San Sebastian Day 3 – Mugaritz

Today was essentially the pinnacle of my entire trip – a 3 hour meal at one of the top 10 restaurants in the world, Mugaritz. Located in the countryside about 5 miles from the city, the restaurant is a former Spanish farmhouse that had been transformed into a modern cuisine temple.

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I had come here 10 years ago with my dad and still remembered what an amazing experience it was so I couldn’t wait to get back. A fire 8 years ago had caused the restaurant to rebuild a bit (although thankfully not the main building) and since that time, the owner/chef had decided to reinvent the concept a bit. Gone was the selection of choices for the menu and really any sense of a traditional progression of a multi-course meal, no dessert courses for example as they explained when I sat down.

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Usually they start with a few courses outside on the patio but the rain and 40 mph winds made that not the best idea so instead, I was offered a class of Cava from the winery that first used the word in their sparkling wine. I was also given a little book which was full of definitions for what they said helped inspire the meal to come, including several that were left blank for me to fill in with my other definitions if I wanted.

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Soon after, a team of servers assembled the first few bites in front of me, along with a wet towel and no silverware – ah OK, so use my hands to eat these, got it.  The bites included – a wild mushroom, a Romesco cauliflower floret, a mini pickled carrot, an Icelandic root vegetable with pea soup and a penicillin encapsulated blu cheese. All were quite tasty and a fun way to begin the meal.

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Next up a server poured what he explained was a Greek sweet wine in this bowl and then another server listed off several Greek ingredients, from rosemary to fenugreek and then asked me to guess what other ingredient was inside. I correctly guessed a white grape and they gave me kudos for getting it right.

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Next up was a traditional Basque stew with bread, sea urchin and a very intense chicken stock. This was also the first course I had utensils, which I noticed had been heated. A server explained that they were playing around with temperatures with the utensils to make that match the temperature of the dish. It added an interesting tactile element and the soup itself was delicious.

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Next I once again had no silverware so back to hands with this puff pastry that was filled with foie gras and an absurd amount of shaved white and black truffles on top. I’m not a huge foie gras fan but this was a good use of it, helped out by the truffles.

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Back to soups, this time a squid stock and a fermented onion. Again, the spoon was heated to match the warmth of the soup. An excellent course.

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Next the server explained was a lobster dish that used the entire lobster – meat, roe, bones for the stock and then a scarlet shrimp sauce, which is what gave it such a deep unusual color. Delicious.

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Back to hands again with this bite of what they said was their interpretation of a classic ham and cheese croquette, in this case blu cheese with Iberican ham injected. I was instructed to pop it in my mouth in one bite, which I did and everything liquified instantly.

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The next course was their “sweet interlude” – raw kidney beans that had been injected with sugar and cinnamon. An interesting combination but not a favorite.

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This however was followed up by a true showstopper – their interpretation of burrata except made with pine nuts (!) and a classic Basque sauce called pil pil. Damn if it didn’t taste pretty much exactly like the creamy goodness that is burrata – outstanding.

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After finishing that last dish, I was escorted into the kitchen where the chef introduced me to the team working on my meal. I had done this last time and it’s such a very cool touch to be able to say thanks to the people doing all of the work.

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A few minutes after the tour, I was back at it with this amazing trio of pork-based bites – abalone that had been cooked in Iberican ham fat, making it basically taste like bacon; crispy pig’s tail with lobster caviar and scarlet shrimp sauce (fantastic) and the best of them all – crispy pig cheek with a lobster sauce – superb.

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I was a bit confused when a server came over and cleaned off my palm with a warm towel and then soon after dumped this power into it. The server explained that it was a mixture of dried powdered octopus and crispy onions. I initially tried to eat it like pop rocks but eventually just had to pick away at it with my other hand. A fun, incredibly unique course if not my favorite flavor-wise.

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Next the server explained was the game course – in this case wild duck – since hunting season had begun. He cautioned to look out for buckshot but I explained I had grown up eating game meat and knew the drill. The duck had been lightly seared and covered in an intense blackberry sauce. A great dish.

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This was their interpretation of a classic French Basque dish – sting ray with black butter sauce. I had never had sting ray before so I can’t compare it to others but with the rich black butter sauce and sliced, it was quite good.

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The sommelier came up to me with a bottle that looked pretty old and said this our reflection on luxury. He asked me was what luxury do I crave the most. I thought about it and said probably food and meals like this. He smiled and said that for him, time is the biggest luxury.  He then explained that the port he was now pouring was 100 years old and the chocolate was filled with caviar. This combo was a true holy shit moment and something only Mugaritz would do.

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Next was the beef course – one being a spongecake made of beef tendon, which the server playfully shook the plate to make it jiggle, and the other “beef” which was actually a Spanish yellow pepper cooked drizzled with beef fat. Not a traditional beef course whatsoever but very tasty.

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The server said the courses were over unless I wanted to try 2 others they are working on for the next year. I, of course said yes. First up was what they called “the whole chicken” soup – a rich chicken stock with shredded, dehydrated chicken. I was told to mix the two together, which made the dehydrated chicken melt, creating a truly delicious and hearty chicken soup.

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The other course was what they explained was a traditional Portuguese holiday cake, which in this case was made with sushi rice and then they drizzled honey over the top. Again, no utensils so I popped the whole sticky bite in my mouth. It was served alongside a Madeira wine, in which the casks are left outside for 5 years in the elements to give it some different flavors. Plus, the label on the bottle rocked.

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I was a bit surprised of the lack of sweet courses but this changed when they brought out the final item – the tower of chocolates. The picture below doesn’t quite get how big this thing was – at least 3 feet – in which each container was a piece of what I assume is crazy expensive chocolate, starting from the most bitter to the least.

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I’m not usually a big dark chocolate fan but it’s clear I just haven’t been having the really good stuff. I was surprised that my favorite of all of them was the 75% cacao from Peru, which was simply fantastic. As I was going through the layers of the tower, I noticed the lights appeared to have gone out. Given the gale force winds outside, this wasn’t necessarily surprising. One of the servers jokingly started singing happy birthday as other servers busily scattered to figure out what to do.

My main server came over to apologize and asked if I wanted a glass of cava. I suggested a port instead to go with the chocolate and he returned with a very nice 12 year Nieoport tawny that went great with the remaining chocolates. About 30 minutes later, with the power still coming off and on, the sommelier came over and insisted I try his favorite rose, made in the Champagne region entirely out of Chardonnay. Who was I to say no to that? Like pretty much everything at Mugaritz, it was exceptional.

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The power finally came back on and almost 4 hours since my arrival, it was time to go. Along with the bill, they gave me a copy of the menu and, in a first for me, my actual order ticket – a fun touch.

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There’s no real reason practically to spend almost $300 on a meal but the combination of the service, the food, the ambience and the overall feeling of true luxury make it more than worth it. Mugaritz is a truly special place.

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