Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Akelare, San Sebastián

If you have yet to set forth in the coastal city of San Sebastián (Donostia), Basque Country, you're definitely missing out on one of the loveliest cities in all of Europe, even the world. Nestled along the Atlantic coast on the north side of Spain, and comprising 3 beaches and 2 rocky outposts (small hills) with the city wrapping around them, it's certainly a lovely sight for the senses. The beaches are filled with sunbathers, swimmers, surfers - all summer - and along the beach promenade, there's a carnival atmosphere of people just walking around, buskers performing incredible jazz music, and so on.

And, specifically concerning food (since this is a food blog anyway), San Sebastián has the largest concentration of 3 star michelin restaurants in the world per capita - seriously. In or around San Sebastián there's three 3 star restaurants - Arzak, Akelare and Martin Berasategui, and there's also 2 star Mugaritz that's well known as one of the top restaurants in the world, being in the top 10 of the San Pellegrino List. And just an hour's drive away lies Azurmendi, (which I shall be blogging about another day), and Extebarri - which is that famous grill restaurant where the chef from Burnt Ends used to work at. San Sebastian's also known for the pintxo crawl - where locals would throng the streets every lunch and dinner time through the old town, hopping from bar to bar. Pinxtos is basically the Basque version of tapas - so named because traditionally the food came on a toothpick.  

With so many choices and only 3 days - we picked 2 three-starred Michelin restaurants, Akelare and Azurmendi (which I shall be blogging about later).

Akelare has been lauded by reviewers on the Internet as being one of the most creative and delicious restaurants around, despite its relative inconspicuousness in the gourmet world. The head chef Pedro Subjana is, along with Juan Arzak (of Arzak), known as one of the forefathers of modern Basque cuisine. So naturally we had strong expectations. 

The restaurant's located within a half an hour drive from central San Sebastián - it's located along a ridge overlooking the Atlantic Ocean which makes for a spectacular view. The view is fantastic especially during lunch - where the sky stretches for miles without end. I'm not sure if this photo does the view justice actually but you get the idea. That's partly the reason why we chose to go there for lunch - to experience the view in it's sunlit splendor.

Amuse bouche
There are basically 2 menus we can order - one was the "Aranori" menu and the other the "Bekarki" menu. I had the Bekarki menu - while requesting one item from the Aranori menu (the prawns cooked in the "Oruju" fire) while another of my dining companions had the Aranori menu so we could try some of the dishes from there. 
The amuse bouche comprised a "sea garden" of various interesting nibbles. They were eye-opening certainly, but nothing really exciting.

We move on the real dishes which were far more interesting - and to start off, I had the prawns cooked in the "Oruju" fire which was actually from the Aranori menu but I decided to order it since it's renowned to be one of the signature dishes of Akelare. It was a visual spectacle - the waiter brought a pot with lava rocks and the prawns to your table, and a visual spectacle ensued as the prawns were flambeed over the rocks and liquor, and then plated individually over french bean puree.
Prawns and green beans

This dish was a real spectacle and a delight to eat - and all because of the really good ingredients used: the prawns were very sweet, and cooked in this way had a lingering smoky aftertaste. Sucking on the heads was a particular delight. The french beans lent some contrast to the dish and did not overpower the stars of the show, the prawns. A great dish and I see why it's been on the menu for so long. (8.75/10)

The scampi and monkfish
Next up, to continue the "sea" theme, we were served with smoked monkfish, scampi and a "green broth infusion". This really tasted of the sea - the monkfish was sliced very thinly and plated all around the dish; and the green broth infusion (which tasted of the sea - probably containing scampi stock albeit a bit too salty as saltwater is) was then poured over the sliced monkfish and the scampi. A good dish, nothing outstanding though. I felt it was too salty generally. (7/10)

Foie gras with "salt" and "pepper"
Next up, one of the standout dishes of my European journey: sauteed fresh foie gras with "salt flakes and grain pepper". Another whimsical dish, the waitress came to us informing us that she was sprinkling "salt" and "pepper" over the foie gras, and I remember my dining companion being horrified, probably thinking that this was a horrible way to botch up foie gras, as the waitress sprinkled those condiments over the foie gras. But of course those weren't real "salt" and "pepper" - in fact they were really flakes of puffed grain and sugar. There was a lovely contrast of textures - the foie gras was really top quality, with a lovely silky texture, and this contrasted against the crunchiness of the condiments. More importantly, the taste of the foie gras was just sublime, accompanied by a Sauternes reduction (I was so impressed by the sauce that I asked the waitress what it was and she told me what it was) - the taste was simply incredible and truly magical. I remember putting each morsel of foie gras into my mouth, closing my eyes, and savouring each moment with joy and thinking wow this is really incredible and wonderful and as good as it gets. The combination of the top quality foie gras, the Sauternes, and the condiments really made this a fabulous dish and one of the best I've enjoyed on this trip. (9.5/10)

Turbot and fake kotkotxa
Next up, we had turbot with a fake "kotkotxa". Kotkotxa is really a Basque specialty and it refers to the delicate pendulums of flesh growing in the throat of a hake or cod. Now, turbot, being a flat fish, does not have a kotkoxa, so the playful chef decided to fashion one for the turbot by using the fish oils to make a kotkoxa. It came with a mayonaise-like sauce as well. This dish was actually just okay as the turbot wasn't as tasty as I would have liked it to be - cooked well certainly but rather boring and it required me to immerse the turbot in some of the herbs to render more taste to it. The "kotkoxa" was soft but of course nothing like the real thing. To me - an average dish at best: (7/10)
Cod and cod tripe
Next up, we had a desalted cod box with shavings: this consisted of cod, cod tripe, and a slight tomato water - just slightly tangy. A pretty good dish - very "fishy", if you like - and with various different kinds of textures in the dish to make things interesting. The shavings were crunchy, if you like; combined with the gelatinous textures of the cod tripe, and of course we have the cod. (8/10)
Pigeon with Mexican mole
The main course was another star of the lunch - Roasted wood pigeon with a touch of Mexican mole and cocoa. The pigeon had a really strong gamey flavour - somewhat "funky" and almost liver-like, and yet was very tender. The Mexican mole, slightly spicey, paired very well with the pigeon, I thought. There were many things going on here, but what was important was that the dish was absolutely delicious i.e. taste not compromised. (9/10)

Milk and grape, cheese and wine in parallel evolution
Next up, the cheese course - and this was interesting: the title of it was "Milk and Grape, Cheese and Wine in Parallel Evolution". Basically, from left to right, the cheese/milk/wine and the accompaniments become more intense as you move on. Of course, not a totally novel idea (we see it in many other restaurants), but what's important is the details. Here we had some lovely pieces in particular the 3rd one - where the milk and the fruit were layered nicely and played off each other. Of course, the most intense was the last dish - really strong flavours combining very well. Overall an interesting journey: (8.5/10)

Orange Tocino sheet with chocolate leaves
The last dessert course was orange "Tocino" sheet with chocolate "leaves" and dried mango flowers - a really flawless dessert. All the flavours combined very well together - the orange with the chocolate "leaves"; the dried mango flowers giving some depth to the tartness of the orange. A very good dessert: (8.25/10)

Overall, the meal at Akelare was one of THE meals of 2013 thus far - the food was very good, technically excellent, and rather creative, whimsical if you like. Importantly, there were a few truly outstanding dishes such as the foie gras and the pigeon - dishes that stick in your consciousness long after the flavours have gone from your palate. Quite exceptional and worthy of the 3 stars it holds.

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