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Sep 24, 2010 09:38 AM

San Sebastian: Mondays and has Arzak overcome issues?

I realise there are quite a few San Sebastian threads, and they've been a huge amount of help in planning my holiday so far, but I have a couple of questions that I haven't found answers to - where that's good is open on a Monday and how Arzak has been recently or whether it's worth going somewhere like Martin Berasategui instead?

I'm going with my girlfriend from Sun-Thurs at the end of October. I'm a big foodie, and though she likes interesting things, she's not the most adventurous person in many ways (so we decided against Mugaritz) and wasn't taken (surprisingly) with the idea of Extebarri. We already have a reservation at Akelarre for Tuesday lunch.

I was hoping to find something a bit more traditionally Basque for Monday to ease us into things, though the two places that appealed from reviews - Casa Nicolasa and Bodegon Alejandro - are both closed then. Is Zuberoa a good option for this? Is there anywhere else worthwhile (starred or not) in the area that's open on a Monday?

For Wednesday, I like the idea of something both inventive and semi-traditional, so I'm drawn to Arzak, however I noticed a lot of 2009 posts from people disappointed with Arzak, suggesting the quality had dropped when Elena tooker over from Juan Mari. Has anyone been more recently and has an idea of whether these were teething problems that have been overcome or whether Arzak is relying on it's past reputation? Or would it be a better bet to go to Martin Beresategui, as I've seen lots of good reviews of his place? Also, does anyone know how much Arzak's tasting menu is now - Relais & Chateaux suggests €150-170, but I've heard reports of it being €190 now? It's not a huge issue if it's worth it, but at €190 it seems a chunk more than the other 3*s.

Many thanks for any advice!

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  1. I'd not been to Arzak before last year, so have only been there under Elena's "reign" in the kitchen. But we have had two very nice meals there - one in early 2009, and another this past month, and were not at all disappointed. It's one of my wife's favorites, and while she is not at all closed-minded, her threshhold is more limited than mine. She loved Arzak, was indifferent to Akelarre.

    Arzak is possibly not as cutting-edge any more as some of the other options, Mugaritz in particular (though a couple of the things in our most recent meal at Arzak were quite remarkable) but I don't see it as resting on its laurels. Our recent tasting menu was about 2/3 to 3/4 changed from the one we had last year. Another nice feature is that several courses have alternative options, so that you and your companion can try nearly twice as many dishes if you share.

    I believe the tasting menu was €160/pp but am not sure.

    You can read more about our 2009 meal here (I've not yet recapped our more recent one) ->

    I've not been to Beresategui. However, I would urge reconsideration of Etxebarri. Obviously, the preparation methods are more traditional than other places, and ingredient pairings are much more customary as well, but it was one of the finest meals I've had, and it was probably more "accessible" for someone who is less adventurous.

    1. Drogue, we're not going until next summer but I've already laid out a tentative schedule - mostly an eating schedule ;-) Sunday dinner and Monday are problematic for us too. I love a good chuleton de buey and I decided that Monday would be our Bilbao day trip / steak dinner. Here are a few places that were recommended by locals and maybe be open on Monday:

      La Cepa - bar & restaurant serving both pintxos and other food
      Aldanondo for traditional food and chuleton de buey

      2 Replies
      1. re: Aleta

        I am also in San Se' next summer. Being as my wife and I have not yet been to spain, what do you recommend while we're there. I've drug myself through all the forums but have yet to come up with a must do Top 5 Lunch and Dinner while we're there. We're going to splirge on about 4 or 5 meals, but the remainder we're looking for something affordable in the $50 lunch $100 Dinner range. All help is greatly appreciated.

        1. re: tbiven78

          highly suggest bar ganbara for excellent pintxos and tapas. their fried white asparagus was outstanding. it was so good, in fact, that we went every night we were in town. also really liked bodega donasteria. not a huge fan of alona berri bar, which was out of the way, expensive, and just not that great.

