A few weeks ago, I had a once in a lifetime meal at Mugaritz, currently rated the sixth best restaurant in the world. It’s located in the green foothills on the edge of San Sebastian, a little surfing bastion in Northern Spain.
This is Basque country where the border between France and Spain blends together to form a unique culture of people with their own language and a history of fighting for self-determination. The food is rich and unpretentious: meat cooked over open fires, fresh seafood and stews. Meals are long and food is usually shared and enjoyed with friends and family. Bars serve plates of pintxos, tiny bites of fresh food consumed between beer and cold glasses of kalimotxo.
I love food, but I tend to favor classic, comfort foods. I cook spaghetti bolognese nearly every week in the tradition of my mother and grandmother who made it when I was growing up. A few years living in California made me love tacos with fresh, limey avocado and homemade salsa. Marriage to a Brit and living in London made me embrace the tradition of Sunday lunch, which isn’t complete without a puffy helping of Yorkshire pudding. These aren’t elegant tastes but they’re connected to moments that feel like home.
The food at Mugaritz was the opposite of comforting. Each plate was like trying to solve a puzzle. Some things were more pleasing to look at than they were to eat, particularly a dish called “beef candy”, a bone marrow cracker filled with a cube of coagulated beef blood. Or the bright pink mackerel, beetroot and horseradish, delightful on the plate but such a combination of strong tastes that I had trouble swallowing it. The unfamiliarity heightened every moment as we resolved to take bite after bite of almost 30 courses.
At nearby tables, I noticed waiters regularly offering to replace dishes when people seemed unwilling to eat. But there was no half-way business for us. Before we arrived we decided that we would put ourselves in the hands of the kitchen, set aside preconceived ideas about what we like, and eat everything offered.
This approach resulted in a few surprises. It turns out that I like “grilled and bathed sting ray” and “asparagus with scarlet shrimp essence”. But my favorite taste of the evening was the innocuous sounding “fried raw peas”, tempura filled with fresh peas that exploded with the most intense pea flavor of any pea-like thing I’ve ever eaten.
But the real revelation of dining at Mugaritz had little to do with the food, the cava, the wine or the service (impeccable). Instead it was a feeling of intense presence in the experience and most importantly with my dinner companion. As each beautiful plate arrived, my husband and I looked at it, looked at each other, touched the food, smelled it and then slowly, slowly, worked our way up to tasting. For particularly daunting plates, we’d debate who would take the first bite, or we’d decide to do it at the same time. Everything was tactile, from the crunch of the tiny anchovy bones in our mouths to the delicate porcelain plates that were crafted specifically for each dish. My husband, a design junky, ran his fingers across their edges and turned almost each plate over to inspect it once he’d finished a course.
For three hours we were completely there, in a simple wooden building, nestled in tropical hills outside of San Sebastian in the middle of a rain storm. The food, which was strange and unfamiliar to us, was only the anchor that held us there.
Everything else, including the cab ride back into San Sebastian through the black night and the rain, was pure magic.
Grilled fennel with goat
Cod tongues, with a syrup of spices
Crunchy pork rib
Fried raw peas
Marine cold cuts
Gelatinous salmon mille-feuille
Asparagus with scarlet shrimp essence
Oyster and young garlic warm omelette
A thousand leaves
Bovis máxima: vive la France!
Mackerel, beetroot and horseradish
Grilled and bathed sting ray
Glazed mille-feuille of lamb
Beef with hazelnut praline
Glass: Sugar and cocoa as a cookie
Cream of chocolate and cured ham
Seven deadly sins (mostly chocolate related, served in a literal puzzel box): pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, greed, lust, sloth