Category Archives: Spain

Tickets, Barcelona

P1170791Chef: Albert Adrià      Website:     Cuisine: Molecular

elBulli’s closure in 2011 marked an end of an era. There was a shift in the global culinary direction away from molecular gastronomy and towards foraging – thank you Rene Redzepi. It was therefore reasonable, in my view, to be skeptical about the longevity of the Adrià brothers molecular tapas venture in Barcelona, Tickets. After all, people are fickle. Of course, there were a few thousand people who had missed out year after year on a reservation at elBulli (I was one of the fortunate ones but only just), but surely the hype would have died four years on? Is molecular gastronomy a thing of the past?P1170705I was initially intending to go to 41 degrees but unfortunately it had closed before I could come back to Europe, but don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t disappointed when I managed to secure a table at Tickets. I had only visited elBulli once (4 years ago, just prior to its closure) so I saw this as my chance to try some of the other elBulli classics that had evaded me over the years of unsuccessful reservation attempts; Tickets, I understood, also had some of the classic elBulli dishes so my chances were good.

So, after flying 32 hours from Australia, I was finally here outside waiting eagerly to reignite that magical meal from four years ago. This time however, there was one difference… I was with my 11 month old daughter…P1170704I was surprised (but also relieved) to find that a child seat was an option when making a reservation. Of course it was music to my ears, and if anything it highlighted the cultural difference between Australia and Europe when it came to dining out (cough, cough, Vue de Monde). My daughter was even given a very colourful bib for her meal. I was initially worried about inconveniencing other diners if she cried but the festive atmosphere in the restaurant muffled any noise. Much to our relief, this was not one of those quiet Michelin starred establishments.

P11706991st Course – Tickets’ Olive-S: I wasn’t surprised to find the reverse spherified olive at Tickets given Ferran Adria was the pioneer who invented the technique.

P1170702They were very delicate spheres that had to be scooped delicately to avoid breaking the membrane. The flavour was… well… not too dissimilar to that of a high quality virgin olive oil. Left to our own device to serve them, it was inevitable that there were a few casualties. However, the ones successfully devoured were delicious and fun when they popped in your mouth.

P11707122nd Course – Spicy corn tentacles: Crunchy corn crackers with a mild level of heat from spices. Airy and crispy. I could easily have had a bag of these with a cold glass of beer.

P11707143rd Course – Crunchy pizza which came with…

P1170716Bufala Straciatella to dip into. The pizza base was wafer thin and crispy, topped with a dust of dehydrated tomatoes, microbasil and spherified basil oil. The creamy bufala was a much needed component that was cleverly added last minute to avoid the pizza base losing its crunchiness. Delicious.

P11707184th Course – Nigiri of Tuna: A slice of the akami (red lean meat) of the tuna served on a puffed up lemon meringue made to look like a ball of rice. The combination surprisingly worked well with the lemon meringue providing a sharp contrast to the cold slice of tuna. Certainly not a traditional “sushi” course but enjoyable nonetheless and a bit of fun.

P11707205th Course – Basil Air Waffle: Light and fluffy waffle with melted cheese inside. The basil worked very well with the cheese, not too strong but clearly present.

P11707236th Course – Mini Airbag with Manchego cheese foam: It was an incredibly delicate dish that packed a bag of flavours. The mini airbag was exceptionally thin and the manchego foam had an intense flavour of matured cheese. The dehydrated line of iberian ham and hazlnut oil added some extra dimensions in flavours.

P11707298th Course – Ceviche crunchy with shrimps: Crunchy wholly edible shrimps on a paper thin toast served with…P1170731… a citrus sauce typically used for ceviche. It wasn’t a particularly memorable course and I found the citrus sauce slightly too sharp. P11707359th Course – Nordic Landscape with smoked cheese: A bed of crispy rye bread with a layer of veal tartare, lingonberry, slice of shallots, soft smoked cheese and some carefully scattered typical Nordic greens. It was finally dusted with a powdered vinegar ‘snow’ to cut through the rich meat. Perhaps a pointed reference to the foraging trends…?P117074010th Course – Mini mussels with beurre blanc air: A generous portion of tiny mussels dressed with a thick and creamy beurre blanc foam with a hint of yuzu. They were delicious, impressive considering I prefer my mussels to have as little intervention as possible. We could have eaten many more.P117074211th Course – Trip to Tokyo, oyster with ponzu sauce: Top quality Gillardeau oyster with a splash of ponzu and dashi sauce and salmon roe. Whilst I normally prefer my oysters naturally served, this was not a bad dish. The balance of the ponzu sauce and the natural saltiness of the oyster and salmon roes was spot on. I could see why the waiter recommended this oyster amongst the many other choices we had.

P117074912th Course – Crunchy Octopus with pickled Piparra: La piece de la resistance and by far the best dish that evening. The octopus grilled octopus was served on a bed of slightly hot kimchi butter and some crispy panko bread crumbs that worked ever so well for textural contrast. This was a very rich dish and the portion was just right for three adults. It went ever so well with the occasional bite of…

P1170747… traditional Basque long half pickled green chili’s called Piparra. Any Basque Pintxo aficionado will know how addictive these chili’s can be. The vinegar cut through the rich octopus beautifully to occasionally clean the palate.

P1170760Some bread to go with the next course of…

P117076113th Course – Surf and Turf with baby squids and Iberian sausages: A typical Catalan dish which requires one to know the region to truly appreciate it. I loved the fact that this humble dish had a place on Adria’s menu. Each of the elements were cooked well from the baby squid and white butifarra sausages to the beans. It was, however, an odd dish to have in a molecular cuisine restaurant and felt slightly visually ‘ordinary’.

P117076414th Course – Mini ciabatta with crunchy suckling pig: We felt we could order a few extra dishes so proceeded with some additional recommendations. The suckling pig sandwich was fatty, spicy and quite filling. Though the ciabatta was a bit thick it didn’t detract the flavour of the pig.P117077015th Course – Cannibal chicken with Chinese barbecue: Chicken thighs were served with a ‘bone’ made from yuca (cassava) chips over smoking coals. The Chinese barbeque sauce was nothing out of the ordinary but the chicken was tender and juicy.

P117077316th Course – Gunkan with trout roe: The dashi foam formed the base of the ‘rice’ element, dressed with some trout roes and shiso leaves. I didn’t enjoy the texture as it felt quite mushy and the nori was rather soggy. The flavour was however quite enjoyable, especially as each roe burst with its sticky juicy content.P117077817th Course: Foie gras tapa with its “palo cortado”: A rich disc of foie gras resting on top of a glass of semi-dry sherry. Loved the combination and a perfect transition into dessert.

P117078018th Course – Carrot cone, cardamom yoghurt, sugared sesame, and mango and carrot ice cream: A pre-dessert of all things orange. Refreshing and a great palate cleanser. I couldn’t decide whether I liked the texture of the raw carrot shavings but I thought the dish was overall well executed and different.

P1170781Course 19 – Air pancake, caramelised wafer, yoghurt foam, maple syrup and blackcurrant compote: Crispy pancake filled with yoghurt foam served with…P1170784… a jar of blackcurrant preserves. We were then instructed to smear the preserve over the pancake

P1170786I wasn’t quite sold on this dish and felt it missed the mark. Sure, it was a deceivingly light dish but the flavour became one-dimensional after a couple of bites. I’m not a big fan of preserves generally and this sadly was not an exception.P1170789Course 20 – Chocolate eclaire with hazelnut and royaltine: The hazelnut cream core and the crunchy chocolate royaltine were enjoyable, making this one classy ice cream sandwich. Overall however the dessert courses felt weak and lackluster in performance compared to the savory courses. Had it not been for my 11 month old daughter waking up and showing her discontent that she was not in her bed, I would perhaps have ordered a couple more dessert dishes but alas I had pushed the friendship far enough and it was time to get the bill.P1170756Tickets was a whole lot of fun and the chaotic atmosphere surprisingly played to our advantage with a little person in tow. Jokes aside, the food here was well thought out, perfectly executed but never too serious and almost always delicious. It was the type of place you’d want to randomly rock up to with a few friends after work or bring your family after a day out. This also highlighted my main criticism of Tickets, it wasn’t the type of place I wanted to book three months in advance, exhaustively fighting other people for a reservation. There is no sense of occasion that comes with the venue or the experience other than the connection to elBulli. Perhaps the latter explains why it remains one of the most difficult places to get a table in Barcelona four years on. Don’t get me wrong though. If you are in Barcelona you must give this place a try at least once.

