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San Sebastian Restaurants: Recommendations


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Those little dishes can add up quickly. I just thought I'd repeat that. It's something worth saying again. There's no doubt tapas are an expensive way to fill an empty stomach. By the same token, one can go broke before one gets drunk drinking zurritos. It would be more economical to stay and have a glass caña of beer and several tapas in one bar, but part of the fun is moving and checking out as many bars as possible. I don't believe there's a similar option for wine drinkers.

Hmm. I don't think they add up so quickly. You had your tapa with a caña for 2.80€, which probably reflects that the tapa was one of the most expensive ones. Even so, 10 of those would give us a bill of 28€. I can almost guarantee that well before the 10th tapa you'd be quite stuffed. And 28€ is quite reasonable for a meal.

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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Hmm. I don't think they add up so quickly. You had your tapa with a caña for 2.80€, which probably reflects that the tapa was one of the most expensive ones. Even so, 10 of those would give us a bill of 28€. I can almost guarantee that well before the 10th tapa you'd be quite stuffed. And 28€ is quite reasonable for a meal.

Especially for what amounts to a tasting menu :laugh: If it is good, it is not a bad deal at all, although it probably lacks the elegance of a formal sit-down tasting menu.

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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Especially for what amounts to a tasting menu :laugh: If it is good, it is not a bad deal at all, although it probably lacks the elegance of a formal sit-down tasting menu.

Pedro's correct. My reaction was really a knee jerk reaction to eating small dishes at bars in other parts of the world and the sense I carry with me that this can be unexpectedly expensive. For instance the three tapas we had at Aloña Berri together, would have been the equivalent of a decent appetizer at a fine restaurant in France, where they would have cost much more.

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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  • 1 month later...

I would love some information on where to stay and what to do for New Years.. We would most likely want to stay in a hotel or a website that has nice apartments.. If anyone could reco a hotel that is close to the majority of the above mentioned places that would be terrific. And if anyone could tell me of a place i should book to eat at for new years eve that would be great too.(pete and repeat are on a boat) I Really appreciate it.. Cant wait to send my write up.

Edited by Daniel (log)
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We would most likely want to stay in a hotel or a website
Trust me, you don't want to stay on a web site. :biggrin: Go out and enjoy the town whether you're in a hotel or an apartment.

The Maria Christina is undoubtably the hotel closest to the old city, as well as the Barrio Gros acros the river, and is the best and most expensive hotel around. It's still a short and pleasant walk from other hotels that have been recommended such as the De Londres y de Inglaterra and the Niza, each of those is a step down in price respectively. I have stayed as far from downtown as the NH Aránzazu and been willing to make the long walk to the old city. Mrs. B was less eager to do so at the time.

Too much has been written about the great restaurants in and around the city, although none are near downtown or near major hotels, that a short repeat of even a little bit would be a disservice. Arzak, Akelarre, Mugaritz,and Berasategui are the four that come to mind first. I wonder if the recent charges against some chefs in regard to making payments to the ETA hare having any effect on the cooking. I'm sorry to bring that up, but it's a concern.

Robert Buxbaum

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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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Too much has been written about the great restaurants in and around the city, although none are near downtown or near major hotels, that a short repeat of even a little bit would be a disservice. Arzak, Akelarre, Mugaritz,and Berasategui are the four that come to mind first. I wonder if the recent charges against some chefs in regard to making payments to the ETA hare having any effect on the cooking. I'm sorry to bring that up, but it's a concern.

Haha.. I just find it hilarious that you are more concerned about how a chefs relationship with a terrorist might affect his cooking as opposed to how a chefs relationship with a terrorist might affect your safety.. I find it completely normally, but I am normal enough to know I am far from normal. Thank you.. Yeh i think that Maria(Westin) place is where i am resting in between meals. :smile: .. But again, in terms of anything specific that goes on for New Years Eve anyone can help me with would be great.

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The Maria Christina has a list of recommended tapas bars with a map of the old city. It really seemes everyone has a list in San Sebastian. If nothing else, it will help you find the ones mentioned on eGullet.

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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HAving stayed one night at the Maria Cristina and 3 at the Londress Y Inglaterra ( sp) I would recommend the latter. It is a step down but not a big step and has much more going on in its bar and lobby than the former. The price is about 2/3 the price of the Westin. And you are right on the waterfront plaza which I imagine will be teeming with people NYE. As will old town's many, many great bars. If it were me I would not look to be in any one place for NYE instead I would be out in the crowds. Think New Orleans at Mardis Gras. Not a time to be in a great restaurant or club. As mentioned by Bux none of the most alluring places are near either hotel. Old town is as is the harbor area.

