turbowine | Nov 3, 201602:39 PM     3

My wife and I along with another couple planned this trip to Spain as a Michelin-starred restaurant orgy. 12 days, 4 cities and 8 Michelin-starred restaurants, and as many tapas restaurants and other tasty meals as we could fit in our bellies. In preparing for this trip I used this site, Chowhound, as well as these:
For completeness, here is the Michelin site: http://www.viamichelin.com/ (Why buy the books anymore?)

We started in Barcelona, then moved on to Logrono in Rioja and from there to Bilboa and finally San Sebastian. While we were in Rioja, we also did winery tours at Lopez de Heredia, Cune, Vina Real and Muga. All the tours were interesting to some extent or another. Muga was the longest, most detailed. Heredia was the most expensive but you also got to try more wine (3 tastes instead of 2), it included a snack of Iberico pork loin (delicious!), and it included bottle of wine while the others gave out a free logo glass.

One thing that I have to say is it is a little irritating that every winery tour assumes this is the first and only winery tour you’ve ever been on. It would be nice to be able to see the facilities without having to hear that yeast causes fermentation again, and again, and again. By the fourth tour we felt like we could be giving the tour and answering the questions. (Of course, we’ve been on a few dozen winery tours around the world, not just these.) I know, I know, a pipe dream. There are so few tours in English, there is no way they’d offer two different “levels.”

In addition to the tours we also had time to stop by the tasting rooms of La Rioja Alta and Roda. While in Bilboa we did visit the Guggenheim. Wonderful building, but I must say I still don’t understand modern art. We didn’t do much else tourist-wise, nothing beyond just walking around and poking around pedestrian malls where and while we could in-between meals.

We did do tapas everywhere we could. Spanish tapas are so much fun, just something about it that isn’t replicated at tapas restaurants here in the states. Many of the 8 starred restaurants we went to were not open for dinner, so we had to try them for lunch. Unfortunately, we often weren’t hungry enough to do dinner those days. Having a three to four hour meal every day for most of this trip meant that some days it was the only meal we ate, especially when that meal was lunch.
But even so, we enjoyed the tapas when we could. Logrono is a special place because the tapas bars are all together on just a few streets. It is such a wonderful activity and social scene. The atmosphere is really incredible. San Sebastian comes closest to this, but even it isn’t quite the same. We did notice that there was a different variety of tapas between Logrono and the coastal cities. Logrono seemed to have more hot tapas and Bilboa and San Sebastian seemed to have a much larger variety of cold tapas. We set out with the goal of having one tapa and one glass of wine at each tapas bar, so we could try a lot of bars, but we frequently failed as so many things look good it was hard to stop at just one.

We got very lucky with the weather (again). Some rain in Barcelona, but after that, just beautiful sunshine. Cold at night, but nice during the day.

On to the restaurants, I’m going to start with those that do not have a Michelin star. All will be presented in alphabetical order.

Bar BonaVida
Caspe, 22, 08010 Barcelona
Was walking around looking for a late lunch when the skies opened up and we hopped in here just to stay dry. 5 plates and 4 glasses later the rain stopped and we walked out fat and happy.
The beer and wine lists are small, but we had a couple glasses each of a nice Verdejo and Rioja.
For food we had the edamame, salad with chicken and Iberico ham dressing, Iberico ham on bread with tomato sauce, Beef in "Cafe de Paris" sauce and the pork tacos.
All tasted fine, though the "ham dressing" on the salad didn't seem too hammy, and for that matter, not sure we really got Iberico in the ham dish. Tasted more like regular Serrano ham to me. Also, there were some language difficulties. We ordered the olives, but got the edamame. The salad was actually a first choice and then my wife changed her mind and ordered the ham. But the waitress didn't understand that change and we got both by mistake. No big deal, part of the adventure of a foreign country in a different language. Overall worthwhile, if not special.

La Castanya
Calle Escudellers, 30, 08002 Barcelona
Stopped in here for dinner. Originally was going to do a Tapas crawl, but the weather was so rainy decided to stay at one place rather than bounce around to several different ones. Had the Iberico ham, olives, grilled Pork and Beef (both), dried tomatoes, osso buco croquette and chicken croquette. The ham was terrific, what you expect Iberico to be. The chicken croquette was very tasty, more so than the osso buco, but that is personal preference. The presentation of both was very creative. The dried tomatoes were good, but not a knock-out. Same with the olives. The real standouts of the night were the pork and beef dishes. They were amazingly good. The web site doesn't have the menu so I can't give you the exact names they were called, but you should be able to figure it out - look for something that looks like grilled beef & grilled pork -- gotta try these.
Wine list was small but varied from around the Spanish country side and was typically a good value. Service was good and friendly, though I'd worry about a busier night.

La Rinconada de Lorenzo
Calle Salle 3, Plaza San Francisco, 50006 Zaragoza
Stopped in for lunch on our drive from Barcelona to Logrono. Was a little farther off the freeway than I really wanted, but the bonus was that it is only 1 block from the Plaza de San Francisco parking garage. That is a huge bonus because street parking is a nightmare! Picked it because it looked like it had a nice selection of ala carte options and wasn't too spendy for a simple lunch.
We had the tuna salad with peppers, artichoke hearts with mushroom sauce, platter of piquillo peppers, steak with a sauce of local mushrooms and cod with tomato & onion sauce. All was ok, nothing special, but good enough to keep the hunger away while passing through. Washed it down with a nice bottle of Muga Rioja.
The English menu was out of date and they were out of a lot of items from it. Decor was nice. Place was busy and service was good and friendly.

