2 weeks of eating in Spain
I'm flying into Madrid in June. From there I'll spend a week getting to Barcelona - in a very indirect way as I search out great scenery, great towns and most importantly, great food. I was thinking about taking a route along the northern coast but I can go anywhere a car or train can take me. I know it's a very broad request but is there any place that I absolutely must go? Or, are there any indispensable books or websites that anyone knows of that will help me discover the true gems - as opposed to the touristy destinations. Like I said, I can go anywhere I want and would love to find some small, more obscure towns.... Thanks in advance for any advice.
By the way, I'll be in Barcelona for a full week too.
Can you specify price ranges so it would be easier to narrow down the choices? Are you looking for cutting-edge, traditional, contemporary, Michelin stars?
San Sebastian - great scenery in the Basque country and great food across the spectrum. Some of the best Tapas, fantastic restaurants and a massive concentration of Michelin stars in one small area - try both the town and the restaurants in the countryside. It is a good contrast to the food in Barcelona. If you drive from Madrid you pass through the Rioja region which obviously has great wine, and also amazing modern architectural design (the Gerry hotel for example)
My Spanish brother-in-law says the best place for seafood is Galicia (and he is not from the region), which fits nicely with your northern route and would tie in with Phil's suggestion.
San Sebastian is overrated. It is very good but there is alot of mediocre going on as well. I think you should go though and then you go do Bilbao, as well. Great town and the Guggenheim is the least of it. But if you go to that, go to the restaurant in the Guggenheim, really great lunch.
Also, if you are Basque country you can tour more rural areas besides these two towns.
There is a great bakery/patisserie in Bilbao and a place with mind blowing lamb kebabs. If you reply and I check back, I can figure out the names by looking at a map. Sorry, I do not recall them(my brain is feeble).
San Sebastian, there are the many Mich *. Personally, I find Spain's biggest names are hype. I avoid the biggest names, not worth it but you can try one to do it. There are certain tapas bars that are better than others in San Sebastian but I would have to try to remember which are which. Problem with them is that EVERYONE eats inside of about a 1.5 hour window and it is really packed or then closed or out of stuff or early they don't put everything out. Also, skip the poor bread they give with it. I find this the most ruinous trait of tapas. Some of them are great and then some bad bread. Ugh!
Note, house wines in Spain are excellent value and stand out very well even without the value taken into account.
Not clear from your post how long you will be there(one week after Madrid on your way to Barca?) but 4 days in Basque country will be plenty. So, you could do that and another area. Sorry, I am not so familiar with Western Spain.
Have a blast, it should not be too difficult and yes, avoid touristy stuff. Not to say there are no tourists in some great spots but you have the right idea.
As for reference, I do research, if I must, by cross-referencing multiple sources. Unfortunately, there is no ONE reliable source(WHY, in this day and age?Actually, I know why, because people have no real taste or sense or jare just selling something).
Sorry I have got to disagree with Gambit. San Sebastian is a really good food scene and it does live up to the hype - it is far from overrated. OK there are bad tourist trap restaurants but these are very few and far between compared to the great places and when compared to other cities (Granada, Seville etc).
The cooking in the Michelin starred restaurants is very good, and varies quite a lot between restaurants - some cutting edge modern like Mugaritz and other more traditionally Basque restaurants. I also can't understand the comment that these are "not worth it" as I believe there is some of the best value ($) Michelin starred cooking in Europe. The Tapas bars are also quite different to other Spanish cities, lots of good ones in the old town but also don't miss the ones in the new town which are a lot less touristy - and probably a bit cheaper (Alona Berri Bar on C. Bermingham 24 is brilliant).
I do agree that Bibao is worth visiting - a lot of good restaurants and Tapas bars. I also agree the countryside is very good for fine food. One restaurant between San Sebastian and Bilbao that is really worth a detour is "Etxebarri" (in Axpe) where Victor Arguinzoniz has taken grilled food to a completely new level incluing designing pans for specific foods to ensure a perfect result.
For San Seb to live up to the hype, it would have to be the BEST city/town/village for food, in the world. If I had to pick someplace to eat for the rest of my life, that would not be it. I like San Seb, very much. People do not understand that. The food there is not superior, or even if you think it is, is it SO superior to other cities in Spain, even? Forget the world.
The tapas there can be excellent but you have to know the spots. Sorry I am too lazy to figure it out but some trial and error will work. Via del Agosto, I think has the most of the better ones, at least for one street. It is the northern most street in the old town. There are probably 3 very good places there, it is a short street.
As for some Mich stars, Arzak has no business at a 3, period. Go to Akelare instead, if you must. Are there worse restaurants that charge just as much, yes, there are but we are not using a lowest common denominator. There are others, too, if you care to try them.
I was underwhelmed by more than one place in San Seb, as other people with proper standards have been. Not that it is worthless, but, surely, not worth the hype. There are so many great places to eat in Spain and this gets for than its deserved share of accolades.
Now, if you would care to try something that I have not but I really did want to try, Bodegon Alejandro(in San Seb). It was booked the day I tried to go.
Calle Fermín Calbetón 4 (address)
Not sure of prices but it is not 20EU and not 100EU.
Gambit our perceptions, experiences, and opinions of San Sebastian are obviously different. However, I would be interested to hear your recommendations for the other great places in Spain that you allude to.
I am planning a couple of trips this year, probably Galicia and Mallorca, but interested in other options.
If you wander your way from Madrid to Barcelona, I would go up north towards the Pyrenees and visit the provinces of Huesca, Lerida and Gerona on your way to Barcelona. June would be an ideal time to go up into the foot hills and mountains. You have beautiful villages, great scenery and unbelievable food. There are tons of casas rurales to spend the night in and when you make the reservations they can help you plan what to see and where to eat.
There are many good restaurants in the general region between Gerona and Barcelona, or close enough by car. Here are some suggestions, in no particular order (restaurant, city/town, chef):
El Raco de Can Fabes - Sant Celoni - Santi Santamaria (has hotel)
El Celler de Can Roca - Girona - Joan Roca
Els Casals - Sagas - Oriol Rovira (has hotel)
Can Jubany - Calldetenes - Nando Jubany (has hotel)
Les Cols - Olot - Fina Puigdevall (has hotel)
Mas Pau - just outside Figueres - Xavi Sagrista (has hotel)
Estany Clar - Cercs - Jordi Cruz
Hispania - Arenys de Mar
Some of these are among the best restaurants in Spain, holding one ore Michelin Stars or Campsa Soles.