DONOSTIA AND THREE OF THE WORLD TOP 10 RESTAURANTS: IBAI, ELKANO AND ETXEBARRI
No. None of these restaurants have three Michelin stars. Actually only of them is starred by Michelin. They will never feature in the top 10 or the 50 best list of RESTAURANT MAGAZINE either, which helps to get free meals and favors (like special meals) for the trade/jury members who mostly are the devotees of molecular gastronomy and are awed by presentation and plating skills at the expense of ingredient quality and precise cooking.
Personally I try to visit Donostia (San Sebastian) twice a year to dine in this trio. I occasionally try other restaurants too. ZUBEROA remains a very good restaurant indeed, but one has to order the classics and pre-order what may as well be the world’s best cheese cake. MUGARITZ, on the other hand, which once was one of the world’s most promising restaurants, is venturing towards a no man’s land, cooking conceptually interesting, but mostly inedible and absurd dishes for an increasingly foreign clientele.
There are also three Michelin three star restaurants in the area, ARZAK and AKELARRE in Donostia and BERASETEGUI 30 minutes away in Lasarte. ARZAK used to be a great restaurant, circa 1990. Akelarre never impressed me. BERASETEGUI may be the most interesting of the three, but I have shied away from visiting it after I encountered a farmed sea bass a few years ago.
Here are my three must VISITS in alphabetical order.
I consider Elkano to be the best place for seafood in the Western World, equaled only by Mr. Zazzeri’s great seafood temple in Italy, LA PINETA.
The restaurant is known for turbot-rodaballo, and there is no doubt that turbot does not get better than this. Unlike the Michelin three star restaurants which only serve a filet, you can experience whole turbot in the right season. The turbot is cooked on the oak charcoal ashes very slowly, without touching the fire, and I should say that nine out of ten times at Elkano it was perfect. After cooking the turbot whole, with a sprinkling of a little sea salt, it is placed on a platter with the white side up, carefully remove the middle bone and add a little olive oil and cider vinegar. This way the natural gelatin of the turbot oozes out. It is delicious with the country bread served at Elkano.
What astonishes me when eating whole turbot at Elkano is the contrast of texture and flavors of different parts. The fillets from the white side taste more delicate than the black side (which does not see the sun). Morrillo, the back of the neck, is very complex in flavor. The cheek is perhaps the best part. The ventresca is not as subtle in flavor as o-toro, but intriquing. The brain is very gelatinous, and no one would guess that it is fish in a blind tasting. The bones are the most flavorful part, as they contain a good amount of gelatin and should be sucked.
In terms of complexity of natural textures and flavors, only a whole tete de veau can challenge the whole wild local turbot at Elkano. Make sure that if your turbot is female, it has not laid its eggs. As a caution, ask for a male turbot.
But don’t have the turbot if you visit the restaurant in the Fall. Try instead a sole fish -- the lenguado.
As good as the turbot is, the small fish and shellfish at Elkano have always been local and impeccable in their freshness. For instance, in the Fall, you are likely to suck the tender meat of the little crabs, necoras, and the sweet meat of the baby cigale de mer (santiagianos). If you are lucky, you may also be served fresh fish liver, such as from rascasse or rouget (salmonetes). The taste of the fish liver is of the quality that one encounters only in Japan’s best restaurants.
My last meal there in end-March began with barely steamed almejas (clams) from Galicia. Then we were served an excellent piece of mackerel wrapped in fresh zucchini and stuffed with cubes of tomato and onion and a drop of olive oil. When I commented about the freshness of the mackerel, I was served “gonadas,” the eggs of mackerel which can only be obtained when the fish is just caught and only at the beginning of the season (mainly March and the very beginning of April). The eggs were served warm. They had the gelatinous texture of young lamb brain, but tasted fishy, not meaty.
Our feast continued with firm and sweet camarones (baby local shrimp) a la plancha. Don’t miss them if you see them on the menu.
Don’t also miss the Basque classic: “kokotxas pil pil”. This is the jowl of the merluza fish, and the sauce is prepared with its own gelatin, olive oil, parsley, and garlic. To me, this is one of the most deep and satisfying tastes in the world. I understood the quality of what I was eating in Donostia last year when I was served some not too fresh and chewy kokotxas pil pil in Llerida. Elkano’s kokotxas pil pil are always perfect.
I was also taken aback by the salmonetes (triglie, rouget, barbunya). This is one of the top three fish for me (together with turbot and lufer), but I should say that in the last 20 years, I have never found the taste of a true rock rouget that I used to find in Turkey prior to 1990. (The last exceptional rouget I had was at the Italian restaurant BALZI ROSSI in the early ‘90s.) ELKANO’s version was amazing, tasted like the sea, and the meat was firm, but juicy and flavorful.