El Celler de Can Roca, Girona

P1070991Chef: Joan, Jordi and Josep Roca         Website:

Cuisine: Modern Catalan

Little introduction is needed for the Roca brothers who brought back, since the closure of elBulli, the title of best restaurant in the world (well, at least according to San Pellegrino’s panel in 2013) to the region of Catalunya. However, their rise to fame wasn’t done overnight and required patience as they competed against the likes of Noma over a few years before knocking them off the crown, even if it was for just one year. But what makes Can Roca so special? Seldom does one establishment have such a recipe for success where each brother has excelled in their own field starting with Joan’s culinary direction as the executive chef, Josep’s impeccable choice and collection of wine as the sommelier and Jordi’s creativity as the pastry chef that is as whacky as Willy Wonka. Separately, they produce brilliance. What they bring together as a team is a gastronomic experience that is difficult to match.

P1080010I wasn’t ready to repeat my dinner experience in 2010 when we ended up leaving the restaurant around 2.30am so we opted for a lunch service on this occasion. We arrived a bit early as we tried to check out their gelateria, Rocambolesc, but unfortunately they were closed for a full refurbishment! So instead we decided to cheekily rock up a little early at Can Roca to enjoy their courtyard and were fortunate enough to get a glass of cava as the staff scoffed their lunch before opening for service.

P1080033I absolutely loved the interior space in Can Roca. Generous amount of space between the table allowing you for some privacy amongst your party, yet aesthetically modern and open, allowing you to see through the entire dining room. Yet again, we didn’t need much convincing to go for their extensive Festival menu.

P1080043The World, according to Joan Roca’s latest travels, was expressed through various bite-size morsels presented in a paper lantern representing the earth. The waiter proceeded by opening up the globe to reveal the contents. If there was one thing Can Roca does well it is their playful presentation. Creativity is not something that is lacking here.

P1080045A guacamole and grapfruit sphere represented Mexico, a liquid spherified ceviche ball for Peru (which came with a warning to have in one bite), hummus for Lebanon, honey and crumbled almonds for Morocco and kimchi for South Korea. They were good fun with distinct flavours depicting the countries from which Joan had been inspired. He even makes his own kimchi now. Impressive!

P1080050The Can Roca classic of the Caramelised Olives then made its appearance. A miniature olive tree was served like a bonzai in a pot. At closer inspection you could find green olives stuffed with anchovies with a caramelised coating hanging amongst its leaves. Sweet, brittle, sticky, juicy – all the sensations from each olive that was dangling off the branches. Sensational.

P1080065More amuse bouche followed with the Campari and grapefruit bonbon. This was a perfectly thin brittle cocoa butter sphere encasing a liquid mixture of the elegant bitters. A word of caution though, please eat this in one go.

P1080071Next was Joan Roca’s play on a Spanish classic of Calamares a la Romana. A welcome adaptation! The squid had been mashed up and reshaped into a thick circular disc and blow-torched before being topped with crispy balls of batter drenched with lemon juice. A finely balanced dish with a very intense flavour of squid and deliciously contrasting textures.

P1080072 Marinated mussels in a ceviche sauce served on long mother of pearl spoons. A soft juicy mussel with a citrus note. This was quite a bit more simple than the other amuse bouche and perhaps my least favourite.

P1080079The last set of amuse bouche was a celebration of the St George’s mushroom, served in two parts. A thin cocoa butter shell encased a liquid concentrated with the flavour of the mushroom, served in beautiful stoneware.

P1080083A bowl with a metal lid was then presented to each of us. Our waiter proceeded by lifting the lid to reveal…

P1080087… a St George’s mushroom brioche and a separate escudella (Catalan broth / stew) underneath in a bowl. We were advised to dunk the brioche into the broth before eating it.

Perhaps it was the choice of mushroom but I felt, for the amount of preparation that went into the mushroom, the intensity of the flavour was not at the level I expected. Some white truffle could have excited my olfactory senses better perhaps?P1080092On to our first course of the day with the Oyster with black pearl served in its own juice with melon juice, dots of cucumber, celery, apple, lime jelly, wood sorrel, melon flower and heartleaf iceplant. Whilst I consider myself to be a purist when it comes to the matter of oysters, I was pleasantly surprised as to how all the component worked here without distracting from the essence of the oyster. It was an elegant and finely balanced dish that could have easily gone wrong, but it didn’t.P1080094A beautiful dish then appeared before us which required a double-take. A dessert dish already? No, of course not, I was mistaken. It was instead Elderflower infusion, cherries with amaretto, gingered cherries and smoked sardine. Of course, how could I have mistaken? I wasn’t sure what to expect here as elderflower infusion, cherries and sardine sounded like a recipe for disaster. However, it was surprisingly memorable…. but for positive reasons. The smoked sardines transformed the dish from what could have been a dessert course into unique savoury dish. Floral, fruity and light – the elderflower infusion effectively removing the fishiness of the silky sardine leaving only the delicate flavour of the fish.

P1080102The next course was a celebration of the local staple, olives. A modern take on a classic with the Black olive gazpacho. This involved a spicy gordal olive mousse, black olive fritter, ice cream made from manzanilla and olives, toasted bread with oil, fennel jelly, winter savory jelly and picual olive. I was amazed to be able to distinctly pick out each flavour of the variety of olives. From the sweet black olive gazpacho to the contrasting bitter and salty gordal olive mousse and slices of picual olives. We needed more bread to mop this beauty up.

P1080109Another savoury dish appeared again mimicking a classic dessert (also known as Viennetta for the non-Spanish), the White asparagus comtessa and black truffle powder. I thought the white asparagus on the side was unnecessary but it did allow me to greater appreciate the intensity of the creamy and velvety ice cream which was full of asparagus flavour such as I had never tasted before. The icing on the cake, literally and figuratively, was that earthy black truffle powder. If only Vienetta came in this flavour…

P1080122 Joan Roca made sure to make full use of the King prawn (I am often frustrated when other establishments have failed to serve the whole crustacean) served charcoal grilled with king prawn sand, ink rocks, fried legs, head juice and king prawn essence. Admittedly, this did not come anywhere near the prawns I had at Asador Etxebarri but I did enjoy the extremely intense and rich essence made from the brain and the smokey flesh of the prawn. My favourite bit, however, was the crispy fried head and legs. Crunchy.

P1080128A slightly smoked fillet of Red sea bream, yuzu, capers and crunchy pickled vegetables was next. This was a nicely cooked piece of fish, tender and moist but nothing extraordinary and perhaps slightly disappointing when compared against the other dishes.

P1080134A much stronger fish course was the Salty cod brandade with salt cod tripe, salt cod foam, olive oil soup, shallots, honey, thyme and chilli pepper. Great interplay of flavours from the creamy and salty brandade balanced against the sweet honey and slightly citrusy thyme. The slight kick from the red chilli was again spot on. Despite the strong flavours, it was a surprisingly light dish.

P1080146Whilst there had been no disaster courses, I felt there had been a lackluster performance in the main segment of the meal compared to the amuse bouches. That was however rectified with the tender and suckling Iberian suckling pig blanquette that had been cooked at 63°C over 30 hours, retaining a beautifully crispy crackling coating. Joan Roca went further to match his take on the cochinillo (suckling pig) with a deconstructed aroma of riesling wine using sweet mango terrine, melon, beetroot, beetroot purée, black garlic, onion and slightly tart orange concentrate. This was much more like it. Clever piece of cooking indeed.

