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Jan 9, 2009 12:15 PM

La Rioja and Basque Region

In a couple of months, my husband and I will be spending 3 nights in Rioja, 1 night in Bilbao, and 3 nights in SS before spending some time in Madrid. We are definitely hitting up Extebarri--cannot wait!

I have enjoyed reading the posts debating the merits of the finer establishments in and around SS. However, there seems to be no definitive point of view. We are leaning towards Zuberoa and Arzak. I think Mugaritz is out because others seem so divided. Neither of us are that enthusiastic about molecular gastronomy, however, we eat everything. Husband is a a wine guy and has heard mixed things about experiences at Arzak and Akelare (like buyer bears the cost of a damaged bottle). If anyone has anything else to contribute to our decision making, I would love to hear!

Regarding Rioja, has anyone eaten at either of the restaurants at Marques de Riscal? We are staying there our first night and will probably eat at the hotel out of exhaustion. For the other two days we will be based in Abalos. Any more recommedations in this area would be great.

One last thing--if we have one lunch and dinner in Bilbao, is it a total waste to eat at MB in Guggenheim for lunch? Am excited to see the museum.

THANKS in advance for any additional advice!

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  1. The Guggenheim has 2 restaurants, a formal expensive one and a casual very inexpensive one. We had lunch at the informal restaurant, and the food was quite good, the meal included a bottle of wine and a bottle of water for 2. There were other wines available for a small surcharge but we opted to try the basic one and it turned out to be very good. In SS, we went to Akelare and Arzak, and had wonderful dinners at both. Akekare is more molecular, which normally does not appeal so much to us, but in this case they did an outstanding job of making really unusual dishes taste great. At Arzak, they were pushing the tasting menu, but we said we wanted to try some dishes that were not on it, so they (at no extra charge) brought us all the dishes we wanted to try in addition to those on the tasting. I know there are other great places in and around SS, but you will certainly not go wrong with these two. By the way, you should also do a tapas (or pintxos as they are known in Basque) tour of the old town in SS.

    1 Reply
    1. re: rrems

      Thanks-- that is really helpful. We are definitely planning on doing pinxtos in old town and gros. In fact, that might be what I'm most excited about.

    2. You are correct that there is not definitive point of view or consensus regarding to the top restaurants in Spain. Some of that is dued to individual preference and partly to inconsistencies, even at this level. I agree with the above poster that you can't go wrong with either Akelare or Arzak. I have had many meals at Arzak, only three at Akelare and I think right now, they are as good as they've ever been. Arzak is still run as a family restaurant and most of the staff have been there for many years. There is a sense of informality that is refreshing. The tasting menu usually start with two or three small courses than one is free to choose a seafood, then a meat course then couple of desserts from the menu. There will be the usual pre meal tapas and post dessert sweets. Free feel to as Senora Espina, who runs the dining room, for recommendations; they are very accommodating. There are two main dining rooms, the older traditional one with windows facing the street and a new modern extension. The first floor bar is warm and inviting. Make sure to ask for a tour of the kitchen.
      Akelare has more of an international feel. One enters to a beautiful bar that leas to the modern dining room that has a beautiful view of the valley. I had the tasting menu last year and it was terrific. Ask for a table near the window.
      As for Zuberoa, skip the tasting menu which has too many modern dishes which are not the restaurant's strong suit. Let the staff know that you prefer the traditional dishes such as the roast lobster, foie gras, pigeon and suckling pig. Don't over-order as the cooking is rich and portions large.

      1 Reply
      1. re: PBSF

        Thanks for the advice regarding Zuberoa--we'll use it. Maybe Akelare for lunch...

      2. Mugaritz was our best meal among the "big" 3 that we had at the SS area last spring. Arzak was good but did not top Mugaritz, while Akelarre was a few notches below. We will definitely do Mugaritz and Extebarri when on our return visit, and skip Akelarre and Arzak. The robust wine list, with lots of nuggets at terrific prices, was a huge bonus at Mugaritz.

        I don’t know where Abalos is, but when we were at Rioja Alta and Alavesa regions, we based ourselves at Laguardia and had good meals at the following:

        Castillo el Collada – this is a pretty and elegant small hotel by the walls of the highest area of the hill town of Laguardia. A somewhat formal restaurant by small-town standards offering good Riojan specialties and very well-priced (CHEAP) local wines, a lot with prestigious labels, that will normally cost in the hundreds in US restaurants.

