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San Sebastian Restaurants: Recommendations


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As I mentioned I am off to Bilbao/San Sebastian on Feb 06 and all the suggestions have been very helpful so a big Thank You to everybody (you know who you are!).

One last question: when I was in Strasbourg in November I discovered a fabulous restaurant that specialised in cheese. They had a selection of well over 100 but their 'cheese plate' had a selection of twenty (albeit small) cheeses and was really memorable. As I love cheese is there a similar restaurant in the Bilbao/San Sebastian/Biarritz area?

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  • 7 months later...

In his "San Sebastian Dining: Akelare to Zuberoa," Robert Brown chronicles his meals and observations at the five "must" restaurants -- Akelare, Arzak, Martin Berasetegui, Mugaritz, and Zuberoa -- in what has become, as he puts it, "the latest Mecca for traveling gastronomes."

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Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Robert, Great article! What a delight to read and dream of being there. I was particularly intrigued by the assador with impecable grilled seafood. It reminded me of my experience at the Bar Universal in the Boqueria Maerket of Barcelona - Yum! Honest, straightforward and delicious.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

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Very good report, I think. Each restaurant's soul was very well captured by Robert; in Martin's case, I think it may have been a particularly bad day, however.

PS One minor correction: Joselito, which cures the best ham in the world, is not in Extremadura, but in Guijuelo, near Salamanca - northwest of Madrid on the road to Portugal, and one of Europe's most beautiful cities.

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Robert, thanks for that. It's an excellent read and far more than just a useful guide for those wanting advice on where to eat, what to eat or even how to order in these places, although it should be food for thought for people who want those suggestions. Sometimes a meal is more than the sum of it's parts and sometimes it's less. I think you make that clear and while I'm decidedly focused on what comes out of the kitchen (as I think you and Susan are too) there are intangibles that can seriously affect even how we appreciate the food. For me, the way you handle that is a highlght of the article which should make for intersting reading even for those who do not have Donostia in their plans at the moment.

Victor suggested you might very well have visited Martin on a bad day. I very much sense an appreciation on your part that these are reflections on a meal and not an attempt to classify, rank or totally explain the individual restaurants, but to add to the store of understanding we each may have about the area and its top restaurants. The article comes off as a report from sophisticated diners who have just discovered the area. What if does for me, whose dining card for a short week next month in the area is already pretty fixed, is not make me question so much if I've made the right choices, but to make me even more excited to be there and try most of the same places. I will of course, be re-reading your article several times gleaming advice.

I've mentioned that my now long ago visit to Arzak is what's fired my interest in dining in Spain. That meal was a side trip to an itinerary in the outhwest of France that became the unexpected highlight of the trip. Who knew at the time that three stars was harder to get in Spain than in France. I had assumed the opposite. A later meal at Berasategui reinforced our interest in Donostia as a destination. It was marred only by the lack of half bottles on the wine list and when deciding between a glass of red for each of us and a bottle, our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, livers and brains. Martin himself was not there that day, or not there when we finished lunch. We had hoped to meet him as he had been such a gracious host to our daughter before. The lunch however was thrillling. For us it was one of those where we were on the edge of our seat in anticipation of each course.

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.

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Viking, Docscons, Victor and Bux, thank you very much for liking my report. I am also indebted to Fat Guy for making it look like something an innocent person might think I got paid for!!!! To be serious, though, it is nice that even a relatively few people will factor it in when they go to Donostia, and I hope that they will also share their experiences and opinions after their visits.

It looks like I struck a nerve with my less-than-enthusiastic view of our meal at Martin Berasatequi. I'm not sure if calling it an off-night is the operative phenomenon here. My reading of it was as a restaurant going through what seemed like a bad stretch. This was my opinion even before other reports concerning what was happening in the kitchen were posted. The telling part was having to wait 30 minutes for any food whatsoever (and we were not the first to arrive) as this suggested a kitchen having trouble being in synch. As I think I made clear in the piece, I don't dine with just my taste buds. Going to a restaurant of the highest echelon is for me an exercise in connoisseurship, and I found Berasategui to be rather "brut" in this regard. (What I didn't mention in the article was that somehow we ended up with two of these "moelleuses" desserts; one chocolate, the other coffee or caramel (if memory still serves me correctly) which is not what I would expect on a short dessert menu in a three-star restaurant.)

