Gastronomic Trip to Donostia/San Sebastian
The Basque region of Spain has never disappointed us. Whenever my wife and I near this region, we make all acrobatics possible to spend there a few days. This year the opportunity presented itself in terms of a 3 day conference in Bordeaux scheduled for November 23-26. So we decided to take advantage of the weekend and Monday and headed to Donostia (San Sebastian—now Michelin lists restaurants there under the Basque name) for 3 nights. We had a long trip: direct flight from Atlanta to Paris. Then a few hours at Roissy and another flight to Bordeaux. There we rented a car and drove about 2 and a half hours to our destination.
It was around 4 pm when we arrived to our hotel in Donostia. We had left at about the same time the day earlier. This being our 6th time or so there, Hotel Niza gives us very nice rooms with a balcony and a beautiful concha view. When we arrived, the weather was beautiful and we are 50 yards from the sea. It was end of November and, believe it or not, some “crazy” Basques were taking a dip in the sea. There is nothing as relaxing as standing in your balcony after a long trip and enjoying this view:
This time I had a different strategy. In the past, we almost always run from one multi-starred Michelin restaurant to another for dinner and had tapas for lunch. There are different reasons that I do not want to go into detail that I had been disenchanted with Arzak (under Elena—although we want to give it another try after having heard positive reviews), Berasategui and Akelarre. We figured that we could have 5 meals maximum and wanted to repeat the old favorite Zuberoa. We were also interested in the 2 rising stars: Fagollaga and Mugaritz. I wanted to try what my friend, John Whiting, had recommended very strongly: Elkano in Getaria. I always had wanted to try a traditional venue: Casa Nicolasa. Finally, after looking at the pictures in Garcia Santos’ LMG I decided to have a Sunday lunch in the beautiful valley of Axpe at Etxebarri.
We had one restaurant too many. At my peril, I decided to drop Mugaritz—a right or wrong decision. I will rectify hopefully in our next trip to the area planned for mid-March.
What I was trying to do in this trip was to avail myself of the best ingredients the Basque country offers in plentitude: particularly game, shellfish and of course angulas or baby eels, which have a short season like game. I was advised that my favorite Zuberoa would have becada or woodcock, as it was season for this. I called them and they said they would try their best. Just in case, I also mentioned to both Casa Nicolasa and Etxebarri about my interest in game and specifically sorda (the Basque name for becada). They said it was difficult. For the record I do not speak Spanish and I tell them on the phone that I can speak English or French or Turkish. Somehow French is working best there—although I think in terms of character and looks there are so many parallels between Turkish and Basques, one reason why I like this area so much.
Overall our meals more than reconfirmed our passion for Basque cuisine. Not a single meal was poor. However, if I can rank the 5 meals we have had this will be my ranking in descending order: Etxebarri, Elkano, Fagollago, Casa Nicolasa and Zuberoa. My least favorite this trip, Zuberoa holds 2 stars in the Michelin Guide. Etxebarri is not mentioned.
Let’s start with Zuberoa. We had a nice surprise there in that, a very good friend and her husband saw my inquiry in eGullet and they contacted me. She is a food writer too and they were going to be in Donostia at the same time for Garcia Santos’ LMG congress where Ferran Adria was going to make a presentation. Another friend of theirs, an Italian food writer and his girl friend also joined us, and we had a special meal prepared for us at Zuberoa. Overall, the meal did not have the well-timed crescendo that one expects from a menu degustation from a restaurant of this caliber. Early on in the meal we had quite a few very reduced sauces and stocks. The raw materials and ingredients failed to shine as they used to in Hilario Arbelaitz’s cooking. My best guess is that this great chef is now trying to prove that he can cook with small portions and imitate the modernism (or post-modernism if you wish) that leading and younger chefs in the country has been advocating. The problem is that Arbelaitz has impeccable roasting skills and he is a first rate saucier (as good as classic French) and saucing is a relatively weak point of Spanish cooking. Bigger portions and dishes for two is what made Arbelaitz excelled in the past and his last courses, i.e. roasted suckling pig and lamb and woodcock were all top. The problem is that we had no appetite left at this point because of the ill-conceived menu.
