Mugaritz - The 7th best restaurant in the world?
3 Deciembre 2016
San Sebastian is one of the world's top foodie destinations. In 2016 the annual list of the World's Best 50 Restaurants the Basque region close to San Sebastian boasted 3 restaurants. Number 7, 10 and 21. Spain has 6 restaurants in the top 50. Australia, no slouch when it comes to food, only has one restaurant, Melbourne's Attica, in the top 50. Down from the days we'd figure prominently in the top 50 - Tetsuya's, Quay, Rockpool etc.
When we decided to go to Spain there was no way we weren't going to go to San Sebastian. Even without the Top 50 restaurants its reputation as a foodie destination demanded we visit. As soon as we had half a plan for the trip, even before we booked the flights, we started making reservations at Mugaritz (7th in the world), Asador Etxebarri (10th) and Arzak (21st). A fairly painless process. We asked for reservation for two adults, but would it be okay to bring along two small children? No problem they all said. Time to book flights.
This whole European trip came about because my Munich based brother Ben asked me way back in January if we'd like to join his family, and my other brother Gerard's family, in Austria skiing in January 2017. We needed a full 5 seconds to think about that. Hell yes! Then we wondered, how can we bookend a ski trip to Austria? I know lets spend a month in Spain and Portugal first. If we go to Spain we have to go to San Sebastian. And here we were. Not quite. I did have to go on tele and win a few bucks to pay for the trip. Ah, TV gameshows. Financing overseas travel since 1956. That whole story about how I fluked winning Millionaire Hotseat is here.
We spaced out the visits to the Michelin starred Top 50 restaurants over a couple of days in San Sebastian. We knew from experience that meals like this could be epic. If you go for lunch your day is done. So we booked Mugaritz for the day we arrived, Arzak for lunch for one of our other days in San Sebastian, and Extebarri for a late lunch on the day we left San Sebastian for Bilbao. Extebarri is in a little village about half way between San Sebastian and Bilbao.
So that was why we were rushing around dumping luggage, finding car parks and getting frazzled when we arrived in San Sebastian. Our reservation for Mugaritz was for 9 pm and we didn't want to be too late. All this after a four plus hour drive from Madrid. Mugaritz is about a 20 minute drive from San Sebastian so any thoughts I had of having a float of matching wines with the degustation went out the window. I have no idea if they have random breath testing in Spain but I wouldn’t drink and drive at home so I certainly wouldn’t do it in Spain.
Degustations make it easy to decide on what to eat. The chef decides for you. You are asked if you have any allergies or if there is something you can't eat. But otherwise the chef is the artist so let them choose. We were at Tetsuya's in Sydney once and I heard the the question asked at another table. Is there anything you can't eat? Seafood was the reply. Tetsuya's is Japanese Australian fusion and probably 80 percent of the menu is seafood. Why the hell would you go somewhere like that if you don't eat seafood? It is like a vegan going to Carnivore in Nairobi and asking for a salad. We'll try anything. They sometimes hand you a menu that lists what you about to have. Sometimes it is a surprise and you get a souvenir menu of what you had at the end.
With a 15 course degustation there is ample opportunity for the chef (or his or her minions) to show off their culinary skills, their artistic flair and their knack for flavour. When push comes to shove, no matter how artistic and refined the dish is, if it tastes like crap it is less than satisfying. We found over the years when you get 15 courses the higher rated the restaurant the more chance you will get 15 great dishes. The lower rated places tend to miss with a couple. That said anybody can dish up something that seemed like a good idea at the time. We found that with the previously mentioned Tetsuya's. The first time we went it had just been ranked the fourth best restaurant in the world. It was great. Every single dish was perfect. Not a dud amongst them. The next time we went it had lost some of its lustre. It had dropped in the rankings from 4th to somewhere in the 20s. The 20 something best restaurant in the world is still effing good. But one or two dishes were just okay. Nothing memorable unlike our previous visit. The rest of the dishes were perfect but it made us realise just what was required to stay at the top.
Which brings us to Mugaritz. It was very good. The end. Lets get pintxos and txakoli.
Only kidding. Mugaritz, as I mentioned, is about 20 minutes out of San Sebastian. I wish I could describe its beautiful gardens and setting but it was dark when we arrived and we couldn't see stuff all. Except for the big owl statue. I have no idea what it signified? When it is dark you need owl like eyesight? Maybe it is a local totem?
We were lucky enough to get a reservation at one of their last sittings for the year. They shut down for a month or two every year to go back to the test kitchen to come up with new dishes for the following year. I think our visit was either last or next to last sitting for the year. That’s one of the downsides of visiting a foodie destination like Spain in the Winter. Many places close for an extended period in December and January.
We knew as soon as we entered it wasn't going to be a stuffy formal experience. The waiters and hosts were casual, relaxed and informal. We were shown to our table. The restaurant is a large room. Other restaurants my have tried to squeeze in 50 or so tables but there were less than 20 in this room. No chance of knocking elbows with our neighbours.