P1080148Next was a minimalist interpretation of the traditional Catalan fishermen’s soup (Suquet); essentially Red mullet cooked sous-vide at a low temperature, served on top of a concentrated fish soup with shredded cabbage and three towers of purée; orange, fennel and saffron. The depth of the fish soup was remarkable and the fish was unbelievably flavoursome. Personally I still prefered the traditional rustic soup but this wasn’t bad.

P1080156A glass cloche filled with smoke was then presented to us. The waiter then proceeded by revealing what laid hidden underneath…

P1080165… which was a smokey Charcoal grilled lamb breast fillet and sweetbreads with spring mushrooms.  Tender piece of lamb, crispy skin and silky sweetbread, served over a concentrated lamb jus which had also been soaked up by some of the earthy morel mushrooms. I wondered what they had done with the rest of the lamb because I wanted more.

P1080168The finale of the savoury segment was a rather brave dish of Pigeon liver and onion, curry-caramelised walnuts, juniper, orange peel and herbs. I absolutely loved the marriage of flavours between the rich gamey pigeon liver mousse, the curry and walnut caramel layer and the classic orange. A sliver of pigeon liver was also served pink but that didn’t phase me. This was a solid dish which also appeared on my first visit and I could see why. Earthy, gamey, rich and intense. I could however appreciate that if game and liver was not your thing then you would have been less enthused.

P1080179On to the dessert and the best course of the evening. The Caramelised apricot: blown sugar apricot with vanilla and caramelised apricot cream was not only a work of art but divine. Visually this is one of the best dishes I have encountered with unbelievable craftsmanship. The sugar work was filled with an apricot foam and presented on a bed of vanilla. The intensity of the apricot flavour was unbelievable and stood out next to the slice of fresh apricot. It was one hell of a dessert particulalry considering I was not the biggest apricot fan… until that day.

P1080185Another modern interpretation by Jordi Roca with Strawberries and cream which was perhaps the weakest dessert dish. It was essentially just a rod of strawberry sorbet, wrapped in a cylinder of cream and more strawberry sorbet, ringed by a spiral of delicate sugar work. Mind you, fresas con nata (strawberry with cream) is a very popular dish in Spain so perhaps the significance may have been slightly lost on some.

P1080190Our final dessert dish was a Mocha mille-feuille, anise mille-feuille with mocha foam and coffee granita. A comforting dish with a lovely contrast of texture, between the gooey mocha and brittle sugar sheets, and flavour, between the sweet foam and bitter coffee granita. It was however the not the most visually appealing dessert, resembling perhaps closer to a half chewed snicker bar. Looks can be deceiving, indeed.

P1080175An addition to the dining room was the Sweets trolley designed by local artist Andreu Carulla (who also designed the lantern from the amuse bouche, equipments in Rocambolesc and many other tableware at Can Roca). The trolley was filled with macarons, chocolates, fruit jellies and other sweets. To be honest, I was too full by this point.

P1080213My second visit to Can Roca was thoroughly impressive as my first one and also confirmed a few things. First and foremost, it was a great opportunity to be able to recalibrate essentially what was my fine dining benchmark. Suffice to say, the bar had been raised again. A secondary observation confirmed my thoughts from my first meal; the creativity and fautless execution of the amuse bouche and desserts are what makes Can Roca one of my all time favourite restaurant. Last but not least, I love the fact that behind all the modern techniques and interpretations, the cuisine at heart is undeniably Catalan and has deep roots to the region. Having grown up with this region as a reference all my life, the food felt familiar yet refreshingly new. What more could I ask for? Well, perhaps a shorter waiting list.

Compartir, Cadaques

P1080252 ChefM. CasañasO. Castro & E. Xatruch   Website:

Cuisine: Catalan / Seafood

The closure of elBulli in 2011 marked the advent of a new culinary movement that had been inspired by Ferran Adria’s molecular cuisine. Interestingly, whilst many of these chefs had at some stage worked in elBulli under Adria, many of them subsequently made a conscious decision to part either partially or entirely from the molecular discipline. Foraging, ethical sourcing and quality of the produce and ingredients was the new thing. Many of them, like Rene Redzepi from Noma, catapulted into the culinary spotlight, but others had resorted to keeping an equally talented but low profile. The restaurant Compartir, opened by three of the elBulli chefs, is exactly the latter. Located in the picturesque coastal town of Cadaques it’s fair to say that the three chef’s didn’t get far from elBulli to start their new venture.

P1080254We couldn’t really predict what our meal going to be. Some of my friends who missed out on a meal at elBulli had secretly hoped for a molecular feast but the food here couldn’t have been more different. Having had a holiday house in the region for the last twenty years, I knew what amazing produce the Emporda region and the Costa Brava had to offer but I didn’t quite expect to be amazed by the quality of the seafood we were about to have.

P1080259The name Compartir literally means ‘to share’ in Spanish. Suffice to say, majority of the dishes were designed with that concept at the heart. We commenced our meal with some delicious prawn crackers to whet our appetite. Light, airy and void of oiliness, this prawn cracker didn’t scream out amazingness but was certainly the best of its kind I’ve had. I particularly loved the deep flavour of prawn that came through despite its light airy texture.

P1080265The reminiscence of elBulli was seen in the aperitif of the Peach mousse cocktail which had a viscous froth and unbelievably fruity flavour. I could have easily had ten more!

P1080267Decadence is an appropriate word to describe the first plate of nibbles, a wooden board covered with the glorious Iberico ham “Joselito”. Maybe it was the salty air blowing off the nearby coast that exacerbated our thirst, but this ham was going down like a treat with our cold Estrella Damm Inedit, (aka the elBulli beer), which is perhaps one of the better lagers Spain has produced.

P1080268And when there’s ham, there’s Pa amb tomaquet or simply bread with tomato, a truly iconic catalan dish. Crusty home made bread rubbed with garlic, drenched with grated tomato and its juice and a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil.

P1080271 As a rule, the one thing my wife generally tries to avoid is tomato (I know, she’s clearly crazy) so I am not entirely sure what possessed her to order this. However, I certainly was glad she decided to order the Tomato and strawberries with parmesan and basil, even she admits this is one of the best balanced salads flavour wise that she has tasted. Classic flavours which worked unbelievably well together.

P1080274On to our first seafood dish of the Warm razor clams from Langosteira beach with a lemon touch. A simply beautiful dish and the quality of the razor clams from the colder atlantic coast was just stunning. Full of natural sweetness from the high content of glycogen, what amazed me the most was the size of the meaty molusc even after slightly cooking it. Lemon was all this needed to give it that zing.

P1080278The amazing seafood continued…..Luck had it that I finally had the opportunity to try the highly sought after gooseneck barnacles (percebes) from the coast of Galicia. These bad boys have the nickname of ‘fortune on the rocks’ and can fetch as much as 300 euros a kilogram. The downside to this is the danger that comes as the waves violently try to throw about the men that scavenge for them on jagged rocks. The Galicians claim that when cooked they set the palate on ecstasy. They were not far off for I had never tasted something that had such an intense flavour of the ocean. As you bit off the tip and sucked the inside, you could taste a combination of rich crab meat, oyster and prawn simultaneously. All this from just boiling them in water!

P1080282More elBulli moments with this clever dish of the Cod buñuelo (crouquettes) with honey espuma. The deep-fried cod was lighty and airy yet retained an amazing concentration of cod flavour. The clever piece of cooking here was the use of the honey foam. I find the classic combination of honey and cod sometimes too sweet for my liking, but the foam introduced the aromatic honey without tipping the balance of flavours.

P1080285The Iberico rice casserole with wild mushrooms was as rustic as a dish got here. I recognised many of the mushrooms as I often foraged for them when I visited my parents who live in the region. There were trumpets of death, yellow foots (camagrocs) and girolles that added that earthy undertone to the rice. The addition of the iberico chorizo to the dish was sacrilegious but worked well with the saltiness and distinct flavour it brought.

P1080288We couldn’t finish the meal without opting for the Sea bass with mushrooms and seaweed that had been strongly recommended by the waiter. You could definitely see the Asian influence here with the citrusy yuzu flavour, sesame seeds and the seaweed like mushroom. The rich and sticky sauce, which still remains a mystery, had a surprisingly smokey note to it. I did however find the fish on the small size and wished that we had ordered another plate given we were nine people!

