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Madrid / San Sebastian / Barcelona - help me pare down

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We are taking our second trip to Spain in March, spending 3 days each in Madrid, San Sebastian, and Barcelona (I know, not enough time - what can you do?). We were in Madrid and Barcelona about 4 years ago and have some favorites to return to, and I've been doing much studying here and elsewhere (there are some great threads and posters here, and thanks already for several tips). We like both traditional and contemporary cooking styles and have enjoyed some of the U.S. takes on the latter (i.e., Alinea, Jose Andres' Minibar). We like to eat tapas-style and I also enjoy tasting menus, though Mrs. F will only have patience for a few of the latter. I have started to put together something of a "hit list" for each town and would appreciate insights and suggestions.

One additional complicating factor is that we will be arriving in Madrid on Sunday and will have Sunday / Monday in Madrid, and again Sunday / Monday in Barcelona. Suggestions for places open on these days are particularly welcomed.

MADRID

Viridiana - we have to return to get Mrs. F the huevos con mousse de hongos y trufas. I think they are open Mondays, am I mistaken?
La Terraza - Ferran Adria spin-off in the Casino de Madrid. Recommended to me by a friend with pretty good taste; don't know if I'll ever have a chance to get to El Bulli. Don't see any mention of it here. Any thoughts?
I don't have many other sit-down dinner type places on my Madrid list (Lhardy?), but have several tapas bars - a string along the Cava Baja - El Tempranillo, Tximiri, Casa Lucio, La Camarilla; and nearer to home base (likely the Villa Real), Las Bravas, Vinoteca Barbechera. Bocaito. Any more suggestions, particularly around the Plaza Santa Ana and/or open Sundays?

SAN SEBASTIAN

Restaurants: Arzak, Mugaritz, Akelarre, Etxebarri
There's already an excellent thread discussing all of these, but feel free to chime in with thoughts. I have three days here, though Mrs. F may not have patience for three alta cocina tasting menus. I get the impression Etxebarri is better as a lunch destination; can it be turned into a Bilbao day-trip if you rent a car?
Tapas: La Cuchara de San Telmo, Alona Berri, Bar Bergara.

BARCELONA

Again we have the Sunday/Monday issue in Barcelona, so there's only one night in Barcelona when all options will be available, otherwise we're picking among what will be open.

Restaurants: ABaC, Alkimia, Ca l'Isidre, Casa Calvet, Cinc Sentits, Comerc 24, Cuines Santa Caterina, Embat, Gresca, Passadis del Pep.
Tapas: Tapac 24, Paco Meralgo, Takitka Berri, Bar Mut, La Vinya del Senyor, Xampanyet, El Quim & Pinotxo in the Mercat de la Boqueria, Bar Inopia, Quimet y Quimet.

Particular suggestions among these or others for Sunday/Monday options in Barcelona? For those places that are not open either Sunday/Monday, any thoughts on paring the list down?

Thx.

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  1. Some follow up questions -

    - I got a reply message to my reservation request at Arzak saying that only the smoking section is available the day we wanted to book. We are not smokers and I can easily see that interfering with a great meal. Am I silly to be considering canceling or trying to get another day?

    - is there any wine-touring to be done by day-trip from Madrid, San Sebastian or Barcelona? It looks to me like Rioja region is about 2 hours from San Sebastian, and I know from the new Marques de Riscal resort, but don't know what else is wine-tourist friendly. Likewise looks like Priorat is about 2 hours from Barcelona but I don't know if the wineries are accessible to visitors.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Frodnesor

      Appreciate the insights. We went to Bilbao on our last trip so we don't *have* to do it again (though I was quite charmed by the town, to say nothing of the museum). Regardless of the Bilbao day-trip question, for San Sebastian, might it make sense to do bigger meals at lunch, especially for those out of town (i.e., Akelarre, Etxebarri, Mugaritz) and then eat lighter tapas in town for dinner? Aside from making it easier to find the places, it seems like both would be scenic drives, and from the website the views from Akelarre are quite impressive.

