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San Sebastian Restaurants: Recommendations


cabrales
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I am in the process of planning a trip to France that will include a number of days in San Sebastian.

With a great deal of help from members' posts (Thank you!), I have tentatively decided on Zubero, Akelare, Arzak, Berasategui and Mugaritz.

I have a couple of questions. Was it possible to secure reservations via fax in English? Would it be better to use the concierge at the hotel to secure reservations? I know that dining in Spain is generally at a later time than in France. What time should reservations be made for lunch? for dinner? Did you find that ordering the menu was generally preferable to a la carte?

We are also going to Bilbao to see the Guggenheim. Does anyone have any recommendations for restaurants in that area? One name that seems to pop up on Bilbao web sites is Zortziko. Is anyone familiar with this restaurant.

I appreciate all the help I can get.

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Liz -- When approximately are you next going to France, if you are comfortable discussing it?

I've never visited Berasategui's (supervised) restaurant at Bilboa, but there is one. I don't know its name. You might not want to visit that restaurant if you are already visiting the principal restaurant.

I secured reservations by calling and speaking French, in most cases. Arzak has English capabilities, although that is limited to a few of the reservations-taking personnel.

Generally, dinner beginning at 9 pm, 9:30 or 10:00 would not be unusual. 8 pm would probably be fine too for the restaurants concerned. Lunch -- I took all of them around 1 pm, although one can begin later. Note my experience in Spain is limited.

I would not find ordering a la carte necessarily better than the tasting menu. At Berasategui in particular, the tasting menu appears attractive and comprehensive. At Zuberoa too.

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Cabby,

We are going in May but due to time and financial constraints, it will be a short trip. My Spain experiences are much less than yours and I greatly appreciate your input.

From what I gathered "Berasategui's (supervised) restaurant at Bilboa" is in the Guggenheim museum and certainly makes it convenient for an afternoon of museum going.

From your experience would a 1:00 lunch and a 9:00 to 9:30 dinner give one enough time to recover? Also, Cabby, have I hit on the "must" restaurants to experience?

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Liz -- I believe you have covered the "must" restaurants around San Sebastian. Depending on the number of meals you have, you might want to consider more than one meal at Arzak. I believe the restaurant merits that, and you might even want to consider sacrificing one of the two-stars if time constraints intervened.

You might also want to allocate one meal to tapas, although I found the tapas to generally be of lower quality than I would have hoped. However, I was not visiting recommended tapas places, and was merely sampling what I happened to come across.

I was surprised by the appropriateness of some of the Spanish wines recommended to me. That is something to consider, although Arzak and Bersategui both have French selections I found interesting.

If you have a lot of luggage, the Eusko-Train might not be as attractive an option as a taxi. If you are pressed for time, there is an overnight train back to Paris, but the downside is that even the top-priced sleeper cabins involved at least four to eight people (I forget the exact number). I ended up taking a day train. The train is slow because, even though certain trains are described as TGV, many portions of the track cannot accommodate high speeds.

On the timing of lunch relative to dinner, I think your indications are fine. I found that what changed my eating situation a bit was the shorter time lapse from one dish to the next, at each of Arzak, Bersategui and Zuberoa. I was taking very brief notes, but the next dish would arrive before I finished doing so. The shorter time lapse made me feel slightly more "filled" during a meal than what I was accustomed to.

You might want to visit a bookstore. A number of Spanish language cookbooks that are difficult to find, even books that are still in print. Berasategui has a number of books, including a more recent one. The chef from Akelarre also has something out. I bought a book on Arzak collaborating with Adria in connection with the millenium; this book is available at Arzak and one can see it from the lounge area. By the way, the lounge area at Arzak is very modern and beautiful (although not large). Greys and steel tones, and a wonderful way to take in an aperatif if you arrive at the restaurant and still want to delay your dinner by 1/2 hour or so. The house aperatif is a white wine concoction with some sort of lime sensations and a sprig of mint. For some reason, it has ice cubes inside it. It sounded terrible and I was tempted to order something else, but it is nice and should be sampled by at least one of you.

Edited by cabrales (log)
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Lizziee-

The hotel concierge was a very effective way to make reservations in the case of Arzak. I would definitely suggest making a reservation for any meal at the restaurant in the Guggenheim- which gets packed, much to my dismay- also leave extra time than you normally might for a museum visit as the tour of the museum itself (wanded, 45 minutes minimum) is incredible.

I'm not sure when the baby eel season ends, but choosing a tapas bar on them having that is the way to decide, if it is in season.

Enjoy your trip, it's a special part of the world.

Cheers,

Charles

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I asked a person at Arzak about baby eels. I think the product's season is Dec/1Q of the year or so (I forget the exact response). I don't know if it would be around when you visit, but, if it is in season, it can presumably be had at Arzak.

