Trip Report: Rioja, San Sebastian, Bilbao
Just returned from an incredible trip to Basque country in Spain (and a bit in France). Outstanding food, wine, scenery, architecture, art, etc.
I'll start with a quick recap of Rioja, with the preface that the food in Rioja was very good, but paled considerably in comparison to San Sebastian (nothing shocking there). We were uniformly disappointed in the wines poured at the wineries themselves, but very happy with what we were able to order in restaurants at very fair (i.e. retail equivalent) prices.
Best meal in Rioja: Asador Alameda, Fuenmayor
We expected the incredible steak, like none you will find in the US in its earthiness and, yes, incredible fat. What we did not expect was the artistry of a fabulous lobster and seafood salad course, or the delicacy of a simple gazpacho amuse, or the depth of flavor in the croquettas. Great meal.
Runner-up: Hector Oribe, Paganos
More creative, but also less "of Rioja" as many of the dishes would not be out of place in a progressive US restaurant. The pigeon and duck dishes we had were both perfectly cooked, tremendously flavorful. Lovely foie gras. Delicious zucchini "ravioli" stuffed with suckling pig (I think). And an incredibly good rendition of cheesecake for dessert! Very enjoyable meal.
Good stuff: Pintxos on Calle Laurel, Logrono
We hit Logrono for Pintxos on a Sunday night and loved the experience of partaking with the locals. Mostly traditional (vs. San Sebastian's more inventive pintxos scene). From simple mushrooms to jamon iberico. A highlight though was a rustic foie in pedro ximenez, served with a nicely sweet Rioja "semi-dolce."
Don't bother: La Posada Mayor de Migueloa
Maybe not quite a tourist trap, but not much better in my opinion. The simple white asparagus saved the day. Their house wines are not bad, but nothing to write home about.
Other places we would have loved to have hit but couldn't make - Casa Toni, El Portal del Echaurren in Ezcaray,
As for winery visits, I would highly recommend the tours at Lopez de Heredia and Bodegas Baigorri, for two polar opposite takes on Rioja. Quick stops at Ysios for the architecture and Remelluri for the scenery are good ideas, the Gehry designed Marques de Riscal hotel is spectacular.
Tons of photos of the food and more on flickr at http://bit.ly/90LJp - so far I've just uploaded the first couple days in Rioja. San Sebastian and Bilbao to come as time permits!
Continuing on from Rioja... as good as Asador Alameda in Fuenmayor was, we had a feeling, a strong feeling, that the meals would get better as we traveled to San Sebastian.
Our plan was for three "big" lunches - Akelare, Etxebarri (on the way to Bilbao) and L'auberge Basque (over the border in the hills in France) - followed by pintxos for dinner each night back in town. I'll go into detail on each meal, but first a bit of background: choosing where to eat was very difficult - with Mugaritz, Arzak, and Berasetegui all getting serious consideration. In the end, I heard way too many negative comments about Mugaritz. Etxebarri was the most uniformly lauded, so that was an easy call. And Akelare sounded like the closest thing to a sure bet amongst the rest, with the view giving it an edge over Arzak for the experience. L'auberge Basque was a bit out of left field, but the idea of driving up into the hills in France for an up and coming 1 star chef was very appealing. As well as the thought that Arzak and Akelare might be a bit too similar to do on consecutive days. The three restaurants we ended up with all delivered fabulous meals, as did the San Sebastian (and, to a lesser extent, Bilbao) pintxos scene. The big lunch and pintxos dinner approach also worked well - no way could I do an Akelare for lunch then another major sit down meal for dinner (though in reality, I might have eaten almost as much grabbing various pintxos, and definitely consumed more foie in pintxos bars than at any one sit down meal!). So in the end, our planning seemed to be good.
