IBAI: A STUNNING PRODUCT RESTAURANT IN DONOSTIA-SAN SEBASTIAN
RANKING: 5 STARS (Casual Category)
Date Visited: Nov. 20, 2009
Address: C/Guetaria 15
Tel: 943 42 87 64
SUMMARY: I admit that it is a bit bizarre to call a restaurant “a product restaurant” , because all such establishments should utilize top notch products. However, even in Spain, where one can find higher quality meat and fish/shellfish compared to any other country in the Western world, very few restaurants truly excel in product quality. Those familiar with the Basque country and especially with Etxebarri should know that one eats very well in this part of the world.
Well, I would claim that, even Etxebarri, truly a great restaurant, is not in par with Ibai in terms of the sheer quality of products across the board. I ate several times in Etxebarri (see….) and twice in Ibai, and, IMO, Ibai is not only the best restaurant in the Basque country and in Spain, but it is one of the most consistent and best places to eat ultra fresh vegetables and fish/shellfish anywhere in the world. The chef-owner, (whose photo is below, together with my friend Josep Vilella and I who made my second visit to this restaurant possible) of Ibai is a great artisan-cook and his timing and precision leaves one speechless. Unfortunately the photos do not do justice to Ibai, since this is basically a rustic-country style restaurant and the emphasis is not placed on plating.
The restaurant is in the basement of a tapas bar and it consists of only five tables.
Our meal has started with the best chorizo imaginable. It is so good that we asked to have more of it at the end of our lunch. Unfortunately I was too excited and forgot to take the picture.
BORRAJAS AND ARTICHOKES
Borrajas remind me of a cross between cardoon and celery. If you like root vegetables, this dish is the epitome of deep metallic taste. The artichokes are also impressive. Such a level does not exist in the States and one hardly finds it in France or Italy.
CEPS WITH POACHED EGG
This dish is equally simple and equally stunning in terms of the calibration of the two ingredients and the clear focus on the deep taste of freshly picked wild porcini/ceps. The soft cooked farmed egg is very special and blends well. Some black truffles from Teruel are shaved on top, but they don’t have much perfume so early in the season. At least they do not detract from the taste.
KOKOTXAS OF MERLUZA/HAKE
I tried this Basque specialty of hake cheeks many times in the area and elsewhere in Spain. Elkano and Etxebarri prepare great hake cheeks, which I consider to be one of the great dishes of the world. But Ibai is on a different level because one cannot beat their freshness. They prepare them three ways: slowly cooked, lightly fried, and in a classical ‘pil pil’ sauce which uses the gelatin from the fish bones with olive oil, garlic, and parsley. They are all outstanding, but I can never erase from my memory the lingering aftertaste of the pil pil. If you like a gelatinous texture, this is the ultimate expression of it. I think Feran Adria and Josep Roca and many other Michelin three star chefs should cease using artificial alginates, since they can never reproduce the taste and texture of gelatin found in natural fish.
Josep, one of the greatest palates I am privileged to know personally, drove 6.5 hours from Costa Brava just to have this dish. I am very familiar with good sole fish, but the version in Ibai is the ultimate statement. It is cooked slowly in the oven very much in the Passard style, and there is just a touch of aged sherry vinegar in the light sauce. It is a great dish.
We had an unremarkable Albarino and El Pison, which is worth talking about.
2004 EL PISON
This is one of the consistently great Rioja wines made from a great site. I have been trying this wine since 1996, and I am very pleased to see that Artadi is going against the current and is concocting less powerful and more elegant wines. The 2004 has impeccable balance, serious concentration buffered by elegant but persistent tannins, and a long mineral finish. Many layers of black and red fruits unfold on the palette, but the nose is still not yielding too much. 18.5/20