      Appreciate the heads-up on Terraza. If that's off the list, maybe we'll go more old-school for one meal in Madrid. I'd hate to have a less-than-thrilling experience at the spin-off and then have Mrs. F wonder why I'd still want to go to El Bulli.

      Cinq Sentits was off my radar screen for Barcelona until I saw mentions of it here and on eGullet. Any more insights on it? Also mentioned elsewhere were Senzone, Dos Palillos, and DiverXO, the last of which seems out-of-the-way but apparently is the foodies' darling right now. Any comments on these? I'm also taking a close look at La Dama and would love to hear if others have any feedback on it.

      1. re: Frodnesor

        Lunch or dinner depends on how much sightseeing one wants to do during the afternoon. Generally, a lunch at one of the top restaurants will take up most of the afternoon, leaving little time for other activities. Still, my preference is always for long leisurely lunch and a light evening tapas/pintxos meal. A big dinner usually goes past midnight and then off to bed can be uncomfortable and tiring.
        Unlike restaurants outside of Barcelona or San Sebastian, I have not found any restaurants in Barcelona or Madrid as a 'must'. Cinc Sentits has been discussed quite a bit on this board, including a few of my posts. It is very good but it not any better than others in the same category. Consistency is one of its strong point.
        Senzone, dos Palillos and DiverXO are the current hot restaurants that are doing some form of modern fusion cooking. They are not the type of restaurants I look for when I am in Madrid. I've heard good reports from friends but like any restaurants of this type, it will also get a few detractors. If the style of cooking appeals, to you, should definitely try one.
        Restaurants on my "must" list because they are unique and excellent:
        Around Barcelona: El Celler de Can Roca, El Raco de Can Fabes, Hispania, Rais de Galicia
        Around San Sebastian: Etxebarri, Arzak, Akelare (based on my last meal), pintxos in the Parte Vieja
        Madrid: Viridiana, Combarro and tapas crawl in Latina

      2. re: Frodnesor

        Interesting. I just requested a reservation some months hence and was told the same thing--we had to take smoking because non-smoking is "fully booked." Hmmmm.

      3. We were in Barcelona on a Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Saturday dinner was at Cinq Sentits, Sunday lunch at La Dama, Sunday dinner at Senyor Parellada, and Monday dinner at Alkimia. We were very happy with these choices. We also had tapas twice at the Basque place across the street from Santa Maria del Mar, which I can't recall the name of. When I reserved at Arzak, only the smoking room was available, and while I would have preferred non-smoking, it was not intrusive enough to ruin our dinner, and we were very glad we went. I think a trip to Bilbao and lunch at Etxebarri may be too ambitious for a day trip. If you get a very early start, you could see the Guggenheim and then head to Extebarri for a late lunch, but you will not see anything more of Bilbao. We went to the museum in the late morning, had lunch there (in the casual restaurant, which was very good and a bargain), then walked around the old city. By the time we got back to San Sebastian it was early evening.