Enjoy,

David

David West

A.K.A. The Mushroom Man

Founder of http://finepalatefoods.com/

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David made some good points. I have no idea where the action will be in San Sebastian on New Year's Eve, but I wonder if the promenade along the beach, the harbor or the old city might not be the most lively and interesting places to be. One leads right to the other and the extremes are basically within walking distance as are all the downtown hotels mentioned. I'm not a great fan of turning a good dinner into a New Year's Even celebration. Obviously many people are or restaurants wouldn't be able to charge the prices they do on New Year's Eve. I'm also a proponent of enjoying a great afternoon meal when in Spain. At least half of my best meals in Spain have been at lunch time and that may well include all my meals in the San Sebastian area.

I have few New Year's Eve experiences abroad and all but one were spent with friends at their home. The one exception was spent in Marseille where we chose to skip a gala New Year's Eve meal and join other friends for a fine lunch on New Year's Day at the best restaurant in the area. Fortunately for us, Marseille puts on a major show in the harbor with fireworks, a number of live bands scattered around the harbor and there was plenty (of unexceptional) food from street vendors. There were drinks in the hotel bar as well. I only wish I knew if San Sebastian had a tradition of outdoor celebration and if it did, could one get near enough to a bar to order drinks. :biggrin: There are certainly enough bars just in the old city, but on a good night, it can be a fight just to get a glass of wine or beer and some tapas, they are so popular and the crowds so deep at the good ones. It tends to be a bar hopping crowd however and the turnover is great so if you're patient, your turn will come. If you're not timid, you'll eventually find yourself belly up to the bar.

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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Wouldn't want to dampen anyone's festive spirits, but the chances of a chilly rainy New Year's Eve are always high in San Sebastián, so having one solid, warm, indoor base to take refuge would be a sound idea. Subtropical New Orleans it ain't...

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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David made some good points. I have no idea where the action will be in San Sebastian on New Year's Eve, but I wonder if the promenade along the beach, the harbor or the old city might not be the most lively and interesting places to be. One leads right to the other and the extremes are basically within walking distance as are all the downtown hotels mentioned. I'm not a great fan of turning a good dinner into a New Year's Even celebration. Obviously many people are or restaurants wouldn't be able to charge the prices they do on New Year's Eve. I'm also a proponent of enjoying a great afternoon meal when in Spain. At least half of my best meals in Spain have been at lunch time and that may well include all my meals in the San Sebastian area.

I have few New Year's Eve experiences abroad and all but one were spent with friends at their home. The one exception was spent in Marseille where we chose to skip a gala New Year's Eve meal and join other friends for a fine lunch on New Year's Day at the best restaurant in the area. Fortunately for us, Marseille puts on a major show in the harbor with fireworks, a number of live bands scattered around the harbor and there was plenty (of unexceptional) food from street vendors. There were drinks in the hotel bar as well. I only wish I knew if San Sebastian had a tradition of outdoor celebration and if it did, could one get near enough to a bar to order drinks.  :biggrin:  There are certainly enough bars just in the old city, but on a good night, it can be a fight just to get a glass of wine or beer and some tapas, they are so popular and the crowds so deep at the good ones. It tends to be a bar hopping crowd however and the turnover is great so if you're patient, your turn will come. If you're not timid, you'll eventually find yourself belly up to the bar.

Yeh I am hoping and would love to know if anyone does know of any specific outdoor celebration that takes place in San Sebastian.. Last year i was in Piazza Santa Croce in Florence and heard a beautifull classical music concert that we just came upon followed by fireworks and a group explosion of the cheapest of the cheap italian champagne. I think it ate through the jacket i was wearing.. Basically a perfect night for me would be a 8 oclock dinner into an outdoor goings on.

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  • 1 month later...

The Basque region of Spain has never disappointed us. Whenever we (my wife and I ) near this region, we make all acrobatics possible to spend there a few days. This year the opportunity presented itself in terms of a 3 day conference in Bordeaux scheduled for November 23-26. So we have decided to take advantage of the weekend and Monday and headed to Donostia (San Sebastian—now Michelin lists restaurants there under the Basque name) for 3 nights. We had a long trip: direct flight from Atlanta to Paris. Then a few hours at Roissy and another flight to Bordeaux. There we rented a car and drove about 2 and a half hours to our destination.

It was about 4 PM when we arrived to our hotel in Donostia. We had left at about the same time the day earlier. This being our 6th time or so there, Hotel Niza gives us very nice rooms with a balcony and a beautiful concha view. When we arrived the weather was beautiful and we are 50 yards from the sea. End November and believe it or not some “crazy” Basques were taking a dip in the sea. There is nothing as relaxing as standing in your balcony after a long trip and enjoying this view:

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This time I had a different strategy. In the past, we almost always run from one multistarred Michelin restaurant to another for dinner and had tapas for lunch. There are different reasons that I do not want to go into detail that I had been disenchanted with Arzak (under Elena—although we want to give it another try after a couple of positive reviews here), Barasetegui and Akelarre. We figured that we could have 5 meals maximum and wanted to repeat the old favorite Zuberoa. We were also interested in the 2 rising stars: Fagollaga and Mugaritz. I wanted to try what my friend, John Whiting, had recommended very strongly: Elkano in Getaria. I always had wanted to try a traditional venue: Casa Nicolasa. Finally after looking at the pictures in Garcia Santos’ LMG I decided to have a Sunday lunch in the beautiful valley of Axpe at Etxebarri.

