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BryanZ

3 Weeks of Excessive Eating in Europe

122 posts in this topic

Another year, another eG travelblog. I just turned 22 two days ago, and I feel positively old. Was this most recent journey across Europe a last hurrah, a final send-off before being forced to sever any remaining ties to childhood and adolescence? Perhaps. After all, I did end up flying home on my birthday. Quite symbolic, I think.

If we ignore for a moment that this opening narrative is beginning to sound a lot like the melodramatic voiceovers that open each episode of No Reservations, my trip across Spain, France, Italy, France again, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria was highly illuminating. I was able to enjoy the Europe that I had only gotten a brief taste of during my trip last spring, chronicled here.

This travelblog will be, dare I say, epic. It makes my spring break adventure from '07 look like a casual weekend getaway. For the first part of the trip I would be traveling with my family, which of course means more meals with perhaps less emphasis on "budget" that influenced my last trip. To say we were starhunting would be a gross understatement. With that said, the second half of the trip was with a few of my peers, so it is not as if I ate nothing but tasting menus and haute cuisine.

In more detail, we began our trip in San Sebastian, continued to Provence in France, then went to area surrounding Positano at the beginning of the Amalfi Coast. From here it was back to France, Paris specifically. Here, my mother and sister would leave me to return home, and I would be joined by three friends who would accompany me to Amsterdam, Berlin, and Vienna.

You'll have to forgive all the text in this opening post. There are literally hundreds of pretty pictures to come, I promise.


Edited by BryanZ (log)

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San Sebastian, Spain - Day 1

As an almost unrelated aside, I do have to preface this report by saying that by some nearly divine providence we were able to fly BusinessFirst on Continental using points for no more than the points required for flying coach. The food is so much better up front. I wish I had pictures for comparison. Oh well. That sweet, sweet cocktail of free alcohol and sleep aids made for a pleasant flight. I woke up in Madrid free of jetlag if only mildly hungover.

Now, onto the main event.

Naturally we missed our connection from Madrid to San Sebastian and couldn't get a refund. The next flight was in several hours. This was unacceptable. Screw it, we'll drive.

So drive we did, the five or so hours to get to San Sebastian.

The Spanish countryside

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Very pretty, and quite Impressionistic, don't you think?

In Spain we would be staying at the Hotel Maria Cristina. It's something of a grand dame in the hotel world but definitely aging and not all that gracefully.

Our room

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With a view

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Taken from our window.

I must say the service at this hotel was very good--it's a Starwood property of the Luxury Collection brand--even if it was showing its age.

The onslaught of pinxo photos you just knew were coming. I'll do my best to say what each thing is and where it came from, but there are so many. Bear with me.

La Cuchara de San Telmo

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Generally regarded as the best pinxo bar. This place was awesome. €3.20 for a big chunk of foie. Sweetness.

Baby squid

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The aforementioned foie

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Cheese a la plancha

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Different but surprisingly good. You've got to love how it gets all crispy on the surfaces that hit the griddle.

Roasted pork

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Blood sausage cannolo

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Croqueta with some form of liver filling, I believe

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I'm very depressed we didn't get a picture of the pig ear dish. It was awesome, so tender yet faintly cartilage-y.

We visited a bunch of other places whose names escape me. They were good but not as good as San Telmo. So cheap though. I've completely drunk the pinxo Kool-Aid.

La Cepa

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Even the beer tap looks like a leg of jamon.

Croqueta with rice, bechamel, pork loin, and jamon

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Many of my favorite things, in one.

Skewer of mushrooms and bacon

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Simple but so good and satisfying.

Foie gras terrine

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This little baby was probably €3, tops.

There were many other items the three of us consumed on this evening. I think total, with multiple stops and excessive eating, we spent €40 per person. For the quality and quantity the value proposition is unreal. I will admit it was a bit intimidating at first to walk into these bustling bars and start ordering and grabbing food. Once you do it once, though, it's easy. And the food is too good to keep you away for long.

So ended day 1. San Sebastian is a very vibrant and lively place. Here's a bit more eye candy.

The streets of Parte Viejo at night

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One of the beaches that borders the city

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A big statue of Jesus overlooks the city from atop this little mountain

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Edited by BryanZ (log)

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San Sebastian, Spain - Day 2

Breakfast took place in the Bretxa market. The guidebooks say this place is comprable to Barcelona's Boqueria. It isn't. Still, it's a cool spot to look through. I've taken a liking to Spanish markets. The spread you see here cost less than €10. Spain is so cheap, I love it.

