Three-Star Home Cooking

From the outside, most Michelin three-star restaurants exude grandeur. Restaurante Arzak, by contrast, evokes thoughts of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Located on a busy street a mile or so from the center of San Sebastián, Arzak occupies a building with a combination red brick/salmon-colored stucco exterior that is more suggestive of a Brooklyn spaghetti house than a gastronomic shrine, an impression reinforced by the low white awnings emblazoned with the restaurant’s name. That famiglia feeling carries into the restaurant. Entering through the small, dated bar, you half-expect to see a TV set tuned to ESPN mounted on the wall. (Happily, there isn’t one.) It is only when you arrive in the dining room and spot the white linen tablecloths and the elegant cutlery and stemware that you are reminded that a) you’re not in Brooklyn; and b) this is not a neighborhood hangout. But while the dining room has the elegance of a top restaurant, it looks as if it was shoehorned into someone’s house. Actually, it was the house in which Juan Mari Arzak grew up. With his daughter Elena now running the kitchen (although he is still on hand nearly every lunch and dinner), the place has an irresistible hominess and charm, two words not normally associated with three-star dining.

Arzak, along with Pedro Subijana, whose restaurant, Akelarre, is located just outside San Sebastián, is one of the godfathers of  La Nueva Cocina; his was one of the first Spanish restaurant awarded three Michelin stars, back in 1989. (Arzak says “it was like winning the Nobel Prize.”) The New Spanish Cooking draws heavily on the principles of molecular gastronomy, a culinary philosophy founded on a simple, self-evident proposition—cooking is a form of chemistry—that has given rise to some of the most intricate and controversial food ever created. It has brought all kinds of scientific equipment—test tubes, syringes, pH meters, lasers—into professional kitchens and has introduced a riot of funky powders, foams, jellies, flash-frozen dishes, and flavor combinations to haute cuisine. (Slate’s Sara Dickerman wrote the best exegesis of molecular gastronomy that I’ve yet read.) The preparations are often playful, but many of them are gratuitously provocative and lacking in one critical ingredient: pleasure. Although this type of cooking can now be found in a number of countries, its stronghold is Spain, where its leading practitioner and exponent is Ferran Adrià.

Adrià has a culinary laboratory in Barcelona, where he spends the winter months conceiving dishes for his restaurant, El Bulli, which is set on the Costa Brava a few hours north of the city. Arzak, too, has a lab, located above the restaurant, along with a spice chamber containing around 1,000 condiments. I went to have a quick look at the two rooms, as well as the wine cellar, before lunch. En route, I ran into the Arzaks, both in their chef’s whites. Juan Mari, 65, was short and stout, Elena, 38, short and slight. They made an adorable duo, and while they didn’t actually finish each other’s sentences, it was quickly apparent that this was a formidable team. Elena spoke some English but her father none, so we talked in French for a few minutes. They couldn’t have been more welcoming and even went over the menu with me. They asked just one thing: Noticing the camera in my hand, and knowing that I was a journalist, they requested that I not take any pictures of the dishes I was served. I must have looked befuddled—what? No food porn allowed?—because Elena quickly explained that they preferred not to have dishes photographed unless they had the time to stylize plates to their satisfaction. I assured them that I’d leave the camera in its case. I was there to eat the food, not make it say “cheese.”

Although the Arzaks are staunch believers in better eating through science and have their hands firmly planted in the molecular gastronomy toolkit (Juan Mari made headlines at a culinary conference in Madrid a few years ago when he prepared an exploding strawberry milkshake using dry ice), their food is considered reasonably tame compared with Adrià’s. It is also seriously good. My lunch started with a dish of roasted figs served with kefir that had been infused with foie gras oil (sounds bizarre, tasted delicious); moved on to a sweet, buttery lobster claw served in a Vermouth and onion sauce and topped with freeze-dried olive oil (another dish that went down easier than the description); progressed to an outrageously good white tuna with blackened skin and pickled cucumber sauce; segued into a roast pigeon seasoned with rosemary and served with a side of shaved blue potatoes and blue potato crisps arranged like masts on a ship; and finished with a dessert of chocolate grapes in a tomato and raspberry soup. (The table next to mine got an exploding dessert.) I liked everything I ate, but I was blown away by the quality of the tuna—it was the freshest, richest piece of tuna that I’d ever tasted. Had this particular fish ended up at a sushi restaurant rather than Arzak, I’m guessing it might have provoked a knife fight among the chefs.

The ambience in the dining room was in striking contrast to most high-end French restaurants. For one thing, every table was taken on a Wednesday afternoon, and it was a predominantly local crowd. (French three-stars are usually half-empty at lunch nowadays, and the clients tend to be tourists.) For another, the servers were all women, which added to the convivial feeling. So, too, did Arzak pèreet fille, who both made several rounds of the dining room, greeting diners and explaining the dishes. It really felt as if we were guests in someone’s house—which, in a sense, we were. After lunch, I went into the kitchen to have a peek. It, too, had that shoehorned look, which cast the food in an even more impressive light. One large nook, to the side of the fish and meat stations, contained a long table—this was where the Arzak clan, including Elena’s two children, ages 2½ and 10 months, gathered for meals before lunch and dinner service.

I chatted for several minutes with both Arzaks. Elena, who trained in Switzerland, France, and England, said her father hadn’t pressured her into becoming a chef and had always encouraged her creativity. “He’s very open-minded,” she said. “He just told me, ‘Go into the kitchen and show me what you can do.’ ” Juan Mari nodded in agreement, adding, “One has to have the capacity to be surprised; it’s important to be able to think like a child.” (His youthful attitude was certainly evident in the hipster eyeglasses he was wearing.) Elena said she and her father continue to work as a team, collaborating on new dishes and the like, and though they agree on most things, they also had their share of disputes. As if to prove the point, they got into a spirited discussion a few minutes later about whether it was coriander or parsley in a particular dish. By now, it was after 5 o’clock, and Juan Mari announced that he had to get his stuff together: He was leaving that evening for Barcelona, to go spend a few days hanging out with his good friend Adrià. I asked what time his flight was, and he said he was not going by air; he was taking the overnight train instead. “I bring a sandwich and some wine. It’s nice,” he explained. “I like it.”