We had one restaurant too many. At my peril I decided to drop Mugaritz—a right or wrong decision I will rectify hopefully in our next trip to the area planned for mid-March.

What I was trying to do in this trip was to avail myself of the best ingredients the Basque country offers in plentitude: esp. game, shellfish and of course angulas or baby eels which have a short season like game. Prior to our trip I posted a small message about the availability of becada or woodcock in a couple of websites. Two people (one being Pedro) pointed at my favorite Zuberoa. I called them and they said they will try their best. Just in case, I also mentioned to both Casa Nicolasa and Etxebarri about my interest in game and esp. sorda (the Basque name for becada that I learned from Pedro). They said it was difficult. For the record I do not speak Spanish and I tell them on the phone that I can speak English or French or Turkish. Somehow French is working best there—although I think in terms of character and looks there are so many parallels between Turkish and Basques, one reason why I like this area so much.

Overall our meals more than reconfirmed our passion for Basque cuisine. There was not a single meal that was poor. However, if I can rank the 5 meals we have had this will be my ranking in descending order: Etxebarri, Elcano, Fagollago, Casa Nicolasa and Zuberoa. My least favorite this trip, Zuberoa holds 2 stars in the guide Michelin. Etxebarri is not mentioned. (I will specify my criteria in another article I am planning to post tomorrow comparing two 3 star French: Le Cinq and l’Ambroisie)

Let’s start with Zuberoa. We had a nice surprise there in that, a very good friend and her husband saw my inquiry in egullet and they contacted me. She is a food writer too and they were going to be in Donostia at the same time for Garcia Santos’ LMG congress where Ferran Adria was going to make a presentation. Another friend of theirs, an Italian food writer and his girl friend also joined us, and we had a special meal prepared for us at Zuberoa. Overall, the meal did not have the well timed crescendo that one expects from a menu degustation from a restaurant of this caliber. Early on in the meal we had quite a few very reduced sauces and stocks. The raw materials and ingredients failed to shine as they used to in Hilario Arbelaitz’ cooking, My best guess is that this great chef is now trying to prove that he can cook with small portions and imitate the modernism (or post-modernism if you wish) that leading and younger chefs in the country has been advocating. The problem is that Arbelaitz’ value added is impeccable roasting skills and he is a first rate saucier –as good as classic French—and saucing is a relatively weak point of Spanish cooking. Bigger portions and dishes for two is what made Arbelaitz excelled in the past and his last courses, i.e. roasted suckling pig and lamb and woodcock were all top. The problem is that we had no appetite left at this point because of the ill conceived menu. A case in point is his first course pictured below: oyster and caviar with lemon gelatin. The oyster was too dry and muscular and somehow the 2 elements in the dish stood in opposition to one another and the sum is lesser than the 2 parts. For anybody familiar with the Thomas Keller’s masterpiece, oysters and pearls , the 2 dishes which look similar on paper could not have been more different. I would later learn from culinista that this dish had won a prize in the gastronomical congress, LMG.

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Casa Nicolasa is actually very good. The chef Juan Jose Castillo is following in the foodsteps of the legendary chef Nicolasa Pradera, and he is preparing classical dishes that you are not likely to find in tasting menus of the Michelin (and tourist) favored restaurants with gusto. Upon arrival, we were told that they had our becada woodcock. They prepared it with great skill, and their preparation was almost as good as the best becasse I had eaten in a game specialist near Geneve: Michelin 2 star Domaine Chateauvieux. The foie gras certainly adds to the dry and appropriately roasted very rare bird, and the apple-chestnut sauce was heavenly.

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Another example of classic preparation without cutting corners was the txangurro a la donastiarra or the spider crab that is seasoned and finished in the oven. I liken this preparation to the way Galicians prepare their incomparable scallops, and when it is good the minced onions and other ingredients (here garlic, white wine, tomatoes, bread crumbs) do not detract from the sweet fresh flavors of the shellfish, but they bring out the best qualities. This dish was very very good:

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We also had alubias de tolosa, a kind of cassoulet composed of creamy red kidney beans, guindilla peppers, salt pork and cabbage. I have not had this dish at the Fronton in Tolosa where they are famous, but I can not conceive any tastier preparation or better blood sausage or beans. The less successful dishes in Casa Nicolas were home made goose foie gras which came cold and was not the level you can get in the best French restaurants and green peppers stuffed with baby squid. When I investigated I learned what I should have known: the squids were not in season. But then they should not have been on the menu or they should have alerted me.

Fagollaga is a rising star, although the restaurant has been around a very long time. Everything about this restaurant enchanted me. It is not far to Donostia, about 20 min. drive, but it is a farmhouse in the attractive countryside:

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The menu is composed of dishes from the old menu that the current chef’s mother used to cook and the new dishes inspired by modernism. The chef, Isaac Salaberria, receives 9 out of 10 in the Garcia Santos bible that promotes New Spanish cooking This is as high as Arzak as a score and higher than El Raco de con Fabes (both Michelin 3 stars).

