Alright, I know we’re now officially a month into 2015, but I am going to ask you to time travel with me as I dive into my dusty 2014 archives. The gym is still packed, kale is still in high demand at the grocery store, and I, too, am still in the Optimistic Phase in regards to my New Year’s resolution to write more. Hopefully you’ll indulge me.
A particularly extraordinary meal took place this summer while my mom and I were traveling in the Basque region of Spain. If you’re familiar with the region, you will know that the density of Michelin stars in this small area of Spain is fairly unrivaled. It is the birthplace of the famed El Bulli, a restaurant that spawned several chefs that have changed the way we think about food (i.e. Rene Redzepi, Grant Achatz, Jose Andres). In planning our trip, I read Andrew Knowlton’s fantastic article about eating his way through Basque Spain’s celebrated restaurants, which both overwhelmed and excited me. Since the rest of us have to operate without the Bon Appetit expense account, the challenge is how to pick just one.
After extensive research, Akelarre won out for a couple of reasons. First off, the view is unbelievable. If you’re going to go all out on your meal, you might as well be gazing at rugged coastline and an endless sapphire bay while you eat it. (Related tip: You can’t see the view at night, so lunch is ideal. Also, make sure to request a table by the window.) Secondly, the reviews are consistently positive. The other well known spots (i.e. Arzak, Mugaritz) are probably nothing less than incredible, but the risk of walking away thinking, “Well, that was overrated,” was one that was too painful to take. Akelarre did not disappoint.
Akelarre in Basque translates to ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ and signifies the place where witches hold their meetings. (HOW GOOD IS THAT.) The name couldn’t be better for this magical spot. The food is so beyond anything you could dream or conceptualize that the conversation doesn’t really allow room to discuss anything but what’s on your plate. There was no common denominator of language spoken in the restaurant, as people travel from all over the world to experience this cuisine, and we couldn’t help but wonder, “Are they talking about the food as much as we are?” Hard to tell for sure, but from the audible gasps and ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ taking place around the room, I’d venture to say yes.
Everyone starts with the same dish at Akelarre, called Sea Garden (pictured below). It is composed of the following elements: Prawn’s Sand, Oyster Leaf, Mussel with “Shell” (you eat the entire thing whole), Sea Urchin’s Sponge, Beach Pebbles made of shallot and corn, and Codium Seaweek Coral (described as goose barnacles tasting tempura). Things only get crazier from here.
There are three fixed menus to choose from, so my mom and I each chose a different one — the Aranori for me, and the Akelarre’s Classics for her. It would be impossible to go into detail about every single dish, but here are the deets on a few of our faves:
- The leaves and the Foie under the Rain: See the picture of the leaves freckled with dew drops? Well, the leaves underneath are made of foie gras. Cue: mind explosion.
- Pasta Carpaccio, Piquillo and Iberic with Parmesan shrooms: We thought we were eating cold meat, even though this dish was entirely vegetarian.
- Very thin and light Beef Tartar, new Potato Souffle and Aromatic Herb Bread: This is the one that looks like a raw meat version of Dippin’ Dots ice cream. Insane.
- Carved Beef, Tail Cake “Potatoes and Peppers”: My personal favorite. Some of the best red meat I’ve ever eaten.
- “Xaxu” and Coconut Iced Mousse: This one resembles two clouds and a golden orb, which is also exactly what it felt like in your mouth. The little round cake spilled open to reveal a warm filling of almond and egg.
We were a couple of the last people to leave the restaurant, and one of the hosts graciously offered to bring us into the kitchen and even into their lab/test kitchen/classroom, which was such a treat. From an outsider’s perspective, the kitchen and lab were both incredibly simple and stark. Almost silent, with no fuss or distractions. Immaculately clean.
One can, of course, pooh-pooh at this type of food. (Snooty, elitist, over-the-top are descriptors that come to mind.) But even if molecular gastronomy is not your bag, anyone can at least appreciate the artistic genius and science that it requires. One meal at Akelarre and you, too, will believe in witchcraft.
Akelarre, Paseo Padre Orcolaga, 56, 20008 San Sebastián, Gipuzkoa, Spain, +34 943 31 12 09, http://www.akelarre.net, Reservations are a MUST.