Artistic experimentation by the patriarch of “New Basque” gastronomy
When Juan Mari Arzak’s grandparents set up a wine tavern in 1897, in a village that is now part of San Sebastián, the quality of the wines was so poor it was known as the “vinegar tavern”.
Today, Restaurante Arzak is one of only five three-star Michelin establishments in Spain and Arzak is internationally recognised as the father of “New Basque” cuisine, having pioneered Spain’s culinary revolution of reinterpreting tradition classics – popularly known as “molecular gastronomy”.
After taking over the tavern from his parents (his mother taught him to cook and he initially specialised in roasted meat), Arzak converted it into a restaurant in the 1960s, and his exceptional cooking not only quickly became noticed by the locals but also to a wider audience. He received his first Michelin star in 1974 and three stars in 1989 – and he has maintained them ever since.
Ferran Adrià and his El Bulli restaurant in Cataluña might have give this Spanish revolution a global dimension but it was Arzak who led the way, experimenting with liquid nitrogen and other modern techniques and artisanal ingredients long before his colleagues.
Over the past 40 years he has remained true to the same principle: a constant reinvention of food through experimentation – or “investigation” in his words. The restaurant’s favourites include fresh oysters, crayfish, fish soup, hake, stuffed sweet peppers, pheasant and partridge, done the Arzak way of course… strikingly visual but unpretentious.
One of his most famous dishes is pate made from the scorpion fish, while other Arzak innovations include monkfish with bronzed onion and lamb injected with freeze-dried beer.
Arzak attributes the success of the “New Basque” cuisine phenomenon to local tradition and an obsession with good cooking and eating. “The only thing that I know is that we have a passion for cooking, and this also applies to the regular people in the city who love to cook as well.”
San Sebastian is the city with the second highest number of Michelin stars, per capita, in the world – behind Kyoto in Japan – and is number one when it comes to stars per square kilometre.
Last December Arzak’s restaurant was ranked eighth at the S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, while his daughter and joint head chef Elena was presented with the Veuve Clicquot world’s best female chef award. The tradition continues… into a fourth generation.
Donostia, San Sebastian
Tel. 943 278 465 / 943 285 593
Closed: Sundays & Mondays; 16 June to 3 July & 3-27 November
Medium price: €180 plus drinks & IVA (VAT)