Salaberria’s cooking can be defined as refined cuisine du terroir. He makes ample use of internal organs of the meat, pork belly, pork and veal feet, pork ears, etc. But the preparations are not gutsy or literal. He “refines” some potentially offending (to non-Basques) flavors, presents his dishes in geometrically intriguing now almost customary (for the avant garde cooks) plates, makes ample use of infusions, although he has the good sense of serving infusions separately from the main dish rather than pouring on top, and he keeps on his menu time tested classics such as roasted suckling lamb without tampering with them. He roasted the lamb with a very fresh and tasty mesclun salad on the side, and this dish was even more successful than Zuberoa’s and came close to rivaling roasted spring lamb from the churra breed that you can have in the Ribera del Duero region.

His avant garde dishes are never bad. I had a number of dishes ranging from fine to excellent. To give some examples his tuna with roasted melon is just fair. Here the tuna is fine but not the Sashimi quality tuna belly (toro). You can get the best Japanese toro in the States, and the melon neither detracts nor adds to it. The infusion they serve the dish with is also neutral and, poured over the tuna. It does not render it more complex in taste, but compromises the texture. Japanese cooking may be a la vogue and de rigeur for New Spanish chefs, but certainly it is not the forte of Isaac Salaberria. (Even the physical looks reveals something: as opposed to slender Aduriz of Mugaritz, it looks like Isaac enjoys traditional cooking.)

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A more successful but not brilliant modern dish in Fagollaga is the scallops with wild mushroom infusion. Here the infusion is poured on top, but no offense is committed. It is a fine example of another (and IMO successful) compulsory marriage of modern cooking a la terre et mer. Scallops are almost first rate, appropriately raw, and the infusion is welcome here. The dish is very good but somehow it is not as titillating as some of the similar dishes I have had at Troisgros and Arpege.

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Then a brilliant modern cum traditional dish: panceta iberico con leche de Almendra tierna. Bacon with almond milk infusion. The bacon is full of flavor and the infusion is so well thought out that it renders an already very good dish a classic. A bite from one, a sip of another and when you repeat the process you discover new tastes and wish well to the chef with all your heart. My provisional conclusion is that this is a chef more or less the level of Pascal Barbot of L’Astrance, now delivering about 16/20 level food or the high end of one star, and over enthusiastic friends can cause more harm than good if they are unqualified in their enthusiasm. Let’s hope that Salaberria is wise enough not to fall into the trap and perfects his brand of refined-rustic without imitating more Japanese influenced cooking.

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At Elkano our friends from Finland and us, pictured below, started our dinner at around 11 PM, a very appropriate time to dine, and we finished around 3 AM and then we were invited to see the seawater tanks where they keep shellfish and where Alberto (of Galician origin and born in Venezuela) and his beautiful wife Lydia had a most animated conversation with the owner’s son.

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Elkano is very serious about its seafood and the fish is daily caught and does not see any ice. We had cocochas de merluzo (hake cheeks) in 3 different preparations: sautéed in butter, simply grilled, and in salsa verde. The last one was like a pil pil where the gelatine from the fish acts as the gelling agent. (I am still very skeptical whether Adria’s experiments will emulate the quality of the natural agents). All 3 were successful and different (for grilled and a la parilla cooking, they needed big hake and it is rarer). The incomparable angulas were also the freshest and firmest and prepared traditionally, fried in an earthenware casserole with fried garlic, red pepper flakes and parsley. The so called camarones are extremely good too. I hesitate to call them shrimp or prawns because tastewise they resemble the hormone grown and farmed prawns in the States as much as a Mediterranean rouget tastes like snapper. (This is how they translate it.)

But the reason we chose Elkano was to have their whole grilled turbot pictured below. They grill the local turbot slowly to preserve the natural gelatin, and you have to suck the bones to get the full taste. Being 4, we were able to choose a bigger turbot, which is more fat, thus better. I will still contend that the best turbot is from the Black Sea, when it is caught in the second half of March in the Bosphorous in Istanbul when they are the most fat. But this is almost as good, and I do not know any restaurant in Istanbul where they can grill the turbot with such skill. Turbot, in my book, is one of the 4 to 5 tastiest fish that there is, and it was a privilege to have it at Elkano in the characteristic fishing village of Getaria which is about half an hour drive to Donostia.

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I am not talking much about desserts in this trip, but I will mention Elkano. The sheep milk sorbet with berry sauce tastes as good as it looks, and besides it is very appropriate after such a meal. Most important the desserts captures the gist of this restaurant: very honest with no gimmicks.

