As the chill creeps into the air and rich colours starts seeping into the leaves in Europe, I’m reminded fondly of our traipse through the countryside reveling in the new autumn produce of figs, walnuts and of course mushrooms! Here’s a post from The Gourmet Forager vault from that time. I’m not sure how I let this one slip onto the back burner given (a) it’s a 3 Michelin starred experience and (b) it was written in its entirety some two years ago whilst in a hotel room in Barcelona and was just waiting for some accompanying glossy pictures. That has finally been rectified and here is a post about our enchanting meal at the amazing Mugaritz.
Getting a reservation at the 3 Michelin starred Mugaritz and the then no. 3 restaurant according to the annual San Pellegrino World’s best restaurants list (ranked no. 6 in 2014) was surprisingly easy. We had a window of 3 days in San Sebastian and a mere few weeks before our desired booking, a quick email to Mugaritz was all it took. Sad to say, I wish I could say finding our way there was as simple and fuss free. The directions to the restaurant on the website could be better and certainly not helped by our wayward holiday passenger. Jane, our satellite navigator personality was a lifesaver in the French countryside, finding unmarked roads through tiny hamlets and sending us through some spectacular scenic routes. Urban environments and freeways weren’t her forte though and scenic routes and wrong turns down one way streets during heavy downpour certainly not appreciated when we were due to be at Mugaritz for lunch. The expected 15 minute drive from San Sebastian to Mugaritz was stressful, peppered with angry outbursts of: “You lied again Jane. There’s no road there!”
Thankfully Mugaritz itself presented a serene and calming antidote to soothe our Jane-induced brain snaps. The restaurant was fringed by lush and vividly green manicured gardens visible from the main dining room, a large timber open warehouse-like space subdivided cleverly using discreet screens and plenty of warm lighting. It provided both effective privacy from the other diners and their camera flashes (and we noted every single table took photos of their meals to some degree) and efficient sound proofing, as despite being a large open timber room, the Co-pilot and I could have a comfortable conversation without needing to raise our voices. Having dined at Etxebarri only the previous day, we also noted that although there were still plenty of international visitors, the mix of dining patrons was definitely more Spanish with all our neighbouring tables speaking fluent Spanish. Not that you need to be fluent in Spanish as many of the wait staff spoke fluent English.
We started our experience with a softly spoken invitation: “would we like to see the kitchen?” Of course we would, what sort of question is that??! The kitchen was bright and bustling, meticulously clean and quiet save for some quiet clanking of background pots and pans, and the murmured conversation between chefs. There was no madness, spitting oil, grease, smoke, sweat, cursing, nothing. It might be my scientific background bias, but it actually reminded me of a lab. The activity was calm and controlled, the day’s menu and the herbs and foraged ingredients clearly listed for all to see on one wall, the flow of activity watched over with a careful eye by a chef. A well-oiled beautiful machine churning out artistic morsels in a production line, with military precision. I mean, er, “laser” precision. Don’t forget this is Basque country, and “military” is a dirty word.
Sadly, there was no sign of head chef Andoi Luis Aduriz when we were there but we were warmly greeted by Chef Daniel Lasa, a Basque local who tells us he comes from a mere 5km down the road. He introduces us to the Mugaritz philosophy – striving for balance and harmony between natural seasonal ingredients, beauty and emotion, science and art and how all these elements coalesce and influence all aspects of the menu design and the diner’s experience. The name Mugaritz is a composition of several Basque words, the oak on the property, a “haritza“, straddles the frontier or “muga“, between two neighbouring towns, hence “Mugaritz” is composed of “muga” and “haritza”. We are then presented with our first taste of Mugaritz, a dark macaron that we eagerly gobbled up. Surprisingly what appeared to be a chocolate macaron is salty and savoury, gamey and livery and Daniel tells us that as it was autumn they decided to make a game macaron, with boar’s blood albumin (a protein) as the main inspiration and game bird cream filling. Touching on seasonal ingredients, autumn presents more challenges than say summer, the best season for bountiful ingredients, and the focus turns to mushrooms and truffles and seasonal herbs, greens and in-season fruits like the luscious figs we’d been devouring on our travels.
The macaron was our first taste of things to come – appearances are not as they seem and diners are challenged to discover another side to their food. The entire menu is a process of discovery and wonder, where each course hides a surprise. I love meals that pander to my inner child but more often than not this comes at the price of reduced flavour. All bang and fizz. This wasn’t the case with Mugaritz where ingredients and flavours, complementing tastes, textures, serving vessels, and even the optimal eating procedures had been considered.
As the restaurant makes every effort to cater to special dietary needs, diners get their own individually printed menus – a welcome keepsake and something we referred back to often to aid us through the interpretation of dishes.The first courses of tasters were all to be eaten by hand.
