A couple of days ago I made a rather distressing discovery - my favourite pair of skinny jeans no longer fit me, depressingly they didn’t even get past my thighs. Frankly it was hardly a surprising development, devouring three, six course tasting menus in the space of a week, indulging my predilection for cream and butter, coupled with an unhealthy consumption of alcohol were inevitably going to lead to unwanted yet predictable consequences. I acknowledged, albeit grudgingly, that some drastic action was needed.
Like most of the population I have a fairly ambivalent attitude towards diets. If I do embark on one I personally opt for the short, sharp, shock treatment. A regime that delivers fast results as opposed to months of dithering around half eating what you want on a so-called sensible eating plan. Faced with a similar predicament this time last year I packed myself of to a Thai yoga retreat where I embarked on a week long fast consuming only water and vile green herbal concoctions. My husband whooped with laughter when I told him of my intentions, as did most of my friends and family who thought the idea absurd. However, much to everyone’s amazement including mine, I lasted the entire week, dropped 6 pounds, felt vibrant and energized and if money and time was no object I’d be on the next plane over.
This time round I’m putting my faith in David Kirsch, fitness guru to the stars and author of the New York Body Plan. His two-week intensive regime advocates an hour and a half of exercise each day combined with a low carbohydrate-eating plan, which in truth entails cutting out anything pleasurable from your diet. It is extreme enough to capture my attention yet the science behind it appears relatively sound– eat little + exercise excessively = lose weight.
I’m only two days in and whilst the exercise regime is gruelling it is the cooking sans any type of fat, including olive oil, that I am finding most challenging. The first nights offering of ‘turkey lasagne’, taken from the suggested list of recipes, has no resemblance to any lasagne I’ve ever encountered. Being the sole cook in our household my naturally slender and supportive husband is privy to all my weird diets and strange food fads. Last nights offering however was enough to send him to the nearest McDonalds.
I would like to think that I have the requisite discipline and dedication to stick to this stringent plan however I have a sinking feeling that my resolve might be weakening. Today I had a banned substance – coffee (forgive me Mr Kirsch but my life is incomplete without my regular caffeine hit). I also gave up half way through my second workout of the day.
Although I only have 11 days to go I’m beginning to develop obsessive thoughts about food – what I’m going to eat, when I’m going to eat, how much I’m going to eat…Only time will tell whether this regime will be effective although I can rest assured that this time next year I will be in exactly the same predicament. I better start saving for a trip to Thailand.
Mugaritz - San Sebastian
Should a meal be a cerebral activity, an exercise in mental dexterity and one that challenges and confronts. Or should its main purpose be in bringing pleasure to the diner by offering excellent service, flawlessly cooked food encompassing familiar tastes and flavours, enjoyed in a comfortable, salubrious setting?
Because I had not yet been jolted out of my culinary comfort zone I didn’t feel that I was in the position to make a valued judgement. This was not for lack of trying. For years I had failed to execute the necessary traits of patience and perseverance to secure a table at the two bastions of cutting edge cuisine - El Bulli and The Fat Duck. As a consequence I knew that I would have to widen my search and this led me to Mugaritz. From all the reviews, forum discussions and word of mouth recommendations it seemed a natural choice. The credentials of the chef, Adoni Aduriz, appeared ideally suited to what I was looking for - he has been hailed as a culinary wizard who takes a scientific approach to cooking (a protegee of Ferran Adria). Aduriz even went so far as doing a two year stint at a liver research clinic so that he could better understand the complex workings and composition of this organ. He later applied these principles to foie gras and has been consequently hailed as the “foie gras king”.
Mugaritz is situated in the outskirts of San Sebastian a 30 minute drive from the centre, past some rather depressing housing projects and up a winding hill. Nothing strikes you as unusual when you first enter the space, with its high ceilings and rustic yet contemporary decor. However when the door slams menacingly behind you and the chairs let out an angry screech when you take your seat an eerie mood envelopes, one that is strangely unsettling. A fork hanging from a noose in the centre of the table and a series of place cards with the words “150 minutes…to submit” and “150 minutes…to rebel” further testify that this is going to be no ordinary experience. From a trip to the ladies I also notice the strange inclusion of toothbrushes, am I supposed to brush my teeth between courses?
Despite these unusual touches the wait staff immediately put us at ease with their gracious and friendly manner. We collectively decide on the longer tasting menu out of the two and wait in anticipation for the theatre to begin.
