The seaside town of San Sebastian, in Spain’s Basque Country, is well known as a crucible of culinary experimentation. It’s a town where bars offering pinchos (small snacks) groan under the weight of vast spreads of braised beef cheek, hake throats laced with shouty salsa verde and blood puddings spiked with apple and raisins. A place where dangling bellota hams perfume the air with acorns and where bills can be tallied up in shirt stains just as well as they can in euros.
But the roaring trade in pinchos is merely half the city’s appeal. The rest — well documented by those who make the pilgrimage — is found at its fearless founts of modernist cuisine. This includes Arzak, whose head chef and patron Juan Mari Arzak is widely credited with pioneering many of the freeze-drying, dehydration and distillation techniques made famous at Catalonia’s now-shuttered El Bulli. Another is Mugaritz, a commune of playful austerity hidden away on the misty Basque hills, where intrepid diners have been known to risk mouthfuls of smashed teeth by chomping down on edible stones.
In Tokyo, Spanish restaurants have been around for decades, with tapas bars springing up by the dozens during a boom in the late 2000s. However, most of these restaurants give neither a sense of Spain’s bustle nor how cutting edge Spanish cuisine has become. Too often, those fluttering red-and-yellow flags on Japan’s backstreets signify little more than disappointment and a dry tortilla — or leave you searching for solace in the bottom of a leathery tempranillo.
That is why it is so refreshing to discover Kobe’s Ca Sento (4-16-14 Nakayamatedori, Chuo-ku, Kobe; 078-272-6882; www.casento.jp), a three-Michelin-starred oasis of tranquility and creativity perched high on the slopes leading away from the city’s main thoroughfare, and run by Shinya Fukumoto, a Mugaritz veteran.
Ca Sento gives a sense of time suspended with its dark leather and grey walls, but it has touches of country elegance — a single piece of pine, a hemp-clad vase containing delicate greenery. There’s also a faint smell of sea salt that couldn’t possibly be from the actual sea.
The sense of dislocation carries through into lunch (¥8,600 per person), which kicks off with a little pot of white egg flan tasting of spring, as fukinoto (butterbur sprouts) and ginger chatter and stomp together like flamenco dancers, with a warm smack of nut oil. Creamy foie gras is paired with stiff meringue and a thin toffee hat — it’s surprisingly more dessert than savory. There are also things to pick and nibble at: slippery sweet sardine from Cantabria with slices of kabu (white turnip), tuna coated in fiery mustard and flecked with chili, and a crumbly duck blood sausage — airy and yielding — anointed with aioli.
Fukumoto’s assured but playful hand with the tapas eventually gives way to dishes of a more unapologetic heft. A warm salad of chargrilled vegetables arrives concealed under fronds of bitter leaves — doused in butter and a thick sauce of Emmental — in a concave plate begging to be upended into your gullet. There was a small cauldron of Valencia-style ojiya, a delicate bouillabaisse-style broth redolent of the Mediterranean, and a shoulder roast of beef every bit as pink and soft as Turkish delight, garnished with white yuzu flowers. This exquisite three-hour lunch is well worth the trip from Tokyo.
For the bustle and bright-lighting characteristic of many Spanish tapas bars, try Bikini Tapa (Shibuya Mark City, 1-12-15 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-5784-5500; www.four-seeds.co.jp/brand/bikini_tapa) Here the menu is mostly modernized Catalan-style cuisine: pinchos smeared with roast pepper jam and topped with chunks of sardine; a tortilla of spinach and roasted macadamias; or a toasted fiduea of thin vermicelli noodles and robust clam flavors. There are little dates crammed with ripe blue cheese and a stalwart gambas al ajillo (Spanish-style garlic shrimp) packed with indecent wads of garlic, the shrimp heads demand courage and determined chomping in equal measure.
You’ll want what comes off the grill, especially the conejo a la brasa (barbecued rabbit). A half-size serving includes four crispy hunks seared on hot coals, beautifully edged with crispy char and skin. End on a caramel note with a crema de Cataluna — Spain’s version of a creme brulee — in its blowtorched cover, and expect to pay ¥3,000 per person.
Fermintxo Boca (Ark Hills South Tower 1F, 1-4-5 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-6426-5760; www.fermintxoboca.com) is the place for a Basque bocadillo sandwich so hefty it would make a bullfighter blush. Think rustic baguette-style barra de pan rubbed with fresh tomato and topped with Balearic raw sobrassada sausage, which dribbles its crimson over bread and fingers, or a traditional Bacalao — salt cod tweaked with a finely calibrated aioli sauce.
Sal y Amor (Yokoshiba Bldg. B1, 12-19 Daikanyama-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-5428-6488; salyamor.com) offers the intense flavors of the Spanish arroceria (a restaurant specializing in rice dishes). Its also provides a hit of Iberian fetishism for its clientele of chic Daikanyama urbanites, with bright yellow walls, dark wood chairs and tables, Spanish-speaking waiters and a bulging ham sitting proudly on the counter.
Chef Kenta Miyazaki’s menu is dominated by regional rice dishes, including arroz caldero, an oozy seafood stew from the Murcian coast between Valencia and Andalucia, as well as paella and fiduea with sumptuous soccarat (crusty, caramelized rice that forms on the bottom of the paella pan), which cries out for a strong wrist and a big spoon. The oxtail, simmered down to a dark dense mass, is a tantalizing tangle of meat held together only by its own sticky jus reduction.
That’s visceral pleasure enough for any mere mortal.