When one of the best chefs in California (Joachim Splichal of Max au Triangle) tells you that one of the best chefs in Europe is the proprietor of a restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain, believe me: If you're like me and you end up anywhere near that city at all--like within 500 miles or so--you eventually find yourself on the autoroute headed there.
Not that the chef in question--one Juan-Mari Arzak--particularly needs the additional attention. His restaurant, called simply Arzak, is already on almost everybody's list as one of the two or three best eating places in the country. It rates two stars from the Guide Michelin, one of only half a dozen places in Spain to rate that honor. And it draws customers, judging from the license plates in the parking lot one afternoon recently, not only from all over Spain and from neighboring France, but from as far away as Belgium, Switzerland and Germany--and, of course, even the odd American straggles in from time to time.
Considering its reputation, Arzak is a bit of a surprise: Located hard by the side of a busy highway rising up a mild hill filled with expensive villas a mile or so away from San Sebastian's pretty port, it has a casual, country-inn feeling to it that belies its elevated status. The dining rooms--two of them, one on each side of a cozy little entryway and bar--are attractive to be sure, but they're also warmly rustic, with their softly glowing orangeish walls, Basque pottery and table linens, and huge sprays of flowers everywhere. The excellent service is likewise other than you might expect: It is conducted by an extremely well-trained squad of pleasant but no-nonsense waitresses, without benefit of the usual array of maitres d'hotel , captains and busboys.
The real surprise, though, is Arzak's food. Like all good chefs, Arzak himself begins with the best raw materials he can find--mostly from the region of San Sebastian itself (which, of course, includes the generous Atlantic just next door; this is seafood country par excellence). But whereas most chefs enhance their raw materials by combining them with other complex elements, coaxing their flavors, Arzak seems to somehow draw on the inner reserves of each item--letting it become its own reward. This is food whose goodness is not slathered on; it's there at the core of each piece of fish or fowl, each slice of meat, each vegetable, and Arzak somehow releases it, without letting it get clean away.
To put it another way, he's not a fancy chef, not an artiste who dazzles you with showboat trickery (not that such dazzlement can't sometimes be great fun); he's like a sort of modest home-style cook who just happens to have raised modest home-style cooking to a transcendent level. Thus, of course, his food tends to be very simple--and sometimes even to sound a bit ordinary in the mere description. I can assure you that it isn't.
I've had two meals at Arzak recently, and at each one I asked the chef himself to let me taste some of his own favorite dishes. Two of these turned out to be salads--one of lobster, out of the shell and perfectly cooked, over a bed of shredded lettuce which hid the surprise, in both color and flavor, of a small, sweet, slightly charred half-tomato; and one of delicious warm (but barely cooked) bonita tuna, thinly sliced, with long strips of chives and scallions. Both were low-key; one looked in vain for the unlikely condiment, the dramatic footnote (the blueberries or sun-dried tomatoes or cornmeal croutons)--thank goodness. Everything was just what it should have been, and in the right proportions.
Arzak's version of the now-ubiquitous "ravioli" turned out to be filled with txangurro , a kind of local crab, and its coral flesh, tossed simply with butter (which connected with the buttery richness of the crab itself). A light forcemeat of very fresh-tasting St. Pierre became the stuffing for a small, slightly spicy red pepper in a translucent breading--a chile relleno gone uptown. A filet of merluza (hake) in a rich broth with baby clams, garlic, and parsley was somehow as flavorful as any full-scale fish stew, and avoided entirely the watery, vapid character dishes like this can sometimes have.