Restaurants & Bars 8

Spain-Basque country update-very long

Susan Joenck | May 7, 200311:45 AM

Just back from a Michelin star (and other)sampling. For what it's worth...:

Bilbao--only there one night. Went to Zortziko(1 star) which is right around the corner from a very nice hotel (Lopez de Haro). Hotel was great, restaurant was disappointing. Elegant atmosphere with mediocre service (not even an offer of an aperatif after 10 minutes) and mostly uninteresting food except for the carabineros (large red shrimp which had a great roasted flavor). I'm not even going to say anything, well not much, about the American guy dressed in sloppy T-shirt and shorts. Yes, I know, it shouldn't matter how you dress if you are paying good money, but it was in such contrast to the restaurant interior that it just gave me one more thing to gripe about here. The city, however, surpassed expectations (exterior Guggenheim fantastic, nice river walk, good old section, incredible overlook with old men playing some type of outdoor bowling with a big heavy leather ball)

Bermeo(enroute to San Sebastian)--nice little fishing village with a surprising little restaurant--Jokin--overlooking colorful little fishing boats. Excellent txangurro (stuffed crab). Unfortunately the big fat white asparagus was canned (why do so many Spanish restaurants do this when fresh is in season? even here in Madrid?)and the profiteroles (what was I thinking?)had custard inside and were sauced with a milk chocolate. Ugh. The txangurro, though, and my husband's monkfish were good enough for a repeat. Plus, the scenery along this stretch of coast is great.

San Sebastian--Our reason for the trip. A triple-header: Arzak, Martin Berasategui, and Akelare.

Arzak: How do you say incredible in 20 different languages? Not only was the food great, but so was the service and the atmosphere. 5 amuse-bouche arrived with taste experiences ranging from herring with a strawberry (the most surprising combination which my husband was so impressed with, he's still talking about it)to a superconcentrated onion soup in a shot glass. Incredible. We had chosen the degustacion menu and they were totally open to changing it to suit our tastes. The large shrimp (carabineros) were good, but the ones at Zortziko were better. The multi-colored roasted asparagus (white, green, and red wine soaked) was great. The sea bass was so tender and flavorful it made me want to cry, the monkfish was excellent and then we had fantastic lobster which was actually served in two courses. The tail and claw meat first and then the body which was dressed with olive oil and large salt crystals. How can anything that simple be so great? The cheese plate was a really well chosen selection of 5 perfectly ripe specimens. All this followed by 4 desserts that were wonderful. Juan Mari was touring the tables, so I'm not sure if Elena was in the kitchen.

Martin Berasategui: This restaurant and I started off on the wrong foot and never quite recovered. I'm always annoyed when a restaurant insists on me lifting their tome-of-a-wine list so they can set down an amuse-bouche directly at my place. If it's in the middle of the table, fine, but why can't they just wait a minute till I've ordered and it's out of my hands. Can't eat and peruse an awkward, multi-paged wine list at the same time. The menu is very weighted toward seafood dishes that contain oysters, anchovies, herring, etc, so if that's not your thing, it'll limit your choices. The atmosphere is very confused with touches of an English conservatory, weird plant service dividers and the big city black-clothed serving brigade (I'm certainly a fan of black clothing but it just didn't fit in here and came with a bit of attitude) Anyway, 5 amuse-bouche presented at the same time (prefer Arzak's way of progressive presentation)that were good, but not great. The vegetable salad was my husband's (and another couple's)favorite dish of the night for the many distinct taste experiences. My smoked salmon cubes floating in a wonderful creme sauce with egg yolks was a disaster because the yolks kind of disgustingly coated my throat and prevented me from enjoying my wonderful sea bass. Plus, the service was so fast that there was literally no time to clear the palate and we actually had to ask for time to breathe and finish our wine before dessert. No time to sit back for just a minute before the next course. Not nice. Chocolate souffle a good end to the meal. Berasategui himself was charming, but we'd pass on a repeat visit. In all fairness, maybe we didn't choose his best dishes, but if you have 3 stars, shouldn't they all be great and the service be impeccable?

Akelare--Great atmosphere overlooking the water and a sunset, good service and with the exception of 2 courses, fantastic food. Once again 5 samplings, very good, and a degustacion menu to follow. The Irish coffee that was actually lentil/mushroom soup presented in a digestif glass was clever and the best. Asparagus presented as tagliatelle was great, risotto (that reminded my husbank of crunchy puffed rice) was bland, ditto the bacalao. Things vastly improved however with the red mullet and then the roasted lobster. A little square of rhubarb surrounding chocolate was again, surprising and fantastic. Pedro Subijana did a well deserved victory lap.

San Sebastian was enchanting for the wonderful sea by the mountains, the food and the really friendly people (that twice had us follow them to get us back on the right track after being lost). Can't wait to go back.

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