After lamenting about the fact Juan Mari’s legendary Arzak is closed for the only days we are in San Sebastian, we quickly get over it by booking a reservation at another famed 3-star Michelin restaurant in the area - Pedro Subijana’s 35 year old institution Akelare.
Overlooking the Bay of Biscay on Mount Igueldo (Subijana’s hometown) and accessible only via a 15-minute curvy hillside drive from the center of town, we know we have hit the scenery jackpot as we step in the restaurant with its large glass panels. I don’t think there is a single bad seat in the house.
Subjian’s focus is modern Basque cuisine. Unlike some chefs who practice molecular gastronomy under a serious guise, we immediately realize this veteran chef flexes his chemistry knowledge with a cheeky sense of humor.
Enter the 4 amuse bouches that look like products straight from your bathroom.
My first thought is “gimmicky,” while my second thought is “this man knows his food is so good he can taunt us with the first course, knowing we will stay for the rest.” My favorite is the sea-like tasting bath salts wrapped in clear edible rice paper, although the face cream, I mean Idiazabal cheese concoction, is tasty if you convince yourself you are not ingesting Pond’s Cold Cream. The red cocktail disguised as mouthwash is too close to the real thing, leading to a Pavlovian-type expectation I had better get a lollipop after drinking this.
Enough with the shenanigans. In addition to the a la carte menu, there are two tasting menus from which to choose. My eating companion and I each pick one of the tasting menus so between the two of us, we can polish off 16 courses.
I am off to a strong start with the prawns cooked table-side over hot rocks.
Just as I am reveling over the magnificent presentation of my shellfish, the waiter is serving the table next to us three translucent globes that resemble a gummy translucent version of Gandalf’s crystal ball. Thanks for one-upping us, table 4 with your flippin’ crystal ball and impeccable Spanish.
I inquire and apparently there is a roasted lobster somewhere in the sphere-like concoction. The ball encapsulating the lobster is the work of some wizardry involving helium and a microwave.
Before I can think any more about the ball, we are bombarded with our own beauty pageantry of food ranging from seafood to meats.
The charcoal grilled lamb paired with a wine extract and a mildly sweet cotton candy/hay-textured log (that is supposed to resemble sediment crystals on top of a melted bottle, but I don’t really see it) is the last of the savory dishes on my tasting menu and my favorite.
I never search out edible paper that tastes like a slippery textured fruit leather, which explains why course 8 of 8 entitled “a different apple tart” left me longing for more. I am not a dessert traditionalist by any means, but the lack of a single apple inside the edible paper/flaky pastry had me craving an apple galette from Spain’s neighbor to the north.
At the end of the meal, Subijana, decked out in chef’s attire and a hearty smile, comes out to shake our hands and inquire about our experience. I am stoked to see he still commands the kitchen after all these years. With his curvy mischievous moustache and sparkly youthful eyes, I can see a clear connection between this man and his food creations.