The experimental San Sebastian chef on eating and memoryby Wendell Steavenson / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
First there was a perfectly empty white circle. The table was not laid with any cutlery, nor cluttering glassware. An opaque dish was placed in front of us containing a little ball of grass. We picked it up. It felt tender and squishy in our fingertips and when we put it in our mouths the fronds of sprouted teff tickled our lips as our tongues found their way into a hazelnut mud centre. It was like eating—no; it was more like exploring—a miniature earth, a new world.
Lunch at Mugaritz, a restaurant in the hills of the Spanish Basque country outside of San Sebastian, number six on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list. Weird, confounding, elemental. Next came a jagged ridge of cockscomb, its flame shape compressed into wafers that sandwiched a crumble of coral shrimp. It crackled into shards under our teeth. Red and crisp in contrast to the soft green ball, hot after cool, barnyard funk after meadow sweet.
“It’s like eating a Terrence Malick movie,” said Adrien.
A shining white triangle of hake in a sandy pool of clam essence and ground tiger nuts; my toes digging into the sand trickles left behind by receding waves. An angelically delicate crostada, filled with nothing but air, pouf, disappeared in a bite. An autumnal mushroom, as smooth and foetal as a kidney, under a layer of gritty paprika dust. A burnt black silhouette of a fibrous fern that tasted like rhubarb and honey. Embryonic watermelons, like miniature zeppelins, in a tuna broth that I mistook for miso. A dome of glass appeared. We turned it over and found a bowl of milky bubbles, crab hiding underneath. We dredged it with a spoon covered in a chilli and chocolate powder.
Our assumptions were challenged with every mouthful. We could not tell if we were eating fish or meat, if something was savoury or sweet. A slice of cake arrived that was toffee and fishy and defied its own ingredients: parsnip moulded with cod gelatin and layered with caramelised lactose. Dessert was crunchy codski…