Breakfast

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Hot chocolate, mushroom tortilla, jamon and egg sandwich, bacalao fritter, chocolate pastry, coffee.

Now begins the tale of taking an hour an a half to find a restaurant that's 25 minutes away. It's a riveting story that includes a malfunctioning GPS unit, several international cell phone calls, and two stops at gas stations where no English is spoken. Good times. We got there, eventually. Thankfully they eat lunch late in Spain.

"There," in this case, was the two-starred Mugaritz. Many people whose opinions I trust went so far as to say that Mugaritz is best retaurant in the region, an up-and-comer that deserves all its praise.

In my opinion, Mugaritz is a very good restaurant but one that is still finding its true place. There was a bit of gimmickry and some bold ideas evocative of a younger chef still in development. The meal was an excellent one but lacked the feeling of cohesiveness that the best meals, modern or traditional, leave you with. There were two menus on offer--same for lunch and dinner--and we chose the longer one. I believe it was €125/person plus 7% tax.

Rustic yet elegant placesetting

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What are those cards you ask?

Rebel or Submit

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Although I'm quite the rebel, in this case I chose the latter.

Dining room

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mmmmmm, indeed.

Menu

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Canapes - Shrimp with garlic aioli, rocks (sort of)

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The shrimp were nice and crispy. The rocks are actually potatoes baked in clay. Yes, you eat the clay. Kind of a strange canape--baked potatoes?--but very cool and tastier than one might imagine.

Amuse - Pressed cucumber, tomato water

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Clean, refreshing, if a bit pedestrian.

Flowers

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Fried artichoke hearts, flower petals. I thought this dish needed a bit of creaminess or acid. It was tasty but kind of bland.

Taro, coconut, grilled sardine ice

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We didn't snap a picture of this one when we had, so naturally I had my sister awkwardly lean over toward the service station and snap an off-angle shot as the dish was waiting to be delivered to a neighboring table. I never said we were classy. This was a rather bold dish. Very understated, very intense in flavor and texture. A dashi-type broth was poured tableside. A dish you respect more than you pine over.

Vegetable carpaccio

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A very cool dish using watermelon instead of beef. The watermelon is partially dried then frozen to achieve a toothsome, meat-like consistency.

Baby leeks

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A more successful version of a light vegetable dish served with a seafood broth. This was rather understated but quite good.

Honeyed fish stew

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It's atypical to see skate paired with a relatively sweet sauce. While not cloying, there were rich, sweeter notes at play here. The chicken crisps on top were a nice touch.

Red mullet

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How do you make a fresh fish fillet better? You put two of them on the plate. How do you make the pair even better? You put them together and wrap them in thin layers of Iberico pork fat. Also topped with a bit of cured tuna roe.

Veal, aka "It's a little burnt"

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So said the server who explained the dish to us. Actually this is a piece of veal, either roasted or cooked sous vide, that's been painted with a dye made from squid ink and various pigments found in grape skins (or something like that).

The same paint is used to etch the plates the dish is served on.

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It wipes away as you eat the dish.

This was a pretty bizarre dish. It was served with radishes, an amazingly potent herb, and seasoned with actual ash. The burnt twigs completely faked us out as we thought they actually were burnt twigs. In fact, they're free form breadsticks made with the same black dye. Crazy.

Lagoustine and pig tail

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Great pairing. The pig tail made everything so deliciously sticky.

Instead, my mother subbed in a seared tuna dish with a cereal broth.

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I thought the langoustine was far superior, but she preferred this tuna. I think because it was the lighter dish.

Ewe's milk ice cream with red fruit

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Great palate cleanser and transitional course. Not overly sweet, great textural contrasts.

Squash with pumpkin and coffee purees

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Very abstract looking.

Vanity (or something)

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A very elegant chocolate dessert.

French toast

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Since we don't like a ton of chocolate at the end of a meal, one of us got this instead. More traditional but still very tasty.

Moist towelette

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A quirky end to the meal. The towel is compressed in a little button at the bottom of the bowl. The server then pours an infused water over it and it shoots up as it hydrates.

