From eating part of a cock that I never thought would pass my lips, through 13 courses to petite fours, Martin Berasategui is an experience I shan’t forget
RESTAURANT: Martin Berasategui
LOCATION: Lasarte-Oria, Spain (near San Sebastian)
WORLD’S BEST RESTAURANTS RANK: 37 (2006), 27 (2007), 29 (2008), 33 (2009), 33 (2010), 29 (2011), 64 (2013), 35 (2014), 61 (2015), 59 (2016)
MICHELIN STARS: 3
FOOD STYLE: Contemporary Spanish
STANDOUT DISH: Vegetable hearts salad with seafood
TASTING MENU: Great Tasting menu €220 ($243) for 13 courses
Martin Berasategui. “Ber-ass-ah-tay-gee,” my taxi driver corrects my pronunciation. It’s a lot of syllables for one word, not very catchy, and I ponder the first impression made by naming a restaurant after yourself – not just your surname, like nearby Arzak, or the familiar first-name possessive loved by Italians, like Luigi’s or Roberto’s, but your whole name, and nothing but your name; no ‘Atelier de…’ or ‘Restaurant du..’. Is it a little unimaginative, a little bit ‘hairdresser’, a tad arrogant even? Or is it simplicity personified? One thing’s for sure, if you can get your tongue around the name of this restaurant, you’ll never forget who’s the genius behind it.
Pulling up outside, in the wealthy leafy suburb of Lasarte-Oria, 15 minutes from the centre of San Sebastian in Northern Spain, I’m surprised at just how suburban the setting is. Save for the large metal ‘Martin Berasategui’ signature skewered into the front lawn, it feels like my FD and I are approaching a neighbour’s place for lunch. Then, as we look around for a doorbell, the door swings open onto a different world entirely.
I was expecting a tiny dining room and no more than 14 or 15 tables (think the UK’s Fat Duck in Bray, another leafy ‘burb). But, no, Berasategui delivers ‘wow’ factor before we even take our first bite.
We’re led through light and airy reception, into a spacious dining room with sweeping curved walls, stone floors and large round tables topped with white linen and lilies, and then out onto a big terrace overlooking rolling hills and towering trees as far as the eye can see. The scent of freshly cut grass makes us think of childhood.
We decide to embark on the €220 ‘Great Tasting Menu’ and settle under our parasol to soak up the therapeutic greenery and an Adur 2014 Txakoli, pronounded chackoli, a premium version of the local Spanish ever-so-slightly fizzy white wine.
We’re quick to notice that all the waiters are approachable and friendly will displaying impeccable manners and silver service skills; they don white gloves before they touch a plate or piece of cutlery, they only ever hold one plate at a time, and each of our courses is placed and removed simultaneously by teams performing in unison. The choreography is impressive.
When opting for a lengthy tasting menu, to avoid becoming uncomfortably full, I promise myself not to eat the bread. How bad I am at doing this is in direct correlation to how good the bread is. Berasategui wins this round with perfectly crusty, chewy fresh-baked sourdough slices served with a slate of beetroot, spinach, mushroom and salted butters. The earthy mushroom is delicious, and the spinach and beet colouring give the dish far more visual impact than any plate of butter I’ve ever seen.
Here’s what follows:
‘Mille-feuille of smoked eel, foie gras, spring onions and green apple’
The caramelised topping makes this dish. From the swoosh of spring onion cream to the crisp slices of apple, every flavour stands its ground while working together harmoniously. Knockout in the first round!
‘Red shrimp Royale and dill with Venta del Baron oil’
Venta del Baron has been awarded the title of the World’s Best Olive Oils by the Oscars of the culinary oil world, The New York International Olive Oil Competition (yes, there is such a feat). This dish infuses the flavoursome oil into this angelic white foam concealing put lentils and the sweet red prawns of the region in a shellfish bisque sabayon. Heaven in a pot!
‘Caviar and turnip, with pork shank broth cubes and lemon’
Behind a window of razor-thin raw turnip carpaccio sits a pool of turnip cream studded with cubes of rich stock jelly, with a side-dressing of citrus foam and a generous dollop of Russian caviar. This is a phenomenal dish from every angle: the mix of textures (air, crunch, creaminess, pops of caviar) and the balance of flavours, from citrus acidity to mineral-rich alkaline root veg and roe.
