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Trip Report: San Sebastian and Surrounding Areas

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Trip Report: San Sebastian and Surrounding Areas

JohnTalbotWannabe | Jul 1, 2016 12:45 AM

We recently spent time in some of the basque region of Spain, and to a lesser extent, France. Thank you to the many of you whose posts on this forum helped us immensely. Our food-related notes follow below.

Pays Basque (French Basque):

We began our trip with a day and night in Biarritz. Having arrived hungry but not wanting to spoil our dinner, we did some snacking, based in part on Maribel’s Guides. The highlight may have been brightly fresh and wonderful cheeses obtained from Les Mille et Un Fromages. We also enjoyed well-made afternoon crepes at Au P’tit Dolmen, including a nice savory mushroom egg and cheese crepe, as well as a apple caramel ice cream and whipped cream crepe (that somehow was not too sweet).

Additionally, we sampled a few different chocolate shops. Our favorite by far was L’Atelier Chocolate. The different chocolate creations we tried were consistently interesting yet delicious. Daranatz was a nice option for darker chocolates, to our tastes. Our least favorite was Henriet, due to the combination of less creative chocolates and perhaps the most crowded store. The caramels (kanougas) and mouchous at Paries were fine, but we would not return, given our personal preference would be for chocolate before either option.

Dinner our first evening was at Le Clos Basque. I enjoyed a nice foie gras, while my partner had a fantastic escargot (which I tried to steal from her) that was interesting and delicious, perfectly-cooked in a nourishing yet not too heavy fish stew, a welcome change from the usual option of a butter bath. A risotto entree was satisfying in its creaminess, albeit a bit too small (perhaps due to the absence of accompanying sufficient proteins). Dessert was a fantastic interpretation of gateau interbred with a subtle chocolate mousse. The service was warm and friendly. If we had not been jet lagged, we would have thought that the food came out too quickly (but in our tired situation it was perfect).

The next day we drove around the region. Because it was Sunday, some top options were closed. But a few notes are in order. First, most of the shops we wanted to try in Bayonne were either the same franchises as those in Biarritz or appeared to be closed (Sunday!).

Second, a short drive away, we were very excited to have the gateau from Moulin de Bassilour. Although the working flour mill was interesting and the picnic setting was bucolic, we were underwhelmed by the gateau itself, finding it too heavy and dense for our tastes. (That said, this was only our second gateau, a subject in which we are not experts.)

Third, we toured some towns, including Sare and Ainhoa, but our favorite was likely Espelette, perhaps because it happened to have the shops open and liveliness (again, Sunday). Many of the shops appear to offer free samples (although we often felt guilty enough to end up buying something). Our favorite was a pepper chocolate bark on a small shop on Plazako Karrika.

Finally, we also stopped in Saint Jean de Luz, where we had another wonderful experience with the chocolate at L’Atelier Chocolate, but unmemorable macarons at Masion Adam, and overpriced, boring nougat at “Real Chocolat.”

San Sebastian and the Surrounding Area:

That second night we had pintxos in San Sebastian, staying in the old town, which is discussed at the bottom of this post.

The next day we drove to Getaria for exploration and lunch at Kaia Kaipe. We had a very pleasant experience. The fish (turbot) was wildly fresh and grilled perfectly. The service was professional and friendly. We were even delightfully surprised by a french toast dessert. Ultimately, we were not upset that Elkano was closed, given a decent view of the water and boats we got to enjoy at Kaia Kaipe.

That third night we had pintxos back in San Sebastian, focusing on Centro and Gros, discussed at the bottom of this post.

The next day (our fourth), we had lunch at Ibai. We were the only diners in the room. The service was exceptionally friendly and patient, given our broken Spanish. We enjoyed trying the relatively unadorned goose barnacles and the very fresh and lightly-sauced kokotxas. The items tasted remarkably fresh. But none of the flavors were so fascinating or inspiring that we would come back here. That said, we both got a bit sick the night before from overdoing it on pintxos, so our opinion regarding the food at Ibai might be negatively impacted by what were at the time our recovering stomachs.

Arzak: That fourth evening dinner was at Arzak. It was enjoyable and comfortable, but not worth a second visit. While this was one of our less enjoyable meals, it was the most expensive. As others have written, the food was consistently good, but there were no real very high or very low notes – just stable execution. Of those, the best was probably the monkfish and a chocolate “big” truffle (where they melt the shell in front of you) served for dessert (but the version at Sauc in Barcelona is better). There were a few peculiarities about the food. First, there was frequent service of a small (usually vegetable) side with the dish, served on a separate dish, that was neither described in the menu nor incorporated at all in the dish. It felt like an “eat your vegetables” after thought. Additionally, some of the sauces overpowered the proteins and desserts, including (i) a pollen flavoring for lobster (that left a gritty texture in your mouth), (ii) an Armagnac sauce with lamb that overshadowed the meat with its sweetness, and (iii) a citrus sauce for a chocolate mouse-like substance where the entire dish ended up leaving far too sour of a note. The emphasis on the food seems to be consistent quality (again without any incredible high notes) and there seemed to be overwhelming thought into presentation. Every plate is incredibly visually appealing, even if it adds very little to the actual taste, including serving sea bream on an iPad playing images of the ocean.