La Vieja Bodega
Avenida Rioja 17, 26230 Casalarreina
Stopped in for a quick lunch between wineries. I do mean quick, in Spanish terms, anyway. Lunch starts at 1:30 and we had a winery tour reservation at 3:00. Fortunately, this restaurant is only 10 minutes from Haro. Even though they publish 1:30 opening, they resisted giving me a 1:30 reservation, they really preferred it be 2:00. We were the only people in the restaurant until 2:00.
Decor is very nice, rustic, what you'd hope for in a wine country restaurant. We ordered the spider crab salad; soft cooked egg, which came with mushrooms; cod in tomato sauce; braised beef cheeks; and lamb rib chops. The egg dish was a tad boring, but otherwise all was tasty and liked. Wine list was appropriately populated with Rioja wines. Service was speedy, moving us through with just enough time to eat and run to our tour. Wish we could have lingered, would have liked to relax here.

Diputacio 223, 08011 Barcelona
Stopped in here while wandering the streets for lunch. Nice selection of local craft beer. Nice decor, someone put some money into this place. We had the Iberian ham with tomato covered bread, the milk lamb, the Vietnamese shrimp rolls, the pulled pork bun (BBQ) and the steam bun with pork (Asian spiced, perhaps hoisin sauce); and we tried three different IPAs. Good stuff except the lamb was too lamby for my American tastes, if you know what I mean; very gamey. Friendly staff that spoke just enough English for us to tell them what we wanted (they had English menus).

Muelle de Txatxo, 2, Lekeitio
While driving all the little towns on the coast between Bilbao and San Sebastian, stopped by for lunch. Small menu, no English, decent location on the harbor, among a bunch of other places all in a row. Only had a few tapas available, in addition to the small menu. We had a couple of them, a couple salads and a baked/grilled fish with a bottle of Txakoli white wine. All was fine enough for a simple lunch. Service was speedy and the view was nice. No English.

Restaurante Los Parajes
C/ Mayor, 46-48, 01300 Laguardia
Late lunch after a wine tasting and site seeing day. Tried a platter of Iberico ham, the sautéed foie gras, the crispy artichoke appetizer, the vegetable stew, red quail and monk fish.
The foie gras was overcooked, sadly, though the portion was huge. Same with the artichokes. They were individual leaves and chopped hearts, deep fried, along with deep fried pieces of ham. All overcooked. Very sad. The veggie stew was great, and the quail and monk fish were both tasty, though there was something a little odd in the quail flavor that I couldn't quite place. Some seasoning I didn’t recognize perhaps.
Service was spotty. At first it was very good, but as the meal wore on we had a harder and harder time getting the attention of the waiter. The waiter did recommend a nice Rioja to go with the meal, however.
Decor was attractive and interesting. Prices were fairly reasonable. We’d been here before, our last trip. I think eating here was better the first time than this time. I was really disappointed with the foie gras. Next time I’ll try someplace different.

Rambla dels Caputxins 31, 08002 Barcelona
Stopped in for an after dinner drink before calling a cab back to the hotel while walking around one night.
Had a decent Rioja at a good price, and decided to add the fried eggs with Iberico ham and fries as a snack. Not bad but way more fries than I was expecting. Also the eggs were "chopped" up and mixed in with the fries, and then the ham was on top. I was expecting to be able to dig into the ham and eggs primarily and eat fries occasionally, as desired, assumed they would be on the side. Not the case. With the presentation, you could eat the ham separately, but it was essentially impossible to get any egg without eating the fries, as they were tossed together. Tasty, but not what I expected. Service was good. Nice large establishment with interesting decor, live music that wasn't too loud.

On to the Michelin stars!!!
The four of us decided in advance that we will rate each restaurant ourselves, independently and compare notes at the end of the trip.
With that in mind, for each of these I list their various ratings from Michelin, Trip Advisor, and, if listed, the Opinionated about Dining and World’s 50 Best ranking as background upon which to compare our own thoughts and a basis for reference to how they world views them.
I also list the prices of their tasting menus, as I find that to be really interesting information. Considering the quality of the food, prices are incredibly cheap considering what you’d pay in France or the US for similar restaurants. Or for example, Frederikshoj, in Aarhus, Denmark; where we ate earlier on this trip, which cost about $1100 euros for two while we didn’t pay much higher than that at even the most expensive restaurant in Spain for four people. There is no doubt in my mind that Spain is the cheapest country I’ve been to, to eat great meals at great restaurants.