P1080291The dessert dishes were neither Catalan nor rustic but a deconstructed Cheesecake and cherry ice cream. Nothing special to note here other than a good level of tartness from the cherry ice cream balanced against the crème anglaise and sweet crumbs of cookie.

P1080294Some Liquid chocolate bon bon with mango sorbet to finish the meal and that was it. Admittedly this wasn’t a destination restaurant in the same league as elBulli. It was however honest, without pretension and offered some of the freshest and most delicious seafood I have had to date in the region. Rather than concentrating on crazy molecular theatrics at the table, these three chefs made the conscious choice to apply their vast experience and skills in drawing out the natural flavours of the high quality ingredients and produce they had at their disposal. This restaurants was established with the customer in mind. It was a place to catch up with family and friends over good honest food without having to fork out a fortune. This is exactly the kind of place I could visit every month.

Les Cols, Olot

P1140086Chef: Fina Puigdevall         Cuisine: Regional Catalan

Following the recent success of el Celler de Can Roca and Ferran Adria’s legendary el Bulli, Catalunya has rapidly emerged as a serious contender to the culinary Mecca of Spain, the Basque region. Having slowly worked my way through the region’s top restaurant over the past few years including el Bulli, Can Roca, Sant Pau, Compartir and Comerç 24, my attention turned to a two Michelin starred restaurant located in the capital of the volcanic region of la Garrotxa that had managed to keep a very low profile. I couldn’t find much public information nor knew anyone who had personally been there so I was slightly suspicious. However, I was yet to be let down by a bad experience from a starred restaurant in the region so I decided to bite the bullet and organised a table with a friend who writes for the Lonely Planet’s food segments. After all, Can Roca in my opinion was the best in the world when they only had two Michelin stars so what could go wrong?

P1140109The restaurant of Les Cols is located on a quiet shaded street at the edge of the city of Olot. The restaurant itself occupies the ground floor of a 13th century masia (traditional stone house) where the top two floors currently serve as the private residence of the mother of Fina Puigdevall, the head  chef. I absolutely loved the juxtaposition of modern interior decor and the rustic exterior which had been beautifully restored to retain the history and its charm. We were given a quick tour around the restaurant before being sat down at our ultra modern table. I found the chair rather cumbersome to get around but I got there in the end. Outside, I could see the resident hens roaming around enjoying the last couple of hours before the sunset. It was a lovely setting and we thought we hit the jackpot but little did we know of what was waiting for us that evening…

P1140103Alright, I appreciate that when you’re in a foreign country you can’t expect people to speak fluently in a language foreign to them. But when you’re at a two Michelin starred restaurant where half the clientele that evening consisted of English speakers, you’d expect the front of house to have rehearsed the presentation in the prevailing language, particularly when you have a simplified menu in that language. Unfortunately that was not the case here. Lucky for me I spoke a decent level of Spanish and Catalan. On the topic of other diners though, perhaps the fact that the two English couples next to our table were dressed like clowns in hippie clothes should have been the first sign of warning that evening. So sue me, but I think some effort should be made by diners if you’re going to a nice restaurant. I don’t necessarily mean a tie and suit, but tie-dyed shirts and sandals are hardly appropriate for this setting. P1140127We had two choices on the menu that evening which were a vegetarian or standard tasting menu that reflected the seasonality of this mountainous region. We naturally went with the standard tasting menu. The Garrotxa is famous for buckwheat so we were advised that they would be using it frequently throughout the menu. Fine by me as long as it tastes good.

P1140119We were offered a glass of cava from Penedes to start the evening. First up was an appetizer of Crujiente de fajol de la Garrotxa. It was essentially a crispy sheet of buckwheat from the Garrotxa which had a few slice of llonganissa, a Catalan cured sausage, hiding underneath. It was hardly anything gastronomic but one of the better courses that evening. You have been warned.

P1140122This was followed by a plate of Buckwheat blinis with Sant Pau beans on the right and Cornbread sandwich on the left which had a warm polenta filling. The sandwich, dough and beans, which had a similar consistency to porridge, had no flavour whatsoever. Maybe the chef had forgotten to season it or perhaps I was missing a point?

P1140124This was followed by a warm Buckwheat spaghetti in smoked broth which tasted of gizzards. My heart sank. This was possibly the worst start to a meal I’ve ever had. Sure, the ingredients were fresh and of good quality but I felt as if my taste buds had gone on holiday.

P1140132A trolley containing local Garrotxa bread with a choice of five local olive oils, ranging in aromas and taste. As everything so far lacked in flavour I asked for the strongest flavoured oil to compensate my palate which was rapidly losing interest in anything that was being offered. I had a feeling this was going to be one of those meals where I may need to rely on the bread for survival. Sure enough, I was right. Damn. I hate being right in these circumstances.

P1140134As I was driving that evening I could only take a limited amount of alcohol so I opted for a glass of local white and a red to match the relevant segments of the meal. First up was a white garnatxcha from the Garrotxa’s terra alta.

P1140143A slight improvement with our first course of the evening with the Wild asparagus in a charcoal tempura that was served with a beetroot romesco sauce. The tempura was not too oily but had hardly any crispiness to it. What’s more, other than the flavour of the romesco sauce there was no seasoning at all. What did they have against salt?

P1140148One of the reason why I chose this tasting menu was because of a couple of mushroom dishes that looked delicious, well at least on paper. The Wild mushroom raw & cooked had some great textures including thin and meaty mushrooms as well as crunchy croutons made from the local bread, Tortell d’Olot. But guess what? Yup, you got it right. No seasoning again.

P1140149Our night continued with further disappointment with the Fresh egg, mayonnaise and tuna. Granted, it was interesting because the tuna had been infused into the mayonnaise but the only texture in this dish was liquid. It was just sauce and runny egg, and worst of all it tasted like the tuna mayo filling from a sandwich. Yet again there was no seasoning but this course made me frustrated because the quality of their home reared hen’s egg was superb. What a waste of good ingredient again!

P1140153I was scared of trying the most anticipated dish on the menu, Morels, wild asparagus and stew sauce by this point. Things actually looked surprisingly positive initially. The creamy sauce had a bit of seasoning and depth in flavour, and the ingredients were again fresh. However, a fundamental error ruined this dish. It was gritty. The morels had not been cleaned properly. How could this happen in a two starred restaurant?P1140157Grilled peas, bacon and blood sausage. The texture of the beans were amazing and just exploded each time I took a bite. I also enjoyed the smokiness until it rather became overwhelming and one dimensional. The bacon and blood sausage hardly added any seasoning to the dish and it was screaming for some salt. P1140159Our second glass of wine was poured to go with the next segment of the meal. It was a Viladellops, Garnatxa 2012.

P1140162Rice with squids. Slightly sloppy presentation on a plate and probably would have been better served in a bowl. It was very again one dimensional where the seafood jus dominated the palate and the aioli was utterly lost.

P1140164My friend’s favourite course of the evening was the Salt cod brandade served with white grapes and spinach. The texture was very interesting again as the cod brandade had been salted and reformed to resemble a fillet. We finally had some seasoning but this time it was just too much. I had to wash this down with a couple of glasses of water and half my glass of red wine.P1140171Thank god it was the final segment of the savory courses. Duck, salsifies, pear and smashed biscuit. Duck and pear is a tried and tested combination that is difficult to fail but they somehow managed to screw that up as well. This dish was offensive in that the pear and biscuits were far too sweet and belonged in a dessert. The only decent thing was the texture of the duck. It was pretty clear by now that this restaurant was all about ingredients and texture, neglecting the most important thing called flavour.P1140172Three hours into our meal and it became clear that there were other significant issues as well. For one, my friend had to refuse her glass of wine and water being topped up countless times. No one in the front of house communicated with each other and it became rather irritating. If it was any consolation, at least the dozens of mosquitoes in the dining room were having a great time at our expense as we were scratching ourselves all night. We decided to rush through the rest of the meal starting with the Catalan cheeses. At least they had my favourite regional goat’s cheese, the Petit Nevat.P1140178We were slightly relieved in that we thought having taken salt out of the equation, dessert would have been much better starting with the Strawberries and rouleau de crème. Our relief was short lived. It was just strawberries and cream. Surely you can’t serve something like this in a fine dining establishment!P1140181Iced cottage cheese, creme caramel and basil. This was the best dish tonight. I loved the basil flavoured milky sorbet that cut through the cottage cheese. The creme caramel added a subtle sweetness keeping this a very refreshing course. I did think this could have worked better straight after the cheese course though.