      2. Thanks to both of you for the replies. I've decided to go for Arzak for the other blow-out meal, since it seems a nice contrast to Akelarre and the location makes it easier for us than either Etxebarri and Martin Berasategui (I'd rather not bother hiring a car, as it stops me drinking). I'm sure I'll be back in San Sebastian before long, having the advantage of it being just a short flight from home, so I can try the other two on another occasion.

        I really like Aleta's idea about the chuleton de buey, as while I enjoy both, I tend to be more of a meat than a fish person, and it'd be nice to have a great steak as a counterpoint to all the wonderful seafood. I'm not sure where yet, Aldonondo looks like a great idea, but I'll have a quick search and try and find a traditional place open on Monday for lunch.

        Cheers for the responses, let's hope this holiday involves as beautiful food as I'm hoping...

        9 Replies
        1. re: Drogue

          drogue: just for reference, the chuleta de buey served at exteberri may be the single greatest food item i've ever eaten. in all honesty, words cannot describe how amazing it is.

          1. re: jon

            <<words cannot describe how amazing it is>> (re: chuleta de buey at Etxebarri) I've heard that from several reliable sources and that's why we need to see the pictures ;-)


            We're planning to have lunch there on a Sunday in July. They start taking reservations in January, fyi. BTW, the website above has pictures of THE chuleta de buey (#11) and also some dessert at Bodegon Alejandro (#10). What's a junket?

            1. re: Aleta

              Add me to the fans of the Chuleta de buey at Etxeberri (from an 18 yr-old bull). Possibly the best piece of 'beef' I've ever had (tied with some Wagyu Beef simply grilled in Australia). But a 'slight' caution - if you do the tasting menu, it's a relatively small portion - but if you do lunch, that could be a good thing.

              When I was there the sous-chef spoke English - but NOBODY else, so potentially that could be an issue - but you can always point!

              And junket is technically milk with rennet added (and flavourings) so it's essentially the first stage in turning milk/cream into cheese, before the curds and whey have separated. However, to me, it seems to be like a milky jello, crossed with yoghurt - and ALWAYS sweetened (in my experience).

              1. re: estufarian

                We did not find the steak portion particularly dainty in the context of the (lunch) tasting menu. In fact, my wife had signaled to our waitress before it came that she was getting stuffed, and so we presumably got a smaller portion, but it was still I would guess about a 12-14 oz. steak for us to split. As part of a 9-course meal it ws plenty.

                Pictures here ->

                There is a menu in English available. I didn't particularly notice that the waitstaff spoke no English, but that may be because I'm from Miami so I'm used to it. I speak very little Spanish other than a savant-like ability to read menus and order food, and so didn't find it to be an issue at all.

                1. re: Frodnesor

                  after speaking with the hostess, we actually decided not to do the tasting menu. i'm looking at our receipt (yes i kept because the entire experience was awesome), and it looks like we got .8 kg of the chuleta and it cost 44 euros. i'll also add that the jamon iberico de bellota was unreal as well. somehow better than all other jamon iberico de bellota's we ate on our trip.

                  1. re: jon

                    If my math proves correct, .8kg is approximately 12 oz. for 44 euros.

                    1. re: Aleta

                      Must be 'new math'.
                      I make it 28 ounces!

                      But at any price it's still an amazing piece of meat

                      1. re: estufarian

                        No, it's my BAD math! I can never get this conversion to metric straight! Thanks Estufarian. And thanks also for the explanation of the junket. I can't say that it sounded appetizing to me but maybe that's just because I haven't tried it.

                        1. re: Aleta

                          I'm not a junket fan anyway! So maybe I was a bit harsh - but nobody contradicted me!

        2. Just to say thank you to everyone for your suggestions, the holiday was amazing, the food especially.

          Lunch at Akelare was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. The view spectacular (on a beautifully clear day too), both tasting menus has some incredible elements and were very well balanced, the service was everything you can ask for (quick, somehow there when you needed them and discrete when you don't) and the sommelier was fantastic - some of the most interesting wine pairings I've had and a few of them were out of this world: ice cider with foie gras, 30yo palo cortado with veal and razor clam, an an incredible sweet Spanish red wine that I wish I could remember the details of. I was also a little surprised as I've heard of Akelare as a bit of a molecular gastronomy-type place, and while it was inventive, there was nothing too weird or unexpected, just fun, spectacular, innovative food. It hit exactly the right balance between theatre and indulgence, and the "mollusks caught in the net of a fisherman" was one of the prettiest dishes I'd ever seen, and the produce was uniformly amazing. I can't praise it enough.