And thus concludes my first (of many to come) starred meals on this trip. I found the two star rating this restaurant carries to be accurate. It was about on the same general level, if perhaps a bit less impressive, as my meal last March at El Celler de Can Roca, located in Girona.

So that was lunch. In about 3.5 hours we'd be sitting down to dinner at the three-starred Akelaré.


Edited by BryanZ (log)

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Thank you, Abra. Good point on the drinks. With only two of us drinking and lots of driving, it's not as if we were ordering magnums (or bottles for that matter) of wine. Generally, I like to keep things cheap and local, simply asking the wine captain to make a couple selections by the glass.

For our pinxo hopping, we'd drink the house wine or txacoli--about €1.80 for a small glass. Not the highest quality in the world but perfect for the place and great with the food. Using this same philosophy our American wine captain at Mugaritz steered me through a few glasses over the course of my meal. I asked to keep things local and she did. Started with a glass of txacoli--my mother did a glass of cava which was surely superior but didn't feel as unique--then moved me into a lightly oaked white, then finally a super rich grenache. I thought she did a great job. I wish I'd taken more names down, though. Stylistically, the wines were very Spanish, which was exactly what I was looking for. Wine service at other restaurants, either due to language issues or the fact that glass service is less popular in Europe, wasn't as impressive.

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And, of course, any questions or comments are welcome and appreciated.  The reason I choose to blog on eG and not just a Typepad or Blogspot account is the interactive nature of the beast.

I had a dish a bit similar to that "burnt" veal at Moto in Chicago. It was barbequed pork with a "charcoal" briquette, which was actually squid ink dipped bread. I like to playfulness in both dishes, but the Spanish place clearly takes it to another level.

All that cheap foie, I should be going to Spain instead of France this fall...

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And, of course, any questions or comments are welcome and appreciated.  The reason I choose to blog on eG and not just a Typepad or Blogspot account is the interactive nature of the beast.

I had a dish a bit similar to that "burnt" veal at Moto in Chicago. It was barbequed pork with a "charcoal" briquette, which was actually squid ink dipped bread. I like to playfulness in both dishes, but the Spanish place clearly takes it to another level.

All that cheap foie, I should be going to Spain instead of France this fall...

I too have had the Moto briquette dish. As you say, however, this Mugaritz dish takes the same idea and magnifies it by several orders of magnitude. The Moto dish is cute. This was downright bizarre.

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Outstanding!

This is the gastronomic tour we all wish we could take - or at least us Americans stuck on this side of The Pond this summer. Fasten your seat belts, everybody.

I bet those were local currents on the Ewe's milk ice cream, si?


"I took the habit of asking Pierre to bring me whatever looks good today and he would bring out the most wonderful things," - bleudauvergne

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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I too have had the Moto briquette dish.  As you say, however, this Mugaritz dish takes the same idea and magnifies it by several orders of magnitude.  The Moto dish is cute.  This was downright bizarre.

Was there much influence on the flavor of the veal?

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I too have had the Moto briquette dish.  As you say, however, this Mugaritz dish takes the same idea and magnifies it by several orders of magnitude.  The Moto dish is cute.  This was downright bizarre.

Was there much influence on the flavor of the veal?

Not so much from the paint, or, rather, if there was I couldn't tell if it was from the paint or from the ash used to season the dish. There were definitely (pleasant) ashy and charcoal notes to the dish, though.

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Bryan,

Following on what I saw in some of the Asian places, and how chefs like Seiji Yamamoto are drawing inspiration from Spain, it's great getting back to the source.

Excellent work, both the writing and the photos. Continue eating and posting!

Here's to being excessive!

Cheers,

Peter

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San Sebastian, Spain - Day 2 cont'd.

After a brief rest--and thorough check and re-check of our directions--we headed off to Akelare to catch the sunset over the Bay of Biscay. The restaurant sits relatively high up, on a bluff that overlooks the ocean. The dining room was quite literally overwhelmed with sunlight, almost to the point of discomfort. More than a few diners were were sporting sunglasses until the sun went down. Still, it was very pretty from our window table.

Entrance

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View

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Here, the sun is, thankfully, behind the clouds. A few minutes before it was not, making it very warm. I had to remove my suit jacket, something I dislike doing.

A box of canapes?