With each of the five restaurants, I freely admit I had only one kick at the cat. At Akelare, which was my fourth favorite visit, I left with the possibility that had I ordered diffferently (though exactly what, I have no idea) I may have eaten better. Thus, I hope to return again. At Berasategui, it was more the feeling that there were deep-seated aspects that would prevent me from having a really memorable time no matter how often I went, (although this does not preclude ever returning. It is just that I don't think it will be soon.) Now it wasn't as if the dishes were not prepared right. Indeed they were executed as intended. It is just that when I compare being there to being at the only other three-star restaurant in the region, Restaurante Arzak, I see the difference between dining as a near-chore and dining as a affirmation of enjoying life.

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If Berasategui is having problems, it wouldn't be the first restaurant to succumb to the pressures of becoming a three star or to its chef having many interests in the area. I will also maintain that there's far more subjectivity to the appreciation of food than most people are willing to admit. I have known reasonable and sophisticated diners to disagree about a meal they had together. In any event, Martin has almost a month to get his act together before we're there. :biggrin:

There are things a restaurant can do that will prevent me from enjoying my meal and then there are times when my opinion is completely changed again by the time I finish the meal. The longest period of time I ever spent with nothing to do but read the menu was at Roellinger in Cancale. By the time they came to take our order, I was convinced I was on French candid camera or the butt of someone's joke, but the meal was so good and the service so attentive from there on, that I've argued they deserved another star.

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.

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Arriba arriba!

Anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so corrosive that out of all substances it has been chosen for washing and scouring, and a drop of water added to a clear liquid like Absinthe, muddles it." ALFRED JARRY

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I thoroughly enjoyed reading your report on the Big Five of the San Sebastian vicinity, especially some of the detailed descriptions of the dishes.

After reading of your food experiences at these famed dining rooms and comparing them with mine, it seems to me that each visit to these establishments can only be a snapshot of the ever growing and changing life of a living organism that is each restaurant.

Whatever is going on at Martin Berasategui is unfortunate. I had a wonderful food and service experience there, tasting several deliciously fresh and exciting dishes, some of which were served for the first time that day. I know this is being overly simplistic, but perhaps some of your bad luck was to eat there on a day that their new attempts were not so successful and old staff was recently replaced by new?! During a visit to Zuberoa last year, although we enjoyed our meal, I thought the dishes were executed or crafted with less inspiration than your Zuberoa experience. During our first visit to Akelare, several years ago, I thought it sparkled with freshness, imagination and wit, and enjoyed it far more than Arzak. However, after my experience during our most recent visit this past spring, I would agree with you on the inconsistency of the fare. I ordered the Gin and Tonic on a plate dessert that you described and while finding it to be a novel and attractive deconstruction of the classic beverage, it wasn't my idea of a wonderful dessert, especially in such a large dinner plate serving. At El Bulli such studies in flavor are judiciously administered in small doses.

I was pleased to see that you met Craig from Reno at Akelare. We also had the pleasure of chatting with Craig, who provided enlightening tidbits about the various ingredients and dishes before us. In April, he was a waiter and a stern, matronly, head waitress shooed him away from our table several times. We had feared that our furtive food chats with Craig may have gotten him in trouble, but I see we did him no permanent harm if he is now a sommelier.

Somehow Mugaritz has continued to elude us due to scheduling issues.

Marina C.

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Just speaking from general experience -- and I'd be surprised were this not the general experience of every experienced diner in the world -- any given restaurant, on any given night, can totally suck. It can suck so bad that one is virtually forced to conclude, "This sucks way worse than an off night can explain." This happens to people at Taillevent, in fact it happened to me at Taillevent. It happens at Daniel, indeed more than once to me. This happens to people at Ducasse New York, Paris, and Monaco, though it hasn't happened to me. It happens at Pierre Gagnaire, though again not to me, and I'm sure it happens at El Bulli, though hopefully not when I eventually get there. Even at Gramercy Tavern, where the entire business strategy of the restaurant is obsessively focused on not letting this sort of thing happen (some would say at the expense of some inspiration/creativity), it happens. The only place it doesn't happen is at McDonald's, where the human factor has been beaten out of the system and everything has been automated. But a real restaurant is a delicate machine with numerous interlocking parts. When it starts to spin out of control, and the spin control mechanisms are for some reason not operating, a disastrous evening can ensue. The potential variation is much greater than with a Broadway show or an opera, because the nature of the specific interactions (in the kitchen and in the dining room) is so much less predictable. And it's entirely possible that, the very next day, things can be right back on track.