A case in point is his first course pictured here: oyster and caviar with lemon gelatin. The oyster was too dry and muscular and somehow the 2 elements in the dish stood in opposition to one another and the sum is lesser than the 2 parts. For anybody familiar with the Thomas Keller’s masterpiece, oysters and pearls, the 2 dishes, which look similar on paper, could not have been more different. I would later learn from an acquaintance that this dish had won a prize in the gastronomic congress, LMG.
Casa Nicolasa is actually very good. The chef Juan Jose Castillo is following in the foodsteps of the legendary chef Nicolasa Pradera, and he is preparing classical dishes that you are not likely to find in tasting menus of the Michelin (and tourist) favored restaurants with gusto. Upon arrival, we were told that they had our becada woodcock. They prepared it with great skill, and their preparation was almost as good as the best becasse I had eaten in a game specialist near Geneve: Michelin 2-star Domaine Chateauvieux. The foie gras certainly adds to the dry and appropriately roasted very rare bird, and the apple-chestnut sauce was heavenly.
Another example of classic preparation without cutting corners was the txangurro a la donastiarra or the spider crab that is seasoned and finished in the oven. I liken this preparation to the way Galicians prepare their incomparable scallops, and when it is good the minced onions and other ingredients (here garlic, white wine, tomatoes, bread crumbs) do not detract from the sweet fresh flavors of the shellfish, but they bring out the best qualities. This dish was very very good:
We also had alubias de Tolosa, a kind of cassoulet composed of creamy red kidney beans, guindilla peppers, salt pork and cabbage. I have not had this dish at the Fronton in Tolosa where they are famous, but I cannot conceive any tastier preparation or better blood sausage or beans. The less successful dishes in Casa Nicolas were home made goose foie gras, which came cold and was not the level you can get in the best French restaurants, and green peppers stuffed with baby squid. When I investigated I learned what I should have known: the squids were not in season. But then they should not have been on the menu or they should have alerted me.
Fagollaga is a rising star, although the restaurant has been around a very long time. Everything about this restaurant enchanted me. It is not far to Donostia, about 20 minute drive, but it is a farmhouse in the attractive countryside:
The menu is composed of dishes from the old menu that the current chef’s mother used to cook and the new dishes inspired by modernism. The chef, Isaac Salaberria, receives 9 out of 10 in the Garcia Santos bible that promotes New Spanish cooking. This is as high as the score for Arzak and higher than El Raco de con Fabes (both Michelin 3 stars).
Salaberria’s cooking can be defined as refined cuisine du terroir. He makes ample use of internal organs of the meat, pork belly, pork and veal feet, pork ears, etc. But the preparations are not gutsy or literal. He “refines” some potentially offending (to non-Basques) flavors, presents his dishes in geometrically intriguing now almost customary (for the avant garde cooks) plates, makes ample use of infusions, although he has the good sense of serving infusions separately from the main dish rather than pouring on top, and he keeps on his menu time tested classics such as roasted suckling lamb without tampering with them. He roasted the lamb with a very fresh and tasty mesclun salad on the side, and this dish was even more successful than Zuberoa’s and came close to rivaling roasted spring lamb from the churra breed that you can have in the Ribera del Duero region.
His avant garde dishes are never bad. I had a number of dishes ranging from fine to excellent. To give some examples his tuna with roasted melon is just fair. Here the tuna is fine but not the sashimi quality tuna belly (toro). You can get the best Japanese toro in the States, and the melon neither detracts nor adds to it. The infusion they serve the dish with is also neutral and, poured over the tuna. It does not render it more complex in taste, but compromises the texture. Japanese cooking may be a la vogue and de rigeur for New Spanish chefs, but certainly it is not the forte of Isaac Salaberria. (Even the physical looks reveals something: as opposed to slender Aduriz of Mugaritz, it looks like Isaac enjoys traditional cooking.)
