San Sebastián on Six Meals a Day

My Six-Star Day
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 7 2007 11:19 AM

San Sebastián on Six Meals a Day

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The biggest problem with gastronomic tourism is not packing on the pounds; it is packing in all the restaurants you want to try. An ambitious itinerary combined with limited time yields difficult choices—or very gluttonous days. For the gastronaut, there is perhaps no greater test of commitment and resilience, and no greater rite of passage, than the six-star day—that is, a day composed of back-to-back meals at Michelin three-star restaurants. In all my feeding frenzies, I had never attempted this particular feat, and the gap in the résumé was beginning to weigh on me. I decided to use my visit to San Sebastián to fill this void. Having already eaten at Arzak, I set aside my last afternoon and evening to eat at the city's two other three-star establishments, Martín Berasategui and Akelarre.

In one sense, Spain was the ideal place to attempt a double-triple: In contrast to their French colleagues, the top Spanish chefs use little butter and cream, which makes the cooking mercifully light. On the other hand, tasting menus are pretty much obligatory at leading Spanish restaurants, which meant I was looking at a pair of meals featuring eight to 10 courses, if not more. Sure, the individual portions would be modest, but the total consumption would not.

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How does one prepare for this kind of caloric assault? Skipping breakfast is a good start, and I limited my morning intake to some water. Naturally, I was a bit concerned about intestinal disturbances. My digestive system is plenty durable, but the human body is not meant to be treated like an elephant's, and I was going to be ingesting an elephantine quantity of food. So, on the theory that the best protection was prevention, I popped a couple of Immodium tablets before setting off for lunch.

First up was Berasategui, oddly situated in a drab suburb of San Sebastián, alongside several low-rise apartment buildings. The restaurant itself was quite elegant, and the dining room overlooked a gorgeous, almost alpine meadow, but the choice of location was still peculiar. The 47-year-old Berasategui, a San Sebastián native whose family owned a popular restaurant in the Old Town (which he still operates), is a largely self-taught chef who first won three stars in 2001. He doesn't attract nearly as much attention as Ferran Adrià and sometimes seems to be an afterthought in San Sebastián. Arzak, certainly, commands a bigger spotlight, and even Mugaritz's Andoni Aduriz (whom Berasategui mentored) garners more notice these days. It is felt by some observers that Berasategui, with three additional restaurants under his command and several other projects, has too much going on and that this has diminished the quality of the mother ship. I went to the restaurant not knowing what to expect.

I was shown to my table at 1:30. Spaniards are famous for dining late, and that's as true at the high-end establishments as it is at ordinary neighborhood joints. Steve Labbé, Berasategui's French-Canadian sommelier, told me that "northerners"—by which he meant northern Europeans—sometimes had a hard time adjusting their appetites to Spanish restaurant hours and were invariably the first ones through the doors for lunch and dinner. Being a northerner myself, I was famished by the time I sat down to tackle a hit parade of Berasategui's greatest dishes. And a parade it was: My lunch officially kicked off at 1:40 with an amuse-bouche of two perfectly fried, delicious potato croquettes. Here's what followed (rather than giving my own translations, I'm quoting from the English menu):

Mille-feuille of smoked eel, foie gras, spring onions, and green apple
Consommé of almond with apple ice shavings
Squid soup, creamy squid ink ravioli with squid crouton
Oyster with watercress, rocket leaves, and apple chlorophyll; lemon grass cream with oxalis acetosella
Raw fennel with smoked cream, caviar, and curry and cucumber custard
Green tomato jelly with grey mullet roe, lemon and basil sherbet with olive juice, and ginger and citric air
Razor shell custard with soya sprouts, coffee cream, cinnamon, and curry
Farm's egg with beet root and liquid herb's salad, carpaccio of Basque stew and cheese
Onion and idiazabal cheese soup with zizahoris and seasoned pigeon cream
Warm vegetable hearts salad with seafood, cream of lettuce hearts, and idionized juice
Roast red mullet with crystals of soft scales, consommé of cucumber, tomato and vodka emulsion, and raw cauliflower
Roast Araiz's pigeon with cream of apple, lime, and basil and its toast
Strawberries and green apple with black olive sand and frozen flakes
Yogurt liquid bubble, mango and passion fruit sauce, mist of gentian and crunchy flowers
Creamy coffee ice cream on top of a soft hazelnut and chocolate cake with whisky ice shavings