First up, Akelare. The drive up to Akelare from San Sebastian offers some stupendous views, first back over San Sebastian from Monte Igeldo, then out the ocean, then, on the other side of the road, the green valleys and hills inland. The property is nestled atop a cliff overlooking the ocean - spectacular view - but the property is currently in a state of construction under and around the main restaurant, marring the view slightly. They were not working on the construction while we were there, and I imagine they make a point of not interrupting diners, which will make for a very slow project (building out a small luxury hotel around the restaurant). The main dining room is fairly sparse and modern, with the focus on the large glass windows and their view of the seas.
Two "degustation menus" were on offer, as well as a la carte, and our table of four decided to go with two of each of the two tasting menus. One was titled "Aranori" and one "Bekarki" though there was no clear reason for that.
To sum things up, spectacular, creative, delicious, stimulating, decidedly Spanish. A few of the dishes were revelations (wild mushrooms with "egg noodles" and the vegetable "ravioli" come to mind), a few were stronger in concept than in delivery though still very good ("peach in syrup" and the first few bites of the "milk and grape in parallel evolution"). Nothing really disappointed. Service managed the nice balancing act of professional and friendly. The wine selection was very good, and we focused on options from nearby Rioja - choosing the spectacular Remelluri blanco and a very nice, big, deep, smoky Izadi Seleccion 2001.
Here's the rundown of courses with very brief commentary:
Gazpacho shots: perfect, exceptional, incredibly smooth and bright
Lolipop!: another simple visual treat, playing with the idea of a savory take on a candy form
Bonbons: Zurrukutuna (cod with garlic), Black Pudding Rollers, Oysters eaten with Shell, Artichoke and Almond “Polvoron”: What a visual treat. The oysters in edible half shell (white cocoa if I remember correctly) were spectacular bursts of the sea, the black pudding rollers were sinful little debbie bites of goodness.
Crab and its Coral: stunningly beautiful and delicious, a warm crab claw and cold crab surrounded by miniature "false" vegatables - a horseradish shaped from horseradish gel that served as a perfect foil for the cold crab, a mushroom made of mushroom meringue, and a real miniature cucumber so tart.
Little Pearls and Porous Foie Gras, Toasted Peanut Bread: melt in your mouth foie in two unusual forms, small pearls and what must have been a liquid nitrogen frozen foam that had a cold crunch at first before melting into familiar foie decadence.
Mollusks in the Net of the Fisherman: another visual stunner, another dish that popped with the essence of the sea, using dried tiny shrimp for texture, garlic powder based net, and a tremendous assortment of perfectly cooked mollusks - the razor clams being my favorite.
Prawns and French Beans cooked in Orujo Fire: prawns flambeed in Oruju tableside, simple and delicious with a nice tinge of burnt crispiness around the shells.
Wild Mushrooms and "Egg Pasta": a seemingly simple dish that was among my favorites, the incredible mushrooms playing with the soy (and sesame?) puree, extruded egg whites and yolk "noodles" adding richness and balance, strong hints of Japanese cuisine here
Vegetables Ravioli: pure, intense, beautiful vegetables centered around an indulgent melt in your mouth lardo ravioli, wow.
Red Tuna with Onion Threads and Roasted Peppers: when the elements of this dish were combined in one bite, it really really worked nicely - the rare firm tuna, the rich smooth pepper puree, the crisp and sweet onion - perfect.
Integral Red Mullet with Sauce Fusili: maybe the least successful savory course in my mind - though I did love the fish stock reduction coating the mullet (thus, integral) - as the gelled fusili sauces were a bit more strange than good, and their texture did not add to the dish.
Roasted Baby Pig with Tomato Bolao and Iberian Emulsion: wow good, tender meat, crisp skin, sweet apple sauce that started as a thick jelly then melted into the emulsion - a lot going on and it all came together beautifully.
Loin of Lamb roasted in “Live Coal”: cool idea - black squid tempura coated vegetables that look like coal under the lamb - really really nice.
