Arzak: Of excellence and humility

What do you expect of a restaurant that was the first in Spain to earn three Michelin stars? That has kept this rating, every year, since 1989? That is ranked among the top 10 restaurants in the world by San Pellegrino’s 50 Best list? That every guidebook highlights as a must-do for anyone visiting San Sebastian? That you just need to mention the name of, to any taxi driver in the city, and they know exactly where to take you?

Lovely décor?

Flawless service?

And, above all, sublime food – Innovatively crafted without being too gimmicky, made using the best of ingredients, and presented so beautifully that you are almost reluctant to put it to the final but all-important test of taste?

Arzak, by father-daughter duo Juan Mari Arzak and Elena Arzak Espina, passed with flying colours on all counts.

But what I hadn’t expected and was completely charmed by, was the warmth and graciousness of their service, and the singular devotion to ensuring that each of the patrons had a good experience.

There was no hint of an uppity-you-are-going-to-be-wowed-and-I-know-it air, which some highly-rated fancy restaurants can be afflicted with.

Instead the feeling we got all around was more like welcome-we’re-so-happy-to-have-you-here-we-love-what-we-do-and-hope-you-like-it-too!

To sample as many dishes as we could, A and I picked different dishes from the choices offered on the tasting menu. The meat course offered the option of lamb or pigeon, but sensing our reluctance in ordering the pigeon, the maître d’ volunteered to bring us a beef dish instead. Before leaving to place our order, he asked us to let him know in case we didn’t like any dish. He assured us that it would be replaced with something to our liking.

We were almost willing ourselves to not like something, just to test this out, but each course they brought out seemed to knock the ball out of the park.

We did, however, witness a diner at the table next to ours send back the Ovo-lacto. We overheard her saying that the egg and cheese flavour combination didn’t work for her, which was surprising since we had really liked it. The staff promptly took the plate back, and smilingly replaced it with some other heavenly-looking dish.

That, to me, was a great example of attaining supremacy in their craft – retaining the humility to acknowledge that tastes could be different, and that ultimately the customers’ tastes were what mattered most.

As the saying goes, “It is always the secure who are humble”.

As for the food, I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking, and add this – we would have surely changed all our travel plans (including non-cancellable flights) had we been able to secure a table reservation for lunch or dinner again the next day. After all, the maître d’ had promised they’d design a completely different tasting menu for us, should we return.

Sadly, that was not to be… so we’ll have to wait for our next visit to San Sebastian. And till then, be content with dreaming about the spectacular creations that Arzak’s chefs must be concocting in their laboratory.

I’ve said before – “if cooking is a religion, then San Sebastian is one of its holiest sites”. (Wondering why? Click here).

Add to that “and Arzak, one its foremost temples”.