A related phenomenon: it's tremendously difficult to overcome one's first experience at a restaurant, especially if it's a bad experience, but also to some extent even if it's a good one.

None of which is to make any judgment at all with respect to the specific facts of this case. I'm just saying that, accepting all of Robert Brown's factual observations, which I'm sure are correct and probably even conservatively stated, there is still the possiblity that it was nothing more than an off night. Perhaps not the most likely possibility, but a possibility nonetheless.

There's a lesson for restaurants here, though, especially for "destination restaurants": most people will give you only one chance, and they're coming to you with high expectations. Those people will judge you on one visit, and they have a right to do so because they've paid a ton of money to get to you and to eat at your place. And those customers have friends, and some have even larger audiences.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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There are different kinds of breakdown in a service operation.

One is the "one night disaster" that Steven describes. I've seen these happen in top restaurants but also in other finely tuned service enterprises like law offices and advertising firms. One of the chefs could have been suddenly taken ill, or a vital piece of equipment could have broken down. Since everything in a restaurant operation is connected to everything else, the effects of a problem like this can spread until the whole thing stops working.

Another is a more long-term systemic problem, a breakdown that occurs over a long time, as the operation either loses sight of what it is really trying to do, or something goes wrong with morale, training, quality, incentives, etc. Again, a decline of this nature usually affects many aspects of the place: reservations taken in a slovenly way, chilly greeting as guests arrive, mistaken orders, badly cooked food and the like.

The link between the two problem types is that a well run service operation (and I don't mean a roboticised place like a McDonald's or a factory law firm) needs enough redundancy to compensate for unexpected disasters. An operation in decline will often cut staff or skimp on maintenance in order to conserve cash, only to find that they have no resources to continue through a crisis.

My reading of Robert's report is that he was pointing to the second kind of breakdown, the systemic breakdown that can take months to fix. He cited

the immovable aspects of restaurants -- the overall taste level from the decor to the graphic design; the attitude and commitment of the dining room staff; and how one is generally treated

as an indicator of how well a restaurant was really doing. And in the case of Restaurante Martin Berasategui, he pointed to the design, the welcome as guests arrived, and the table settings as evidence.

I saw something like this with the Moulin de Mougins. It has improved somewhat since it lost two of its three stars -- it is now back to two, though our lunch there this summer merited one star at best. But when we dined at the nadir of its performance, a few years ago, there was a generally lost and down-at-heel character to the place, in welcome, setting, service -- and in the food. This was clearly not a one night problem, but a systemic decline that took place over a long time.

I would contrast this with the meal that we had at el Bulli earier this year, also reported in TDG. Here there was a bit of a "one night breakdown", resulting in unacceptably slow service and a meal that started at 8 pm and didn't finish until 1 am. And sure enough, Adria admitted that he was having trouble with some of his new staff that evening. But everything else, the food in particular, was very positive.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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I'd like to make some comments on what's been said about Martin's restaurant. We visited Donostia a couple of weeks ago, visiting Arzak on Friday night, and Martin to lunch on Sunday. We always try to pay a visit to the area once a year at least, a nice tradition that began five years ago. In total, we've been to Arzak and Berasategui five times to each of them. Strictly speaking of food, we always have liked better Martin than Arzak, except last year, when we found more enjoyable the menu offered by Arzak.

This last visit, I found more interesting and perhaps more challenging, the dishes prepared by Martin. I'd also argue that the number of creations introduced every year in Martin's menu are larger than in Arzak's place.

My exposure to this type of restaurants outside Spain is none to zero. So I can't comment about the welcoming uses there, but I haven't noticed anything special in Martin that sets him apart from the rest of restaurants here. Could it be possible that people from the States are used to other service standards?.

The setting and view you get in Martin, with a large crystal wall to the country side, is to me the second in the area just after Akelare. The reason you have only the water glass on the table, is because they use the Riedel series to serve wine, and match the grape variety and the type of glass once you order wine.

What does offend you about the logo?. Did you find El Bulli decor better than Martin's (leaving aside the kitchen)?.