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This cute idea would come full circle. You have here an encased vichyssoises in a cocoa butter shell, a tuna fritter of sorts, some kinda of olive-bread cracker, and a blood sausage roll.

More snacks

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Mussel encased in a sea gelee with tempura kelp, encased almond butter with a mini baguette, solid martini in a straw.

There were two tasting menus on offer. Two of us ordered the one, and one of us ordered the second. There were also a couple substitutions because we're annoying like that. I believe each menu is €135.

Pearls of foie gras and sour salad

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Hmm, very similar to Wylie's foie gras in-the-round. This was a frozen dish, so I believe the LN2O was in use. Nice sour dressing on the greens.

I got broad beans with onion paper and raw mushrooms

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A much lighter starter. I was super impressed with the beans themselves. So much flavor in a tiny package.

False risotto of vegetables with beetroot yolk

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This was a very cool dish. Each vegetable was very tender but maintained its unique flavor. At first I thought the red orb was just a beet juice s'fer. It was actually an egg yolk lightly poached in beet juice. Amazing colors.

I had cuttlefish ravioli and gnocchi with squid eggs

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Thin slices of raw cuttlefish encased gnocchi made from cuttlefish.

Scallop cooked in salt with pumpkin

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The scallop is cooked in a mini Staub pot filled with seasoned salt. The scallop is then removed tableside, dunked into a small glass of pumpkin soup. This dunking not only washes off the salt from the scallop but also seasons the soup. Pumpkin candy and roasted pumpkin garnished the plate.

I received "egg pasta" with wild mushrooms

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I really liked this idea of taking a totally classic dish and totally turning it upside down. Here, the pasta is made with egg white and egg yolk. A generous serving of wild mushrooms was the heart of the dish though. I certainly don't prefer this version to the original, but the idea was a fun one.

Sole in a sea of coral

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So here's all kinds of "caviar" and caviar with some fish. I thought both these fish courses were a bit of a step down on the execution front. The skin could've been crisper and I wasn't in love with either of these accompaniments. Very good, but not excellent; I think innovation was put before taste here.

I was served red mullet with sauce "fusili"

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So here we have two fillets of red mullet with a heavy spice rub. The sauce is gelatinzed pasta flavored with parsley, soy sauce, and garlic. I thought this was a bit much as the pieces of pasta didn't add much to the dish and kind of looked odd.

Lamb, aka "You've never seen anything like this before"

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So said the waiter when describing the dish earlier. He would've been correct had we not just had lunch at Mugaritz a few hours earlier. It's quite amusing how these dishes were almost the exact same. I actually thought this dish was tastier but Mugaritz version pushed the idea of "burnt" much harder and was more convincing. Accompaniments were black tempura vegetables, mint candy that was melted with a tableside application of jamb jus.

My mother received beef in coppered potato and juice sponge (their translation, not mine)

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That is just as copper as it looks.

And I had roasted pig

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Various sweet accompaniments and a ham fat emulsion. This was very good, but my Spanish pig standard still remains with Abac in Barcelona.

Materialized aromas of port

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Components of red fruit, cocoa, and soil. Served with a glass of port for comparison's sake. I enjoyed this, but my mother felt it was much too large to be a pre-dessert.

I received Milk/Grape, Cheese/Wine in parallel evolution

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A nice, modern take on a cheese course.

Like our mains, we also each got different desserts.

"Another Apple Tart"

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Unless they're trying to be super ironic about it, I think the more accurate translation would be, "The Other Apple Tart." What you see here is a thin sheet of apple gelatin printed with edible ink. Beneath is a rectangle of eggless pastry. Really cool looking, but the gelatin sheet was a bit hard to cut.

Apricot with cherry and French toast

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The shell was filled with a chilled apricot curd.

For my main dessert I got gin and tonic on a plate

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It's difficult to see but there's a mound of clear gin gelee on the plate. Lemon sorbet and some peppery syrup finished out the dish. Nice and light, but I liked the mojito/cigar dessert at Can Roca much more.

But wait, sausage and bread as petits fours? How strange!

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Potato chips seasoned with sugar, chocolate-nut "sausage," sweet bread roll, wine with fruit juice infusion. How clever.

This was a really fun meal. I don't think all the dishes were three-star quality in taste, but the experience was a very valuable one. If one places a high value on novelty and creativity, as I do, then I highly recommend this restaurant. I liked it more than Mugaritz, I think. My sister, however, disagrees.