        1. think your lists for the three destinations are good.
          Although there are some good tapas and pintxos places in Barcelona, I would save those for Madrid and San Sebastian, respectively. An exception might be La Vinya del Senyor, which has a limited tapas menu but wonderful wines and a near perfect outdoor setting on the busy c/Argenteria in front of Santa Maria del Mar. For modern Catalan restaurants, I would choose any among Alkimia, Hisop, Cinc Sentits, Olive, Sauc or Abac; the last two being a little more ground. Abac is also the most expensive. I’ve have not had much luck with the high end traditional Catalan restaurants. My single meals at Ca I'Isidre and Casa Calvet were good but not worth the high prices, especially for Ca I'Isidre but that was quite a few years ago. An earlier poster recommended La Dama and I’ve gotten great reports from friends; definitely on my list for next trip. For Sunday night, my choice would be Rais de Galicia for seafood. If you can spare an afternoon away from Barcelona (especially Sunday when the city is quiet and most of the restaurants are closed for dinner), I would have lunch at Hispania for traditional or El Celler de Can Roca in Girona for modern Catalan cooking. Both are easily reached by train and for me, better choices than any in Barcelona.
          For San Sebastian, I agree with an earlier post that it is difficult to visit Bilbao and have lunch at Etxebarri on the same day, unless you only want a peek at the Guggenheim. I’ve eaten many meals at Arzak and it remains my favorite. My last year’s dinner at Akelarre was one of the best meal I had in Spain, much better than a previous lunch a few years ago. After two meals at Mugaritz it remains a mystery to me. Save one evening for pintxo crawl in the Parte Vieja.
          Sunday night in Madrid is difficult though some tapas places will be open on Santa Ana. None of them are great but the outdoor seating on the Plaza is pleasant for people watching. Nearby is La Trucha on c/Manual Fernandez y Gonzalez, lively with excellent fried tapas and good salads. Skip the branch nearby on c/Nunez de Arce, which is always empty. Next to La Trucha are two other good tapas places, La Toscana and El Lacon. Just a few blocks east of Santa Ana is Huetas and Pl. Jesus where there are tons of good tapas places. Lhardy is great for old elegant atmosphere but very expensive and I don’t find it worth it. I’ve eaten twice at La Terraza with a large group of food people. Both times were disappointing and does not come close to the meal I had at El Bulli in 2000. Maybe it is different for a small party. I would save that for a trip to Can Roca, outside of Barcelona. Madrid has some of the best seafood, therefore, if I want to splurge, I would definitely do one of the marisqueria such as Combarro, La Trainera or Casa da Troya. Or one of the asador such as Tierra Aranda or Ansorene Imanol. For more traditional: Arce or Sacha.

          1 Reply
          1. re: PBSF

            I don't really have anything to add as far as Madrid goes. As for Barcelona... I found Cal l'isdre to be just awful. I loved taking the train to Sant Pau for Carme Ruscadella. It and Arzak were honestly the best "fine" meals that I had in Spain. It is so worth the trip. There is also a beautiful little jewel of a restaurant, Semproniana (Rosselló, 148 08036 Barcelona), that is funky and fabulous. The chef/owner is a woman who makes amazing food. I ate there twice because it was so yummy. In San Sebastian I love Arzak and strolling at night stopping into pintxo bars. My favorites were La Cuchara de San Telmo, La Cepa, Bar Ganbara, Bar Bergara, and Txepetxa. Oh and Gatzelu which i think is called Juanaenea now. I wouldn't miss Arzak even if i had to put up with smokers! And Mugaritz is something really special. Gosh - I'm so jealous that you get to go!

          2. No need to take up too much space. Will say that Commerc 24 was really good in Barca.I am not as high on San Seb as most and I only know the tapas joints by location and sight, not by name. There was one place I have not been to that I am very interested in there but I cannot recall the name, either. Was along one of the main vias in town, down some stairs.Traditional cooking, packed with natives.
            Bilbao is just so right, best lamb kebabs I have ever had and that really means something.Again, I don't know names, sorry, but I can find it on a map.Also, lovely bit of a bakery in town, has a fancy look about it. Spanish chocolate work is underrated.
            I would be most interested in Etxebarri of the high end big name joints.

            1. San Sebastian and environs provided some of the best culinary experience of any city that we've been to i Europe. Doing the tapas crawl in SS is fun and a culinary delight, with La Cucahara de San Telmo in old SS as one of the highlight.

