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Basque Country Restaurants: Reviews & Recs


malika
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This itinerary has been planned with two people in mind. I, of course, have planned the trip around food. However, for my partner Catherine to go along with my part of the plan, she requires "at least two hours" of exercise each day - hence the hiking. Hotels are pretty set, but if anyone has restaurant, shopping, or other suggestions, let me know.

I thought I had the trip planned down to the last little detail, but actually I've got lots of meals to fill in. Favorites in the Tolosa/Ordizia region? Anyone spent much time in the Pyrenees? I was thinking about the Hotel des Pyrenees in St. Jean Pied de Port for lunch on the 18th or 19th, but I'm getting a little concerned about the credit card bill that may be waiting for me when I get back... Seems like a few less expensive options should be in the plan.

Thanks for any input, and I'll report back at the end of the month--

Th. 14th October – Bilbao

Sleeping: Iturriena Ostatua

Eating: ?

Doing: Museum of the Basque, shopping, Mercado de la Ribera

Hiking: Catherine won’t be here yet, so I can just wander aimlessly

F. 15th October – Bilbao (Catherine arrives)

Eating: tapas in the Casco Viejo

Doing: a couple of hours at the Guggenheim

Sat. 16th October—Bilbao to Beruete

Sleeping: Hotel Peruskenea

Eating: lunch in Azpeitia or Tolosa, dinner at the hotel

Doing: driving to Beruete with side trips to Gernika (to see the oak), Ordizia (to buy some cheese) and perhaps the Sanctuario de San Miguel in Excelsis,

Hiking: in the woods around the hotel

Links: Hotel Peruskena

Sun. 17th October—Beruete to Auritz

Sleeping: Hostal Burguete (former Hemingway haunt)

Eating: lunch at Etchemaïté (Larrau, France); dinner—Hostal Loizu (Auritz)

Doing: visit to the Sanctuario (if we didn’t get to it yesterday)

Hiking: in the Bosque de Irati

Links: Bosque de Irati

Hotel Etchemaïté

M. 18th October—Auritz

Eating: ?

Doing: ?

Hiking: ?

T.19th October—St.-Etienne-de-Baïgorry

Sleeping: Hotel Arcé

Eating: dinner at the hotel

Doing: maybe a visit to one of the Gorges

Hiking: ?

Links: Hotel Arcé

W. 20th October: Baïgorry to Hondarribia

Sleeping: Hondarriba Parador

Eating: lunch – ttoro in St.-Jean-de-Luz OR “cassoulet” in Ainhoa (I saw several mentions of the cassoulet in Ainhoa here or on Chowhound, but no one specified a restaurant name.)

Doing: drive with stops in Ixtassou (cherry preserves), Espelette (peppers) and Irouleguy (wine).

Hiking: Old smuggler’s road from Sare to Zarramundi and back

Th. 21st October—San Sebastian

Sleeping: Hotel Niza

Eating: lunch at Arzak, tapas dinner in the Parte Vieja

Doing: did I mention lunch?

Hiking: really, this day is pretty much all about the lunch. If Catherine insists, we can walk along La Concha,maybe see the Comb of the Winds, or up Mount Urgull

Links: Hotel Niza

F. 22nd October—San Sebastian

Eating: lunch at in Getaria (Elkano or Kaia); dinner tapas

Excercise: La Perla spa – gym & thalassotherapy circuit

Links: La Perla

Sat. 23rd October—San Sebastian

Eating: lunch at Akelarre, if I can get a reservation. If I still haven’t heard back by the time I leave, I’ll call from Bilbao when I arrive, and also try stopping by the restaurant as soon as we get to San Seb.

Doing: visit Chillida-Leku museum

Hiking: climb Mount Igueldo

Sun. 24th October—San Sebastian to Bilbao

Eating: ?

Doing: drive along coast

Hiking: ?

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while you're in donostia, try a wonderful little place near the iglesia de coro called kokotxa; the young chef: dani and the lovely maitre: estella will treat you fine;

have fun!

Edited by getxo (log)
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while you're in donostia, try a wonderful little place near the iglesia de coro called kokotxa; the young chef: dani and the lovely maitre: estella will treat you fine;

have fun!

Looks like a fantastic itinerary, although I cannot personally attest to most of it. It should be fun. That last day leaves room for Martin Berasatagui or Mugaritz :biggrin:

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.

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Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

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In Tolosa you can find two of the best asadores of the country, Casa Julián and Casa Nicolás. I posted some info on the meal I had a year ago at Casa Nicolás in this thread.