A more successful but not brilliant modern dish in Fagollaga is the scallops with wild mushroom infusion. Here the infusion is poured on top, but no offense is committed. It is a fine example of another (and, in my opinion, successful) compulsory marriage of modern cooking a la terre et mer. Scallops are almost first rate, appropriately raw, and the infusion is welcome here. The dish is very good but somehow it is not as titillating as some of the similar dishes I have had at Troisgros and Arpege.
Then a brilliant modern cum traditional dish: panceta iberico con leche de Almendra tierna. Bacon with almond milk infusion. The bacon is full of flavor and the infusion is so well thought out that it renders an already very good dish a classic. A bite from one, a sip of another and when you repeat the process you discover new tastes and wish well to the chef with all your heart. My provisional conclusion is that this is a chef more or less the level of Pascal Barbot of L’Astrance, now delivering about 16/20 level food or the high end of one star, and over enthusiastic friends can cause more harm than good if they are unqualified in their enthusiasm. Let’s hope that Salaberria is wise enough not to fall into the trap and perfects his brand of refined-rustic without imitating more Japanese influenced cooking.
At Elkano, some friends joined us and we started our dinner at around 11 pm, a very appropriate time to dine, and we finished around 3 AM and then we were invited to see the seawater tanks where they keep shellfish and where our friends had the most animated conversation with the owner’s son. Elkano is very serious about its seafood and the fish is daily caught and does not see any ice. We had cocochas de merluzo (hake cheeks) in 3 different preparations: sautéed in butter, simply grilled, and in salsa verde. The last one was like a pil pil where the gelatine from the fish acts as the gelling agent (I am still very skeptical whether Adria’s experiments will emulate the quality of the natural agents). All three were successful and different (for grilled and a la parilla cooking, they needed big hake and it is rarer). The incomparable angulas were also the freshest and firmest and prepared traditionally, fried in an earthenware casserole with fried garlic, red pepper flakes and parsley. The so-called camarones are extremely good too. I hesitate to call them shrimp or prawns because taste wise they resemble the hormone grown and farmed prawns in the States as much as a Mediterranean rouget tastes like snapper (This is how they translate it).
But the reason we chose Elkano was to have their whole grilled turbot pictured below. They grill the local turbot slowly to preserve the natural gelatin, and you have to suck the bones to get the full taste. Being a table of four, we were able to choose a bigger turbot, which is fatter, thus better. I will still contend that the best turbot is from the Black Sea, when it is caught in the second half of March in the Bosphorus in Istanbul when they are the most fat. But this is almost as good, and I do not know any restaurant in Istanbul where they can grill the turbot with such skill. Turbot, in my book, is one of the 4 to 5 tastiest fish to be found, and it was a privilege to have it at Elkano in the characteristic fishing village of Getaria, which is about half an hour drive to Donostia.
I am not talking much about desserts in this trip, but I will mention Elkano. The sheep milk sorbet with berry sauce tastes as good as it looks, and besides it is very appropriate after such a meal. Most important the desserts capture the gist of this restaurant: very honest with no gimmicks.
Now Etxebarri. I kept it last because I had one of the most memorable of my meals there. I would rate is 19/20 and on par with my other very favorites in France and Italy. As far as Spain is concerned, it was as memorable as when the father was cooking in Arzak and when Adria in ‘98 had prepared a meal different than his tasting menu for us and included his ethereal tuetano con caviar (I am not sure about the spelling, but it is bone marrow with caviar).
To begin, Etxebarri is located inland, in the beautiful valley of Atxendo in the town of Axpe (or the other way around, the town is Atxendo and the valley is Axpe). It took us 50 minutes to drive from Donostia to Durango and then another 10 to 15 minutes. The last non-autoroute part is beautiful because you are in the countryside: not a manicured countryside full of expensive villas, but a more natural countryside where animal husbandry is well and alive. Etxebarri itself is a simple farmhouse. The restaurant is on a hillside surrounded by mountains, and when you look from your window (they gave us a great table and the day was sunny and pleasantly warm) you can see sheep lazily grazing:
Inside the tables are well spaced and comfortable. The chef Victor Arguinzoniz (the taller man in the picture) and his assistant Maxime (he is French and has worked in starred places) oversee the grilling which is attached to a very large kitchen. The chef is easygoing in person, but a perfectionist in his profession, and he concocts his own charcoal from different trees’ branches every morning in an oxygen controlled oven. The exact combination of branches may be a secret like the Coke formula! Another secret is that the chef has designed his own grill to apply heat evenly. I do not know if Mr. Arguinzoniz is interested in molecular biology but, perhaps without availing himself of Hervé This, he knows how to optimize heat transfer so that all parts of the food reach the correct temperature.
