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Suggestions for a Culinary Europe Trip


CityCook
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Here's the scenario:

I'm going to western Europe for around a month, some time between Feb-April 2004, for diversion (of course, since I've never been), but with an emphasis on exposure to cooking and cuisine. I'd like to know, from you members who have experience with travel and cuisine in England, France, Spain, maybe Italy, (am I missing an crucial country here?), if you have suggestions for cities/areas/restaurants/anything that I should include in my trip that would help serve to enlighten me and maybe help fuel my imagination, knowledge, and eventually my career.

See, I haven't even started cooking yet. The trip will take place right before I start classes at the California Culinary Academy (SF). I'd like to get a sense of what's going on "over there," and maybe find a good place for an externship at the end of the 14-month program.

I've looked into some of those french week-long sightseeing/cooking that range from $1500-$2000. That's a possibility, if I can't find something more creative on my own.

So, please offer your suggestions, share your experiences, get into arguments with fellow members whose opinions you think are crap. The question, most succinctly, is, "What's the best that culinary western Europe has to offer a wannabe chef who thinks that Thomas Keller is the Supreme Being in the Universe?"

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That's a difficult question to answer with so little personal information. Have asked Thomas Keller for his opinion? That's not a retorical question. Do you know him, have you eaten at the FL or is your opinion based on what you've read? Any answer to any of those three questions would be a good excuse to write to him in the hope he answers and you start a history with him.

England, although I've eaten well there, would not be my first choice by far. Good food is not ingrained in the culture the way it is in parts of the continent. I'm sure locals can prove I'm wrong, but unlikely in ways that will affect the green tourist. French food is still the basic classic western food and in general most influential. On the other hand, the most excitement and creativity is probably found in Spain, particularly northern Spain in the Basque region and Catalunya. I've less recent personal knowledge of food in Italy, but I retain a sense that it's one of the coutries where it's hardest to get a bad meal. Tell us how you react to those opinions and it will be eaiser to help you focus on what will ultimately be your decision to make.

Are you looking to take cooking lessons in Europe? How much money do you have? How old are you?

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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I was thinking about adding more personal information but then made the unfortunate choice not to. so:

I'm 23, I'll be travelling alone, I'll have around $3-$4K after the plane, I think, I wouldn't say no to cooking lessons in europe but I can also get those here and I'd like to get something there that I simply can't get here. I guess it's exposure to differences in culture as they pertain to food, different products and their applications, regional techniques, etc.

Spain would be good; I've got some decent Spanish and that'll help. I've got it pounded into my head, from so much culinary reading, that France is the birthplace of all things culinary, and therefore I should spend most of my time there. Could be a misconception.

I think asking TK what he thinks is a brilliant idea. All I know of him is what I've read, never even been to the FL, though I'm dying to go. I'll try to get in contact with him and try not to make the letter sound too sycophantical, which will be hard.

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are you there?

Hey I got a life outside eGullet, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. :biggrin:

Okay, you're young, but not just out of high school. You should have some smarts and be able to handle situations. It's hard for me to comment about your budget. I tend to lead a simple life when I'm not splurging on restaurants, although that can be frequent. On the other hand, my wife's a travel agent and that both gets us some perqs in places and puts a burden on having to try expensive places so she can recommend them first hand. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. :laugh:

Money doesn't go far in Europe this days. I go back to the days when Europe on $5 a Day was not only a popular guide book, but a reality. (This may also mean you may get more age specific recommendations from others.) The euro is strong and the dollar weak. England is probably more expensive than the continent. Spain's not the bargain it used to be, but, in general, it's less expensive than France. I am just not up to date on Italy. If you really want to focus on food, as opposed to say, sex and drugs, I'd forget the rest of Europe for this trip. I'll recommend you split your time, not necessarily equally, between France and Spain. I hope someone will make a good case for Italy. I know it can be made.

You've got to decide how you're going to get around and if you're going to improvise the trip or plan it tightly. Avoid Easter week and you're probably traveling at the right time of year and avoiding high season. Consider what I think they call an open jaw ticket, flying into a city like Paris and coming back from another city so you don't have to retrace your steps. Some people get a cheap round trip to Paris or another city and find they have to buy an expensive train ticket to get back to Paris at the end of the journey. I don't know too much about public transportation. It's good, but we generally rent a car. Renting a car is a great way to get around, but for a solo traveler, it's rarely economical. I hitchiked when I was in college. Nowadays I'm reluctant to recommend it as a safe way to travel and it's much harder as there are too many superhighways.

