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Molecular Gastronomy in San Sebastián

Two temples of molecular gastronomy in Spain’s Basque Country.


It’s a stormy night. A traffic circle is packed with small European-looking minicars. As the camera descends, we see through the raindrops that one car is circling counterclockwise, weaving through the oncoming traffic amid honks and unintelligible cursing. This is JOHN and JANE SMITH, on their way to the formidable Spanish New Cuisine outpost Restaurante Martín Berasategui, the establishment belonging to the tiny Basque chef and culinary pioneer. It is one of several restaurants in Spain that have recently made the country a locus of food tourism. Not the kind of food tourism where you spend two weeks eating spaghetti across the spine of Italy or drinking wine as you bike down the gullet of the Loire Valley. This is the kind of food tourism where you eat at restaurants that make some of the craziest, newest, most inventive cuisine in the world, places where a tomato is turned into a cube of gelatin and a centrifuge is applied to a duck. It is for precisely this kind of food tourism that JOHN and JANE are here, and we see them now as the camera descends even farther, into the car, and we hear:


What? I just can’t read Spanish GPS!


I think they design European cities to test the bonds of marriage. Studies show that couples who can find their way to the top Spanish New Cuisine restaurants without decapitating each other are 79 percent less likely to get divorced.


I still don’t understand how one of the haute-est restaurants in the world can be located in what appears to be a midlevel Spanish retirement community.


That’s why I wanted to go to El Bulli. Ferran Adrià doesn’t make his exploding meatballs in a retirement community. Or even in San Sebastián. He makes them 100 miles north of Barcelona, in a beautiful modern kitchen in a Mediterranean village. Where we are not going.


Because I’m sure they could seat us by the time Sarah Palin makes her next run for the White House. It’s only open six months a year, and they get two million reservation requests for just 8,000 spots! Here we can eat at two Michelin three-star restaurants and spend a weekend, you know, in San Sebastián. Which is an excellent thing to do.

They’re still inching along in the wrong direction, cars honking all around them.


If we ever make it there, I want—no, scratch that, I demand—something that comes out of a centrifuge. I want food that you need a Ph.D. in physics to make. I want tuna tartare icicles frozen to zero on the Kelvin scale.


I promise you exploding ice cream made from parts of the cow you’ve never heard of. I promise you dust made from a small flower that grows only one day a year. I promise you something that used to be a tomato and now looks like a plastic teething toy.

Just then they hear that funny off-key European siren. A tiny and cute police car pulls them over and out walk two tiny and cute policemen. JOHN and JANE hold up a crumpled piece of paper with “Martín Berasategui” written on it. The police officers start laughing and tell JOHN and JANE that half the people lost in this part of town are looking for the same place. They indicate to our intrepid eaters that they should follow them.


Only in Spain would we get a police escort to dinner.


JOHN and JANE walk into a room that looks like the lobby of an expensive apartment building. An immaculately BLACK-CLAD MAITRE D’ approaches them, whispers a welcome, and leads them through a nearly empty dining room. It’s not that the tables are empty; it’s that there are not a lot of tables. No more than 15, evenly spaced, each strangely exposed, the whole space uncommonly bright, giving the feeling that you’re onstage.

JOHN (looking at his menu)

I hope you’re not hungry.


I’ve been starving myself for weeks for this meal. What are you talking about?

JOHN (reading from the front page of the menu)

“We would destroy the food if we offered more than three or four mouthfuls.” Fine. Then I reserve the right to eat a couple of destroyed slices of pizza after this.

They look around the room and see their fellow culinary travelers. They’re all speaking different languages, staring at their food like jewelers staring at a new diamond. Just then the immaculately BLACK-CLAD MAITRE D’ comes back to the table.

BLACK-CLAD MAITRE D’ (whispering)

We recommend the tasting menu: many appetizers chosen by the chef, five small main dishes, three desserts. Do you have any dietary restrictions?

JANE (starting to whisper, too)

I’m a vegetarian, but I eat fish.

BLACK-CLAD MAITRE D’ (whispering)

This is never a problem. But you eat foie gras, yes?

JANE (whispering harshly)

Yes, being a vegetarian means I only eat animals that are barbarically tortured before they’re killed for my pleasure. No, it means I don’t eat animals—

JOHN, sensing a storm brewing, decides to intervene.

JOHN (in a regular voice, which sounds strangely loud)

Can you recommend a wine to go with the meal?

Everyone in the restaurant turns around and glares at JOHN for having the temerity to speak at a conversational volume.


Absolutely. I would suggest this Rioja. It has a nice hug.

