Alongside Arzak and Mugaritz, Akelare is one of the three restaurants in San Sebastian to have been awarded three Michelin stars and Sartre and I decided to treat one another on a short break there.
As we approached Akelare, I imagined how it must have felt winding up the track to Casa Montjoi and El Bulli.
For those of us that missed the boat on dining at El Bulli, it’s a cruel game to imagine what it must have been like to dine there. But I couldn’t help it.
Countrified track up to a swish hilltop restaurant, surrounded by shining sea and unspoilt hills? Check.
A chef whose inventiveness is only matched by his mastery of classic techniques and flavours? Check.
Fellow diners who are smitten by the famous chef who politely poses for photograph and walks the room? Check.
But this is no poor relation to El Bulli. Akelare has its own distinctive character.
The mighty figure at the centre of this restaurant, Pedro Subijana, presides over a kitchen so inventive it rivals Pixar on a good day. Here, creativity is the courier of dish after fabulous dish.
Akelare is so good that it makes accomplished dinners produced by very competent chefs look amateurish and unrefined. Not once does a plate land in front of you without eliciting a little gasp of wonder. But neither does the technique overshadow the eating.
Every dish was well balanced and precisely designed. This is a kitchen that has the nonchalant audacity to run three different tasting menus at the same time. Guests choose from the Aranori menu, the Bekarki menu or The Akelare’s Classics.
Sartre and I each had a different 9 course tasting menu.
My first course was prawns and French beans cooked at the table in a firepot. A simple dish, but one with such hefty local heritage that it brought the campfires of early Basque settlers right through the posh windows and straight to my table.
One of my courses was White Beans with Chorizo, which looked just as it sounded, but was in fact a vegan dish of a trompe de l’oeil “chorizo” and white beans.
On that note, visual trickery and theatrical rug-pulls run through both menus.
Sartre opted for his menu largely because of The Broken Jar of Yoghurt, a teasingly lifelike smashed jar, made of sugar, edible ink and paper.
There were pillows of coconut mousse with a fake egg, made of almond marzipan.
Exquisite suckling pig with an utterly realistic looking bone, in fact made out of candy.
The chunkiest, meltiest piece of foe gras with ‘salt and pepper’ – really, black rice and sugar posing as the better-known condiments, lending a sweetness to foie gras that I hadn’t tasted before.
And beyond the visual trickery, there was sublime cooking. Plain old sublime cooking.
There was the most finely minced, velvet steak tartare.
A Mexican-influenced roasted pigeon dish with mole and dark chocolate.
The orange ‘tocino de cielo’ sheet with fruit leaves. This, traditionally, is a flan. At Akelare, it’s reimagined as a stained glass window. As bewitching to look at as it is to eat.
To strike a contrast to the gushiness of this review, it’s worth mentioning that the restaurant itself is a little curious. One part sleek and corporate. One part breathy windows looking onto the Bay of Biscay. And one part seventies ski chalet, with a preponderance of polished wood and tongue and groove ceilings.
There were renovation works going on when we visited and apparently, the restaurant will soon be accompanied by rooms.
And finally. The way that chefs deal with their public says a lot about them in my book.
Some chefs studiously avoid interacting with their public. They believe they should only be engaged in the kitchen and not appear front of house. This might be because they lack the chit-chat to hold court with their clients. Whilst others believe food is only art and never commerce, and this breed doesn’t wish to think about their paying customers, much less shake them by the hand.
But not only does Pedro Subijana spend time roaming the dining room, shaking hands and engaging in one or two words of small talk with everybody, he also takes the bins out at the end of the night.
As Sartre and I waited for our taxi to roll up the drive, we noticed Pedro leaving. Out of his whites and in his civvies, we saw him drop off some bin bags on his way out, before roaring off into the night in his sportscar.
That’s pretty rare.
And speaks of a chef comfortably at home with who he is and his place on the culinary scene. Yet one who is endlessly restless when it comes to his food.