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Jul 20, 2011 05:29 AM

Spanish part of the Basque Country dining report

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Kuko Hotel eating
There is some great cooking but there are also shortcomings at this inn. The chef-proprietor and his wife don't seem entirely comfortable or attentive enough as innkeepers. On our first dinner, we ate some yummy fish, simply but effectively prepared with green peppers. On our second dinner there was a funny incident where dried linguine was passed off as expensive freshly-made spaghetti, the only menu option we were given (but for some last-minute, evidently frozen propositions like salmon). The spaghetti went into the kitchen from the dining room, where it was drying, but didn't come back out!

San Sebastian pintxos
We liked but didn't much love A Fuego Negro, which is more expensive and doesn't have the same classic vibe as some of the other bars. The most memorable pintxo there was a cherry-mint wafer topped with raw mackerel and sheep's cheese. Also very good olive-anchovy cocktail sticks. We loved (unexpectedly given the sometimes lukewarm reports on Chow) La Cuchara de San Telmo and were overjoyed to find it open on the Sunday night we were in town. It was our second night of pintxos, and post-Mugaritz, and we only ate there. Together with earlier dinner and lunch samplings, that meant we tried almost the entire menu. Highlights were the octopus, veal cheek, pig's ear, fried goat's cheese and cod cheeks but everything was delicious.

Total perfectionism, less smoky than expected (what with all the talk of special woods), sparkling, subtle preparations of exceptional ingredients. Don't need to say much about the food, which has been written up so much elsewhere and doesn't seem to vary so greatly, apart from a white tuna dish with tomato that was unbelievably soulful, sweet and pure. We appreciated the unpretentious middle-aged waitresses and the wine list with almost no mark-up at all (we drank a delicious Vega-Sicilia 2006 "Tinta del Toro" for a bargain 45 euros). The room is bland, however, and we did notice that the tasting menus are cooked for only a few tables simultaneously meaning some diners' timing can become very skewed. A couple at another table arrived 5 minutes after us but was on a different rota and wound up being almost an hour behind; and we were rushed at the start, unable to order wine until several courses in. Incidentally, I managed to imbed a shard of sharp, long shrimp antenna in my gum, which was painful and required a trip to the dentist back in London to extract it, apparently the weirdest thing he'd ever encountered!

This was maybe the most primal/elegant meal of the trip. Thanks for the suggestion Maribel! Together with the new Balenciaga museum in Getaria, it made up for our being disappointed both with staying at the Saiaz Getaria and with the town itself. Our grilled turbot cost 100 euros but was worth the pricing, huge and gelatinous. We devoured all 1.5 kilos of it! (They only offer quite large whole turbots since they think the smaller ones are too dry to grill, apparently.) Service, in part by waitresses in funky Balenciaga outfits, could be stern and charming depending on the person. Elkano seems to be doing a good job of bridging the gap between being a long-running traditional place and somewhere current.

This meal started out falteringly, with a mixture of either delicious or weird-bland amuse-bouches; had a fantastic middle section; and then tailed off anticlimactically with the meat and desserts. There were five dishes in a row in the middle that blew our minds: a risotto of zucchini seeds; a soup poured onto seeds you grind up yourself; linen seed "cheese" with mushrooms; cod and mastic; a beef tongue and onion nest. These were all thoughtful-experimental and immensely tasty. Then two of the following and largest dishes were close to inedible: crab stew made with an overpoweringly floral geranium flavouring; and veal tendon "ossobucco" that had been cooked for ages to get tender but basically resembled pure semi-tasteless fat in texture and taste. The final savoury course, a piece of beef served with "grilled steak emulsion" was pretty tasty but couldn't touch Etxebarri's chop and seemed incongruous and boring within the menu itself. Last of all, the desserts were more conceptual than effective, e.g. a daikon radish and lemon ice cream dish that was visually stunning and memorable but didn't actually taste great. Instead of petits fours we were given warm hand towels that looked momentarily edible, springing up when rehydrated with great ceremony at the table. A weird touch.

