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August 18, 2009


Filed under: Food, Spain, Travel — anotherheader @ 6:45 pm

The Menu

The Menu

On the day we visited Pamplona, there was plenty of time to make it back for our big meal, dinner at Arzak.  The only three star Michelin restaurant on the trip and number eight on the S. Pellegrino list, Arzak promised to be an excellent meal.

Arzak was a very short taxi ride from our room.  When we arrived, we were led upstairs.  At the time that the reservation was made, Ganesan had requested a non-smoking table, but we were told that there wasn’t a spot available so we sat in a smoking section.  In fact, I didn’t see a clearly defined non-smoking area, so maybe there wasn’t one at Arzak.  It didn’t seem to be much of an issue as there was no one smoking in the dining room as we sat at our table.

Our meal began with tastes offered by the chefs and progressed on through the menu.  I started to take pictures but staff showed concern.  I was told it was OK to take pictures, but they would be for personal purposes only, whatever that meant.  I could get pictures of their food from a CD that I could get, if I wanted.  It didn’t seem to be a concern at other tables with their point and shoots, but I guess my camera was big enough that they mistakenly thought I knew what I was doing.  I’ve taken pictures of the food in many restaurants, restaurants better than Arzak, and have never been told not to.  At Arzak, I just figured it wasn’t worth it and stopped taking pictures.  Really, the food wasn’t that interesting to look at, anyway.  I understand the desire to protect the brand, but I’m not sure how this overrides the desire to please the customer.

G&C waiting to enter Arzak

G&C waiting to enter Arzak

Not too long into the meal, neighboring tables lit up their cigarettes between the courses.  Perhaps I’ve missed something, but I can’t recall a single Michelin starred restaurant of the 29 I’ve been to where there was smoking, certainly not one where it was an issue at the meal.  There’s a movement a foot to ban strong perfume from restaurants as it interferes with the smell of the food.  The tongue tastes little— sweet, salty, bitter, sour, umami (savory) and, debatably, fat.  Most of your food experience is defined by your sense of smell along with the sight and texture.  If you really care about the flavor of your food, how can you voluntarily allow smoking in your restaurant when you know it will interfere with your guest’s taste experience?  Other top restaurants in Spain we visited, Mugaritz and El Celler de Can Roca had arrangements to accommodate smokers between courses.  Yes, at those places the smoking diners had to get up and move between courses, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing for everyone to do (getting up and moving, not smoking!).

How was the food?  Simply stated, it was good, not great.  Nothing in the flavor combinations excited the senses.  At the same time, there were not any off dishes that just didn’t work.  It was a solid fine dining experience.  I just expected what I often get at a top restaurant—a dish or set of dishes that wow and leave an indelible food memory.  But at the same time, though the food was tasty and good, the experience just didn’t live up to three Michelin stars and number eight on the San Pelligrino list in my mind.  Fifteen years ago, this meal would have generated excitement.  Today, it was edging on being dated.

Zurriola Bridge in San Sebastian

Zurriola Bridge in San Sebastian

I know my criticisms here are strident.  And food criticisms, given the variation of the observer’s senses, seem almost pointless.  But, aside from the lack of poorly definable “wow”, the only concrete criticism I can add is that the temperature of the meat dishes was between rested and ready to eat and cold.  They were always in the awkward lukewarm Netherlands between the two.  When we visited the kitchen, it was explained to us that the meats were heated with the wait staff available to take the finished product immediately to the table.  They seem to be making a particular effort at serving the food at the correct temperature; it just didn’t seem to be working.

To be fair, I can only think of 14 restaurants in the world, not that I counted, that I’ve been to that I would choose to go to again before Arzak.  I’ve been to many excellent restaurants, so that truly is high praise.  I was just expecting more from the front and the back of the house at a restaurant that is so highly regarded.

Arzak was close enough to our rooms that we chose to walk back through the suburban streets to our room.  San Sebastian’s evening breeze had calmed and the mild, cool air made for a pleasant stroll back.  Tomorrow we would leave San Sebastian for La Rioja.  We will miss San Sebastian.



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