Andra Mari Restaurant
Barrio Elexalde, 22, 48960 Galdakao (near Bilbao)
Michelin 1 star
4.5 Trip Advisor
Tasting menu: 59
Not open for dinner most of the week this time of year, so we stopped in for lunch.
First of all the building is beautiful, and once you step inside you see that it has a terrific view of the valley.
We noticed that many (but not all) guests went out on the patio for a pre-prandial drink. After which they came inside for the meal. Many then went back outside for their post-prandial coffee. We were not offered this, so regulars must just know to ask or do.
Upon sitting down we were handed a glass of sangria and a few nibbles. (Note: Those who went on the patio first were also offered this, so having a pre-meal drink didn't interfere with this practice.)
After perusing the menu and wine list we ordered bottles of a white & red Rioja as well as our meals. At this point the bread service came around, where we had the choice of four breads: plain, cornbread, onion bread and raisin/walnut bread. The onion was our favorite, with lots of onion flavor and bits of caramelized onions in the dough.
This was followed by an amuse bouche that was sort of like ceviche. Cubes of raw salmon with a few chopped veggies and some caviar in a fruit juice or something a bit sweet.
There were two menus, a six course and an eight course, and we noticed that everything (and more) was also available ala carte. With this in mind we ordered ala carte as there were several things on the menus that didn't interest us. This is the only time we didn’t order a menu at these 8 restaurants.
Afterwards we were given a tour of the basement where the wine is stored and they have several rooms for private parties. Very nice decor and ambiance. Wonderful service and a great value as well considering the quality of the food. Not much English spoken.
I really like this restaurant because it is simple combinations of expertly cooked food that comes out refined and elegant. Only one dish didn't work for us, but that wasn't because the chef was reaching with some crazy combinations or techniques, just personal preference.
The items we ordered:

Tomato confit, which was three warm whole tomatoes with a dollop of unsweetened cream on each, which were on a bed of finely minced olives (that I think were toasted to make crispy) along with a few small scoops of tapenade. I thought this was really tasty and interesting, but my companions thought it just so-so.
Lobster salad, which came with fruit and veggies. The lobster portion was substantial and it was not overpowered by a distracting sauce. It was well liked.
Iberian ham, just a plate of this for the table. What's not to like? Probably my favorite ham of all time. Eat this whenever I can, kinda like Foie Gras.
Clams in butter and parsley sauce. Simple, perfect.
Grilled autumn vegetables--again, simple but very tasty.
Mushrooms with Crunchy Egg Ravioli. This was interesting. Came in a broth based sauce that also had a dollop of a cream based sauce. If you are a mushroom fan, this is a great dish for you. The "ravioli" was a bread crumb coated egg yolk, fried, but still soft. Really innovative and fun to eat. How do they cook that?
Hare Creamy Rice-basically a risotto made with rabbit. Good but not great, not enough meat, and it was all very small pieces.
Stewed cod with egg cream - Chunks of cod in a sauce containing shredded egg whites (think Egg Drop Soup) topped with a cream sauce. This tasted very fishy, and in general was not liked. This dish was the only fail of the meal, and that may just be personal preference. Possibly made with salt cod.

Hake in Parsley Sauce with Clams and Asparagus. Another simple yet refined dish.
Entrecote with roasted Red Peppers and Baked Potatoes. This steak was amazing. Perfectly cooked to medium rare, the peppers are amazing, something you only really find in Basque country. The potato was really a small stack of scalloped potatoes over a pile of caramelized onions. Very Tasty.
From here we moved on to dessert, which we accompanied with glasses of local dessert wines. We selected the walnut ice cream with chocolate sauce, which came capped with pieces of chocolate as well. Additionally we had the "French Toast" with ginger ice cream. This was a custard soaked brioche that was 2 inches thick and extremely tasty. Both desserts were good, no doubt about it

Avenida Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273, 20015 San Sebastian
Michelin 3 star
#21 World’s 50 Best
#73 Opinionated About Dining
4.5 Trip Advisor
Tasting menu: 205
Dinner this time. Very nice meal, with outstanding service. One of the first things we learned was that flexibility was their middle name! They had an ala carte menu and a tasting menu and right off the bat we were told that if there was anything on the tasting menu we didn't want or like, we could switch it out with anything from the ala carte menu. Two of us were even able to add an extra course. (Gotta have foie gras, if the restaurant has it.) Only three of us wanted the menu, and for the one of us that wanted ala carte specifically, they allowed her to create a mini tasting menu of half portion dishes. She was thrilled! Finally, we were also told that if there was any dish we didn't like, just say the word and they would replace it with something else! We never exercised this option, because everything was very good, but gotta love it when a restaurant really cares about service! The waiter was also very careful to explain what rare, medium rare and medium meant to the chef so that we could have things cooked to our liking.
Overall the food was very good and we really enjoyed the meal. Since a Michelin three star is certainly about service, I do feel the need to point out a few flaws, but nothing hurt the meal overall. First of all, they need a bigger building, or fewer tables. This restaurant felt cramped. Too many tables in too small a space. Also, where we were, we sat right next to where dishes were staged before a course, and collected after a course, so it felt a little like a cafeteria setting in that spot. The upstairs bathrooms were very tiny, quite cramped. Didn't see downstairs, but I'd avoid the upstairs ones next time. Finally on this topic, because there was so little room and perhaps because of the location next to the staging area, it did feel like the servers/bus staff were on top of us the whole time. They need to move out of the city to the rural areas so they can have a bigger building! The ambience is ruined by the facility, sadly.
After discussing wine with the sommelier, I noticed that both of our final picks (red and white) showed up at the table in 15-20 seconds. That just feels wrong to me. Never have wines showed up so quickly before. That wasn't a trip to the cellar, not by any means. Always makes you worry that they are just pushing wines, wines that they are either overstocked with or have high profit margins, or whatever. But when something is that readily at hand, it certainly makes you wonder if every table gets the same recommendations regardless of what you discussed about your tastes and preferences. Not once, but twice, both wines! Good news is that the wines were both good, and cheaper than where we started the discussion. So no harm other than the negative impression.
Finally, there was one time when we grabbed a water bottle to refill our water glasses ourselves because we had to wait a tad longer than we wanted. The floor captain saw this and was quick to admonish the staff. We know this because one of our party speaks Spanish and overheard the reprimand.

