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.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Food, but not as we know it at Mugaritz


I didn't really do much research on Mugaritz prior to our visit. Well, Pilgrimage, more like. At the start of our trip with twenty International Food and Wine Society foodies from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, we knew that we were on our way to some of the most venerable shrines of wine and food in the world. We figured the better attitude was that the less we had in terms of expectations then the less we would be disappointed.  Given that we had a wine merchant in the group who had selected the wines, we figured we would get a better wine and food experience than many. And indeed after reading a few reviews in researching this piece, in retrospect it seemed just as well - they would have put me off the visit. Comments such as "overpriced", "not worth it" and "food didn't meet expectations" would put anyone off. And yet to have missed this restaurant would be to have missed one of the greatest food experiences this planet has to offer. Yes, maybe not to everyone's taste, but sometimes it is necessary to suspend preferences and just go with the flow. As one reviewer wrote, not every dish was a home run, but those that were were out of the ball park. Which pretty much sums it up. Mugaritz is the Babe Ruth of restaurants - not afraid to strike out occasionally in the quest for magnificent culinary home runs. And there were a superb number of these. Batter up.

Mugaritz Courtyard
Mugaritz is located just outside San Sebastian in the Basque region of Northern Spain. Proudly Basque (as one of our friends was gently corrected by one of the staff when she referred to Mugaritz as "Spanish"), it is a 2 Star Michelin restaurant which has been in the world top five restaurants since 2008. Chef Andoni Aduriz learned his craft in Ferran Adria's El Bulli and likes to call his style "techno-emotional cuisine" rather than the all embracing "molecular gastronomy" which many of the leading exponents of this style of cuisine also choose to reject. Adria prefers the term "deconstructive" since it more accurately reflects the idea of taking food apart and putting it back together in ways that challenge and excite in social, technical, emotional and artistic contexts. The aim seems to be to subvert the expections of diners in these areas and entertain. Maybe they just want to avoid being labelled. 
Mugaritz interior
The cooking and philosophy of Mugaritz is a "constant search for perfection and the exceptional in each one of our dishes" with the key words being nature, time and emotion. The menu says the dish names "not only describe what they consist of but also what they contain implicitly, that which we would like there to be…. evocative landscapes and moments, imaginary techniques and even new ingredients." I normally get suspicious with such seductive language and rhetoric. Having worked as a copywriter in the fashion line, a story selling the aesthetic usually means a premium on the price with often a corresponding lack of substance. Way too cynical, maybe? Actually, yes and so it was to prove on this occasion. 

Mugaritz calls its customers "Cultured and refined souls (who) have a calling to encounter with nature" and who prefer the raw and natural in their food. In this, the menu points out that everything on the plate can be eaten, the aim being to please both the eye and the soul and seek to "generously offer a new world of emotions." I somehow missed this, which meant I missed out on eating a lot of the rocklike looking things that the food came presented on. Memo to self - read the fricking menu next time.

Our bus of IWFS cultured and refined foodies got unloaded and we piled into the subdued lighting of an early evening April grey restaurant. Mostly wooden interior, it felt cosy though passing tables of people eating felt a bit like we were intruding on their intimacy. But then twenty rowdy….. er, cultured and refined Malaysian foodies will do that. 

The table decoration of a snapped plate broke into two halves and put back together with both halves at 90 degrees to each other gave the sense of deconstruction and reconstruction that reflected the spirit of the Mugaritz style of cooking. Taking something apart and putting it back together differently. Thanks to Tom Parker Bowles review in the Daily Mail for opening my eyes to this. Though the engineer in me says the plate was now pretty useless in utility terms. Think we parked some serviettes against it.

The evening got underway with a bracing glass of Cava. The Castell Sant Antoni Gran Reserva had a lovely lemon nose with good bubbles and acidity. Just the thing to relax after the bus ride and ahead of the twenty course three hour marathon ahead. 