The service at Arzak was friendly, professional, and made us feel comfortable. A few very minor complaints, however, are worth noting. First, for many items on the menu, diners can choose and receive different items from the tasting menu. This is welcome and appreciated. But when each diner received their separate dish, two servers would explain each separate dish simultaneously, creating a cacophony of sound making it hard to focus on either explanation. Second, for dessert, the menu suggested there was no choice, yet diners would still receive different dishes from one another. In every instance that this un-selected variation occurred, we observed that every table around us had the man or men at the table receive an item that was arguably more interesting and un-arguably more “intense,” whereas the woman generally received an item that was arguably less interesting and un-arguably lighter (or fruitier). This included men receiving the delicious above truffle while women received the fruitier chocolate dessert, as well as men receiving a delicious yet intense cream and caramel, while women received a petite dumpling with some type of fruit filling. So, if your wife (like mine) prefers chocolate over fruit as much as you do, take note.

Akelare: We had lunch the following day at Akelare. I had the “aranori” menu while my wife enjoyed the “classics.” Overall, while nothing was mind-blowing, nearly everything was a hit, with no misses. The dishes tended to combine artistry and interesting flavor profiles successfully throughout. My wife’s favorites were (i) the pasta carpaccio, which came with piquillo, ham, and parmesan mushroom, and (ii) the lobster salad (with cider vinegar). I particularly enjoyed a light beef tartare and a crystallized cod in a fish box. We felt that the desserts, such as the broken jar of yogurt, successfully approached but did not cross the line of gimmicky artistry (unlike Arzak, which blew past that line). The service was great and attentive. The atmosphere was also wonderfully comfortable, as we felt relaxed in sharing our dishes. (I was the only diner in the room wearing a blazer and nice shoes, with everyone else being more casually dressed than me. My wife has not heard the end of my complaining about missing an opportunity to leave my blazer at the hotel.) The view was spectacular, as advertised. The only note would be that it still does not match Mirazur’s view, perhaps because at Akelare you see a less attractive roof or part of the building, rather than a clear sight out to the water. That said, the combination of being able to order different items, the great service, relaxed atmosphere, spectacular view, proximity to San Sebastian, and generally successful dishes, made this our second favorite stop of the trip.

That night, we had a straightforward dinner at Bodejon Alejandro. I enjoyed a seafood and fish soup, while my wife seemed to suffer (not really!) through an incredibly large and heavy egg dish. The steak was was fine, but they provided us with de-boning knives, instead of steak knives. They were great for slicing meat from a bone, but otherwise useless. Dessert was not memorable. It is a nice environment and decent service if your legs are aching from the pintxos hopping. But we would abstain from returning here and stick to pintxos.

Martin Berasategui: The following day (our fifth) we had lunch at Martin Berasategui. The food was all good with no misses, but nothing was as memorable as Akelare (or Azurmendi). Our favorites were a classic amuse of mille-feuille of smoked eel with foie gras and apple, as well as a “Grrotxategi” egg resting on liquid herb salad and carpaccio. The most memorable dish was (interestingly) a vegetable heart salad with seafood, which combined an airy freshness with a startlingly-beautiful plating. The service was the most attentive and formal of all meals we had on the trip, perhaps to a fault. Compared to all our meals around SS, we felt the least comfortable here. Specifically, multiple servers were always within our line of sight, idly standing close by while trying (yet miserably failing) to not blatantly be watching us for the precise moment we took our last bite, so they could swoop in immediately to clear the table. The service staff’s intent is appreciated, but based on our other meals, there is a way to accomplish such fantastic service more subtly. Moreover, the situation was amplified by an incredibly quiet dining room: there were only five very quiet tables and no other noise, such as the general ambient noise of a hustle and bustle of the kitchen or service staff. The entire atmosphere made us sense that we could be the subjects of a music video for Sting’s “Every [Bite] You Take!” That said, we are reaching for any points of criticism here in case this atmosphere issue is important to other readers/diners here, and it's worth noting that everyone was incredibly nice, particularly the sommelier. The meal in fact stood out in our memory because Martin spoke with all the diners (notwithstanding the language barrier) and presented us with a signed plate to commemorate our special occasion.

