If you only had an afternoon in San Sebastian, the sunny Spanish coastal city filled with gourmet tapas bars and more Michelin stars/capita than anywhere else in the world, where would you eat? Normally, the husband and I, on a cheapo budget, would most likely opt to graze at the offerings of beachside bars. But since this trip coincided with a major birthday in the family, my dad decided to treat us all to a splurge-worthy meal at Akelare.
On the day of our visit, we were running late from the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao due to city traffic and a missed exit on the highway, and I was silently panicking about missing our lunch reservation by the time we wound up the hilltop restaurant, more than 30 minutes late. But the welcome was warm and effusive, and the maitre d’ quickly put us at ease. Undoubtedly, being seated in the bright, uncluttered room with a million dollar seaview also helped.
Together with its Michelin 3-star brethren Arzak and Mugaritz, Akelare resides at the pinnacle of San Sebastian’s dining scene. Its chef-owner Pedro Subijana is considered alongside Juan Arzak as one of the founding fathers of modern Basque cuisine since founding Akelare in 1975.
The food, classically prepared with some Basque influences for the most part, did not strike me as being particularly innovative or challenging. But it was fun, playful and presented with more than a touch of whimsy. Consider the tray of amuse-bouches, each item resembling the contents of a child’s sand bucket down to the finely milled dehydrated shrimp “sand”. Coated with algae and other seafood flavors, these little bites were beautiful to watch and fun to eat, be it with a cold pint of beer or crisp champagne.
There were two 8-course tasting menus (145e) available, each heavy on seafood though the flavors of the Aranori menu tended to be lighter than the Bekarki menu.
For the first course, one chose either the small but succulent shrimp that danced in alcoholic flames,
or a densely puck crabcake sitting on top of a disk of umami-rich coral “blini” made using the fatty orange roe of crab. The texture of the “blini”, smooth like liver, made for an interesting contrast against the shredded crabcake and little pasta grains. A very good dish packed with flavor.
I thought the mollusks in fisherman’s net was ordinary despite the pretty presentation, though admittedly the quality of the seafood, in particular a softly poached oyster, was excellent.
If the former dish meant to evoke the ethereal feeling of being at sea, the next dish, a strip of razor shell served besides braised veal shanks and cauliflower mushroom reminded us of something earthier, heavier. In fact the veal shanks tasted Chinese, akin to soy braised sea cucumber.
The next few dishes arrived with an element of surprise: The carpaccio dish was not anchored by slices of meat but a thin layer of pasta kneaded with iberico ham stock, so that it absorbs the color and salty, porky flavor of jamon.
The “trompe l’oeil” effect continued on a dish of delicious seared foie gras served with fresh grain peppers and an unhealthy amount of salt crystals at the table. But wait! The peppers aren’t real but somewhat chocolatey while the salt was in fact sugar.
The fish courses were unfortunately not really to my taste, and consequently, descended into unmemorable zone.
The turbot struck me as too meaty and too firm, and the man-made kokotxa cooked in traditional pil-pil sauce (man-made because the flatfish does not have jowls) tasted fishy and lacked the smooth gelatinous quality of the real thing.
The red mullet filet was perfectly cooked, crisped on the outside with juicy flesh underneath. A spread made of the fish’s head, bones, liver and onions smeared between skin and meat boosted the flavor of the otherwise mild fish. Unfortunately, the fusilli, hollow gelatine corkscrews filled with soy, parsley and ajo blanco sauce looked better than they tasted. Besides, if one committed the mistake of biting into one of these fusillis (especially the soy) on their own instead of using them strictly as condiments, one could unwittingly end up with a mouthful of sauce.
The cod too tended to be heavier tasting without being distinctive nor memorable save for the lovely presentation in a bacalao box, with edible chips masquerading as shredded paper.
Luckily things picked up some during the meat course. For me, the beef steak was so-so, but the potato cake stuffed with foie gras and slow-braised shredded oxtail was to me the highlight of the dish.
Those who had the lamb marveled at its tenderness, with nary a whiff of gamey-ness. Musty cooked wine lees and finely spun green tea-flavored sugar acted as sweet and sour counterpoints to the lamb’s savory flavors.
A dish of roast suckling pig was no doozy too, with impossibly soft meat under the lacquered skin. But being Chinese, we would’ve preferred the skin to be even crispier.
The pre-desserts and desserts were fun, fun, fun. Xaxu, a traditional Basque dessert was remade here to be filled with oozy, slightly salty egg-yolk. Dwarfed by 2 towers of airy coconut mousse, the interplay between the cold, coconutty mousse and slightly warm xaxu, whose flavors reminded me of those custard buns one would find on dim sum menus, was yummy and memorable.
The milk and grape platter, ranging from curded milk to torta of Casar’s grape was artfully designed with each cheese component paired with a type of grape-based complement, going from mild to strong. But truth to be told, I’ll take a good old cheese platter with a smelly piece of camembert over this variation anytime.
The apple tart made up with crisp, buttery puff pastry layered with apples would’ve been ordinary if not for the printed fruit leather draped over it.
Strawberry and cream would’ve been any Hello Kitty loving 8 year old girl’s dream dessert. Unfortunately, it wasn’t mine, neither was it my dad’s. In fact, the sight of him, a distinguished looking middle-aged man trying to crack the floridly pink white chocolate shell to dig into the cold, too sweet strawberry cream was rather disorientating.
Though we protested that we couldn’t eat another bite, the servers dropped plates of mignardises on our table regardless, so we felt to try them, finding them quite run-of-the-mill.
I found our 4 hour lunch at Akelare to be great fun. The views for the Bahia de la Concha were to-die-for and the atmosphere in the room was the least pretentious of all high-end restaurants I’ve eaten at (the dress code being no dress code. Indeed we spotted a man in shorts.). The staff, seemed somewhat lacking in polish (the wine steward dripped wine all over the table), but everyone, from the student server to chef Subijana made it up for their enthusiasm and friendliness. Menu prices were much friendlier to the wallet than the Michelin starred restaurants in Paris, and the wine list was chockful of well-priced bottles. The food did not make me swoon, but the mischievous, fun-loving spirit of the restaurant did.
Restaurant Akelare: Paseo Padre Orcoloaga, 56 20008 San Sebastián, Spain