Dining at Arzak – 3 star Michelin dining in San Sebastian, Spain

It was a beautiful sunny day in San Sebastián, and I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous. After all, today was the day I would be dining at Arzak, a restaurant that not only boasts of 3 Michelin stars, but is consistently ranked among the top restaurants worldwide (it’s currently at number 31). Arzak is run jointly by Elena Arzak and her father Juan Mari (Elena won Restaurant’s Veuve Clicquot award for “Best Female Chef in the World” in 2012).

Once I reached the repurposed tavern, all my nerves dissipated quickly. Upon arrival, I was escorted through the kitchen to reach the reception. I always love getting an insight into restaurant kitchens, and I simply loved the atmosphere at Arzak. All the cooks were jovial and smiling, upbeat music played in the background, and I cast furtive glances at the various cuts of fish.

Elena Arzak, who is the fourth generation to run the restaurant, took the time to sit down with me and discuss many interesting nuggets of information, such as the best (and worst!) dish she had ever created, what the future holds for female chefs, and her pintxo recommendations (the full interview will follow imminently!). This article will focus on my meal at this amazing restaurant, so let me get right to it. I apologise in advance for the length of this post – there is so much to this restaurant that a mere couple of paragraphs would simply not do it justice!

Juan Mari and Elena Arzak (photo credit: Arzak restaurant)

Based on its accolades, I had expected Arzak to be the epitome of fine dining, with white tablecloths, flawless service, and possibly an air of snobbery. Whilst the first two were spot on, I was more than pleased to be proved wrong on the last count. There were absolutely no airs and graces here – the sommelier smiled and joked with me, Elena personally visited each and every table to speak to the guests to ensure they were enjoying their meal, and every conversation conveyed a genuine warmth. In stark contrast to the experience a few days prior at La Muralla, a Michelin-recommended restaurant in the town of San Sebastian that felt incredibly clinical in comparison.

Photo credit: Arzak restaurant

The interiors of Arzak have an elegant and modern design, with locally sourced materials, futuristic lamps, and a stainless steel theme mixed with wood. Subtle carvings adorn the walls, one of which is a gentle nudge towards its history; after a bout of broken wine bottles, the tavern received the reputation of smelling like vinegar! They more than make up for this now, with a wine cellar that holds 100,000 bottles. The house itself dates back to 1897 and has a charming, rickety character (although “rickety” only really applies to the back bits, which are not visible to guests). The rest is incredibly modern and stylish, with a burst of colour via flowers on the tables, and a beautiful array of crockery and cutlery that accompanies the entire tasting menu (my personal favourites were the elongated knife and fork that adorned the table at the very start).

The meal started with a little aperitif; the house cocktail with white wine and amaretto. Sweet and chilled, it very much set the tone for the flavoursome delights to follow. It was served with some freshly baked bread with Elena’s favourite ingredient: olive oil. I could have drowned in this stuff and died a very happy woman …

The menu I sampled differed slightly from the tasting menu on offer, as Elena specifically asked about likes and dislikes and then tweaked the menu ever so slightly to reflect that. Arzak does this for all its guests – Elena explained that she wants everybody to enjoy their experience to the fullest. If somebody doesn’t like a certain ingredient, they are happy to adapt the dish or change to another one without any qualms. I was quick to reassure her that I eat anything and everything, which resulted in her putting together a selection of dishes that, I can only assume, showcased Arzak’s finest.

Formalities done, the snacks started arriving, and my “bouche” was well and truly amused. From the sea urchin spheres that burst in my mouth to the sweet-savoury foie gras cracker, from the crispy sea bream to the incredibly fresh and citrus-y anchovy, I was overwhelmed with perfectly combined flavours and textures. My favourite presentation was the crab cracker; served in a fishing net, the ginger-cinnamon biscuit felt Christmassy, but the savoury crab pate on top was better than any biscuit I’ve ever had. All this paired with the Basque white wine (Allende Blanco 2014) couldn’t have been a more perfect start to the meal.

The first “real” course was the alliterative leek and lobster. As I type this, my mouth is watering at the memory. The perfectly cooked medium rare lobster paired flawlessly with various textures of leek: fermented, crisp, raw, and liquid/creamy. The combination with hazelnut cream and freeze-dried raspberries was a stroke of genius. Nutty, sweet and with just the right amount of seafood, the feeling that this would be the best dish of the day was reconfirmed at the end of the meal.