Mugaritz kitchen
Our entertaining and witty maitre d' introduced himself and the menu and organised us for the pre dinner kitchen tour. This was done in two groups of ten and once there everyone got treated to a pea sushi roll with a garlic flower which tasted like cold fresh garden - nice almost frozen crunch but with a sweet freshness that was a real livener in the cheeks. Killed the Cava, though. 

The kitchen was something else - all steel sheen and swish and bright lights and chefs dancing around each other to get to their stations like some cosmic dance of moons and planets around the stars that anchor them to each other. There was light and laughter and smiles and no sense of feeling we were invading space or spectators at a safari. We were there to enjoy and they would be professional in delivering that enjoyment. Works for me.

Eating in the kitchen
Back at the table to finish off the fizz and to crack on with the whites. First up was the Pazo Senorans Rias Baixas Seleccion de Anada 2005. Medium of body with apples and honey on the nose. A dry sweet throat with nectarines, with a slight oil and industrial note on the finish. Good food partner it would prove to be - one of those versatile, go with anything wines. 

The first courses out were the Lock of "Hair" seaweed smeared with tapenade and the Edible stones. The latter looked like a pebble but turned out to be a parboiled new potato with light mustard coating - very cute and good crunch on the humble spud. Used to have them as a kid in early spring straight from the hot water on to the plate and smothered in butter - sweet and beautiful and a taste for eternity. 

Seaweed. Apparently. Tasted like dirt. 
The seaweed came across as the taste of dry dirt and the texture of wire wool. It dustily disappeared on contact with the tongue. There was a pop of mustard which didn't seem to do much. Presumably there was some nutritional value in the seaweed, but I didn't really get what was behind this dish. Someone said it was the Fatt Choy - a delicacy in Chinese communities that gets served for auspicious occasions. Okay…

The third course was seafood with seaweed and roe which proved a bit gunky and a bit yuck. There seemed to be lots of tastes going on in this, lots of activity on the tongue. Possibly too many - it certainly became difficult to pinpoint them. 

Fourth was the "Smoked toast, 100% lobster" a dry lobster on a stone wheat chip and (given that it was 100% lobster) what I guess must have been other lobster bits pureed into some green vegetal looking gunk. Interesting look, like a supermodel claw basking on a rock of black hardened lava waiting to be photographed. I have no note of the taste.

Asparagus and black truffle. I think.
Fifth was "Slices. Asparagus and black truffle" which was a crisp bite and veggie chew with the truffle coming off as slightly nutty and nicely undercut by a splash of cream. The white and black contrast of the asparagus and truffle made for a visual pop, but didn't photograph too well. 

The dishes were coming thick and fast and barely enough time to make any real notes. But it was fun. The wine kept getting poured and nicely helped the food go down. The reds were starting to appear but the fizz and white was still on the table. Just as well, lots more seafood still to go. 

The Tanned lobster flesh and fermented rice had a zap of pomelo somewhere which brought out a sourish grapefruit note in the remains of the wine and helped cut the lobster nicely. The combo was a good mix of fresh lobster bite and starch in the rice slightly sweetened by the ferment. Light and heavy at the same time. Pretty colour blends of snow white, grey and salmon orange with pops of what looked like green chives as contrasts. 

Emulsions of squid and cod with hake shavings
The creamy emulsions of squid and cod with hake shavings made for an interesting texture. It looked like a dollop of coconut "santan" on top of a dollop of soup. When the flakes got mixed in with the emulsion, it created a full, thick porridge that was a treat - all fishy goodness that hit all the taste and textural spots. Seemed to fill the belly as well - unusual for this type of cuisine. But welcome, nonetheless. 

Next up was the Threads of crab with vegetable mucilage, macadamias and pink peppercorns. Crab in cream with pepper - lovely taste, with what felt like a light milky cream fraiche. Absolutely Storming. Especially with the bread and a dab of butter. Peasant? Maybe. But I make no excuse. We enjoy our food as best we dare to experiment. And this was lovely. 