Milk and Grape, Cheese and Wine, In Parallel Evolution: I just love this conceptually, the notion of milk and grapes in a paired progression. The first two bites set up the concept but really don't deliver a great bite - but the next three are all seriously excellent - the idiazabal with membrillo, the torta del casar with pedro ximenez soaked raisins (WOW WOW WOW), and the roquefort ice cream, all incredibly crave-worthy.
Xaxu and Coconut Iced Mousse: just delicious, the smooth coconut mousse was fabulously good.
“Peach in Syrup”: better concept than delivery in my opinion - what looks like a peach is spooned out of a jar of syrup onto the plate, but a tap of a spoon reveals it to be a (beautiful, perfect) edible shell containing a peach puree. Certainly a visual impression, but I just didn't care too much for the end product.
Another Apple Tart: a delicious apple cream mille-fueille topped with extraneous white cocoa "paper" with printing on it - very good, but the "paper" was simply overkill.
Chocolates, Pear Leather cover: Again, like the apple tart, this dish suffered a bit from an extraneous gimmick - the pear "leather" sealing a bowl of delicious chocolates.
With dessert, we also enjoyed delightful glasses of Jorge Ordonez Malaga Old Vines #3, fabulous, pure orange blossom and honeysuckle. What a way to end a beautiful meal with a beautiful view.
All the photos on our trip flickr set - http://bit.ly/90LJp
(first off, if there's a way to embed photos, I haven't figured it out - you can see all the photos for these at http://bit.ly/90LJp)
And now on to L'auberge Basque, http://www.aubergebasque.com/, a Michelin one star with a young chef who trained under Alain Ducasse - Cédric Béchade, 32. My parents read about the restaurant in Travel and Leisure, where the chef offered this lovely summary of his philosophy in the kitchen - “Every menu is built around the idea: Take what’s best, right now, then take something traditional, something of this place, and then figure out how to make them modern together.” They have an open kitchen, which we were lucky enough to be seated by, and the chef was meticulously finishing the plating for every beautiful dish that went out of the equally beautiful kitchen.
The restaurant is located in tiny Helbarron St Pée sur Nivelle, 7 km from St Jean de Luz, a bucolic drive out into the French Pays Basque hills. The dining room is modern and visually clean, attached to an old rustic farmhouse converted to a modern inn, and the dining room has a large wall of windows opening out onto the green countryside, farms and hills. A lovely setting for a fine meal. There were several menus on offer when we arrived - a three course set menu for 25 euro, a four course for 38 euro, plus a la carte or a larger menu degustation. Well, the first two were too good a deal to pass up - we ordered two of the three course menus and two of the four course menus, no overlapping dishes, for the four of us.
This was a meal marked by creativity, bridging Basque, Spanish and French influences deftly and artfully. The chef's meticulous nature is evident on every plate. And it is a true bargain at those special menu prices.
The room was full with what appeared to be locals to the area, but this place is definitely worth seeking out, even from San Sebastian about 40 minutes away. The service was a mixture of polish and youthful inexperience - after I got home, I read about their lauded sommelier and noticed his photo - for some reason, he was helping out with the service, but was not the one who came to our table to discuss wine (nor did he stop by to help refill our empty glasses on a few occasions). I'm willing to overlook those issues though for such a promising meal at such bargain prices, especially as the culinary highs were so very high. Two of the dishes on these affordable menus may have bested anything we had at Akelare - on par at least, if not better. Nothing we tasted was less than very good, and the Basque touches made for a meal that you simply won't find in Paris or New York.
So here's the rundown with brief commentary on each dish:
Pepper popcorn and blood sausage crisps: At least I think the crisps were blood sausage, a common Basque treat. The popcorn was crisp and enticingly peppery - from local Piment d'Espelette.
Amuse - tuna fish with pepper jelly: Very interesting, the clear gelatinous pepper jelly had an off-putting texture, but the flavor came together so nicely with the tuna fish when spread on a piece of good crusty bread.