P1140185Frozen cake, preserved fruits and burnt egg yolk. A rather uninspired finale that tasted like something that had been pre-made in a package. A dull ending to an extremely disappointing meal.

P1140187Crusty sugar bread and dark chocolate was served as petit fours although I didn’t want to stay here any longer and even skipped my coffee. The staff encouraged us to have a coffee and a tour of the kitchen but I refused politely. I wanted to get out. Fast.P1140104Needless to say, this was a terribly underwhelming meal. I’m not sure if other people around us were enjoying it but you certainly didn’t get the “oh’s” and “ah’s” from any table when the courses were being presented. The food was not only lacking in flavour but also imagination and depth. Granted, the quality of the ingredient was good and the textures were interesting but it felt tired and I couldn’t sense any passion from the front of house working there. For one, the Maitre’D looked like he was just dragging himself around the dining room utterly lifeless. My friend was much less critical saying she would come back just for the architecture but I thought 240 euros for two people with hardly any wine was absurd. This place has so much potential and the location is magnificent, even if a bit isolated. However, there are fundamental errors that cannot be forgiven and nothing makes me angrier than ruining good produce and ingredients. If you want to let the ingredient shine then treat it with respect and draw the qualities out.

Mas Pou, Palau Sator

P1140192Chef: David Dausa   Website:  Cuisine: Catalan

Mas Pou opened in 1986 in the heart of the sleepy town of Palau Sator and has remained a well kept secret amongst the regulars, locals and expats alike. Despite it’s proximity to Girona, reachable within only 20 mins drive from currently the best restaurant in the world, Mas Pou has remained under the radar serving traditional Catalan food affordable price typically coming in under 40 euros a head including wine. The restaurant is housed in an old traditional Catalan farmhouse which had been lovingly restored by the family who run the place. Evidenced by their success, they’ve even managed to open a museum next door and more recently a few self-serviced accommodations to rent out.


As a patron of the restaurant for the past 15 years, the most impressive thing I’ve found with this restaurant has been the consistency with the quality of the dishes over the years. It is for this reason that I have found myself returning over and over again each time I visit my parents who live nearby in the town of L’Escala. Weather permitted, we typically start with an aperitif in the garden and then slowly make our way into the restaurant, lead by Paco who has been with the restaurant for as long as I could remember.


It’s difficult to choose the starter so as a rule I always go for their “pica pica” selection which gives you a chance to nibble (picar) a variety of Catalan dishes in smaller portions. Saying that, I  personally find the portions to be too big so always order for the number of people at the table minus one headcount. For the linguistically challenged, fear not for they have menus in English, French and even German.


Once our order was taken we were served with a bowl of quail eggs.P1140213

Rather than the usual house red, we opted for something a bit more special as this was my farewell meal with my parents before I moved out to Melbourne permanently. We therefore went with Paco’s recommendation of the Orto, Montsant, 2011 after I asked him to choose one for us from the Priorat region. It was a lovely young crianza, priced really well at just over 20 euros a bottle.


Some Pan tumaca (coca bread with tomato) to go with the meal. Paco brought out some fine extra virgin olive oil from the region to drizzle all over the bread. Simple, yet so good.


It wasn’t long before our starters began arriving at our table. This was my favourite segment of the meal and I could not wait to get stuck in. First up was a Goose liver pâté accompanied with some toast.


A plate of Jamón de Pato (duck ham) which had a good fat-to-meat ratio. Certainly went down like a treat with the red wine.


A simple Goats Cheese and quince jam salad topped with pine nuts and crushed walnuts.


A very refreshing Esqueixada, a traditional Catalan dish. It’s basically a salad of raw shredded salt cod, tomatoes, onions, red and green bell peppers and olives, dressed in olive oil, vinegar and salt. The cod is salted raw and shredded by hand to ensure a good texture.


An Omlette terrine, or essentially a vegetable tortilla, which contained egg, tomato, spinach, caramelised onion, zucchini and potato. It was creamy and delicious, falling apart in your mouth.


We were running out of space as more food kept on arriving on our table. Next up was an Escalivada with anchovies, another traditional Catalan dish made by grilling bell peppers, onions and eggplants until it was burnt outside and soft inside. The charred skin would then be removed and the inside cut up into slithers with garlic, salt and olive oil. In this case it was served on coca bread with a fillet of the best anchovies of Spain from L’Escala. I may be biased but think there’s some truth to that claim, although some of the anchovies I had in the Basque region were delicious too.


A small portion of snails to share. I prefer the Catalan snails to the French ones as they are much smaller and less meatier, but packed with flavour. It was served with…


… a generous amount of home made aioli and tomato sauce. I love their aioli so much I use it each time as a spread over the remaining coca bread. This time was no exception.


The last item from the pica pica which was a plate of Cod and minced meat croquettes. The cod croquette has always been my favourite. Juicy, fresh and not too oily on the batter.


I never learn from my mistakes as my eyes are bigger than my stomach and always end up ordering an equally huge main course. In this case I went for their 500g Rib-eye steak that had been cooked on a charcoal grill. It had a beautiful smokiness to it, perfect amount of seasoning and cooked exactly the way I like my rib-eye; medium-rare. Suffice to say, I left the chips and garnishes untouched. I was stuffed, but very happy.


And of course there was always room for dessert, especially their Cinnamon ice cream and strawberries dusted with more cinnamon powder on top. A very light course to finish a very filling but superb meal. What an improvement from my disastrous meal the night before at Les Cols.


Some post meal entertainment with a Porrón de moscatel never goes amiss. It’s nothing fancy but a social way of consuming moscatel or your sweet wine of choice using a porrón, a traditional Catalan glass wine pitcher which resembles a cross between a wine bottle and a watering can. To drink from a porrón you basically need to start by bringing the spout close to your mouth and tilt it forward, gradually pointing the beak towards the mouth until the liquid stars pouring out in a fine and steady flow. You then slowly pull the porrón away as far as you can whilst maintaining a steady flow into your mouth, bringing it back to the mouth as you finish. It’s pretty fun watching beginners getting the wine all over their face.P1140263Nothing better than some Marc de Champagne as digestif in a cold shot glass to finish the meal.

P1140198Mas Pou is a place that I could return to over and over again. Their produce is fresh, the dishes are truly Catalan and could not get any more authentic in taste. It’s rustic, not fussy and really good value for what you get. Having had a property in the region for the last 30 years, I can honestly say that I can count in one hand all the places which have stood the test of time and maintained a consistently high standard of cooking. They are one of them. I would confidently say that such a high quality authentic Catalan restaurant is almost impossible to find in the bigger cities like Barcelona or Girona. In my honest opinion this is worth the trip if you are really after something traditional rather than fine dining, although you’d also be spoilt for fine dining choices when you have restaurants like Can Roca and Sant Pau nearby. One word of warning though, reservations are highly recommended for weekend meals as it gets ridiculously busy. Sadly for me it will be a while before I get to return here again as it is a bit far from Melbourne.

Azurmendi, Larrabetzu

P1120708Chef: Eneko Atxa         Website:         Cuisine: Modern Basque

On my latest visit to the Basque region I visited the legendary Arzak and went on a journey to discover the best pintxo’s of San Sebastian. There were a couple of other places I’d been meaning to re-visit but I decided to go with a wild card on this occasion. Joining the ranks of culinary excellence in the Basque region in 2012 was Eneko Atxa’s Azurmendi, located only 10 minutes drive away from Bilbao airport. Atxa has impressively amassed three Michelin stars within a very short period of time making it one of the hottest establishments in the region right now. I first heard about this place two years ago when I caught up with Dimi from the Fat Duck and after Michelin’s announcement in 2012, I prodded my partner in culinary crime, Fine Dining Explorer, to come with me on a weekend to see what all the fuss was about. As usual it didn’t take much to convince him.