Do you have any allergies they asked? No. Is there anything you won't eat? No. Do you want something for the children? Fish Perhaps? Yes please. One of the finest restaurants in the world and already they were asking what they could do for the kids. Unlike one of the best restaurants in Sydney who did everything they could to dissuade us from bringing the kids. No children's meals they said. That's okay they can share ours. No seating for children they said. That's okay we replied, one will stay in the pram and the other can sit in a normal chair. No chairs for children they said. Wait, what I asked? Are we paying for meals or chairs? Two meals, two seats they said. Okay, she can sit in our laps we said. Okay, they replied, but no chair, your reservation is confirmed, have a nice day. Yeah, fuck you Momofuku Sydney reservation service. That was in the days when we still had a bee in our bonnet about eating at every top rated restaurant in Sydney at least once. When we actually sat down to eat the staff and restaurant were very good and hospitable, and it was one of the best meals we've had in Sydney. We still didn't get a chair though.
So how was Mugaritz really? It was very very good. Refined, the food was full of flavour, an experience, and expensive. I love the names of each dish. Some are self explanatory, others you'd have no idea what it was. I was able to refer to Mugaritz's website where they have pictures of each dish sorted by year for the names when I was writing this. Sometimes knowing the name doesn't help. But here is the complete list of dishes…
Toasted mollete, anchovy emulsion
”My guts are growling” - crispy tripe
Red cardoon and chestnut praliné
Warm cloud of roe and hazelnut oil. Nube de huevas con aceite de avellana y trucha frita - a fluffy cloud containing roe and hazelnut oil
Berliner of coral - the red sauce comes from prawns
Salpicon granité of crab and yolk
Clam glazed with lemon
Squid and peppers. Glasa especiada de mole y txipiron - raw squid with a sheet of mole glaze that melted when a bouillon was poured on.
Rib and "soup" bread - A couple of small things between biscuit or wafers???
Stewed biscuit with Espelette
Hake, milk threads
Cold fried mole and squid
Oily fish cooked under a salted cloud. Pescado cocido bajo una nube de salzones - Mackeral cooked under a salted cloud
Sweetbread and garlic
Red mullet in colorá. Red mullet cooked in chorizo oil on a bed of pork rind
Glazed lamb over salted leaves
Savoury chip of orange and duck
The cheese - Grilled vegetable bread and cheese
Toasted soup of oxidised wine (Michelin Man)
Kombucha mother and strawberries
Quince, cheese and walnuts
To each his own - marshmallow between two garlic wafers
7 Deadly Sins - a puzzle box containing petit fours, each layer inscribed with the sin.
I found some of the dishes here where I couldn't find them on Mugaritz's website. But our source of truth was the souvenir menus we received at the end of the meal. One menu for the adults listing all twenty two separate dishes. And another kid’s menu. For the record the kid’s had:
Fish and vegetables
We were invited to the kitchen to meet the chef and see the kitchen. It was like a hospital operating theatre. Blood and body parts every where. No, not really it. It was clean, quiet, spacious, professional, almost antiseptic. It was like no other professional kitchen I've ever seen. It sparkled. Everybody worked as team. Methodical. There were no Gordon Ramsey's screaming at minions here. We oohed and aahed, the kids were presented with souvenir aprons and then we were ushered out.
Twenty two courses can take a while to get through. Allow for at least three hours for an experience like this. Funnily enough every degustation we've ever been to will have a number of dishes whipped out in quick succession then you will have an unexplained gap of sometimes 30 minutes, or more, before the next dish arrives. Happens every time. I have no idea why. Maybe I should ask sometime. Paranoid me thinks the waiter will spit in the next course if I dare question the wait time though. I wonder if that really happens? Be assured at Mugaritz it would probably be as likely as winning thousands of dollars on a TV quiz show. Maybe Jiro Ono from Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo has the right idea. 15 pieces of sushi trotted out in quick succession. The entire meal done in 30 to 40 minutes. And it costs almost as much as a seat at Mugaritz. For the record our lunch at Sukiyabashi Jiro was my favourite meal of all time.
Brandy and Georgia coped wonderfully with the extended meal time. Brandy played with his "mens" and Georgia drew and wrote in a notebook. They share our dishes mostly. Sometimes they will have specially prepared meals if the restaurant will do it. In this case they got things like cured meat plates. We are very lucky with they way they can handle extended degustations. Possibly because we've been taking them out to restaurants since they were newborns. They don't know any different. Often we will be approached by fellow diners during the meal or on their way out and they complement us on our kid's behaviour. Honestly we don't do anything. We turn up, we eat, the kids eat, we leave. For us it is that simple. As we were leaving David Toutain in Paris we were approached by a family, an older couple with a daughter in her late teens, and they complemented us on the kid's behaviour. During our conversation mentioned we were off to Spain next and they said they just been there. And, coincidentally they had also been to Mugaritz. They said they were slightly disappointed by the experience. I was thinking, "noooo, don't tell me that" but now we had been we were thought they were probably right.
The experience as a whole was very very good. I think a couple of dishes were just meh though. A few were outstanding, some were very very good. But a couple were disappointing. Not horrible. Maybe they had a taste that didn't appeal? Maybe we were let down by the weight of expectation? Quite possibly we thought the 7th Best Restaurant in the World would be order of magnitudes better than anything else we'd ever had but in the end it was no better, or no worse, than some of the places we'd been to in Sydney or Melbourne. Sadly even the world’s best restaurants are subject to the law of diminishing returns.
Eventually we finished the 7 Deadly Sins and we were done. We paid lots of moneys. With two more of the World's Best Restaurants to come the Euro exchange rate was going to kill me. Possibly just before I ate myself to death.