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Now Etxebarri. I kept it last because I had one of the most memorable of my meals there. I would rate is 19/20 and on par with my other very favorites in France and Italy. As far as Spain is concerned, it was as memorable as when the father was cooking in Arzak and when Adria in ‘98 had prepared a meal different than his tasting menu for us and included his ethereal tuetano con caviar. (I am not sure about the spelling. but it is bone marrow with caviar.)

To begin, Etxebarri is located inland, in the beautiful valley of Atxendo in the town of Axpe (or the other way around, the town is Atxendo and the valley is Axpe!). It took us 50 min. to drive from Donostia to Durango and then another 10 to 15 min. The last non-autoroute part is beautiful because you are in the countryside: not a manicured countryside full of expensive villas, but a more natural countryside where animal husbandry is well and alive. Etxebarri itself is a simple farmhouse:

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The restaurant is on a hillside surrounded by mountains, and when you look from your window (they gave us a great table and the day was sunny and pleasantly warm) you can see sheep lazily grazing:

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Inside the tables are well spaced and comfortable. The clientele, like the woman in this picture is also wild looking, perfectly matching the pastoral environment and natural setting:

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The chef Victor Arguinzoniz (the taller man in the picture) and his assistant Maxime (he is French and has worked in starred places) oversee the grilling which is attached to a very large kitchen. The chef is easygoing in person, but a perfectionist in his profession, and he concocts his own charcoal from different trees’ branches every morning in an oxygen controlled oven. The exact combination of branches may be a secret like the Coke formula! Another secret is that the chef has designed his own grill to apply heat evenly. I do not know if Mr. Arguinzoniz is interested in molecular biology but, perhaps without availing himself of Henri This, he knows how to optimize heat transfer so that all parts of the food reach the correct temperature.

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The results are stunning. The only non-grill item was the crostini with jamon and tomato. The grand reserve jamon bellota from the house of Joselito in Salamanca is quite good; see Robert Brown’s report on Mugaritz. As far as I know, Mugaritz does not serve it nowadays.

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Following the jamon amuse, we started our Sunday lunch with quisquillon, the translucent and firm local shrimps. Please note the color of the eyes and the erect antennas which give ideas about freshness:

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Then came a 1.3 kg. female langouste. (I requested female because of the eggs.) I prefer langouste to homard (spiny lobster to lobster) and the best spiny lobsters are Mediterranean. This had never seen the ice, and it was as sweet as the Mediterranean langouste you can find in Iles de Perquerolles and Corsica—both very rare. The taste puts to shame anything I have had in the States, including at the French Laundry. I fault many lobsters being either too cottony in texture with little flavor or too tough. This was neither. One detail I have to report even if politically incorrect is that, for maximum flavor, the langouste is grilled whole and alive.

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Do you like the gargouillou at Bras? I have not had it but heard great things about it as a pure vegetable dish. Well, Victor grilled some carrots, white and red cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes, scallions, yellow squash and wild cepes (porcinis). Overall Spain may not have Italy’s variety and quality in vegetables but everything Victor included had tremendous intensity and the taste I associate with my childhood prior to the World Bank/IMF interference in Turkish agriculture. A great dish.

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How about an egg dish? Not cooked in vac-u vin (am I spelling it correctly?) like the modern dishes at Arzak, French Laundry, but I guess fried. The yoke from farm egg intact, the best fries with no oil, crisp and juicy, slices of bacon and sweet and intense red peppers. A simple looking very complicated and delicious dish.

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It still is the season for angulas. Victor cooks them in a special pan that he has invented. They come with nothing. No garlic, pepper, olive oil, parsley. You just have to concentrate and pray for its unadulterated flavor.

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Having some bacalao is a must in the Basque country. I agree with Miguel Cardoso that salted and preserved bacalao is often tastier. But, if you get the chance, try the classical version at Etxebarri with Espeletter peppers. I had the same dish at Fagollaga too which was very good—but this is better.

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They actually had taken note of our becada request and wanted to grill it for us. But before they wanted to show the quality of their cote de boeuf. The meat indeed was full of character: supple and flavorful and gamey,

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But the woodcock or becada was the piece de resistance and the best of the 3 I have had in 3 days. Cooked rare and not dry at all, full of metallic-gamy flavor with no concession to the modern sterile taste, with a no nonsense sauce of internal organs and its own liver, paired with superb squash puree and even more interesting with caramelized crunchy quince which adds texture and wonderful contrast. Also wild cepes as a garni.

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The dessert was a fine milk pudding with dried figs and then very good macaroons.

The feast lasted only 5 hours, a bit short by my standards (at FL we usually start at 6 and finish at midnight) but acceptable given that their timing was perfect and nothing needed to be reheated.

I did not talk about wines in this posting—as important for me as the food—but let me say that Etxebarri has a good list. 2001 Artadi old vine El Pison was the best wine of the trip and it was offered at a very fair price of 93 Euro. Last year I had seen the same wine from 2000 for 250 Euro or so at La Broche where we have had a conceptually interesting but ultimately frustrating meal.