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Cabrales,

I know you plan on revisiting San Sebastian. You might consider this option: TGV to Bordeaux (3 hours), rental car, a brief stay in Bordeaux, short drive to Puymirol (Trama's restaurant is definitely worth a visit), another short drive to Eugenie (another worth it and a true 3 star), and then to San Sebastian. Obviously, those are our plans.

Of the restaurants, I mentioned which one would you cross off for a second meal at Arzak?

Both Charles and Cabrales, thanks so much for your suggestions.

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I'm not sure, re: restaurants to remove for Arzak. I did not sample Akelarre or Mugaritz. Zuberoa had appealing food, with very capable service.

On your route in France, it's ideal from my perspective too. I have not done that route myself, but considered (without executing) the following possible route: a Paris to Montpellier TGV (Jardin des Sens), then a 3-hour drive to Bras, then the Trama-Guerard portions of the trip you described.

I don't know when I'll revisit San Sebastian, although I am eager to revisit Arzak. I am in the process of delving into the cuisine of M Troisgros, among other cuisiniers, and have almost at the top of my priority list a sampling of the chicken in pig's bladder dish at Bocuse (which happens to be close to Troisgros, as you know). (I'd like to sample the fish in the pastry crust, and the red mullet with potato scale dish too.) Also in the vicinity is Pyramide, at which I was precluded from sampling Henrioux's version of chicken in a pig's bladder dish (named after F Point) on my prior visit due to my not having called in advance to make the request. Those represent my immediate set of gastronomic goals.

On Bordeaux, do you have any plans re: restaurants? I wonder what Amat's former place is now like. What places are relatively appealing, apart from La Tupina?

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I apologize in advance that some of this discussion belongs on the French board, but it seems to fit in here.

"Also in the vicinity is Pyramide, at which I was precluded from sampling Henrioux's version of chicken in a pig's bladder dish (named after F Point) on my prior visit due to my not having called in advance to make the request. Those represent my immediate set of gastronomic goals."

Cabrales, unfortunately we had two mediocre meals at Pyramide two years ago. Our general feeling was that this was a two star on the way down in contrast to Regis Marcon and Michel Trama which are two stars trying hard to get that third star.

"On Bordeaux, do you have any plans re: restaurants? I wonder what Amat's former place is now like. What places are relatively appealing, apart from La Tupina?"

We plan on eating at La Tupina where we had a wonderful meal a number of years ago. Other than that, Bordeaux is serving as a quick stop before Puymirol.

"Montpellier TGV (Jardin des Sens)" - As you know Jardin des Sens is not a favorite of mine and I don't mind skipping this.

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"Montpellier TGV (Jardin des Sens)" - As you know Jardin des Sens is not a favorite of mine and I don't mind skipping this.

lizziee -- As you might recall, I dislike Jardin des Sens as well.

Thanks for the input re: Pyramides. Due to my interest in taking in chicken dishes and the mention of F Point in the name of the dish, I am going to go to Pyramides this year (hopefully). My only meal there was fairly good. I'll report back.

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You sould try this in Bilbao:

GORROTXA

Calle Alameda Urquijo, 30

Bilbao 48008

Telephone: 944 434 937

Fax: 944 220 535

It's a masterclass in traditional Basque cuisine, and helpful in understanding the restaurants you'll be visiting in Donostia. Besides, Bilbao really doesn't have anything on Donostia's level so, although I don't know the restaurant, I fear that Zortziko may turn out to be quite second rate.

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Are members aware of any public transportation or private bus companies linking San Sebastian and Bilboa?

LML -- As you know, I am new to the dining landscape in Spain. Is there anything I indicated above with which you disagree? :blink:

Edited by cabrales (log)
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The hotel concierge was a very effective way to make reservations in the case of Arzak.

Charles

As our hotel has no concierge, I sent faxes to San Sebastian restaurants yesterday. This morning I had confirmed reservations at Arzak, Akelare and Mugaritz. I am still waiting to hear from Zuberoa and Berasategui, but I think turn-around confirmations, in less than 24 hours, is amazing.

Thanks to all for your help.

LML - According to Michelin, Gorrotxa lost their only star. Did you go after they lost their star?

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I would not find ordering a la carte necessarily better than the tasting menu.  At Berasategui in particular, the tasting menu appears attractive and comprehensive. At Zuberoa too.

In fact, based on what I would do in the States, I find the opposite is true in France and Spain. I always try the tasting menu as I find myself eating dishes I would never order myself and loving every minute of it! (anyone for oysters cooked in custard? Marvellous!).

Actually I'm off to Bilbao/San Sebastian on the 6th Feb. Anyone have any further suggestions for me (or warnings...eg I know that Akelare is closed unfortunately)?

