Arzak or Akelarre – Which should you visit?

No foodie trip to San Sebastián would be complete without a meal at at least one of the three 3-Michelin starred restaurants there – Akelarre, Arzak or Martin Berasategui. Following my previous post about my favourite pintxo bars in San Sebastián, today I will be reviewing my dining experiences at Arzak and Akelarre. We chose Arzak because Juan Mari Arzak is known as a culinary legend of San Sebastián and one of the founders of the New Basque Cuisine. We also decided on Akelarre because of the raving reviews that the restaurant has received under the helm of Pedro Subijana.

Both restaurants’ online reservation pages do not reveal whether tables are available for any date. You simply request for a reservation for your desired date and time by filling in a form and waiting for a reply. I wanted to make sure that I secured a table because restaurants like these are often fully booked, so I called each restaurant beforehand to check its availability before submitting my request online. Thankfully, I managed to make a reservation for lunch at Arzak and dinner the next day at Akelarre.

So how did the restaurants fare up against each other? If you could only pick one restaurant to dine at, which would I recommend?

Arzak

Anyone who watches Anthony Bourdain’s travel guides would feel like it is almost a crime to go to San Sebastián and leave without eating at Arzak. Oh how I wish that I too could sit at the chef’s table with Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak, chatting over food and wine like old friends.

Arzak is housed in a simple, unassuming building located on top of a hill in the outskirts of San Sebastián. The building was actually built by Juan Mari Arzak’s grandparents and as the origin of the restaurant can be traced back to 1897, this restaurant steeps with history. Juan Mari Arzak is currently in the process of handing over the reins to his daughter, Elena Arzak.

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It was simple enough for us to get there by public bus. Along the way, we joked that we are probably the only diners who want to eat at a 3-Michelin starred restaurant, but yet cannot afford the taxi fare to get there.

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Now let’s get into the gist of the meal.

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Restaurants that serve good, warm bread are instantly given an extra 10 points in my books. The two choices of bread had nice and crispy crusts, and soft and chewy centres, which I love!

Amuse bouche:

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Moringa and prawn gyoza.

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Alternative – Corn soup.

My friend is allergic to shellfish, so he receives alternative courses to suit his dietary requirements. Surprisingly, I sometimes find myself preferring the alternative dishes to mine, and this was one such example! The soup was creamy with corn bits, and packed a depth of flavour.

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Banana and squid.

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Pita bread.

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Eel rod.

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Marinated anchovy and strawberry.

The five amuse bouches tasted delicious, but nothing stood out in particular.

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Fish of the day with “patxaran” and purple corn.

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Scarlet prawn with krill: The prawn was fresh and cooked nicely. This dish had nice flavours from the lemon grass and mint, and I really enjoyed it!

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Cromlech, manioc and huitlacoche.

Crispy manioc hydrated with huitlacoche stuffed with a preparation of onion, green tea and foie gras. I am a huge fan of Top Chef and I have watched enough episodes from the series to know that huitlacoche is a type of fungus that grows on corn.

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Egg with tomato candy, “pozole” corn and cordyceps.

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Sole in red box.

Sole fillet with beetroot and obiant cube, pak choi and arenga.

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Monkfish Cleopatra.

One thing that I was not impressed with was Arzak’s plating. For a restaurant of its calibre, the way that some of their food was presented was rather uninspiring and at times, it even felt like they were trying too hard. For example, we were not fans of the Egyptian hieroglyphic patterns made with pumpkin and chickpeas on this plate. When we asked our server whether it represented something, he sheepishly replied that it was supposed to translate roughly into ‘enjoy your meal’. While I applaud the effort put into making the patterns, it just did not work for me.

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Orange-coloured pigeon. This was definitely our favourite dish on the menu. The pigeon was cooked to absolute perfection. The meat was incredibly tender and the flavours were well-balanced with sake, ground cherries, mandarins, oranges and crispy onion.

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Sailor’s lamb.

The lamb was roasted just to the right pinkness in the middle. The dish was served on a glass ‘platform’ with an electronic screen underneath displaying flickering flames. Unfortunately, the plating felt rather gimmicky to me and in my opinion, did not enhance the dish in any way.

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Spring frost.

Delightfully fresh granita is a sure winner for pre-dessert. This was with acai and fruits.

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Square moon. A familiar combination of flavours.

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Skate and Vietnamese chocolate.

 

I usually am not a fan of chocolate mousse, but this was truly the best chocolate mousse I have ever tasted. It was so creamy and smooth, the delicious dark chocolate flavour really comes through, and it wasn’t too sweet. It was so good that I had to compliment Chef Elena when she came around to our table!

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Initially, I was a little doubtful about the choice of plating again – I mean, who serves dessert on a wooden board? But Chef Elena later lifted up the board and revealed that it is actually a part of a skateboard! She shared that San Sebastián has a hilly terrain and locals often commute by using skateboards. The dessert was plated in this manner to reflect this. This was so interesting and I love it when dishes tell a story!

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Pistachio granita: I have never seen nut-flavoured ‘granita’, so I thought this was really unique and delightful.

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Petit fours: The chocolate frogs made us giggle!

We ended the meal with a visit to the kitchen. Chef Elena was very friendly and down-to-earth, and we managed to take a photo with her before she had to leave for somewhere else.

Thoughts:

There were a few dishes which won our hearts – the prawn, pigeon, and chocolate mousse. But would I go back again? Probably not. Unfortunately, we did not leave as wow-ed as we expected to be. Don’t get me wrong, everything tasted delicious. But it just wasn’t exciting enough. It wasn’t a meal that would be etched in my memory for years to come. Service was of course impeccable.

Price: €205, not including drinks and tax.