5-6 trips in the last 7 years and we are as thrilled about the Spanish Basque country and cooking as we have been in the beginning. Perhaps more so as we have finally understood well that what made this place a gastronomical mecca is more than the existence of a few internationally renowned restaurant but the prevalence of a culture which sustains a way of life that puts a premium on community and tradition over full capitulation to the forces of globalization.

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Thank you for this review, Vedat Milor. For an aficionado of refined traditional and simplicistic looking cuisine, this report is almost touching.

The chef Victor Arguinzoniz ...has designed his own grill to apply heat evenly ...cooks them [angulas] in a special pan that he has invented.
The achievements of perfectionistic craftsmen designing their own tools are almost always impressive.

Time to brush up my Spanish and to get my gasoline tank filled.

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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I want everyone to know that the guy in black in the background is vmilor. His perception and wisdom in this thread is what make him such a great tablemate. His wife Linda, in the foreground, is the photographer and a great dining companion, too. The photographs and the commentary made this a report that comes so close to understanding the essence of these restaurants and what it must have been like to be in Vedat's and Linda's shoes. It makes you want to follow in their footsteps one by one, if not bite by bite.

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Brilliant report, vmilor. Couldn't agree more with you. Etxeberri has a plus of creativity and execution over Fagollaga. (I'm just a bit surprised that Arguinzoniz would be using fresh instead of salt cod, BTW. Not the Basque thing at all!) A bit disquieting about Zuberoa - let's hope it's a temporary lapse. They shouldn't betray what they do best.

BTW, one tiny suggestion: next time, how about extending your wings a bit beyond the borders of the Basque Country! Not far away, in Rioja and Navarre, there's some seriously good food these days...

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Your post shines, in part, because of the quality of the photographs, especially those taken outside. The lighting is beautiful.

Congratulations, and thanks for such a detailed (and delicious) report!

I also agree with tanabutler about the helpful photos included in this excellent, informed report. We also have rave reviews for Extebarri. Our last meal was in October, 2004. Our October luncheon at Extebarri, was the most satisfying meal we have had to date. Victor A. with his unique a la brasa cooking technique has no equal in Spain or elswhere, in our opinion.

He is known for searching and finding the freshest, finest products available in Spain. Two years ago, we asked if we could sample the Spanish Kobe beef (raised in the Rioja area, as I recall), only to be told that he would gladly offer that, but he had a finer beef choice for us. We tried it and found it superb. (LMG 2004 guide, ranks both Etxebarri and Casa Nicolas with Santos' highest rating--8.5-- for their chuletas.) Our beef dish matched the preparation photographed at Etxebarri. Our earlier visits were exciting dining events. Often the menu was dominated by protein dishes, with too few fresh or cooked vegetable items. We sought a better, more balanced tasting menu.

We were richly rewarded this last visit. We enoyed a fois gras pate, with carmelized figs macerated in balsamic vinegar. A tiny "shrimp" like Quisquillon, gambas de Palamos and Espardenas all exquistely cooked a la brasa. We also enjoyed the deconstructed tortilla patata, shoestring potatoes scattered gently over the egg yolk and pimento. Also photographed in the above report. Our request to have local wild mushrooms cooked a la brasa throughout the menu was satisfied with an unparalled fresh boletus edulis (cepes) dish. Barely cooked, with tiny bits of fresh garlic, the mound of cepes were dressed in a foam of bolete broth. Fantastic! The final great game dish was local wild paloma served rare with chestnut puree and carmelized figs (see the fois gras pate). We ended with tiny desserts creme brulee, creme caramel and vanilla glace--all delicately cooked a la brasa. An amazing delicate hint of smoke also perfumed the last dessert: a napolean cream filled brioche with carmelized sugar topping. What a feast!

Everything is cooked a la brasa! Yes Extebarri is a marvelous destination.

We also applaud his excellent wine list, which is very reasonably priced. We tried the new gem from Vega-Sicilia's vineyard in Toro or so we were told: Pintia, 2001. THis wine has lots of promise.

Mugaritz and Etxebarri remain our favorite choices in the Basque area. We found Fagollaga a strong, very good talent and worth the trip. We found the Guggenheim chef, Josean Martinez Alija to be another young chef to follow. He's another fine talent that should be a must visit when you go to Bilbao. A great museum with a great dining spot, this is a memorable Bilbao experience.

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We found the Guggenheim chef, Josean Martinez Alija to be another young chef to follow. He's another fine talent that should be a must visit when you go to Bilbao. A great museum with a great dining spot, this is a memorable Bilbao experience.

There's even more to it, Judith. There is another wonderful art museum in Bilbao, just a stone's throw from the Guggenheim: the Museo de Bellas Artes, recently remodelled and one of the finest painting galleries in Spain: from Van Dyck and El Greco to Bacon and Chillida, with Gauguin and Cézanne in between. It seems that the fixation with Gehry's wonderful shiny structure sort of leaves the Bellas Artes in the dark, and that's pretty unfair IMHO. In addition, the Bellas Artes also has its own fine restaurant now! And the Bilbaínos are divided on which of the two museum restaurants is better: the Guggenheim's or the Museo de Bellas Artes' Arbola Gaña, with Aitor Basabe at the stoves.