On service, the only area where I could point as a minor issue had to do with wine. Ignacio, their former sommelier, has recently left the place, to embrace a career as wine-maker. Now they only have a sumiller, and the second they need won't join them till next year. We were served the apperitives around ten minutes after we sat down, and the pace of the coming dishes was dictated by our rythm eating them. However, probably due to a higher level of attrition (I'd say there's only a waitress whom we knew from previous visits), Martin's service is not as well oiled as the one you get in Arzak or Zuberoa. Specially in Arzak, everything related to service flows naturally.

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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There are different kinds of breakdown in a service operation.

Absolutely. But it is impossible to conclude, based on one data point, that you are witnessing the second. Yet it is overwhelmingly likely that almost every single observer of a one-night disaster will, if the disaster is quite complete, conclude that he has just dined at a restaurant in decline. The cognitive dissonance otherwise is just too great.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Just speaking from general experience -- and I'd be surprised were this not the general experience of every experienced diner in the world -- any given restaurant, on any given night, can totally suck. It can suck so bad that one is virtually forced to conclude, "This sucks way worse than an off night can explain."

...

There's a lesson for restaurants here, though, especially for "destination restaurants": most people will give you only one chance, and they're coming to you with high expectations. Those people will judge you on one visit, and they have a right to do so because they've paid a ton of money to get to you and to eat at your place. And those customers have friends, and some have even larger audiences.

I'll agree that even the best restaurants can suck, at least in some aspect on any given night and that sometimes all it takes is one detail to ruin a diner's entire dining experience and color the rest of the meal. I like to cite my experience at Roellinger because the restaurant redeemed itself and it shows how adaptive and generous a person I am. The truth is that there are restaurants that never got a second chance to prove themselves to me and that I carry a negative image of some very highly respected restaurants because they're just too inconvenient to revisit or they're in a location that has so much competition for my business. Life can be unfair.

I think most people however, will argue vehemently that a Michelin 3 star, or NY Times 4 star, rating should mean absolute consistency. In theory I'd join that argument, but it's unrealistic. Restaurants are dynamic. Staff come and go. Enthusiasm wanes and revives. Michelin notes that you will always eat extremely well and sometimes superbly at a three star restaurant. For some diners, extremely well is so high an expectation that superbly is irrelevant, but Michelin understands that not every dish, or every night is equal to every other. Still, consistency should be a hall mark of a fine restaurant.

Jonathan quotes Robert's "the immovable aspects of restaurants -- the overall taste level from the decor to the graphic design; the attitude and commitment of the dining room staff; and how one is generally treated" and notes himself that "as an indicator of how well a restaurant was really doing. And in the case of Restaurante Martin Berasategui, he [Robert] pointed to the design, the welcome as guests arrived, and the table settings as evidence." If I might focus on the design, it's probably one thing that is consistent in most restaurants. They may grow shabby or dowdy over time, but it's unlikely the design is swell one night and then unacceptable another. There's more likely a difference in the outlook of the diner, although I'll admit that the dining room seemed rather "gray" when we passed through it. We ate on a terrace with a great view of greenery that seemed to deny the suburban character of the neighborhood as we drove up to Berasategui. To what extent the decor or the restaurant contributed to the disappointment of the meal and to what extent the service or rest of the meal led to the dissatisfaction of the design can't be clear. These things snowball. If a diner is engaged with his dinner, he's less likely to pay as much attention to the background. If the food is not engrossing, or if he's bored waiting for the next course, it becomes very easy to notice flaws that might otherwise be unnoticed.

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.

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I have always subscribed to the notion, as Marina and Bux say in different ways, that restaurants have a personality of their own; that they are the end result of people's labor, talent, and sensibilities. In my upper-echelon dining experience, which I try to be modest about, but let's say is lengthy and intensive, there are restaurants that have had the rare quality of embracing me. Almost always these restaurants come close to perfection in every aspect. On our Donostia excursion, Arzak did that to me. In fact as we were about to leave, I said to me wife (with the four other restaurant visits still to come), "We're not going to find any restaurant better than this." As far as I was concerned, I was right. My wife, however, was most taken by Mugaritz, showing that exciting, innovative cuisine can minimze the negatives of bad service. Mugartiz, however Spartan the room and lacking the pizzazz and accoutrements of its higher-rated two and three star restaurants in the area, was not the least bit offensive in the way Berasategui was.

