My second meal at Mugaritz came on a cold and wintery evening, one where it snowed the night before and where flurries were forecasted for the next few days. The last time I had visited the restaurant was in November 2003 and it was half empty. But this time it was so empty that there were only three tables that were occupied including our party of eight who sat in the corner at the back of the restaurant. I spent some time looking over the restaurants very simple, yet elegant, modern, yet somehow classic decor. It is both quite comfortable as well as attractive with high ceilings and a lot of space between tables. Despite the casual environment, the service staff is serious and their demeanor encourages one to speak in semi-hushed tones. The restaurant doesn't offer an ala carte menu and your choices are limited to one of two tasting menus – Menu Sustriak at 77.15 euros (how on earth did they calculate the .15) and Menu Naturan at 99.50. Both menus are five savoury course affairs plus amuse and desserts, and after a small conference we decided on the more expensive Naturan.
The restaurant didn't waste any time getting us into the swing of things. Slow poached egg (poached at a low temperature for 45 minutes) served in a jamon truffle sauce with a piece of crispy ham atop. Our luxury "bacon & eggs" had a very runny egg that was oh so lightly set. Delicate, delicate, delicate and the silky egg completely coated your mouth. Black sesame seeds (typically used in Chinese desserts,) added flavor and texture. An elite egg dish in a country that prides itself on serving great egg dishes.
Yucca cooked in truffle juice and sesame layered with taro and winter herbs. In a week of fine dining (Troisgros, Gagnaire L’Ambroisie and others) this was one of the top vegetables dishes. I actually enjoy yucca and often seek it out in Latino restaurants. But this was the best rendition I had seen with the yucca meat-like and the taro ever so thinly sliced. As if it came in long sheets and wasn't a potato like root vegetable. The sesame seeds gave the dish a three dimensional texture and elevated it from the status of just vegetables into being in a league with Passard's top vegetable dishes. Delicious.
Sea anemonie was intensely briny. As if you were served a glass of the ocean. The mollusk was cooked in a way that enhanced the brininess which was not to my taste, although some people at the table loved it. There is a school of thought in modern cooking where chefs create dishes that revolve around intense expressions of natural flavors that are historically considered off-flavors, and a conscious decision is made not to add an ingredient that would offset the bitterness. It is the worst aspect of the modern school of cooking as far as I’m concerned. Next time I'm going to ask for a shrimp cocktail instead.
Sauteed line-caught baby squid with traces of chlorophylline. Reduced baby squid stock and water spinach [ipomea aquatica]. Beautifully tender – you would hardly know you are eating squid, and the stock it was gorgeous. It isn’t often that photographs show this much detail but you can see the clarity and the depth of flavor. In addition it was a perfect dish to serve at this point in the progression which in and of itself is no small feat these days. But I have to admit it made me wonder how the same chef, who can serve this delicious squid, could serve the excessively bitter anemone dish?
Then roast escalope of foie gras served on a charcoal grill with crystallised yucca in a date-stone consommé, marigold flowers [tagetes signata pumila] was beautifully elegant and subtle. Foie isn’t usually this delicate. Again you can see in the picture that the cooking technique has the foie bursting with moisture. Yet it didn't seem wet in any way. Plus more yucca for me which I find a great foil for proteins because it is slightly crunchier and meatier than potatoes.
The next course was supposed to be rouget but they were out of it and served sea bass instead along with the same sauce which is a confit of saffron and rockfish. It was a shame too since the fish was not all that fresh (I wonder if the snow of the day before interrupted their deliveries?) Like the sea anemone, the confit of saffron was so bitter I could hardly eat it. Another dish from the school that says, here, I have expressed saffron perfectly in all of its natural glory, isn’t that fantastic. To which I say, I can appreciate it being a great technical expression, but it isn’t a joy to eat because it is excessively bitter. There must be a reason that people do not walk around the streets sucking lemons.
Finally the famous slow-cooked beef cheeks. Cooked sous vide at 70 degrees C for 45 hours and cut just before serving. Served with roasted "vegetable tears" and mixed crushed peppercorns. A glorious dish and intensely rich. The most gedempt (mijote in yiddish) hunk of meat in the world and you can eat it with a spoon. The roast vegetable tears are great. Along with Wylie Dufresne's red pepper oil, one of the greatest accompaniments in cuisine today and the best au jus I can think of. They should sell it in bottles so you could add it to your meats and fish at home.
The restaurant serves a cheese course with a series of condiments that are supposed to go with each of the cheeses. And the listed dessert is a slice of Crystalized Pumpkin on a cream of vanilla, milk and truffle mousse. Delicious except the pumpkin was cooked enough for me. This was sought of"al dente" pumpkin that offered resistance when you bit into it. Great flavor though. And I had a number of truffle ice creams/creams over the past few weeks and they were all delicious. Coffee soil and milk pudding with a milk skin, One more dessert and then fresh Verveine tea.
In spite of its failings which manifested itself in the anemonie and sea bass, I think Mugaritz is the best of the modern styled restaurants. Now don't accuse me of saying that Aduriz is the best chef. But I think his cuisine is clever, well thought out, is centered around a judicious use of ingredients, and it is thoughtful in how ingredients are paired with each other. He also uses luxury ingredients, something most other modern chefs aren't as focused on, and that gives him a greater connection to traditional three star dining. His cuisine has shown significant improvement in the year and a half since my last visit, and I would gladly return in a heartbeat providing there were significant changes to the menu. Speaking of menus, one change I would like to see a third menu offering an even grander cuisine, say at a 130 or 150 euros price point. I think that would propel the restaurant into the very top class of restaurants in Europe. I have no problem saying that Mugaritz was my most interesting meal in Spain this year. A-