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Donostia Restaurants: Reviews & Recommendations


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I am planning a quick trip to San Sebastian in late August during which I am allowing one large meal a day for four days. The obvious five restaurants to visit are Arzak, Akelare, Berasatequi, Mugaritz and Zuberoa. Which one would you skip?. Also I could use some nice tapas bar recommendations along with a simple, but honest lunch address in Bilbao. I am also afraid that when I am there, I won't be able to stop humming Kurt Weill's "Bilbao Song" from "Happy End". Did anyone have that problem?

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We've only spent one night in Bilbao and didn't do much bar hopping. In fact we were content to spend much of our time with friends at a table with chairs in the Plaza Nueva. The bar that served that table was Victor Montes, and it seemed to be the most attractive bar lining the plaza. The plaza seemed to be a lively spot at tapas time and well popluated with locals. I don't really remember what we had in the way of tapas, but I'd probably head that way in the evening If and when we return.

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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We have eaten at all but Mugaritz, however, I would recommend skipping Zuberoa, and I would also recommend having lunch rather than dinner at Akelare because the view is awesome. We also felt Akelare deserved to be a 3 star. It was an incredible meal. Zuberoa was very good food, but not the exciting, creative things going on at the other restaurants. We have heard great things about Mugaritz and look forward to trying it. Lucky you; we adore San Sebastian and try to get there once a year. We did a day trip to Bilboa and had a marvellous lunch at Berasategui's restaurant in the Guggenheim. Other than that, I don't know Bilboa, but I recall reading about some restaurants on another thread. If I find it, I will let you know.

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There are some recommendations in "Where to eat in Bilboa" in Spain & Portugal. I also found a 1999 article in the NY Times recommending classic Basque food at Restaurante Gorrotxa, Restaurante Andra Mari, and Guria, as well as the 1 star Zorziko (which some found disappointing) and the Guggenheim restaurant. However, a lot may have changed in the last 4 years.

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Sue, thanks for the advice. Vmilor, if I recall, is a partisan of Zuberoa. I'll have to try to get this resolved. I also need some names of tapas bars in San Sebastian in case I wasn't unambiguous in my thread starter.

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Juan Mari Arzak has written a recipe book on tapas and it features the best tapas bars in San Sebastian. I loaned my copy to a chef here, but will get it back in a couple of weeks and can then let you know what the best ones are for you to visit. It is available only at Arzak so you could get it when you dine there.

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You'll probably get points among the locals if you call it Donastia, (Donostia -- see below) although in Madrid, I sometimes had the feeling I offended Spaniards when I used Basque names such as Donastia and Hondarribia. I think you can't go too far wrong bar hopping in the Parte Vieja in Donastia. It's been a while since we've stayed in Donastia, but here's what I wrote at the time.

Tapas in the Parte Vieja

We skipped dinner the night we arrived in San Sebastian, or Donastia, as it's called in the native Basque tongue, preferring instead to enjoy the txikiteo at the many tapas bars in the Parte Vieja. Txikiteo is the Basque version of an extended "happy hour." The term refers to the small or txikito (chiquito in Spanish) drink taken with a snack in each bar. You don't have to speak Basque, but a little Spanish is helpful. While they are not unfriendly, most of the bars do not exactly cater to tourists.

Choice spots at the bar are not quickly relinquished, and a bit of determination is required to get to the bar, let alone to be served at the more crowded spots. However, a crowd is a sign that the food and wine are good. Vino tinto is the usual order, but beer is also a popular choice. A zurito is a small glass with but a finger or two of beer. It's an expensive way to get drunk, but a reasonable way to bar hop, tasting an open sandwich here, a bit of ham there, and so on without consuming much more alcohol than food.

Sumac's suggestion sounds excellent. I know a chef who got a list from Berasategui, but unfortunately it didn't survive the rest of his trip and I never saw that list.

Edited by Bux (log)

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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You'll probably get points among the locals if you call it Donastia (sic), although in Madrid, I sometimes had the feeling I offended Spaniards when I used Basque names such as Donastia (sic) and Hondarribia. I think you can't go too far wrong bar hopping in the Parte Vieja in Donastia (sic). It's been a while since we've stayed in Donastia (sic), but here's what I wrote at the time.

You may even get bonus points if you say it correctly -- Donostia.

Edited by Lord Michael Lewis (log)
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You'll probably get points among the locals if you call it Donastia (sic), although in Madrid, I sometimes had the feeling I offended Spaniards when I used Basque names such as Donastia (sic) and Hondarribia. I think you can't go too far wrong bar hopping in the Parte Vieja in Donastia (sic). It's been a while since we've stayed in Donastia (sic), but here's what I wrote at the time.

You may even get bonus points if you say it correctly -- Donostia.

For that post, future visitors to Donostia should thank you. :biggrin: In any event as long as I stick to saying it, I'm probably mispronouncing it even when I spell it correctly.

You caught the mispelling in my response here, but not in the thread title. I am flattered and honored by your attention.

