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Spanish part of the Basque Country dining report


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Restaurants & Bars 14

Spanish part of the Basque Country dining report

johannabanana | Jul 20, 2011 05:29 AM

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Kuko Hotel eating
There is some great cooking but there are also shortcomings at this inn. The chef-proprietor and his wife don't seem entirely comfortable or attentive enough as innkeepers. On our first dinner, we ate some yummy fish, simply but effectively prepared with green peppers. On our second dinner there was a funny incident where dried linguine was passed off as expensive freshly-made spaghetti, the only menu option we were given (but for some last-minute, evidently frozen propositions like salmon). The spaghetti went into the kitchen from the dining room, where it was drying, but didn't come back out!

San Sebastian pintxos
We liked but didn't much love A Fuego Negro, which is more expensive and doesn't have the same classic vibe as some of the other bars. The most memorable pintxo there was a cherry-mint wafer topped with raw mackerel and sheep's cheese. Also very good olive-anchovy cocktail sticks. We loved (unexpectedly given the sometimes lukewarm reports on Chow) La Cuchara de San Telmo and were overjoyed to find it open on the Sunday night we were in town. It was our second night of pintxos, and post-Mugaritz, and we only ate there. Together with earlier dinner and lunch samplings, that meant we tried almost the entire menu. Highlights were the octopus, veal cheek, pig's ear, fried goat's cheese and cod cheeks but everything was delicious.

Total perfectionism, less smoky than expected (what with all the talk of special woods), sparkling, subtle preparations of exceptional ingredients. Don't need to say much about the food, which has been written up so much elsewhere and doesn't seem to vary so greatly, apart from a white tuna dish with tomato that was unbelievably soulful, sweet and pure. We appreciated the unpretentious middle-aged waitresses and the wine list with almost no mark-up at all (we drank a delicious Vega-Sicilia 2006 "Tinta del Toro" for a bargain 45 euros). The room is bland, however, and we did notice that the tasting menus are cooked for only a few tables simultaneously meaning some diners' timing can become very skewed. A couple at another table arrived 5 minutes after us but was on a different rota and wound up being almost an hour behind; and we were rushed at the start, unable to order wine until several courses in. Incidentally, I managed to imbed a shard of sharp, long shrimp antenna in my gum, which was painful and required a trip to the dentist back in London to extract it, apparently the weirdest thing he'd ever encountered!

This was maybe the most primal/elegant meal of the trip. Thanks for the suggestion Maribel! Together with the new Balenciaga museum in Getaria, it made up for our being disappointed both with staying at the Saiaz Getaria and with the town itself. Our grilled turbot cost 100 euros but was worth the pricing, huge and gelatinous. We devoured all 1.5 kilos of it! (They only offer quite large whole turbots since they think the smaller ones are too dry to grill, apparently.) Service, in part by waitresses in funky Balenciaga outfits, could be stern and charming depending on the person. Elkano seems to be doing a good job of bridging the gap between being a long-running traditional place and somewhere current.

This meal started out falteringly, with a mixture of either delicious or weird-bland amuse-bouches; had a fantastic middle section; and then tailed off anticlimactically with the meat and desserts. There were five dishes in a row in the middle that blew our minds: a risotto of zucchini seeds; a soup poured onto seeds you grind up yourself; linen seed "cheese" with mushrooms; cod and mastic; a beef tongue and onion nest. These were all thoughtful-experimental and immensely tasty. Then two of the following and largest dishes were close to inedible: crab stew made with an overpoweringly floral geranium flavouring; and veal tendon "ossobucco" that had been cooked for ages to get tender but basically resembled pure semi-tasteless fat in texture and taste. The final savoury course, a piece of beef served with "grilled steak emulsion" was pretty tasty but couldn't touch Etxebarri's chop and seemed incongruous and boring within the menu itself. Last of all, the desserts were more conceptual than effective, e.g. a daikon radish and lemon ice cream dish that was visually stunning and memorable but didn't actually taste great. Instead of petits fours we were given warm hand towels that looked momentarily edible, springing up when rehydrated with great ceremony at the table. A weird touch.

For the price you'd expect better service at Mugaritz: we were served by about ten different waiters, creating little continuity of interaction; and had to ask for the bill 3 times, waiting 40 minutes for it, just plain strange and annoying. Also, before the start of the meal, you are vehemently encouraged to send back anything you really don't like but when we both sent back the crab, instead of getting a comparable sized replacement, we were given an amuse-bouche (of mozzarella). It seems silly to make this encouragement and then execute it so half-heartedly. I thought Mugaritz would demonstrate how San Sebastian's fancy dining scene is better and also better value than the one in Paris -- but comparing the 140 euro lunch menu at Mugaritz to the 120 euro lunch menu at l'Arpège the only better value for us was in the wine list and not in the food whatsoever. The whole experience at l'Arpège just seemed vastly superior (i.e. including the service and the dining room), but maybe it's just more familiar and in tune with what we like. We'd certainly go back to Mugaritz and when they ask about specific dislikes would say we didn't want anything too floral and none of the larger meat dishes. Dining room was ok but we felt mixed about the screens. The Spanish fine dining scene is amazingly casual -- the guy on the table next to ours was wearing a t-shirt.

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