Nestled high up on the hill of the biggest Txakoli winery in the region is a beautifully elongated modern glass cube that is Azurmendi. While it’s a very steep hill to drive up, the view from the top is quite impressive despite the intruding highway that runs parallel to the horizon. At the foot of the hill stands the original winery building that, until the contemporary building was completed in 2012, housed the restaurant. It now is used partly as a wedding venue and a bistro. The weather on this occasion was far more aggressive than the usual rain I am accustomed to in the Basque region – on this occasion it was snowing hard! But this was not going to dampen our spirit.

3A9Q7675Leaving the blizzard behind, we stepped into the vast contemporary space of the restaurant reception to be greeted by the Maitre D, Jon Eguskiza. He immediately joked that Atxa’s unfortunate absence that day meant that we would be even better looked after as he could spoil us rotten. Whilst I have no comparison to make yet, I can certainly guaranty that Eguskiza did a damn fine job in looking after us that afternoon. He carried on to show us around the building explaining that the green house they integrated into the restaurant was not with the intention of moving towards self-reliance as it was far too small, but rather an opportunity to showcase some of the indigenous vegetables and fresh produces the Basque region had to offer to foreign diners.P1120726

I was particularly impressed with the couple of Haiku’s that had been translated from Euskerra to Castellano and English, all whilst maintaining the rules of haiku.

P1120732We returned to the reception to find a couple of waiters laying out a picnic basket on the coffee table. After meticulously putting everything in place they announced that our picnic amuse bouche was ready. Let’s see what was inside…P1120738

First up was a Peanut made from peanut butter with chocolate and dried mushroom dust coating. This was a bizarre dish as I felt as if I was eating a dollop of slightly sweet butter infused with earthy mushroom flavour. Admittedly this was not my cup of tea.

P1120740Much better was the Homemade cheese with basil flowers from our garden. The cheese just melted in your mouth and was not too powerful to distract the flavours from subsequent dishes so early in the meal.


The last item of the picnic was a Purple onion from Zalla skin infusion, which had been prepared by roasting and boiling the onion. There was an intense onion flavour accompanied by the natural sweetness. It was rich and clear with a lasting aftertaste.

3A9Q7730After our picnic we were taken to the vast open kitchen but found only a handful of chef’s preparing the mis-en-place. Eguskiza explained that chefs under Atxa were not segregated to one section in the kitchen in order to avoid monotony. Instead, each chef was responsible for multiple courses. This explained why there were far less chefs here than many other three starred restaurants I had been to. We were curious to see whether this would affect the quality of the dishes so we promptly took our seats and left ourselves in the hand of our friendly Maitre D. Tasting Menu? Of course. Matching wine? Absolutely. Brand new dishes? Why not?

P1120749The restaurant offered two menu’s – Erroak (€135) consisting of classic dishes that formed the foundation of Azurmendi’s identity since inception, and Adarrak (€160) which consisted of more dishes and showcased the flavours and roots of Basque cuisine. We couldn’t make up our mind so Eguskiza suggested we create a customised menu, using Adarrak as the base, adding some dishes from Erroak to get an overall appreciation and understanding of Atxa’s cooking. Splendid! We ordered a bottle of Cava, Oriol Brut Nature as he ran through some of the options and then we were set.

P1120760First up on the menu was Egg from our chickens, cooked inside out and truffled. Part of the slightly cooked egg yolk had been taken out carefully with a syringe leaving the outer membrane intact. A rich black truffle infused broth was then injected back in, finished off with move shavings of black truffles from Zaragoza. I loved the creaminess of the egg yolk which magnified the earthy flavour of the truffle. A simple looking dish but the attention to detail was amazing, particularly given that the temperature had to be spot on and the membrane was so delicate. What’s more, the dish had to be assembled altogether at the last minute. This certainly made up for the somewhat lack luster amuse-bouche. What a superb start!

P1120769In preparation for the next course a bowl containing seaweed and dry ice was presented and water added allowing the smell of the ocean to wash over us.

P1120779Almost simultaneously we were served the Oyster, Salicornia, iodinated tremella, sea weed and small crunchy nettles with natural aroma from the sea. What initially appeared to be seaweed next to the Gillardeau oyster from La Rochelle in the shell was actually gelatinous tremella mushrooms cooked in seawater. It had a contrasting crunchy texture to the meaty oyster with diced seaweed on top. The accompanying seaweed and anemone tempura had the right level of natural seasoning, executed perfectly with a good crispiness and hardly any oil.

P1120783We were then presented with lobster done two ways with the Confited lobster with essential herbs from our garden and pork jowl. On the left was the tartare of lobster that had been infused with oil of essential herbs from their garden, wrapped in a smoky pork jowl. On the right was a beautifully cooked juicy roasted Cantabric lobster. This Cantabric lobster had more of a bite to other lobsters I’ve tried but I personally preferred this texture better.

P1120788We were initially taken back when the next course was being served as we thought our tasting menu was coming to an abrupt end. Luckily Eguskiza smiled and assured us we were only getting started as he prepared The “Earth” Tea service.

P1120791On the right we had a cup containing champignon mushroom with wild edible flowers.

P1120793On the left were some dried champignon mushrooms. We were instructed to take three tea spoonful of the dried mushroom and add it to the teapot containing a concentrated mushroom consommé to brew.

P1120796We then left the mushroom tea to brew for a couple of minutes before proceeding to pour it into the cup on the right.

P1120798The flavour of the broth was just outstanding considering this was just made from the humble champignon mushroom. The meaty mushroom had bags of flavour and the overall flavour lasted a very long time. I was so impressed I went to add a few more spoons of dried mushroom into my teapot to increase the concentration. I was in fungi heaven and this was probably one of my three most favourite mushroom courses I’ve ever had next to the Mai-take brioche in De Librije and the woodland mushroom and quinoa dish at Mirazur.


Next up was Smoked Foie Gras Sandwich with Tapenade, a new dish which had not been served yet to other customers. The foie gras encased in a herby cracker was so delicately poised on the plate it fell on its side a couple of times before it was presented perfectly on the third time. I didn’t really mind but our Maitre D was a perfectionist and I appreciated the attention to detail. We were advised to eat the sandwich with our fingers. The smokey foie gras was nice with the contrasting crunchy cracker. The tapenade on the side, which contained a leaf of sunflower, was nice but I thought the dish could have done with a bit more acidity to cut through the rich foie.

P1120806I absolutely love sweetbreads and I think it’s such a shame that many restaurants are too afraid to use them so I was in for a treat with the next course of Cauliflower, garlic potato and sweetbreads. The potato soufflé was stuffed with a garlic cream inside that oozed out. The cauliflower was served golden and crispy on top. The lamb sweetbread, which we were told was the traditional choice in the region, was beautiful without a strong offal flavour. The components were all assembled on a bed of cauliflower purée.

P1120816One of the two best courses of the day, hands down, without a shadow of a doubt was the “Betizu” ox tail raviolis, wrapped in corn bread with legume broth. The ox tail had been stewed on the bone for hours and the soft meat then taken off the bone. Iberico ham was then mixed into the meat before being wrapped in a thin layer of corn bread like a sushi roll. The rolls were then fried on each side to give the perfect crispiness to the bread coating. The finishing touch was to add this delicious morsel on a bed of sticky vegetable sauce containing chickpeas and basil. Each bite released an explosion of flavours. Whilst based on the taste, I normally would have begged for more, in fact this was exactly the right portion because it was such a rich dish.

