Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Mugaritz - A Bad Day At The Office

I've wanted to eat at Mugaritz for quite a while, for a whole clutch of reasons. For a start off, Executive Chef/Patron Andoni Luis Aduriz has the kind of CV that reads like the Michelin Guide to the Basque Country and Catalunya - having trained at Ramón Roteta, Zuberoa Jatetxea, Neichel, Arzak, Akelarre, El Bulli and Restaurante Martin Berasategui - with Madrid's El Amparo thrown in for good measure.

Restaurant Magazine's San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants listSecondly, Aduriz has been described as one of Spain's most intelligent chefs by Heston Blumenthal - akin to having been called super-fast and stylish by Enzo Ferrari. Mugaritz has been showered with accolades and great reviews in the trade press, the news media and on the food forums. And it was recently voted Chef's Choice in Restaurant Magazine and rose from last year's 7th place to an incredible 4th spot in the magazine's San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list for 2008.

Finally and most importantly, experiencing Mugaritz was strongly recommended to me by two chefs whose opinions I respect deeply: Nuno Mendes of Bacchus and my boss Arnau Muñío of Comerç 24, along with many fellow food bloggers. So when the opportunity arose for me to meet Andoni Aduriz and Head Chef Llorens Sagarra, look round the kitchens and sample the 11-course Naturan tasting menu last week, it really didn't need a second thought.

Having bedded into my hotel in Donostia-San Sebastián the previous day, I set off on the short journey to the small town of Errenteria with a big, happy smile of eager anticipation. And that's where the value of research raised its ugly head. If only I'd read Simon Wright in Caterer And Hotelkeeper before setting out: "...the journey to Mugaritz takes you up into the hills of the Basque country. Climbing the mountains into the sun it's possible to feel the stress ebbing away. It's possible, but not assured. Already 10 minutes late for my booking, I sit contemplating the same fork in the road I've seen twice before... I've bought a map but not, it transpires, for this part of the planet. Mugaritz isn't exactly anywhere." Wright was not wrong. Mercifully, I was in a taxi for the ascent of Everest and not on foot.

The view from my table at Mugaritz
After such an inauspicious start, the warm and welcoming ochres and russets of my destination farmhouse beamed at me like a re-housing invitation to a new-born baby. I was in like a shot. And so much stress ebbed away in those first seconds that I resisted opening the "150 mins... rebel!" envelope on my table and settled for the "150 mins... submit!" invitation instead. It certainly did the trick. Or maybe it was the beaming smile from the Maître d' and the large glass of cava. Either way, it was an excellent start to the evening. I was made to feel very welcome on arrival, despite having had to call ahead to alert them of my delay. I guess they're used to customers getting lost.

Ceramic potatoThe snacks (in Spain, we tend not to refer to them as amuses-bouche) were gambitas, deep-fried to perfection and served with the advice that they should be eaten whole, starting with the head. Very good. Next up was one of Andoni's signature dishes - ceramic potato with alioli sauce. After much anticipation of this dish - in which a potato is coated with a thin layer of porcelain clay and fired to create a crunchy skin - I must confess to being distinctly underwhelmed. Perhaps they could have employed the same technique with something a little more exciting. Freeze-dried strawberry, perhaps?

It was time to move on to the menu proper. I was delighted to see a menu written simply, with language translations and with copies to take away. Disappointingly in this day and age it was without allergy advice, though I have no doubt they would have handled me perfectly had I not been an omnivore.

I asked for paired wines and the sommelier was not in the slightest bit hesitant to offer recommended accompaniments which he described and explained very well. The wine list presented for me to take home revealed the earthy, mineral Austrian Wachau Nikolaihof "Hefeabzug" Grüner Veltliner, the rich and fruity Alsatian Albert Mann Pinot Blanc Auxerrois, a prize-winning white Rioja Tierra de Fernández Gómez, the soft earthy Cantabrian Liébana Santiano Dobarganes Vega "Lusía", the deep complex Málagan Los Bujeos "Pasos Largos", a light fruity "new Málagan" from the enfant terrible of Spanish viniculture Telmo Rodríguez and, as a dessert wine, the Andalucían amber sherry Alvear "Pedro Ximénez de Añada" from Montilla-Moriles in Córdoba.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The tasting menu proper started with "flowers, flowers, flowers..." – which comprised shavings of artichoke with a variety of edible flower petals. Clever enough to surprise the diner who's forgotten that artichoke is a thistle flower rather than a vegetable, but not clever enough to hold my attention beyond the first ten bites, I'm afraid. Too dominated by the artichoke and not much else. Far too one-dimensional for my taste.