The menu (not all for one person, includes the ala carte items ordered by one of us):

Amuse Bouche -- Frankly I don’t remember the details of all of these, but all were good
Prawn goyza - delicious!
Banana and squid – interesting combo
Sardine and strawberry – ditto
Raspberry bitter
Txistorra with beer and mango

Starters and Mains:
Fish of the day with purple corn
Marinated prawns on lemon grass and mint with beets and crunchy krill
Soft cooked egg with red peppers and crispy pig trotters
Seasonal Veggies
Banana and crab
White tuna with green melon and jack fruit
Monkfish with pecan paste and pumpkin and chickpeas
Beef with green tea and leek sponge cake
Pigeon with potato “feathers”
Lamb loin over a nut and Armagnac spread and yucca
Foie gras with green sauce

Yuza ice cream with fruit
Large chocolate truffle with creamy chocolate filling
Chocolate cube with fluid core of mint and kiwi

Asador Etxebarri
Plaza de San Juan, 1, Axpe (near Bilbao)
Michelin 1 star
#10 World’s 50 Best
#7 Opinionated About Dining
4.5 Trip Advisor
Tasting menu: 135
Lunch here. First of all, this restaurant is located in the prettiest valley you've ever seen. I'm talking right out of Sound of Music, even though we are miles from Austria. The town is very small (4-5 buildings) but cute and fits right into the valley. Go on a sunny day if you can! It's not too far from Bilbao, about 45 minutes. There are a few ways to get in and out; for some reason my sat-nav decided the best way was to use tiny one lane roads through the surrounding farm country, including about a kilometer and a half of dirt road, up and down hills, through fields and forest. Talk about going over hill and dale. It was quite the adventure that added to the experience and an amazingly beautiful drive. Fortunately, while on the dirt road, there as a street sign pointing to Axpe, the town itself, so that assuaged fears of being totally lost in the wilderness. When we finally arrived, to great relief, we poked around town for a few minutes and then went inside where we were welcomed in the bar/lobby with a glass of wine and a snack of olives. By the way, the only sign I could really see from the road was for the parking lot. The main restaurant sign is over the door and not easily sighted from the road. After a few minutes to finish our wine and olives we were ushered upstairs to our table, in a very tastefully modern dining room. We went with the tasting menu because we wanted to try a variety of things. I've heard the open flame is used for many or most items, and I think that is true because several dishes seemed to have a kiss of smoke in their flavor profile. Service was, well, different than at other Michelin starred restaurants we've been too. Several times we had to ask for more water and for more wine to be poured. It took a while to get more butter when we ran out, and we were charged for the refill (12 euros!). Their butter is special, and homemade, so I suppose the charge is to be expected, but the long wait was not. We asked for salt many times and it was never delivered. Plates were cleared before everybody finished a course, which led to the next course being delivered while the slow pokes were still eating the previous course. Led to a feeling of being rushed, even though they don't seem to turn tables. Replacing silverware was also inconsistent between courses. Thus you can see service was somewhat spotty, and would have to rank eighth out of these eight restaurants. But the food was amazing, absolutely delicious. Back to that butter: it’s homemade goat’s milk butter. And it is fabulous. We basically decided it was the best butter we’d ever had. And for some reason that I can't quite put my finger on, the fun factor of this meal was really high. Just had a good time here eating good food and drinking good wine. You must go!

The menu:
Bread with goat’s milk butter & fresh Buffalo cheese
A little bowl of beef consumme
Anchovy on toast (very nice, not too salty or too fishy, my usual complaints!)
Tomato salad – tasty fresh tomatoes! In October!
Chorizo – homemade and wonderful, two kinds, served warm
Pumpkin & mushrooms – a grilled stick of pumpkin, was enjoyable
Cockles – my least favorite dish, a very strong flavor
Scallop & caviar – The scallop was in the shell, and not ‘trimmed’ like we see them here in the states, the whole thing. Small, however, not one of them big suckers.
Prawns – have to shell them by hand, typical in Europe, but very good
Baby squid - very nice off the grill
King Bolete & eggplant – more mushrooms!
Egg yolk with white truffle and red pepper – it was the start of truffle season in Piedmont and we were seeing them show up at a few restaurants. No complaints here! Came served on a piece of bread soaked in hot chorizo grease. Talk about tasty goodness.
Red sea bream & vegetables – wonderful fish, just amazing off the grill
Beef chop – this must be their signature dish. Comes out rare (they don’t ask) and we loved it, ate every last bite.
Ice cream with beet juice – interesting, not bad, but an unusual combination
Fig crepes – tasty, what’s not to like?