Akelarre

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Akelarre’s dining room overlooks the Bay of Biscay and boasts a breathtaking view of the ocean. Tip: Remember to arrange your reservation for a time when there is daylight (lunch during the winter months) to fully enjoy the incredible surroundings. A dinner reservation during the summer months may give you a stunning view of the sunset if you are lucky with the weather! Unfortunately, the weather was rather overcast when we were in San Sebastián, so we could only imagine how much more beautiful the dining room would be if only there were clear skies and blue waters. Don’t forget to request for a table with a view!

Once again, we took a public bus to the restaurant. However, we took a taxi back into the city after our meal as it was past 11pm by then.

We were given three different tasting menus to choose, and were told that we could select any of the meat courses across the menus as our meat course. I decided on the Bekarki, while my friend settled on the Akelarre’s classics menu.

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Bloody Mary.

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Diabolic butter.

The amount of detail that goes into ‘simple’ butter is stunning. It was paired with beautiful tri-coloured bread (pepper, squid ink, normal).

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Potato Snacks.

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Pickles.

The ‘olive’ was not olive, and the garlic did not taste like garlic, which was great because every single fibre of my being hates eating garlic on its own. For the first time in my life, I actually enjoyed eating garlic.

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Black pudding cookie.

These look like chocolate biscuits, but your taste buds have a surprise coming for them.

Bekarki:

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Prawns and Green Beans cooked in “Orujo” Flame, and sea roes.

The prawns were cooked in front of us in the dining room. This is as fresh as prawns can get. They were incredibly sweet and had a beautiful charred flavour.

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Chickpeas and Violet Potato, not Conventional at all.

I really enjoyed the flavours and different textures from the smooth mashed chickpeas and potato, potato crisps and crunchy fried chickpeas.

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Souffled kokotxa, white garlic pil-pil

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Hake in Seaweed steam, plankton and oyster leaf.

The leaf really does taste like oyster!

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Squid as a risotto, butter flower

The ‘risotto’ is made entirely of little pieces of squid. There is not a single grain of rice on the plate. The beautiful butter flower melts with the parmesan cheese to create a stunning dish.

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Roasted suckling pig, “bone” and Iberian emulsion

The suckling pig is cooked in Iberian broth and finished in the oven. What results is unbelievably tender and juicy meat, and perfectly crispy skin. The “bone” is – you guessed it – not bone. The Iberian emulsion was full of depth and flavour.

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According to our server, the pig-shaped potato soufflé is actually the most difficult component to execute on the plate. Once again, I ate the garlic with no qualms. Akelarre has changed me.

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Melting Cupcake.

The yogurt foam is made to resemble a cupcake. The flavours are coffee and chestnut, with some grapefruit on the side.

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A Different Apple Tart.

The amazing thing about this dessert is that there is not a single piece of fresh apple on the plate, but yet it tastes like an apple tart. Everything on the plate can be eaten, including the apple paper with the words printed on it.

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Underneath the paper are puff pastry, toasted apple cream and praline.

Akelarre’s Classics:

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Very thin and light Beef Tartar, new Potato Soufflé and Aromatic Herb bread (alternative course to the lobster salad).

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Pasta Carpaccio, Piquillo and Iberic with Parmesan shrooms.

The ‘ham’ underneath is actually pasta made to look exactly like ham!

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Asparagus, little tear green peas and liquid salad.

Beautiful ‘ravioli’ made with white asparagus.

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Sauteéed fresh foie gras with “salt flakes and grain pepper”.

Our jaws almost dropped to the floor when our server placed the plate of foie gras on our table and proceeded to dump a whole lot of salt and pepper onto the plate. But we took one bite, and we were mind blown. I don’t want to spoil it for you by revealing too much, but this dish took us by surprise and was an absolute winner.

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Whole-grain red mullet with sauce “fusilli”.

Every single part of the red mullet is utilised in this dish, including the head, bones and liver. The fusilis on the side are filled with parsley, soy and “ajo blanco” sauce. Such an inventive dish!

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Carved beef, tendon and lacquered skin, “potatoes and peppers”.

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A little bit of cheese before the dessert.

I confess that I am no cheese connoisseur and I have still yet to learn how to truly appreciate different cheeses. I definitely need to up my game in this section!

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The broken jar of yogurt, “Gatzatua” and Berries

The broken ‘jar’ is completely edible as it is made of sugar and the label is made of edible ink and paper. The plate was visually stunning and definitely one that left a deep impression on me. The level of intricacy put into the presentation is astounding. The presentation evokes memories of accidentally broken jars and bottles. This dessert is certainly one-of-a-kind.

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Petit fours

Thoughts:

Our server was very knowledgeable and it was interesting to learn little nuggets of information about each dish as they were served. As you can tell from the photos, the presentation of the food at Akelarre was exquisite. The dishes came with surprises and twists, which kept us hungry and enthralled for more. Garlic is my worst nemesis and I hate it with a vengeance. But Chef Pedro managed to make me eat garlic alone. What more could I ask for?

Price: €195, not including drinks and tax.

Verdict:

While Arzak’s served food of very high quality, my personal favourite would have to be Akelarre. I found the dishes at Akelarre to be more creative and exciting, both in terms of flavour and presentation. After eating at many good restaurants, it becomes more and more rare to come across a restaurant that really stands out. After all, flavour combinations can become similar and good cooking techniques are generally expected when you dine at restaurants of this level. However, Akelarre managed to dazzle and impress. I hope to return again one day. Hopefully, the weather will be good to me the next time and I will be able to dine with the golden sunset as a backdrop. It would definitely make the dining experience more magical than it already is!

Stay hungry and keep exploring! x

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