Taro and coconut on grilled sardine iceAny boredom with the previous dish was quickly dissipated by Menú Naturan's second offering – crunchy bites of taro and coconut over a grilled sardine ice (an idea reminiscent of grilled sardine ice cream from the Coromoto gelatarias). The pure flavours of the fish ice, taro and coconut complemented each other perfectly and the crunchiness of the coconut together with the ice worked really well. Overall the dish was so excellent that I hesitate to be picky - but as a chef you notice even the slightest imperfection. The plate arrived with condensation on the rim, indicating that it had been removed from the fridge at the last minute but not checked thoroughly enough.

The excellent taro and coconut was followed by a complimentary dish from Llorens – an assortment of herbs and vegetables with Basque Idiazábal sheep's milk. Exquisitely and precisely arranged (by four chefs simultaneously, as I was later informed by Chef Llorens), the leaves and flowers had incredible flavours and textures, offering something new and interesting with every bite. By this stage I was revelling in the quality of the dishes placed before me. Little did I realise that the remainder of my evening would be characterised by disappointment.

The "vegetable carpaccio" dish was watermelon, which even despite the best efforts of the Oklahoma State legislature came as something of a surprise. Or rather, it would have come as a surprise if I'd been able to identify the red strips on my plate. To my palate it neither tasted of watermelon nor resembled the fruit in texture, so it was only on enquiry to the waitress that I discovered its secret. This third item on the menu arrived far too quickly because, presumably, the kitchen failed to adjust their timing to allow for the preceding complimentary dish. The misnomer, by the way, was due to an error in translation from the original menu. In Castellano, the word "vegetal" is the adjective for any edible plantlife, including vegetables, fruits and flowers.

Roasted baby leek hearts in a razor clam stockDish four - roasted heart of baby leeks bathed in a stock infused with molluscs - was simple in concept and technique, but not executed well enough to justify or compensate for such simplicity. Some of the baby leeks were squeaky to the bite and I was embarrassed to discover that the razor clams weren't cleaned properly. I found the dish monotonous in colour, flavour, texture and, ultimately, thought process. It really could and should have been so much better.

Dish five was honeyed fish stew with roasted bird skins. The skins met my expectation for crunchiness and flavour but, inexcusably, the fish was overcooked. And once again the overall dish failed to hold my interest.

By this point it wasn't only the food that was giving cause for concern. I'm no front of house expert, but I understand the basics. Each customer should be treated individually with the degree of formality/urgency or otherwise demanded by his or her personality and circumstances. The house manager should profile the customer on arrival and ensure that the waiting staff and back of house understand and adjust timing accordingly. With paired wines, the sommelier should ensure that wine waiters clear away and pour with precision - neither leaving time for the wine to be consumed before the food arrives nor allowing food to cool while the customer waits for the wine. And, of course, waiters should always be present when needed, but invisible otherwise. I've experienced this quality of service in places without a Michelin star or a listing in Gault Millau but, sadly, I didn't experience it at Mugaritz.

Service was bumpy, hesitant and rarely fluid - hardly surprising as I was served by four or five different staff. The waiters didn't seem to communicate well with each other and weren't as well-informed on the food as I would expect from a restaurant of this level. Some dishes were cleared away almost as soon as I'd taken the last bite, giving me that feeling of being constantly watched and made to rush my food that I would associate more with the high turn-around ethnic eateries of London's Soho than with fine dining. Frequently, dishes were cleared away or brought to table while I was in the middle of taking notes - a sign of impatience and quite rude to be honest. It often felt like the waiters weren't paying much attention, or they were but just couldn't be bothered to wait a few seconds for me to finish writing.

Sautéed red mullet on a vegetable and liver stewThe sixth course - sautéed red mullet fillet served over a vegetable and liver stew arrived too quickly. The fish was relatively bland and, surprisingly as it's not difficult to cook, with no crispiness to the skin and with the flesh a little overcooked. The liver element of the "stew" had a good strong flavour, but in other respects the dish was a bit boring. Here was a great opportunity to introduce some new techniques - a little culinary alchemy - to what were otherwise relatively traditional preparations.