Lobster with a banana and leek weave

Oysters: a contentious point for some, but I absolutely love them. However, I have only ever had them raw, with a bit of lemon juice or Tabasco and, on one occasion, deep-fried. Arzak, in contrast, clamps them shut and roasts them for a mere two minutes on a charcoal grill (parrilla), along with walnuts, black sesame, and garlic. The result is unexpectedly soft and exquisite. Thank goodness there were two, because one would simply not have been enough! 

Oysters clamped over coals

The next dish proffered looked like one of those pod chairs you find in an airport, where you can isolate yourself from the world for a while. But instead of a weary traveler, this dish yielded a poached egg decorated with chorizo, truffle shavings, Mexican corn, candied tomato, mushrooms, yellow peppers … and more. Upon breaking the egg casing, the yolk spilled out and coated this veritable wonderland of ingredients, creating a creamy texture punctuated by the various crispy elements. Perfection. 

Egg with corn and tomato candy

For the fish course, there were two different dishes that we swapped halfway through (lucky for me that I was accompanied by a friend!). The first was locally sourced monkfish in a black bean sauce, so smokey it felt almost like meat, and the second was grouper with its own collagen in a pil pil and cava sauce. Collagen? Yep, that confused us too. We were assured that it would make us beautiful, though!

Dark monkfish

Thankfully, Arzak doesn’t do second sittings, which meant there was absolutely no rush, with all the time in the world to savour and linger over  the remaining courses. The meat courses were paired with a medium-bodied red wine that can only be drunk at Arzak. The pigeon was from France (San Sebastian is only 25km from the French border), and the lamb hailed from 80km distance. I adored both, but the lamb, perfectly cooked and combined with an apricot sauce, cassis, mint, and a bit of nori, won my heart. Sweet yet meaty, I was glad, yet again, that there were two pieces.

After discovering pre-desserts at The Lawns in Wirral back in 2015, I have grown rather fond of this seemingly superfluous course. Arzak did it to perfection, as both options were light, fruity, and incredibly unique, the perfect palate cleanser in preparation for the “real” desserts. I loved the sunflower seed crunch in the grapefruit sorbet, which reminded us that we were eating, not just breathing beautiful citrus air. The merengue was incredibly exciting, as it started off with a mezcal spray (which added to my already tipsy demeanour) and continued with crunchy caramelized nuts and zingy raspberry to break the softness. 

Mezcal sweet

One of our “real” desserts supposedly represented the summer solstice, as it combined smoky vanilla with twig-like chocolate debris and chocolate ice cream. I didn’t quite understand the link, but this didn’t deter me from gobbling it up, only stopping to savour the crunchy twig textures.

The chocolate moon with kiwi and passion fruit was my favourite dessert, as there are few things that can rival my love for maracuya. The sapote ice cream on the side was a little starchy, but the other flavours were absolutely moreish. All this together with the tasty dessert wine satisfied us to the utmost. 

Square moon

And then, it was finally time for the last course: the petits fours. We combined it with an Earl Grey tea (me) and a cafe con leche (my friend), and it all felt like the purest of indulgences. Presented on a mirror to represent a lake, the frog-shaped chocolates were a homage to a nearly-extinct animal from the region, and each one made us smile a little more and feel a little happier.

So what is my verdict on Arzak? The food, as you have no doubt gleaned, is flawless, with ingredients that burst with freshness and flavour, and combinations that are bound to make you sit up a little straighter in your chair. The textures surprised at every twist and turn. The atmosphere is warm and quite simply, human. Little details, like how all staff were trained to fold napkins with precision, two tablespoons and a wink, provided ample entertainment throughout the afternoon. It is definitely not for the “faint-budgeted” – the tasting menu is priced at €237 per person (excl. drinks). But if you plan to be in and around San Sebastian with a reason to celebrate or indulge, Arzak would be my unhesitant recommendation. In fact, it is worth visiting San Sebastian just for the Arzak experience! Elena describes the cuisine as having “a distinct identity, Basque, research based and contemporary”… I call it the experience of a lifetime.

Should you simply be living vicariously through this review, I am also putting together a bit of an overview of everything else we ate in the Basque Country – and this includes very budget-friendly pintxo bars! Stay tuned for that one, or subscribe to The Swindian to always be notified about my new blog posts 😊

In the spice room

Disclaimer: I was a guest at Arzak, but we paid for service and all opinions are, as always, strictly my own. A huge thank you to Elena Arzak and the entire team for making us feel so welcome!