International TravelThings I LoveWining/Dining

Eating in Spain: “Basqueing” in the Glow of San Sebastian

After the wonderful stay in Madrid written about the in previous post, we acquired our rental car and drove north some four hours to San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque region. I now know the reason this area is so unique and so concentrated with remarkable restaurants. 
The answer was provided by a fellow patron at Arzak, ranked #8 on the World’s Best List and featured in a wonderful documentary entitled Three Stars (well worth watching).  The aforementioned gentleman was making copious notes of each course. He told me he had been coming to the restaurant for years, but this time he was writing a review for a regional paper.  He is also a vintner from the Bordeaux region of France — about two or so hours north of San Sebastian.  This area has everything going for it to be a culinary dream-come-true:  Great purveyors of fresh produce, basically on the sea for fresh fish and remarkable cattle ranchers.  Then there’s the wine and olive oils. Put all those elements together and this is a foodie’s paradise.
We hadn’t even provided our name as we entered, but the hostess knew who we were. Likewise at the end, our car was delivered without so much as asking for or producing a ticket (none was given).  And the final touch was receiving the printed menu given to each and every guest with the listing of all their unique courses and wine.  This is a good thing because I could never remember so many complicated presentations.  The photos are a trip down memory lane. Suffice it to say, hand’s down the thing I will never forget was a presentation of sea bass. First an I-pad type of device was placed in front of me playing a video of crashing waves, and then the see-through glass plate was placed on top so one is reminded of the food’s origins.  Really?  Who thinks of these things?  Another memory was watching a napkin being refolded in the patron’s absence deftly using only spoons — no touching allowed.  Wow.
Underneath the sea bass and visible through the glass was a video playing of crashing waves.
A delicious (and reasonable) bordeaux; top is a crab “rock”; bottom is apple and beetroot
Top:  lamb with lotus; bottom:  amazing beef cheeks
Top:  “Searching for Hazelnuts”
Bottom: “Lunar Chocolate Square Moon”
Top:  “Factory Arzak” — all edible chocolate tools and hardware; with Chef/Owner Juan Mari Arzak, now 80 years old — his daughter Elena is really in charge day-to-day.
The Hotel Maria Cristina is a beautiful, beaux-arts type of structure — indeed it was once inhabited by Spanish royalty.  It is a few short blocks to the historic area of this seaside town, with narrow streets filled with lively bars offering pinxtos, the actual name of tapas.  Try as we might, we still couldn’t figure out the system of ordering/paying.  Everything looked fresh and appetizing, to be accompanied by a beer or glass of wine while watching ubiquitous soccer games. 
View from our wrap-around balcony
A great and impressive site is the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, a short one-hour drive from San Sebastian.  To my mind, the art is appreciated as much for it’s scale as anything else — massive installations are typical.  But it was the building that was breathtaking and absolutely worth the journey. The Jeff Koons flowering dog in the front of the facility defies description as well … 



Continuing our gastronomic extravaganza in the region, we dined at Martin Berastagui, again for a lunch lasting more than two hours.  The chef/owner/proprietor obviously is committed to his craft, as he “lives above the store.”  And some kind of store it is, to be sure.  We were greeted before even making it up the steps by a lovely woman who took our photo in front of the bronze name plate.  Once inside the spacious and elegantly appointed room, the service was serious but not stuffy with everything “as you wish.” The hubby perused the extensive wine list and selected an excellent French red for $50 Euros, a good price considering the surroundings and offerings.  


View from the table above — the restaurant’s “back yard”




Clockwise from top left: Sea urchin foam; kumquat with anchovy; sea crunch tempura; smoked eel/foie-gras/onion/apple
 Top is the enormous wine book; The words above talk about the culture of this restaurant; how everything in nature is incorporated and the dishes would be destroyed if the portions were larger … some not exactly bite-size!
Salad … or work of art?


Top:  Wild Rabbit; Bottom:  Lamb
Top: Baked Chocolate — garnished with green beans (about the only way the hubby has ever consumed them); Bottom: Apple tarte — hand’s down best ever.
Sweets at the end and the most gorgeous hydrangeas on display.
One more to go in this amazing Spanish trifecta of renown restaurants …. to be continued in the next post.