Decided to have a sip of the first red which was the Vides y Vinos Ossian Vino de la Terra Casstilla Y Leon 2010. Bit on the young side, lightish body, mildly fruity and a shade alcoholic. Berries and plums with good tannins. Pleasant enough, but maybe needs more time in the bottle. This one can age a bit to get a bit less aggressive.

The sea anemone with mountain watercress came out a bit like an oyster crossed with sea urchin. It smelt something awful, but sometimes you just have to hold your nose and swallow. The taste was of mashed things. That was it. My notes say it looked like dog balls and tasted of someone's balls. Don't know why, since i've never tasted balls. It was better with the bread to give it a carbo foundation. But this was another one that was a strike out. Maybe it was meant to fit in with the grander sequence of the menu. And indeed from this perspective, it made absolute sense because the Roe and bone marrow were beyond words. The roasted bone marrow just erupted with the hake roe. Totally explosive blood vessel busting food. There appeared no shame in sucking on the bone marrow. Dogs do it and they know a thing or two about bones. Trying to find a description of bone marrow taste - like a roasted fat squishy oily soft lard, soft mushy lard with beef but zipping the tongue with sweet hoy oily goodness. Transcendental. 

The Boiled artichoke with a mushroom and black olive Hollandaise was slightly odd, with the foam feeling a bit yuck and bland and somewhat vegetal. Didn't quite work for me.

Loin of Hake, Tiger Nut starch and Clam Juice
Loin of Hake, tiger nut starch and concentrated clam juice. The loin had been cooked perfectly, its firm and fluffly flakes giving a real a bounce in the mouth - reminiscent of the Soon Hock we get in Malaysia. The nut sauce was creamy and more-ish and a real throat coater, needing lots of our crisp red wine to clear the top of the palate. 

The Turbot "Pil-pil" and roe was a good oily contrast to the Hake though the sauce was a bit starchy, as if someone had overdone the MSG enhancer. 

The second and third reds had by now made it to the table, the Vinos de Pago Arinzano Navarra 2004 and the Bodegas Roda Rioja Reserva 2006. Not as bold as the Ossian, but had a much better balance, with a great body and lovely texture and fabulous finish. The Rioja was wonderful. Total lady of a wine - elegant with a bit of steel and breeding and a hint of sexy.  A supple leather and lace wine that would help provide a night to remember. 

The notes are getting a bit illegible. Drink will do that to you. Getting very full too, almost scared to eat any more. I also think that maybe there were some deviaitions from the menu order - giving a nod to lighter food beking cleared before the heavier food. I guess even with this deconstructive style of cuisine there are some laws of eating that are fundamental. There also seem to be an occasional addition - some photos do not seem to match any of the descriptions and some notes do not make much sense. 

Choppings of Pulled Lamb
Choppings of pulled lamb, caramel coat. The lamb meat was fine and quite succulent with an oustanding crispy skin though the sauce was a shade dry and powdery. Notwithstanding, a good blend of texture and taste. The lamb felt a shade aged, as if it had been left on a shelf somewhere for a couple of days and got a bit dried as a result. Though it retained sufficient juice and texture to avoid becoming the dreaded "lamby". The combo of meat, fat, char and skin was wonderful, especially with the Arinzano.

Iberian Pork Tail
The Iberian pork tail with sour leaves and creme fraiche. Imagine the best pork skin you have ever tasted. Then double it. Then double it again. That's what we had here. Crisp, clean, juice and fat and earthy salt. simply cooked but so, so excellently executed. The accompanying sauce tastes like total lliquid pig and pairs magnificently. Chef added a touch of full cream to the dish for a creamy pop in the mouth. Genius. The remaining sauce on the plate just begged to be soaked up with the bread and, oh my stars and boxers, it was the best. Bread, not chocolate, truly is the food of the gods. In a next life, I hope to come back as a baker.

