I’ve read and heard lots of things about Mugaritz. Last year Restaurant magazine put it forward as the seventh best restaurant in the world. I’d heard it’s bit like El Bulli for those who can’t get a booking (raise your hands now…).I’d read that Chef
Andoni Luis Aduriz is so driven he went and studied livers at hospital clinics so he could perfect his cooking of foie gras.
Some people who’ve written about their experiences have loved it. Others have questioned whether chef is actually serious, or whether he’s mucking with you (and your credit card too), daring you to disagree with his tangling of flavours and textures and say out loud that the Emperor is actually naked.
But one thing resonated through everything I’d read.
Good luck trying to find it.
I had a feeling it would be a challenge when the directions came as more of a haiku of how to find your way out of San Sebastian some longitude and latitude markings to load into Nav Girl.
On the trip there have been a couple of songs I’ve been singing badly. The first is Van Morrison’s “Bright side of the road” but with the words perverted to ”Right side of the road” . This is to remind The Hungry One which way we should be facing when negotiating roundabouts. The other is a love song dedication to Nav Girl. It’ U2’s “With or without you”. She may drive us round in circles occasionally, but without her, we’d be so lost and possibly not still married.
So, as Nav refuses to process longitude and latitude and we can’t find the suburb or the street I make a quick cost benefit analysis. Forty euro for taxis there and back? Arriving at the Hungry One’s wedding present in one piece and stress free? Priceless.
Mugaritz is up in the hills behind San Sebastian and to be honest, I doubt we would ever have found it ourselves. The only creatures we could have asked for directions were black faced sheep and the miniature horses that dot the hills.
But I’m so glad we found our way there. However, if you arrived harried from the journey, it wouldn’t take you long to relax. As soon as we walk down the path, the most delightful host invites us to come inside from the cold and to consider Mugaritz as a ‘gastronomic spa’. The mountain air around it so clean it should be bottled and sold in aerosols in Tokyo vending machines. The view of the garden and feel of the country house is so welcoming I instantly want to take off my shoes.
We’re shown into the adjoining cottage for a drink and a fire is lit for us. We ask to try Cava, Spain’s sparkling white. Our incredible sommelier brings us a slightly aged sparkling pink version. I adore her already.
We can’t stop smiling at each other and that’s even before they bring the snacks. There’s a bowl of tiny prawns, crisp fried like wanna-be whitebait. There’s a little cup of aioli that tastes so profoundly of garlic and egg yolk it’s almost rude.
Then there’s a bowl of rocks.
Now I loved the Never Ending Story as much as anyone but I always identified more with the un-named princess who wore necklaces on her head and the flying dog. A rock-eater was never something I thought I’d want to emulate. But there it is.
A bowl of rocks.
We pick one up and tentatively put it in our mouth. It’s a warm, shiny rock. We pick up another. It gives at your teeth and slowly reveals, beneath a slightly sandy crust a roasted potato, that’s been coated in a local digestive aid of clay and kept warm by hugging the other rocks. We dip our potato/rock into the aioli. We go looking for more. There are only two potatoes, but they and the aioli is so good that the Hungry One has to test every rock. Then when he knows for sure that they can’t be eaten, he dips the rocks in the last smudges of aioli anyway and sucks them clean. Ok. I lie. That was me. It’s a good thing we’ve been left to our own devices in the cabin.
The rest of the lunch is like a magical journey. At the table there are two baby envelopes. There both stamped with times and emotional challenges. “150 min…rebel!” “150 min…submit!”
You’re invited to place yourself in a head-space . Like Alice, down the rabbit hole, you have to make a choice. You can choose to rebel and have “150 minutes to feel embarrassed, flustered, fed up. 150 minutes of suffering.” This is printed on dark brown stock.
Or you can go to the light side. On earthy cream card is the alternative. It’s “150 minutes to feel, imagine, reminisce, discover. 150 minutes to contemplate”.
Sitting in a Michelin 2 star that you had a hard time finding, basking in Basque sunshine and smiles and paying around $200 a head for food, you’d be an idiot to choose not to submit.
It’s no chore. The twelve courses, plus a cheese course, petit fours, pre lunch snacks and an amuse bouche are the lightest, most inventive, playful and just damn tasty food I’ve ever encountered.
The three staff who attend to us are the best looking, most genial, internationally suave I’ve ever been introduced to. They’re so accomplished and charming that if we didn’t instantly adore them , we’d have to despise them out of sheer jealousy. Despite a slight American accent, our model-esque waitress informs us she speaks only three languages- English, Spanish and Portugese. But of course.