The other suggestion I have is to swap the places where you're going to lunch the days of Oct 22 and Oct 24. Since you're going to drive along the coast on your way to Bilbao on Sunday, I would suggest to leave the lunch in Getaria (Elkano or Kaia) for that day. Getaria is on your way to Bilbao if you drive along the coast. That will give you another spot to lunch (or dine) in San Sebastián. Why don't you give a try to Fagollaga which is usually overlooked?

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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You should check out a few threads in the France forum regarding your time in the Pays Basque on the other side of the Pyrenees. I've answered your question about the Basque Cassoulet I had at the restaurant Ithurria, in Ainhoa here. Alas, my recommended restaurant no longer has a star. I've also suggested a place in Bidarray in a follow up post in that thread.

In Bilbao, the museum itself, would offer a good hike especially if you avoided the elevators. It's a large museum and the space deserves the views to be seen from the stairs. Non hikers might want to walk down, rather than up.

I don't know the restaurant in the Parador in Hondarribia, but there's at least one tapas bar down the street in the old part of the city and perhaps several more In the area. There are more restaurants and bars in the fisherman's quarters which really must be seen as I've already noted elsewhere. We arrived in Hondarribia quite sated by our first lunch at Martin Berasategui and never really had an appetite for dinner although I dragged Mrs. B out on the town for a few drinks just on principle.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

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

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I don't know the restaurant in the Parador in Hondarribia, but there's at least one tapas bar down the street in the old part of the city and perhaps several more In the area. There are more restaurants and bars in the fisherman's quarters which really must be seen as I've already noted elsewhere. We arrived in Hondarribia quite sated by our first lunch at Martin Berasategui and never really had an appetite for dinner although I dragged Mrs. B out on the town for a few drinks just on principle.

Unless this has changed in the last year, the Parador in Hondarribia (Fuenterrabía) is one of the few that doesn't have a restaurant. It has a bar where you can have a drink or a coffee, but that's it.

Not much of a problem given the options available in Hondarribia.

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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Not much of a problem given the options available in Hondarribia.

I see the Campsa Guide lists five restaurants. One of them, Restaurant Alameda, has a sol. I suspect reservations would not be a problem at that time of year.

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 think that the Parador is not the best choice for accommodation in Hondarribia. The building itself is very nice, an so are the common areas. But the rooms are a disappoint, in my opinion. I would rather go to Hotel el Obispo, which is very close to the Parador and is also walking distance to the centre of town.

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I see the Campsa Guide lists five restaurants. One of them, Restaurant Alameda, has a sol. I suspect reservations would not be a problem at that time of year.

If I remember well, Alameda has also a Michelin starred. I've eaten there once. The dishes were very good, but is the kind of place which makes you wonder what's wrong with Michelin in Spain: if Alameda deserves a star, so do some hundreds of restaurants in the country which haven't got any and serve a food matching or surpasing what you'll get at Alameda.

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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I think we're probably going to end up just going for tapas in Hondarribia, or maybe sitting at one of the seafood restaurants for some soup. We're having lunch in St.-Jean-de-Luz that same day. For most of the trip, I anticipate having elaborate lunches and light dinners... if not tapas, then something small at a casual restaurant.

Casa Nicolas in Tolosa is definitely going on the list, and Kokotxa, too. Thanks!

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As often as not, actually maybe more often than not, we have our main meal in the afternoon in Spain and eat a light supper or enjoy the evening at a tapas bar or two.

While Michelin has rarely led me astray in Spain--that is, they've not led me to poor choices--I've not found they adequately reward the better restaurants and I've tended to use the Campsa site first in Spain. Were I searching for myself, I might use both. I'm not sure what drives the Michelin stars in Spain. Certainly they seem to surpress the number of stars, so it's surprising to hear when they recognize a less than outstanding restaurant.

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 seem to be well set up but, for what it's worth, here are a couple of places - one in France, one in Spain - which I can recommend from personal experience.

La Cucaracha

Rue de l'Ouhabia

64210 Bidart

Tel : 05.59.54.92.89

Good Basque seafood, good wine list - popular both for lunch and dinner, you need to book.

If you are taking the coastal route east from Bilbao, try to stop in Leikeitio which is a lovely authentic Basque fishing village and draws few non-Spanish tourists. On the pier, the first restaurant (name escapes me for the moment) coming from the town is run by lovely people who cook fish in the most fantastic way - friends who live in Bilbao travel there to eat regularly.

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  • 8 months later...