The results are stunning. The only non-grill item was the crostini with jamon and tomato. The grand reserve jamon bellota from the house of Joselito in Salamanca is quite good. Following the jamon amuse, we started our Sunday lunch with quisquillon, the translucent and firm local shrimps. Please note the color of the eyes and the erect antennas which give ideas about freshness:
Then came a 1.3 kg. female langouste (I requested female because of the eggs). I prefer langouste to homard (spiny lobster to lobster) and the best spiny lobsters are Mediterranean. This had never seen the ice, and it was as sweet as the Mediterranean langouste you can find in Iles de Perquerolles and Corsica—both very rare. The taste puts to shame anything I have had in the States, including at the French Laundry. I fault many lobsters being either too cottony in texture with little flavor or too tough. This was neither. One detail I have to report even if politically incorrect is that, for maximum flavor, the langouste is grilled whole and alive.
Do you like the gargouillou at Bras? A pure vegetable dish and a benchmark dish for many. Victor’s take on his vegetable dish is different. He grilled some carrots, white and red cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes, scallions, yellow squash and wild cepes (porcinis). Overall Spain may not have Italy’s variety and quality in vegetables but everything Victor included had tremendous intensity and the taste I associate with my childhood prior to the World Bank/IMF interference in Turkish agriculture. A great dish.
How about an egg dish? Not cooked sous-vide like the modern dishes at Arzak, French Laundry, but I guess fried. The yolk from farm egg intact, the best fries with no oil, crisp and juicy, slices of bacon and sweet and intense red peppers. A simple looking very complicated and delicious dish.
It still is the season for angulas. Victor cooks them in a special pan that he has invented. They come with nothing. No garlic, pepper, olive oil, parsley. You just have to concentrate and pray for its unadulterated flavor.
Having some bacalao is a must in the Basque country. Salted and preserved bacalao is often tastier. But, if you get the chance, try the classical version at Etxebarri with Espelette peppers. I had the same dish at Fagollaga too which was very good—but this is better.
They actually had taken note of our becada request and wanted to grill it for us. But before they wanted to show the quality of their cote de boeuf. The meat indeed was full of character: supple and flavorful and gamey.
But the woodcock or becada was the piece de resistance and the best of the 3 I have had in 3 days. Cooked rare and not dry at all, full of metallic-gamy flavor with no concession to the modern sterile taste, with a no nonsense sauce of internal organs and its own liver, paired with superb squash puree and even more interesting with caramelized crunchy quince which adds texture and wonderful contrast. Also wild cepes as a garni.
The dessert was a fine milk pudding with dried figs and then very good macaroons.
The feast lasted only 5 hours, a bit short by my standards (at FL we usually start at 6 and finish at midnight) but acceptable given that their timing was perfect and nothing needed to be reheated.
I did not talk about wines in this posting—as important for me as the food—but let me say that Etxebarri has a good list. 2001 Artadi old vine El Pison was the best wine of the trip and it was offered at a very fair price of 93 Euro. Last year I had seen the same wine from 2000 for 250 Euro or so at La Broche where we have had a conceptually interesting but ultimately frustrating meal.
5-6 trips in the last 7 years and we are as thrilled about the Spanish Basque country and cooking as we were in the beginning. Perhaps more so as we have finally understood well that what made this place a gastronomical mecca is more than the existence of a few internationally renowned restaurants but the prevalence of a culture, which sustains a way of life that puts a premium on community and tradition over full capitulation to the forces of globalization.