What have you read? I'd go with your instincts, but they match my prejudices, so it's easy for me to say that. I'd plan a week in Paris, a week in Barcelona and maybe two weeks traveling around mostly in France just to give your trip a framework for preliminary planning. you may want to focus more on Spain. You've posted here rather than in the France board. The Basque area is exciting. Where have you eaten? Have you been to any restaurants that in any way resemble the French Laundry? Are you ready for a three star restaurant in France or Spain, or maybe the question is how much will you get out of eating there in relation to what it will cost. I'd certain splurge on one or two of the great places -- either two or three stars. Generally speaking, better value outside of Paris than in Paris. Are there places you're read about that inspire you? Write to the chefs and see if they'll let you observe what happens in the kitchen. What have you got to lose and you may make a contact.

Am I being helpful in directing your thinking or planning, or just confusing you? No matter what, this thead will be more productive if others join.

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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Ferran Adria's restaurant, el Bulli, is a must, as is either one of Alain Ducasse's flagship restaurants. Add to the list Pierre Gagnaire, Marc Veyrat's L'Auberge de L'Eridan, Paris, Michel Bras, San Sebastian, Northern Italy, and a handful of other restaurants that individually appeal to you and you're set to go. As Bux said, your money would better be spent in France and Spain, then Italy, then any place that isn't part of the UK.

Much peace,

Ian Lowe

ballast/regime

"Get yourself in trouble."

--Chuck Close

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I would second the Basque region suggestion; that is truly an interesting area. I really enjoyed San Sebastian in the North of Spain. In San Sebastian, you could try Arzak( 3 stars)and for tapas, Casa Alcalde. In addition to the food, it's just very beautiful all throughout the Basque area, and the beach and old town in San Sebastian.

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You will probably be able to eat better (everyday stuff) in Italy than in France. It's hard to get a good meal in France without blowing the bank unless you know exactly where to go. Italy (actually, I should just say Tuscany, since I've only been there), you can pop in almost anywhere, seemingly and have a pretty astounding meal. Just use your good judgement and avoid the menus in 4 languages. I think in general, the flavors are cleaner in Italy --> the fava bean that tastes most like a fava bean etc.

I'm not sure I'd push El Bulli as a must for a first trip to Europe, especially if you only have enough cash for one big meal. El Racó de Can Fabes would be my suggestion, it's also fairly close to Barcelona if you end up in the area. I think Barcelona is a good place to get both high end and lower end food that really opens your eyes to freshness of product and cleanness of flavor.

Where did you want to go in France? I'd focus on a few regions rather than flitting all over with a rail pass. Also, skip the cooking lessons. You can get that kind of training here. Just eat what you wouldn't normally eat--> taste everything, pay attention to regional specialties. Do a lot of research on the culinary traditions of where it is you are going. Take notes, observe. Drink lots of wine. Also beer.

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You will probably be able to eat better (everyday stuff) in Italy than in France. It's hard to get a good meal in France without blowing the bank unless you know exactly where to go. Italy (actually, I should just say Tuscany, since I've only been there), you can pop in almost anywhere, seemingly and have a pretty astounding meal. Just use your good judgement and avoid the menus in 4 languages. I think in general, the flavors are cleaner in Italy --> the fava bean that tastes most like a fava bean etc.

This bespeaks my experiences exactly in France and Italy. In fact, there is so much information about French cooking and food around, I might even venture to suggest skipping it this first time around and go for the more visceral experience.

Just eat what you wouldn't normally eat--> taste everything, pay attention to regional specialties. Do a lot of research on the culinary traditions of where it is you are going. Take notes, observe. Drink lots of wine. Also beer.

This is unspeakably excellent advice, in my opinion.

Most of my travel experience has been in Spain, particularly the north, so the rest of this drivel...um, I mean, post....will be from that perspective. My first trip to Spain almost 20 years was such an eye-opening experience that it was, in its own quiet way, almost shattering. I had never before had food that was so vibrant, so earthy, so honest and so just plain there (if that makes any sense at all). And to mix with these people that loved good food and drink and generally enjoyed life so much more than most Americans....it was quite a stimulant.

To echo Mr. lastsupper's advice, definitely do as much research as you can, starting now--it's fun. Assuming you're seriously investigating Spain, I would begin, if I were you, by getting hold of Penelope Casas's excellent Spanish cookbooks, particularly The Foods and Wines of Spain and Delicioso!, which focuses on Spanish regional cooking, plus a more general travel book Discovering Spain: An Uncommon Guide. An American who married a Spaniard, she's very readable and talks about the things you want to know about: what to eat in which parts of the country, origins and backgrounds of dishes, with lots of anecdotes. Often a recipe of hers will begin with a story, like how she was eating this dish in a particular restaurant and was so taken with it that she asked for the recipe....the story sometimes ends with her being invited into to the kitchen to be shown how it's prepared! It seems to me this is just the sort of experience you want, if at all possible.