This meal would also mark the first use of our Relais & Chateaux dining certificates. As I'm sure you'll agree, starred meals with the current exchange rate become very, very expensive. Thankfully, we have lots and lots and lots of American Express points. In fact, I would hazard that at least half of this trip was paid for, in some way, using points. Airfare, our hotel in San Sebastian, and many of our meals.

The dining certificates were a source of stress for me because they're denominated in dollars. Though I checked with R&C USA headquarters many times to ensure they'd be accepted in Europe I was still nervous. Dropping $800 on a meal after a $700 lunch was not high on my mother's list of things to do. Using the certificates was always a bit nerve-wracking but would go as follows. When we requested the check we would take out the required number of certificates. We would then awkwardly tell the waitstaff about them and have them calculate the total in dollars. We would then leave the appropriate number of certificates and some token gratuity, like €20 or so. I'm not sure if this is appropriate. Maybe we're all going to hell. But that's how this meal was "relatively free," such that there was effectively no cash outlay on our part. Yay!

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Awesome! This combined with Daniel's report will be the main source of my food research for my Spain trip (whenever that happens)!

Questions--how did you decide which places at which to dine, particularly when choosing the smaller places? Did you mostly rely on research, or did you ever just wing it? Assuming you were travelling with your mother and sister at the beginning, did they let you plan all the food stuff, or did either of them have any preferences?

I'm going to have to check if AMEX Japan has R&C certificates. I've been transferring all my points to a Delta account, but who wants to fly Delta? I'd much rather eat the points than fly with them!

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Awesome!  This combined with Daniel's report will be the main source of my food research for my Spain trip (whenever that happens)!

Questions--how did you decide which places at which to dine, particularly when choosing the smaller places?  Did you mostly rely on research, or did you ever just wing it?  Assuming you were travelling with your mother and sister at the beginning, did they let you plan all the food stuff, or did either of them have any preferences?

I'm going to have to check if AMEX Japan has R&C certificates.  I've been transferring all my points to a Delta account, but who wants to fly Delta?  I'd much rather eat the points than fly with them!

Research, lots and lots and lots of research. Planning this trip probably took me nearly 100 hours of serious work. If I billed for my time my mother wouldn't be able to afford to take the trip in the first place. Instead, I just get to eat the spoils. R&C properties were very important when it came to high-end dining. Besides Mugaritz, which I was told I HAD to eat at, I think all the very expensive places were covered with our certificates.

As for the pinxo spots, our hotel had a little map/list thing that had most of the places I wanted to visit. I combined that with my Googlemaps and went from there. I think the best way to do it is to start off with a couple places you definitely want to visit. Say, San Telmo and Astelana. Just walk from point A to point B and stop anywhere else that strikes your fancy. You can walk from any point in Parte Viejo to another in 10 minutes, tops.

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I'm recently back from San Seb and a group of us ate in Akelare, having pretty much the same menus that you enjoyed. I've been trying to find pictures and now here they are in all their glory.

Can't wait for the next installment. I'm loving this!

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I'm recently back from San Seb and a group of us ate in Akelare, having pretty much the same menus that you enjoyed. I've been trying to find pictures and now here they are in all their glory.

Can't wait for the next installment. I'm loving this!

So, Simon, what was your assessment?

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Bryan--what were the vegetables in that false risotto--and what were the dots. I might try to give that one a shot at home.

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Bryan--what were the vegetables in that false risotto--and what were the dots. I might try to give that one a shot at home.

It's been over three food-filled weeks since I had the dish so I can't recall the specific vegetables. What I do remember is that each vegetable tasted distinct, and, therefore, the dish did not just seem like a bowl of vegetal mush.

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San Sebastian, Spain - Day 3

Etxebarri is something of a foodie favorite. It's a bit of a hike to get there, the cooking is both unique and soulful, and it's been completely neglected by the Michelin guide.

How freaking beautiful is this place?

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That was a rhetorical question.

The road leading up to Axpe

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The restaurant

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Across the square

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The restaurant is located in the mountains in the tiny village of Axpe. It was not all that difficult to find, though we did drive past the turnoff once.

We arrived for our 1 pm reservation to an empty dining room. It would be full by the time we left a couple hours later.

