Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Akelare - I must have missed the point...

San Sebastian April 18th 2013

Entrance to Akelare
We had finished our lunch at Extebarri at 5.15pm and originally had dinner scheduled for Akelare at 8 that evening. It was decided to reschedule to 9pm to give lunch a chance to digest, especialy the magnificent Galician Beef on the bone which was belting with a voluptuous and blowsy Rioja - all Penelope Cruz body and hot Spanish mama flamenco attitude. Ole indeed.

The beef was clearly still playing on the mind and digestive senses as we clambered back on the bus. Everyone was still talking about it and singing the praises for Dear Leader and his choice of lunch venue. Basking in the glory in the Basque region - someone had to say it. And Akelare beckoned. 

My expectations had been somewhat supersized. With Yelp and Chowhound reviews being overboard enthusiastic with things like "magical", "Stellar" and "Do yourself a favour and come here before you die" I expected great things. The Akelare website spoke of Chef Pedro Subijana and his highly efficient team dedicating "their deep-felt passion to ensuring that you take away the best possible memories of your visit from start to finish thanks to a perfect gastronomic experience and the exquisite ritual of the service that goes with it. " Well, and maybe, though quite what the website meant by Akelare being the "perfectly synchronised coordination between responsibility and action (that) generates unforgettable moments" was far from clear. The Fashion Industry generates stories to seduce - looks like the Restaurant industry is not that dissimilar. Maybe that is why I rebel against this kind of nonsense. It's not entirely honest. There's an agenda at work which seeks to alleviate you of your hard earned cash as seductively and pleasantly as possible. Like high class hookers, you presumably get what you pay for - an experience that you'd like to repeat or just keep as a once in a lifetime perfect memory. Or not. Usually depends on what it gets remembered for.

Chef Pedro Subijana
So. Rant over. Wikipedia says that the word Akelarre is a Basque term that means "witchcraft' or "a meeting of witches". The literal translation is meadow (larre) of the he-goat (aker). Alternatively, it could have its roots in the basque name for the long grass native to the area and got manipulated by the Inquisition for their own purposes. Whether Chef was seeking to suggest with the name that witchcraft took place in the kitchen was not made clear from the website. And maybe no bad thing - suggestions of ritual magic would turn a lot of people away. One had visions of Macbeth's three witches in the kitchen cavorting around a bubbling cauldron under the watchful and moustachioed eye of Chef Pedro. No. We could see the kitchen from our table. All light and steel.

 An uphill thirty minute drive up the hill and we were at Akelare. Parked on a cliff overlooking the Biscay Bay, we couldn't see much due to the high wall and the absence of much in the way of lighting. The illuminated name of the restaurant was all that stood out as a beacon in this Biscayan blackness of a stormy windswept and somewhat wet evening. A chilly drizzly thirty second amble into the restaurant and seated we got. Didn't get much of the view, being sat on a twenty seat long table, though thankfully with enough space for elbows and glasses. The place was nicely romantic, though a shade underlit for cameras without decent flash guns. But hey, who wants a snap happy flashing photoshooter when you want a quiet romantic evening overlooking the Mar Cantabrico as the sun sets?

Our tasting menus differed slightly from that published on the website. Maybe the webby was a bit outdated. Dear Leader Yin How had negotiated with the restaurant that we were able to choose our main course. The menus were
Akelare Appetizers

Appetizers - Sea Garden
Prawns Sand
Oyster Leaf
Mussel with Shell
Sea Urchin Sponge
Beach Pebble (Shallot and Corn)
Codium Seaweek Coral (goose barnacles tasting tempura)

Prawns and French Beans cooked in “Orujo” Fire
Molluscs in Fisherman's Net
Pasta, Piquillo and Iberico Carpaccio, Mushrooms and Parmesan Shrooms
Hake and its Kokotxa with Oyster Leaf and Mussel´s Beans
Whole Grain Red Mullet with Sauce "Fusili"
Carved beef, Tail Cake, "Potatoes and Peppers"
Roasted Pigeon with a Touch of Mole and Cocoa
Roasted baby Pig with Tomato “Bolao” and Iberic’s emulsion
Xaxu and foaming Coconut Ice Cream
Another Apple Tart

