SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — Some cultures take their food more seriously than others, but the Spanish may be leaders of the pack. Travelers have been coming here for the last 25 years to experience not only the growing sophistication of regional cuisine but also the miracle of molecular gastronomy.
When my daughter, Madeline, announced that she wanted to spend a college semester in Madrid, I needed no more excuse to research a trip to northern Spain's Basque country, where even fare at local bars is haute and Michelin-starred restaurants inspire gushing coverage among global media.
As we shuttled between Bilbao and San Sebastian, my husband, Steve, our daughter and I attempted to deny our American instincts — speedy, efficient consumption of sugar, salt and fat — and immerse ourselves in a culture in which cooking and eating fall somewhere on the spectrum between art and sport.
We snacked at a museum cafe, consumed a 13-course meal over the course of four hours, gorged on sweets from a chocolate shop and marveled at the elegance of a hamburger as interpreted in a tiny bar. Each techno-infused starter, each multifaceted entree, each whimsical dessert was thoughtfully prepared and presented. After a few days of feasting, our expectations of what restaurant fare could be — and should be — were inextricably altered.
What follows is a diary of sorts that chronicles our efforts to consume a lifetime's worth of calories in a matter of days.
After a train ride from Madrid to Bilbao, we bungled our way through city streets to reach the Guggenheim Museum. Outside, we greeted Jeffrey Koons' flower-bedecked "Puppy" and "Maman," Louise Bourgeois' enormous bronze spider, but we needed sustenance before we plunged inside.
Our expectations of the museum cafe were modest, but the pintxos — the Basque answer to tapas — were the first of many revelations on the trip. (Once we read that legendary chef Martin Berasategui had consulted on the food at the Guggenheim, it all made sense.) We took our gazpacho, chunks of potato omelet (tortilla Española), cod balls and bread to the terrace and marveled at the brilliance of our selections.
Our impromptu picnic fueled a two-hour exploration of the museum's permanent collection. We wanted to linger, but we had a date in the nearby seaside resort city of San Sebastian.
The drive from Bilbao took about 80 minutes on easy stretches of well-maintained highways, and we arrived at the Hotel Londres with a couple of hours to prepare for the big event. Our large-by-European-standards room, with a king-size bed and a couple of armchairs, allowed for some quiet contemplation of what awaited us at 8:30 p.m.
We had reserved a table at Arzak, a temple of high-tech cuisine, where common (and some not-so-common) ingredients are assembled in highly unusual ways. One dessert, called Golden Footprint and Ladybird, included caramelized fruits served with black sesame bread (the "footprint") and included a "licorice ladybird (or ladybug) filled with yogurt and olive oil crystal."
Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold had recommended Arzak, a restaurant graced with three Michelin stars, emphasizing the influence and import of this 116-year-old institution and its pioneering chefs, Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena. But the novices were not prepared for the experience that was to come.
We were seated in a small dining room that provided our first glimpse of Arzak craftsmanship: The decor, in shades of gray and mauve, was soothing; the wall panels with embedded eating utensils, inspired; the lighting behind opaque panels, optimal.
We studied the menu, slightly overwhelmed and unable to commit. Then Steve said, "Let's do the tasting menu."
Extraordinary? Yes. But it was also a bit of an endurance contest, and for anyone considering entering the race, a few words of advice from one of the rubes: Pace yourself.
Dinner included kabrarroka pudding with kataifi (a fish terrine of sorts wrapped with a phyllo-like pastry that looks like shredded wheat); crispy manioc (cassava) hydrated with huitlacoche (corn fungus) and stuffed with a preparation of onion, green tea and foie gras; and poached lobster served with edible "clothespins" made from lobster stock and gelatin.
At different points in the evening, Juan Mari and Elena greeted customers and asked where they were from. When we said, "Los Angeles," Juan Mari then smiled and mentioned a recent visit to L.A. "Lakers," he said, nodding sagely. "Pau."
The dinner continued: white sole, lamb with fried grapes and longan, Kobe's Beer (a meat lollipop, served with a licorice bark bone). I was crawling to the finish line, managing to taste only a bite of each of the final courses. Restaurant personnel appeared at my side to ask whether something was wrong. Did I require something else? (Only an ability to increase the size of my stomach.)
During the dessert course (I chose Playing Marbles With Chocolate — liquid-filled chocolate balls served with amaranth and oregano sauce), we noticed that it was midnight and that the other patrons had departed. At 12:30 a.m., after we signed a credit card slip that was about a third of our monthly mortgage, we started to make our way outside. Juan Mari and Elena hugged us, listening to Steve's story of lost luggage and counseling him on his next moves.
Steve was smiling as we climbed into a cab. "I think they liked talking to us," he said. Perhaps. My guess is that they were smiling at the anticipation of our departure.
The next morning, we passed on a formal breakfast and dined on coffee and crackers. We vowed to spend the day fasting or eating raw vegetables, yogurt and hummus.