[Editor's note: In the January issue of M&C, we are summarizing the essence of the author's experience in the "Quick Chat" section of our People column, but her full account of a remarkable meal is well worth a read here.]
A couple of months ago, my husband and I went on a tour of Spain. I had spent 10 years living in New York City, but no dining experience I had while exploring all the various neighborhood finds in all five boroughs of the Big Apple will top the one we had at Mugaritz in San Sebastian.
Mugaritz is a Michelin two-starred gastronomic invention created by renowned chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, who previously worked with chef Ferran Adrià at the famed El Bulli in Spain. San Sebastian is well known for its culinary scene, and my husband and I were both extremely excited to experience Basque dining through the creations of such an esteemed culinary star.
Before dinner we had a cocktail at out hotel bar and started chatting up the bartender about our much-anticipated dinner plans. He asked us if we had dined at Mugaritz before; we said no, and with a raised eyebrow and a knowing smile he said, "It's an experience." And indeed it was.
The drive to the restaurant takes you on dark winding roads with little to no traffic, and just when you think you have lost contact with civilization, you pull up to a beautiful house tucked away in lush green Basque country. The interior is a warm open space with whimsical touches that hint at the playfulness ofthe cuisine -- a 26-course tasting menu with optional wine pairings. Both of us being sommeliers, we opted for the pairings, which was the right call, as we were treated to some really fantastic wines: Bollinger RD 2002 and a '98 Nuits-Saint-Georges, for example.
For the first time in my life I found myself dining at a restaurant where the chef's main concern was not "will the guest think this is delicious?" but rather, "what emotions will this dish evoke?" This was evident before we even took our first bite. The menu descriptions for each course included creatively esoteric titles that made you smile as much as they also made you wonder what was going to come out. Names like "My Guts Are Growling" and "Gelatinous Bomb of Onion and Garlic" did not even begin to convey the textural adventure of these little bites.
Everything came out looking like little pieces of art that were playfully mimicking real life. Even one of our servers, when dropping a plate of "Oily Fish Cooked Under a Salted Cloud," could not help but give us that same knowing smile that the bartender back at the hotel had given us, the smile that indicated this is nothing that you have ever had before; this is a moment that once it's over, the memory will last much longer than the food itself.
There were times during our meal that were consumed with laughter at the plate in front of us -- a purple cabbage that had all the flavor of cabbage but the feel of artisan paper, and a sea urchin wrapped in a chia roll that sat on the plate like a sleeping caterpillar. Other dishes were simply the essence of their inherent flavors and incredibly intense.
In particular, I will forever remember how I felt eating "Clams Glazed With Lemons." The clam was glazed with a thin layer of beef tendon, and when I popped it into my mouth, the tendon immediately stuck to the roof of my mouth and would not let go. The pure flavor of beef tendon and raw clam overtook all of my senses, and it was the most difficult bite I have ever swallowed. The immediate regret was replaced with a sense of triumph and of pure ridiculousness that a bite of food could have that much of an effect on my emotions.
Even now, months later, I still laugh with the fond memory I have of that texturally challenging and gag-inducing experience I had at Mugaritz. Later, I was told by the sommelier that the chef spends months developing a theme for each tasting. This year's theme was "Sticky."
Susie Scott recently became manager of the Carillon restaurant at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center in Austin, Texas. A 15-year veteran of the food-and-beverage industry, Scott became a certified sommelier in 2014 through the Court of Master Sommeliers in New Orleans.