Green apple and berry gazpacho with foie gras mousse and vegetable chips: This may have been the dish of the trip, rivaling anything at Akelare or Etxebarri. A fabulous marriage of flavors, textures, colors. The light mousse flavored with foie gras was buried under the gazpacho, adding a rich creaminess to the sharp acidity and sweetness of the fruits. Vegetable chips, basically like the packaged Terra chips (that's good in my book!), added a welcome crunch.
Le Marmitako des pecheurs, refroidi aux Txakoli, patates douces au piment d'Espelette (tuna a la Marmitako (a Basque stew), cooled in Txakoli, with sweet potatoes and Espelette pepper): Simply wonderful and perfectly of the area.
Le Merlu de Ligne de Saint Jean , au the Lapsang Souchang, pomme fondant au persil, piment doux de Gernika (Line caught Hake St. John, with Lapsang Souchang tea, potato and fondant of parsley and Gernika sweet green pepper): another amazing, incredible dish of elegance and beauty. The fish medallions were perfectly cooked, tender with just the right firmness, a delicate tea sauce underneath, and a gorgeous and enticing green and white layered "fondant" of sweet green Gernika peppers and potato. Again, as good as anything at Akelare, which is saying a lot.
Lamb loin with polenta, red and spicy green peppers: The rich meat paired well with a creamy, grit-like polenta, and a mixture of flavorful peppers. Very good.
Cheese course, les fromages: a nice selection of cheese, both local and from further afoot. Always love a good cheese course - these cheeses were clearly well taken of.
La Reine Claude, poelee au mielle de Bruyere, gaztanbera et gaufre au thym ("Queen Claude," plums cooked in heather honey, crepe with gaztanbera cheese and thyme): this one didn't do too much for me, not bad, but nothing too impressive either beyond the visual delight of the formed crepe.
Peach with cheese ice cream and almonds: Now this one was good, the cheese ice cream (one form or another of which appeared on our meals at Akelare, here and Extebarri, all fabulous renditions) was a perfect foil for the sweet poached (I believe) peaches with crisp almond and firm whipped cream.
Coffee and a few more sweet treats: we had this outside on the beautiful patio with a view of the countryside, delightful.
For the wines, we asked for local or regional suggestions and enjoyed a very interesting Domaine Arretxea Irouleguy 2007, a local tannat blend that was earthy with nice dark fruit, also a very enjoyable viognier-like Riente Albarino 2006. The wine menu was a nice mix of (mostly pricey) French and (mostly affordable) Spanish wines!
Up next... Etxebarri!
Continuing the journey...
The meal I was most excited about on this trip was not Akelare, it was Etxebarri, out in the countryside in the tiniest of tiny villages, Axpe. Maybe it was Anthony Bourdain's visit on "No Reservations: Spain" that made the notion of a meal at Etxebarri seem so important, so anti-establishment, so ... delicious. (at least three other tables, Americans and Canadians, were all there because of Anthony Bourdain - Etxebarri surely owes him a share of receipts) Or maybe it was the relentless accolades I kept reading, or my friend who went there a few months ago and said I should go there twice and forsake another meal somewhere else. I mean, this is a place in the middle of nowhere, the tiniest little village somewhere between Bilbao and San Sebastian. A place in the middle of nowhere that is literally a pilgrimage stop. A pilgrimage for foodies, especially those baptized by St. Anthony Bourdain, shown the gospel of a fanatical man who invented his own grills and instruments, meticulously experimented with different woods and coals to find the perfect match for each dish. In any case, I tried to dampen my own extreme expectations, because I know when expectations are too high, disappointment is sure to follow. So, dampen, dampen, dampen I did, to the point that I was expecting something simple, something good, yes, but something simply good. Well.... that was blown away when course number two arrived. But that's getting ahead of myself.