There is a much greater chance of having this sort of experience, I believe, if you get out of the cities and into the countryside and smaller towns. Which leads me to my next suggestion--rent a car. Public transport, while generally quite good in Spain, can severely limit you when tramping around the countryside with odd schedules, etc. And it's quite possible to get reasonable weekly or even monthly rates through websites like Europcar, or even Expedia.

Also, once you're out of the larger cities, in general, accommodations quickly become much more affordable. It's still quite possible to find rooms in pension-type places (you know, bathroom down the hall, sink in room--but perfectly comfortable) in much of Spain for ten to fifteen dollars a night. And people are more approachable outside of cities, so it's a bit easier to strike up a conversation about, say, how and what they cook.

My real best advice, though, is to form a romantic liaison with a local who's really into food once you're there.....take it from me! Is this a possibility? :wink:

If I were a first-timer, just getting my feet wet, that is the direction I would be thinking. But it's possible I haven't understood your wants quite precisely....I also have no thought of ever pursuing cooking as a career. But maybe there's something useful for you in this.

My restaurant blog: Mahlzeit!

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Travel between Barcelona and San Sebastian. Don't miss the wine region either. There is wonderful, transcendant wine coming out of Spain these days and much of it is dirt cheap. The quality-price-value ratio can't be beat. There are lovely beach resorts just south of Barcelona where amazing seafood can be had for a song. I spent a day in Sitges that remains ingrained in my memory banks for all eternity. Find places where you can try the oysters just pulled from the water. Try all the tapas variations in every bar and decide which preparation of each "classic" you like best. Drink wine and sherry and learn what you like. The opportunity for a life changing experience is right there in your grasp. Go for it!

See if your research can glean any information about farms where fresh cheeses are produce and see if you can make arrangements to visit and tour the site. Better yet, see if you can get a week's stay out of it by offering to work and learn. These are experiences which could be difficult to replicate in the U.S. Find the things that are most unique and interesting to you and persue them with passion. Nothing could be better preparation for your upcoming studies.

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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What have you read?

I've probably read too much. I started with Kitchen Confidential. The book, perversely enough, started me on this path, made me want to get into food. Then Cook's Tour, and the rest of Bourdain's fiction. Then Ruhlman's Making of a Chef and Soul of a Chef. I think I then bought The Professional Chef 7th Ed. and Larousse Gastronomique. The first I read through, the second I've browsed. I'm going through Pepin's Complete Techniques. I've read (/had multiple orgasms to) The French Laundry Cookbook and most of Child's French Chef Cookbook. I just bought The History of Food, and I'll start on that after some Burroughs I'm finishing up. The books with recipes have also had philosophy and technique in them; the latter have been my focus.

Bux, your and several other people's suggestion to explore Basque country and similar areas is resonating with me. It's what my ideal Europe feels and tastes like, I think. Dreams of being an old man in Europe with a deep, perpetual tan and a huge belly, sun-basking in almost nothing with a small plate of superb food and a big glass of wine, going from beach to beach in my houseboat . . . this cannot take place in the cold rains of Europe. Maybe I should try for a shorter, more concentrated trip, and the idea to get different arrival/departure cities is an excellent one. You're right, Bux, I need to write to lots of chefs, including Keller. I've found the people from egullet to be warm, and freer with their time and their words than many writer contacts I made when I was sure I would be a famous poet someday. :hmmm: Katie, I've got to act on your farm idea. Why hadn't I thought of these things??? You guys rock.

I'm gleaning from these posts that the atmosphere contributes to the culture, the lifestyle, and inevitably, to the vibrancy of the food in these warm areas. Re: Eric's advice on the romantic liason: heh . . . no, not a possibility, but maybe I'll find some sweet old Basque master chef who will want to be my "hands-off" sugardaddy.

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Ah, so you went the aggro route first. Check out Madeleine Kamman and Alice Waters also (if you haven't already). Quite a bit different than Julia/Jacques. You can never read too much. The "Culinaria" series published by Konemann is a very good primer for various European Countries and their respective cuisines/culinary histories. It can also help you narrow down where you want to go regionally. I use the "Italy" and "Spain" volumes often, very helpful stuff.

By all means spend some time in wine country-- wherever you end up.

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Ferran Adria's restaurant, el Bulli, is a must, as is either one of Alain Ducasse's flagship restaurants.  Add to the list Pierre Gagnaire, Marc Veyrat's L'Auberge de L'Eridan, Paris, Michel Bras, San Sebastian, Northern Italy, and a handful of other restaurants that individually appeal to you and you're set to go.  As Bux said, your money would better be spent in France and Spain, then Italy, then any place that isn't part of the UK.

