Another day wandering about in San Sebastian…
And, another day of tapas – at least for the midday meal…
A Fuego Negro, 31 de Agosto Kalea, #31 – A touch modernist in the tapas world, but at least at lunch, far more accessible than Zeruko was the day before (and I swung back by there and it was just as insane at lunchtime). Lots of interesting, creative stuff – the menu is the signboards posted on the wall. A little slow coming out of the kitchen, but friendly staff, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. Best dish for me, the sheep’s milk cheese risotto with puffed, crispy black rice, and ribbons of calamari.
Ganbara, San Jeronimo Kalea, 19 – an old school tapas bar, recommended to me by Adam Richman when he found out I was going to be in San Sebastián, as his personal favorite. Really good, I wish I’d been hungry enough to order up one of the larger plates of their foraged wild mushrooms. Famous for their croissant with house-cured ham, and justifiably so!
Rather than go for more tapas, especially as I knew I had a blowout dining experience coming up in the evening, I decided to end with a little something sweet for lunch. La Viña, 31 de Agosto, #3, was rumored to have one of the world’s best cheesecakes, and to be a don’t miss spot for that and an espresso. So what was the verdict? Hell. Yes.
Do you remember back when we all first started hearing about “molecular gastronomy” (before we were required to call it “modernist”)? There were just a few known practitioners – there was Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain, there was Wiley Dufresne at WD-50 in New York, there was, hmm, well, actually, that was kind of it at the time. Others started climbing on the bandwagon, and pretty soon it became “the thing”. And we all remember just how bad some of those places were, as (especially) young chefs without a lick of experience, but having set up chemistry sets at home, started churning out colorful, textural plates that, quite simply, sucked when it came to eating them. But they were pretty. And because none of us really knew anything about how they were producing these dishes, nor understood anything about them, we were all just so impressed with the experimentation, often at the cost of flavor, coherence, or anything else that constitutes a soul, or stomach satisfying dinner. Maybe because we’ve all read something about it now, or seen demos of how the stuff is done, it’s just not quite as impressive when it’s not backed up by substance.
One of the longtime “explorers” on this path is Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, at his restaurant up in the hills south of San Sebastián (a roughly 20 minute, 20 euro cab ride), Mugaritz, Aldura Aldea, 20, in Errenteria. I mentioned yesterday about paring down to just one spot here in San Sebastián to go for the whole experiential thing. I’ve now been to probably around 15 spots in the world that specialize in this style of cooking, maybe more. And while I’m always intellectually intrigued, I virtually never leave happy with what I ate, thinking, “oh, I wish I had another bite of that”. There are exceptions – in Buenos Aires, where Dante Liporace (Tarquino until it just recently closed) and Gonzalo Aramburu (Aramburu and Aramburu Bis), both focus on the food and flavor first, with the molecular stuff coming in as secondary accents; Enrique Olivera at Pujol, and Edgar Nuñez at Sud 777, both in Mexico City, the same.
So, Mugaritz was interesting on an intellectual level. I enjoyed seeing the kitchen and meeting the chef (interestingly, given that I’d let the reservation staff know in advance that I was a visiting chef, they hadn’t communicated it to him) – something everyone who dines there gets to do, I wasn’t singled out. It was all pretty. Service was correct, but perfunctory. With the exception of head waiter Jose Ramos, who seems to truly enjoy his work and chatting with people, not one server on the floor, at any moment, looked like they were happy to be there, I don’t think I’ve seen such a dour bunch of front of house staff, anywhere, anytime in my career. And most of them couldn’t answer simple questions about either the food nor the wine (and the wine list is bottles only, if you want by the glass, you can’t pick anything, you’re at the whim of whatever the sommeliers feel like serving you, with no say in the matter, and jeez the two of them were not pleasant about it). A little hospitality, please, you’re supposed to be one of the best restaurants in the world, with Michelin stars, and 50 Bests, and all that.
As to the food, it was gorgeously presented. But it was a series of strange textures and jarring flavor combinations that were just plain unpleasant, rather than intriguing. Much of it was oddly seasoned, if at all, some of it was just plain bland and barely palatable. Honestly, there wasn’t a single thing served to me that I’d want to eat again.
I’d say I’m just giving up on modernist food, but I’m sure I’ll end up at more places down the line. Actually, tomorrow, I have a reservation that it was too late to get out of, so we’ll see how that goes. But I’m just so much more satisfied when I eat “real” food, or at least where that seems to be the priority. So be it.
And, to all a good night….