By now I was beginning to conclude that proceedings in the kitchen were too simple and down-to-earth for this level of cuisine - I was expecting a "wow factor" but not seeing it.

That doesn't mean that the dishes themselves need to be complex or over-elaborated. Food at this level can be very simple, but this must be justified by immaculate execution and Mugaritz was not delivering on that front. Small details - critical to the overall result - were not given enough attention. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to note that waiters left fingerprints on some of the plates.

The seventh dish of roast Iberian suckling pig with its juices, grains of quinoa and a salad of fermented leaves once again arrived at the table far too quickly - giving me a feeling that the kitchen staff had so little work to do that they were trying to send out the remaining dishes as quickly as possible so they could get home early. The pork had crunchy crackling and melted in the mouth and the quinoa and leaf salad (something I'm very fond of) were both well prepared. All elements of this dish were well executed, but it was lacking in creativity.

Iberian pork tails with pan-fried langoustinesDish eight of braised Iberian pork tails with pan-fried langoustines was very luxurious and the pork melted in the mouth. The reduced braising juices infused with jamón were sumptuous, but the flavoursome combination of the pork and sauce together was so strong that it masked the normally robust flavour of the langoustines. Pork and prawns can work very well together - as the Cantonese have demonstrated for centuries - but not if you overdo the sauce like this. At this point, relief from over-reduction arrived from an unexpected source as a water leak sprung in the ceiling close to my table, offering an opportunity for sauce dilution. For once in the evening, the timing was perfect. Actually, it's easy for me to make light of the incident with the benefit and comfort of hindsight, but at the time it was a bit off-putting to be honest.

Knowing that many staff possessed conversational English, I'd specifically asked for the dishes to be explained in my native language after pointing out that, although I speak Spanish, I wanted to have the best understanding possible. Despite this, the rotating waiters continued to explain the food in Castellano. Perhaps they just didn't want to go out of their way to describe the dishes in English after they realised that I spoke such good Spanish - but doesn't the customer always come first? It could have been worse, I suppose. They could have described the food to me in Basque. One commis waitress asked if I spoke Spanish as she was serving one of the dishes. She should have already known the answer - this isn't the type of question you ask three-quarters of the way through a meal. Only the sommelier spoke to me in English - and even he alternated between English and Spanish throughout the evening.

Warm squash with sweet and bitter accentsDish nine was a contemporary Basque twist on a classic Spanish torrija, described on the menu as caramelised French toast enriched with cream and egg yolk and a handmade ice cream of ewe's milk. The presentation was unquestionably modern and pleasing to the eye, with a great contrast of flavours, textures and temperatures. The penultimate dish was squash with bitter & sweet accents – a squash puree with vanilla seeds which reminded me of a pumpkin purée with vanilla I'd eaten at Alkimia, though in my opinion this dish was not as good as Jordi Vilà's. But the squash bonbon had good texture, the coffee element was excellent and the overall flavours perfectly balanced.

Plate eleven, "interpretation of vanity", was dedicated to West Ham supporters. Eagerly anticipating moist chocolate cake, cold almond cream, smoke and cocoa as per the menu, I was dismayed to find the serving bowl almost entirely covered in chocolate bubbles. It seemed as though they were using a trendy technique just for the sake of it. The bubbles added nothing to the dish, only subtracting from the overall visual effect. It was a triumph of style over substance if you ask me. Moreover, if you are going to make "smoke bombs" you should make sure you have the culinary skills to pull it off. Heston and Ferran can get away with it - I've seen them both on video. But Anthony Flynn nearly made a total dick of himself making 'mozzarella smoke bombs' on this year's Great British Menu, and near disaster from such a talented chef as Flynn should serve as a lesson to us all. Interestingly, in my contemporaneous notes I jotted down: "perhaps the bubbles were hiding the lack of anything much else going on in the dish". But back at my PC a few days later I found examples on Flickr looking very different and more substantive.