So, shall we embark on this journey?
Grilled toast of bone marrow with herbs and horseradish ash
A fatty glistening blob of bone marrow wobbled seductively on grilled toast, topped with a sprig of foraged oxalis (wood sorrel) and nasturtium and drizzled liberally with inky horseradish ash. It was wonderfully rich, the herbs providing an interesting green herbyness to the dish. We understood that the addition of the foraged weeds were to give a whimsical touch to the dish, like the bovine owner of that bone marrow might have supped upon once, but personally I find most weeds taste like, well, grass. And for the most part, grass isn’t a culinary wonder in my books.
It was also cause of some minor embarrassment for me. Just after having a large bite of the morsel, our sommelier arrived to introduce and talk through our wine selection. I quickly swallowed my mouthful as best I could, but the look on both the Co-pilot’s face and indeed the sommelier’s told me I’d failed somewhere. Dabbing daintily at my mouth didn’t seem to rectify it as the Co-pilot persisted in sending me blatant pointed looks but I ignored him. I could tell he was mentally face palming himself. I later discovered there was horseradish ash all over my chin like I’d been wrestling squids with my mouth. Great start. Just Great.
Flax and wheat “kraft” paper with marine accents
The “kraft paper” cracker provided a crunchy base for a heap of impossibly fine crab flesh. Beneath the undulating waves a small dollop of red fish roe added extra depth of fishy flavour and popping textures.
Scarlett shrimp over sake lees
Scarlett shrimp had been minced to a mottled pink and red paste, mixed with sake lees (sake starter), topped with tiny almost indiscernible little yellow petals and served on Malabar spinach, a waxy green leaf more substantial than common English spinach. We were instructed to pick up the leaf and eat it together with the shrimp, then after a slight hesitation and almost as an afterthought, told that we didn’t have to finish the leaf if we didn’t want to. The shrimp paste was sweet, subtle and delicate; the texture silky and sticky, the leaf adding some contrasting needed crunch and texture, but I could see why our waiter told us we didn’t need to finish the leaf.
Little grey stones speckled with flecks of black sat nestled in a sandpit. They were warm to touch and we inspected them curiously, sniffing them for clues of what they were. We thought they might have been eggs but they turned out to be baby potatoes and were to be eaten with the accompanying garlic aioli.
Marine chords of a crispy woodwind
The next tasting was presented to us like an expensive luxury gift. The waiter cradled a box preciously between his hands and we peered in. Two crunchy test tube flutes spiked with sage and rosemary leaves peeked back out. They were speared into a sesame seed sandpit and we were instructed to take the flutes and eat from the top as the liquid contents might have spilled out on us if we started from the bottom.
Scarlett prawns with fresh pasta
The scarlett prawns and fresh pasta were presented within a heavy hand finished matt bowl. There weren’t any physical morsels of scarlett prawns that I could see but their essence was infused throughout the dish. Little al dente risoni-like spindles of pasta swam in that intensely prawn-rich tomato soup. It was simple but the flavours packed such a punch I couldn’t help trying to scrape and salvage every last drop before they took the dish away. It took all my resolve to refrain from noisily scraping my spoon against the ceramic to get to the last drops.
Clams and liquefied “malabar” spinach
Clams along with most other molluscs are normally a much-relished ingredient for me but sadly this dish was the low light for both of us. The clams were very fishy – almost overpoweringly so and the Malabar spinach puree tasted green, grassy and had the slightest mucilaginous quality to it. It wasn’t a great flavour combination – memorable – but for all the wrong reasons for us. I gather this might not be unusual for diners at Mugaritz – with such an abundance of experimentation of flavours and textures, they’re bound to hit some transcendent winners and some regrettable failures.
Stew of lemon rinds and grilled squid
Redemption came in the next dish and all was forgiven. Barely grilled aromatic pieces of squid were served in a savoury, salty, meaty broth. Sitting atop them were chunks of lemon rind that had been seemingly stewed until soft, battered and fried then re-softened in the stewing broth. The sharp acidic zestiness of the lemon had been effectively tempered to a muted citrusy ghost of its former self and masterfully lightly perfumed the squid.
Portion of home-made cheese, cured in its own rind, mushrooms and fleshy leaves
Contrary to the norm in Anglocised countries like Australia, US and the UK, in Europe cheese is traditionally served after the red meat course and before dessert, so we weren’t surprised to see its appearance mid course. I should preface here that at this point of our European trip, we had three solid weeks of vastly varied cheese gorging practise yet the home made cheese that was served next had an incredibly unique texture unlike any we’d tried before. It was a small disc of rinded soft cheese accompanied by meaty baby girolle mushrooms and sprigs of crunchy sampphire. The cheese had a fresh dough-like elastic chewy consistency, where each wedge we cut away seemed to have a magnetic attraction to the main wheel of cheese and gentle coaxing was required to prise it away into our waiting mouths.
