagaries.  While the first two were plays on water, transporting different textures and flavors – and the next one was also meant as an amusing head-scratcher, resembling a curled strip of birch bark, or a sunbleached bone.  This was a weird place that Mugaritz was taking me.

Grilled pueraria focaccia with tomato paste

It got weirder still, but also more substantive (thankfully), with a miniature eggplant that looked part-flower and part-date.

Grilled eggplant with aged cheese and honey dressing at Mugaritz

– Homemade mozzarella, whey emulsion infused with smoked black tea (not pictured)

The next few dishes were some of my favorites, largely because of how elegantly simple and how intensely delicious they were, each arrangement just a few flavorful bites on a clean white plate.

Squid (fresh-caught) from the “Cantabric” sea
Fig, cooked in clay and the scent of tonka beans
“Perhaps a risotto…” (of squash seeds)

– Shhhhhh…cat got your tongue? – crisped filaments of beef tongue (not pictured).

Before the tongue dish, the host (a supremely nice man named Jose Ramon, or Joserra, for short) came to introduce the dish, that we were to guess what meat the dish was made of – I vaguely recall him hinting that it was a big farm animal.  The servers who came by after we’d finished the dish to ask us that same question were surprised when I guessed beef tongue.  Whether Jose Ramon’s hint was planned or not, it was a neat interaction coupled with a savory, crunchy dish that was fun to eat – a game that made the dish more interesting, and also a tongue-in-cheek play (pun intended) on most eaters’ fear of not knowing what is in their food.

Also, I had a bit of fun with the squid ink:

Squid from the Cantabric sea (post-coitus)

The next dishes were richer, some a bit larger in portion as well.  The cheese, although visually the main attraction, I liked better as a sort of dressing, its gooey innards mixed with the mushrooms.  The bonito belly was phenomenal, the first time I remember eating that particular cut (although Arzak would serve it to us again the next night), or bonito for that matter.  I later found on Wikipedia that the Pacific version of bonito (also known as the skipjack tuna, and to the Japanese as katsuo) is a central component of dashi.  Given my love of miso soup, no wonder I liked the flavor.

Cured cheese, in its own rind, mushroom, and coastal herbs
Artichoke and sweet bread ragout, creamy kuzu bread
Bonito belly, grilled on its own skin. Baby green peppers and almond paste

– Portion of hake and milky reduction of stewed turnip sprouts.  Citric, cream and salt grains (not pictured)

The last savory dishes were almost too much – we hadn’t properly paced ourselves for the marathon of courses, and if the portions had been any bigger, we would have been in trouble.  The steak practically melted in your mouth, and the steak emulsion, essentially a dollop of butter made from the steak drippings, literally melted – four bites of beef doubly packed with umami.  Aesthetically, the millet leaves were a clever way of weaving the local ecosystem into the meal – definitely not the only local aspect of the dinner, but still a notable one: the leaf shapes were cast from autumn leaf-fall from the trees growing near the restaurant.  The story, as told by a chef who came by our table, was a nice way to bring us back from our lengthy, borderline absurdist meal, to try and ground us again in our surroundings, and also to quietly remind us about the autumn season and about the connection the chefs had chosen to make between the food and its environment, not just the immediate but also the regional.  Iberian ham is a prized product of Spanish culinary tradition, and in all of its incarnations that I’ve had, one of the most potently delicious meats I’ve tasted.

Piece of beef, grilled steak emulsion, and salt crystals
Iberian pig tails and reduction of its own juice. Crispy sweet millet leaves

I don’t have any photos of the desserts, unfortunately, but they were:

– Sweet grain biscuit with anis and flowers

– Creamy pastry of brioche

– A crisp of flax seeds and whisky parfait

In addition, we closed with a plate of Basque cheeses, and a cappuccino.

Selection of Basque cheeses
Coffee to finish the meal

During the meal, Patrick and I both had Anton Ego-esque “back-to-childhood” moments.  His was the hake and turnip sprouts dish, which reminded him of a Korean dish he used to have growing up.  Mine was the squid, which reminded me of stir-fry dishes that my mom used to make.  The squid would come frozen in these small paper boxes, and when they’d defrosted, she would spend an hour cutting out whatever squid offal consists of, including the quills and the ink sacs.

There was a lot to take in, and take away, from the meal, the experience, the environs.  Sometimes, when I’m full, I just want to shuffle home, happy but exhausted from the process.  I went back to LA and talked to some folks at Son of a Gun about using bonito, that I’d had it both at Mugaritz and Arzak.  I recall a vague comment about the stuffiness of those haute cuisine sort of places, a dismissal maybe not of my suggestion but of my reverence for those places.  Granted, the Mugaritz dining room was dotted with wealthy couples, half-drunk or fully-drunk business diners, and photo-snapping Asians like me.  And everything did ooze class, almost overbearingly so.  Most things came with a gracious nod, instead of the family-room din of my favorite LA eateries, but it was a degree of professionalism that one rarely experiences (outside of Japan, presumably).

Then, some things at Mugaritz came with a sly smile or wink of the eye, an introduction, a story – explanations one usually doesn’t get elsewhere.  The service was so deft and efficient that you were largely left alone with the food, to taste, to submit to this litany of oftentimes weird creations the chef chose to trot out, sure, but you were also left alone to think, debate, remember, and decide, if you wanted.  That’s the real bonus of some of these high-falutin’ places – that the chef sometimes will allow you to not only savor and experience a multi-course menu of oddities and sensual tricks and just really, really good food, but will also send you off on some unpredictably fun loop-de-loops.

Not all bad for a few hundred bucks.

Otzazulueta baserria, Aldura-aldea 20.20100
Errenteria, Spain (outside of San Sebastian)