I had witnessed Juan Mari Arzak, Spain’s most respected chef, from a distance twice before I had the pleasure of eating in his restaurant in San Sebastian.
On the first occasion he had held an audience of several hundred young Spanish chefs spellbound while conducting a culinary demonstration at Madrid Fusion, the annual culinary exhibition. On the second, I had sat round a lunch table in Paris with him and half a dozen other top chefs as they swapped professional secrets. My initial impression was of a most gentle, genial man keen to pass on the culinary knowledge and wisdom which he has accumulated over the past 40 years, an impression that was suitably and strongly reinforced in San Sebastian.
This sense of tradition, poignantly retold via his website, is reflected in his still quite traditional dining room with its combination of old wooden beams, still lifes, decanters and the odd duck press in and around the walls, all of which are in a stark contrast to the twenty first century food that appears on the restaurant’s plates.
And to maintain this tradition of hospitality nothing seems to be too much trouble for the all-female waiting staff (the only men on parade are the two sommeliers), so much so that as they were delivering amuse bouches along with the two different types of bread there almost seemed to be a waitress traffic jam in our corner. The overall impression is not one of being served by waitresses but rather that of being looked after by a flock of mother hens.
An example of the consideration on offer here came immediately from the maitresse d’ who, recognising that we were first-time customers, explained that the kitchen would be more than happy to cook half portions of any first or main course we cared to order and that although she wanted to take our dessert order at the outset, ‘if you don’t feel you can eat them, don’t worry.’ After taking all the orders, this woman disappeared only to reappear as we were leaving with an especially printed menu listing all twelve dishes we had eaten, the two half bottles of wine and with it more profuse apologies for the kitchen’s one mistake on the night, an undercooked half portion of monkfish which, in keeping with the Arzak approach, was not on the bill.
As a result of this distinctive and highly customer-friendly approach, when we walked into the restaurant at 9pm, relatively early for Spain, it was already playing host not just to the usual array of international business travellers playing with their credit cards but also to tables of young Spanish couples and families. A table of four who walked in shortly after we had sat down wearing jeans and hoodies, welcomed just as we were, was a sight I wish a lone Michelin inspector could have seen.
At Arzak, the determination to give, give, and give some more, resulted in six amuse bouches before our first courses arrived. Most notable here was a trio of warm oysters wrapped in rice paper and sitting on small tubes of potato, an obviously esoteric version of fish and chips, and two fillets of sole placed on top of each other, also covered in rice paper over which a clear chick pea broth was gently poured enveloping the delicate fish in the more textured paper. With a half of 2003 Albarino and a half of an over alcoholic Roda 1 2000 Rioja, this bill for two came to 230 euros excluding service.
Finally, to two recommendations that certainly enhanced our stay in San Sebastian and which came directly from writing for an international newspaper.
The first via a Brazilian reader and frequent visitor to San Sebastian was of the well run Hotel Niza which boasts not just views across the city’s car-free promenade to sand and sea but also Wi-Fi.
The second came via a Basque wine lover who spotted the FT’s wine correspondent and came over to tell her that under no circumstances should we pass up the opportunity to eat and drink at Rekondo where, he added, ‘the cellar is fantastic’.
And so it is. Opened in 1964 by Txomin Rekondo, a former matador who continues to buy wine just as passionately as he presumably fought bills, and now ably assisted by his daughters Lourdes and Edurna, the restaurant boasts over 100,000 bottles in its cellar and on its 82 page wine list. It is a remarkable selection made even more attractive by some stunningly user friendly prices, a combination which silenced the paper’s wine correspondent for some considerable time.
Its simple, well prepared and unfussy menu offering the likes of Jabugo ham, red peppers stuffed with oxtail, pickled partridge, spider crab baked in the oven and a delicious local clam dish provides a distinct contrast to the city’s more exalted restaurants. With a bottle of super Tuscan Ornellaia 1989 at 21 euros (retail it is anywhere between 80 and 125) a languid lunch came to 110 euros excluding service.
Restaurante Arzak, Alto de Miracruz 21 20015 San Sebastian, tel 9188.8.131.52, www.arzak.es
Rekondo. Paseo de Igueldo 57, tel 943. 21.29.07, www.rekondo.com
Hotel Niza, C/Zubieta 56, 20007 San Sebastian www.hotelniza.com