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My Spanish is nil and I gather that the restaurants want me to reconfirm, but when?

From Mugaritz: "En espera de que reconfirmin la reserva durante la misma semana le saludo atentament."

From Arzak: "Le agradeceremos confirmen su reserva mediante una llamada al restaurante algunos dias antes."

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From Mugaritz: Awaiting a confirmation of booking during the same week you have made your reservation, we wish you well.

From Arzak: We would be grateful for you to confirm your reservation by calling the restaurant a few days before.

People have recommended that you try Riojas from the basque country. I would also recommend you have a look at Ribera Del Duero's or Priorats (especially Scala Dei) as these wines can be quite difficult to find outside of Spain (Scala Dei nigh on impossible)

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I haven't been to Arzak in over five years. Juan Mari was still in charge of the kitchens. I found the food very light and contemporary--inventive without being in your face creative. We had a one c'clock lunch reservation, but had a little trouble finding the place and arrived at 1:30 to find one other couple in the place. If memory serves, they were speaking English. I believe we finished eating sometime after four. My recollection is that the room filled up around three but that a large party arrived and were sat in the upstairs dining room well after three o'clock.

In May 2000 we arrived late for a two o'clock lunch at Berasategui and not many parties arrived after us. To a small extent, I think things are changing. To a greater extent it may depend on whether the crowd is local or foreign. Inbetween those two meals we had dinner at Goizeko Kabi in Bilbao. I think we arrived at nine. The tapas bar we passed along the way seemed to be jumping as a large group of smartly dressed twenty somethings were entering. Goizeki Kabi was all but deserted. The few diners were clearly tourists. Within the hour it began to fill up. Gozeiki Kabi had an extensive menu and seemed prepared to serve lots of dishes that weren't on the menu. The English menus were not direct translations of the Spanish menu. The food ranged considerably from so-so to great.

At the two and three star level, there's an international sense at play in the restaurants, at least in the Basque region and Catalonia. Below that, it really takes some time to decipher the menus and understand Spanish food if it's new to you. At Berasategui we had the tasting menu. At Arzak we couldn't decide whether to take the tasting menu or not and the hostess suggested we both order our individual choices and have the kitchen split the dishes thereby composing our own tasting menu of three seafood dishes and a pigeon split between us. After that we only had room for a split dessert. We have some advantage in Spain as Spanish is Mrs. B's first language. Even then, we had trouble with Basque names and dishes. I'm a fan of trying local wines when I travel, especially for thefirst time in an area. In any event I suggest you try the txocoli sometime while you're in the area of San Sebastian. It's a nice white wine with seafood, but not one of the world's great wines.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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Txacoli definitely isn't one of the world best wines, but the red wine of the same standard is even worse! Basque teenagers and students make calimocho quite a lot, which is red wine and coca-cola. An appalling thought until you taste the red wine on it's own, then you realise why. . . :cool:

Liz, txacoli would be best tried as a glass with some tapas in the Old Part of San Sebastian or Irun or Bilbao as opposed to ordering a whole bottle in a restaurant. The reason that the tapas bars are full before the restauarants is because you have some tapas and THEN you have your sit down meal. The Basques can really eat , I mean they eat in Spain in general, but in the north they EAT.

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Lizziee,

I hope you have a great time in San Sebastien. Besides the restaurant, it is a jewel of a city. Before you go I recommend you read Kurlansky's "the Basque History of the World". Quite a fascinating book on Basque history.

If you call Arzak you may ask to speak to senora Izar. She speaks fluent English and takes good care of foreign visitors. They will also respond to your fax in English.

Since I seem to disagree with many commentators on Arzak though let me expound on previous remarks. I checked my notes. We have dined there 7 times. The first 2 were in the winter of 97. My notes star 12 out of 13 items 3 stars. Wild duck, woodcock, whole truffle in a potato crust, fish and shellfish, etc. all prepared without losing focus of the main ingredients and adding just the right touch of creative contrasts.

We could not wait but changed vacation plans to experience more of Arzak in the summer of 98. We had great weather and 3 remarkable dinners on August 29, September 1 and September 5. Memories held. My notes also mention complimentary glasses of champagne +Armagnac and a Riscal Riserva 1961 which was remarkable for $60.

We had one disappointing dinner on december 30,1999. The wine we had ordered(Artadi grandes anades 94) has not arrived till we were well into the second cigalas(langoustines) appetizer. There was tremendous resistance to accepting our order of " chuleta de buey a la brasa". This turned out one of the best grilled ribs I have tasted, accompanied by ethereal espelette peppers and scalloped potatoes. Otherwise desserts were as good as in the past(quince canneloni and the rice pudding with mango) but somehow the kitchen appeared to be having a lucklusted day.(But this was the day before the millenium and they were inundated with the French across the border.)