Two great museum restaurants, now that's a rare offering in any city!

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Thanks to everybody for your comments.

Victor, do you have a special recommendation for a simple asador with baby churra breed lamb?. In March, we will drive from Donostia to Madrid and may stop near Burgos. I looked at LMG of Garcia Santos(which promotes a special point of view, so I approach it with caution and double check)and he recommends Mannix at Campaspero near Penafiel.

Judith, we will visit Mugaritz in March. I am reading all reports and conflicting points of views on this restaurant with great interest. I think that intrigued me though is that, people who met Andoni Luis Adurriz all conclude that he is very intelligent. Apparently the majority owner of Mugaritz is Berasategui and Adurriz, unlike his mentor, was not born into a family who was already well known in this business. So it is by choice that he opted this metier. Recently culinista posted a brief but well written post about Mugaritz and she has also interviewed the chef. She, too, was impressed what she has seen.

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Trust García Santos on baby lamb and other traditional dishes: his tastebuds are always well-placed. It's in the field of modernity that he sometimes goes slightly wacko (as when he extols "twice-peeled green peas"...).

Mannix (how do you like that name! Spanish villages are full of places called Lennon, Copacabana, Monte-Carlo, Nebraska... That's the way we are!) is indeed a great address for churra breed baby lamb. It's some distance from the San Sebastián-Burgos-Madrid motorway, but quite manageable. Slightly closer to that road, and a bit further south, is the other great lamb conservatory, Figón de Zute el Mayor, a.k.a. (simply) 'Tinín' in Sepúlveda. Their styles are rather different, but it's pristine tender-as-a-kiss lamb in both places all right.

One weak point of these places: non-existent diversity (it's lamb and a tomato-onion-and-lettuce salad, usually; sometimes some chorizo as an appetizer) and weak wine offerings, most often jug rosé with inadequate thick, small glasses. That always makes me mad. Particularly in such a wine-rich region. Last time at Mannix was a catastrophe; maybe Tinín has now added some decent Ribera del Duero.

Edited by vserna (log)

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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Vedat, indeed your report is a great one! Glad you were able to find the woodcock (becada or sorda).I've got to go there early next year and visit Fagollaga, Etxeberri and Mugaritz. Undoubtedly, my own preconceptions are the only thing to blame, but I would have thought that Fagollaga would have had the edge over Etxeberri at least on creativity.

Regarding the lamb issue, this is what vserna said in the Unfashionable mecca, Zero atmosphere, great roast lamb thread:

The greatest Castilian-style roast lamb I've ever eaten has been (several times) in one of those very basic places: Asador Zute el Mayor, a.k.a. Tinín, in the small medieval town of Sepúlveda. A primitive treat in a 15th century building. I know people who drive 700 miles from Paris to eat there...

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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Vmilor,

Your impression of Zuberoa somewhat echoes our experience. We bypassed the tasting menu for two reasons. The first was that the regular menu description, having implied a classical approach, seemed to be more appealing, compared to the tasting, though rather one-sided, heavily relying on foie gras and melanosporum, which made it almost impossible to build our own meal to be diverse enough to reveal all the dimensions of Arbelaitz cuisine, and the second reason was my attempt to avoid several items on the tasting like hake (the fish with which I hadn’t much luck in the past), and tuna (of which we had become somewhat tired, especially after the mediocre versions served at Akelare and Mugaritz). At some point our palates became numb from the abundance of the strong foie gras and truffle flavors, and we were deprived of the ability to distinguish nuances separating one dish from another -- the subject of our discussion with Arbelaitz after our meal. (I should’ve avoided this mistake after our similar experience at Atelier under Kreuther in New York.)

When asked whether Basque cuisine has any special features, Juan Mari Arzak has said, “It has four things which distinguish it from the rest: white sauce, red sauce, black sauce and green sauce.” I couldn’t agree with you more that Arbelaitz has surpassed the limitations imposed by this tradition (as did Aduriz, though in a completely different style), and he is indeed a fine saucier; however, I wonder whether his aesthetic expression, bound to the classical style, whatever deep understanding and technique he seems to have, along with his enthusiasm, is enough to compete in today’s market (the restaurant was half empty), and perhaps this is the reason Arbelaitz started exploring other venues. To be honest, if I were to draw a parallel to my impression of Arbelaitz’s cuisine on that particular visit, I would compare it to Messianic sermons – pontifically pronounced, melodiously phrased, spellbinding the diners into believing that such a style alone is thriving and that its continuation is necessary to correct modern “paganism,” yet still missing that which would make it live through the ages. Even such excellent dishes as poached egg yolk on a paste of pigeon/truffle sauce and roasted pigeon didn’t leave a thrilling note of uniqueness. Indeed, the very fact that Arbelaitz relies so much on classics makes him more vulnerable, since inevitably his style draws a comparison to chefs who achieved perfection in the same classical arena, to such masters as Pacaud, for instance, in comparison to whom Arbelaitz loses, which makes him more of a Paul Chenavard, who was considered one of the best nineteenth-century painters, but whom no informed critic mentions in the same breath with Rembrandt, Titian or Rubens.

