SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain — This Basque city in northern Spain invented "nueva cocina," the Spanish version of nouvelle cuisine. Now it is at the forefront of the latest culinary movement to cross borders and cultures: "cocina molecular," or molecular cooking.
Nueva cocina rose in the 1970s, then slowly dimmed as the decadence of the 1980s fell to tighter belts in the recession of the early '90s. Molecular cuisine followed as the tech sector boomed. The term describes a cooking approach that embraces science, research and technological advances in the kitchen. Think "Good Eats," on the Food Network.
In our globalized world, it spread faster and farther than nueva cocina. It might meet an even faster demise as moods, and fortunes, shift.
My introduction to ambitious Spanish cooking took place here more than two decades ago. In 1984, Basque independence terrorists had stepped up their violence, and army tanks patrolled San Sebastian. Despite the menacing atmosphere, San Sebastian already enjoyed a reputation for being a culinary trendsetter, a reflection of its proximity to France and its historic prosperity.
I went out to the town's best-known restaurant, a modest family run affair called Arzak. Chef Juan Mari Arzak had trained in Lyon with the French pope of nouvelle cuisine, Paul Bocuse, and he orchestrated a wonderful meal of modernized Basque specialties. Instead of swimming in a traditional sauce infused with bright green parsley, his cod cheeks were lightly poached and delicately flavored.
On a later visit, I enjoyed bar hopping with Juan Mari in San Sebastian's old town and munching tapas, visiting a nearby coastal village to taste fresh grilled fish, and a vineyard perched on the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean that produced a crisp, mineral, white wine called Txacoli. We even visited a secret society of sorts devoted to cooking, where members came and cooked traditional dishes for each other. Once the meal was over, the sated cooks turned into boisterous singers.
These days, the cooking-singing societies, the tapas bars and the crisp Txacoli live on in San Sebastian. Arzak also remains an institution, though Juan Mari's attractive multilingual daughter, Elena, does most of the cooking.
But much has changed, reflecting Spain's dramatic democratic and economic leap forward. While terrorism has not totally disappeared, the army tanks are long gone. Streets exude Spain's new prosperity. The city's ornamental Belle Epoque buildings have been whitewashed and complimented with shiny steel and glass buildings and attractive, stylish boutiques.
Food gives a good window onto social change, and San Sebastian cooking also has been updated. Its culinary center of gravity moved to a chef named Martin Berasategui. This soft-spoken modestly built chef has become a household name in Spain, responsible for the restaurants in Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum and San Sebastian's striking new cultural center. His most ambitious institution remains his eponymous 60-cover restaurant in Lasarte-Oria, a southern suburb of San Sebastian.
As Spain has gotten richer, Spanish chefs have moved upscale, and without the heavy hand of French tradition — discarded in the 1970s and 1980s as nueva cocina made its mark — they have been free to experiment. The result is fizzes, fuzzes and ingredients that are dried, liquidized, foamed or creamed, and transformed into dishes new and surprising. This is "molecular" cooking. The Catalan chef Ferran Adria first popularized the style. His El Bulli restaurant, only open six months a year and only for dinner, is booked a year in advance, attracting diners from around the world.
My initial experience at El Bulli changed my notion of "restauration." Instead of just eating wonderful food, this was food as theatre, two dozen different bite-sized dishes, all surprising and surpassing my expectations. It was new, fresh, and invigorating, and I was expecting many more surprises from a visit to Beresategui.
It took less planning to reserve a table at Berasategui than at El Bulli, though I still had to call a week in advance and send three email confirmations. On arrival, the first signs were promising: The setting was magical, a stylishly renovated home with a terrace. The service was stylish and seductive; present but not overweening; efficient without losing warmth.
But the food that followed was disappointing for the most part, overcomplicated and overdosed with foams and jellies. Octopus came in dehydrated chips, in a bouillon and in foams. The result was interesting and intellectual, but a bit bland. Similarly, the chef's signature dish of vegetables with jelly and lobster, which attempted to play a textural melody of cooked and raw fish. While visually striking the dish failed to excite.
It was a good meal and, for the most part, well executed. But it was not smack-in-the-mouth theater. I left hungry, figuratively and literally. And with a bill for some 200 euros, the cost-benefit ratio seemed out of whack. As I left, I wondered whether it was this particular restaurant that disappointed me, or perhaps the concept of molecular cooking is already becoming dated. In our world filled with financial crisis, the excesses of new foods may no longer taste so good. The next night, I headed downtown for some traditional tapas.
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