Mugaritz Opening Remarks
-Located a short 20 minute drive from downtown San Sebastian in Errenteria Gipuzkoa, Mugaritz was opened in 1998. When compared to Akelarre, Arzak and Martin Berasatgui, Mugariz is considered the youngling of San Sebastian’s acclaimed restaurants.
-Despite its age, the restaurant has earned itself 2 Michelin Stars and 6th place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
-Mugaritz is named after a 200 year old oak tree that “rises up a few metres away from our kitchen as the guard of the Otzazulueta farm and being the mute witness of its history.” Their oak tree is situated between Errenteria and Astigarraga that delineates the muga (frontier) between both towns- hence the name Muga eta Haritza (Mugaritz).
-Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz is famous for what he calls “trompes l’oeiles” aka. culinary tricks of the eye.
-After a tour of the kitchen, we were told that there are about 40 chefs in the kitchen to approximately 40-50 diner guests each night, with an additional creative kitchen on the upstairs floors for developing new menu items.
-The restaurant is located in an old cottage-like home surrounded by forests and fields of stunning old oak trees. With its mortared stone walls, rustic wooden door and green vines growing up all sides, you can’t help but feel like you’re stepping into a magical faerie land.
-Inside, the wood-walled room features 17 round tables draped with simple white linens, and run-of-the-mill drop and pot lights. It’s beyond simple, but remarkably comfortable, on both physical and emotional fronts.
-Mugaritz makes a point to defy typical Michelin guide dining etiquette- there is no silverware on the tables when you are sat, there is an unusual unexpected sequence to dishes, men may be served before women (gasp!), centerpieces may be eaten (spoiler alert), and more. As a young foodie diner, I really appreciate this open-minded departure from tradition as it makes fine dining feel more inclusive. And honestly, I don’t really care who’s served first.
-From the moment we pulled up in our cab, we were greeted with a massive smile and cheerful welcome as one of the servers met us in the parking lot to show us in.
-The rest of the evening followed suit with a stream of young, jolly servers who seemed eager to assist. While admittedly the service was not nearly as refined as most Michelin Star restaurants (it seemed like most of the staff were staging and/or training as they lacked a bit of confidence in their assigned jurisdictions), it didn’t make the experience any less enjoyable. Plates and cutlery were still removed and replenished in good time, water glasses were refilled and my napkin was even folded when I returned from the washroom. Seemed on point to me!
-If I can provide any constructive criticism it would simply be with regards to the timing of the meal. The whole experience took about 3 1/2 hours with the first set of appetizers coming bang-bang-bang one after the other, followed by a few long lulls between some of the main dishes and another quick string of sweets after that. I didn’t mind so much, but because of the inconsistencies, it was hard to know the speed at which to savour or down the accompanying wine.
-Mugaritz boasts a generously sized International wine list with an appropraite focus on Spanish vintages.
– The handsome sommelier explained that there isn’t a set series of wine pairings because each table’s tasting menu and preferences differ. So at my partner’s request, he developed a personalized spread of beverages (wine, beer, sake and tea) to pair with the courses we received. Everything we tasted was delicious in it’s own right but even better paired with the food. The total cost of the pairings was 84 € for the 9 glasses of wine, and they were very generously poured.
– Knowing I would never make it with a whole flight, I simply ordered a la carte and tasted everything else. I started things off with a fantastic Gin & Tonic using Nordes gin (one of my new International favourites) and then moved onto wine- a fruity Casal de Arman Ribeiro and a semi-sweet 2010 Donnhoff Riesling Speitless with dessert.
-The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants describes Mugaritz food as “Techno-emotional Spanish” cuisine.
-There is no menu online to peruse, but let me assure you, there’s no need to worry you won’t like what they serve. Chef Aduriz personally creates a 20-or-so course dinner that not only is sensually stimulating, but also tells an emotion-packed narrative. It creates a feeling that this is a meal in a cozy home made by someone who just wants to show they care. Have a shellfish allergy? No problem, no oysters. Don’t like tomatoes? All good. When I visited the kitchen (see below), I saw the servers and chefs writing up individual menus for each table and checking off what had been delivered and what was next to come.
-I guess the concern for some diners is that they don’t know the cost since you don’t see a menu with any prices (or items, for that matter). But I can tell you that as of when I visited (Sept. 2014), the price of the menu was 185 € per person.
Dehydrated Caramelized Shallots & Shrimp
Upon being shown to our table, we were graciously invited to tour their kitchen with one of the young female chefs. After getting the run down on how the kitchen worked, we were given this first little bite to enjoy standing up amidst the chefs. This was a meringue made without any eggs to result in a crispier, less chewy cookie that melted almost instantly on the tongue into a delicate salty and sweet bite.