Azurmendi Gastronomico
Corredor del Txorierri, Salida 25, Barrio Legina, s/n Larrabetzu, 4819 (near Bilbao)
Michelin 3 star
#16 World’s 50 Best
#2 Opinionated About Dining
4.5 Trip Advisor
Tasting menu: 180
Another lunch. Drive up to the purpose built facility in a Bilbao suburb and if you go up to the upper lot then you will first see gardens and what seems to be some kind of agricultural laboratory (which you can go look around in). Walk down stairs and into the main doors and you enter into a garden lobby where you are met with a glass of wine and a picnic box of several amuse bouche. Finish those and you head into the kitchen to view the staff and facility with a few more snacks. Then you are off to another garden room for a few more nibbles and munchies. After all this you finally end up in the dining room where you have a gorgeous view of a hillside across the valley (you do need to look over the highway and a warehouse, but hey, the hill is really beautiful on a sunny day). In the dining room, we got the table right next to the kitchen so two of us could see in the kitchen and watch them work, while two of us facing the other way could look outside and enjoy that view. There isn't a bad seat in the house, again, it seems this building was purpose built for this restaurant operation. The food was amazing, the service was mostly amazing, and the facility was amazing. This isn't about eating and drinking, this is about the experience, the theater! Also an extremely good value considering the quality. About the service: A few times our wine glasses ran dry for longer than we'd have liked, which was disappointing considering it is a Michelin three star, and a couple of the early courses came out very quickly, without enough of a pause from the prior course (in my opinion), but on the positive side, they had two menus to choose between and they let 1 of us have one menu while the other 3 had the second menu. Normal policy is that the whole table has to order the same thing. So that flexibility was much appreciated.

The menu (I only list my menu here, not the differences on the other menu my friend ordered):

In the Lobby garden (The picnic basket)
Glass of Txakoli wine
Garden vegetable cake
Eel sandwich
Txako-rose – a (waxy?) red ball filled with Txakoli wine

In the Kitchen
Hazelnuts – wonderfully spiced
Cup of bean broth – interesting, in a good way

In the Greenhouse
Morokil -- corn milk, a nice couple of sips
Herb cookies and cheese
Asparagus cotton – like cotton candy, but flavored with asparagus powder. Better than it sounds
Mushroom leaf – dried, like fruit leather, but with solid mushroom flavor.

On the Balcony (the main dining room)
Frozen olive with vermouth and an olive stick – not a real olive, more like a frozen jelly shell, filled with vermouth. The olive stick was the better part of this.
Warm egg yolk with truffle sauce – seriously, a spoon with an egg yolk in it, with a little sauce. You must like soft egg yolks to appreciate this mouthful. It was a little over the top for some of us.
Spider crab with sea urchin and tomato sauce – I didn’t like the sauce, but others did
Cauliflower 3 ways with battered deep fried quail eggs and truffle.
Roasted lobster, herb oil, and in herb "ice cream" cone
Mushroom noodles with foie, and mushroom "soup" with foie, very rich!
Glazed pork with etxano cheese balls
Deep fried hake with red pepper/parsley infusion – this was amazing. Best deep fried fish ever!
Roast duck with mushroom duxelle and apples with apple juice and rocket sorbet and a red foie “ball”
Yogurt/honey ice cream & meringue sticks with five spices and spice cake
Peach sorbet/lavender ice cream, cheese sticks
Chocolate ice cream, candied peanuts, chocolate stick with hints of licorice

Martin Berasategui
Loidi Kalea, 4, 20160 Lasarte (near San Sebastian)
Michelin 3 star
#59 World’s 50 Best
#56 Opinionated About Dining
5 Trip Advisor, 2016 # 1 Restaurant in the world
Tasting menu: 220
Wonderful lunch. Located in a small town just outside of San Sebastian, as it turns into verdant farm country. Beautiful area, which we saw a little more of than intended due to a wrong turn or two. (Trying to look at the road and the sat-nav simultaneously doesn't always work.) Recommend touring the surrounding back roads on a sunny day if you have the chance.
Facility is very elegant with great views. Service was top notch, from the moment we arrived when the door was opened for us without us even being aware that they were watching our approach, to them noticing one of us was left handed and arranging the silverware backwards for them, to the free glass of dessert wine when the sommelier sensed I wasn't totally enamored with my first choice, to the constant attention to wine, water, napkins and silverware, all with a friendly smile and warm banter with enough people that spoke English for language to never be an issue. To exemplify, when one lunch mate asked if more butter could be had the waiter's response was "Of course, for you are at home." Need I say more? The largest wine list we've seen on this trip (at that time), though that is not always good, as it also has the highest average cost as well. More imports but fewer local wines than others have had. Though I have to say the selection of sparkling wine and white Rioja were both amazing.
Ingredients were all of impeccable quality and freshness. Cooking was top notch. Only complaint was that the white wine was served too cold. The sommelier agreed, complaining about the coolers. Does seem to me that a 3 star restaurant of this quality should have proper wine coolers. She also told us when she thought our red wine was bad, bringing us another bottle. What an amazing, fabulous experience!
It is also interesting to note that a couple of days after dining here, Trip Advisor announced this restaurant as their 2016 #1 restaurant in the world.

