Akelarre Opening Remarks:
-Akelarre (in English) or Akelaré has been owned and operated by Chef Pedro Subijana since it opened nearly four whole decades ago.
-The restaurant acquired its 3rd Michelin Star in 2007 and has been one of the top dining establishments in the country every since.
-Akelarre is a Basque term meaning sabbat, coven or a ritual meeting of witches.
-As you approach Akelarre up the winding mountain road, you’re immediately taken aback by the breezy breathtaking surroundings of the bay of Biscay.
-Inside, the dining room is understated, clean and simple. White linens drape casually over banquette tables set with basic black chairs, while the ceilings and walls are lined with a rich finished wood.
-In the daytime, I’m told that the view is absolutely fantastic as the window seats (which I requested) overlook the bay of Biscay. Unfortunately, by night time, pretty much all you can see when you pear out is a neverending sea of black.
-The noise level at Akelarre is moderate and comfortable. Tables are close enough together that there is a good amount of buzz in the room but not so close that you hear your neighbours as much as your dining companions. In my opinion, this is one the best ways to make fine dining approachable.
-After a disappointing experience with service at El Celler de Can Roca, our evening at Akelarre felt like a dream. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a warm smile, and shown to our table by the window (which I forgetting it would be pitch black by 9:30 PM). Immediately after, our English-speaking server offered us water and an aperitif to start before explaining the menu options to us and making recommendations. The adorable sommelier popped by our table next to talk me through the wine options- he even hand-wrote out all of the wines with colour-coded illustrations of the whites and reds. By the end of the meal, Chef Pedro also came by to chat with each table – a nice way to end the meal on a high note. Without exception, I found that every very single staff member we encountered during the evening were friendly, passionate and warm. Despite being a hard-to-get reservation, never did the experience feel contrived, stuffy or pretentious- I could truly tell that they all just loved their jobs.
-Unlike the evening before, where the service felt disorganized and hectic, the staff moved, as they should, like a dance- wine always arrived first, plates soon after, water glasses refilled, and cutlery removed and replenished on cue.
-I also appreciated the pace of the meal- while the whole thing took almost 3 hours, I never felt rushed (as I did with El Celler) or bored (as I sometimes did in France). Rather, there was always just enough time to finish our dishes and accompanying wines before moving along to the next course.
-Akelarre boasts a predominantly (though not exclusively Spanish) wine list with over 600 different vintages.
-Wine pairings are encouraged at a price of 60 € per person, which my partner opted for with his meal. In general, we both found that the wines were some of the best we’ve had in Spain, and the pairings were absolutely spot on. One of the favourites of the night was the unapologetically sweet M.R. Moscatel 2010 Malaya, which was paired with the luxurious apple pie.
-For me, I opted to start off my night with their house cocktail since I hadn’t had a drop of spirits all trip long. This turned out to be Cava, Vodka and Pineapple juice- not too sweet, with just enough bubbles and a nice fruity bite. Following that, I simply drank a la carte, with my favourite wine being a light and refreshing 2013 Albarino Trico Rias Baixas. I decidedly am in love with the Albarino- a perfect wine for a lovely late Summer night.
-Akelarre features a modern take on Basque ingredients and traditional fare. The menus are updated regularly to reflect the latest innovations developed in the Akelarre Cookery Classroom (aka. a mad-science room for food). There is also great respect to the finest seasonal products- they even harvest their own herbs from the restaurant’s little garden, which they began planting back in the 1980s.
-They offer three different tasting menus set at 170 € per person- the Aranori (grape) which is a more international menu, the Bekarki (rocket) which is considered the more traditional Basque, and the Alekarre Classics made up of favourite dishes from over the years.
-The food at Akelarre has a modernist molecular edge, but everything is presented in a natural, approachable way. Nothing feels gimmicky, and no flavour is sacrificed at the expense of molecular technique. Rather, Akelarre does innovation right.
-We opted to each choose different menus to get a sense of the range of offerings- so the following reflects both the Aranori and the Classics menu separately in lists.
Sea Garden Amuse
Prawn’s Sand; Oyster Leaf with Wine Reduction; Mussel with Cocoa Butter Shell; Sea Urchin’s Sponge; Shallot and Corn Beach Pebbles; Codium Seaweed Coral of Tempura Goose Barnacles
A fantastical start to a magical meal with every little bite offering a different and unusual texture.
The grainy sea-flavoured sand, the soft spongy sea urchin, the dense sweet pebbles, the meaty mussel, and the crispy light barnacles- all so different, yet so obviously well intertwined.
Leaves and Foie Under Rain – Plant Leaves, Foie Leaves, Rain-like Dressing
Made out of a mixture of aromatics, the dressing contained no added oils or vinegars. The result was a fragrant, perfectly seasoned bed of lovely leaves and paper-thin buttery foie gras painted into edible artwork. This is my kind of salad.
Green Broth Infusion, Scampi and Smoked Monkfish
Raw and Smoked Monkfish Fillet, Scampi, Infusion Bag of Obulato with Monkfish Crisp, Herbs, Prawns Powder
The dish began with a tiny little edible paper pillow that was dissolved byb a mild herbaceous broth.
The mixture of the gorgeous sweet shrimp, the smoky meaty monkfish and the wickedly crispy shrimp head made for one of the most enjoyable fish courses of the trip.
Potato Souffle, Herb Bread
A remarkably creative and addictive take on beef tartar. The wonderfully fine mince made for a meltingly sweet beef experience, and was even more addictive when smeared onto an ethereal potato chip or one of the more hearty earthy crackers. I also loved the little dollop of traditional grainy mustard for a kick of heat and a contrasting little crunch. It’s hard to imagine tartar any other way from here on out.