A Dozen Smeared Radishes
A gorgeous way to kick off the meal. I loved the refreshing crunch of the raw radishes, and appreciated that their sulphurous flavour was tempered by the sweet and bright tomato dressing.
Black Truffle Slices. Fresh Dressing of Garlic and Parsley
Wow- talk about a umami-rich bite. This bite featured layers of delicate black truffle held together by a creamy dressing of verdant parsley and pungent garlic. Just fantastic.
Fried Herbs from the Garden with Clashing Aromas
The delicate chive flower was tempura battered and served with a chickpea cream reminiscent of a rich seed or nut butter. Light, bright and refreshing.
Cooked Nougat. Savoury Praline and Peppercorn Sauce
By far one of the most unusual dishes I’ve ever had. The nougat was filled with hazelnuts and then fermented, resulting in a dense almost fudgy or cheese-like texture and a mild funky flavour. When paired with the salty, sweet sauce that acted as sprightly seasoning for the dish- I became instantly hooked.
Toast of Roasted Crusts
Fantastic bread that was gorgeously crispy on the outside and meltingly moist within.
Dumpling with Crunchy Pork Tail
The bouncy steamed-bun like “dumpling” was topped with wickedly crunchy salty pork to yield a very dramatic contrast. I did find the bun a touch dry but alas, an overall great dish regardless.
Lacquered Duck Neck with Herbs and Dry Grains
A cheeky little presentation, the crispy hollow roll of duck was coated in a sweet tangy hoisin-like sauce and stuffed with a variety of dainty peppery greens. Definitely one of my favourite bites of the night.
DYI Corn, Garlic and Flower Paste
This dish was served to the entire dining room at the same time so it took place at different points in the meal for different tables. We all first received a pestle and warm mortar filled with freeze-dried corn, and caramelized garlic.
Then we were brought a wobbly cube filled with flowers and herbs set with gelatin that we were told to smash into the corn to make a paste. All of a sudden, the entire room erupted into an almost musical production of clinging and clanging to different beats. The warm bowl melted the gelatin so that everything melded with a bit greater ease and the paste could come together.
In the end, it wasn’t the prettiest dish and the texture admittedly left something to be desired but it tasted fresh, healthy and balanced.
Green Chickpeas with Salt from Anana Valleys
Simple and delicious. I’ve never had fresh chickpeas but they take on a completely different profile that is sweet like fresh baby peas and far less starchy that the legumes we know.
Pine Nut Cream and Toasted Malt
Ah this is when the theatrics really came into play. The grassy plants were brought to our table to replace an unusual broken plate centrepiece that was present when we began our meal. For this course we were brought a little pot of thick creamy paste that concealed a layer of nutty earthy crumbs. We were then told that the centrepieces we had been admiring were in fact teff plants that we were to swipe through the dip and eat.
The resulting combination was one of the most unusual sensations I’ve ever experienced. Moist stringy hay-like leaves, and a fuzzy mossy soft core, all moistened by the savoury woodsy dip. It tasted like I was eating foraged goods after a dewy morning in the woods- in the absolute best way possible.
Threads of Crab with Vegetable Mucilage, Macadamias and Pink Peppercorns
This was an unexpected textural experience with the crab taking on a stringy texture similar to spaghetti squash. The mild creamy nut cream complimented the sweet crab flavour very nicely, while the delicate sprinkling of peppercorns enlightened the dish. I did feel it could have used a touch more salt to really make the dish shine but that’s is more preference than anything else.
Firm Beef Cheeks with Prune Glaze and Sauerkraut
Blessedly tender beef with a sticky sweet glaze and a pleasantly pungent and acidic sauerkraut dust.
Milk Skin and Seaweed Caviar (for the Winner)
This course started with a game where we were given an illustrated comic of how to play and a bag of 3 rocks each. We had to put however many we wanted behind our back and guess how many total the two of us had. I lost but only because I guessed first (I said 6 because I was holding 3, so my partner who was holding 1 knew there were 4).
His prize was a little goblet of “caviar” made out of seaweed that he graciously shared with me. I loved the combination of the mild aerated crunchy bread with the satiny cream-cheese like milk skin and the salty snappy balls.
Hake in White. Milk Pearls and Asparagus
I have admittedly eaten more than enough hake on this trip but this was probably one of my favourite preparations. The fish was meltingly delicate, and was bathed in a layer of verdant frothy asparagus sauce and egg white pearls.
