October 27, 2009

A 6-Star Week Part I

This post has been long overdue (and warning to all, it will be long). Where do I begin? To tell the tale of 4 foodies (well 6 if you count the friends who joined us), 8 days, 2 countries, 6 stars, countless restaurants and 20 courses of food and countless pintxos (pronounced pinchos), not to mention many pounds poorer and heavier. That sort of summarises the gastrohedonistic week we started in San Sebestian and ended in Bray. Of course it was so much more than these numbers, but it would be difficult to describe with justice all the wonderful flavours and foods we savoured.

San Sebestian is truly a food capital. With bars lining the street serving all sorts of pintxos, we really didn't know where to begin or stop. I think we must have eaten at more than ten restaurants in all walking around in the 2 days. We'd walk into one, gawk at the wide array of colourful pintxos, proclaim that we should try one for posterity sake, and then proceed to eat about ten as we couldn't stop ourselves. Most of the bars served classic pintxos, which were different combinations of jamon (ham), egg, cheese, peppers, anchovies, salami, prawns and generous dollops of mayonnaise, served open faced on a slice of baguette or in sandwich form. How can one go wrong with these ingredients?

Our favourite bar however, Fuevo Negro, served more modern interpretations of these little snacks, their signature being a Mak Kobe - a mini kobe beef hamburger (which we doubt was really kobe since it was so cheap) served with fried banana chips and an elusive mushroom, ham and egg pintxo, which was always not available during each of the THREE times we went there. During our three visits, we managed to try their tortiilla, which was essentially potatoes in scrambled eggs, a salted cod dish, almond coffee with sweetbread cookies (yes brain), jamon with sundried tomatoes and cheese, a slowbraised vanilla pork with lemon foam, some chicken dish. Their stuff was pretty innovative (they won the most innovative cookbook recently) and it seemed pretty popular with the trendy set. We left a message in their toilets (since it has a blackboard wall inviting people to graffitise) on how much we loved them.

Some of the more memorable classic pintxos we had were a scrambled eggs with mushroom and bacon, a jamon, egg mayo and prawn skewer and basically anything with ham and egg haha. Feast your eyes on all the various incarnations of the pintxos we ate.

09 San Sebastien & Bilbao (Eugene)

Of course, other than food, there was also the usual tourist sights to take in. A pretty seaside town, with beaches, hills and of course a old city centre that were filled with cute shops and many pintxo bars. A very colourful town, with nice sunny weather. As you can see below, the foodies turned into Gap models for the weekend lying in the sun.

09 San Sebestian

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Foodies that we were, we had tried to get a table at the famous Arzak (the chef was the mentor of Ferran Aria of El Bulli fame) but lost the last table to some unnamed persons. Nonetheless, we managed to book Martin Berasategui, another 3-star Michelin restaurant (SS has so many of them that you can just throw a stone and hit one) and boy, was that the best ever decision made. With the same 4 foodies that went to Fat Duck last month and a guest foodie, we were all prepared for a showdown as we sat down in a beautifully decorated dining room that resembled a stately dining room. Cosy but not stiff, points to Martin over the blah nondescript small dining room at Heston's.

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Once seated, our maitre d', who was this serious man, friendly while creepy at the same time, came and asked us whether we'd like the tasting menu and if we had any dietary restrictions. Three of us promptly said no cheese, no oyster and no bananas respectively and to our surprise, he said he will get the ktichen to change the dishes to suit our requirements. Wow, once again, points to Martin.

Lightly Smoked Cod with powder of hazelnuts, coffee and vanilla
Mille-Feuille of Smoked Eel, Foie Gras, Spring Onions and Green Apple
Peach Gazpacho with Cockles and txakoli
Squid Soup, creamy squid ink ravioli with squid crouton

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The appetizers were pretty amazing. The foie gras terrine with apple and eel (top right) really stood out. The textures and flavours really worked well together. The squid ink dumpling, which was full of flavour bursting in your mouth as the skin was delicately thin.

Little Pearls of Fennel in raw, risotto and emulsion
Cheese and Carabana Oil Bubble with endives, red onion juice and iberian bacon
Fam's Egg with beetroot and liquid herb's salad, carpaccio of basque stew and cheese
Warm Vegetable Hearts Salad with seafood, cream of lettuce hearts and idionised juice
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Martin seemed to like serving 'bubbles' or 'pearls', basically they were these sacs of liquid that would burst in your mouth as you bite into them. They were a joy to eat as you don't know what was going to come! His dishes were also full of colour, like a painter's palette as you can tell from the pictures above. You can't really see from the pictures but the dishes that the food were served in were shaped like shells. The dish in the middle was one of his signature dishes (similar to Sound of the Sea at Fat Duck) - pretty to look at but I wasn't a big fan of the gel it was set in.

Roast Red Mullet with crystals of soft scales and juice of white chocolate with seaweeds
Roasted Araiz Pigeon, fresh pasta with mushrooms and spring onions, touches of truffle cream

There were 2 main courses as part of the degustation - a fish (can't remember what fish) with these deliciously melt-in-your-mouth pork morsels, and pigeon. Yes, pigeon again, what's with pigeon and Michelin-star chefs this season?? Luckily, Martin's pigeon was much better than the one we had at Fat Duck, at least it didn't taste raw but if you ask me, I wouldn't really opt for pigeon if I had a choice.
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Warm and Cold of Apple and Roots
Coal Crumbs with frozen yoghurt and little acid touches of strawberries, lemon grass and passionfruit
As a Cold Soup, banana and vanilla stew, with citrics and ice cream

The desserts were not traditional, quite bold with non-traditional pairing of flavours and again, playing with textures - foam, bubbles, granitas etc. Refreshing and interesting. I really liked the acidic and sweet, hot and cold, smooth and rough interplays. Very clever.

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And a picture with the man himself! Such groupies we are. By the end of the night, we were really enthralled with Martin and his food and all unanimously agreed that Heston was wayyyyyy behind. Fat Duck was an experience in itself but the food here was pure, clever, simple and flavourful.

Stay tuned for the second-part of the 6-star week - where do the foodies go next?

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