San Sebastian/Donostia was supposed to be the highlight of a two week trip with my wife last month. It surely wasn’t a let down. We drove to San Sebastian from the Aquitaine region of France which I reported on earlier here in the France forum. Going to Basque country was a long anticipated trip that we had marked right on the top of our list of places to visit. We are glad to have finally made it happen.

Since this report is a little long and in an effort not to bore the reader, I will divide it in 4 installments consisting of an introduction to San Sebastian and its surroundings, lunch reports at Arzak and Akelare, and finally a report on La Rioja.

While I was planning the trip I first hesitated between staying in San Sebastian proper or finding something in the outskirts. Many of our friends who knew the region well raved unanimously about the Basque countryside. So we ended up booking a room in a beautiful guesthouse located in the hills just outside of Hondarribia just 10 minutes away from the French border. The guesthouse is called Iketxe and our host, Patxi (a proud Basque middle aged man), was so kind and gracious that he made our stay an unforgettable one.

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Views from our room at Iketxe, lots of green, lots of mountains, and lots of sheep

The high point of this Basque journey which would of course involve eating a lot of good stuff was lunch reservations at Arzak and Akelare planned for the following days. To avoid an overdose on fine dining and to also stay within budget, dinner each night would consist of bar hopping for Pintxos in old San Sebastian.

Going bar hopping at first was quite intimidating given all the agitation. It’s your typical bar scene, disorderly, rowdy and crowded. The difference is that you’re not in for the booze but for ham, fish, and cheese. In some places we had to almost fight our ways to the food. Plus, getting the bartender’s attention can be somewhat of a challenge so once you’re up, you have to be fast. A brief moment of reflection (i.e. hmmm…do I want Jabugo or Iberico?) will cost you dearly, that is, another 10 minute wait. Although each bar has its own specialty, it is very tempting to order too fast and too much. Since variety is the golden rule here sticking around too long at one bar means eating less elsewhere. Having said this, we decided to limit ourselves to no more than 3 or 4 pintxos at each bar so we could sample as much as possible at different bars. From all the bars we visited, I remember enjoying the Jabugo and the Bocadillos at La Cepa as well as the incredible variety of Boquerones dishes at Txepetxa. I wish I could comment more on it, but I took no notes, no camera and drank lots of Txacoli. I guess that gives me three valid excuses...

As a general rule, I’d say that if you are visiting the area on a tight budget, by all means, go for Pintxos. We must have averaged about 8 or 10 Euros for both of us at each bar for lots of food and drinks. A multi-bar hop feast will cost you about 30 Euros, and that’s pushing it.

The indoor market in San Sebastian is a must-do for anyone who likes food. What impressed me most was the quality and variety of fish displayed on the fish stalls. I generally love everything that has to do with fish so I could not stop snapping pictures. A few things I noticed: monkfish is sold whole, WITH the ugly head containing all the good stuff (the cheeks) and with the liver. Strangely, I did not see any sardines but loads of anchovies instead. Kokotxas (cod throats/collars) are also sold everywhere. To my surprise, I also noticed that all fish stalls were attended by women only, they did all the trimming, cutting, slicing and selling of the fish. It all makes sense I guess, in a family whose livelihood involves trading fish, men handle the fish from the ocean to the harbor and while they are at sea, women handle the rest.

Here are a few pictures taken at the market:

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As I briefly mentioned earlier, we were told before our departure that Spanish Basque country is famous for its beautiful coast and mountains. We were not deceived, it is indeed stunning. What really made an impression on us was the alpine countryside, more than the coast actually. It is drop dead gorgeous and I would recommend anyone visiting the region to spend a good chunk of time there. The scenery changes quite dramatically as you go further inland, high green hills towards the coast and rugged peaks and lush green valleys further into the mountains, with hundreds of picturesque little villages to drive through and visit.

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Walking through the green hills near the Valley of Axpe

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My wife Moko in one of many squares that we visited. This picture was taken in the mountain village of Oñati, an hour and half away from San Sebastian

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Oñati on a busy day

We found it quite funny that the mountain region on occasion seemed to contain more sheep than people. Mountain villages tend to be tranquil and very empty whereas the wide green pastures that drape this rugged terrain are filled with hundreds of white fury animals! At times, the panoramas reminded me more of Switzerland than Spain.

Lunch at Arzak in my next installment...