P1120820We were surprised to find another rich dish for the next course. We were assured that this was a good progression of flavour and he was right again with the Salted stew: vegetables, anchovies and iberics with “Idiazabal” cream cheese balls. The stew was made of shallots, green asparagus, anchovies, trotters and bacon giving it a hearty and punchy flavour – a real smack in the mouth. The Idiazabal cheese had a strong flavour on its own but worked well in the context of the dish and you could appreciate the flavour of the local cheese.

P1120829I was glad to see that Atxa had incorporated another great dish from the region into his menu, and who wouldn’t? Kokotxas, pil-pil and tender and crunchy artichokes. On this occasion the dish was prepared by using kokotxas from hake in olive oil and a very creamy pil-pil sauce with chilli. The confit artichoke was fried and cut finely to spread the crunchy texture across the dish. Another good dish!

P1120831The second best course of the day following the oxtail dish was the Pigeon, hazelnuts and deuxelles. This was possibly the best pigeon dish I’ve ever had to date. The pigeon was from Arraiz, Navarra. There were some natural hazelnuts as well as “artificial ones” which were made from a mixture of the foie gras of pigeon and reduced stock from the bone, served chilled. The sauce was made from cheese and mushroom. The pigeon was cooked perfectly pink with good seasoning and the mushroom added a lovely earthiness to the dish. The nutty flavour and crunchiness of the hazelnut was the perfect accompaniment to the pigeon. Great use of textures, flavours and temperatures.P1120843I’d never say no to trying some local cheese of course! We were presented with a traditional long wooden palate containing two types of Idiazabal – one half cured and one smoked, some Carranzana, which was made from an ancient Basque sheep breed, and a blue cheese from Artziniega. They were all matched with marmalade made from apple, prune, quince and a most peculiar but delicious carrot.

P1120851Right before our dessert we were presented with a little story

P1120855and a brown paper bag

P1120860which contained Chestnuts with vine shoot scent. As we opened the bag, a waft of smoke came out carrying a lovely smoky smell of roasted chestnut. This took me back to my childhood in Asia. What was unexpected however, was that the chestnuts inside were neither hot nor indeed actual chestnuts. Instead they were chilled chestnut purée’s made from double cream with chocolate milk and natural chestnut powder, resting on a bed of chestnut powder made again from chestnuts that had been roasted until they were burnt before being ground.

P1120863The first dessert of the evening was Coffee Pudding, Rum and Farmhouse Milk, which appeared like a giant egg decorated with caramelised hazelnuts.

P1120868As we cracked open the outer shell there was a coffee purée inside that had a hint of rum. I usually prefer to not have alcohol in my dessert but this was perfect in dose as you could just pick up the flavour. The caramelised hazelnuts added some texture and the little specks of dulce de leche added that sweetness the dish needed. I love coffee so this was right up my alley.

P1120870Up next was Honey. I had seen this dish on various websites prior to coming to the restaurant and had hoped to try it. It is Atxa’s signature dish of honey comb with frozen air of honey with thousand flowers. His inspiration came from a chiffon cake. He wanted to create a light and airy dessert but with a much more intense flavour. This was achieved by whisking honey, glucose and sugar together before adding it to a vacuum bag.  It was then cooked before adding air back into the bag, finally freezing it after it expanded. A pinch of the honey scented sweet alyssum was added as a beautiful garnish on the frozen honey. This was all beautiful presented on a slab of honey comb with more honey drizzled on it! If you love honey, this is one dish you really don’t want to miss and definitely a feast for the eyes.

P1120887To go with our coffees we had an array of petit fours starting with a passion fruit chocolate ball on the right, followed by a rice soufflé in the middle and finishing off with an apple pie.

3A9Q4938With a growing number of young talented chefs like Eneko Atxa, it would seem as if the Basque region’s reputation as a culinary Mecca is safe for a while. Just like the gastronomical revolution led by legendary chefs from Arzak and Akelare a couple of decades ago, new chefs like Atxa appear to be paving a way for a new refined cuisine that continues to embrace their heritage and roots. The cooking here was without doubt very accomplished. I also loved the luxury of having so much space between the tables, allowing us to take in the whole experience without bothering and being bothered by other diners. Also, if it hasn’t been obvious already, the service here led by Jon Eguskiza was flawless. Top that off with amazing views through floor to ceiling windows across the entire dining room and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success. I hope on my next trip I’ll get to see the genius behind everything that is Azurmendi.

Arzak, San Sebastian


Chef: Juan Mari & Elena Arzak    Website:    Cuisine: Modern Basque

I think it’s fair to say that any food enthusiast or chef would have made a pilgrimage to the city of San Sebastian at least once in their lifetime. The culinary Mecca of Europe has continued to cater for foreigners and locals alike with their abundant numbers of taverns serving delicious morsels of pintxos and, in the last two decades, an array of restaurants whose chefs have stood at the forefront of culinary excellence in the world. It is no surprise that the city has the highest concentration of Michelin stars per capita in the world. Amongst these fine establishments there is one that has stood out as the epitome of the evolution of Basque cuisine. That place is Arzak.

From humble beginnings as the village tavern dating back to 1897, Arzak transformed itself through three talented generations into a world class dining destination. Under the direction of Juan Mari from 1966, the restaurant, in collaboration with Pedro Subijana from Akelare, became synonymous with the New Basque cuisine movement. Juan Mari is also well known for another reason. He was the first, and continues to be, the longest holder of three prestigious Michelin stars in Spain. First awarded three stars in 1989, today he continues to push the culinary boundaries with his daughter and co-head of Arzak, Elena. Elena herself also won the title of Best Female Chef award in 2012, clearly this is an overachieving family.


Since I was making a long journey for this meal, I was curious to meet the chefs but never in my wildest dream did I expect to be able to grab the father and daughter for over an hour before our lunch service! You can appreciate my nervousness facing a legendary chef and the best female chef in the world but their smiles, humour and humility immediately dispelled my unfounded anxiety. 

During the course of our conversation we found ourselves continuously coming back to one fundamental point: the roots and tradition of Basque cuisine was always at the heart of everything they did. It was their identity and soul, a raison d’être, and whilst a chef must have a solid foundation, he needs to be modest, inspired, hard working and above all born to cook. The culmination of these elements are essentially what have made and evolved Arzak into the entity is has become today. After our discussion, Elena arranged for her sous chef Igor Zalakain to show us around the premise before seating down. The impressive wine celler upstairs stocked about 100,000 bottles of wine, the oldest dating back to 1897, the date Arzak was opened!


This was followed by another flight of stairs up to the spice room that contained more than 1,400 varieties – all for the purpose of experimenting to create new dishes and flavours. Right next door was the experimental lab which was in full swing.

Comedor Arzak 4 JLAs we came back downstairs, Elena directed us to our dining table and explained how the menu worked. There was one tasting menu and a few of the courses had two choices. After explaining we had no allergies or dislikes, we left Elena to make the decision of what we should order. After scribbling a few things down, she disappeared for a brief moment to let the sommelier pour us a glass of cava and serve the arrays of delicious amuse bouches.P1120533Elena came back to take us through some of the dishes. I had explained that I was curious to pick up any subtle references to Basque cuisine that may not have been as obvious to foreigners, and she made sure no questions were left unanswered. The first amuse bouche was the Kabrarroka pudding with kataifi which was essentially scorpion fish pudding that had been wrapped in a threaded pastry commonly used in the Middle East. The fish was delicious and creamy, and a lovely contrast to the crispy coating.P1120535Followed by a sweet and salty combination of Beans, bacon and chestnut. It was a good progression of flavours.P1120537A rather refreshing and unique combination of Chorizo and Tonic served on a squashed can of tonic. The chorizo was wrapped in a thin sheet of mango and the oiliness was washed away by the tonic. Simple but spectacular!P1120538Red Codfish on a crispy pastry and brandade. I particularly enjoyed the saltiness from the brandade and the contrasting textures.P1120544The last of the amuse bouche was Sunflower seed with arraitxiki. Arraitxiki is a local bony rock fish and it was my first time trying it. It had a very deep flavour with a long aftertaste and went well with the toasted sunflower seed. It was a great way to set the scene for the main segment of the meal.P1120546

After a brief moment to take in all the flavours from the amuse bouches, we were ready for the first course of the evening, Cromelech, manioc and huitlacoche. The Cromelech (monolithic structure in Welsh) symbolised the relationship and marriage of the land and sea of the region. The crispy manioc (better known as cassava) casing, hydrated with huitlacoche (a corn fungus used in Mexican cuisine with smokey and earthy flavour), puffed up when added into hot oil. The casing was then stuffed with a preparation of poached onion, green tea and foie gras cream. We were advised to flip it upside down and eat it like an ice cream cone. It was fun but more importantly delicious and creamy inside!