        Hector Uribe – located in the much smaller town of Paganos which is about 15-minute drive downhill from Laguardia towards Haro. A favorite by local winemakers, this very small gourmand restaurant offers a terrific bargain of Euro 33 chef’s full tasting menu, helmed by the up-and-coming Hector Uribe. If you decide on this, you will have to reserve as far ahead in advance for a table. This was one of our favorite during the trip.

        If you plan on visiting wineries with restaurants, Dinastia Vivanco in Briones provides an excellent value prix fixe lunch, complete with a bottle of wine, at about Euro25 per. The Riojan bean stew with morcilla still lingers in my memory up until now. The restaurant is as elegant as the main winery building. You must reserve in advance.

        You can Google them for phone numbers and other contact information.


        3 Replies
        1. re: RCC

          Thanks, I had heard about Hecto Uribe and am now more intrigued--not far at all from where we are staying and will likely check out Dinastia Vivanco's restaurante for lunch one day. However, we want to do tapas in Logrono one afternoon... Maybe Hector Uribe for dinner.

          1. re: slsharp

            Digging up my notes on Bilabo and SS for a few more:


            Marisqueria Serrantes II in a very nice commercial area of Bilbao for some very good fresh and hearty seafood dishes done in the traditional Basque ways. This was recommended by our concierge and we were happy to find to take them up on it. Like almost all of the restaurants that we’ve gone to in this part of Spain, the wine list provides extensive coverage of the Rioja region with pricing that will easily compete with retailers in the US.

            Café Iruna is a very busy institution in Bilbao whose Serrano jamon tapas were truly one of a kind. They were not even the bellota kind, but we gorged on them at the bar while waiting for our table during lunch. An extremely popular place with local businessmen, especially with the Euro 15 lunch prix fixe that included a bottle of Montecillo Rioja crianza.

            Tapas in San Sebastian:

            Cuchara de San Telmo in old SS is easily the best tapas place that we’ve encountered during our crawls. There are a lot, yes, A LOT of excellent tapas bar in the city, but I’m going out on a limb to say that this one tops them all. From our research, the chef/proprietors were sous chef at El Bulli. You’ll just have to deal with the extremely crowded ambiance.

            Tapas bar at the basement of the Mercado Bretxa, fresh foods market at the fringe of the old town. The fresh baccalau tapas, and I don’t normally eat baccalau here in the States, was awesome and so were the other fresh seafood tapas, with a couple of glasses of txakolin. A must for us when we return

            You're on your way to one of the best culinary region at the most reasonable prices that I have ever come across. Have fun.

            1. re: RCC

              Great--San Telmo sounds awesome. We are excited!

        2. If you happen to be near Pamplona, or have time to make a day trip there from SS, it is an interesting city, and the lunch we had there at Rodero was wonderful. We walked around checking out the menus at the Michelin-starred establishments and this one looked like the most interesting and best-priced, so we tried it and were thrilled.

          2 Replies
          1. re: rrems

            Hi there -- if you still haven't left yet, here's some info about Rioja region.

            HIGHLY recommend a stop in Logrono for a tapas crawl. Here are some of my notes from last January -- and will actually be in Logrono and BCN next week for work.



            1. re: Vinoguy

              Have not left yet and already enjoyed your notes on Logrono--wonderful descriptions. Please post if you have anything to add upon your return. Enjoy!

          2. Bumping this to repeat the question on Marques de Riscal - anyone eaten at their restaurant??? I've read the chef from El Portal in Echaurren is behind it, so it should be good, right?

            In Rioja, we're thinking of doing Hector Oribe and Asador Alameda for lunches, and one night of pintxos in Logrono. The other night is open.

            Etxebarri is a definite betwen San Sebastian and Bilbao. Likely to hit one of the Guggenheim places in Bilbao, as well as pintxos there at night. And San Sebastian is the confounding one - how to decide between Mugaritz, Arzak, and Akellare (among others). I'm leaning Mugaritz and Akellare, but could be convinced otherwise. Doing lunches at both, and pintxos in San Sebastian for late dinners those nights.

            Any further suggestions appreciated!