          What's more, it was the perfect prelude to a romantic walk and getting on one knee with ring in hand overlooking the ocean...

          Dinner at Arzak the next day was our celebration. Though while it was a lovely meal, it was a distinct level below Akelarre in pretty much every respect. The food was very tasty, and to say it was devoid of wow factor would be unfair, but most of the dishes tasted just a tad more ordinary than I'd hoped. Still very good and well balanced, and I liked the way they asked how we liked our meat cooking before recommending which meats to have (and both the duck and lamb were exquisite). Though this was a bit let down by the service - lots of people milling around, yet it took 20 minutes for our aperitifs to arrive and of us sitting there with closed menus before our order was taken, our bread came with no oil until we finally caught a waitress 5 minutes later and asked for it, and a few times we ended up topping up our glasses (not that we mind, but this never got close to happening at Akelarre). Also the sommelier wouldn't do a flight of wines to go with the tasting menu - he claimed they couldn't open bottles for glasses like that as they wouldn't use them all, but it's a pretty large restaurant and with a set tasting menu it doesn't need that many bottles to be opened. Also, while he spoke great English, a couple of descriptions he gave didn't really ring true for me - after a bottle of white to go with the first 4 seafood courses (which was very well chosen), we wanted a glass of relatively-light red for the meats. I asked if they had any unoaked Spanish reds, since I had a wonderful bottle of unoaked Catalan wine in Barcelona a year or so ago, and he said they didn't, but he described their house Rioja as "Burgundy like". Me loving Burgundy, that sounded great. However it was actually quite a heavy red that tasted like a typical Rioja. Not a huge issue, it was a decent enough glass, but not really what we wanted. Then, having been so impressed with the sweet red at Akelarre, asked if they had a sweet red Spanish wine to go with our desserts. He said "of course", and came back with two glasses of Pedro Ximenez. Again, not a huge issue as we both happen to really like Pedro Ximenez, but I wouldn't call it a sweet red wine.

          All in all, Arzak wasn't a bad meal by any stretch, it was fun, innovative and tasty. But it wasn't quite as good produce, as much fun, as interesting, or simply as enjoyable as Akelare. Perhaps we were spoilt by Akelare the day before, as the (sadly stereotypically rather loud) Americans behind us were full of praise, but I expected slightly more from a restaurant with 3 stars and rated at #5 in Restaurants top 50.

          The other stars of our stay were Astelena, A Fuego Negro, Hidalgo 56 and Casa Gandarias. I won't give lots of details on them as people have said a lot about them on here already, but the 'shaken salad' (it bashes the red fruits and creates a dressing) at A Fuego Negro was fun and delicious, the Belondrade y Lurton at Gandarias was one of the nicest whites I've ever drunk (though sadly the food wasn't up to much, with the ham quite disappointing), and absolutely everything I ate at Astelena and Hidalgo 56 surprised me by how incredible it tasted.

          That lot and some romantic walks make it about the best 4 days I've ever had. I have little doubt that I'll be back. In fact, a small part of the reason for proposing there was to give us a reason to go back there enough that I can regularly indulge in such things (as you can tell, I ran out of adjectives a while ago!).

          3 Replies
          1. re: Drogue

            It seems at Arzak that particularly with the dessert wines, they give you whatever they feel like: on our last visit, I asked for a glass of Pedro Ximenez and got a Moscatel instead. Go figure. Congratulations on the engagement!

            1. re: Drogue

              Congratulations. For me good food is never an end to itself. Good food is there to enhance a beautiful story.

              1. re: Drogue

                Belated congrats, Drogue! I bet the meal at Akelare will be #1 on your list for a long time to come. So sweet!

                And thanks for reporting back with your food experiences too.