As with Bux, I have been in several restaurants where the visit gets off to a bad start (Mugartiz was an example of a restaurant that committed the cardinal sin of leaving the client hanging in abandonment for many minutes after having been seated), but in the end the service staff redeems itself. At Berasategui, however, the damage was so heavy in the first 30 minutes and the ensuing service so dispassionate (and to be fair, the courses were well-timed once the meal got rolling) and the cuisine so unexciting that we never felt the restaurant had vindicated itself. To the two of us, we easily reached the inescapable conclusion that Berasategui was a restaurant experiencing structural difficulties, which is a feeling different than what we get when a restaurant is having a bad night.

Pedro, thank you for your heartfelt post. Certainly this year with his retrospective menu, Berasategui can't be making more new dishes than Elena Arzak. Even so, how does it matter? The people at the next table also received their apertifs in short order, but with nothing to eat with them. As for Martin's logo, it is a case study for design students on how to make a trite, hackneyed, maladroit, and cornball one. The only person I can think of who is suitable for a logo of a spoon laid across someone's head is Uri Geller.

Bux raises a point that gets right to the heart of "mind over palate", which is that if a diner is engaged with his dinner, he or she is less apt to notice what's going on in the background. Being restaurant junkies, my wife and I dining alone together tend to spend the entire meal commenting on all that is unfolding in our field of vision and range of hearing. I find that once we are dining with other people (who invariably don't care aboout the phenomenon of restaurants as much as we do), we obviously become oblivious or less attentive to the activity beyond us. On the other hand, I can be a sometimes-annoying group dining companion by reminding everone how long we have been waiting, pointing out some mistake or flaw, or questioning a server or a sommelier.

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The only person I can think of who is suitable for a logo of a spoon laid across someone's head is Uri Geller.

:laugh::laugh::laugh: Ok, now I'm seriously considering to let Martin know about this point. I'm almost sure he would agree.

Certainly this year with his retrospective menu, Berasategui can't be making more new dishes than Elena Arzak. Even so, how does it matter?

Perhaps we had different menus. Having been to Arzak and Martin in 2002, and just two weeks ago, is just plain simple that Martin outnumbered Elena in terms of new dishes introduced in the menu. I would agree with you that this wouldn't matter, wouldn't it be because I found Elena's new dishes less complete than Martin's ones. Take for example the "Eliptic egg" or the "Sopa de cerebro de carabinero".

I wasn't trying to make a comparison between Arzak and Martin, although my limited english skills are not good enough to produce sophisticated arguments. I believe there are cycles in restaurants, and maybe last year we experienced Arzak in one of its peaks and Martin going to a valley (all of this remembering that we're speaking of top level restaurants, and a valley in here could take another chef life to get there), and this year the other way around.

Nevertheless, I recognize that the staff stability achieved by Arzak is a major plus, and makes you feel more at ease during your visit.

And last but not least, let me finish this post the way the previous one should have started. Congratulations for your excellent article!.

PS: I'll try to post my recent experiences in the area, giving more weight to the places where you haven't been, namely Casa Nicolás in Tolosa, Ramón Roteta in Fuenterrabía (a.k.a. Hondarribia) and Rekondo in Donostia. We also tried to go to Kaia in Guetaria, and found it closed, but not being americans, we weren't able to secure a reservation to ElKano :wink: . Going to Casa Nicolás was a more than excellent substitute.

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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It's always tough, when a couple of things go wrong, to right the course and keep a good memory of a dining experience. I remember the first time I went to Mugaritz (no Michelin stars yet at the time, but already 'the great white hope' of the Spanish culinary press), I was sitting with my friend and colleague who reviews restaurants for Spain's largest newspaper, and we mentioned to Andoni Luis Aduriz a detail that didn't convince us in one of his dishes. He reacted haughtily, basically replying that we were a couple of old fogeys with no notion of his culinary style, and that we hadn't understood a thing. There we were, the restaurant critics for this country's two biggest dailies, being chastised by a cocky young cook (who, in addition, wasn't even right - I think we were!). I was really, really irked at first - but I still recognized Aduriz's great talent. To this day, though, I have remained convinced that this kid's arrogance sometimes gets the best of him. He's a Berasategui protégé, BTW, and shares many traits of character with Martín...