              During our trip last spring, we enjoyed Mugaritz very much and was not that impressed with our meal at Akelarre. Mugaritz pushed the boundaries of good flavors and amazing dish execution to a higher level; while Akelarre tried but was clearly not in the same league as Mugaritz as their execution was not as polished. We'll definitely do Muagaritz again when we're back in the area, as well as try Etxebarri,

              1. Here is how the itinerary is shaping up:

                Madrid
                Sun - tapas in Cava Baja (La Camarilla, Casa Lucas, Casa Lucio, El Tempranillo ...) and/or around Pl. Santa Ana (La Trucha, El Lacon, Las Bravas, Vinoteca Barbechera ...)
                Mon - dinner @ Viridiana
                Tue - ???

                SS
                Wed - tapas in Barrio Gros (Alona Berri, Bar Bergara, Casa Senra, El Lagar Bodega, Hidalgo 56 ...)
                Thu - dinner @ Arzak
                Fri - lunch @ Akelarre, tapas dinner in Parte Vieja (La Cuchara de San Telmo, La Cepa, Tamboril, Bar Ganbara, Meson Martin ...)

                Still trying to figure out how to squeeze Etxebarri in. I don't want to try to find it in the dark, but we get in too late for lunch on Wed, and I sure can't see doing it for lunch and Arzak for dinner on Thu. Anyone have thoughts on whether Etxebarri still worth doing if you do NOT do a tasting menu?

                The division of opnion on the high-end San Sebastian places is interesting. Seems that each of them have their champions and detractors. Mrs. F really wanted to go to Arzak, and she only has limited patience for these meals, and for whatever reason I felt that Akelarre would hit the mark better than Mugaritz.

                Barcelona
                Sat - Alkimia / Cinc Sentits / Dos Palillos are all in the mix for dinner
                Sun - La Dama / Paco Meralgo
                Mon - Gresca / Semproniana / Rias de Galicia ?
                Grab some breakfasts & lunches at Boqueria, Tapac 24 ...

                Let me throw a few additional questions out there:
                - Quimet y Quimet - worth a visit?
                - May do a day-trip to Toledo - Adolfo (Munoz)?
                - May do a day-trip to Cuenca - Meson Casa Calgadas?
                - I love tripe - where can I find the best callos?
                - jamon iberico de bellota - the platonic ideal of porkiness. Are there qualitative differences from one to another once you're talking about bellota, and if so, where can I find the best or a good sampling to compare?
                - also a big fan of various other pig parts - trotters, ears ... had a great stew at an Asador w/ ears, misc. other parts and white beans. Any suggestions for similar?
                - where would be a good place to get cocido in Madrid?

                1 Reply
                1. re: Frodnesor

                  There is never a consensus when it comes to high restaurants, that includes El Bulli. For Spain, I think it is due to individual preferences and the chefs constant urge to invent, transform and stretch the envelope. This inevitably leads to conceptual and consistency problem. This goes for my two favorite high end restaurants in Spain: Arzak and El Celler de Can Roca. No other great restaurants where I been served a course that is almost inedible follow by some of the best dishes. Always scratch my head over this. The only exception for me is El Raco de Can Fabes where the product and cooking are always top notch. But it is also the most conservative 3 star in Spain.
                  Quimet y Quimet is a small atmospheric wine bar that serves excellent tapas with seafood from cans because they do not have a cooking kitchen. Spain produces some of the best canned seafood product anywhere and Quimet uses top quality. It is standup only (not even any bar stools) and very crowded. Because it is a bit out of the way in Poble Sec and unless I have plenty of time in Barcelona, I would skip it. Couple of comments on Rias de Galicia. The simple preparations are the best and that it is very expensive, probably the most expensive place on your list for Barcelona. It is easy to spend 100E per person if you order some of the exotic items.
                  As for jamon iberico de bellota, it is serve in many of the good tapas places. You will see a jamon on a beautiful carving stand with the iberico de bellota tag still attached to the end of the leg. A racion wlll be about 15E to 20E. It is not difficult to find since most good deli will sell it, including the many branches of Museo de Jamon in Madrid. There are slight variation in style among the producers, therefore, how much you want to search will depends how serious you are. If you are interested, I would suggest Jamonisimo in Barcelona. The menu offer a tasting of from various producers. I would go there for a late lunch where the staff will have some time to chat. They are extremely helpful and the staff speak some English.