Finish your meal with helado de queso at Elkano. It is ice cream made from a mascarpone-like local cheese and is served with fresh strawberry coulis. It is delicious.
A Galician albarino is a good match with the food. My choice is Do Fereiro Cepas Vellas. The wine is intense and has a good dose of minerality/salinity. It matches the shellfish especially well.
The now irrelevant Michelin guide mentions the restaurant without starring it, a testimony to their jaded palates.
A sumptuous meal for two at Elkano with wine should cost about 200-250 Euros.
I had first reviewed Etxebarri for Gastroville in 2004, which I co-founded with Mikael Johnson. (Mikael now has his own restaurant, Hedone, in London.) In 2004, Etxebarri was not known to the larger public. Gastro-tourists did not make pilgrimages to the mountainous areas of the beautiful Basque country. Victor was still at the helm, laboring in front of the grills that he had designed himself.
Things have changed since then. Gone are the days when huge platters were served, and the wine list was underpriced. Now they have a very capable sommelier. Dishes are served in small portions on sometimes silly plates which sacrifice practicality in favor of misguided aesthetics. And Victor is not always present in the kitchen.
But the restaurant is still great, if more pricey. The ingredients are of impeccable quality; combinations are well thought out; and the execution is perfect, 95 percent of the time.
Ironically, the only dish I did not consider to be excellent at Etxebarri was the chuleton or the grilled rib eye. While the grilled steak is quite marbled and has some mineral depth, it is not outstanding. It is very good. One can find this level steak in quite a few other steak houses in the Basque country, and the steak I had at a traditional sidreria, Sidreria Zapiain, was on par with Etxebarri’s, albeit much cheaper. (If you go to Sidreria Zapiain, I especially recommend the tortilla de bacalao.) I had better quality steak in the Madrid restaurant Sacha which I will review separately.
Here are the highlights of our end March meal at Etxebarri.
The amuse was pumpkin soup, light and appetizing. The homemade buffalo mozzarella was excellent. It was paired with rhubarb puree. Things then went into an even higher gear with the salt cured anchovies that made a statement in a country where one can find outstanding examples. Etxebarri’s version was plump, rich in fat, with the just optimum balance between salt, fat, and acidity.
Next we were served some Arcachon oysters, barely grilled, with seaweed puree. I fail to comprehend why Victor chose relatively simple Arcachon oysters over the more complex and nutty flavors of Galician flat oysters.
Espardenas (sea cucumbers) strike me as overpriced, given that they are more about texture than taste. But Victor’s version was memorable. The little espardenas were sweet, crunchy and juicy, and they were sitting on the most memorable baby fava beans, spiked by a good dose of spicy olive oil. The sweet espardenas matched beautifully with the slightly bitter first of the season fava beans, and the spicy olive oil bound the two together.
Even more memorable than the espardenas was the baby octopus, pulpitos. They were the size of your fingertip. In March 2011, Victor had served them with sweet onion puree. This time he made a Galician preparation and paired them with diced potato and paprika. The taste literally bursts in your mouth.
Memories also held for Victor’s version of the fresh chorizo tartar served with toast. It was barely cooked, and both the spicing and the quality of the meat was noteworthy. Bravo.
Next came egg yolk and black truffle. Except for the silly platter that makes it impossible to place your cutlery and to eat without spilling, this dish was almost as good as IBAI’s version (19/20 versus 20/20).
The next two dishes, on the other hand, both merit 20/20. First, we had wild red tuna belly, which was cut from a gigantic wild tuna caught near Asturias. I have never seen in Japan such a whole filet of wild ventresca de atun cooked extra rare. Each bite sent shock waves to my brain.
The last savory dish of the tasting menu was beef chop-chuleta, but they substituted wood-fire roasted kid (cabrita) for us. With crunchy skin (probably marinated in honey), an irresistible layer of fat underneath the skin, and very tender flavorful meat, which is reminiscent of baby lamb (but less fatty), the kid may as well be one of the world’s seven wonders. Nobody handles it better than Etxebarri.
The tasting menu is 120 Euro + tax (7%), but we added one dish to the menu and shared it: angulas or baby eels. I find the grilled Etxebarri version of angulas to be a unique and excellent way to handle this very subtle tasting creature. It is more about texture.
