A meal that changed my life – Ireland’s top Japanese chef remembers an incredible destination
Michelin star chef, Takashi Miyazaki, muses on a dream-come-true trip to San Sebastián with a good friend to eat, drink and be merry.
In Feb 2019 I got an opportunity to visit San Sebastián for “research”.
My former head chef, Victor Barrado, was moving back to Zaragoza after working in Miyazaki for three years.
I had brought him to Japan just before I opened my new restaurant. He was going to take over as head chef and I wanted him to see and taste some real Japanese food.
As Zaragoza is not too far from Basque country and San Sebastián, I saw my opportunity. I asked him “Why don’t you be my guide in the Basque country? It’s your turn to be the guide now and your last job for Miyazaki!” So we booked a hotel for two nights.
I had always heard about the city even when I was in Japan. I remember my friend’s mother, who used to travel a lot by herself would return there again and again and then when I moved to Ireland, I was told by so many people about Basque Country and San Sebastián, that it’s a “gastronomic town”.
Then I bought a recipe book called Basque, Spanish recipes from San Sebastián & Beyond by José Pizarro. It’s a great book and I decided that I needed to go to there myself and taste this food that everyone was raving about.
My first Basque food experience was in Bilbao. We flew from Dublin to Bilbao and we were waiting for a bus to San Sebastián and had about 30 minutes to spare so I was easily persuaded to visit a pintxos bar or two.
A glass of Spanish beer and tiny slice of mushroom tortilla, anchovy on bread and olives. Everything was so simple and delicious.
The first bar was full of local students and felt like a canteen as it was lunch time. They were all having a small glass of beer with their pintxos. I thought that was so cool. Second one was also full of local and regular customers. That’s a sign of a good food spot.
The San Sebastián plan was all about sampling the city’s pintxos bars, but I knew I couldn’t visit without taking a little trip outside of the Old Town to a very special restaurant: Arzak.
We had booked a table for the first evening and when we opened the restaurant door who welcomed us with a smile? Only Elena Arzak herself. What a feeling, I felt like I was invited into their home.
Elena Arzak and Japanese chef Kei brought us on a tour of the place before dining. They showed us the amazing wine cellar and their food development lab. The lab was so cool and futuristic.
They have a whole food development team dedicated to food creation. One of the walls was covered with hundreds of crystal cells, each one filled with a different ingredient.
There was a framed photo on another wall with the development team staff and Elena in a leather jacket … what a ROCKSTAR! Seeing how they approached food really opened my mind. They were inquiring and experimenting with ingredients and they were also having the craic!
The whole meal and wine experience was so much fun. It’s a three-star restaurant but with no pretentiousness, just pure enjoyment.
I loved the baby eel on a tiny grill net cooked over charcoal. Potato alphabet cubes with truffle and egg yolk was one of my favourites, it was so simple but carefully cooked with the ingredients doing all the talking.
I will never forget head sommelier Mariano Rodríguez. He was interested in the types of wines we liked and based on that, paired the dishes. He was a great host too.
It was perfect and we didn’t feel stuffed or heavy after 12 courses in a three-hour dinner sitting. It is a great restaurant and when Elena wished us good night, I promised myself that I would go back again.
As soon as we got back to Old Town we started our pintxos bar tour! With only two nights, we had to sample as many as possible. Each bar has their own signature dish.
It was February so it wasn’t tourist season, and there weren’t many queues so we could move easily from place to place, sampling all the local food.
We started with Txakoli with sea urchin and foie gras in Bar Sport. Now that was a great start! We had octopus in Txuleta, wild mushroom with egg yolk in Ganbara and Casa Vergara, beautiful seafood pintxos in Atari and Sirimiri, various tortilla in Bar Antonio were a highlight of my day.
But I’m still thinking of the steak at Nestor. It could be one of the best steaks I have ever had in my life. We were asked to choose which steak we wanted, from the counter. We were served simple sliced tomato salad first, padrón pepper salad next. Then the steak. Everything was so simple and so tasty because the quality is the best. Steak, no sauce, just salt and pepper. Perfect.
I feel like San Sebastián is a Disneyland for brilliant food. The people there know their best local ingredients and how to use them and they have pride in their food and their cooking.
I will go back again for sure!
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