"A chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg." Samuel Butler
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Lunch at Arzak

This was a first for me in two ways: It was my first time eating in a three star restaurant outside of France and my first experience with avant-guard cuisine. This last point was what intrigued me most obviously as I was eager to discover what would come out of a kitchen that relies as much on refractometers and PH meters as it does on pots and pans. I generally have a penchant for culinary minimalism and I feel it is sometimes in simplicity that food expresses itself the best. In addition, I was also hoping that despite its forward-thinking approach, Arzak’s menu and style would also remain anchored to the typical ingredients of Basque cuisine. Since this lunch immediately followed our visit to the San Sebastian market, we naturally expected to see many of the local ingredients we discovered featured in the dishes we were about to eat.

The restaurant is located on the first and second floors of a four story high townhouse, which has belonged to the Arzak family for more than a century. The rather small lobby housing the bar is separated from the main dining room, which remains out of sight as you enter. While we were waiting, Juan Mari Arzak came out of the kitchen in his chef whites to greet what appeared to be some friends of his. The reason I am saying this is that they were conversing in French (which Juan Mari seems to master perfectly) while using the more informal “tu” form. I also spotted Elena in the kitchen conversing with her staff. After a short wait, our hostess finally opened the door leading to the dining room. We were amongst the first customers to be seated. The first floor dining room is somewhat small, a feeling which is exacerbated by the relatively low ceilings framing the room. The décor is nevertheless tasteful and elegant. Light reds and peach colors dominate the room making it sophisticated without being snobby. Despite its 3 stars, we also liked the seeming lack of pretension as far as service goes (unlike Akelare where the staff has a little more posh attitude). The restaurant still seems to operate like a small country inn and the friendly and welcoming staff made us feel like we were the guests of a big family.

For an establishment that has put Spain at the forefront of international gastronomy, I was surprised to see that with the exception of a German couple sitting right next to us, the restaurant was filled with mostly locals. I’ve noticed on the other hand that in many 3 star restaurants in France, I’ve heard English being spoken more than French. I quickly realized through this trip that Basque people are not only very proud of their cultural heritage but also of their cuisine. It seems that locals have a profound respect for their world-famous chefs, so they seem to pay frequent visits to their restaurants.

Before I go into describing the food, I have to point out that since I misplaced my meal notes (stupid, stupid me), I am relying on the photos I took, previous similar threads and a brain not trained to memorize in the Spanish language. It may contain some mistakes here and there which I hope some members will help me correct.

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Earring of vegetable hearts with mango. Thin slices of roasted mangos filled with foie gras mousse, lettuce heart, tomato olive oil and chive. This dish was sheer luxury for the senses. The foie was light and airy and wonderfully complimented by the somewhat more concentrated flavors of the mango and the bitterness of the lettuce. A wonderful way to begin this meal.

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Crimson shelled jumbo shrimp. It was first time eating these local delicacies (Carabineros in Spanish). They were tucked in between the greens and served barely cooked which maintained their buttery sweet texture. If I understood and remember correctly, the 3 brush strokes on the plate consisted of a Morcilla (blood sausage) flavored sauce/dressing. Excellent.

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My wife had the egg flower and truffle oil in goose fat, Txistorra sausage with dates. Another hit. I normally dislike truffle oil but it was so delicately used in this dish that it did not bother me at all.

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“Graffiti” on elliptical shaped egg. Egg poached sous-vide with squid ink and parsley water, accompanied by a fried breadstick and crispy green rice.

Squid ink is added at the table. I’ve read raving reviews about this dish on previous threads but I personally found it a little off the mark. The concept of it all is indeed brilliant visually but I just couldn’t discern the nuances of flavors, a little too monotonous to my palate.

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For the fish my wife had the eel which I cannot comment on unfortunately (my wife enjoyed it a lot for all I can remember) while I had monkfish.

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Monkfish with thin layer of peach gelatin on top, parsley sauce and peach scented sauce. This was probably one of the best things I ate during this entire trip. I liked the fact that peach was featured on two distinguished levels here: the somewhat condensed, jelly-like, sweet and tangy peach flavored layer resting on top of the fish and the lighter peach sauce acting as a base for the dish. The sauce was somewhat thick in texture but had a lightly infused peach aroma.

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My wife then had the Pigeon which she said was extremely tender and not too “gamy”, while I had the lamb.

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Boneless Lamb chop wrapped in a paper-thin coffee scented sheet. Hot lamb jus was poured on top of the lamb at the table causing the sheet to melt down thus perfuming and giving body to the sauce. I loved this dish, besides the visual allure of this presentation, I thought the bitterness and mild spiciness of the coffee was a nice supplement to the jus and the meat.

