With 2 Michelin Stars and clocking in at number 9 on Pellegrino’s World Top 50 list, to say I was excited to finally dine at Mugaritz would be a vast understatement. Mugaritz is one of the ‘big 4’ (my own moniker) near San Sebastian. The other 3 being Arzak, Azurmendi and Asador Extebarri. Although I wanted to dine at all 4 I was only able to secure reservations at Mugaritz partly because 2 of them were closed for the month of August. Mugaritz has been one of those restaurants that I have wanted to dine at for years. So on this trip I prioritized securing reservations and planed the trip around our time in San Sebastian. When the day finally arrived I was almost giddy. Since Mugaritz is in the countryside outside of San Sebastian I decided that this would be the perfect day to take the car out and visit Pamplona. On our way to Pamplona we had a nice lunch at a 1 Michelin starred, family owned restaurant called Alameda. Although that’s not the restaurant I’m reviewing here I have to say that Alameda was fantastic and definitely worth returning. Anyway after a flash visit in Pamplona we arrived at Mugaritz for our 8pm dinner reservation.
Mugaritz’s location is extremely secluded. The setting is beautiful and pastoral. We entered the restaurant and were shown our table. At each service the restaurant serves 55 people or 16 tables, whichever comes first. I think I counted 14 tables this dinner service. After being served an acceptable glass of Cava the server came by to explain to us how it works. He said that each table gets a slightly different menu depending on the availability of the products they have and that our menu this evening consisted of 25 courses. He said they would bring a menu for us later as they were still ironing our some of the later courses. I have to confess that all of this sounded amazing. My excitement was growing! We were then offered a tour of the kitchen, standard for every guest.
They write on the blackboards a list of all the dishes they have that night. I was explained that it’s someone’s job to then take the list of all available dishes and how many of each they have that night along with the list of the dining room with any dining restrictions and fit the puzzle together. It’s an amazing system that affords the restaurant the flexibility to make a dish or use ingredients from their gardens even if they don’t have enough to make it for 55 people. This kitchen makes over 1500 dishes every at every service. I of course asked my server how many chefs are working to accomplish this feat. He told me that including the prep cooks there are about 40 chefs working each day. To serve two services of 55 people, amazing. I have to note that Mugaritz costs about half of what the Paris institutions cost. The economics of this works because many of the cooks are probably there for free. And by free I mean don’t even get paid a housing allowance. This is a part of the industry that I hate but hard to argue against it if both parties want agree to the deal (I’ll never work do it).
Anyway, the dinner commenced with a mussel that wasn’t a mussel. I normally don’t like dishes are meant to deceive you but being the first dish I actually enjoyed it. It also helped that it wasn’t a strange unnatural dish it was merely a lookalike. It was a glazed piece of squash.
One thing to note was that at the beginning of the meal they warned us that the majority of the dishes wouldn’t be accompanied by any flatware, i.e we would be using our hands. This was in fact how it turned out including sticky messy dishes. The only time we were given utensils was when there was any sort of soup.
The dinner progressed with an unending flow of small bites some very good some not good at all. The second dish was a sandwich of chicken cartilage. I’m fairly adventurous with what I eat and although I have no problem munching through the cartilage of a chicken wing it’s not something I find any sort of pleasure from. And the table next to me definitely didn’t wither as almost all of them left that dish intact. In fact, the most fun part of my evening was watching them. It was an English family of 5 with two older daughters and a small boy of about 10. I witnessed that kid abruptly get up and go to the bathroom in a hilarious and obvious move to go spit out a dish that he decided wasn’t worth swallowing. It was hilarious in part because he had the sensibility not to spit it out on at the table so he calculated that the next best thing would be to go the bathroom.
One thing to note about the dishes was that there was no flow or organization to the meal. It seems like they have their master list of dishes for the night and then randomize them to create your experience. The best dessert we had somewhere in the middle of the meal and consisted of a small jar made of sugar filled with pine nuts and a crème anglaise type sauce that you had to break and mash into some ice shavings to make a cold pine nut ice cream type soup. It was weird but really good. The only problem was that it came in the middle before a beef marshmallow that was one of the bites I mentally placed in the terrible category. Beef and marshmallow just don’t belong on the same planet. I feel like the chef at Mugaritz believes that just because you have great ingredients you can combine them in any whimsical and seemingly randomized way and make great food.
Now that I’m pointing out the negative aspects of the meal I have to mention what my friend and myself, decidedly, found to be the worst part of the meal, the worst dessert we’ve ever had in our lives, and also a moment that has brought on fits of laughter ever since. Our server made a show of pointing out that everything must come to a close. In Spanish it makes more sense because we say, “punto final.” So they take the closing point and for the last dish serve you a plate with a dot. That’s it. About a tablespoon size amount of some sauce or syrup. I was surprised but also impressed by the chef’s confidence in whatever that sauce might be, it must be amazing to serve it alone right? Wrong! The server explained that this was “Essence of Hen.” “Excuse me?” I replied, secretly hoping that something was lost in translation. “Female chicken, ” replied the server. So there we were with about a table spoon of chicken glace for dessert. For those of you who don’t know what chicken glace is, eat a bullion cube straight up and you’ll understand. But here we were at the 9th best restaurant in the world so I ate the chicken glace, with my fingers of course as no utensils accompanied it. It was salty, extremely concentrated chicken stock. I’m sure that I could use that same glace as a base for a terrific gravy. But to serve it, as is, to my guests, for dessert no less, is a cruel joke. Also worth noting that there is no skill in making chicken glace. Just take a nice chicken stock and reduce it until it becomes syrupy (syrupy consistency comes from the natural gelatin in chicken).
Well there you have it. I wasn’t sure what to think of the meal when I left. I still don’t really. I keep asking myself how anyone could rate this restaurant as 9th in the world. It was the worst meal of my trip. Including the lunch I had that very day. Heck including the free great breakfast buffets I had in my hotels. I’ve had multiple bad experiences in high-end restaurants in Spain and I’m beginning to see a pattern. Spain has the most molecular gastronomy holdouts, as I like to call them. Restaurants that refuse to accept that the trend has come to a close. In the US the most molecular gastronomic restaurant we have is by a Spanish chef (Jose Andres’s MiniBar). Mugaritz wasn’t molecular gastronomy yet it took some of the principles of turning everything on its head and ran with it way too far. I hate to say that becasue from the low end to your classic high end restaurants Spain is second to none. The problem only arises when you get to your 3 Michelin type restaurants. Here’s to hoping that Rene Redzepi can eclipse Ferran Adrià when it comes to influencing the world gastronomic scene!