With my 150 minutes of submission ebbing away, I sipped my coffee and the remains of my sherry and prepared to settle an account that, while not uncompetitive with establishments of similar standing for a 10-12 course tasting menu, couldn't possibly be regarded as value for money based on my experience. Even at this late stage in the proceedings there were still four different wine glasses sitting on the table - two of them with remnants of vinos rojos served prior to the dessert wine. It wasn't laziness on the part of the waiting staff. I hadn't quite finished one wine by the time the next arrived and the waitress hadn't summoned up the courage to remove the earlier glasses, with or without my acknowledgment.

I may not have undertaken my locational research well enough, but I sure as heck researched the restaurant, its management staff, recipes, reviews and customer feedback thoroughly before I set out on my 571km, 12-hour journey to Errenteria. I treated Mugaritz as I know it deserves to be treated - in the words of Michelin, not as "excellent cooking, worth a detour", but as "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey". I've thought long and hard before committing my criticisms to the keyboard, trying my very best to understand why my experience was so disappointing. I counted only 20-odd customers for dinner and at least that number of chefs in the kitchen, so there was no excuse for some of the sloppy mistakes that were made in terms of execution. I can only conclude that it was a bad day at the office.

Under other circumstances, I would be reporting my intention to avoid returning. But this was Mugaritz - a restaurant that I know fully well has done much better, can do much better and will do much better. I'm really looking forward to paying another visit, on one of those better days.


Pete said...

Sorry to hear you didn't enjoy your experience. I guess the reviews, the anticipation and the effort you took to get there must have built your expectations so high that only perfection would have been good enough. I've felt the same about many places and it's gutting when they don't deliver. said...

Wow! Great review. What a shame it was so ill co-ordinated and disorganised, especially after such a trek. Fingers crossed it was a once off and your next trip will be better.

Ps. Loved your comment about Flynn and the bubbles :-)


Helen said...

Oh no! That must have been so disappointing. I was especially surprised to hear about the razor clams. That is so neglectful. The one thing that really gets me too is them whisking away the plates when you have literally just finished - it's exactly like you say, you get the feeling you are being watched and for me, one of the most important things is to feel relaxed. If I don't feel that then I won't enjoy it.

Ken Burgin said...

Great review - thanks for putting so much time and thought into your blog...

Andy Hayler said...

That is an exceptionally useful and detailed review. Well done for sticking to your critical faculties. Hopefully this was an unusually bad day but it does make you wonder, doesn't it?

Anders said...

Hey Aidan,
I agree on your experience. I live in San Sebastian and went to Mugaritz with high expectations and I was dissappointed as well. Andoni is a great person, but Mugaritz is in my opinion not top 20 in the world!
I would like to get in contact with you, my email is
my phone 628070557
I'm Swedish and live in the BAsque Country working with gastronomic experiences.
I know many chefs and people around here.

Sorina said...

You have a nice blog...keep up the good job:)

Trig said...

Thanks guys. I wouldn't call myself a perfectionist, but as a chef I do tend to notice anything that's not right. Many of the mistakes at Mugaritz would not be made by any half-decent restaurant, so I was surprised. The two restaurant meals I've had since my visit to San Sebastián were much better, so I'm very happy.

Anders - thanks for the email. I'll be in contact in a few days, after I get back to Spain.

Lizzie said...

I'm sorry to hear your experience wasn't what it should have been. I guess when you work in the industry you notice a these things a lot more, but it's quite an annoyance to have unco-ordinated waiting staff.

IFS said...

Aidan, great review. We also had a bad meal there. All those broths infused with something didn't have any flavor, the product quality was mediocre and the pig tail/langoustine was barely eatable as much too fatty with a chewy langoustine. We had a version of perfumed beef which was very good though... Service was good as the female sommelier did most of it... Mugartitz is never in the Top20 in the world.
Very nice blog which I just discovered...

soussurvivor said...

hey man, sorry the experience wasnt all that you had hoped for. I was actually WORKING there in the kitchen when you came in. I ate there at the end of the stage at the restaurant and posted it, with photos, on my blog. check it out.

Trig said...

Pat - had a quick look at your stage posts from last year. Gotta go now, but I'll be in contact soon. Cheers.

S Lloyd said...

Thanks Aidan for your report on Mugaritz. Sorry to hear that it did not do it for you. We all know how frustrating that can be when one expects a lot from a dinner and it does not shine. I stumbled upon your post because I was searching for opinions on Mugaritz. I am planning to go there and hopefully I will have a better experience.

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