The BLACK-CLAD MAITRE D’ walks away to fetch wineglasses the size of bowling balls.


The wine has “a nice hug”? Do I look like I need a hug?


Everyone needs a hug, Jane. I feel like we should stop making jokes about people misusing English in countries where English is not actually the official language.


Where’s the fun in that? If I stop mocking the quadrilingual maître d’, what do I have left? I need this, John. I need this to feel superior, which is the whole point of travel in the first place.


Understood. I guess there are some things you can’t resist.


Like the description of this course: the “apple and forgotten tuber plate”? What was it, a foster potato? Its parents didn’t treat it like the others?

The meal proceeds with a seemingly never-ending parade of culinary works of art, like the forgotten tuber, which turns out to be something like a turnip. JOHN and JANE forget to talk, instead poking and prodding and devouring things like the deliciously crispy “mustard sandwich” and the seasonal vegetables with smoked jamón ibérico and the cream of lettuce hearts. Two gelatinous balls of olive juice in a fishy broth are brought out and consumed. As far as could be measured by the human senses, no one in the restaurant laughed, coughed, or seemed to have voice boxes at all.


Is everyone afraid of waking up the “farm’s egg”?


Maybe sound waves “destroy” food, too?


Here’s what it is: The food is the show. The food is onstage. It’s like going to a performance. You don’t talk during Rigoletto. That’s what this cuisine is all about. In other restaurants the conversation or the company or the quote-unquote experience is at the forefront. But people travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars getting here, and they’re not going to muck up the most exquisite meal of their lives by talking about what happened last night on Mad Men.


I’ll give you $100 if you can name the first course.


I think it was made out of yams? Or, actually, given the price of the tasting menu, I believe it was made of smelted euro coins.


It was peach gazpacho.


I’m full. Three bites times, what, 276 courses actually adds up.


Back on the streets of San Sebastián. The rain pours. The sea crashes into the retaining wall at the city’s edge, which isn’t actually near Arzak, the restaurant they’re going to, but is nonetheless pretty and what you come to San Sebastián to see.


JOHN and JANE are seated in a much more restaurant-y restaurant. In business for more than 100 years, Arzak was taken over in 1967 by CHEF JUAN MARI ARZAK, the grandson of the original owner, and he’s turned it into a jewel of contemporary Spanish food science. CHEF ARZAK, a close friend of Ferran Adrià, patrols the dining room in a chef’s tunic and smudgy eyeglasses, beaming a mischievous grin at every diner. His daughter, Elena, who he’s training to take over, follows him. The room is modern and sleek, mostly black and white, with screens and panels, like the interior of a chic advertising agency. Again the tasting menu is suggested, and the suggestion is taken, and there is more confusion about what a vegetarian is, but certainly you must at least eat ham because how can anyone live without ham? JOHN concurs; JANE rolls her eyes. The food begins to arrive: pigeon with goji berries, lobster in olive-oil dust that is reconstituted before their eyes, slices of beef on a “hoar-frost of rice.”


This is actually my favorite dish. This sashimi-grade yellowtail. It’s made out of butter.


I prefer staring at the customers.

He nods toward the table next to them, where there is apparently a meeting of the Ladies with Colorful Eyeglasses Association. (This, though, is an organization to which every woman in Spain evidently belongs.)

A waitress, wrapped in a black apronesque thing that looks like a nun habit designed by Yohji Yamamoto, brings dessert: a chocolate ice-creamy creation, with a nugget of dense pastry and a beaker of liquid which, when it’s combined, causes a chemical reaction that produces a sweet, cold, bubbly sauce and a great deal of fog.


Now I’m happy. If I fly to Spain for dinner, I want to risk an explosion or at least first-degree burns.

JANE (reading from the menu)

I love their impressionistic translations of the desserts. They’re like the titles of Richard Serra sculptures. Do we think this is the Charred Stick or the Fade Away?

CHEF ARZAK comes over. The three talk in broken French, since it’s the only language they all speak.


Tomorrow you must go to Ganbara tapas bar. It’s one of the best in San Sebastián.


How can you recommend tapas? That’s so traditional!


This kind of food makes you appreciate even more the tapas-and-beer lunch. And the other way around.

JOHN (picking up his wine goblet)

Praise the Lord! Destroyed food, here we come!

The tasting menu at Restaurante Martín Berasategui is about $200, a three-course dinner about $170 (4 Loidi Kalea, Lasarte-Oria; 34-943/366-471; martinberasategui.com). Arzak’s tasting menu is $220 (273 Avda. Alcalde José Elosegui; 34-943/278-465; arzak.es).

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