This course was served with a smooth white tea, which really brought out the sweetness in the asparagus.
Costal Fish with Costal Herbs
One of the more simple dishes but surely one of the tastiest. The flakiness of the moist fish really highlighted the perfectly crisp skin buried beneath the bed of aromatic toasty foliage.
Caviar and Rosemary
A deliciously savoury tartar made even more decadent by the salty caviar. My only criticism would be textural, as I felt I could have really used something crisp and crunchy to fully appreciate the delicate texture.
Eucalyptus Smoked Loin of Lamb with its Cultivated Wool
Wow- one of the most unusual, and yet wonderful dishes I’ve ever had. The lamb was blessedly tender, pleasantly gamey and perfumed with woodsy smoke. And while that was unique enough, the chewy, slightly furry layer of lamb skin on top lent a fantastic textural contrast. Crazy good.
Frozen Apple Chippings with Mature Cheese
Absolutely addictive. The green apple sorbet was creamy, tangy and blessedly sweet to contrast the salty umami- rich bite of the Parmesan cheese. This was the ultimate in that satisfying sweet and savoury profile.
Herbs and Fruits Stained with Cold Blue Cream Cheese
One of my favourite desserts of the trip. I loved the tangy cream cheese frozen yogurt with the sweet ripe wild berries, herbaceous dill and the pungent blue cheese.
Lemon Succade with our Herbs From Yesterday and Today
I really enjoyed the mildly bitter candied lemon peel shell against the bright sweet and tangy sorbet with the fragrant rosemary.
Chocolate and Caramel Cronut
We all know and love the popular Cronut in North America (a croissant fried like a donut)- but this was something deliciously different.
I believe this may have been “cooked” via. anti-griddle into a crazy light crisp texture that dissolved into a delicate cocoa caramelized flavour on the tongue.
An Almost Impossible Bite: Sugary Pora
Custard Filled Croquette with Sugar Nuts
After we ate the prior teff centrepiece, one of the servers threw down a handful of rocks and rambled off some romantic sentiment about them being from the river and so if we closed our eyes it would be like a river flowing through our table. Yada blah blah blah.
After being fooled one time, we were onto them. We figured they were up to something again- nothing at Mugaritz is exactly what it seems. So I picked one up and smelled it. It smelled sweet. So I took a gamble and licked it (discretely of course). It tasted like sugar and nutmeg. We knew. We got them. So we tried to trick the staff a million times into admitting they were not river rocks but they were so poker face and denied it every time.
Well, finally the rocks came into play in the last course when we were brought tiny warm custard filled donuts and a fine grater that we could use to grate sugar onto our pastry. Delicious and creative.
The 7 Deadly Sins Tower
Pride: Gold Painted Hollow Egg
Envy: Chocolate Coins Buried Under Raw Chocolate
Sloth: Caramel Filled Chocolate
Lust: Dried Berries and Petals
Gluttony: Cocoa Dusted Corn Nuts
Wrath: Chocolate Candied Ginger
As the meal came to an end, we were brought this tower of petit-fours, each with a distinguishable symbol on the outside that corresponded to a legend on the back of our menu. We were told to open each layer, eat them and try to guess which deadly sin it corresponded to. It was a very fun game to end an over the top entertaining meal, and it was fascinating to see the intelligent thought process behind the metaphors. My favourite bite was without a doubt the generous portion of crunchy salty corn nuts in juxtaposition with the sweet rich cocoa.
Mugaritz Closing Remarks
-For two tasting menus, one beverage pairing, 2 glasses of wine, and a cocktail, the bill came to 530 € ($750 CAD) including tax and tip. Of course this is not cheap stuff, and was probably one of the most expensive meals of our trip, but its still less than half the price of what we paid at The Fat Duck and probably came in just under them as my 2nd all time favourite meal. The food was beyond imaginative and playful, it made me think metaphorically and creatively, and it just tasted really good- a true test when it comes to molecular cuisine.
-Sure, the service wasn’t always on top of their game, but everyone was smiling, kind and accommodating, and I will take a smile over calculated 3-Michelin Star precision, any day.
-In conclusion, I understand that Mugaritz is not for everyone. This is a restaurant I have been told that people either love or they hate. But personally, I was totally enamoured by the entire experience, and thought it was the best meal by far on our entire trip. I would highly recommend Mugaritz to anyone who is looking for a bit of amusement and ingenuity in the dining experience, and is up to play with their food.
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian, an avid food writer and blogger, a cookbook author and the founder of Abbey’s Kitchen Inc.