Lennox, the sous-chef, comes out to discuss the menu with most of the foreign parties. As has been noted in other reports, locals tend to order from the menu while foreigners just put themselves in the kitchen's hands. We discussed the menu and had to opt out of two of the premium items due to budgetary restraints. It's unfortunate that I was unable to try to grilled langoustine and caviar dishes, but in not selecting these dishes we cut our bill almost in half. The full-on experience comes in near €140 per person, without wine. Our slightly abbreviated version was just north of €70 per head. Although the space is rustic, a cheap restaurant this is not.

Welcome to Foodies Gone Wild's first entry in the recurring Best Dishes of the Trip series. This series catalogs the tastiest and/or most eye-opening dishes of the trip. Those that make you hurt they're so good or open your eyes to a whole new level of excellence in a given product. Etxebarri brings two such dishes to the table, the chorizo and the prawn.

House-cured chorizo

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Wow, this was good. The perfect balance between cure and pork. The best chorizo I've had, bar none. I'm not sure what made this so good, but it was so pure and delicious.

House-churned smoked butter

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This dish was interesting, but the weakest of the bunch, I think. Not all of us needed a portion. I think Lennox was particularly attached to this as he said he churns it himself.

Salmon lightly smoked over orange wood

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An herb puree and citrus slaw accompanied. Very light smoky notes, very elegant.

Grilled prawn

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From the front side and the back. OMFG this was good. The best prawn I've ever had. Apparently they're special deepwater prawns that, when brought to the surface, have their brains explode. Obviously they need to be super fresh, and these certainly were.

Grilled oyster

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Just barely warmed over the smoke, served with a seaweed salad.

Grilled baby squid

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Again, just a light grill treatment imbuing a lightly smoky note. Served with a traditional squid ink sauce.

Cod

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I thought this was the weakest of the main dishes. It was a very traditional presentation, and the fish was very fresh, I just thought it a bit bland as cod can be without assertive garnishes.

Beef, beef, beef

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Oh man, this was so good too. I think the only reason it didn't make the Best Dishes of the Trip was because we were quite full and there was so much of it. Just look at that deep red color, that yellow fat. So far from American grain fed beef and perhaps the polar opposite of Japanese beef. This was so tasty in such a visceral way. Worth trying even if you prefer grain- or corn-fed beef.

Lemon custard with raspberries

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This was fine, but we could've easily just finished on the beef. Desserts, predictably enough, aren't a focus here.

Muffins

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A bit of pastry with coffee.

So this place was really good, but in a way totally different than our perhaps more typical, modern Spanish fine-dining. I admit I liked the other places more, but I'm so glad we went here. It really feels like it's somewhere else. I think that the place is so casual wasn't so much a turn off as it just didn't turn me on as much as it might other people. The restaurant is rustic, but the servers didn't seem as professional, as might be expected. Still, with two dishes on the Best Dishes of the Trip list and one that almost made it, technically speaking this could've been the most impressive meal of the trip.

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Bryan,

Thanks for the hard work bringing all this back to us. Forget the moral police; not the place here: appropriate somewhere else, context entirely misplaced re: Bryan's trip.

Questions: as a food professional, just as people have taken a retrospective interest in breed of Spanish pigs, e.g. Black-footed, and their feeding, acorns etc, for the jamon iberico, would you be interested in speculating+delving later into the beef that you ate: breed, pasture etc?

What made it so good? Britain has several interesting beef breeds, quite different in meat taste and flavor: Galloway, Red Poll plus the better known ones here in the US, e.g. Red Angus for pasture, Black for feedlot fattening. Even the dual purpose small Dexter breed provides excellent meat.

The US too has built on these breed plus added exotic and surprisisngly excellent beef genetics like the TULI from Zimbabawe, and Ongole/Nellore, originating in India, via Brazil

Japanese Wagyu cattle have lineages especially reknowned for their meat "flavor", other lineages for other specific organoleptic qualities, e.g. marbling to grade 12.

It woud be fun and educational to learn more about the types of Spanish cattle specially raised for the elite trade.

Also, Spain has some of the best white asparagus, a blanched form of specific types which generally don't make good eating in their green state. That used to be the way things were with classic German varieties for blanching, although dual purpose French varieties exist. Did you have any great experiences with the white asparagus? Thanks.

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