The menu we ordered (this was one of those were there were options, so you didn’t all need to have the exact same thing. I list here what we all had, not necessarily what one person had):

Amuse Bouche
Foie gras, apple, smoked eel
Lentils, shrimp, dill foam, I think I tasted a little Foie gras in the sauce too, the richness.

Iberico ham with crystal tomato bread – had been served this all over Spain, now I know they call it “crystal bread” It is very light and airy, big yeast bubbles, and slightly toasted so it comes out crispy. Then they coat with a thin layer of mashed tomatoes. It is used as a base for the ham. Extremely tasty!
Carpaccio with quail egg yolk, cured beef slices, olive "jelly", caper sauce
Warm oyster with cucumber sorbet and apple. (Nice, liked the sorbet, would have never thought of it)
Vegetable hearts salad with tomato water and jelly veggies

Steak with cheese balls and chard
Hake with spider crab and truffled spinach
Sea bass with barnacle sauce and crispy egg yolk
Lamb chops with parmesan whey and asparagus

Almond fondant cake – good but the weakest dessert
Chocolate rock – don’t remember this one, but it came with ice cream and a sauce
Chocolate fondant cake with Carmel ice cream
"Apple" pie -- the best, a wonderful apple tart, it is the dessert to order

Aldura Aldea, 20, 20100 Errenteria (near San Sebastian)
Michelin 2 star
#7 World’s 50 Best
#42 Opinionated About Dining
4 Trip Advisor
Tasting menu: 189
Dinner. Ok, as you can see, Mugaritz is a Michelin 2 star, is number 7 on the World's 50 best restaurants, number 42 on Opinionated About Dining's world restaurant list, and has a solid 4 on Trip Advisor. Unfortunately none of this matters. What matters most is why it only has a 4 on Trip Advisor because most restaurants with this pedigree are 4.5 or higher. (See the other 7.) Here was the Trip Advisor breakdown: 459 Excellent, 126 Terrible, with a distribution of Poor, Average and Very good as well. That is a telling mix. No other fine dining establishment that I have researched has such a distribution across the board, they are far more weighted to the “excellent” side of the spectrum. I decided to go here based on all the other accolades (and, I have to admit, a kind of a morbid curiosity about the love/hate reviews) but I regret that decision now. I knew the Trip Advisor reports but figured, ok, there will be a few bad dishes, but most should be fine, right? With 25 courses, it should balance out ok, right? I was wrong. You will either love this place or you will hate this place. If you can't take that risk, don't come here! (At 189 euros a person, not including beverages.) Let that be a warning to you.
The food here is creative, inventive, border pushing, horizon expanding, etc. However, I'd have to say that very little of all that thought and energy goes into enjoy-ability. As one of my dining partners said "They've ruined everything we love." Some of the other reviews did say that the lows are low but the highs are, oh, so high. Well, we didn’t find any highs. To be fair, we did find about 5 of the courses to be "ok," but not outstanding, but 20 that pretty much sucked and that track record is way too low to be acceptable in my book. In summary, we hated this place. I remember when we gave up hope. It was the squid dish. Actually, it looked like a turd. Truly, a turd. That’s what everybody thought as it was while being served. Everything is finger food and this course was a dough ball, of sorts. Oblong, not really a ball, with a dark brown dough. Hand shaped and lumpy. It truly looked like a turd. It was warm, as if right out of the oven, but when you bit into it, you found a cold filling that was chopped squid in some kind of icky, sticky, sauce. The jelly donut from hell. It was about halfway through the menu. That was the point where we said, “It’s never going to get good, is it?” and we gave up hope. Fortunately the bread & butter was endless because we filled up on it. 189 euros for a bread dinner. Most expensive bread I’ve ever eaten.
We didn't really see the surrounding area, since it was after dark. It's out of town so probably attractive countryside (out in the rural area around San Sebastian). Building is big and attractive, however, my first impression was that it was too loud. Hard surfaces reflecting the sound. Lots of space between tables, that was nice, certainly wasn't crowded feeling, but it was loud.
In general the service was fine, what you'd expect from a restaurant of this caliber. You are not given a menu at the start, though technically, since it is prix fixe with no options, you don't really need one either. You get what you get. After the first few courses they brought out a list, but it didn't really help much because many of the names didn't give you a clue about what they contained. Everybody gets a kitchen tour, without having to ask, which is very nice.
A few flaws: Initially courses came too fast, before we were all done with the previous course. They also were bringing courses and clearing old plates in one step. Rather than clearing plates, tidying up, giving us a pause and then bringing the next course. We complained and they slowed down the pace for us. (Many other tables finished before us, even those that were seated after we were.)
One of our party always seemed to miss out on the wine replenishment and was a bit miffed when the bottle ran dry. A complaint brought the offer of a free glass of wine, and it turned out to be a better wine, so in the end he was happy. On three or four courses we were asked if we liked it. For the most part (but not always) we were honest. After one honest answer of "no" we were asked if we wanted to try something else and we jumped at it and said "yes." Nothing else ever came, at least nothing that wasn't already on the list we were given, we never got a replacement course. We were also never again asked if we liked a course. It's gotta be tough to work the dining room here, when so many people don't like the food.
What a bad decision coming here was. With so much fine food in San Sebastian, I really hate that we wasted a vacation night here. Should have gone back to Akelare (another 3 star in San Sebastian), which we went to a year and a half ago. Cannot recommend Mugaritz.