Rack of Iberian Pork
Following the amazing pork with anything would be tough but Mugaritz managed to pull it off with the Rack of Iberian pork smeared with Sobrasada and fresh herbs. Total Whoah!! Though the skin was slightly less than perfect and a shade on the tough side, the meat was fine juicy and succulent. It was the zip given by the not too spicy Sobrasada sauce that was interesting - spritzed the tongue and flavoured the meat with a pungent but not overpowering kick. 

Seems there was a Sweet fermented carrot, Idiazabal ricotta and smoked paprika. There is a photograph but no notes. 

There are also no notes on the Vinos de Finca Losada Bierzo "La Bienquerida" 2009, though the notes do say that the Pedro Ximinez was amazing - sweet paricots, smoke, syrup and figs and total liquid gooey luxury. Opulent and disdainful and not afraid of being so.

Tower of Babel
Chocolate hits all the right buttons - it excites, it soothes, it stimulates the senses and lets those endorphins and other feel good chemicals in the brain get released. It is the aphrodisiac for love and the comfort for heartache. Having said this, it is apparently not an ingredient that Mugaritz usually has any attraction for. It may stimulate many things in the brain, but it would seem not sufficient doses of innovative creativity in the Mugaritz chefs to want to do too much about it. Fair enough. Chocolate is what chocolate does and there's no need to fix what ain't broke. 
This changed recently. Rising to a challenge to incorporate chocolate in an exciting and innovative way, Mugaritz has developed the 7 Capital Sins covered in chocolate. They spent months in collaboration with chocolate legend Oriol Balaguer to develop the tastes, flavours and textures to titillate the senses of Mugaritz diners. The delightful mouthfuls are presented in a vertical jigsaw of natural oak bowls and boxes intended to represent a Tower of Babel. 
Figuring out the Tower
Visually, the Tower is impressive, like a Wooden Guggenheim in Bilbao only lots of them piled on top of each other. Taking them apart is indeed fun and revealing the sinful creations did evoke delight and surprise. The taste was…  chocolate. Wonderful, smooth, dark, firm, and top quality, but ultimately…   chocolate. Deconstruct it all you want, at the end you get endorphin zapping well being that begs for coffee. And it is wonderful.
Prior to the tower we had a few other stages for the Chocolate Process. First up was a Chocolate chip sponge that required us to whip up our coffee and cocoa grains with some cream and create the "gravy" to pour over it or dip into. It was excellent - a shade cake like but the chocolate gravy softened it nicely and brought out all the dark cocoa taste. 
The Tower, er, untowered
There was also the Frozen almond turron (read biscuit and wafer)  which needed to get eaten with the edible paper. This was full on texture - crunchy biscuit, rich sweet cream created a great combo. Kind of like a Coconut ice cream with ice cold chocolate wafers and sugary coffee and cocoa. 

Overall, the service was pretty excellent, coming across like a well choreographed routine in clearing and replacing plates. Attentiveness to empty glasses occasionally an issue but, hey, when you've a menu of twenty dishes and needing to clear an entire restaurant, something's got to give. And we could always serve ourselves. We didn't - someone always seemed to turn up at the last moment.

The Lenglui. Ho leng.
And then that was it. Taxis had come to ferry us back to the hotel for a fitful sleep ahead of a 6am rise and shine to finish packing for 7am breakfast and 7.20 bus ride back to Bordeaux. We had done it. Mugaritz could be safely struck off the bucket list of places to eat before we die.  It is probably true to say that Mugaritz is more an experience than what we might normally call a meal. Tantalising tastes and textures are juxtaposed in often contrasting but continually delighting creations that flow gently from one to the other. With barely more than a mouthful for each course, the twenty dishes went quite quickly, and kudos for the kitchen being able to manage the sequencing with minimal delays between plate clearing and presentation. 

