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Enjoying Traditional San Sebastián

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Photo: Javier Salas

The very first thing I put in my mouth exploded. There was a series of explosions, in fact, disorienting and strangely delicious, taking place as I swallowed a melon ball filled with sheep’s-milk cheese and…Pop Rocks? Smiling—actually amused by my “amuse-bouche”—I surveyed the room at Arzak, in San Sebastián, where the lunchtime crowd in the small, square space was buzzing in anticipation, ordering wine, waiting for the show to begin. And then came the lobster with powdered olive oil, re-liquefied with onion broth poured by the waiter, and the translucent, luminescent plate (battery-powered, maybe?) of roasted figs and pomegranate seeds, and the poached egg on top of an intensely flavorful square of crisp chicken skin and covered with a thin sheet of freeze-dried egg yolk, and a beautiful piece of tuna in bright-green cucumber sauce, and so on and so forth, through 11 courses, and after a while the mind boggles. Or mine did, helped along by a few glasses of Rioja Alta. Soon I was in a state of mild delirium, high on food and in awe of the wily ingenuity of the chefs, so eager to please and yet also to provoke, comforting you with rich, traditional Basque flavors while smacking you upside the head with some remarkable new texture or combination or foam-bubble extravaganza, and then stopping you cold with the most perfect and subtle and delicate fish or quail imaginable.

Trace elements of theater can be found in many a restaurant experience, but this was a full-blown opera buffa, all dramatic extravagance and outsize gestures and cosmic, libidinous pleasure. By the time we got to dessert—cold, soft marbles of liquid chocolate, roasted pineapple with corn ice cream, a glass of overflowing pineapple bubbles (something out of Roald Dahl)—bliss had descended on our table. I’ve never had a more entertainingly delicious meal.

At some point during lunch I noticed several Scandinavians at a nearby table taking loving snapshots of their plates, recording the meal for posterity. Arzak is that kind of restaurant—visited from afar, celebrated by connoisseurs. Not that I’m a connoisseur, exactly: no food photography for me. But I did come to eat. San Sebastián (or Donostia, in Basque) has long been known for its seafood and for the produce grown on lush, hilly farmland, and more recently as an epicenter of Spain’s new-wave cuisine, of molecular gastronomy, of Michelin-starred restaurants. Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli is 350 miles away on the Mediterranean, but it was here in Basque Country, on the Atlantic coast not far from the French border, that the first incarnation of the so-called nueva cocina vasca appeared in the 80’s.

There is a strong sense of optimism in the city, that after a rocky transition to democracy in the post-Franco era (the general died in 1975) and an extended struggle with the violent Basque separatist group ETA (which has called off the 2006 cease-fire but is generally considered a waning force in contemporary Spain), San Sebastián’s time has come. The small, wealthy city is in quiet transition, recapturing its glory days as the preferred summer resort of the Spanish aristocracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and of Franco in the 50’s and 60’s. Today, it has been reawakened by the creativity and global, mediagenic appeal of its chefs and its astonishing food.

My wife has longtime, globally circuitous connections to San Sebastián: Yumi is Japanese and grew up in Tokyo attending an international school run by Spanish nuns; she spent summer after summer here as a kid and teenager, staying with the family of one or another of the sisters, reading Jane Austen novels and going to the beach and perfecting her Spanish. We would meet many of her family friends on this trip—nuns, and brothers and cousins and friends of nuns—all warm and welcoming, and eager to dote on our young daughter, Sachi, sitting outside at various cafés along the central Avenida de la Libertad or under the arcades around the Plaza de Guipúzcoa, or at a bar for a glass of wine and pintxos (Basque for tapas) among the pedestrian-only streets of the Parte Vieja (Old Town).

And San Sebastián is indeed the sort of town that seems custom-built for lingering outside, on the way to the beach or on the way to lunch, or on the way to nowhere at all. It’s a small city—population under 200,000—with an ambling, cosmopolitan air about it, a low-key sophistication that belies its size. The place is small and walkable, built at the mouth of the Río Urumea (traversed by a series of pretty bridges) and concentrated around the Bahía de la Concha and the broad and sandy beach that rings it. It is here, in 1888, that King Alfonso XII built the Palacio de Miramar, for years the summer residence of the royal family.

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