Avinguda Paral lel 164, 08015 Barcelona
Michelin 1 star
#29 World’s 50 Best
#35 Opinionated About Dining
4.5 Trip Advisor
No tasting menu
Dinner. This place is not what I was expecting at all. Selected it because I’d heard it was the hottest place in Barcelona, Michelin Star, and all that. As you may know, they play French Laundry style games to get reservations. Opens at precisely midnight 2 or 3 months in advance and sold out in minutes. Fortunately, midnight in Barcelona is mid-afternoon here on the Pacific coast. The place sounded good and we love high-end restaurants. What I didn't expect was that it was essentially a tapas restaurant. High end, modern, creative, inventive tapas, that is all fine, but still, tapas. What my wife in particular did not like was the ambience. This is not your refined, white table cloth, waiter in tuxedo kind of place. They really play up the circus atmosphere, and as my wife said, the restaurant looks like an ice cream parlor. In particular the chairs are metal frame, hard, uncomfortable. In my words the place looks like Gaudi designed it. Whimsical, playful, colorful. I suppose you could say that about the food too. Lots of modern and inventive flavor combinations. Not all of them worked. Some did, however, really liked the suckling pig tacos and the "air-baguette" which was a puffed bread stick with wagyu dried beef. The Nordic Landscape (smoked tenderloin on a cracker) was also pretty good. Had a bunch of other things that ranged from tasty to not so good. (Sorry, don’t have the complete list of what we ordered.) Wife was really turned off by the jello olive, both for consistency and & taste as well as the price. 4 euros for a single bite! For dessert, first of all you go to a different dining room (which is a cool concept -- Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa anyone?), which is done up like a candy shop in decor. We had an assortment, again, tapas style desserts. Nothing was bad, but again, some worked better than others. The salted chocolate ice cream was great, and the real winner was the cheesecake. We ordered a second one because it was so delightful. That made the night. It was made up to look like a small wheel of cheese, very creative presentation and tasted fantastic. (Best dessert of the trip, best cheesecake ever.)
Wine list was reasonable, not too huge, but had worthwhile stuff, mostly from Spain. One other thing - food presentation was just as playful as the food itself was. They obviously put a lot of care into everything. Prices seemed a little high for what you got. In the end, it's just not my thing. It was fine to do once, but I won't go back. Would rather go to a more "traditional" fine dining establishment.
Another thing that my wife noticed and pointed out to me: Everybody spoke English. Not the staff, but the customers. It was like only Americans were frequenting the restaurant that night. To us that is always a disturbing sign. We like to avoid tourist traps, we like restaurants that also appeal to locals. At least throw in some French or Italians! I’ll never forget the restaurant in Austria where the American woman at the table next to us actually asked the waitress if she knew Rick Steves, because the restaurant was recommended in the Rick Steves’ guidebook (which she was waving around). Yes, it may be a good restaurant, but I don’t go to Europe to eat in a room full of Americans. Never happened at any other restaurant the rest of the trip. Perhaps one of the hazards of going to the hottest restaurant in town.
One last thing. They don’t have a traditional tasting menu. What they do have is “surprise me” where the chefs just send out random items from the menu until you cry “uncle” and let them know that you can’t eat any more. Then everything is totaled up at its ala carte menu prices and that is what you pay. No price breaks.