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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You caught the mispelling in my response here, but not in the thread title. I am flattered and honored by your attention.

Please don't be. I did notice the thread title, but felt it didn't warrant my pedantry, which, as it turned out, has been far better served by your rather flatulent admonitions on how to ingratiate oneself with the locals.

Edited by Lord Michael Lewis (log)
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Robert, if I were you I'd give Akelare and Martin Berasategui a miss, I don't think there's anything there that you won't already be familiar with. But, whatever you do, go to Mugaritz, no doubt it will soon find itself in the culinary firmament, which is all the more reason to go now, while it's distinctly on the incline. Martin Berasategui was a similar case when he had two stars, and now, with three, he has gone totally off the boil. Incidentally, Andoni Luis Aduriz and David de Jorge are both Berasategui proteges, although the latter may have now moved from the kitchen due to his immense fatness.

As for other Basque recommendations, Cabrales started a longish thread on the subject which should answer many of your questions.

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In Bilbao, there's now a serious competitor to the Guggenheim museum restaurant - Aitor Basabe's Arbola Gaña restaurant on the top floor of the Museo de Bellas Artes (just a two-minute walk from the Guggenheim). His 38-euro 'menú degustación' is worth a visit. Also, a slightly modern version of the 'sidrería' (cider brewery cum kitchen) is Kiskia, calle Pérez Galdós 51: fine for your codfish omelet and grilled steak or monkfish... For a seafood fest, the place is Serantes II, Alameda de Urquijo 51 - very good shellfish, no great shakes if you go for elaborate dishes.

Victor de la Serna

elmundovino

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I am planning a quick trip to San Sebastian in late August during which I am allowing one large meal a day for four days. The obvious five restaurants to visit are Arzak, Akelare, Berasatequi, Mugaritz and Zuberoa. Which one would you skip?. Also I could use some nice tapas bar recommendations along with a simple, but honest lunch address in Bilbao. I am also afraid that when I am there, I won't be able to stop humming Kurt Weill's "Bilbao Song" from "Happy End". Did anyone have that problem?

Robert,

the Italian magazine Gambero Rosso April's issue has a report from the Basque region. In addition to the 5 restaurants you mention, other places to visit according to them are:

Extebarri

Axpe-Marzana, Plaza San Juan 1

Axtondo

tel. 0034 946 583 042

for hautish cuisine and everything cooked on a grill. It comes very highly recommended.

They also recommend also

Casa Julian

Santa Clara 6,

Tolosa

tel. 0034 943 671 417

Casa Nicolas

av.da Zumalacarregui, 6

Tolosa

tel. 0034 943 654 759

both specialise in chuletas, Spain's claim to fame in the great steaks world. I should add that the reporter says that Olivier Roellinger and his wife, who were with him, found both fantastic and from the description the steaks do sound marvellous. These are *not* high-end restaurants, especially the first but the bill can be relatively high because of the cost of the meat itself.

For tapas in Donostia:

Alôna Berri

Birmingham, 24

San Sebastian

tel. 0034 943 290 818

Bergara

barrio de Gros

General Arteche, 8

San Sebastian

tel. 0034 943 275 026.

Juli, Renteira (on the way to Mugaritz, more creative tapas)

- tel. 0034 943 512 887.

Amongst the five restaurants you mention my impression is that Mugaritz gets the most kudos and Akelare the fewest, for what it's worth (but it still comes as recommended). Finally, they mention

Fagollaga

C.tra de Goizueta, 68

barrio Erenozu Hernani

San Sebastian

tel. 0034 943 550 031

but it doesn't seem to be more recommended than any of the 5 you mention.

Hope this is of some help.

Francesco

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  • 2 months later...

I just did the same trip in June, and visited all the famous five.

I must say I almost completely agree with "Sumac". Should I skip one, this would with no doubt be Zuberoa, where I do not remember one single dish I had. Beautiful summer terrace, but no emotions at all.

On the other hand, I felt Akelaré was absolutely the best, and indeed does deserve three stars. And yes, it's much better for lunch because of the view (ask for tables at the end of the room). Service there was professional, attentive, kind and multilingual (what is not that common as one could expect, around there, see Arzak). The ideas in the tasting menu were breathtaking, a perfect match of delicacy, taste and inventiveness, with a profound knowledge not only of technical, but also of chemical effects. Among many, I remember a carrot ice which sounded fizzy and sparkling even in your mouth, but in fact was not! Or a "foie gras sandwich where what looked like bread to cover the foie, turned ot to be a light and tasty green apple and ginger mousse. And 'salads' served in liquid (!) and fried (!) preparations without loosing anything of the traditional and real taste of a...salad! Every dish is accompanied by small joinings where always a challenging idea is to be found. The wine list is complete and at excellent prices. In any case, I was so pleased of that experience that I was already back for lunch the very next day, and tried the second of the two tasting menus.

Mugaritz is a tricky subject. This is, I guess, a Berasategui pupil. The setting is very ample and large, with lots of wood and modern design, and great tables, but yet rustic. It may turn out a bit cool, if empty at night. I would have preferred it at daylight, maybe (also because it is right in the countryside)...