Mugaritz feels like it is one of those places that foodies just have to "do" and whether you enjoy it or not is secondary. I think I'm glad it's been done - the experience of doing it gives a degree of authority to be able to talk about the place and the cuisine and the atmosphere of the place. In terms of the tastes and textures, it deserves its ranking among the best restaurants in the world. In our individual journeys of food, we learn that what we like is at best only a preference and what is good or not is decided by whether what we eat stays with us. Like Fine Art, learning to appreciate the skills in preparation and presentation become keys to understanding the artistry of a chef.  A Tripadvisor review cited an ex employee saying that one really had to know food to enjoy the Mugaritz, which rings somewhat true in the same way that you really need to know wine to better enjoy the top end Bordeaux. Having done it, one question is whether one would want to do the experience again. Most restaurants would want an answer in the affirmative, though one feels that Mugaritz doesn't really care. Like the Enterprise, their mission is to boldly go where no chef has gone before and we are the mostly willing passengers on this taste and texture adventure. Though as a paraphrased and misquoted Spock might say for the Mugaritz: it's food, Jim, but not as we know it.

Friends Jag and Sue
For me, on balance….  yes I would go back to Mugaritz. On the one hand, it was a truly memorable dining experience which sets the expectation bar for a future visit quite high. On the other, the menu will change as the chefs uncover more and more brilliant matches in the deconstructive style. The mixes of tastes and testures are tremendous and inventive, and one is constantly delighted and surprised at the amazing combinations the kitchen has developed. There is a palpable sense of intelligent fun pervading the place, from the chefs who fed us on the kitchen tour before the meal to the serving staff who set and cleared places whilst entertaining all the way.

I guess it is this spirit of play that infuses the creativity of the place and the resulting food and experience. Play has always been essential in innovation in all fields, from science and technology to the arts, and this freedom to play in the kitchen results in some brilliant results. Some not so brilliant on times, but that becomes personal choice and maybe expectation bias. Whilst we all try to avoid judging as best we can, to comment constructively one necessarily needs a standpoint at some time. Mugaritz will either excite and delight or deeply disappoint, and the only question is whether you are adventurous enough to spend the money on the ticket and take the ride. Do it at sometime like now, when the current recession and depressed euro and economy make it a good time wallet wise. But maybe try and do it when your palate is sufficiently sophisticated to readily appreciate this style of cuisine. If you're a solely steak and chips kind of eater, then Mugaritz is not for you. At least not yet. In contrast, if you like the idea of food being reshaped in fun and intelligent combinations, you shouldn't miss this one.

Aldura Aldea, 20
20100 Errenteria
Coordinates for GPS:
  • Longitude: 1º 55’ 4’’ West
  • Latitude: 43º 16’ 22’’ North
Please do not hesitate to call us if you have any problems (+34 943 522 455 / +34 943 518 343)

Bottles, take a bow...
Castell Sant Antoni Gran Reserva Cava Brut 2005
Pazo Senorans Rias Baixas Seleccion de Anada 2005
Vides y Vinos Ossian Vino de la Terra Casstilla Y Leon 2010
Vinos de Pago Arinzano Navarra 2004
Bodegas Roda Rioja Reserva 2006
Vinos de Finca Losada Bierzo "La Bienquerida" 2009
Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla Pedro Ximinez Antique Jerez

Lock of "Hair" seaweed smeared with tapenade
Edible stones
Slices. Asparagus and black truffle
Smoked toast, 100% lobster
Tanned lobster flesh and fermented rice
Creamy emulsions of squid and cod with hake shavings
Threads of crab with vegetable mucilage, macadamias and pink peppercorns
Sea anemone and mountain watercress
Roe and roasted bone marrow
Boiled artichoke with a mushroom and black olive Hollandaise
Loin of Hake, tiger nut starch and concentrated clam juice
Turbot. "Pil-pil" and roe
Choppings of pulled lamb, caramel coat
Iberian pork tail with sour leaves and creme fraiche
Rack of Iberian pork smeared with Sobrasada and fresh herbs
Sweet fermented carrot, Idiazabal ricotta and smoked paprika
The chocolate ceremony
Frozen almond turron
Glass. Sugar and cocoa as a cookie
Edible paper of leaves and flowers

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