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Interesting. I heard immediate grumblings and rumblings from insiders when it was announced Berasategui got his third Michelin star--was that 2001?--that now the pressure was really on and that we'd see if he could deliver the goods a la Adria and Arzak and Santi Santamaria.

As an outsider looking in--I'm more fascinated by and envious of what's happening here--in Spain--but also what energy is happening within this eGullet forum--all the new voices we have here and others on the "Help in Donostia" thread. Victor, pedro, two stagiaires working there joined by Gerry Dawes, Bux, Robert Brown, LML and a lot of others whose names escape me at the moment. Thank you all for some vicarious joy--your efforts are appreciated.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo

chef@pastryarts.com

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One thing I have to add is that after re-reading that "Help in Donostia" thread, I realize how much divergency there is in people's opinions of their meals. I'm still not sure whether this is a reflection of the subjectivity of the various diners' tastes or a matter of inconsistency. I'd have thought the first, but I see reason to suspect the second. Perhaps this is to be expected in an area where creativity becomes a competitive sport.

I'm also not sure if this should add to the excitement of my trip next month, or make me apprehensive. :biggrin:

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.

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Subjectivity and inconsistency are both inescapable realities of writing about restaurants. At the same time, both can be minimized and kept at least partially in check by the writer. The problem is that to minimize the inconsistency element, you have to visit a restaurant several times, and the reality of food-travel writing is that you go to restaurants once and you still have to write about them. So you do your best and you do it with the knowledge that you may go back to the restaurant the following year and get to write, "I said it sucks; I was wrong." A respectable writer doesn't mind saying that at all. I'll say it again: you can develop theories, you can have a strong suspicion, and you can witness some pretty damning behavior, but you simply cannot draw firm conclusions about the state of a restaurant based on one visit. I don't care if the garde-manger cook comes out, sticks a shotgun in your face, and says "finish your salad or I'll kill you," and then you complain to the Maitre d' and he says, "He should have killed you." It can still be a one-time crash rather than anything systemic. Of course, it's more likely than not that any restaurant that allows its line cooks to keep shotguns at their stations is suffering from systemic problems. But you can't be sure until you go back a few times. Alternately, you can look at data points from other customers you trust. If you have a lame experience at a restaurant, and then it turns out that several people you trust found the restaurant underwhelming for the same reasons, you can feel a little more confident about developing a one-visit opinion.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I don't care if the garde-manger cook comes out, sticks a shotgun in your face, and says "finish your salad or I'll kill you," and then you complain to the Maitre d' and he says, "He should have killed you."

You've gotten on the wrong side of a couple of cooks in your day, I gather. :laugh:

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.

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I'll say it again: you can develop theories, you can have a strong suspicion, and you can witness some pretty damning behavior, but you simply cannot draw firm conclusions about the state of a restaurant based on one visit. ...  Of course, it's more likely than not that any restaurant that allows its line cooks to keep shotguns at their stations is suffering from systemic problems. But you can't be sure until you go back a few times.

Steven, can you give an example from your own reviewing of a case where a restaurant had all the signs of systemic decline, yet you subsequently discovered that, as it were, the shotguns were just in the kitchen for that one dinner service?

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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You betcha. First time I ever dined at Daniel, we were kicked out. We had a large party at a 6pm reservation, they slammed the meal at a breakneck pace, and they asked us to give up the table at 8pm -- without warning -- while we were still only part way into coffee. And that was just the centerpiece of an evening that was relatively disastrous in many respects (not to mention I thought the decor sucked and the tables were cramped; this was at the old place -- now I think the tables are spacious and the decor sucks). Not only that, but there was complete non-responsiveness by the restuarant when I subsequently wrote to complain. This was one of those situations where I concluded that "there's a hell of a lot more wrong with this restaurant than an off night can explain." But I've been back enough times to Daniel (in both locations) to know, in retrospect, that I was experiencing the restaurant on one of its worst days, and that in fact on most days it has a very good day -- that Daniel Boulud guy, he's no joke. Was it our Robert Schonfeld who said, "There are no four-star restaurants; only four-star meals" (four stars being how we do it in NYC via the NY Times)? Or was he quoting someone else who said that? Either way, it's a true statement.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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