Every once in a while I have had the opportunity to taste some extraordinary food. I’ve been exceptionally lucky to have enjoyed three such occasions in the past year – the Alain Ducasse dinner in Sydney last September, the Ezard Valentine’s Day degustation and the Mugaritz dinner on March 25, 2007.

Mugaritz is a two Michelin star restaurant near San Sebastian in Spain. It was recently named one of the world’s 10 best by Restaurant Magazine and was the highest new entrant at place 10 on S Pellegrino’s World’s Best 50 Restaurants for 2006. Albert Adria has hailed the owner, Andoni Luis Aduriz as the future of Spanish gastronomy.

Fortunately I didn’t have to wing my way to Spain to eat at Mugaritz. Mugaritz came to Melbourne.

Aduriz came into town as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival and brought along his head chef Daniel Lasa and sommelier Jose Ramon Calvo. This special dinner was held at Fenix restaurant where the new head chef is Dan Hunter who worked for three years at Mugaritz.

In preparation for the Mugaritz at Fenix night, I attended Aduriz’s festival master class the previous day.

“People come to my restaurant to explore and be challenged,” he explained through an interpreter. In his nine years at Mugaritz he has developed a serious food philosophy. Above all, he asks that people respect the food. He likes to see everything in a new light. He will read a basic recipe with “new eyes – I will change it.”

He likes involving all the senses, particularly touch. “It’s very important to eat with your hands.”

Illustrating this, he prepared one of his signature dishes – potatoes cooked in clay. Like so many exponents of molecular gastronomy, his recipe is part familiar food, part chemistry lab store cupboard.

The cooked golf-ball sized potatoes are dipped in a clay mixture made of kaolin (a clay mineral), lactose, squid ink, dark stock (made with black corn kernels, pictured right) and salt and set to dry in a low oven. At the end of the process they resemble grey stones. These were served on a bed of heated real stones and we were encouraged to eat them with our fingers, dipping them into a garlic cream emulsion. Quite a talking point for a dinner party and something that is definitely on my “do try this at home” list.

The second dish demonstrated was an amazing “mini mozzarella” dish centred on gnocchi made of buttery Idiazabal cheese, a semi mature hard sheep’s milk cheese from the Basque region of Spain. This was  cut into small squares and processed with water in a thermomix then mixed with kuzu (a starch thickening agent) and cooked till elastic.  The mix was then placed in a piping bag and piped into iced water in little gnocchi style nuggets about the size of the first joint on a little finger.

The “gnocchi” were served in a delicious pork bouillon decorated with baby herb sprouts.

Fortified by these two dishes and with a little more understanding of Aduriz’s approach to food, I was really looking forward to our dinner held at Raymond Capaldi's riverside restaurant Fenix.

As we took the tram over to Richmond, I regaled The Spouse with a rundown on the dishes I’d tasted at the master class and we were both salivating as we walked in the door and were greeted with a flute of 1985 Veuve Clicquot Rose. That certainly set the tone for the evening.

First dish was the edible stones (top of picture) with a light cream of confit garlic. It was a great table ice-breaker and a lovely combination that had me wishing for more - but there were nine further dishes to come.

Daikon heart in a crustacean consommé came garnished with a whisper of garlic chive and tiny crunchy prawns. These were crisp and delicious – maybe a little like spindly grasshoppers in appearance but filled with that toasted prawn flavour. The Veuve Clicquot continued with these two dishes.

Next came some roasted lamb belly perfumed with resinous spices, almost like a nice crunchy piece of bacon in appearance and served with organic tomatoes in green, yellow and red and a simple vinaigrette. The minute pieces of chive that garnished the dish must have been sliced with a razor. The pink theme continued with a 2006 S C Pannell Rose from McLaren Vale, SA.

Those tasty buttery cheese nuggets of "gnocchi" followed, every bit as good as I remembered and certainly relished by the eight at our table. They were helped along by a 2006 Chrismont Arneis from King Valley, VIC.

We switched to a Reserve Lager frm Enterprise Knappstein Brewery in Clare Valley, SA for the next dish which was a pasta of amaranth (a grain-like seed with a consistency similar to burghul) which had absorbed the dish’s component ingredient, sardine broth giving it a salty crunch. Yabbie tails and baby garden leaves completed the presentation. Opinions were divided on this one but personally, I enjoyed it.

There’s an eating disorder called pica, where people crave non-nutritive substances like coal. I don’t think anyone at the table was suffering from it but we all rose to the challenge when presented with what looked like a lump of coal atop “crushed potatoes” and “broken eggs”. Aside from the coal, this dish tasted just like my aunt’s great old farm breakfast favourite of fried leftover potatoes with egg. In a word, delicious. I accepted the coal challenge. Incinerated vegetable? A product of destructive distillation? It broke apart easily enough. Possibly it had started life as taro. I thought it might taste burnt, but it didn’t. Certainly a conversation piece as we lingered over the accompanying 2005 Mount Mary Chardonnay from Yarra Valley, Vic.

As a Kiwi, I’m not familiar with mulloway fish, though I know it has featured on Fenix’s own menu. It was a good moist fish which spoke for itself, served simply with baby leeks decorated with specks of hazelnut praline, and a trail of sour cream. The 2006 Scorpo Pinot Gris from Mornington Peninsula, Vic accompanied.

The next course was confidently accompanied by a spoon, rather than a knife. It was beef stewed at 70 degrees with roasted vegetable tears and mixed crushed peppercorns. That translated into a totally tender piece of beef in a wonderfully flavoured jus. It literally melted in the mouth. I think I need to master sous-vide cooking against the day when I end up “sans teeth”. The 2004 Cullen Diana Madeline Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot from WA’s Margaret River captured the right atmosphere.

The first dessert sought a contrast of temperatures, textures and cultures – violet ice cream, hot almond “polvoron”, shavings of spice bread and green tea. Part of the delicate mauve ice cream had been flattened and smeared across the very cold plate and the contrasting warm polvoron was broken in two. The polvoron was very short – almost powdery – and buttery. OK, but I preferred the ice cream and shavings. NV Yarrabank Crème de Cuvee from the Yarra Valley accompanied.

If I were faced with developing a dish based on the concept of vanity, I am not at all sure where I would start. But Aduriz took the smoke and bubbles approach with cocoa-based bubbles paired with with moist chocolate cake and cold almond cream. Prodded with a fork, the bubbles burst in a puff of smoke. I reflected deeply on it all over a glass of Chambers Rosewood Vineyards Grand Muscat from Rutherglen, Vic.

We explored Aduriz’s menu with zest and certainly we were challenged by some surprising items. Five hours passed in a wink. I think it has taken me longer to digest the menu than the food. At the end of the meal, Aduriz and his team were received with acclamation in the dining room. Throughout the evening we'd been able to watch aspects of the cooking and plating in the kitchen thanks to a video camera relaying the scene to a screen in the restaurant. A memorable experience.

Highlights: crunchy prawns, amaranth, crushed potatoes and broken eggs, gnocchi, spice bread… then pretty much everything else. Viva Espana!!

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