A Decade In One Meal

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The New York Sun

Sitting on the open air terrace of the restaurant that bears his name, super chef Martin Berasategui looked past a bust of himself propped in a corner and then over some rolling fields, and pronounced that his dishes are art. They are creations, he said, designed not just to be eaten, but to be judged, savored, examined, re-examined, and remembered.

Such culinary declarations are not unusual here outside of San Sebastian, in the north of Spain.This is Basque country,one of the most competitive culinary universes on the planet and one that has a galaxy of Michelin stars to prove it. In San Sebastian, which has a population of 180,000, there are 15 Michelin stars – one for every 12,000 inhabitants. New Yorkers are poor by comparison, with 160,000 people forced to share each star.

Mr. Berasategui’s flagship restaurant is responsible for three of those San Sebastian stars.He operates a mini-empire in Basque country, running the food commission for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which serves, among other delicacies, “pumpkin cream, with touches of Bergamot biscuits and toasted beer ice cream.” He also operates the less costly – but equally inventive – restaurant Kursaal, located just off the beach in San Sebastian. For $20 you can savor a prix-fixe tasting lunch that includes dishes such as mussel jelly, cod juice, and veal snout.

A student of Alain Ducasse at Louis XV in Monaco, Mr. Berasategui considers his best dishes timeless, like great novels or classic symphonies. He marks each entry on the menu first by its year of origin.

2001: Squid soup, a dark, inky broth made from all parts of the squid and only the squid. This includes a squid crouton (think thin rice cake) and squid ravioli, which is really a round pocket culled and constructed from the squid’s squirmy mantel, or skin. Inside the little squid ball is a surprise. What’s inside? Mr. Berasategui’s well-trained army of waiters won’t tell me. House rules: Pop the pocket in one full swallow to find out. A gush of ink, warm and sweet, follows.

2002: Beetroot cream, with cockles infusion and Txakoli wine. Served in a small bowl, this concoction is magical. The Txakoli – a young, tart, fizzy white wine you can find only in Basque country – is on top in the bowl,with the beetroot cream lurking below.With one swirl of a small spoon – poof! – the dish turns from opaque white to beet red.

2005: Fresh liquid fennel with sherbet, tomato caviar, and prawns.

2006: Octopus in four textures with spider crab juice, an octopus juice bubble, paprika foam, and ice herbs.

And so on. It might seem pretentious and arbitrary to mark one’s own food creations by year. Even obsessive foodies that make the trip to Basque Country for savory creations must ask: Does paprika foam really need to be cataloged historically? Menu, or museum?

The reasons for the inventive gusto among the Basques are myriad. Some chefs believe their relentless pursuit of the new comes from the Basques’ traditional brand of machismo. This is the competitive spirit that still has some villages challenging each other in games like grass cutting, stone throwing, and tug of war. With the desire to outmatch, this theory goes, also comes a desire to out-taste.

Another reason is ingredients. For centuries the Basques have had to make do with poor conditions for harvesting crops, raising livestock, and fish. Unlike the southern regions of Spain, which tend to be hotter, flatter, and more conducive to farming, the Basque region is hilly and rainy. The water off the coast is also deep and dark. Instead of fishing for plump, meaty fish that grow in shallow waters, Basque cuisine is based on spiny sea creatures that don’t need sunlight to survive: sea urchins, sardines, squid, anchovies, and octopus. With so few flavors to choose from, mixing up unusual ingredients is an essential part of any Basque kitchen.

At Mr. Berasategui’s headquarters in Lasarte, the experience is so tranquil and tailored, and the menu so long and intricate, that one begins to lose focus after the first half-dozen courses (the exceptional regional wine pairings don’t make it any easier). The potato croquets (2002) are creamy and light, but then comes the smoked eel with a slice of apple and spring onions (1995). By the time the main courses come out – sea bass with celery and cream of rice (2005) and pigeon with a dollop of sweet cheese and a side of tart cherries (also 2005) – one is too drunk, tired, or overwhelmed to enjoy the orange rind ice shavings and sweet almond milk desserts (2004, 2005, respectively). Thirteen courses and 4 1/2 hours later, I had eaten a decade’s worth of delicious inventions for a lunch bill just short of $500.

I couldn’t have eaten one more perfect, historic, timeless bite. And it’s hard to imagine going back. But that’s the problem with a risk-taker like Mr. Berasategui. Who knows what he’ll come up with in 2007?

The New York Sun

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