Roasted duck tongues with the reduction of their braising and Chenopodium inflorescence
Braised then crisped and browned duck tongues poked out cheekily from a salad of succulent ice plant leaves – an exercise in noisy, crunchy textures. As no stranger to duck tongues, I happily relished their savoury cartilaginous crunch mixed with the refreshing burst from the ice plant leaves; but the Co-pilot was no such fan. He dutifully downed the dish, a frown and furrowed brows marking each mouthful, and after he put his fork down he remarked upon the slimy texture of the tongue and how he imagined it having been in a duck’s mouth. “Like a French kiss with a duck!” he pronounced. Readers: ignore him. He exaggerates, it wasn’t that bad – I quite enjoyed it.
And now for a spot of botany: the Mugaritz team have actually incorrectly identified the salad leaf used in this dish as Chenopodium inflorescence. Plants within the Chenopodium family are more commonly known as “goosefoots”, quinoa being an example, and typically the plants have thin green leaves that look like spinach leaves. The plant used in this dish belongs to the Aizoaceae family, more commonly known as “iceplants” with succulent leaves liberally dotted with protrusions that appear to glisten and crunch like ice. Specifically, the plant used is Aptenium Cordifolia, also known as the “rock rose”, “baby sun rose” or “heartleaf iceplant”, a South African native that is a popular as a garden ornamental and thrives in California where it is planted around properties as a firebreak. In fact, it’s a plant that’s commonly found in Australian gardens and a big bush thrives happily on the sidewalk outside my neighbour’s house, admired mainly by passing dogs on the way to the nearby park. I can’t help looking at the scratched up and frequently soiled-upon plant every time I pass it and think “Hmm.. I’ve eaten that. I was served it at a 3 Michelin starred restaurant.”
Slices of monkfish cooked with the steam of its own bones. Crispy stew of roasted rinds and lillies
This was an exercise in nose-to-tail eating of sorts. Fleshy pieces of monkfish were steamed using monkfish bone fish stock, topped with crispy-chewy nuggets of fried monkfish skin and finished with draped day lily buds. I’m generally a fan of the firm texture of monkfish, but this was done in such a unique manner, the result was a texture more akin to lobster. An excellent outcome for this one lobster lover.
Daily catch (Red Snapper) with acidic sprouts of amaranth and vanilla
The daily catch happened to be red snapper, a firm white flesh fish served with amaranth grain, an ancient Andean (pseudo) grain and a staple of the Aztecs which lent the silky fish some slightly gritty texture, though admittedly, not a great deal of flavour. Flavour came subtly and in the form of vanilla which one wouldn’t think would complement fish, but remarkably was quite pleasant. The two green amaranth leaves garnishing the dish were quite herbaceous in flavour and weren’t an inspired match for the fish and vanilla.
Amaranth seeds seem to grace health food store shelves as a so-called “superfood” and today remains popular amongst Andean populations. There amaranth seeds are toasted and puffed like popcorn, mixed with honey, chocolate or molasses and called alegria or “joy”. But like the humble goji berry, it may interest readers to know that amaranth is probably less exotic and a lot more familiar to most diners than they think. Many different varieties of amaranth are consumed amongst different cultures from Asians to Africans. The red streaked variety of amaranth is found commonly in Chinese cuisine (called “yin choy” in Cantonese) and the red amaranth is often either stir fried or blanched producing a deep red soup. In fact, my mother used to grow it in our back yard. Knowing this and having helped my mum harvest and sow the seeds did remove a little of the gloss.
With diners at various different stages of their meal progress, the Co-pilot and I were surprised to note that the table next to us had somehow skipped several courses and miraculously caught up to us as they were being handed the same dishes. Placed before us were some pretty wooden pestles and we wondered with anticipation what they’d be used for. As pestles arrived at each of the tables it became clear that everyone was having the same course – the aptly named “bonding” course. On cue, a stream of waiters emerged from the kitchens with steel mortars containing a small mound of seeds and spices – namely sesame, peppers and saffron. With them came the instructions to grind the seeds to a paste and suddenly the muted background noise immediately escalated into a calamitous din, boisterous clinking and happy clanking erupting from every table. No wonder all the tables needed to be simultaneously timed – the noise would otherwise be very disruptive!