Unlike Arzak’s exuberant amuses bouches, Adoni sends out a succession which have a more serious and restrained character. Subtlety of taste is exemplified in a silky garlic consommé which elicits positive comments all round. The first course continues the minimalist theme - a simple salad composed of lovage leafs, parsley puree, with some white truffles shavings. Sublime.
However just as an air of relaxed informality descends on our table we are confronted with a Japanese delicacy- sea urchin gonads covered in a soy lactose infused with ginger. Unlike the previous nights fish offal offering, Monkfish liver, which is integrated into the dish in a familiar way, the gonads covered in a milky slime possess an alien texture. It is not a truly unpleasant taste due to the predominance of ginger which masks a lot of the ingredients, however I wouldn’t want seconds.
Crushed potatoes, broken eggs and vegetable coal dressed with a garlic protein follows and proves to be an interesting expression on a traditional combination. Spanish chefs seem to be notoriously good with eggs and these were no exception - runny yolks and firm hard whites. The truffle infused potatoes are glossy and moreish. The vegetable coal is also surprisingly edible - rich, dark and musky, yet there was no discernible taste which revealed its original source. It left me pondering what I had just put in my mouth.
Two exceptionally flavourless fish dishes arrived hereafter. The first being Sea Scallops with amaranth in a clay sauce. The clay, as you would imagine had a non descript, claggy texture and also had the undesirable effect of sticking to the roof of your mouth. At least it was now clear why the toothbrushes may have come in handy. An equally disappointing dish of hake (a substitute for the rouget) was bland and dull, even with the saffron infusion. It prompted one of the diners to question the use of such a cheap fish, one which is cheap for good reason - its not very good.
The Escalope of foie gras helped to partially restore my faith in the kitchen. It was the most eagerly anticipated dish of the evening and exceeded all expectations. Adoni’s knowledge rendered this usually rich, fatty organ into a feather light,spongy one whilst still managing to retain its decadent glorious character. It is the best preparation of foie gras I have ever tasted.
It was the following course however, which I took issue with. I’m not at all squeamish, I’ll put almost anything in my gob providing it tastes good, yet the next dish truly stumped me - lamb’s trotter braised in a salted toffee of lactose and fresh cream and a ragu of beets. Incidentally the idea of the trotter did not actually offend or repel, however the first taste did, which was gloopy, gelatinous and strangely flavourless. It provoked an even stronger reaction amongst my fellow diners who put their cutlery down in unison and pronounced it inedible. I ploughed through hoping that I would discover some hidden meaning lurking behind its sinewy mass, is the chef trying to tell us something, is he fucking with us? Maybe he knows that most people will send it back relatively untouched, is this what he wants? We toy with all these possibilities when trying to understand the intentions behind this seriously vile concoction.
Our thoughts were interrupted by a plate of well selected and balanced cheeses accompanied by a pretty side dish of condiments. Thus affording a brief moment of respite before the onslaught of deserts. A pistachio cake with an ice thawing, a kind of frothy melting snowball. The taste is subtle and delicate and is shortly followed by the second desert - grounds of espresso coffee upon chilled cocoa juice, chicory cream with farmhouse natural milk skin. Both deserts possess a lightness and simplicity to them which is a refreshing change from the usual offerings heavily reliant on cream and sugar.
Whilst you might not relish every single dish that Adoni creates his food has a real poetry to it, which is at times unsettling, at times unpalatable, at times enjoyable and sometimes all three. I wrongly assumed that because he trained under Ferran Adria he would be producing culinary fireworks - exploding deserts, flamboyant platings, dreamt up in a science lab. Instead his dishes have a refined and pure sensibility to them which is so Zen-like it verges on the pretentious. The flavours are sometimes overly subtle to the point of nothing going on, in particular the fish and seafood courses, however I can decipher the integral point he is trying to make; which is the purity of ingredients, untainted by over saucing and seasoning.
Mugaritz did transport me out of my comfort zone and perhaps not in the way that I had anticipated. However, whilst it made me contemplate different flavors, tastes and textures I found the experience ultimately lacking. The philosophy and thought process behind his creations are intriguing yet the food itself is underwhelming. This leads me back to the original question; the cerebral versus the enjoyable. Of course, for a meal to be truly great it must have elements of both.