‘Lightly marinated warm oyster with iced cucumber slush and K5, and spicy apple’
Where do these oysters come from? Heaven? The Japanese accents of yuzu and mirin, mixed with the spiced apple foam, really suit this fat crustacean. K5 is a premium brand of the local grape Txakoli, adding a classic shellfish in white wine vibe.
‘Beetroot juice and a diced raw horseradish in salad, taramasalata steeped in citrus’
Jellies feature regularly in Berasategui’s dishes. This one has a flat disk of beetroot jelly dotted with mild horseradish cream, a quenelle of diced vinaigrette-dressed beetroot, a ruby-coloured rhubarb emulsion (which tastes like beer, actually), and the star of the show, these little rolls of salmon roe cream. Salty salmon and earthy beetroot work so well together. The beet crisp on the side adds a pretty flutter, as well as a bit of crunch.
‘Vegetable hearts salad with seafood, cream of lettuce and iodized juice’
This dish is such a pretty little garden; translucent crescents of radish, chopped macadamia nuts, micro herbs, turnip carpaccio, green peas, avocado, edible petals, chunks of crab, lettuce cream and bisque cream decorate a thin base of clear tomato jelly. Every bite’s a delight.
‘Green and black olive with beef, caper and mustard’
This yolk-topped beef tartare wrap is one for serious meat lovers. The vinegars in this dish overpower my taste buds – a lot of strong flavours, from the cured meat to the olives spheres, are competing for attention here. The FD has to finish mine off – he doesn’t seem to mind.
‘“The Truffle” with fermented wild mushrooms and collard greens with Alma de Jerez oil’
This dish, our waiter tells us, has a secret ingredient – see if you can guess what it is. It’s a rich cornucopia of mushroom, with earthy fungus flavours in the soup, foam and peppery flower-spiked mushroom paté truffle in the centre, but there’s something else disguised among the slippery slices of mushroom under the foam. It has pointed edges like a star, and isn’t as easy to bite through as the mushrooms are, could it be… er… chicken…? Close… but not quite right… We’re informed that it’s the crest (or comb) of a rooster (or cock), that wrinkly shock of red flesh on the bird’s head. Eating this growth is – apparently – a thing. I’m trying not to think about it.
Alma de Jerez is another award-winning Spanish olive oil, “the result of the modern oliviculture… the fruits are harvested and grounded quickly to ensure the aroma and taste”. I’m still thinking about the cock’s comb.
‘Gorrotxategi egg resting on a liquid herb salad and dewlap carpaccio’
Dewlap is a loose fold of skin hanging from the neck of a bird or animal, in this dish, the pig, which provides the thin sheets of translucent pork fat gently resting over the top of the poached yolk of an egg from the local Gorrotxategi farm. Dressed with micro salad leaves and a disk of smoked spicy sausage, this dish is loaded with fatty fabulousness.
‘Roast hake fillet with truffled spinach, mellow spider-crab and sparkling K5’
Round 10 and I’m struggling as the portions seem to be getting bigger. (I knew I shouldn’t have eaten that bread.) It’s a classic grilled fish and veg combo cooked to perfection, but I should probably stop eating now.
‘Suckling lamb chop with Parmesan whey, fritter, and asparagus with citrus dressing’
The fish main is quickly followed by this final meat course; thankfully these little lamb chops are easy to polish off in just a few bites, and the presentation is superb. Anyone who can make chops look pretty deserves some serious back-patting.
‘Hot and liquid almond and cardamom soufflé with chocolate and crushed coffee and honey ice’
Just when you think you have no room left whatsoever, dessert comes and, hey, what the hell, you can squeeze it in. Worth every calorie, cutting into this golden soufflé is a true food porn moment (see my video below). Almond, chocolate, coffee, honey… who doesn’t love these flavours? Altogether on one plate? Even better.
‘Chocolate rock on salted quinoa, rum slush and hazelnut ice cream’
Why have one dessert, when you can have two. I think Berasategui must deliberately save the best until last so diners willingly burst through all belt-popping pain barriers to eat the last course. Salted desserts are my thing, and hazelnut ice cream – hello!
Anyone got any plates like this at home? No. Thought not.
Having dined at more than 20 of the World’s Best Restaurants so far, Martin Berasategui is straight into my top five, and my absolute favourite in Spain. ✪
WORLDINER ADDRESS BOOK
Calle de Loidi, 4, 20160 Lasarte-Oria, Gipuzkoa, Spain, +34 943 36 64 71, martinberasategui.com