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I've been served an ear for lunch – a human ear. It's flesh-coloured and appropriately sized, if a little larger than my own, sitting on a plate with a candle sticking out of it.
This ear is the bizarre culmination of a truly incredible meal, 22 courses of food that almost defies description, a white-knuckle ride through taste and scent and texture, a meal that has been without doubt the best, the worst, the weirdest, the most magical, the most mind-blowing culinary experience of my life.
I've eaten fish, chicken, rabbit, beef, stingray; I've been served chocolate, abalone, lobster, sea urchin, mushroom, avocado. I've had food that has been steamed, fried, dehydrated, liquified, pounded, extruded, sautéed, simmered, fermented, sous vide, raw, and even alive. I've been served a living, wriggling baby eel encased in a sphere of seawater.
And this entire experience is finishing with an ear, a human ear.
"In Spain it is tradition," the waiter tells me. "When it is your birthday we pull on your ears, we tug the lobes. So today we serve to you an ear. This one is made of chocolate."
A birthday ear. Of course. That's in keeping with the rest of my lunch, a lunch that has been both seductive and repulsive, both delicious and disgusting, both mind-blowingly creative and painfully pretentious. That it would finish with me eating a chocolate human ear because it's my birthday should not seem so strange.
The restaurant is Mugaritz, currently ranked the seventh best eatery on the planet by the World's 50 Best. It has two Michelin stars. Its owner and chef, Andoni Luis Aduriz, is known for his innovative, playful and yet challenging take on the high-end dining experience.
You know when you visit this Spanish restaurant, set in the mountains above San Sebastian, that you're in for a wild ride. You also know that you're in for a whopping bill. Food like this does not come cheap. Food that requires so much creativity and research and experimentation and time to prepare obviously costs a lot of money, so one of the least surprising aspects of this meal is the price I have to pay for it: $775.
I spent $775 on lunch. Seven hundred and seventy-five dollars. Just for me. I looked at the receipt the other day and with my partner's meal as well, at today's exchange rate, we spent $1549 on lunch.
Each set meal cost us 200 euros. Each matching wine pairing cost another 200 euros. Each. We had an extra glass of champagne to start. They charged us 10 euros for the goddamned sparkling water.
Your reaction to that, I imagine, probably falls into one of a few different categories. You might be appalled at the needless extravagance of a meal like this. You might be wondering why anyone would even bother parting with that sort of cash for mere sustenance. Or you might be thinking: "Wow. Cool. What did you eat?"
I completely understand all of those points of view. I've gone through all of them myself. I've thought about all of the other things I could have spent $1500 on, and all of the other, far better places money like that could have gone. I've also considered the frankly horrendous fermented avocado dumpling that was served at the beginning of the meal at Mugaritz and wondered what sort of idiot would part with a few weeks' rent for an experience like that.
But mostly, I'm comfortable with my decision (though ideally, I wouldn't recommend doing it a few months before a global pandemic decimates your entire profession). If you love food, if eating for you is a joy and a passion, then – if you decide you can afford it – you should have experiences like Mugaritz. Once in a while. Maybe once in a lifetime.
Mugaritz isn't just a restaurant. It's food it all its glory, experimental and esoteric and off-kilter. It's a journey through everything that is possible in cuisine. It's edible art, sometimes beautiful, sometimes baffling, sometimes wrong.
In this lunch we were served a ham croquette encased in the mould you find around camembert cheese. We were given "chicken soup" that was the most concentrated and incredible taste of chicken I have even experienced. We were presented with a roll of mochi dough and asked to guess the flavours inside – we picked up tomato, cheese, anchovies, oregano. Yes, it's a cold mochi pizza.
We had steamed grouper, delicate and perfect. We had "churros" – savoury donut sticks – that we dipped in a rabbit demi-glace. We had sea-urchin soup, saline and sublime. Lobster meat with lobster roe. And that baby eel, wriggling and shocking, encased in seawater and served to us on a folded white napkin, like a prank or a dare.
Mugaritz is both brilliant and eye-wateringly pretentious. It frequently crosses the line into self-parody. Before our meal we were given a "glossary of terms", a little booklet that said things like: "Convention: a door that begs to be knocked down." Urgh. Shoot me.
We were also served fried octopus roe that was tipped into our bare hands, the reason for which, the waiter said, had something to do with the fact people in India eat with their hands so we were giving it a try as well, which seems like an incredibly bad read from Aduriz when people are paying the equivalent of many actual Indians' annual salary for one lunch.
The wine pairing probably sounds insanely expensive as well, given it's about $330 per person. But this is no ordinary wine pairing. We were poured glasses of Jacques Selosse champagne, which goes for about $650 per bottle. We drank a 1990 Rhine Riesling. There was a Bordeaux from 1978; a port that was 40 years old.
Regrets: I've had a few. But getting the wine pairing at Mugaritz isn't one of them. I'll probably never drink wine like that again.
And then there's the human ear, because it's my birthday. And then there's the bill, because it's the end of the lunch.
This is the most expensive meal I've ever had, by a fair margin. It's also the most memorable meal I've ever had, by a fair margin. For good and bad. And that has to count for something.
*The writer (unfortunately) paid for his own lunch
Have you ever had a truly extravagant meal? Or spent far too much money on some other luxury? Was it worth it? Would you do it again?
See also: The best country in the world for food