What was your impression of the quality of the caviar in the oyster and caviar with lemon gel dish? I don’t generally favor the combination of caviar with lemon acidity, since it alters their flavor through oxidation. Was the gel hot (a la Adria) or cold? Was it osetra or sevruga, Iranian I presume? I have to admit that caviar is my hot button*, and I have been unhappy with the quality of this product lately in my meals, criticizing the Iranian osetra caviar in Passard’s Jerusalem artichoke velouté, which fell below my expectations relative to the price of the dish, though the melding of all flavors was superb, as well as the osetra caviar at Per Se in Keller’s famous oysters and pearls, which on top of the caviar’s mediocre quality was unbalanced with the overuse of salt (as if no one in the kitchen tasted the caviar for saltiness prior to its application to adjust the seasoning of the other ingredients).

The Iranian sevruga at Zuberoa was beyond any criticism. It was simply awful, a poorly processed paste of broken eggs and strong, almost unpleasant, briny flavor, which even if were good, still would not have been necessary in the otherwise very interesting spider crab appetizer. The other disappointing dish was lobster ravioli with truffles. The wonderful lobster (an excellent Norway specimen), cloaked in a thick, unrefined and somewhat slimy dough, conceptually reminiscent of Gordon Ramsay’s signature lobster ravioli, was drowned in a heavily truffled sauce, the small amount of which still overwhelmed the sweetness of the delicate lobster meat. Despite several excellent dishes, these misses were too significant not to affect our overall perception. However, the meal was very enjoyable with highlights of roasted pigeon and a rustic, traditional lamb, and I’d be glad to return.

P.S.

Your pictures are truly magnificent, and allow the words to be linked to the dishes’ faces, just like it was nice to finally see the face behind the words.

--------------------------------------------------------------

*I still remember the time when Russian caviar (specifically from Astrachan) was at its best, when the business of handling it was a way of life for many families, who passed their skills and knowledge from generation to generation, and when each caviar batch was marked with a code containing information on the location at which the fish had been caught, and a batch number, marking the eggs from each fish. Caviar in those days was treated with royal care, involving a certain ritual, which may seem somewhat barbaric on the surface, but makes perfect sense upon a closer look. You would position a small amount of caviar between the thumb and first finger on your hand; lick it carefully (not to break the eggs); roll the eggs in your mouth against the upper gum, examining their firmness; gently pop the eggs, so that their primary flavor could be released, nourishing the taste buds in the front of your mouth; swallow them; and then examine the aftertaste (the secondary flavor in the back of the throat). You would rub and smell the skin afterward to look for any residual odor, which generally indicates poor quality. Only a gold spoon was used with caviar (since reactive metals oxidize it and alter its flavor) placed vertically into the eggs to avoid crushing them, and caviar was never camouflaged by other ingredients (more typical of French cuisine, where caviar is generally either a garnish or a taste enhancer) to preserve its virginal taste from being distorted. (I recently dropped by the Petrossian store near the Time Warner center, and chatted with the manager, Mr. Bourrigaut, who was as nostalgic as I about the past glory of Russian caviar.)

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We found the Guggenheim chef, Josean Martinez Alija to be another young chef to follow. He's another fine talent that should be a must visit when you go to Bilbao. A great museum with a great dining spot, this is a memorable Bilbao experience.

There's even more to it, Judith. There is another wonderful art museum in Bilbao, just a stone's throw from the Guggenheim: the Museo de Bellas Artes, recently remodelled and one of the finest painting galleries in Spain: from Van Dyck and El Greco to Bacon and Chillida, with Gauguin and Cézanne in between. It seems that the fixation with Gehry's wonderful shiny structure sort of leaves the Bellas Artes in the dark, and that's pretty unfair IMHO. In addition, the Bellas Artes also has its own fine restaurant now! And the Bilbaínos are divided on which of the two museum restaurants is better: the Guggenheim's or the Museo de Bellas Artes' Arbola Gaña, with Aitor Basabe at the stoves.

Two great museum restaurants, now that's a rare offering in any city!

Victor, thanks for your response. I did not know about the Bellas Artes restaurant!! We have been and continue to be supporters of both Bilbao's great museums. Yes, we welcome the information about it's great restaurant. Next visit we will try it.

We are lovers of most European artists both old and new. We specifically treasure Spain's modern greats: Chillida, Tapies, Guinovard (sp) and an artist we found in Bilbao, Carlos Vasquez, a remarkable painter from Chile who lives with his equally talented painter wife in Madrid today.

Again your new information about the restaurant in the Bellas Artes is greatly appreciated. JGebhart

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