What do you talk about in a good restaurant, if you do not talk about food? Or other restaurants? I cannot imagine.
Yesterday I was lucky enough to have lunch in Midsummer House with two of our regular students, Javier and Francisco, and in amongst the eight or so courses (let’s see: four sorts of canape, an amuse bouche, two fish courses, a meat course, cheeses, two desserts, profiterole-type pastries, chocolates and coffee) we talked about other food we have eaten.
Midsummer House makes very well-considered but on the whole rather complex dishes, and I remarked that a former student of mine, a Brazilian called Oscar, had last year eaten, on consecutive nights, in two of the top 20 restaurants in the world, Arzac and Mugaritz, both located in San Sebastián. Javier and Francisco had eaten in Arzac, and possibly in Mugaritz (I couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant), but they said that their favourite restaurant in San Sebastián, if not indeed in the world, is unknown, underground, and extraordinarily simple. It has a formidable reputation, but the chef cooks only during the working week, only for lunch, and accepts only cash; his customers include statesmen and CEOs, but he will only take a reservation if he knows you.
You eat what you are given, more or less – there is a choice of dishes, but they are not written down, and will depend on what the chef has managed to buy that morning. The wine list similarly is small, but very choice. And nothing is very elaborate. You might eat a piece of fish or meat – and Francisco said that the stars of the meal are often the vegetable dishes – and it will not be highly finessed. Indeed one of the must-eats is the percebe.
Francisco had some difficulty explaining what a percebe is (something between a fish and a vegetable, he said), so I had to Google the critter, and it turned out to be a goose barnacle. The goose barnacle, it seems, is not easy to eat – you must twist and pull in a certain way at the skin, and then (from what I could gather) suck out the innards. But it is extremely simple to prepare, merely boiled for a short time and served direct. It tastes, said Francisco, of the sea. And I was moved to remember oysters I have eaten in the Pacific NorthWest, and mussels and sea-snails I have eaten in Normandy, and so on. All simple food, simply prepared, but fresh as anything.
Not to disparage the intricacies of Midsummer House, of course. We had a Japanese plum saki-based liqueur with our cheese, which was exquisite. And the multiple mackerels we had for our (I lose count) second course – paté’d, blow-torched and I don’t know what else – were simple enough in their way, and truly delicious. But since ‘there is no quality in this world which is not what it is merely by contrast’, as Ishmael has it in Moby Dick, it is likely that the intricacies of our dishes were accentuated by talk of simpler things.