For the price you'd expect better service at Mugaritz: we were served by about ten different waiters, creating little continuity of interaction; and had to ask for the bill 3 times, waiting 40 minutes for it, just plain strange and annoying. Also, before the start of the meal, you are vehemently encouraged to send back anything you really don't like but when we both sent back the crab, instead of getting a comparable sized replacement, we were given an amuse-bouche (of mozzarella). It seems silly to make this encouragement and then execute it so half-heartedly. I thought Mugaritz would demonstrate how San Sebastian's fancy dining scene is better and also better value than the one in Paris -- but comparing the 140 euro lunch menu at Mugaritz to the 120 euro lunch menu at l'Arpège the only better value for us was in the wine list and not in the food whatsoever. The whole experience at l'Arpège just seemed vastly superior (i.e. including the service and the dining room), but maybe it's just more familiar and in tune with what we like. We'd certainly go back to Mugaritz and when they ask about specific dislikes would say we didn't want anything too floral and none of the larger meat dishes. Dining room was ok but we felt mixed about the screens. The Spanish fine dining scene is amazingly casual -- the guy on the table next to ours was wearing a t-shirt.

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  1. A million thanks for this report.

    A gum studded with shrimp antenna, indeed!

    Could you elaborate a bit more on your thoughts about Getaria and the hotel? Elkano has been on my own list for many years and I am now contemplating a trip...Thanks!

    3 Replies
    1. re: erica

      I wholeheartedly recommend Elkano (and definitely the turbot in particular!) but if I was going again I'd drive there for lunch or perhaps dinner but sleep in San Sebastian. Getaria wasn't that pretty -- especially not compared to the little beach towns on the French side or even San Sebastian itself. (The Saiaz was fine but overpriced, the same price as our San Seb hotel and 100% less charming. Plus the room we got absolutely stunk of weird cherry flavoured room perfume junk.)

      1. re: johannabanana

        Thanks again! Your report has inspired me!

        1. re: johannabanana

          Chef Andoni Luis, of Mugaritz is a new generation genius. Impeccable and exciting.

          Pedro Subijana or Luis Irizar or Juan Mari Arzak are the founders of the New Basque cuisine.
          Martin Berasategui is also quite an artist. It is difficult to make other peoples choices. I would take a look online at their menus and their interiors, and you decide. I love Pedro´s Hotel on the sea too.

      2. Wonderfully informative report. Thank you so much.

        1. "I thought Mugaritz would demonstrate how San Sebastian's fancy dining scene is better and also better value than the one in Paris -- but comparing the 140 euro lunch menu at Mugaritz to the 120 euro lunch menu at l'Arpège the only better value for us was in the wine list and not in the food whatsoever. The whole experience at l'Arpège just seemed vastly superior (i.e. including the service and the dining room), but maybe it's just more familiar and in tune with what we like. "

          Excellently put.
          I think I might have been the one to suggest that San Sebastian was the more serious food destination of the two, - even though I live in, and love, Paris, and that while the dining experience in Paris is the convergence of many areas of excellence - food, service, setting, even your walk home, - San Sebastian, in food-food terms, in general gets my vote.
          Of course I was not just talking about Mugaritz, but of San Sé in general.
          I find much resonance in your report, on so many levels.

          6 Replies
          1. re: Parigi

            Yes it was you we were thinking of Parigi!

            At Etxebarri, like at Mugaritz, there was also something mildly awry about the dining experience. Mostly because of the bare, too empty-feeling room (and the clichéd, classical music). I wish they had chosen a decor that was less faux-formal, and more rustically in tune with the building and the village. But also if the service wasn't snobby at all and we sort of liked the no nonsense attitude of the waitresses, they could show a little more grace. Dishes are plonked down in front of you! While the food there is so full of spirit and the road the tasting menu takes you along is so much fun -- from goat butter to cheese flan with exploding goose barnacles in between -- everything non-food verges on being a little humourless. The same goes for Mugaritz, with a twist. Their trick with the hand towel speaks to a very particular, smirking kind of humour.