The desserts are also very good in Etxebarri. In Fall he prepares a Spanish version of tarte tatin, which is my favorite. But the grilled reduced milk ice cream was also noteworthy and an appropriate ending to the meal. Wood-fired flambéed biscuit with vanilla ice cream was also quite memorable.
I think the best drink to pair with the tasting menu is champagne. I opted for a favorite of mine, which is Georges Laval. It has small and persistent bubbles, a quite leesy aroma, and intense refreshing citrusy notes on the palette. The finish is long with agrume skin notes. It is quite a complex 1er cru champagne which combines power with elegance.
We were served a glass each of Ferrer-Bobet Riesling and Ferrer-Bobet Acusp Pinot Noir with the tuna and the roasted kid, respectively. I had tried and quite liked Ferrer-Bobet Priorat wines for their elegance in a region which mostly produces over the top very high alcohol wines. I was quite impressed by the clean-fresh-fruity-honest Riesling (vines are young but planted at 1000 meter altitude in Penedes) and the opulent-chunky-juicy Pinot which balanced its upfront slightly candied black berry fruit with nice acidity. Apparently the young vines of the Pinot are also planted at 1000 meter altitude in the Pyrenees.
Ferrer-Bobet is a winery to watch.
Etxebarri is a temple of great and rare ingredients, cooked simply but ingenously. One should frequent it as much as possible.
They don’t look like each other, but they remind me of one another: Bernard Pacaud of L’Ambroisie and Alvise of Ibai.
They are both middle aged, slightly below average in height, and well built. They are both the antithesis of the celebrity chef in the sense that they are no nonsense individuals, who are rather shy, retire to their kitchens to execute their trade, and hardly interact with their clients. They don't take part in celebrity chef events, they don’t like to be in the limelight, and they are genuinely modest. They are also good fathers and husbands, who have married chic and lovely ladies who illuminate the dining room with their presence.
Michelin three star (Pacaud) and not even in the bible-rouge (Alvise) are two of the greatest chefs.
What makes them great is the internalization of the “perfectionism” principle. They don’t get swayed by culinary fads and Japanese plating techniques. They perform the very best of their respective heritage with the best ingredients available: French haute cuisine and Basque home cooking, respectively.
The unifying trend of these two very disparate cuisines and chefs is the consistency. All chefs have good and bad days, and it is hard to turn out consistently the same level of impeccable cooking. But I should say that, among all the three star French chefs I know, L’Ambroisie has been the most consistent.
So is Ibai. The restaurant is only open for lunch and on weekdays, buys the best available ingredients, and consumes them during the day.
If you visit the restaurant during late Fall, don’t miss Alvise’s baby eel (angulas) salad. In early Summer, don’t miss his tuna belly. They are even better than Etxebarri’s version.
And who can beat Elkano’s kokotxas pil pil or kokotxas confits (slowly cooked)? It has to be experienced to be believed.
My late March meal began with a great amuse: some chorizo from a producer in Rioja. One can beg and appeal to have a second serving, but NO. There are so many other things that we choose from the daily menu recited by Alvise (in Spanish; No English is spoken).
First came bogavante salpicon. It is a lobster salad served at room temperature with lobster eggs. Lobster is truly sweet and firm and not cottony, like farmed lobsters from Maine. Great.
Next, we had the best vegetable dish in recent memory. It was the season’s first baby artichokes, borrajas, and baby peas, in a vegetable broth. The baby peas with their sprouts were a revelation. They are as rare in today’s world as albino sturgeon’s white caviar.
Next, and equally outstanding, we had farm eggs, potatoes, and end of the season fresh black truffles (tuber melanosporum) from Teruel. The quality of potatoes equals the famous new potatoes that l’Ambroisie procures in late spring and serves with Brittany lobster. This is an amazing dish in its simplicity, and the complementarity of explosive flavors is unbeatable.
This masterpiece is followed by the merluza kokotxas, which melt in the mouth, without chewing. The gelatinous flavor sends shock waves inside your brain.
To finish, we had a whole lenguado or sole fish. This fish is much better than a dover sole and is the level of the turbot at Elkano. There is no brasserie in France where one can have this level of whole sole meuniere.
The desserts are not a strong suit, so you can end your meal with coffee.
Unfortunately the absence of good bread is another drawback. Elkano and Etxebarri serve very good bread, but not Ibai.
There is also no written wine list. You select from the rack or tell them what you want. In my last visit I had a very decent 2010 Pazo Senorans (but such cooking really merits a Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet).
Reservations are a must, and there are only six tables.
Don’t forget that credit cards are not accepted. Bring cash. Depending on whether you have angulas, expect to pay between 200 and 400 Euros for two.