The cooking is technically advanced and balanced, yet not always appealing. But since it promises great improvements, it's certainly worth a try. One good thing: they have also some traditional dishes on the list. Their sommelier is the best of all I met in the area, and very kind.

Berasategui needs few comments: everything there was absolutely perfect. The tasting menu is build up by signature dishes, with the year of creation besides each. The eel-foie gras millefeuille is unforgettable. But still, I lacked that tiny little bit of "emotion" which I found only at Akelaré. maybe because at MB they are indeed quite aware of their level, and handle it very "professionally". Only one lady was speaking english.

Finally, Arzak. I must admit I am confused on this one. maybe because it was the very first dinner of the trip, only few hours from stepping out of the plane, and with too much wine to concentrate on the food.

However, the very first impact is somewhat curious: the car valet was wearing a sweater you would not wear at home on weekends. Once inside, waiters sitting at the bar, minutes before you are noticed, and then informally spoken at by first name; and: NO ENGLISH at all, from anyone (except Arzak's very kind and professional daughter, who is in the kitchen too), a quite essential list, machine written and with very poor descriptions. BUT: this is exactly the peculiarity and the plus of the place: it is NOT a stiff formal eating museum just because it has three stars: locals are the main clients, and go there as if it was the place in the neighbourhood, down Your block. Service and ambience are warm, familiar, relaxed. It is just "different". So in the end it turns to be a positive and charming experience.

As to the dishes: imagination, idea, execution, presentation are perfect. If an objection can be made, it is that sometimes You have to "think over" a lot on some dishes. They are not only to be tasted, but also to be understood. And this can make it just a little bit less emotional. But what You realize in every moment is that he is indeed the benchmark, the point of reference, for all other chefs, be they better or not. So, all in all, It is a place I would need to visit once more, and with more concentration.

Finally, tapas: I had quite few, since I was concentrating more on these restaurants. But as far as I remember, the best places are not in the old quarter, but on the newer one on the right side of the river.

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I would also recommend having lunch rather than dinner at Akelare because the view is awesome.  We also felt Akelare deserved to be a 3 star.

I totally agree as to Akelare. Subijana is an excellent and very creative chef. If I were forced to choose between Akelare and Arzak - both superb - I would take Akelare. Others to consider are Fagollare and Kaia, in Getaria about twenty minutes west of San Sebastian right on the coast. The quality of their grilled wild turbot is incomparable and well worth the trip. The new Basque restaurants, wonderful as they are, all have a similar approach. Lunch at Kaia on say your second or third day would give you a refreshing interlude.

Ruth Friedman

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  • 2 weeks later...

If I were you the one I would skip would definitely be Martin if what you are looking for is the cutting edge of Spain. Martin is pretty classical compared to the others and of all I like the dining room the least. Right now I am doing a stage at Martin and while I like the food a lot I would definitely choose to go to Mugaritz twice before I went to eat at Martin.

For tapas in Donostia you should go to La Cuchara de San Telmo and for typical Basque cuisine Martins other restaurants are good Kursaal and right now the name of the other fails me. Have heard the restaurant in the Guggenheim is good but it is also part of Grupo Martin. Europa is supposed to be good and I will try and find some others and let you know.

Don´t skip Akelarre or Mugaritz.

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QUOTE (bkosto @ Aug 12 2003, 07:57 AM)

We will be in San Sebastian on Monday night September 15, when all of the restaurants mentioned in the NYT article will be closed. Any suggestions. ? Urepel Bernard

On Monday nights in San Sebastián, I love Rekondo with its excellent typical food (great Basque steaks) and great wine cellar. One-stars Urepel and Panier Fleuri (downtown, near the Maria Cristina) are open on Monday nights; Casa Nicolasa (great chipirones de anzuelo en su tinta, alubias de Tolosa, etc.) is open for lunch on Mondays, I believe; Casa Urbano, a very nice old quarter bistro-like restaurant is a favorite of mine and open on Mondays; and you will find plenty of pinchos (tapas) available in the casco viejo.

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It's great to have depth of coverage on Arzak, Akelarre, Berasategui, etc., but there is also great opportunity for culinary reward at the lower more regional chef category. I, for one, really appreciate your "Monday night" recommendations. One of the problems of planning an itinerary based on dining, is that if you're in Spain, or France, for a week, you have to be somewhere on the night "all" the restaurants are closed.

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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On a Monday night I would either go to Restaurante Matteo en Errenteria which is near Mugaritz or I think Fagollega or Zuberoa are open on Monday nights, have to check. Panier Fleuri is closed as the chef has brain cancer so unfortunately you have to scratch that off your list. Urepel is a bargain for the price but is very traditional basque cuisine. Also make your reservations ASAP as a lot is closed Monday night. Or go to La Cuchara de San Telmo for pintxos that night. The chef is a protege of Martin Berasategui and was actually the creator of the cremant his terrine of eel apple and foie gras. You won't be disappointed by the food there.

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