            The massive proviso, of course, is that we speak good French -- which helps at l'Arpège although English spoken there wouldn't hinder you much -- and don't speak Spanish. The best total dining experience for us in San Sebastian was unquestionably La Cuchara de San Telmo, incredibly buzzing with customers yet charming service in a characterful space.

            1. re: johannabanana

              I love San Telmo. It was total mayhem when we were there last, which was back in April. As hubby poo put it: "I like my tapas with a side of pandemonium."

              1. re: Parigi

                Love the mayhem -- not at all like here in New York, though, where anywhere that busy has far less efficient mayhem -- and love the article. Is it by your husband?

              2. re: johannabanana

                Thank you for such a great write up.
                I was particularly taken by your comparsion of high-end restaurants in San Sebastian and that of L'Arpege and Paris. I think at this moment, special lunch menus at the top Parisian restaurants are one of the best dining 'bargain' anywhere; especially if one is careful with the extras such as wine This special lunch menu at a lower price did not exist 20 years ago. It happened mostly because of an economic downturn in the late 90's when there were so many empty tables during lunch. When chefs found that there was no stigma in reducing price for simpler food, just about all top restaurants, except maybe for L'Ambroisie, jump onto the bandwagon. Spain's 3-star restaurants are still primary located in the countryside and small towns where long lunches are still very popular. And offering a less expensive lunch will probably not draw any additional diners. And the regular tasting menu in all of Spain's Michelin 3 star restaurants is at least 1/3 less expensive than those in Paris and most of France.
                As for service, maybe except for very expensive restaurants in Tokyo, I have never experience more refined and precise service than in the top restaurants in Paris. In general, Spain is more casual and that reflects to the service as well as dress. For lunch, one will find t-shirts in just about every top notch restaurant in the summer. Maybe a little less casual in Madrid or Barcelona.
                Your choice of Mugaritz and Etxebarri is also interesting. Both are somewhat esoteric. I would not consider Etxebarri high-end dining, just a great restaurant that take the best ingredients and cook them precisely using the grill and smoke as the cooking mediums. Mugaritz is probably the most experimental of all the high-end restaurant in Spain, even more so than El Bulli. I've had two lunches there and neither time, I was taken by the food, exactly the same reaction as yours. I was more fortunate with the service though there is definitely a sense of overstaff and not very well co-ordinated. It is somewhat joyless. That could just be my perception because I felt that the food at Mugaritz was not necessarily to enjoy but it is to study and analyze. One might come away with a different opinion (not necessarily better or worst) of high-end dining in Spain if one chooses a more 'mainstream' place such as Arzak, Akelare or Martin Berasategui.
                And the fish at Elkano, you couldn't do any better

                El Bulli
                Spain , ES

                1. re: PBSF

                  Yes, we prefer more esoteric places! Complaining about the service and room at Etxebarri, it's more that neither felt exactly in tune with the food or the location but the service wasn't bad at all. Incidentally, we spent the night in the village there at a very reasonable little inn just a few minute's walk up the hill, called Mendi Goikoa - with a much more rustic, old-fashioned and indeed charming interior than Etxebarri. For anyone who hasn't been to Etxebarri yet, I recommend staying over there post-lunch if time permits - especially if you go with the tasting menu and choose a rich Spanish wine, as we did. After our siesta we took a nice long walk up and down a 5 km long path built on the old iron mining railway line.

            2. Thanks for the highly useful infos about Etxebarri. My wife and I are planning to go there perhaps next summer (a long way to go, lol, I know) but this is precious info for us (for ie, the info about the tasting menu cooked for only a few tables simultaneously is important).

              1. We feel the same way about about A Fuego Negro--fine for a stop along the way, but not what I'd consider a destination spot (at least coming from Madrid where these sorts of high-concept tapas aren't a novelty). We had the bacalao encarbonado, merluza ajo perejil, little kobe burgers everyone seemed to be ordering, pomegranate ceviche and a few other pinchos. Everything was fine (except the burgers, which I would skip), but felt like it was more complicated than it needed to be.

                I love Astelena--especially the croquetas rolled in pistachos and brochetas de gamba wrapped in tiny noodles. Great spot.