P1120551I particularly enjoyed the next course of the Oyster with sea crust, essentially warm oysters with sea urchin and a salty crust. It was a very clever dish as the oyster quickly cooked on one side could be left on the salt plate to suit each customer’s preference of seasoning. I had my second one after another couple of minutes and found it just perfect. To top it off, the sea urchin served fresh and dried complemented the oyster both in texture and flavour, and reminded me a bit of katsuobushi (or bonito flakes).P1120561As my companion enjoyed another fish course, I was served with the Potato cube with fresh truffle, egg yolk and orange zestThe black truffle was sourced from the region and the eggs were fresh from the day. The components altogether almost gave a sensation of eating a creamy tortilla but with black truffles. The orange zest provided some acidity to lift the dish, perfectly matched with a glass of Riesling.P1120566For my main fish course I had the Monkfish green witch. The green sphere itself was made from reduced fish stock and parsley sprayed onto an inflated balloon with several layers of obulato sheets (transparent edible gluten free sheets) in between. The balloon was then popped and removed, and the remaining shell fried before plating up.P1120574The balloon was cracked and then partly removed from the plate, uncovering the monkfish with confit garlic. The lard wrapping of the monkfish kept it moist and juicy. The gooseberry was very subtle. The green fragments were deceivingly tasty so I ate the bits that were removed to a side plate as well!P1120587

Elena came out to serve the next dish to explain that meat on the Longan, deer and roe deer was the side dish, and that the longan and fried grape garnish (below) was the main component. The “garnish” also contained red pepper sauce in the shell of the longan.


Although this was a somewhat unexpected approach to a main dish, the powdered ingredients dusted across the plate were composed of various flavoursome herbs which were very worthy of being the main component of the dish! I really enjoyed the two cuts of meat, served almost rare just the way I like it, but I thought the dish could have done without the longan.


As we ended the main act of the meal I thought the portion sizes were spot on. I was neither too full nor hungry and definitely ready for some sweet treats at this point. I was curious to see what Juan Mari and Elena were going to pull out of the bag given the high calibre of food so far. The first dessert was Roots, fruits and seeds, where a thin layer of white chocolate flavoured with parsley and filled with black chocolate emulsified with kuzu and lime flavour. This was served with Frangelico and Aperol balls. A scoop of pineapple sorbet was presented separately which balanced the sweet dish.


The second dessert and grand finale was the Golden footprint and ladybird. The caramalised fruits served under black sesame bread (the footprint) was delicious and I particularly liked the peach which was extremely sweet and melted in your mouth, almost like a mango purée. Additionally, there was a pepper and liquorice ladybird filled with vanilla yoghurt pannacotta and olive oil cristal. I must admit that whilst it didn’t visually capture me although I did find this humorous, I enjoyed the flavour combination of the components coming together. The accompanying passion fruit and banana ice cream was the icing on the cake.

P1120618At first glance I didn’t know what was being served with our coffee but I soon realised that they were petit fours. A bit more humour to finish the meal with chocolates from the Ferreteria (Spanish word for hardware store), which consisted of keys, bolts and screws!P1120588

My mind drifted back to the earlier conversation I had with Elena and Juan Mari as I reflected on the meal over my coffee. The cooking here was undoubtedly deeply rooted to the Basque heritage and they were rightfully proud of it. Without roots, Arzak could not exist. It was equally true that the quality and choice of ingredients available in the region puts restaurants like Arzak at a head start to produce great dishes like the ones I had for lunch. However, with an inquisitive mind that constantly strives for inspiration from beyond their native land, Juan Mari and Elena are a cut above the rest. It is the application of this curiosity and creativity into the deep roots of the Basque cuisine that make Arzak unique.

The food for me was delicious. Some of the flavours I encountered were completely alien to me, yet I also found some dishes to be familiar and comforting. Dishes like the ladybird brought out Juan Mari and Elena’s humour, but admittedly, without the detailed explanation from Elena, I’m not sure whether I would have captured some of the subtle cultural reference only a local would have picked up. One thing for certain however was that everyone around us, young or old, local or foreign, looked undeniably as happy as a kid in a candy shop. I know it’s selfish of me but a big part of me hopes that Elena will be joined in the kitchen by her kids in the future, just as she did with Juan Mari to maintain the roots and tradition of Arzak.

Amaroz, Tolosa

P1060094Chef: Unknown        Website:     Cuisine: Traditional Basque

Every so often in my food travels I like to avoid the fine dinning scene and see what the locals are enjoying on a daily basis. Invariably, I come across a hidden gem that few outside have ever heard of, and Amaroz in the town of Tolosa is no exception. With a concentration of some of the country’s best restaurants in the nearby city of San Sebastian, I’m not surprised to see why this place has remained the locals well kept secret for the last 40 years.

P1060037When we first arrived there was no one else to be seen (the spanish eat notoriously late), however after a quick manzanilla as an apperitif, there was soon a rapidly growing crowd. The restaurant can cater up to about 50 people and requires booking in advance for the weekends. The decor was simple and plain but the proprietors were very welcoming. We started the meal with a glass of  the local favourite of Txacoli wine while enjoying our appetisers.

P1060043Some nibbles to start of with including chistorra a la sidra. The tender pork meat was pan-fried lightly and then simmered in cider which is slowly added but frequently. Mopped up with some bread, this was a delicious starter to whet your appetite.

P1060053My favourite Basque dish, Kokotxas de Merzula en salsa verde. Kokotxas are essentially delicate pendulums of flesh growing in the throat of cod or hake, in this case the latter. The ones I had here were by far the best I’ve ever had. I found many places either overcooked them and added too much seasoning and parsley. This was delicate but had some texture, and the sauce was buttery with a good amount of seasoning.

P1060056Served together with the kokotxas was a plate of Almejas al ajillo. This was a beautiful simple dish where the clams were cooked in their own juice with some wine and parsley. When you have top quality ingredients, there’s no reason to complicate a dish.

P1060065Last of the starters – chipirones en su tinta. The squid was cooked in its own ink resulting in a black stew-like dish where the squid was tender. The black sauce was deceiving as it contained onion, tomato and herbs. It’s a rich tasting dish that requires some skill to prepare as unlike normal squid dish that takes few minutes to cook to avoid the chewy texture, this one is slow cooked for hours.

P1060071I personally chose the the merluza (hake) en salsa verde con almejas y kokotxas, mainly because I wanted to see how good the fish was given the superb quality of the kokotxas I had for starters. The hake was cooked perfectly and having had this dish a few times before, I particularly liked this dish over the other places I tried because you got a decent piece of fish with little distraction to the main component.

P1060076My partner opted for the Rodaballo al horno, which was turbot cooked in the oven. The fish again was lightly seasoned and stuffed with some crunchy garlic inside. This was definitely one of the best quality of turbot I’d tasted in Europe and could see why the Northern coast of Spain holds the title of the best seafood in Europe.

P1060092A light dessert of Mamia or Cuajada to finish the meal. This was a milk curd made from ewe’s milk, served with sugar in this case or sometimes honey and walnut. The curd is a product resulting from the coagulation of pasteurized milk, after having added a fermenting product called rennet, and was cooled to a temperature of 35 ° C. It was lovely to try one that was properly made from scratch.

I visited this place first time back in 2011 and have been going back whenever in the region. If you are looking for something casual but good honest food, I would recommend this place. It may be a bit out of the way but if you’re in that part of the world I would definitely suggest stopping by. It would be perfect for a casual family meal or a hearty lunch when traveling.