Venta Moncalvillo
Carretera Medrano 6, Daroca de Rioja, 26373 Daroca de Rioja (near Logrono)
Michelin 1 star
4.5 Trip Advisor
Tasting menu: 79
Dinner. Our second time at this restaurant, a year and a half after the first time. Out in the country, in a small town, a good 25 minutes from Logrono. Far enough and small enough that you wonder where you are going and if you are lost until you pop over a hill and around a curve and there it is.
Staff is very attentive and competent, though only a few really know English well. Decor is simple and refined. Wine list is one of the largest I've seen in this trip, with dozens of pages of wines, and it shows you how many wineries in Rioja you've never heard of. They don't have a regular "by the glass" menu, if you want something by the glass, you have to ask if they are willing to do it for that particular bottle. We went with a bottle each of Rioja white and red.
They offered two menus as well as ala carte options. 1 of us ordered ala carte, a single dish, while the rest of us went with the larger menu. 12 courses plus a few amuse bouche.
Don't remember all of the amuse bouche, but one was onion ice cream (amazing), an herb infused cherry tomato (good), another stuffed olive “jello” thing, and a couple of others. The ala carte order placed by the wife from the other couple dining with us was for Corvina, and the fish was cooked perfectly. The degustation menu started with a gazpacho of sorts, with tomato water and minced veggies (very fine mince) and a few squares of tomato gelatin. It was fine but not a stand out.
Next came a cod fish cake, in a wedge, that looked just like a wedge of cheese, down to a little edible foil wrapper and served on a plate with a cheese label. A little fishy tasting, but not bad. We were asked to guess what it was. It was fishy enough that we knew fish, and guessing cod wasn’t a stretch once you were that far, especially knowing how much salt cod is consumed in Spain.
We also had a cracker course topped with tomato and onion.
Next up was a diced leek and apple dish, served in a creamy sauce. This sauce was savory and thick, almost pudding like, and overall was pretty tasty, though one of us didn't like the consistency.
Next came a salad of chicory, endive and cheese.
A scallop was the centerpiece of the next course, which came with a bed of leaf greens in an onion broth.
After that came the "cod cheek" which was the course that failed for two of us, though one really liked it. It was essentially "cod jello" on a piece of crispy fried cod skin. I like cod, but I don’t need cod flavored jello bites.
Grilled shrimp with zucchini noodles in a ginger broth was next. Much better, back to the good stuff.
Pork jowls with mushrooms in an egg yolk sauce followed. These jowls were essentially all fat, but in a very tasty sauce. Sort of like pork belly on steroids, this was good stuff.
The final savory course was roast pigeon breast with beet root in a red wine sauce, accompanied by a pigeon meatball.
First dessert was a small carrot, cooked to sweetness, but not overcooked, with ground pistachio, a little dried fruit and drops of sweet fruit sauce. Overall effect was very nice, a bit better than it sounds.
The final course was a sweet cheese dessert, like sweetened mascarpone cheese. The unique thing about this was that it was fashioned to look like a tomato, complete with a red 'skin.' Not sure the point of the gimmick, except that it was very convincing and very very good to eat. Again with the surprises, they wanted us to discover that it was cheese, rather than tell us. A lovely flavor, not quite cheese cake, but still really good.
We really liked this restaurant, obviously, enough to go back again. I'd say this time the chef was a bit more adventurous than before, and perhaps that isn't good, considering the "cod jello" dish, but still, I recommend you give it a try when in the Logrono area. Very good value too, for the quality of the food.

When it comes to wine, our red of choice was Rioja. We ordered many Riojas that we’ve not heard of before, that probably aren’t imported to the US. I don’t think we were ever disappointed. While we also ordered white Riojas, we also tried a few other whites from here and there around Spain as well.

Foie gras everywhere and cheap, cheap, cheap! In tapas bars, a standard serving was 3 euros, what you’d pay $20-25 for here in the states. When I ordered it in a restaurant, I received between 2 and 4 slices, at 15-20 euro a plate. Makes you weep when you order it here at home, with what you pay for what you get.

We noticed several trends across the eight restaurants.
Things that pop and squirt in your mouth (deep fried eggs, olive “balls”, cheese balls, etc. all with a liquid center. I’d say that raw/soft cooked eggs is also a trend, especially lightly deep fried in some manner. The use of aspic (jello) again with the olive balls, the cod jello, tomato jello. Foam! Lots of foam. Tomato water, saw this at least twice. I imagine that comes from strained mashed tomatoes. Lots of one bite meals, and several times the use of tweezers as a utensil to pick them up.

Here is another pet peeve of mine. Several times the food started coming before we had picked the wine. The waiter hands you a menu, asks you to order, then you get the wine list, and then the sommelier comes over, and you are still discussing wine and flipping through the list when the food starts coming. Very annoying. This happened in almost every restaurant of these eight!

So what were our ratings? How did we rank the restaurants? Interestingly, and independently, the results were very similar. Both men came up with the same result, and both women came up with the same result.
BTW, only my wife and I went to Tickets. Our friends hadn’t joined us at that point, so Tickets is in parenthesis to highlight that. Here is the men’s ranking:

Martin Berasategui
Andra Mari
Venta Moncalvillo

And here is the women’s ranking:

Martin Berasategui
Andra Mari
Venta Moncalvillo

Only one difference! Swapping #2 & #3 – I guess the men liked the grilled food and the women liked the theatrical presentation!

Martin was hands down the absolute best of the bunch and Mugaritz the absolute worst.

In addition to ranking them, we also rated them, 1-10 points, so we could see what people thought of them standing apart from the others. The top six were all very close (we allowed fractions), between 7 and 10; we’d go back to any of them, they were all very enjoyable. Mugaritz came in with a solid 1 from all of us, as everyone was very disappointed with the food there. My wife and I both put Tickets around a 5, when it was good, it was good, but it had the highest percentage of “misses” in the food (other than Mugaritz) and, of course, my wife hated the ambiance. (But that cheesecake was the best dessert of the whole trip.)

What astounds us is that Martin Berasategui came in at 56 & 59 on the World’s 50 Best and Opinionated About Dining lists. Not even top 50 for either of them. That’s just crazy. And Mugaritz beat him (7!! & 42). Just don’t understand that at all. Azurmendi and Etxebarri both had very respectable rankings of 16 & 2 and 10 & 7, respectively.

Twas an incredible trip, an amazing dining experience. Can’t wait to go back!

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