Just returned from an incredible trip to Basque country in Spain (and a bit in France). Outstanding food, wine, scenery, architecture, art, etc.
I'll start with a quick recap of Rioja, with the preface that the food in Rioja was very good, but paled considerably in comparison to San Sebastian (nothing shocking there). We were uniformly disappointed in the wines poured at the wineries themselves, but very happy with what we were able to order in restaurants at very fair (i.e. retail equivalent) prices.
Best meal in Rioja: Asador Alameda, Fuenmayor
We expected the incredible steak, like none you will find in the US in its earthiness and, yes, incredible fat. What we did not expect was the artistry of a fabulous lobster and seafood salad course, or the delicacy of a simple gazpacho amuse, or the depth of flavor in the croquettas. Great meal.
Runner-up: Hector Oribe, Paganos
More creative, but also less "of Rioja" as many of the dishes would not be out of place in a progressive US restaurant. The pigeon and duck dishes we had were both perfectly cooked, tremendously flavorful. Lovely foie gras. Delicious zucchini "ravioli" stuffed with suckling pig (I think). And an incredibly good rendition of cheesecake for dessert! Very enjoyable meal.
Good stuff: Pintxos on Calle Laurel, Logrono
We hit Logrono for Pintxos on a Sunday night and loved the experience of partaking with the locals. Mostly traditional (vs. San Sebastian's more inventive pintxos scene). From simple mushrooms to jamon iberico. A highlight though was a rustic foie in pedro ximenez, served with a nicely sweet Rioja "semi-dolce."
Don't bother: La Posada Mayor de Migueloa
Maybe not quite a tourist trap, but not much better in my opinion. The simple white asparagus saved the day. Their house wines are not bad, but nothing to write home about.
Other places we would have loved to have hit but couldn't make - Casa Toni, El Portal del Echaurren in Ezcaray,
As for winery visits, I would highly recommend the tours at Lopez de Heredia and Bodegas Baigorri, for two polar opposite takes on Rioja. Quick stops at Ysios for the architecture and Remelluri for the scenery are good ideas, the Gehry designed Marques de Riscal hotel is spectacular.
Tons of photos of the food and more on flickr at http://bit.ly/90LJp - so far I've just uploaded the first couple days in Rioja. San Sebastian and Bilbao to come as time permits!