Once the seeds were sufficiently ground, waiters re-emerged to present us with a small pitcher of soup and a piece of flaky baccalao. I didn’t catch what the soup consisted of, but it was incredibly packed with umami flavour – much like a tonkotsu stock. Assembled and mixed together it made a fantastic savoury, nutty, creamy soup.
Breast of guineafowl with lobster emulsion and its roasted skin
What masqueraded as a glossy iced éclair at first glance was actually a perfectly proportioned breast of guinea fowl painted with a thick layer of lobster emulsion on the breast side whilst the skin underside was browned and crisped. It was succulent with not a hint of the dreaded dryness that often accompanies breast meat (I suspect it might have been sous-vide prepared). The thick lobster emulsion sauce was unctuously meaty and much more complementary and integrated than you’d expect surf and turf could be.
Roasted piece of milk and eggs fed veal. Nectar of flowers and vinegar with the reduction from the roast
The next course was a two pronged experience: a roasted piece of veal wafting up aromatic clouds to feed my senses; the long flexible wooden tongs gently clasping a cube of honey laden honeycomb to provide the theatre. The floral flavour of the honey was incredible – like a luscious botrytis concentrate and it was squeezed over the veal, oozing out in viscous streams. We were similarly impressed by the serving ware, swirling around the showcased food like the inner chamber of a cone shell.
A taste of subtlety. Folded linen with toasted creme fraiche and creme caramel
A half folded over linen napkin was brought to the table and delicately placed before us, one corner strategically pulled back to reveal a white, delicately thin crispy rice paper wafer, so fragile that it splintered with barely any encouragement. We peeled away the remaining linen and as delicately as we dared, spread the toasted crème fraiche and crème caramel on the wafer. The rice paper wafer itself imparted no flavour, just shattering it in our mouths to deliver a creamy dose of flavour from the spread.
“Traditional” almond fairy cake
Presented in crumpled wax paper, and dusted liberally in almond powder, this almond fairy cake looked like a delicious treat from a street vendor. But I doubt street food ever gets this fancy! The almond cake was semi-frozen, sweet, crumbly, creamy and at the same time and impossibly light like frothy almond bubbles were suspended in their frozen state. A fairy cake that is well deserving of its “fairy” moniker.
Fig leaves and lemon in a creamy milkshake
Within the Riedel glass presented to us, small, brilliantly red and densely packed cut halves of figs floated serenely amongst a sea of creamy white. I swirled the glass until the figs drowned and gulped down the delicious milkshake – thick and creamy, generously figgy and liberally scented with lemon. In case we wanted to boost the fig flavour, we were also provided a round bottom flask complete with eye dropper to drip in fig leaf essence, but I thought it was perfect without need for further adulteration.
Candies of frankincense. The perfume of eucalyptus bark
Short black frankincense sticks stood proud amongst a dense forest of smoking eucalyptus bark curls. Having never tasted (or even identified the taste) of frankincense, I can’t say whether the flavour of the candied sticks of frankincense were remarkable or pedestrian. However, given the reputed perfume properties of frankincense and its historical significance, I would have expected a more heady floral scent – the flavour was sweet and only subtly floral. The texture not unlike those pink candy musk sticks from my childhood: firm and slightly crumbly.
Cocoa powder dusted truffles completed the meal. They were accompanied by two small white cylindrical tablets on a tray, and as the waitress poured tea over them, they immediately blossomed and expanded before us to the chorus of our oohing. The waitress then quickly told us it was a dehydrated napkin – meant for our hands and not our bellies, as the dense cocoa powder covering the truffles were likely to stain our fingers. That’s the Mugaritz effect. You end up pondering the edibility of every item placed before you.
So how much did this amazing meal set us back? For the 20 odd plate experience, it currently costs 185€ (approx $270AUD in current exchange rates not including wine or tax). Not a throwaway price in anyone’s books but then, a three Michelin starred meal is not an everyday experience.
The interactive and discovery elements riddled throughout the meal gives another dimension to the diner’s experience. And it was that for me – an experience. The many different carefully planned facets impacts the diner from the moment they walk through the door: from the discreet dining room design fringed with greenery offering diners a mix of integration and privacy, to the kitchen meet and greet; the many playful and interactive elements in the menu; the involvement of all the senses – encouraging touch and discovery as much as taste; the thoughtful service and of course, the food and flavours, the ingredients and the presentation. Each individual element contributed to the overall experience and it would be remiss to judge Mugaritz on the food, flavours and presentation alone. It was an experience and I’m glad to report, one that, unlike some other fancy establishments, thankfully has not even the slightest air of pretention and where the diner leaves feeling happy, oddly pampered and just a wee bit special.
Aldura Aldea, 20, 20100 Errenteria, Gipuzkoa, Spain
Tel (+34) 943 52 24 55