Xangurro (Crab) in Essence, its Coral Blini and "Gurullos"
Razor Shell with Veal Shank
Sauted Fresh Foie Gras with “Salt Flakes and Grain Pepper”
Turbot with its “Fake Kokotxa”
"Desalted" Cod Box with its "Kokotxa"
Roasted Pigeon with a Touch of Mole and Cocoa
Roasted baby Pig with Tomato “Bolao” and Iberic’s emulsion
Milk and Grape, Cheese and Wine in parallel evolution
Orange "Tocino de Cielo" Sheet with Fruit Leaves

Being Malaysians, though, we would all be tasting each other's dishes. It's the culture - share the tastes!

Wines for the night were
Larmandier Bernier "Terre de Vertus" 2007 Champagne
Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett 2009 (Mosel)
Domaine Leflaive Puligny Montrachet 1er Cru "Clavoillon" 2009
Domaine JL Trapet Chapelle Chambertin Grand Cru 2005
J Palacios Corullon Las Lamas 2009 (Bierzo)
Bodegas Mauro "Terreus" 2005 (Castilla y Leon)

Crab with Coral Blini
The Sea Garden appetizers were cute, looking like a sandy beach after the tide had gone out. Almost made you start whistling "Under The Sea" from Disney's "Little Mermaid." Tastewise, the textures ranged from crispy cake like crunch to salty seaweed chewy. The salt reinforced the fierce lemon acidity in the fizz which started ripping the tastebuds off the tongue. Almost a burning.

The prawns were pleasant though lenglui's crab had lots of shell bits and cartilege which made for a somewhat stringy mouthful and needing occasional accurate spits to expel the shell.  The Blini with Crab Mousse felt texturally strange though the pasta was tasty.

Whole Grain Red Mullet with Sauce "Fusili"
The Molluscs were a bit too seafoody for personal taste, with elements of seawater and weed present though the dish certainly had character. The Razor Shell with Veal Shank was an odd combination that might have worked in some 5th Dimension of the Universe but all it seemed to do here was kill the otherwise sweetly honey and spicy mango of the full bodied Scharzhofberger Riesling. 

The pasta was nicely oily and freshly filling. 

The Foie Gras was excellent, with a sugar shaving and a sweet black rice.

Turbot with its “Fake Kokotxa” or Fish Cheek/Maw
The Cod was excellent. Firm flesh flakes, perfectly cooked and steamed. Great jus and thin mash gave it enough carbo foundation and liquid to let it shine. The dish of the evening. 

The Whole Grain Red Mullet with Fusili had been glazed with the puree of the remains of the fish after the fillets had been sliced off. So there was bone, liver, head all nuked together and used as a crust to give a sandy crunch. Total fish, in all respects, with the fusili offering a texturally softer counterpoint. But again the salt overpowered, much more so with soy in the fusili which the balsamic "ajo blanco" did little to alleviate.
The Outstanding Roast Suckling Pig
The rest of the food seems forgettable except for the Roast Suckling Pig, which was a belter. Skin was oily yet crunchy , with the meat and jus blending nicely. Tender, mouth melting - they know how to do their pigs in Spain. 

Special mention for the “Xaxu” and Coconut Iced Mousse was visually cute - two large iceberg size chunks of foamy coconut ice cream closing in on an egg and almond cake. Remembe the movie "Jason and the Argonauts" when the ship was trying to sail through the shaking cliffs? That was this dish. No notes on how it tasted, but it was the visual dish of the night. 

Apple Tart with edible paper. Yes.
Lenglui had my okay apple tart with edible paper whilst I got lumbered with a range of little tapas style desserts of odd mixes with an apparent focus on salt and egg white foam with more salty foam. For me, this seemed to be too molecular, with the salted Fig and Pedro Ximinez sherry mix coming across as quite bizarre and confusing. It almost felt like chef was trying to be deconstructive for its own sake and somehow missing the point of the food - taste and innovation is one thing but I feel that some degree of sustenance is necessary and food still has to satisfy at some nutritional level.

