Our NASCAR-in-training taxi driver careened through the surrounding hillsides south of San Sebastian to our gastronomical destination, Mugaritz. Mugaritz opened in 1998 and has held a respective position (currently #7) on the list of the World’s Best 50 Restaurants for many years because of its innovation in food preparation and presentation. Tonight was our chance to sample the creative genius of the chefs of Mugaritz, if we arrived in one piece.
Bolting from the taxi, Tom and I hurried down the paved pathway to the safety of what looked like a cabin secluded by large trees. The restaurant wasn’t quite open yet, but Elizabeth, the hostess, greeted us and invited us to sit outside on the patio loveseats as we perused the wine list. Settling on a nice bottle of cava, she also served us a small bowl of dried shrimp with sea salt. The tiny little critters were crispy like potato chips and so good.
When our table was ready, we were shown inside the wood paneled restaurant with simple white linens and tile floor. We were presented with two cards, one stating SUBMIT!, the other REBEL!. The two cards referred to the two different degustation menus offered by the chef. After speaking with the Chef Rafael in the kitchen courses and how they were prepared, we settled on a combination of both tasting menus.
We started with aperitifs of the crispy shrimp in sea salt, ceps warmed in truffle crème, and rocks. Rocks are potatoes cooked in clay with a buttery center. The dish is presented with a few of these potatoes and a real rock. It’s up to the guest to decipher what is edible, and what is not.
The Kokotxa de Bacalao served with Acacia Honey Emulsion looked like a wet doughy cheese ball. It was soft, and practically melted in my mouth. This dish is also a testament to “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Until I Decide I Like It or Not” because goat skin wrapped around a potato doesn’t sound as appetizing.
The Roasted Tomato Salad was one large roasted tomato with tomato water ice. The contrasting temperatures focused my taste buds on the light, cool sweetness of the tomato water with the concentrated warm flavor of the roasted tomato much like a thick, hearty marinara sauce.
The succulent Sea Bass with a prominent smoky flavor was the perfect one-bite wonder.
The Carpaccio dish was one of hidden delight. Usually Carpaccio is an extremely thin slice of meat, but as the servers hovered around us, watching and waiting for our reaction, we realized there might be something more to this dish than meets the eye. Our server excitedly told us it’s not meat at all, but watermelon. The chefs slice a thick piece of watermelon, freeze it, and then dehydrate it for well over 24 hours. What’s left is just the membrane which has a texture similar to meat. Add a bit of smoky flavor and edible color and it was one of the best dishes of the night.
The next course was Octopus. I had a one large piece and the texture was very chewy. I’m not a fan of octopus, but I did try it before I decided it wasn’t to my liking.
This next course was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. The Milk Fed Veal with Roasted and Perfumed Vine Cutting Embers has the appearance of charred wood with burnt sticks, but honestly, I’ve never had such tender veal before, and the fragrant vine embers added a charred, smoky, light herb flavor that complimented the delicacy of the meat.
Our two dessert courses were last, with a palate cleansing Celery Root Ice Cream with sweet, contrasting herbs, and a comfort- food Caramelized French Toast enriched with cream. It was the end to a perfect meal. A ersonalized tasting selection that may be simplistic in presentation, but delivered robust flavors and sensory delights.
For more information visit http://www.mugaritz.com. Reservations well in advance are recommended.