Arzak has been a family restaurant since 1897, when founded by the current patron, Juan Mari Arzak's, grandparents. In 1966 Juan took over the restaurant from his parents and in the late 1970s helped lead the New Basque Cuisine movement. He still has input into the restaurant today, but day to day running has largely been handed over to daughter Elena, ensuring that the restaurant continues to stay in the family. Despite for many years being considered to be one of the best restaurants in the world and the many accolades Arzak has accrued over the years, the restaurant has still kept this family feel.
New Basque Cuisine was inspired by nouvelle cuisine in France which was being led by chefs such as Paul Bocuse. It included the adoption of new ingredients and techniques to lighten and modernise the flavours and traditional dishes of the region, with the resultant dishes being more complex and with an increased emphasis on presentation. This changed the whole Basque region and made it one of the most important food destinations around. The cuisine of the region has continued to progress even further with chefs such as Martin Berasategui and Andoni Luis Aduriz putting their own slant on. One constant through all this progression is Restaurant Arzak.
Unlike most tasting menus, in Arzak they try to give each diner at the table a different interpretation so on a couple of courses we had different dishes. After some beautiful snacks to start we were presented with two slightly different foie gras dishes. One with onion, green tea, huitlacoche and foie gras inside a 'Cromlech' made of crispy manioc. The other of apple injected with beetroot, foie gras with a potato 'mother of pearl'. These two dishes tell you a lot about what a meal in Arzak will be like. You will have ingredients that you may not have had before, such as huitlacoche, which is corn smut (whatever that is). The menu descriptions are quirky, using words like 'Cromlech', which is megalithic rock to describe the shape and presentation of the dish. The food combines big flavours, whilst still giving great clarity with the main components on the plate blending perfectly together, but still identifiable on the palate. This is the most striking asset of Elena Arzak's food.
There were no bad or even average dishes on our meal, but some stood out as exemplary. Lobster with bee's pollen and blue honeycomb was spectacular. The bees pollen giving a beautiful sweetness and texture with the lobster and was served with a mustard like sauce which brought the dish together to make it unforgettable. Pigeon with 'guitar shavings' is another dish that could only be described as perfect. Beautifully cooked tender, rare pigeon breast with a warming Armagnac sauce fragranced with cypress shavings.
Desserts were also of very high quality and delicious but just lacked the wow moments that were in a couple of the savoury dishes. 'Big Truffle', a cocoa and sugar truffle with a chocolate and carob filling was tasty, but the best dessert was definitely 'Black lemon', a light, zesty and refreshing end to the meal which was a chocolate shell made to look like a black Persian lemon, filled with citrus cream.
There are few restaurants that can get away with using descriptions such as 'lunar chocolate', 'square moon', 'red space egg' on a menu. It could easily come across as tacky and childish, but somehow it fits with the food and the atmosphere in Arzak - it is fun, playful and puts a smile on your face.
The service was friendly, approachable and they seemed genuinely concerned that the diners had a great experience. Despite being a high end restaurant the dining room feels informal and laid back. The food is good value considering its high standard and the wine list has some excellent Spanish wines which are very well priced.
The food in Arzak is experimental, using modern techniques and unusual ingredients to try a find a great flavour or a new interpretation, but it still feels local. The tagline on our website says 'The Pursuit Of Deliciousness' and Arzak certainly delivered that.
See where Arzak is on our world list of restaurants.