Lovely wines...
Matching the wine became an exercise in futility, so the comments are on their individual presentations. 

The Leflaive Puligny once again made an appearance at the dinner table. Creamy sweet apples and a spring breeze on the nosewitha crunchy endless finish. Total class in a glass and masterful with the Cod.

...which went okay with the food
The Chambertin had good beefy cherries and firm tannins with a spicy mouth and a pepper finish. Somewhat bolder and feeling young, there's a few more years in the bottle for this one.

The Corrulon was an apple wine from the Basque with 11% proof. Was fleshy and voluptuous, young with bold tannins. Tasted like an alcholoic sorbet, but certainly woke everything up.

The Terreus was voluptuous and fruity. That's all he wrote. He must have been drunk by this time. 

Akelare staff explaining the magic
Staff were pretty fast and efficient in serving and clearing and keeping glasses refreshed. No complaints, except that the stylish coat of one of our group went missing. Apparently staff were a bit unconcerned and tried to say that friend did not bring a coat but that if she did then it was the manky one remaining on the hanger in the closet. Friend was too ladylike to make a fuss and wrote it off, saying that if that was her bad luck then maybe better the jacket should leave her and let her be. I think maybe it was the witches. Our friend apparently does have the sight so perhaps they recognised her power and wanted to whack her. So. Hopefully any balances are restored and equilibrium between the dimensions is maintained. But it left a bad impression. Watch your coats if you go there - the witches are clearly fashion conscious. 

So….  adding it all up, it's not sure what it all means.  On balance, I'm probably glad it's been done so that I can now talk about the thing. Could I recommend it? Hmmm.  If you like fresh seafood playfully prepeared and artfully presented then yes. If you like salt and foam and the sea theme then yes. If you like an outstanding view across the Mar Cantabrico then go for lunch or in summer. My notes on the menu say "IT'S ALL FOAM!! AND GOT FRICKING SALT IN EVERYTHING!!" But it was the last thing written and came just after dessert. Total taste of the sea in all its storm and tempest. Or maybe the kitchen witches just like salt.

Reading some other reviews, it's clear that I missed the point with this place. Whilst some of the tastes and combos were truly outstanding, I'm realizing that Michelin stars seem to get given out for innovation in food, be that in preparation, culination and presentation, and these stars direct people to chefs who are avant garde in their approaches and outlooks toward food and cooking. I must have a piece of the puzzle missing here, like trying to drink a Two Thousand dollar bottle of wine when you've only got a twenty dollar palate. I think I get it. I'm not quite sure I go along with it. Or maybe don't WANT to go along with it.  Not completely convinced that it is my bag. Or the guilt of the Catholic. The Scotsman in me feels it is a shedful of money to pay for something so fleeting, a memory of a food experience that one can do little with except blog about or relive memories with friends who were there. The Michelin restaurants I have visited have underwhelmed in various aspects, mostly the food and the absence of substance therein. Tongue tickling and visually pleasing but not really sticking in the ribs. At the same time, I have been pleasantly surprised - Nimb in Copenhagen stands out as memorable in both food and location senses. And La Pergola overlooking the Vatican in Rome was stunning. And coupled with tasting some outstanding wines at these places is beyond words. But we are always learning, and the tongue and belly are insatiable masters. I'll roll with it. 

On the way back we were still talking about the amazing beef at the Extebarri. Hence my point that perhaps the context of things meant that Akelare was always going to be a non starter. Extebarri was a tough act to follow and would be like comparing the soul food diner to the fine dining star. Apples and oranges. If the twists and turns of life permit, then I would go back to Akelare to try again and making sure to skip lunch. Old wisdom says one should never judge on a single visit. But it would not be a place for me to make a second dedicated trip. If there's a crowd or a charming dinner companion keen to get romantic on a hill overlooking San Sebastian, then maybe. Otherwise I'll do lunch because that beef at Extebarri was amazing. Guess I'm just a steak and red wine kind of guy at heart. Bourdain says next time must try the baby eels there. Sign me up.

Paseo Padre Orcolaga, 56
20008 San Sebastian – Donostia, Spain
Phone: +34 943311209

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