Much peace,

Ian Lowe

ballast/regime

When are you going to post your experiences at these restaurants? I'm looking forward to the 'ballast/regime' take on high profile gastronomy.

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Bratt23:

Clearly the only repayment all of us seek for assisting you in your travel planning is the opportunity to live vicariously through you :smile: You MUST post about your experiences when you return and we will all be delighted to have helped!

Perhaps your local cheesemonger might have a contact through their importer/broker who might know someone who knows someone, etc. that could hook you up on the cheese farm. Or perhaps a culinary school in Spain might have such contacts and would be willing to assist a young American in their quest for knowledge? I confess I totally stole this idea from Lisa who spent time on Curdnerd's farm and wrote so movingly about the experience. But dude, how awesome to do it in Spain :cool: ?!?! Ohmigosh! I drool in anticipation of your first big slice of fresh Manchego with a big piece of membrillo paste with it. :wub: I swoon at the thought of getting to really see how things are made with integrity and authenticity. As a child of the "Cheez-Whiz" nation, I can't think of anything more interesting and educational for someone in your position than unlearning the bad lessons of our food culture, and replacing them with real knowledge of artisinal food and unadulterated culinary tradition at the source!

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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Sounds like a fun trip. Right now I am doing a stage at Martin Berasategui which is in Lasarte-Oria very close to San Sebastian in Spain. Personally after having travelled around a bit and eaten are I would skip Italy more or less and start in England and work my way down to Spain. Contrary to what some believe I think you would be impressed with England and that they have a lot of exciting things going on right now. For France I would definitely eat at Pierre Gagnaire and if you can make it east go to L´arnsbourg and you won´t be disappointed. As classic Frech restaurants go I would choose Georges Blanc or go to Pic if you are curious about a woman chef.

For Spain, Barcelona is a must: Abac should be first on your list as well as Espai Sucre, Cellar de Can Roca, and here I would definitely go to Mugaritz and Akelarre to eat. Those are all my top choices but obviously there are many more. If you had a car Asturias in the NW of Spain has some great restaurants and exciting things going on: Casa Gerardo, Casa Marcial, El Corral del Indianu.

So if I had 4000 dollars and some free time that would be my trip more or less and you may want to think about not staying too long in Paris as it is financially draining, Barcelona is equally exciting though different culinary wise and a lot cheaper than paris.

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girlcook, your points are all good, especially about the cost of Paris. I've found Barcelona hotels not to be much cheaper than Paris, but it may be at a certain level where the problem is greatest. Food is definitely less expensive, although in both cities, I think you now need to choose wisely. If you're lucky, or perhaps if you do the research, I think northern Spain can provide much of what are regared as France and Italy's strong suits -- chef driven haute cuisine, and traditional cooking -- and do it as well as either of the other two countries.

Can Roca (you're speaking of the restaurant in Girona, are you not?) doesn't get enough publicity. It is a suprisingly fine restaurant that would deserve attention for it's cuisine and service even if it were in Paris or New York. There's a chef from the UK who should be at Martin now, or may be arriving soon. He posts as ginger chef on eGullet. Say hello. I hope we get to hear a lot from both of you.

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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bux,

ginger chef arrived last week and now I have bit of english speaking company in addition to all the spanish I am getting to practice. I moved over to the pastry section last week after two months on the fish station. The kitchen really is interesting and unlike any I´ve ever been in before. Pastry is quite fantastic as we do the amuse as well so we are the first to start and the last to end but as I don´t get the oppurtunity to do pastry in the states I am enjoying every minute of it. The chef de partie of pastry is truly amazing and quite talented so far working with him and only for a week has been more instructional than the 8 weeks on fish but then again the stations are designed completely differently and in pastry there is a lot more room for stages to do stuff.

I am staying at Martin for at least 4 more months until they close in December, at which point I may go to Mugaritz, Can Roca, who can say or return to Martin.

I would be happy to post more on the life at Martin but am unsure what it is you´d be curious to know...details about the food, menu changes, kitchen structure, Martin himself.

I must say Martin is really nice and I am enjoying his kitchen and most of the people in it. It is definitely a huge kitchen and quite often you don´t even know a lot of peoples names unless they are in your partida/station.

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bratt23,

also if you´d like to come to Martin and stage for a day or two we have people come all the time and Martin is always asking me if I know any americans. You could stay as long as you like and there are places for you to sleep in the restaurant or there is a hotel nearby. So if you want to see the inside of a 3 star kitchen send me an email and tell me when you want to come. we just had a cook from Chicago come out for a day or two last week, Martin is very open about his kitchen and letting people in to see it.