For Desserts:

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Chocolate hamburgers

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Chocolate tortilla with lettuce coulis

(Not pictured)

Passion fruit soup and orange loaf

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Glorious baked fruits with strawberry bubbles

Of these I personally liked the passion fruit soup however I was not too crazy about the other desserts. I thought the baked fruits and strawberry bubbles dessert for instance was more pleasing to the eye than to the palate. The flavor of the soup was somewhat reminiscent of what you get by mixing strawberry Nesquik powder and milk.

During the meal, and as is customary in many European high end restaurants, Elena Arzak came out to each table to greet her guests. She of course asked us where we were from and when we told her we lived in New York, I couldn’t help but notice a wonderful smile on her face. I guess it always makes her happy to see how far people would come from to eat her food. We of course talked briefly and she mentioned the recent birth of her child in the course of the conversation. She told us she wished she could spend more time at home but that her obligations at the restaurant did not allow it unfortunately. I guess such is the life of a three star chef in Europe.

Well, Arzak turned out to be everything we had hoped for. To start with, I was quite in awe with the way each dish was prepared with a rigorous attention to equilibrium. Flavors tended to juxtapose themselves quite nicely without allowing one single ingredient to play a strong dictating role. More importantly, I was also happy to see that the menu interpreted in an innovative way the traditional flavors and dishes found in Basque cuisine. Bacalao al Pil Pil which we did not get to sample unfortunately is a perfect example of this. Arzak is a definite must see and must eat. Whether you are interested in avant-garde cuisine or not, it should not be missed. In an extraordinary display of talent, Juan Mari and Elena truly carry on the spirit and essence of Basque cuisine. They do so in a brilliant way while reflecting a unique gastronomic culture which transforms the basic concept of eating into sheer delight.

I hope to go again soon.

Next, lunch at Akelare (with much better pictures I promise :biggrin: )

"A chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg." Samuel Butler
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Lunch at Akelare

Akelare is just a 15 minute drive away from the city center. I generally hate to rush through my meals but we only had a few hours to spare since we had to hit the road right after this meal and head towards La Rioja. Nonetheless, we still managed to arrive at the restaurant a little late. Strangely, we could not help but notice that despite our late arrival for a 1:30pm reservation we were the first lunch customers. By 2:45pm, the room was entirely full. The first thing that strikes you when you enter the dining room is the spectacular views of the Bay of Biscay. I could not keep my eyes off the windows as we were being escorted to our table, it is truly stunning.

As soon as we were seated to our table, a young hostess rushed towards me with a telephone receiver in hand to tell me that a man was asking for me on the phone.

A little taken aback, it took me about two or three seconds to realize what she wanted from me. Since I was miles away from home, I really wondered who would possibly call me in this place, at that time and on that day?? I thought of three “impossibilities”: my dad, my boss, and chef Subijana. Why? I don’t know, but on all prospects I was very far off the mark. Anyhow, I placed the receiver on my ear and after I muttered a timid “Hello?” I heard: “QUE CABEZA TIENES!!!” (where is your head!!). I must have paused a good five seconds…

It was Patxi, our host at Iketxe, who called to tell me that upon checking out I had forgotten my jacket in the bedroom closet. I remembered mentioning to Patxi at some point that same morning that we had lunch reservations in a “nice” restaurant in San Sebastian, but how did he find us here? Well…not knowing which restaurant exactly, he simply called up every “nice” restaurant he knew of before he could find us at Akelare. I thanked him profusely and told him that he shouldn’t have gone through some much trouble for just a jacket. This is when he reminded me that our train and plane return tickets were in the jacket. I felt profoundly embarrassed to say the least and we ended up picking everything up the following day coming back from la Rioja on our way to Biarritz.

The restaurant offered two different tasting menus, we each picked one.

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Curdle of fresh green asparagus w/baby green peas and local spring beans. My wife had this dish and thought it was a little insipid. Although it looked pretty and the idea of it all sounded appealing, the partially cooked vegetables weren’t as vibrant as we had expected. The asparagus “coulis-like” curdle was somewhat muted. It just was not as “singing” as we had expected.

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Steamed Percebes (goose neck barnacle) with Borage. Unfortunately whoever cooked the percebes had a heavy hand with the salt, so it made it quite difficult for me to eat and enjoy. The borage which is to some extent cucumber like in flavor was not noticeable, almost certainly overwhelmed by the intense saltiness of the barnacles. I was looking forward to eating this Basque specialty, but unfortunately I’ll have to try it again. A very bad start regrettably.

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Fresh king prawn green apple and ginger. Quite a recovery from the disapointing preceding dishes. The prawn was accompanied by a warm and gelatinous apple and ginger scented sauce. In addition to the beautiful plating, we both thought the simple yet pleasant combination of spicy, sweet and citrus worked quite beautifully.

