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Oct 12, 2011 07:32 AM

Donosti/San Sebastián

Here's a long one for you ;)
I am currently living in San Sebastian with my girlfriend for some months. During our stay we are going to be visited by friends and family who we would like to take for lunch/dinner at the famous restaurants in San Sebastian. Just one per visit :)
The problem is that it is difficult to decide which ones as my dad and parents in law at 60 wont have the same preferences as my 24 year old friend and his girlfriend.
We have already booked a table for my parents in law as they arrive in 10 days, and the choice fell on Arzak. For my friends arriving in december I was thinking about lunch at Akelare because of the great reviews it has gotten on Chowhound, and the great view early in the day.
After a lot of readin I concider Arzak and Akelare as the top two choices, but now my dad also wants to go to a restaurant, and I am left with the choice of Mugaritz and Martin Berasategui (both recieving somewhat mixed/bad reviews both on chowhound and other forums) unless I switch any of these with Akelare. This will be the first time both my dad and my friends go to these types of restaurants.
So, the questions are:
1. What are the different restaurant "styles" provided by the above mentioned, and which ones do you think suits each visit the best?
2. Other than the San Pellegrino's Top 50 Restau..., and the Michelin Guide, are there other good "lists" or rankings/descriptions I should pay attention to? And how much attention should I pay to these rankings at all?
3. And out of curiosity: Anyone know why is Akelare placed 94th on the San Pellegrino list, while Mugaritz, Arzak and MB are placed 3rd, 8th and 29th? It is a pretty big difference.

A lot of text here, but this is my first post, and I had a lot on my mind ;)

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  1. I can only speak for the restaurants I've been to, so here are my two cents:
    I've been to Akelarre twice, once with my husband and once with my husband and his inlaws. The food was the most well executed I've had in San Sebastian, period. There was a dessert there that looked like a newspaper that actually had story lines on it and it melted as soon as i put it in my mouth! Everything is just so inventive and well thought out ahead of time. Also, there is a dish I will never forget that had a fishermen's net and it was filled with REAL seafood, super tiny. Soooo good! Pedro Subijana came out at some point during the lunch seating and said hello to everyone (he's incredibly nice and humble), and a party sitting next to my husband and I, speaking fluent Spanish, started asking him about the menu and his inspirations. That party was a crowd of young Spaniards, maybe in their 20s-early 30s and most of the people eating at the restaurant that day were what you and I would call "young". My inlaws didn't have a problem fitting in and loving the food though, and they enjoyed the views. They even took pictures outside after lunch. Also, you should know that the wines were REALLY cheap compared to what you'd pay in NYC or the US generally (for example) because everything is local, so you should be able to get some amazing reserves for less than 100 euros. Even the imported reds are reasonable, probably b/c Spain pays less taxes to import from right across the border. All in all, Akelarre is a place I would take someone for a special occasion and just sit and enjoy the perfect views.

    I've also been to Arzak, where Elena and her dad came out to greet everybody. My husband and I had dinner there, so I'm not sure if you'd get the same attention during lunch. Overall, the food was good, especially the dessert, which was some sort of gelatin and when I bit into it a bunch of chocolate came out. However I must warn you that the food can be on teh gamey side depending on the season. When my husband and i went, there was a lot of pigeon on the menu. If your parents are into that, great. I didn't mind though because it was well prepared, especially the pigeon with "mole" sauce (which I think is Mexican) - delish. However, the experience just couldn't compare with Akelarre. Maybe it was the views, maybe it was the wines, maybe it was the fact that Akellare is more spread out and Arzak is tiny, I can't put my finger on it. Also, the night we went for dinner, we noticed that there were two tables of businessmen dining and it felt a little "corporate" to us. When Elena (who speaks better English) asked where we were from and I said "New York", one of the men sitting directly next to us glared at me. I have no idea why but I didn't care, it was just something I quickly noticed. Again, the food was good, I'm not saying otherwise, but the vibe for me wasn't as cool.

    Mugaritz- my second favorite after Akelarre. It is about a 20 minute cab ride from downtown but worth it. First of all, the sommelier at this place is French and knows his Burgundies REALLY well, and if you know French wines and tell him what flavors and vintages you like, he can give you almost the exact same wine but from Spain. I have a firm policy of ordering locally whenever I go to a foreign county (i.e. no South African wines if I'm visiting in Greece, for example) because I want to support the local producers. This guy is a total expert, not to mention the fact that he's super cute and has the bluest eyes I've ever seen (ok I'm getting off track). Anyway, my husband and I had their tasting menu for lunch and it was A LOT of decadent, well prepared food. Definitely a place to go with someone who loves meat! They do bone marrow really well here. The day we went, there were a lot of "international" parties and I noticed the staff speaking in English with many patrons. That's the other thing I liked- ALL the staff speaks English. This is not the case at the above restaurants, where MOST will speak it, but others who are just bringing you the food for example, will have limited English speaking skills. Not really a big deal for you since I guess you speak proficient/fluent Spanish and live in the country. Also, I would suggest you go for lunch because there are nice views as well, though not as nice as Akelarre (which faces the water). Side note- the staff will let you see the kitchen and speak with the chef! When he found out my husband was from Greece, he asked one of the apprentices who was also Greek to come over and say hi! She was so nice and was telling us about what dishes they would prepare, her cooking background, etc. The kitchen staff is definitely the most interactive out of all the restaurants I've been to.

    As for rankings, the only ones I really follow are Michelin and Chowhound. I like Michelin because it is trustworthy and i like Chowhound (for opinions, not rankings exactly) because it's full of foodies who are brutally honest. I'd say go with those and you should be fine. I've never used San Pellegrino....

