We’ve been in Spain for two days now and I’m still accidentally busting out with “Bonjour”. It’s hard to know exactly what to speak here in San Sebastian. Spanish seems to be ok, but we lost our mini phrase book after our first boozy lunch.

Politically better is Basque but it has the added benefit of being one of the world’s most difficult languages. It is a bit of a head trip to grapple with all its ‘x’’s and ‘t’s. To me it looks like a bad hand in Scrabble.

To give some guidance on pronunciation the toy train near next to the bay has a sign saying “Txe Txe train”.

So we’re trying our best at Basque with some pretty comedic affects and getting fairly adept at the universal language. I pull my wallet out when we’re ready to pay the bill at a pintxo bar. I smile and nod lots. Instead of being told, we’re more willing to discover things for ourselves.

No matter the language the greeting we get at Arzak, the three star beacon of Basque cooking is warm enough to make us instantly feel at home. Which is a good thing because I’m feeling particularly unlike me and very grown up with our reservation for dinner at the suitably Spanish time of 9.30pm.

It’s taken us ten minutes in a taxi to get here from the main bay of San Sebastian. The exterior of Arzak is nothing to write about, so I won’t, but once you’re welcomed into the inner sanctum it’s modern and clean, with deep grey textured walls and yellow fresias planted in little pots next to flickering candles on the table.

It’s the tasting menu or bust for us. Our initial waiter speaks good English and when faced with dual options; the lamb or blue duck, oysters or foie gras, he praises our ‘democratic spirit’ of choosing one each way.

Some of what is delivered challenges my willingness to share at all. The discs of caramelized apple, dotted with foie gras and decorated with individually segmented beads of raspberry and baby herbs is so delicate, balanced and beautiful that I have to keep going back to convince myself it’s real.

Here there is such a welcoming spirit of fun and family. The restaurant was started by Juan Arzak, his wife works the floor and it’s her impeccable taste that has driven the aesthetics. Now in the kitchen with her father are the talents of their daughter Eleni. When we arrive Juan is out on the floor, jovially visiting each table, inquiring where people hail from and offering welcoming comments about their country and it’s culinary assets. He seems delighted we’ve come so far, thrilled it’s our honeymoon and loudly sings the praises of his close friend Tetsuya Wakuda.

Later in the night Eleni stops to visit our table and offer congratulations for our marriage.

With meals presented with an excited description in Basque it becomes an exciting way of blind tasting, as we grapple and guess amongst ourselves about what’s included on the plate; ‘Are those white poppyseeds crusting the monkfish?’ ‘Are those stems of saffron dotted all down the side of the lobster?’ ‘Is that tapioca down the bottom of that salad?’

Trying to guess how they’ve created some of the visual stunts is another thing all together. The Hungry One’s fish course arrives like a relic from the lost city of gold- the whole mound of flesh shimmers and glitters with a rosy hue. On a small plate that accompanies it are three Gaudi like waves of crisped gold. When you place them on your tongue they crackle and dissolve leaving behind a profound taste of roasted red onion.

We have to ask for a peek behind the curtain. With surprising generosity they reveal a process that involves roasting onions, then having them pounded into a paste, dried, frozen and fried at a low heat. But of course…!

If ever there’s proof to the principle that you go out to eat things you could never create at home, this is it.

When I was younger I was told not to play with my food. Here it’s not just a privelige, it’s a necessity. There are stripes of flowers, spices and salts that rim plates which are best dragged and puddled into the sauces. Flavours then begin to unfold, and the textures become almost gummy strangely evoking cornflower thickened Chinese stir fries.

One of the white powders we encounter around nuggets of lobster has an especially intriguing texture and taste. Later we discover it’s freeze dried olive oil. But of course…. You really won’t be getting that at home.

There’s not just wonder on the plate but comforts and courtesy everywhere. Our sommelier has the forethought to decant a delightful bottle of Temperanillo at our table a good 40 minutes before our red meats arrive and the sensitivity to pick a wine in a reasonable price bracket.

There’s a sense of storytelling in all of the food. The canapés tell about place with the cleanliness of olive oil, small smoked fish, corn and tomatoes.

There’s humour in their famous game of ‘chicken or the egg’ with a course of egg yolks slowly poached in chicken stock, dotted with crispy browned chicken skin and buried by a feather light wafting, gossamer tent of egg yolk skin.

Then the yolk bursts and coats it all.

There’s magic in desserts.

I can’t help but grin at the caramel roasted pineapple when it comes with a shot glass of coconut soup that froths, seethes and bubbles over like a badly executed science experiment when dry ice is added to it. There are special basil flavoured spheres, like old school bath bubbles that dissolve to reveal chocolate centres an little domes like dumplings, flavoured with spinach and matched with a spiced chocolate centre.

Arzak is a place where history, family and futuristic cooking techniques all combine.

When we first ordered the tasting menu we were told to ‘enjoy the journey’.
Never fear. We did.

Avenida Alcade Elosegui 273, San Sebastian
Tel : +33 943 278 465

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