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Springtime broth with wild mushrooms. The mushroom featured on this plate is called “Sisas” and is apparently indigenous to this region of Spain. The broth which was garnished with turnips, and a tiny mouth popping vegetable “roe” of some sort was light and vibrant, quite a wonderful spring dish overall.

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Sauteed foie gras with walnut soup. What a superb pairing I must say. The nuttiness of the soup miraculously brings to life the smooth, creamy and silky qualities of the foie. I generally get tired of sweet pairings with foie gras, so I thought this kind of pairing was actually quite phenomenal. I do not quite remember what the green sprinkling on top was.

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Iberian ham with raw jelly vegetable stew. The piece de resistance. A slowly braised cut of Iberico, served caramelized on top with a thick pork/spinach stew with vegetables cut into a brunoise. This dish kind of speaks for itself. Straightforward and just fantastic.

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Monkfish with roasted tomato juice and roe of pepper

What was described to us as a “tomato juice” was in fact a lightly scented tomato broth. The monkfish was topped by the mouth popping red bell pepper “roe”. I do not remember what the garnish was unfortunately. The monkfish was moist, with a little bite left, just the way I like it. The broth only had a faint tomato aroma and was nicely seasoned. The pepper “roe” was in contrast quite intense. One of my favorite dishes of the meal.

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Grouper with fava beans and tender germs. Again,a beautiful preparation featuring if I understood correctly a fava been coulis with two translucent “raviolis” filled with young tender sprouts.

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Roasted pigeon in quince tambourine. The pigeon was presented under a quince “skin” enveloping the bowl in a drum –like pattern. The quince skin was pierced at the table, thus revealing under the sliced pigeon bathing in its own jus. Although the pigeon was fantastic, I think I enjoyed the tangy quince skin even more. I eventually peeled it off to the last bit and consumed it entirely. To stay in line with the drum theme, a wooden “stick” with an edible component (which description I did not catch) wrapping one extremity is presented with the dish.

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“Presa de Iberico” with licorice oil. Or so they said…For some reason neither my wife nor I have any practical recollection of this unfortunately. That being said, it must not have made an impression on us.

Desserts:

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Strawberries, cream and champagne

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The pear in another form (I think :blink: )

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Chocolate flower in hearth of beer

I enjoyed these desserts more than I did at Arzak. I particularly liked the chocolate flower which was served with cocoa powder and doused with beer at the table. An odd combination of flavors which, if given time to marry, results in a perfect balance of bitter and sweet.

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The petits fours where equally satisfying and featured a thin chocolate biscuit with we were told “una sopresa adentro” (a surprise inside)

***SPOILERS AHEAD*** we could not stop laughing when we discovered the surprise: the chocolate also contained the same tongue fizzing and popping granule found in popping candy dips. I think it made me smile as much as I smiled the first time I tried these as a kid. ****END SPOILERS****

For wine we had a 2000 Alion from the Ribera del Duero, a fantastic wine and a great bargain from the same folks at Vega-Sicilia.

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To sum it up, I’d say that despite one or two mistakes, we enjoyed our meal at Akelare as much as we did at Arzak. Food was excellent. A few notes though: I thought that contrarily to Arzak, the menu at Akelare was more season oriented, and it is a factor that made me appreciate this dining experience a little more. It seems by looking at previous Arzak reports on this forum that many of the dishes we had were apparently also featured on the menu many months ago. Nothing wrong with that, but I found it odd that in a restaurant of this standing, the menu would not change as frequently and seasonally. Another key element of this meal that impressed me was the plating. I really hope I did the kitchen some justice with my photos, each plate was quite dazzling and very elegant.

I found it interesting to experience both restaurants back to back especially knowing that for all those years, Michelin has consistently given them different ratings. I certainly am not experienced enough of a diner to explain why Akelare still hasn’t earned its third star. To me and based on my experience, they stood on the same pedestal. I’ll leave it up to the expert diners on this forum to help me shed more light on this.

La Rioja is next..

Edited by zeitoun (log)
"A chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg." Samuel Butler
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. . . . . .

The mushroom featured on this plate is called “Sisas” and is apparently indigenous to this region of Spain. 

. . . . .

First of all, let me congratulate you for your report. It really makes me want to return to the Basque Country and enjoy its food and all the rest.

On the zizas: this is the calocybe gambosa (aka Tricholoma georgii), St. George's mushroom, which also receives the common name of perretxico. I'd say that it's called ziza in Guipuzcoa (Donostia and surroundings) and perretxico in Vizcaya (Bilbao and surroundings), but I'm not totally sure about that.

