Before returning to Europe for the second time, I made sure to do hours of research to find the very best restaurants to eat at. I also made a point of sending my resume with a letter asking if I could stage, work for free for a day or two, at some of the joints with Michelin Stars. After all, I am heading to the best restaurant in the world so if I am going to spend my time learning from chefs around the world, they need to be the best of the best. The big leagues some may say. Arzak was of course on my list, as well as another restaurant that I ate at with my father the first night in San Sebastian two and half years ago, Koxotxa. Although Koxotxa only has one shining star, the food is extraordinary, with a strong emphasis on traditional Basque cuisine which was a very important factor for me. The night after my wonderful experience eating at the gastronomic society, I decided it would be a good idea to dine at Kokotxa. I figured it would improve my chances on landing a stage. I remembered the meal I had with my father, but I did not realize truly how delicious the food is. From the moment I walked in the door, the smells from the kitchen penetrated my mind, making me forget about everything else in the world. The dining room was filled with couples and foursomes, which resulted in many awkward looks when they saw me sit down at a table alone, with just a notebook and my camera. I was not uncomfortable. Not the least bit. I love eating alone. It is easier to focus on the flavors, the smells, the presentations. It is just me and the food. Many people ask what I do when I eat alone, and to be honest, I think. I think about various ways to re create these masterpieces in my own kitchen. I install flavor memories into my mind, that I will later use when cooking for others. If I had a choice, I would eat alone every night of the week, other than the dinners accompanied by my family or a beautiful woman. The meal started with an amuse bouche, a homemade parmesan cracker with a basil espuma, which was as lite as air.
It was the perfect way to start the meal in terms of flavor, however, not in execution. As soon as a few bites from the parmesan cracker, it was impossible to reach the rest of the basil espuma. Maybe if the diner does not have my stubby thick fingers it would work, but I had to give up on the mission of eating this dish, I dropped the rest of the cracker inside and asked for a fork. It just didn't work. Such a simple solution to this is just the choice of serving piece. An example of a fundamental element not performed perfectly at a Michelin Star level. With that being said, it made my taste buds wanting much more.
Shortly after devouring the amuse, I was given a salmorejo con midges cruyientes, which was the same as a delightful gazpacho with seasoned breadcrumbs. The difference of textures was perfect. I have had gazpacho many times before, and each time I felt like I was eating a bowl of salsa. This was different. It was lite. I could taste each ingredient. I was told it was thickened with bread, which is something I have not experienced before with a gazpaco. The creaminess of the gazpacho was contrasted with the seasoned breadcrumbs onto, giving a great crunch with every bite. Two very satisfying courses to start the meal.
I had a great time listening to the other four tables conversations throughout the night. The dining room is quite small, maybe ten tables, tops. The couple to my left were clearly having marriage issues, something straight out of The Sopranos. Confused Italians. The table across from me were Australian. Hearing accents from all over the world in a small room will never get old in my book.
Carrying on...marinated tuna, sea weed frissee salad, pickled onions, wasabi crema. The flavors were on point but nothing impressive. The tuna was not cooked properly. Should have been taken off the heat a minute sooner. Presentation was striking. I am a sucker for the slate, but the wow factor was just not there. I feel I have eaten some of the best food in the world, enough to the point where I can criticize just about anything. To a normal diner, the tuna dish would be a perfectly satisfying course, nothing too heavy, not too small, no surprises. In my mind, a restaurant with a Michelin Star should always bring on the wow factor with both taste and presentation.
The next plate was gorgeous, with out with out the needed acidity I wish was present. Seared scallop and baby squids with salsify and a spinach chlorophyll. The scallop was cooked perfectly, as well as the squid. A contrasting flavor to cut the richness of the scallop was not brought to the palate. The spinach chlorophyll ended up adding more richness springily enough.
The next course was my favorite of the entire meal. Slow cooked egg with mandioca, idazabal cheese, and seasonal mushrooms. This dish screamed BASQUE BASQUE BASQUE. Every component represented the Basque region in its own right. The egg was yet another wonderful example of how cooking an egg at 62 degrees is the way towards perfection. The manioca, which is also known as cassava or yuka, gave a great flavor. The idazabal cheese was as good as it always is. I could eat idazabal cheese with just about anything, and it can be found almost everywhere in the Basque region.
This cheese is another example of how each cheese has its own history, process, and strict rules and regulation. People do not realize just how much is involved with cheese. Idiazabal is a pressed cheese made from unpasturized sheep milk, which have to be from the Latxa and Carranzana sheep in the Basque Country. The cheese is all handmade, covered in a hard, dark brown, inedible rind. It is aged for a few months and decelops a nutty, buttery flavor. If aged longer, which happens to be my favorite, it becomes firm, dry, and sharp and can be used for grating. Otherwise, it is a little too soft. For all of you cheese lovers out there who may possibly care, the cheese is produced by strong enzymatic coagulation. The pressed paste can be either uncooked or semi-cooked. It can eventually be externally smoked. The milk used to produce Idiazabal must be whole unpasteurized, with a minimum of 6% fat. The milk coagulates at a temperature of 77 to 95 °F (25 to 35 °C), with the addition of natural lamb curd, resulting in a compact curdle after 30 to 45 minutes.The curdle is cut in order to obtain rice-size grains, and then reheated to 34 to 38 °C (93 to 100 °F). In the case of coagulation at higher temperatures, the reheating temperature can reach 40 to 45 °C (104 to 113 °F). The reheated and shrunken paste dehydrates and is placed in molds where it may or may not be seasoned before pressing. Salting of the cheese is performed by rubbing the rind with dry salt, or by immersing the cheese in highly salted water for 24 hours. Finally, the cheeses are aged under cold and humid conditions avoiding mold, for at least two months.