Mugaritz: That same day we had a late dinner at Mugaritz. This experience was perhaps the most comfortable and enjoyable of all our nice meals in every way except the actual flavor of the food we were served. The service was perhaps the most friendly, relaxed, and warm that we received on the entire trip, including encouraging us to eat with our fingers. At our slightest hesitation between whether to order merely a glass or two of wine or an entire bottle, the sommelier gladly opened a bottle for us and said to just see how much we drink and not worry about it. (And indeed, we were charged for as much if not less than we drank.)

Now, let’s talk about the food at Mugaritz. Eating at Mugaritz felt like we were experiencing the gastronomic equivalent of listening to an atonal Schoenberg piece or viewing the work of Louise Bourgeois. That is, the food is interesting intellectually and has you thinking and engaged. But it’s not necessarily pleasing to your primary taste buds. So, if you want your music to have tonality or a melody, or your artwork to be visually appealing, and most important and relevant here, for your food to generally taste good, then Mugaritz may disappoint. Our favorite dish was perhaps the most straight forward, a combination of cheese and bread. Other dishes, putting aside their intellectual stimulation, simply did not taste good. For example, dessert included a tower of items meant to mimic the seven sins. For the sin of “wrath,” we were served a spicy, unappetizing, bitter, and unidentifiable piece of food. Perhaps the kitchen wanted us to think about whether we now felt wrath towards them for such a crappy flavor. Or perhaps it was supposed to symbolize just what wrath might taste like. If that is your interest, great. Literature, for example, can get away with being intellectual at the sake of straightforward pleasure (think a long sentence in Joyce’s Ulysses). But, if you, like us, prefer your food first taste good before being thought-provoking, then you too might feel after eating at Mugaritz that you never need to go again. That all said, notwithstanding the odd and poor flavors, we still had a great time and were that happy we went, which is perhaps a credit to outstanding service and the fantastic atmosphere.

Bilbao and Nearby Areas:

Asador Etxebarri: The following day, on our drive to Bilbao, we had lunch at Asador Etxebarri. We came in expecting a tour de force of grilling, including explaining and leading us through different variations on grilling. Perhaps due to our lofty expectations, we were disappointed. There were no such explanations or discussions by the staff about how any dish was grilled. The food itself started off fantastically, but slowly descended downward. The items served early on, including spicy chorizo and a cheese plate, were delightful and whet our appetite for what we thought was coming. But then some later dishes appeared not to be grilled at all, such as the tear-drop peas. We understand that they were served because they were in pea(k) season; but still, we expected grilling of some sort. The main dish, the grilled steak, was disappointing in that it was no better than what we had at Bodegon Alejandro. Also surprising was that, unlike all other restaurants, they did not ask us how we wanted our steak prepared, so it came out essentially “blue.” That said, they gladly took it back to bring it up to medium-rare. As others here have said previously, the portions here are incredibly large, and the only reason we did not feel overstuffed was because we did not finish our steak or bread.

That night we had dinner at Etxanobe in Bilbao. The food was consistently enjoyable, even if not remarkable. Our favorites were a white garlic soup, a suckling lamb, and an entertaining orange cream dessert with nitrogen liquid. The service and atmosphere were both inviting yet not too informal.

Azurmendi: The next day (our last full day) we had lunch at Azurmendi. This was, hands down, our favorite food and experience of the trip. We were delightfully greeted with an effervescent and pleasant txakoli and an entertaining picnic basket full of items in the atrium. We were then brought to the kitchen to sample some other small bites. Then we were warmly lead through a small version of their greenhouse to highlight items they were growing at the time, including a delightful corn-based drink and simple yet incredibly fresh mushrooms. Only then were we taken to our table, where we found the view and the room to be delightful. There were no misses, and all the dishes were consistently fantastic, interesting, and creative.

The service and atmosphere at Azurmendi excellently struck the perfect balance of warmth, professionalism, and cordiality, perhaps only surpassed by Le Calandre. The view out onto the hillside, although no Akelare, was still pleasant. The room with its high ceilings and floor to ceiling windows creates a wonderful large, airy lightness to the space that prevents the modern decor from feeling too austere. The large windows into the kitchen were a welcome part of the room as well, at least if you also enjoy seeing the kitchen in the process of working. (If you do not, you may prefer Martin Berasategui.)

That final evening we had dinner at Nerua. The evening began with the chef pleasantly meeting us in the kitchen to introduce us to a few small but delicious amuse bouches. After being seated, we ordered one of the tasting menus, and the staff and kitchen gladly accommodated our requests for certain substitutions. Notwithstanding the remarkable lunch at Azurmendi, we still found the quality of the food to be enjoyable. (Unfortunately, as it was the last stop on the trip, we stopped taking mental notes on the food.) The service was on point. The room was incredibly unadorned and relatively small.