The road from San Sebastian to Etxebarri is not the most scenic in the world, at least compared to the road to Akelare or the road to L'auberge Basque. Yes, it starts with rolling hills, and ends under looming mountains, but in between is a whole host of industrial no man's lands. On top of the warehouse row barrage, there was a barrage of rain pouring down on our car throughout the drive, deep heavy clouds shrouding the view of the mountains most of the time. The rain continued throughout the meal, though we were happily ensconced inside the old stone walls of the restaurant and didn't really care about the outside world by that point. Axpe appears suddenly after many turns that lead you to believe you must be going the wrong way. First, a single farmhouse, then a quick collection of four or five stone buildings, a church, a courtyard, Etxebarri. That's about it. We parked, made a dash through the rain, walked through the awkward dimly lit downstairs bar, up the stairs, and into what is many insist is one of the great temples of grilling in this world. And so it began...
Amongst the four of us, we chose to do three of the 12 course tasting menus and a smattering of other dishes to enable us to try a few more things. Foie gras, grilled grouper, a beef filet to compare against the bone in steak. Keeping my mind on simple was easy at first - the menu reads exactly this:
Handmade smoked butter
Grilled goose barnacles
Grilled Palamos prawn
Grilled frog’s legs
Grilled baby squid
Grilled salt cod
Grilled beef on the bone
Wild fruit infusion, fresh goats cheese ice cream
Figs, smoked milk ice cream
Simple, right? Grilled this, grilled that. A tomato. Butter. Chorizo. What could be more basic? And the chorizo kept up the illusion momentarily. It WAS simple. It was good, yeah, but simple. Chorizo on bread.
And what we were drinking? Local txakoli, Itsas Mendi. Simple again, good and simple. We ended up ordering a second bottle just to make sure it was still good. All of 18 euros.
Then course number two came. Handmade smoked butter. Now the whole simple notion started to unravel a bit. Butter, yes. Smoke, sure. And then we took a small tentative bite. A bit of butter, a bit of the flakes of breadcrumb, a bit of... grilling heaven. The smoke intensity was phenomenal, the butter flavor clear and rich, the salt and the slight crunch of the breadcrumbs providing the necessary texture. Stunning. Mind altering. Butter. Simplicity be damned.
So now my expectations were blown away. The courses that flowed over the next couple hours mostly (mostly) validated the accolades. This is a cuisine, an approach, a restaurant like no other I've ever encountered or am likely to encounter again. This chef is not after Michelin stars or celebrity, he is after perfection, a very specific form of perfection where fire meets pristine ingredients from the nearby countryside and shore. He's on to something.
So I'll now launch into the blow by blow account of each course.
Tomato: I'm not sure what this was exactly. Well, it WAS a tomato. A more sincere and elevated taste of tomato has never crossed my lips. Superb.
Foie gras: This was very good foie gras. Nothing crazy, nothing particularly distinctive, but very good, and a very large portion.
Grilled goose barnacles: Percebes. Scary looking little boogers. My wife wouldn't touch the stuff, the more for me. These are among the most immaculate tastes of the sea one can find, firmer than an oyster, brinier than a scallop, cleaner than a clam. Taking them apart was delightfully easy, and the reward inside was simply lovely, despite the mean outward appearance.
Grilled Palamos prawn: Yes, this is among the most perfect prawns served in the world. Break off the head, suck in the deep rich juice, dig in to the tender, slightly smokey meat. Yes. Simple perfection.
Grilled mussels: After two dishes that literally were simplicity themselves, the mussels arrive with an incredible, sweet carrot sauce that again blows your expectations away. Knockout.
Grilled frog’s legs: OK, I'm not sure I "get" frogs legs. I know these were really good frog's legs, but to me, they are basically skinned chicken wings. The crunchy garlic on these was really nice, and, yes, I finished my own portion and my wife's. They were good, but not something I would order on their own.
Grilled baby squid: Now squid, I like. It's a dish that can go horribly wrong when not cooked just right. Too rough, too rubbery, too chewy, too bland. This was the perfect baby squid. Seriously. Likely the very best squid I have ever had, and, yeah, pretty simple.
