Mugaritz, at the time rated number six in the world, located in the idyllic Basque countryside about 20 minutes from San Sebastian, is renowned for its creative 24 course menu abundant with unusual tastes and experimental textures.
We’ve had crispy chicken skin before, but this was crispy rooster comb, placed on a base of coral sludge made of crustacean heads. I like crispy poultry skin and I enjoy sucking the brains out of prawns, I’m not sure I liked the two together in this format. The opening course set the tone for the rest of the meal; whimsically presented conceptual dishes with contrasting flavours designed to quiz and intrigue the palette. It was an uphill ride through 24ish challenging courses.Next we were served a crunchy lacquered duck neck cylinder, stuffed with aromatic herbs. It was very fragrant but a little bit too dry to be moreish.Then we had an ‘empanadilla’, or more correctly, the casing of one, with instructions to smear fat on the hollow crisp pastry. I regularly questioned whether I was too conditioned to bolder umami flavours to savour the subtlety of these creations.Another complex dish followed; a trio of smoked seafood cold cuts included a mussel, an anchovies paying homage to the lands famous pintxos and a square of cod topped with chocolate. I was new to the fish and chocolate pairing and I’m not sure it’s one I would have again, but MD was fond of the combination.
Next was a roll made to look like blue cheese, with dimply skin and a rubbery texture. In fact, it was bread filled with a thick mild anchovy cream. The cooking is clever, but I can’t say anything so far was particularly tasty, a theme that continued with the next course, a plate of razor clams. The clams were deliciously tender, though lacking in flavour.
Instead of the ‘not so tasty’ mushroom with sesame and nuts that MD had, I had the nut free course, which was a selection of fresh fern leaves and orchids on ice. This was followed by a bowl named ‘bitter ideas of velvet’, presumably after its smooth texture. It was fermented milk, with a layer of skin and topped with a gel of coconut milk. There was nothing about this that made me want to dip in my spoon for a second time.
After, we had a slightly larger course, a bowl of squid cubes, this time a bit chewy. And then a millefeuille of swiss chard (a popular basque ingredient) served with cheese and a beef reduction that made this the first course with an umami tang.
Midway through the meal we were offered a tour of the kitchen. The chef explained their approach to innovation and new recipe design, including a high turnover of young interns. Our kitchen snack was a piece of rice pudding.
We were then served a piece of smoked oily fish with a bright pink sauce whipped up from beetroot with horseradish and kvass emulsion. Everything on this plate was good, the fish was beautiful in texture and flavour and the sauce cut through with sweetness and spice. Unfortunately, the balance was off, there was too much sauce to fish.
I was so looking forward to the next item on the menu, as bone marrow is a favourite ingredient in our home-cooking repertoire. A crisp sandwich with a creamy, buttery bone marrow filling seasoned with tarragon. The rich fatty flavour of bone marrow subdued and hidden, concept trumped flavour again (in my opinion).
Next was a slice of home cooked bread aside a whole bulb of garlic covered in a sticky glaze of lamb jus. Another one of the few dishes I enjoyed, a sucker for rich stocky flavours – is my palette that unrefined? Speaking of stock, the next gem was what can only be described as a glorified percy pig. A chewy beef candy infused with sweet wine and beef fat. Why? I’m just not sure.
Between that though, was another fish course. This grilled fish was infused with beef essence and topped with classic Spanish green pepper and salt. Not very pretty, but tasted good.
The main course was a piece of smoky lamb, covered in its own wool, otherwise known as fermented furry lemon. I don’t particularly want lemon with my lamb in the first place, and I can’t say that having this creatively esteemed version changed my mind. Unappetising to say the least.
It was almost a relief to be nearing the end of this meal. Wrapped in a cloth was a piece of bread with three different types of cheeses. I don’t normally go for the cheese course but I enjoyed each one of these very much and the bread was perfect.
For our first desert we had whisky pie, our second whisky desert in a row since arriving in Basque Country. I enjoyed the light crunch with the sweet ice cream and boozy sauce, an inspiration for our range of deserts at home.
At the end of the meal a tower was placed on the table. In each part of the sculpture was a chocolate representing one of the seven deadly sins. The chocolates were good and some of us thought playing the guessing game was fun (answers on the back of the menu), others found reassembling the tower more enjoyable than the chocolate…
P.S. do all fancy restaurants in Spain provide dental kits in their restrooms?