Rankings:

Although the entire process of ranking places is subjective and artificial, if it is helpful to anyone in the future trying to prioritize restaurants, here is how we would rank many of the restaurants discussed above in terms of the quality of food:

1) Azurmendi
2) Akelare (the ability to have different menus was helpful)
3) Martin Berasategui
4) Arzak
4) Nerua
6) Asador Etxebarri
7) Etxanobe
8) Mugaritz

Here’s how we would rank the restaurants in terms of best experience (again, very subjective):

1) Azurmendi
2) Mugaritz
3) Akelare
4) Martin Berasategui (only real problem was the big brother feeling)
5) Arzak
6) Nerua
7) Etxanobe
8) Asador Etxebarri

Pintxos:

As noted above, we had some pintxos while in SS. Our favorites were the following:

Astelena (old town). All of the half dozen items we tried here were either good or exceptional. Solomillo (better than the version at Ganbara) and duck were our favorites. The “crepe” dish was also a pleasant take on frying that was not overloaded with breading, oil, or cheese, as quite a few of the other fried items at other stops tended to be. Prices were not cheap, but were reasonable, at least compared to places like Fuego Negro. We also particularly enjoyed the location and the chance to sit down outside while we ate it in Constitucion Plaza. If we had to go back to only one place, it would be here.

Casa Senra (Gros). We only had two items here: Txipiron plancha con pure (Baby squid w/ chestnut puree) and Champi con fie y sauve alioi (Mushroom with foie alioi). Both were exceptional. We also enjoyed the room, with communal wooden tables and a cozy feel inside. Note that the location is a bit far out in Gros.

Other spots/pintxos we enjoyed were as follows:

La Cuchara de San Telmo (old town). Most of the items were hits, particularly the the foie gras and duck confit. The latter’s perfectly tender meat and incredibly sweet delicious sauce was reminiscent of the Americanized-version of moo shu pork. My wife enjoyed their creamy risotto, but I found it to be boring, essentially mediocre rice with a pile of cream buried inside. This spot was not a favorite because it was easily our most crowded stop in SS, feeling claustrophobic and uncomfortable, unlike any other stop. If you go here and don’t want to fight the crowds, go very early or very late.

Nestor (old town). Although we had tortilla at only a few stops, our favorite hands down was the one here. As others have said, reserve your slice around 7pm for the 8pm serving, unless it is a slow night. (On Sunday night they had some left over, but all other nights they appeared to have reserved all the slices shortly after 7.)

Goiz-Argi (old town). Have the prawns skewer. They’re great. (The cold canape was less spectacular.)

Gandarias (old town). The sirloin was good (although the one at Astelena is better).

The gilda at Valles (Centro) was the classic (allegedly original?) variation that we wanted to try. We enjoyed the setting such that we ordered another gilda and a stuffed pepper.

Antonio (our favorite stop in Centro). Although the environment is the least cozy, we enjoyed the Antxoas and the Igueldo, both of which felt relatively light and interesting.

Hidalgo 56 (Gros). Nothing was remarkable, but the black pudding volcano and beef steak fondue were both interesting and worth the stop.

Our least enjoyable stops were the following:

Fuego Negro (old town). The items were relatively one-dimensional, including the ham shoulder as well as the kobe burger, which tasted much like a thicker White Castle burger. The higher prices were not justified. You may enjoy the faux-hipster trendy decor. We did not care for it.

Zeruko (old town). We were thoroughly underwhelmed by the La hoguera (bonfire). Perhaps some people find cooking raw cod on their own exciting. We found it anxiety-inducing (and perhaps more problematic, nauseating).

Bar Tamboril (old town). All the items recommended to us relied on incredibly heavy frying or thick cheese that did not melt well. Even the non-fried mushroom dish was no good; the mushrooms were overcooked, too tough, and virtually tasteless.

Garbola (Gros). The shark (Tiburon) was interesting and novel, but we found the proprietor behind the bar to be perhaps the only rude and unwelcoming person that we encountered on our entire trip, and even quite a bit full of himself, based on his demeanor and the plastering of newspaper articles in front about him.

San Marcial (Centro). The people were fantastic, but the gavilla was just not to our liking - the ball of fried cheese was too fried to our tastes and the cheese was a let down.

We omitted some other stops that were not memorable at all (positively or negatively).

Finally, and to end on a down note because we have to somehow make ourselves feel better that this trip is over, we regretted stopping at Gelateria Boulevard for mundane, unremarkable gelato.

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