Our last and unfortunately disappointing meal at Arzak was on November 30 of 2002. We found the cuisine tilting towards the deconstructivist school, but somehow wondered how well thought out and researched new creations were. Certainly the presentations are as artistic as in the past, if not more so. Small pieces of shrimp, pistachio powder and potato crumbs look interesting on the plate and can be arranged like a flower. You can of course recompose what is decomposed and perhaps enjoy the dish. I doubt though you will enjoy reasonably fresh rouget with lamb brain encrusted in poppy seeds. Perhaps an interesting experiment in texture and a "cerebral" dish, but not one that gives the pleasure rouget is capable of giving. Similarly desserts are also moving in the "cerebral" direction. Paprika infused chocolate sorbet with a tart tomato coulis was interesting but, believe me, nothing like Arpege's notorious tomato dessert.(But why should it be? After all the chef is "creating" not copying.)

Fortunately, we had again good and friendly service and both food and wine prices are still fair. Maybe the new chef at Arzak will eventually settle in a hgher equilibrium. In the meantime, Zuberoa is still very good and in my opinion, Berasatequi is delivering what we expect 3 stars to deliver(but they rarely do) at very fair prices. It may not be a bad idea to try all 3 and then repeat the one that appeals most to you.

Also a short note on tapa bars. Some of them(such as Gambara which is one of our favorites) have downstair rooms where you can eat tapas as well as whole portions. In the winter season we enjoyed truffle omelette, turbot roasted on the bone, angulas, etc.

Niza hotel is not luxurious but close to the old part of the town and will not break the budget. They are welcoming too and they have a garage. It is very easy to drive both to Arzak and Berasatequi from Niza, but ask Berasatequi for directions.

I hope this helps. Please let us know of your impressions.

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"Our last and unfortunately disappointing meal at Arzak was on November 30 of 2002. We found the cuisine tilting towards the deconstructivist school, but somehow wondered how well thought out and researched new creations were. Certainly the presentations are as artistic as in the past, if not more so. Small pieces of shrimp, pistachio powder and potato crumbs look interesting on the plate and can be arranged like a flower."

Are you referring to te "Idiazabal with prawns and prunes"? This dish was on the Arzak menu in November 2002. This dish was indeed average, but the ingredients sound a bit different from your reference to pistachio powder.

The prawns were not memorable. The prune manifested itself in a mild, tapenade mode (not sweet). There was a "column" on the plate of organish dried small breadcrumbs -- these had Idiazabal cheese integrated into the breadcrumb (i.e., there was no moisture; non-smoked version of Idiazabal was utilized). There was also a little bit of Guindillas (peppers that looked a bit like pale green beans).

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vmilor,

Too many restaurants to try and not enough time. We have decided to try all 5 recommended restaurants - Zubero, Akelare, Arzak, Berasategui and Mugaritz. This is not exactly my favorite way to eat as I prefer going to a "new" restaurant for a couple of meals to really get a feel for the place. Somehow, we will have to find time to put in some tapas places --- how early and how late are they open?

By the way, Arzak made a typing mistake re our reservation by typing the wrong date. In perfect English, they re-faxed the confirmation and apologized for the typing error.

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Cabrales: we are talking about the same dish at Arzak. In the past I used to collect all menus and/or write lenghty descriptions with wine and food. Nowdays I am just enjoying things but sometimes my wife or I are taking notes after the fact(sometimes one week after) for future reference. Her notes on this dish reads: " 3 small juicy shrimp. A decomposed dish which you recompose yourself. It had potato crumbs, pistacio(sic) powder. A very little sauce of beet and a little sauce of boudin and prune. You dip the shrimp in the sauce and roll it in the powder".

Lizzie: Tapa bars typically open at 2 till 3:30 and then from 9 till well past midnight. For a first time visitor what you have decided is interesting and despite my qualms about new Arzak and Akelare they too are worth trying. The only danger is that ( I have not been at Mugaritz) traditional Basque cuisine is not well represented. However, tapa bars may fill this gap. Dishes like "chipirones en su tinta", all shellfish a la plancha, bacalao pil pil etc., are not likely to be tasted in the starred restaurants and they go well with the fizzy txakolin. We used to go to tapa bars around 2 in the afternoon. Then we went to dinner around 11 PM or so and (following a stroll at the concha) slept around 3 AM and did not wake up till noon. Actually this is our preferred lifestyle and we are doing our best to corrupt our 10 months old baby girl to adapt!

Please (in Spring) do not miss the roasted suckling lamb at Zuberoa.

PS: Zortziko in Bilbao stands in no man's land between silly and traditional.

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