Regarding the indigenous condition of this mushroom, it grows in a number of different regions of the country, including La Rioja and Navarra. Nonetheless, it's one of the most appreciated mushrooms in the Basque Country.

PedroEspinosa (aka pedro)

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. . . . . .

The mushroom featured on this plate is called “Sisas” and is apparently indigenous to this region of Spain. 

. . . . .

First of all, let me congratulate you for your report. It really makes me want to return to the Basque Country and enjoy its food and all the rest.

On the zizas: this is the calocybe gambosa (aka Tricholoma georgii), St. George's mushroom, which also receives the common name of perretxico. I'd say that it's called ziza in Guipuzcoa (Donostia and surroundings) and perretxico in Vizcaya (Bilbao and surroundings), but I'm not totally sure about that.

Regarding the indigenous condition of this mushroom, it grows in a number of different regions of the country, including La Rioja and Navarra. Nonetheless, it's one of the most appreciated mushrooms in the Basque Country.

Thanks pedro :smile: , I also appreciate the clarification on zizas, with my limited Spanish i really couldn't quite make out what it was exactly.

"A chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg." Samuel Butler
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It was Patxi, our host at Iketxe, who called to tell me that upon checking out I had forgotten my jacket in the bedroom closet. I remembered mentioning to Patxi at some point that same morning that we had lunch reservations in a “nice” restaurant in San Sebastian, but how did he find us here? Well…not knowing which restaurant exactly, he simply called up every “nice” restaurant he knew of before he could find us at Akelare.

We had the same thing happen when we checked out of our hotel in Laguardia, we mentioned we were had an appt at Riscal. During our tour there our hotel owner showed up. we had forgotten to take our RECEIPT and he drove all the way to give it to us. The northern Spaniards are especially gracious and nice! :wub:

It seems by looking at previous Arzak reports on this forum that many of the dishes we had were apparently also featured on the menu many months ago. Nothing wrong with that, but I found it odd that in a restaurant of this standing, the menu would not change as frequently and seasonally.

I see what you are saying as we had a few of the same dishes you did at Arzak but I have found this to be true even of The French Laundry, although they cook in season the some of the same dishes are brought out season after season.

Your report is fantastic, can't wait to hear about your experiences in La Rioja, we are going to open a few bottles we brought back from there tonight!

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Christopher and Wendy, thank you both for your interest and kind words.

To answer your question Christopher, I stayed at the guesthouse I mentionned earlier called Iketxe 20 minutes away from San Sebastian, it was just wonderful and I highly recommend it. Plus, for $50 (that is about 40 Euros I guess), you can't beat it. I found it on this website: www.secretplaces.com. It has an amazing listing of cozy and affordable little inns in Spain, Portugal and Italy. In La Rioja we found a little hotel in Haro, my wife and I found Haro to be quite charming and a great place to start a visit of the Rioja valley.

And Wendy, you are absolutely right, I fell in love three times in El Pais Vasco: with the beautiful scenery, the food and with the wonderful people. The latter is especially meaningful to a New Yorker like me, I frankly forgot a thing or two about genuine human kindness :biggrin:

Tomorrow, we shall open a bottle of Rioja wine too in celebration of that!!!

"A chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg." Samuel Butler
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Of the three main wine regions (Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Navarra) that we could have visited further south, we picked La Rioja because it was the closest and the most easily accessible. Our time was limited and we had to eventually make the long drive back to Bordeaux. We were a little uncertain at first since before the trip we had heard close to nothing about the region. If given more time, I would have frankly preferred to see the Ribera del Duero, just because I love their wines.

As it turns out, we absolutely loved our Rioja journey. The valley where all the vines are grown lies to the northern fringe of the region. It is relatively vast as it stretches from west to east over 70 kilometers of green vines and golden cornfields. Towering mountains enclose the valley on each side. Oddly (odd because the valley looks so arid!!), one can actually go skiing just less than an hour away in the ski resort of Valdezcaray a little further south in the Sierra de Pradilla. We stayed in Haro at the North-western extremity of the valley for the night, a nice little town, very quiet and cozy. The first thing we did before leaving the next morning was to go wine shopping of course in the old part of Haro. We actually found pretty good deals and excellent local wines from smaller bodegas that are not distributed here in the US.

