How can San Sebastian support so many top restaurants?

As soon as the smoked tuna consommé was poured from a glass phial on to a bowl of diced sea urchins and watercress gelatine, the pure sea aromas that rose from our table immediately took me back to my one trip to Japan five years ago.

Yet this was ten thousand miles away in Martin Berasategui’s hugely impressive restaurant in Lasarte, a busy but otherwise unprepossessing suburb of San Sebastian, northern Spain. Nor had Japan directly inspired this talented chef as when we spoke later he confessed that he was only going to make his first visit there shortly. Instead, he explained, the young tuna were caught off the rocks by local fishermen between June and September, their skins then smoked and the consommé created by steeping just the skins in water to produce this delicate but intensely flavoured potion.

Our brief visit to San Sebastian was initially predicated on two principles: pleasure, naturally, coupled with the more professional goal of eating not just chez Berasategui but also at the restaurant opened by Juan Mari Arzak, unanimously considered to be the father of modern Spanish cooking, and now run in conjunction with his daughter, Elena.

But this trip took on a different meaning when the week before we set off  I finished The Perfectionist by Rudolph Chelminski (Penguin £17.99), an over-long but perceptive account of the rise, success and, most regrettably, the ultimate suicide of another chef to whom Michelin also gives three stars alongside Arzak and Berasategui, the Frenchman Bernard Loiseau.

Chelminski lists a series of contributory factors to Loiseau’s sad demise: the lack of American customers post 9/11; Michelin’s inscrutability; Gault Millau’s decision to award fellow chef Marc Veyrat the ridiculously perfect score of 20/20; the meteoric rise of the photogenic and younger Alain Ducasse which took the French media’s attention away from Loiseau – all were factors, according to Chelminski, which fed Loiseau’s tendency to depression.

But the underlying economic reason, obvious from when Loiseau initially moved into the once-renowned Co<hat>te d’Or in Saulieu, northern Burgundy in 1976, was that this restaurant was simply too isolated. Once the summer traffic died away there was not sufficient local business to satisfy Loiseau’s bankers and subsequently his investors until the following Easter and, even more importantly, there was just not enough activity in the kitchen to prevent such an obviously talented but disturbed chef from contemplating possible demotion. If Saulieu could not support one such high ranking restaurant, how could San Sebastian support two (and a further cluster of exciting, if lower-ranked, restaurants)?

Part of the answer became obvious even before we reached the sandy beaches of San Sebastian, a seaside resort which has managed to retain a significant amount of its charm even in the middle of an unusually inclement February. The hills that straddle the hundred kilometres of motorway from Bilbao to San Sebastian are laced with heavy and not so heavy industry and block upon block of apartments. To reach Berasategui’s restaurant from San Sebastian one has to pass a large cement works, wiggle past a vast, overflowing lorry park and circumnavigate several more apartments.

The more venerable Arzak (about which I shall write next week), whose building dates back to 1897, has grown organically within the city, and now sits in a residential area along such a busy dual carriageway that getting into and out of a taxi is awkward. Both restaurants, which I can now confirm fully justify their international reputation, have a loyal, year-round, local clientele, one that reaffirms the adage from my home town Manchester that ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass.’

Yet what struck me as forcibly as the breadth of their local clientele was the restaurants’ determination not just to please the customer but to look after us from the moment we walked in. At Berasategui this was accomplished by an extremely young team under the beady eye of a restaurant manager from Montreal, Canada who seemed to handle the very complicated service required in their large, open restaurant with calm, equanimity and confidence.

If Berasategui’s sea urchin and smoked tuna consomme<acute> was the star dish, others were not far behind. Two very different amuse bouches – an intense beetroot infusion with clams and a caramelised mille feuille of smoked eel, foie gras, spring onion and apple (which worked) – cleverly whetted the appetite for a dramatic squid soup with squid ravioli encasing squid ink which burst with flavour as it hit the back of my mouth, lip-smackingly gelatinous pig’s trotters and wild sea bass with a seaweed cream and slices of raw ginger. Three circular warm almond cakes enclosing warm almond cream and a small glass containing a perfectly judged mixture  of milk and Armagnac as one of the petits fours made an equally impressive finale to a meal which, with a well-recommended bottle of fine red Traslanzas 2000 from Cigales at 53 euros, came to 245 euros for two excluding service

It was altogether a stunning performance in which the exuberant talents of the kitchen were enhanced by the charm of the waiting staff and the relaxed, rather homely feel of the dining room. A meal for all the senses.

 Martin Berasategui, Loidi Kalea, 20160 Lasarte, 943.36.64.71,