Back in 2011 when I embarked on my global gastronomical tour, the revered temple of gastronomy that is Mugaritz provided me with possibly the best dining experience I’d ever had. There was something quite magical about this trailblazer tucked away in the Basque hills, innovating food and melding it with an almost ironic and existential philosophy that ticked all the boxes in my book. 3 years later, I was back in San Sebastian and had to return to Mugaritz for another dose of awe-inspiring food madness on an idyllic summer’s day.
For the next three hours, there was nothing to do but wish the meal would end swiftly and we could return to our hotels to silently cry, for the food that we were served was as disappointing as it was amazing the first time. Of the 20-odd things that we ate, there was maybe 1 or 2 that were pleasant, let alone amazing, with a short and even ugly disgust creeping into the afternoon. It was the middle of June and we were barely able to distinguish a hint of summer in the entire menu. It was as though they had tried too hard to innovate on exotic ingredients and combinations and forgotten the real reason why they existed in the first place – to amaze the world with intense flavours and innovations in food. There were a few intensely flavoured bits that made most of us retch whilst the plates that we hoped would change the game, left us in the rafters without any flags to wave.
The menu that was given to us…
A dozen smeared radishes with tomato sauce: no comment here.
Gelatinous chicken mille-feuille, roasted garlic paste, sour greens: one of the nicer nibbles, though not gelatinous at all, but lovely crisp chicken skin
Coarse bite of torched pork belly, fresh herbs: appealing, but nothing glamours and far better versions can be had in the old pintxo bars
Vanilla ‘vines’ with fish paste: positively vile. Great for those who love rotting fish smells and flavours, but with vanilla?
Scorched tendons. faba beans: Lovely crispy tendon, but grey, sour broad beans that really shouldn’t be served
Raw mushroom & garlic flower: Really? Is this what you pay these prices for? A bit of raw mushroom & a flower? Ap0logies for the rant, but I ask for anyone’s response to this to be different.
Vegetable tiles, a handful of highland grass: some Ethiopian moss that’s edible served with pine nut cream all of which really shouldn’t be put into a human mouth. Cows, goats, sheep yes. Humans no.
Decadentia: some sort of cream with flowers & a sugar spoon. Rather pointless, rather flavourless.
Pear, honey vinegar, toasted milk: tastes like it sounds. Fresh and all, but very…annoying.
Vegetal contrasts, pulped eggplant, sharp leaves: A desperate attempt to improve on the Japanese aubergine with miso. Aubergine pulp, sweet-sour dressing, flowers. That’s all.
Firm beef cheeks, prune glaze, Sauerkraut: Firstly, no one likes firm beef cheeks that are also dry. So that’s dry, tough, chewy beef with a sauerkraut dust that lent it a musty-fungal smell & taste. Any takers??
Bream & mushrooms: Soft fish, nice mushrooms, and that’s about it.
Then there came a game where the winner got a little pot of caviar – definitely the most exciting thing to happen all day. Following this, there was a communal activity where we all had a mortal & pestle with corn & bacon inside that we had to crush up with a flavourless flower jelly into a baby-food like mush to be had with bread.
Back to the menu, a Steak cured in blue, spicy contrasts followed: Beef marinated with blue cheese that was also tough, overcooked in many hideous ways (some had it medium, some medium well, bits were well done. Spicy contrasts came by way of pickled onions. Cleverness gone way too far. That is, until the next course came:
Eucalyptus smoked loin of lamb, cultivated wool. Lovely bit of lamb, sh0ckingly vile bit of fungal matter masquerading as a sheet of wool. We were told it was lamb jus fermented with tempeh and left to become a wooly-fungal skin that was draped on. Just writing about it sends shivers down my spine. No one needs to be this clever.
At last the desserts and we thought we could find redemption.
Frozen apple chippings, mature cheese. No chippings here. Just frozen light green ‘stuff’ with way too much parmesan. In effect, there was no discerning apple flavour at all, no acidity, just a cold mound with heaps of parmesan.
Cold milk-white salad. Reduced and coagulate whey. We thought this would be a dulche de leche ice cream as it had hints of those flavours, but once more, it was a cold mound of something brown that tasted like a former memory of something it had once been in a past life. There was more unflavoured cheese and too much of it, along with more grated parmesan.
Lemon succade, herbs from yesterday and today. In effect, a hairy lemon skin with a lovely lemon sorbet and a few flowers.
Cafe latte cookies… light: My favourite bite. Shockingly light and crisp biscuit encasing a melting coffee parfait. Best thing to happen all afternoon.
An almost impossible bite, sugary porra. Also known as incredibly ridiculous attempt at being clever. What came was something that had been inspired by a churro. A fritter with pastry cream inside that we had to grate a sugary-fennel rock over the top. It was a fritter with a cream that tasted of the fryer with a ridiculous attempt at grating a white powder on the top that got blown everywhere and added nothing to the dish, but a white mess on your hands. Inane and utterly ridiculous.
Petit fours finally hit the clever note the kitchen had been attempting with the entire meal. A muti-layered tower of nibbles that alluded to the seven deadly sins.
Pride: Gold dusted chocolate shells
Envy: spiced chocolate buttons with just one that was larger than the others. Brilliant!
Gluttony: cocoa coated crispy corn. Very moreish and very apt.
Greed: lost this one as it got grabbed up, unless gluttony and greed were made into one double-deadly sin.
Lust: Couldn’t tell what it was, but it was red, soft, chewy and slightly tangy
Sloth: Salt caramel (or so I seem to remember) truffles that really did you in.
Finally it was over and I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. Embarrassed because I had raised Mugaritz to such a pedestal for my fellow diners, I had waxed lyrical about it, swooned over the memory of my first meal and idolised the chef, fetishised the food and really dreamt of going back. After this experience there was a depression and a disappointment that can only be described as heartbreak. For that is what it was. This was heartbreak at its worst and heartbreaks often end in anger, frustration and resentment. Why did I come back here? Still, I cannot dismiss the first meal I had at Mugaritz and that is one that will always remain one of my most memorable anywhere. For that I cannot dismiss the chef or the restaurant and in that meal, will my memory and love for Mugaritz have to stay.