Hake, Kokotxa, Oyster and Oyster Leaf
Flamed Hake with Sea Sauce
The slightly smoky delicate hake filet was paired with its buttery cheek (koktxa), beautifully meaty oyster and a light and savoury broth. Simple, refined, perfection.
Couscous of Hake Eggs, Cockle Sauce
A beautifully cooked meaty grouper served with grated eggs that resembled the texture of fine couscous but more luscious.
We were instructed to delicately spoon the light frothy cockle sauce on top of the fish (at our discretion), which added the perfect amount of seasoning to the dish.
Roasted Suckling Pig
Crunchy Bone and Iberian Emulsion
While the nicely rendered fatty flesh merely melted on the tongue, the skin was almost a bit too crispy to easily eat. I know, it’s strange to complain about a crispy skin but this one was a bit too thick and tough. This was served with what I believe (I may be wrong here) was a crunchy, almost candy-like bone filled with bone marrow, a feather-like salty potato crisp and a beautifully smoky sauce.
Xaxu and Coconut Iced Mousse
Tolosa Cake Almond and Egg Cake with Foaming Coconut Ice Cream
When this arrived, my partner and I both gasped at the massive portion- how on earth could I ever eat all that ice cream? But as soon as it hit the tongue, the massive portion almost dissolved into a cold coconut butter- the texture being more weighty than cream, but whipped to an air-like consistency. It’s very hard to explain because it was kind of a mind-f*ck moment there. Paired with the dense nutty cake that only exaggerated the ethereal texture of the ice cream even more- this was certainly a memorable dish.
Broken Jar of Yogurt, Gatzutua and Berries
A fantastic last course that was creative and not at all too sweet. The broken jar was made out of a violet sugar candy, filled with creamy greek yogurt and beautiful ripe berries. Refined, cheeky and delicious.
Lobster Salad with Cider Vinegar Pairing: Gucteiu Sobre Le’as 2012 (Valoleoeras)
A refreshing and light salad packed with perfectly cooked sweet lobster, a sprightly dressing and delicate greens.
Pasta Carpaccio with Parmesan Shrooms
Pasta with Piquillo and Iberico Flavour Pairing:Palo Cortado “Urium” V.O.R.S. (Sherry)
I absolutely adored this dish. The combination of the perfectly al dente pasta flavoured with smoky peppers and iberico ham, with the meaty umami-rich mushrooms made for a flavour and texture of a meat-filled dish without the meat.
Rice with Snails and Periwinkles in Tomato and Basil Film
Pairing: Ossian 2012 (Segovia)
A very comforting risotto with meaty snails, and a rich, sweet and herbaceous sauce.
Whole Grain Red Mullet and Sauce “Fusilli”
Pralined Mullet, Liver and Onion, Fusilli of Parsley, Soy, and Ajo Blnaco Pairing:Vina de Martin “Escolha” 2009 Riberno
This dish was truly remarkable- from taste, texture, presentation and creativity- they nailed it here. The perfectly seasoned fish had been almost candied on top, yielding a wickedly crispy skin in contrast with the delicate flesh. Its sweetness was then balanced out by the earthy, rich paste of liver and onions and served with tiny fusilli-shaped gelatin flavoured by parsley, soy and the traditional almond soup.
Carved Beef with Tail Cake
Cake with with Foie Gras and Tail, Coppered Potato and Piquillo Pepper Chips Pairing: Mizto 2006 Rioja
An absolutely stunning cut of perfectly cooked beef, served with a decadent little layered napoleon of buttery foie and tender oxtail and smoky sweet chips on the side. A perfect portion of a luxurious dish to signal the end of the savoury bites.
Gin and Tonic on a Plate
Gin & Tonic Jelly, Juniper Sauce Pairing: Malus Mama 2009 Ice Cider
This was the second take on gin and tonic I had seen in my eating travels in Spain, but I was happy to see its great return. I thoroughly enjoyed the light delicate jelly with the aromatic sauce, the creamy ice cream and shard of crunchy praline.
A Different Apple Tart
Puff Pastry, Toasted Apple Cream, Praline, Apple Paper Pairing: M.R. Moscatel 2010 Mailaya
A very unique take on apple pie- apparently no real fresh apples go into the dessert! Rather, the sweet fruit paper coating gave way to a flaky puff pastry layer, moisten by a luscious cream and candied crunchy filling.
A simple understated spread- my favourite of the bunch being the marshmallow and macaron.
-For two tasting menus, 1 wine pairing, 1 cocktail, 2 glasses of wine and 2 cappuccinos, the bill came to 470 € ($670). It was one of the more expensive meals of the trip, but it was one of our favourites. The food was inventive, but not gimmicky, and consistently tasted fantastic. I don’t think I had many mind-blown moments, but there was enough innovation to keep me excitedly searching for the nuances in each bite. Service for me was the real big sell. Everyone who came to our table that night was kind, friendly, accommodating, and genuinely seemed to care that we had a good experience. I must especially give extra credit for the charming sommelier who went over the top on his wine education and took the time to illustrate them to us by hand so we could remember what we drank. My only regret about Akelarre was that I didn’t get to see it in the day as I am sure the view would be breathtaking and the whole experience that much more incredible.
-Overall, I would highly recommend Akelarre to anyone travelling to San Sebastian who are looking for a beautiful, unique and well executed meal.
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian, an avid food writer and blogger, a cookbook author and the founder of Abbey’s Kitchen Inc.