Grilled grouper (ordered a la carte): Perfectly cooked, nice crispy skin, some lovely vegetables alongside. Delicious though a bit uninspired to tell you the truth.
Grilled salt cod: By this point, frankly, we were getting full. None of us even finished this dish. It just didn't deliver anything compelling. Based on our meal, fish is not the kitchen's strength, though shellfish and mollusks clearly are. I even noticed that they used a much more interesting plate for this dish than for any other, compensating?
Grilled beef filet: Good. After Asador Alameda (and before the next course) this was a bit of a letdown, and that surely is due to the choice of ordering a filet vs. another cut. What did make this dish really nice though was the amazing grilled red pepper served alongside the beef. Wow. Now that was good. And when you have a bite of the beef, with the red pepper, followed by a glass of Roda I Reserva 2004... well, now, THAT is VERY good.
Grilled beef on the bone: So, our expectations dampened once again on the prior couple courses, the monstrous plate of meat for the table arrived. After the smoked butter, this was the standout dish of the meal, the most elemental meat eating experience I have ever had. A caveman moment. A carnivorous carnival. The very epitome of meat plus fire. Yeah, it was that good. Nearly blue rare in the middle, crisply and densely charred on the outside, a smokey infusion coating the meat in every bite. I doubt I will ever have a steak like this anywhere else in the world.
Wild fruit infusion, fresh goats cheese ice cream: Wow. The third amazing cheese-based ice cream of the trip and every bit as good as the others. A simple, stunning dessert.
Figs, smoked milk ice cream: Again, the man has a way with ice cream and fruit. Fabulous flavors and texture. Delightful.
Heavily sated, practically sedated, we moved on to coffee (maybe our best of the trip actually, quite good, though I don't think he grilled it). Some almond-y, macaroon-y type cookies a perfect foil.
Etxebarri is an anomaly. There is no meal quite like this anywhere else. It is resolutely of its place, out in the countryside, sheep and cows in the field nearby. You have to be wanting what it is they do to make the trek out there, and I imagine that the vast majority of pilgrims walk away happy. Our meal was fabulous overall, a revelation at times, though a few dishes simply didn't deliver, and I have to say that the service was spotty. We had to ask for water three times before it was brought to the table. Our meager Spanish and their meager English made communication slightly difficult, and the two women who were managing the room were fairly robotic in their actions. They seemed to be programmed to deliver each course and not divert their eyes for any other purpose. I've read about an Australian sous-chef who has provided great service to a number of people, but he was evidently not there the day of our meal. Also, we had hoped to see the kitchen, but there was one large table that came in an hour after us and the kitchen wanted to stay focused on their cooking rather than show off the place, even for just a minute. Understandable, yes. Despite those bumps along the way, we did indeed walk away very happy. Cherishing a unique meal. And dreaming of smoked butter.
biskuit - thanks! my wife and i are going to spain/france in 2 weeks and this was very helpful. we had already booked a two night stay at the l'auberge basque and have a reservation for dinner there for one night. we are very excited.
question about exteberri. how much was it per person? also, how was is the trip from san sebastian? thanks!
jon, be sure to check out the photos on flickr, i wish i could have embedded them in the text here (i did over at egullet in their spain forum). you will love l'auberge basque - be sure to visit the town of espelette nearby (home of the famous peppers), it's a bit touristy, but there are some great sights and lots of great culinary items to try. the chocolatier called antton has a great dark chocolate with the piment d'espelette, and there is a fabulous little cheese shop nearby as well.
extebarri has the tasting menu for 120 euros, which is absolutely worth it in my opinion. they let you order individually, so you can do one tasting menu and then some a la carte items (which are pricey), but remember things like the prawn are just one per plate on the tasting menu. that and the smoked butter are the two things that you both really want a portion of in my opinion. it's about an hour from san sebastian, a major tollway most of the way if you so choose, then about fifteen minutes on a small industrial sorta road before it turns out into the countryside. they have good directions on their website.