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On the road somewhere between Haro and Logroño

We more or less knew from the get go which wineries we wanted to see - highly advisable given the immensity of the valley. It is important to note also that the highlight of this region does not consist of visiting the wineries alone but also the multitude of Riojan medieval towns, monasteries and sandstone villages which have remained unchanged through the centuries. The beautiful village of La Guardia is probably the best example of this. We stopped in this scenic medieval town for a quick lunch, highly recommended. Other towns I would recommend to visit are San Vicente de la Sonsierra just outside of Haro and Briones which has a wine museum.

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Moko in "downtown" La Guardia

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Views of the valley from La Guardia

Despite its reputation as the “Robert Mondavi of Spain”, we wanted to visit Marques de Riscal because it is after all one of Spain’s oldest bodega. We could have targeted smaller bodegas but since we didn’t know Rioja wines well enough, we thought Riscal would be a good introduction. The visit was made on appointment only but arrangements could be made the morning off. Although I am not too fond of their wines, it is undeniable that in its 100 plus year history, Riscal was a factor in firmly positioning Spain as one of the world’s major wine producing countries.

One interesting thing to note though: when we went to the tourism office in Logroño, which is the political capital of La Rioja, we asked for a map with a listing of bodegas. We looked carefully to see if we could spot Marques de Riscal on the map, to no avail. Strange we thought. The tourism office clarified this mystery when they told us in a rather stern way that Riscal was not in La Rioja but in Alava, Basque country, so they had no information to give us!! As it turns out, quite a few wineries are located in Alava despite their Rioja appellation. I frankly found it a little odd that the Logroño tourism office would print brochures and maps on the “Rioja wine route” without even citing bodegas located in Alava. Driving through the winding country roads located above the Ebro river is quite amusing since you basically cross the Rioja-Alava border about a hundred times. Through our short drive, we must have also seen signs that said Ongi Etorri and Bienvenido (welcome in Basque and Spanish respectively) about a hundred times as well!

What I also found surprising (as you may have noted this trip was quite educational) was that despite all its beauty La Rioja is still not today a common tourist destination and for this reason, it is probably still one of Spain’s best-kept secrets. After all some might say, who could blame the millions of tourists who each year would rather enjoy the Mediterranean coastal towns than sweat their butts off in the middle of a sun-drenched bucolic land.

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Vino!!!!

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One of the many cellars at Marques de Riscal

Nevertheless, it seems that things are changing, or so were we told. For instance, in an effort to develop tourism, a (very expensive) luxury hotel and spa with a gastronomic restaurant is currently being built within the Riscal winery itself. The building was designed by Frank Gehry and will basically look like a miniature replica of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I think it is due to open sometime later this year. Personally, I am not crazy about the idea, the hotel is fine but a little less eye-catching building would have been more appropriate. I just hope that it won’t kill the charm and almost serene atmosphere that the valley currently enjoys.

Last time I was in Spain 5 years ago, I was in Catalunya and in the Granada region of Andalusia. I kept fond memories of this trip but I think this more recent trip to El Pais Vasco was really something else. By all counts, it was an exquisite, scenic, welcoming and delicious experience. I realized through this trip that Basque people are extremely proud of their cuisine, a pride reflected through their colorful markets, energetic tapas bars, and enchanting restaurants of all kinds, many of which have become temples of gastronomy. More importantly, it is reflected with a genuine kindness and generosity. I am eagerly anticipating my next visit…

"A chicken is just an egg's way of making another egg." Samuel Butler
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. . . .  it seems that things are changing, or so were we told.  For instance, in an effort to develop tourism, a (very expensive) luxury hotel and spa with a gastronomic restaurant is currently being built within the Riscal winery itself.  The building was designed by Frank Gehry and will basically look like a miniature replica of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.  I think it is due to open sometime later this year.  Personally, I am not crazy about the idea, the hotel is fine but a little less eye-catching building would have been more appropriate.  I just hope that it won’t kill the charm and almost serene atmosphere that the valley currently enjoys.

Jul. 3, 2005 -- Note that my comment on the chef is incorrect as noted in a later post by vserna. My apologies to all. Francis Paniego of the excellent Hostal Echaurren in Ezcaray is the chef who will be running the restaurant at Riscal. Quite a bit has been written about Echaurren on eGullet.

My understanding is that Andoni Aduriz (Mugaritz) is going to be the consulting chef at the Riscal winery hotel and that choosing him along with Gehry to design the building has less to do with hosting the tourists who might choose to visit wineries if they had a place to stay, than to make it a draw and destination in the way that the Guggenheim has made Bilbao a tourist destination. Fans of contemporary architecture will make both stops part of a tour of the region. Expect the region to change. To keep things in perspective, the draw of buildings such as the Gehry Guggenheim may be preferable to the draw of say, IberiaDisney.

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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