I took my last bite at 3:45, along with a final swig of the last of the nine glasses of wine I was served. I didn't finish all the wines, but I did clean every plate—not because I loved all 16 dishes, but because I had it in my head that my mission would be complete only if I ate every morsel of food set down before me. That said, I enjoyed the lunch. It was probably the most challenging meal that I've ever had—I've never encountered so many different ingredients nor experienced so many contrasting textures, temperatures, and tastes in one sitting. It was truly a full-palate workout. There were plenty of molecular touches—airs, mists, jellies, sands, bubbles, frozen flakes—but the food, studded with such local staples as squid, eel, eggs, apples, and pigeon, was unmistakably Basque. And some of the dishes, notably the warm vegetable-hearts salad, adorned with a couple of gorgeous, tender chunks of lobster, were really terrific.

I left Berasategui feeling full but not overwhelmingly so. I went back to my hotel and rested for a few hours before setting off for Akelarre. Pedro Subijana's restaurant is located on the slopes of Monte Igeldo and supposedly has a commanding view over the Cantabrian Sea. I wouldn't know, because I went on a rainy, foggy night and couldn't see a thing. Despite the inclement weather, the circular dining room was packed. (With its split-level seating and big glass windows, it looked like a revolving restaurant.) I sat down around 9:30. At 9:40, the first food landed on the table, a box containing eight little snacks (liquid almond, mussel with black bread, etc.). I can't really say that I was hungry, but I was ready to finish the task I had started.

The rest of the meal consisted of the following (again, taken verbatim from the English menu, which seems to have been composed by the same person who translates Chinese takeout fliers):

Little pearls of foie gras and sour salad
Crab in sequences
Squid, onion, and curled Parmesan
Pickled red tuna à la minute with Piparras
Beef in coppered potato and juicy sponge
Milk and grape, cheese and wine in parallel evolution
Generous fruit ravioli and apple soupe

I took my last bite just before midnight, along with a final sip of the last of the eight glasses of wine I was served. I emptied every plate set down before me, so it was mission accomplished, but the meal left me disappointed.

Given that Subijana, 59, is one of the gray eminences of Spanish gastronomy, I had figured that his food, like the cooking at Arzak, would draw very judiciously on the molecular gastronomy playbook and would put the pleasure principle above the gee-whiz factor. In fact, though, my dinner at Akelarre was an object lesson in culinary experimentalism run amok. Take the foie gras "pearls," which consisted of small orbs of foie gras served with tapioca. Just because you have the ability to do something in the kitchen doesn't mean you ought to do it, and pellet-size bites of foie gras are just not very satisfying. Then there was the beef with coppered potato. A potato skin had been given a copper-colored coating and then stood upright and folded into a circle to form what appeared to be a handleless copper pot, inside of which sat several cubes of beef. It looked neat, but you needed construction equipment to cut through the potato skin, and the meat was flavorless.

With the "milk and grape, cheese and wine" course, the meal took a needlessly provocative turn. I was instructed to start at the bottom of the small platter and work my way to the top, and I did as I was told. By the time I got through the third of the six items, the progression seemed clear: We were going from cheese to dessert, from savory to sweet. The fourth item on the platter looked like a small pastry, and I bit into it expecting something sugary. Wrong! Instead, it was filled with a seriously pungent cheese, which did not thrill me. But at least it was better than what followed, a Gorgonzola sorbet that elicited a one-word comment in my notebook: "Blech."

On the plus side, it was food that made people think and talk, and as Subijana, a delightful man with a great handlebar mustache, made the rounds of the dining room, he was peppered with questions about various dishes.

I was treated to a classic metrosexual moment by the table next to me. It was a party of five Brits—two guys, three gals. The men spent the entire meal meticulously dissecting and analyzing every plate they were served. The women, on the other hand, were mostly glued to their cell phones, checking the progress of the English rugby team's World Cup match. But of all the things I ate, drank, observed, and overheard on My Longest Food Day Ever, it was something Martín Berasategui said that made the biggest impression. He was trying to explain the depth of his attachment to San Sebastián, and he put it thusly: "When I take my last breath, I want my last vision to be of San Sebastián. At that moment, I will understand everything about my life."