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I would be happy to post more on the life at Martin but am unsure what it is you´d be curious to know...details about the food, menu changes, kitchen structure, Martin himself.

Yes, yes, yes and yes. We have a very wide membership here. About the only common denominator is an interest in food and, here in the Spain forum, an interest in food in Spain. Some of us eat out, some of us cook at home, others cook professionally, etc.

I've heard Martin is really nice. My daughter and son-in-law had met him in NY and he was most hospitable to them when they met again at the restaurant. Unfortunately, he was not there the day we arrived for lunch, but we ate very well nonetheless.

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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Well a typical day at Martin starts at 9AM unless it's Wednesday when we start at half past 8 since we've been closed for 2 and a half days. 9 services a week and never more than 50 covers per service but there have been days where we only do 12 or 13 covers for a service. I've seen as many as 50 some odd people in the kitchen and right now we have about 30. It's Semana Grande so we are about to have our busiest week of the whole summer. Every station, there are 4, fish, meat, garde manger and pastry, has a sous chef and a chef de partie. Everybody else in the kitchen is a stagiere. The majority are from Spain but we have a few french guys, a japanese guy, ginger chef from the UK, I'm from the states and a bunch of argentinians.

The majority of the stagieres live in Martin in what can at best be called modest accomodations. Bunk beds a few washing machines and dressers, thats about it. We have a bathroom with a few showers a sink and with 16 people using it, the living can leave something to be desired. The nice part is that it is impossible to be late to work and it is easy to get home as you only have to walk down two flights of stairs.

Saturdays we are usually closed due to the fact that we do a large number of weddings at MArtin and it would be impossible to produce a service while a wedding was going on downstairs. Everybody spends the first week of their stage at Martin in weddings, during which you will clean more mussels than you have ever seen on your life.

The kitchen is huge and full of windows and skylights. Right now cause it's August it makes it more or less feel like you are working in an oven yourself. I've heard it will be nice and cool in the fall and winter which at present I am looking forward to.

The food in my opinion is rather influenced by France and a bit classical compared to say Akelare or Mugaritz or so on and so forth. A lot is rooted in traditional Basque cuisine but definitely influenced more by classical french technique, minus the butter and less by say Adria and a world of foams and air and etc... I've never worked in a kitchen where we used less butter and cream. Only in pastry do you find a quantity that seems relative to restaurant usage. Everybody here is a big fan of Michel Bras and you can definitely see the influence in the food. So far since I've been here which has been 2 months Juan Mari Arzak has been in for dinner as well as Jordi Butron and a few others. The kitchen is very open and people are passing through all the time to say hi or to have a drink or sit down and eat or watch a bit of TV. We have a TV in the kitchen more or less for the sous chefs and also for the cooks on the weekends.

From the way it has been explained to me the menu only has one large change a year as people travel from far away and expect to eat the food they have read about. Fair enough but it is quite a different concept from seasonal market driven restaurants in the states and where we do different specials on any given night. For the summer fish got one new dish, meat got one mew dish and pastry got maybe 2, the rest of the menu stayed the same.

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Well, I'll be lunching at Martin (hopefully) Sept. 7 (sunday). I've been there 3 or 4 times before, and I always loved it.

Unfortunately, I can't agree whith what's been said here about Akelare. My experience there was quite a dissapointment from a purely food perspective. I don't know a more pleasant place with such wonderful views, but the food lacked both taste and flavor. Albeit, I must say that was my first and only visit, so either me or them could have had a bad night.

This time my wife and I go to Donostia with her sister and husband, who don't know the place. So, there's no way to prevent them to go to Arzak and Berasategui. Wouldn't they come, I would rather visit Mugaritz and Fagollaga this time.

Regards to you and ginger chef

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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Girlcook, pedro and anyone else who cares to answer,

Who comes to dine at Martin, where do they stay and is there a difference between the lunch clientele and dinner clientele? Its proximity to Donostia would suggest that diners who are not living in the area, probably stay in Donostia. What's the commonest time for people to make dinner reservations and do people generally take a taxi or drive from Donastia?

Our one visit so far was lunch on the way from Iruña to Honarribia, two of our stop places on a drive around the Pyrenees that began and ended in Barcelona and included a visit with friends in the Languedoc. It was a lovely trip, but with the retirement of Parra from the Auberge de la Galupe, the action is almost entirely on the Spanish side. The restaurant is exceedingly hard to find. We saw no direction signs and few of the people we stopped in Lasarte, had heard of it.

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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