When planning the itinerary for Spain, I learned that the Basque Country is regarded as the place to experience the best of Spanish cuisine. Consulting the Michelin guide, the Basque Country lays claim to three of the seven 3-starred restaurants in Spain. In addition to fine dining, San Sebastian’s famous pintxos culture is supposed to be the pinnacle of tapas. Thus, the main goal of visiting San Sebastian in the Basque Country of Spain was to eat and expectations were high. The first stop in San Sebastian was the Michelin 3-star Akelarre.
Along with Juan Mari Arzak of Retaurante Arzak, Pedro Subijana of Akelarre is one of the fathers of New Basque cuisine. Much time was spent on deciding whether to go to Arzak versus Akelarre. Both have 3 Michelin stars, but Arzak is currently the #8 restaurant in the world while Akelarre is #94. Contrary to the world rankings, it seemed like most people who recently dinned at both restaurants preferred Akelarre. The deciding factor was a reviewer who seemed to have similar tastes as me that much preferred Akelarre over Arzak.
However, the meal was a huge disappointment. Only 2 dishes were remotely memorable and I’d have a hard time putting Akelarre even into 1-star territory. Despite a lack of photos from my meal at DiverXO, I can remember the taste of the majority of dishes. I can’t say the same thing for Akelarre even though I have photos of each dish.
Amuse Bouche: Hotel Amenities
From left to right: crunchy onion sponge with tomato-basil gel, idiazabal cream with powdered prawn, cocktail of grenadine and cava. Other than the presentation, nothing really interesting going on here. The tomato-basil gel was decent, though. The hotel amenities were meant to be the amuse bouche and everyone at the table received the same bites. After the amuse, though, the offerings diverged as Akelarre offers 2 menus.
1A: Gambas con Vainas al Fuego de Orujo
Prawns cooked tableside in a flambe of Orujo. We had bigger and tastier prawns previously in Madrid, the following day at Etxebarri, and the following week in Barcelona.
One of the heads of my shrimp detached itself while the server was walking the dish over to my seat. She paused for a second, gave a shocked look at the other server who was also walking the dish over to my mom, and placed the dish in front of me.
1B: Txangurro en Esencia sobre Blini de Coral
Spider crab. A play on the traditional Basque dish called txangurro. Being completely unfamiliar with Basque cuisine, I missed the connection here. I also missed all the crab meat in the dish because my dad finished it all before swapping plates with me.
2A: Moluscos en la Red del Pescador
Mollusks in “fisherman’s net.” An array of simply prepared mollusks covered by a crunchy net that had the texture of Chinese shrimp chips. I don’t recall any flavor to the net. I do recall having a bite of cockle (berberecho) that was quite good, though.
2B: Navaja con Pata de Ternera
Razor clam with veal shank. The razor clam was decent, but we had ones that were much sweeter and memorable the next week in Barcelona at Cal Pep that were simply cooked a la plancha and drizzled with olive oil. I don’t remember anything about the veal shank.
3A: Carpaccio de Pasta, Piquillos e Iberico
Basically thin pasta “carpaccio” made with jamon iberico. I don’t' remember tasting much jamon in each bite. The jamon pasta tasted like normal pasta, and the cheese was the most powerful flavor on the plate.
3B: Foie Fresco a la Sarten, Sal y Pimienta
Seared foie gras with sugar and puffed rice crisps. The sugar was added tableside and described as salt while the rice crisps were described as pepper. The illusion was completely broken a few seconds after the description when the server assured us it wasn’t really salt and pepper. I thought it defeated the purpose of the misdirection if they’re going to tell you what it really is before you even eat it. However, this was the only memorable savory dish. The foie gras was perfectly prepared and went well with the sugar and wine-based sauce.
4A: Caja de Bacalao “Desalao” con Virutas
Fresh cod presented to look like how salt cod (bacalao) arrives boxed in its uncooked form.
4B: Caldo de Txipiron, mini Txipiron
Baby squid with baby squid broth and ink.
5A: Salmonete Integral con Fusili de Salsa
Red mullet with parsley, soy sauce, and garlic fusilli. The fusilli were pretty tasteless. The “skin” on the mullet was the best part as it was made from ground up mullet bones and had a really concentrated caramelized fish flavor.
5B: Rodaballo con su “Kokotxa”
Turbot with its jowl (kokotxa) and turbot tail & bone chip. Kokotxas are a staple in Basque cuisine and we had them many times throughout Spain. However, the server told us that turbot doesn’t actually have a kokotxa, so the kokotxa on the plate really wasn’t a kokotxa. I’m guessing it was kudzu because it had a pretty silky smooth texture. It was pretty flavorless, though.
6A: Lomo de Cordero con los Posos del Vino
Lamb loin with green tea cotton candy and wine reduction. This was my first time having green tea in a savory dish. Combining all the elements on the plate into one bite provided an interesting flavor profile for that moment in time, but ultimately it wasn’t compelling enough to be one that I’d crave.
6B: Cochinillo Asado con “Bolao” de Tomate
Standard roast suckling pig with tomato. The high quality of the pork was evident, but that’s all the dish had going for it.
7A: Xaxu con Helado Espumoso de Coco
Xaxu is a traditional Basque sweet made from marzipan and filled with egg yolk. Served with a foamy, intensely flavored coconut ice cream. This was one of my favorite desserts all trip.
7B: Leche y Uva, Queso y Vino en Evolucion
A progression of cheeses. I like cheese, but this did not hit the spot at all.
8A: Otra Tarta de Manzana
Apple tart with fruit leather. I guess the text on the fruit leather was kind of cool, but the tart itself wasn’t anything special.
8B: Flor de Melocoton
Peach with peach blossoms. I honestly don’t much about this one. I vaguely remember the peach blossoms not being actual blossoms, but something with a tough and chewy texture.
Your standard mignardises.