Caught by the dark side of the Mugaritz

Mugaritz restaurant

High dining has the potential to knock your socks off. Unknown flavours and daring combinations can make you lose your grip and introduce you to a parallel universe where you are the match, and the dishes are fire. When you’re happy, you become ecstatic; when you’re curious, you get inspired. But when you feel dark, you go down. I knew about the ecstatic and inspirational moods, but I had never seen the dark side of extraordinary food. It’s an interesting side, though, that I experienced at the Mugaritz in Basque Country in 2019.

The 7th best restaurant in the world is not a restaurant

On December 6 of 2019, we took a plane from Amsterdam to Bilbao to have dinner at the 7th best restaurant in the world, according to San Pellegrino (2023 update: it’s now listed as number 21). Although Michelin describes 2-star restaurants as “worth a detour”, we felt the world-famous Mugaritz was worth an entire weekend because of all the amazing stories. The restaurant is led by Andoni Luis Adurizis, who’s known for his creativity and fascination for local products but also for his rebellious and ingenious side. He even dropped the word “restaurant” and replaced it with R&D (Research & Development) because of the highly innovative and personalised creations that leave his kitchen (or laboratory?). You might say that the 7th best restaurant isn’t a restaurant at all, which is, of course, what makes it special. Anyway, we were excited, and we booked our table many months in advance. When I got the confirmation e-mail saying that we should prepare ourselves for something completely different, I thought I could handle it.

But then, I got the flu.

A note on modern art

That Friday night, I dragged myself to the taxi that brought us to Schiphol. I had spent two days on the couch and had taken a combination of painkillers, nose spray, ginger tea and echinacea to prepare myself for the journey. I was desperate to go, and the only thing I worried about was my sense of taste, as it had completely disappeared. I was willing to push the limit to reach the restaurant but not to end up tasting mere structure – no matter how ingenious.

Saturday morning, things felt a little better. We had a look around in the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, as I wanted to educate myself on modern art. I may see the beauty in words, music, food and champagne, but I don’t understand shady photographs, naked sculptures and painted fruit bowls. To summarise our visit: I still don’t understand any of these things, I played in the maze made of immense brown walls, and my favourite piece of art was a photo my boyfriend took (see below).

Clearly, modern art is not for me.

San Sebastián- Maria Cristina

We drove to San Sebastián and checked in at the Maria Cristina Hotel, a beautiful place that felt like falling into a bath filled with white glitters and tiny feathers (I absolutely loved it). We got ourselves our first glass of champagne (for the sake of my champagne education, of course) and listened to a string duo playing in the salon. It felt like a dream, only reality was better. We were in Basque Country; we would have dinner at the Mugaritz, and most importantly: I got my sense of taste back!

Panic at the disco

After a walk through the city centre (thank you, pintxos) and a siesta to calm down my very persistent flu, we stepped into our rental car and drove to Errenteria. The road got darker as we approached the restaurant, and we were grateful for the little signposts leading us to the venue. Once there, we walked by the kitchen, where we could see a group of chefs working on all kinds of dishes. It felt special to get a glimpse of the actual people preparing our personalised experience, and I couldn’t wait to get my high heels inside.

The door opened, and we found ourselves in a spacious hall that turned out to be the actual restaurant. There were wooden structures everywhere, and the lights shone brightly on the tables. It was completely different from anything I had seen so far (which was not that much, but still). My boyfriend got into character within seconds; I felt uncomfortable and exposed because I found nothing to hold on to. We switched places (didn’t work), and I tried to relax (didn’t work). I looked for butter- there wasn’t any. I waited for the bread basket- didn’t come. We searched the menu for great champagne- it didn’t match the ambience. Then, I sat back and waited for our non-alcoholic aperitif- but when it came, it looked like carrot juice while tasting like something else. My boyfriend cheered; my confusion slowly turned into panic.

Bait and switch- nothing is what it seems

So there we went. The staff had warned us about the high pace of the service, and we soon found out why. The Mugaritz crew was literally everywhere: topping up glasses, serving dishes and pouring wine. Yet somehow, everyone stayed perfectly calm, forming a well-oiled machine that’s so typical for multiple star restaurants. There was serenity, rhythm and quality: both in the staff and in the dishes that were brought to our table. Inventive as it was, the menu was clearly inspired by nature itself, as many dishes had an earthy taste that made us feel like we were walking in a forest. What struck us most was the “bait and switch technique”, as I like to call it. This is when you’re served a normal-looking dish that turns out to be something completely different. For example, beef with pepper sauce was actually pepper with beef sauce, and the olives were actually grapes. There was a three-year-old apple that was impregnated with the protein from another fruit (true story!), and the squid with union sauce turned out to be union with squid sauce.

It was brilliant, and I could see that, but I didn’t understand it. The unfamiliar (yet familiar) flavours made me uncomfortable, and as the flu also tends to influence my mental state, I go sad. I wasn’t disappointed, but I found myself hopelessly looking for traces of traditional French cuisine. Something you should never do when the staff tells you to open up and let things happen.

“We help you better understand your own emotions by magnifying them”-
Julian Otero

A look behind the scenes with Julian Otero

Halfway through the menu (I was close to tears), things changed. Out of the blue, we were asked to stand up and follow our waiter to the kitchen. There they were: the 18 chefs we had seen through the window, all quietly working on the different menus (they were personalised for every single table). We were welcomed by Julian Otero, responsible for R&D, a very happy chef that answered our quick-fire questions. My boyfriend had two very manly ones (1. who’s in charge, and 2. how do you keep the plates warm without overcooking the dish).

We observed the 18 chefs doing their jobs, sometimes murmuring a few words. I asked Julian what he wanted people to feel at the end of the evening. “That’s not for us to decide”, Julian answered. “We don’t want to dictate anything; we want to fortify your emotions. If you feel happy, we want to make you happier. If you feel inspired, we’ll give you inspiration. But if you’re angry or sad, those emotions can get stronger too. So in a way, we help you better understand your own emotions by magnifying them.”

Modern art, after all

Julian’s answer made everything clear. As opposed to the Guggenheim, this wasn’t the wrong place for me. I had come in feeling weak and searching for familiarity, and the dishes had brought my nostalgia to life. The 21 dishes hadn’t dragged me down: they simply unearthed my emotions. This idea blew my mind more than the dishes had done. This was no restaurant; this was modern art. And unlike the Guggenheim, it had affected me. It did take a few tears, a lot of discomforts and an in-depth interview in the kitchen, but the recipe had worked. It didn’t make me feel good (quite the opposite), but it did make the perfect story. Andoni got to me, and if it wasn’t for Julian, I wouldn’t even know.

Strange things

The next day, we said goodbye to San Sebastián and drove back to Bilbao Airport. Unlike Friday, we had a transfer in Paris, and the French people surrounding us made me feel at ease. The stewardess complimented us on our French accents and offered us a glass of Joseph Perrier (Champagne II). It felt good to be back on familiar ground, but something had changed. Usually, when I think of France, I think of Reims, Épernay and Paris. But right there at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I caught myself thinking of France as the country that borders on Basque Country: a place where strange things happen to you when you think you’re just going out for dinner.

Girl lost in Guggenheim, P. Tangstrøm, 2019

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