The optional smoking takes place at the end of the aging process, using woods from the beech-tree, birch-tree, cherry tree or white pine. The intensity of the smoked qualities depends upon the type of wood and length of smoking. The cheeses are usually cylindrical in shape, although they are occasionally cone- or octagonal-shaped. The rinds of artisan cheeses may be engraved with drawings or symbols characteristic of the Basque culture. The rind is closed, smoked, waxy, without mold. The unsmoked cheeses have a yellow-beige color, while smoked cheeses are brownish.
The interior is compact, without air pockets or with only pin-head size holes, and is beige or pale yellow in color. The interior of the smoked cheeses has a brownish border. The taste is strong and pronounced, slightly acidic and piquant, buttery and consistent, with a characteristic sheep milk flavor. The smoked version is somewhat drier and stronger, with a pleasant aroma, which is what was used with the slow cooked egg.
There was a large variety of seasonal mushrooms, each giving its own unique earthy notes to the table. When the egg is broken open, releasing the luscious yellow yolk which mixes with the earthy mandioca broth, everything melds together, into one uniform note that will bring a large smile to just about anyones face. I will definitely have to try and re create this one.
The following course was a little too much for me. I never found out the name of the fish that was used for the course but it was the fish of the ay with an emulsion of sea urchins with calamari rigatoni and black ali oli. The overall flavor of this course was fish. From the first bite, I knew I was not going to be a fan. The fact that my upper gum was penetrated by a thick scale left on the fish, didn't help much with the extreme fishy flavor.
The rigatoni noodles were stuffed with a calamri mixture of some sort, the only true highlight of the plate. The presentation was nice, but thats about all. Not a course that should be served if trying to maintain possession of that shining star. The sea urchin emulsion, once again, did nothing to the overall taste of the course, the same with the spinach chlorohyll from the course earlier in the meal. I quickly, and reluctantly, ate the rest of the course.
I was excited to be done with the fish portion of the meal. Iberian pork was the next course, roasted, served with a granny smith frisee salad, and passion fruit. This course was spot on. The texture of the iberian pork did not fail to amaze me. Each bite was more delicious than the next.
After the first time eating Iberian pork, I became a very big fan. The Black Iberian Pig, has a unique origin that can be traced back to ancient times. The bred is found in herds clustered in the central and southern territory of the Iberian Peninsula in Portugal and Spain. The most commonly accepted theory at this time is that the first pigs were brought the the Iberian Peninsula by the Phoenicians from the Eastern Mediterranean coast, Lebanon today, where they interbred with wild board. This cross gave rise to the first Iberian breed whose origins, can be traced back to about the year 1000 B.C. What is fascinating, is the Iberian breed is currently one of the few examples of a domesticated breed which has adapted to a pastoral setting where the land is particularly rich in natural resources, in this case many varieties of oak. The pig is dark in color, ranging from black to grey, with little or no hair and a lean body. Since the animal lives freely, they are constantly moving around and therefore burning more calories than other pigs, which attributes to the very unique texture and taste. The first time I was served Iberian pork, I was convinced it was not pork at all.
The acidic nature of the apples and the passion fruit was wonderful with the richness of the pork. There was a natural jus that was the perfect dressing for the frisee. This is a dish to remember. This is a dish that deserves a place on the menu.
It was time for dessert. My mouth, stomach, and head was ready for something sweet. What I ate next will forever change the way I feel about curry. I have never been a big fan. I can appreciate a good curry but whenever I head in the curry direction, I find myself wanting to turn back halfway through. That was not the case with this dessert. Coconut crema, lime sorbet, curry breadcrumbs. I was not sure what to think when the dish was explained. The flavors make sense, but they never came across as being a dessert in my mind. I was curious to say the least. Each component on their own was delicious, and even better when combined. I am so happy to have gotten the chance to learn this flavor combination. When people ask why I love to eat alone, why I chose to travel the world alone, searching for the best food. This is why I spend all the time searching for the best of the best. Being able to now have another flavor memory in my head, will result in me being able to replicate, as well as build off of later down the road. My form of culinary school. The Culinary Institute of America has nothing on me. The coconut crema was extremely silky, followed by a perfect lime sorbet, mixed with sweet bold curry breadcrumbs, giving a wonderful contrast in texture as well.
The last course was a chocolate-orange biscuit with a creamy hazelnut, and citrus. The flavors were good, but again nothing too impressive. I am not sure what they meant by 'biscuit', it was more like a chocolate-orange fudge. Major improvements would have been made if there was more citrus.
There was a great balance between fresh fruit, and then various fruit juice encapsulations, that exploded once they enter your mouth. Always a fun experience. Also, the contrasting levels of sweetness and tartness amongst the fruit was perfect, other than there not being enough to balance out the richness of the chocolate component properly.
Overall, I was impressed, disappointed, and curious to learn a few things. There were many things that I would never allow if I were running a Michelin Star restaurant. For example, after each course, the table was cleared, and the dishes were placed on a table sitting at the edge of the room. The dishes would remain on that table, which is in the middle of the room, until the next course was dropped onto the table. I do not understand for a second the logic behind this. The last thing a diner wants to do when eating in a restaurant is to eat amongst dirty dishes. Oh well, it is their way. As much as I learn how to do things while traveling the world, I learn just as much what not to do, which in my mind is just as valuable.
I arranged to speak with the chef after the meal. He sat down, eager to smoke his first cigarette of the night. I explained who I am, what I am all about, where I am heading, and he could not have been any more gracious in allowing me to stage for however long I want while in San Sebastian. I told him I would be in for the stage a few days later, 10:00 am. I was very excited. I would be able to learn the surprises I encountered, as well as teach them a thing or two...I bet they will never serve a piece of fish with a scale on it again...I guess time will tell.