                2. If you are looking for a day trip on tuesday you could go to Segovia for lunch @ Candido, excellent roast suckling pig under the roman aqueduct, then walk it off in the gardens of La Granja (a summer palace) and head back to Madrid via the Sierra.
                  The fish restaurants recommended above such as La Trainera or Combarro are great in the evening.
                  In San Sebastian you may enjoy a visit to Chillida Leku a fantastic sculpture museum just a few km away from the centre of town.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Charlie_75

                    Thanks Charlie. On our last trip to Spain we visited Segovia (and Candido), we will probably day-trip to Toledo out of Madrid this time. The Chillida museum is also on my list, probably on the day we lunch at Akelarre.

                    1. re: Frodnesor

                      Found Toledo to be wonderful, both church and cooking knife shop nearby were world class. Interesting triangle would be to go to Chinchon for their anisette, loved lunch there and brought back many bottles of the liqueur.

                      1. re: Delucacheesemonger

                        Which knife store did you go to?

                        1. re: butterfly

                          Sorry, cannot remember. Bought a *ham* knife whose blade is 10" squared with the cutting edge rounded. It is magnificent. All l remember it very close to cathedral and is very old store and average sized.

                  2. Some near-final questions before we leave:

                    MADRID:
                    - Casa Lucio and Zalacain have been recommended to me in Madrid. Casa Lucio seems one of those "venerable institution" type places. How's the food? Zalacain?
                    - Any further insights on Tasquita de Enfrente?
                    SAN SEBASTIAN:
                    - I am at a crossroads and believe I have to make a choice between Akelare and Etxebarri for a lunch (unless we were to do one of them for lunch prior to a dinner at Arzak, which just seems like complete overkill which even I may not be up for). ??? Another possibility is to try to switch Akelare to a dinner Wed night when we arrive in S.S., though I thought it would be nicer to visit during the daytime to enjoy the views. Any words of wisdom?

                    Finally - any particular seasonal products we should keep our eyes out for in early March?

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Frodnesor

                      One thing to possibly sway you is that Akelarre is an absolutly stunning restaurant on a hill overlooking SS. While at night, you can't see anything (esp in Winter) it is fabulous for lunch. Food's not bad either.

                    2. Hi, Frodnesor: Quick question: What are the dates of your March trip? I just returned from Barcelona hours ago and *might* be able to assist with regard to your Barca needs. I did not want to begin posting only to have someone berate me for not realizing that the poster was already abroad (it has happened before, and is one of the reasons I am an infrequent poster. Apparently, unlike some others, I am not clairvoyant. It is a cross that this Brooklyn girl must bear).

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: ene

                        Ene,

                        I'm going to Barcelona in 2 weeks and would love to hear what you have to say about the restaurants, etc.

                      2. Thanks to all for the generous advice, just returned yesterday. The final itinerary ended up including Casa Lucas, Vinoteca Barberecha, Las Bravas, Viridiana, and Goizeko in Madrid, Arzak, Akelare, and too many tapas places to count in San Sebastian and Bilbao; Dos Palillos, Paco Meralgo, and Cuines Santa Caterina in Barcelona.

                        Highlights - percebes (goose barnacles) at Goizeko; the bizarre picture on the wall at Las Bravas; tapas in Barrio Gros in San Sebastian; the whole experience at Arzak; the view and the cochinillo at Akelare; navajas (razor clams) at Dos Palillos; calcots at Cuines Sta. Caterina.

                        I will update later with more info here and on my blog (link below) but wanted to thank everyone for their helpful input.

                        www.foodforthoughtmiami.com

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Frodnesor

                          Thanks for reporting back. I look forward to reading your detailed reports.