Mugaritz’s menu is dripping with inventive humour. There’s jocular nudges in the titles. There’s ‘an essay on Salads’(sic) with ‘LETTUCE HEARTS SOAKED IN VANILLA BRINE , a dressing of balsamic vinegar and country milk skins’.
The vanilla and creaminess of the milk skins is like a trip through my mother’s memories of schoolyard milk, then to my lettuce sandwiches, and all I can think while eating is ‘it’s just like a vanilla milkshake, only crunchy’.
There’s a cleanliness and lightness in the flavours that follow. Nibbles of spider crab, pearls of vegetables come in a bluefish consommé so clear you have to think that Tom Hanks and his mate Wilson would have had a decent shot of escaping from the island on the raft of eggwhite used to clarify those stocks.
Then there’s a complex and moreish molusc stock poured gently around hearts of baby leeks, before being decorated with crushed citrus.
There’s a fish course which is the first we’ve found in a while to challenge the Hungry One’s contempt of the standard, fifth course, degustation “white fish filler”. Here it’s something you wish there was more of, not less. It’s sautéed red mullet with crisped, famed Iberico ham, vegetables and a liver stew. It’s rich, complex, earthy and utterly impossible to not run your finger over the bottom of the plate to grab the last bits of sauce.
There’s more visual curiosity in the dish that follows the charcoal grilled duck foie gras with sea urchin caviar. What is written on the menu is a ‘piece of beef, roasted and perfumed with vine cutting embers, fragments of thyme and natural anthocyans. Then there’s ‘Cinders, salts and crisp radishes’ to accompany.
What you see is supposed to remind you of the piece of beef that falls through the cracks of the barbecue, lost to the lonely land of coals. Here it’s been rescued and once you cut through the mocked, charred crust you will find a rare piece of beef that is so perfectly cooked it stokes the heart of your inner carnivore like not much else. Crossed next to it are dummied twigs as cinders and sprinkled around are the salts which add perfect seasoning and the radishes which play a role as the palate cleanser to makes you forge ahead.
Rounding out the savoury dishes is something Chef has called “Tradition, ocean and land.” There’s Iberian pork tails, pan fried Langoustines that are squatting in braising juices that he’s infused with jamon. It’s classically basque, sweet, salty and squishy, but very very serious at the same time.
All throughout there have been beverage matches by the Sommelier to compliment each dish, allowing the flavours to sing. Sometimes it’s been a dash of Sake. When it comes to the plate of six local Idia Zabel sheep cheeses, which graduate in intensity there’s a shot glass of pear juice. We get another surprise when we come to the dessert of crispy milk sheets, that shatter like filo pastry, taste of clean mornings and smell like hotel sheets above a confit of kidney beans, citrus peel sherbert, orange blossom and cumin water. Instead of an overbearing sticky there’s a clear distillation of Kashmir Chai.
The sheer joy of desserts here is that you still have room for them. Everything has been so interesting, but the antithesis of the mantra “fat is flavor”. It’s breathtakingly considerate.
I’m sad when I see the end of the pale mauve violet ice cream with shavings of spiced bread, green tea, sticks of chocolate and hot almond marzipan. The hot almond marzipan must be the lost love child of pashmak warm sand and shortbread biscuits. It expands and expands in your mouth like it’s begging you not to forget, and then it’s gone.
I’m sadder when the frozen white chocolate sphere, which perched on a carpet of nut brittle is broken at the table and has clear, distilled cocoa dribbled into it. But that’s until I taste it.
I’m saddest when a clear liquid is poured over a little disc and it grows into a tall tower of hand towel. It’s not another dessert. Lesson learned. You can eat the rocks, but not the expanding towel.
The coffee is the best the Hungry One’s had in a while and we’re offered a digestive which doesn’t find its way onto the bill of Mirin and purple potato liqueur…(!)
At the end of four hours, where every sense has been stretched and contorted and we struggle to believe what they’ve created we put down the Mastercard and don’t care what it comes to.
Surprisingly, the bill ends up much less than what we’ve had at restaurants where we’ve been smoked over, sneered at and struggled to believe all the hype.
$55 for taxis.
Somewhere in the ballpark of $700 for lunch and matching wines for two.
$0 for dinner that night or breakfast the next day, because we don’t want to spoil the last tastes.
And being able to make up our own minds about Mugaritz?