    3 Replies
    1. re: citykid426


      Thanks for the great review/reply.

      I'll be dining at Arzak, Alkelarre and Mugaritz toward the end of the month. I'll do a full trip report when I get back

      1. re: tatuaje68

        You promised a report back on here as well as
        Paris, please post your reports, thanks.

      2. re: citykid426

        Thank you very much for a good and detailed review! :) Interesting to hear about all your observations. I will definetly eat at the three restaurants you have mentioned, but I am beginning to question Mugaritz as a choice for any of our visitors. My girlfriend and I will probably go there alone since we are very open minded when it comes to a new dining-experience. My friends and family are all new to this kind of dining, and I think Arzak, Akelare and maybe Etxebarri (?) are "safer" choices. Thanks again!

      3. Good problems!
        My favorite is Mugaritz, although I haven't eaten at Martín Berasategui, only spent extended time in the kitchen.
        Mugaritz, for me, would be the most fun for friends. The atmosphere is great. You can start outside with drinks, service is VERY unstuffy, and the dishes are miraculous.
        Arzak is my second favorite. It feels modern but very San Sebastian. For example, when I went, on one side were the most famous pelota players around and on the other a BBC journalist. Like that. Truly enjoyed my meal there. Could be good for in laws, because they will relate to Arzak and the family vibe, plus it's got the most cache namewise.
        Akelarre is the most stuffy vibe, but with the most at-first-glance out there food. Definitely go there for lunch, as you've said. Maybe a good one for your dad, if he's more open than your in laws.
        MB, well, no comment. Suffice it to say I'd leave that for fourth, according to word on the streets of San Sebastian, in the kitchens, etc etc.
        I don't know if you should pay attn to the rankings at all. They are very much about politics and PR, neither of which makes for a good meal. I believe Akelarre belongs way ahead of MB. I do agree with the placement of the other two.
        As far as who to listen to, I say Chowhound is better than the lists, but also misleading bc you never know where people are coming from.
        There are a couple good blogs out there that consistently write about food in basque basque country mugaritz akelarre arzak berasategui and you'l find them!
        Hope to hear your thoughts!

        1 Reply
        1. re: batbihiru

          Thanks for your review.
          I was thinking of bringing my friends to Mugaritz after reading this, but I just found out that my friend's girlfriend is a bit "picky" when it comes to food. The last thing I need is to be the "host" of a 1000 euro dinner for someone who won't be eating anything ;) I'm overdoing it, but you know what I mean :)

          Martin Berasategui is definetly out now. I haven't spoken to one person here who doesn't mention the other three before MB, if they even mention MB at all.

        2. Stoffer,

          Just my humble 2 cents but I think Martin Berasategui stretches himself out too thin. I was in Barcelona this summer and was very surprised to see him at the Fonda Espana in the Hotel Espana. It's not even his star restaurant in Barcelona. Maybe he was doing rounds in town, so lunch was at the Fonda and dinner, at Lasarte.

          I prefer restaurants where the chef is definitely "IN".

          How about Etxebarri? Since you will be in San Sebastian for a while, you should have time to drive over there for a Sunday lunch.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Aleta

            I have been ignoring Etxebarri as it is harder to reach and my visitors are just staying for a few days, but since car-rental is so cheap we might take my dad there. Also he is a fan of nature, so he'll probably enjoy the drive :) I haven't read so much about Etxebarri, but do you think it could be a good alternative for my dad?

          2. Hi Stoffer, my two pence worth is that I wouldn't take anyone who wasn't very into food to Mugaritz. It is pretty experimental and quite stark in its approach. Akelare was much more inclusive in that with some exceptions I would happily have taken my Mum there because the individual dishes and the menu as a whole were much more accessible. As a point of information we absolutely loved Akelare as the best meal we've ever eaten. Mugaritz was the best evening we've ever had at a restaurant but the level of experimentation there means that you get the occasional dish that isn't actually that nice!

            On Q2 and 3 - personally I wouldn't pay too much attention to either guide. Don't ignore them but the difference between 29 and 94 on the San Pellegrino list really doesn't mean much. Just ask Luke Dale-Roberts or Fergus Henderson. The list is driven by fashion and by the voters' need to feel ahead of the curve.
            The people voting do not even have to have eaten in the restaurants they vote for. They are supposed to have eaten there in the previous 18 months (18 months!) but there is no way of verifying it.
            Nor do they have to declare whether they ate there anonymously or as part of a massive PR-driven luxurious freebie. I read that one year more people voted for El Bulli than could have dined there in that year.
            Michelin is its own kind of dinosaur and in some ways balances out San Pellegrino quite nicely.

            El Bulli
            Spain , ES

            3 Replies
            1. re: ManInTransit

              I agree with you on Mugaritz maybe not being the best place for a "first experience". As i commented above, my girlfriend and I will probably go there alone since we definetly want to eat at Mugaritz.
              Very interesting to read about the way the ranking is done. This could probably lead to many different outcomes, and luckily I am able to read reviews here insted of just following the list :)

              1. re: ManInTransit

                Manin - not certain you are 100% correct on the San Pellagrino guide but much of what you say is valid. El Bulli had limited covers but I am pretty confident far more than the number of judges - but that said it is a stretch to believe that many scored a table. I would tend to say that as a guide it represents the food professionals view of what is good not really the man in the street. And if you read it with that in mind it is more valuable as you understand it is going to reflect places that push boundaries, thus not places for for conservative eaters.

                I agree Mugaritz is often challenging and therefore not a safe bet for some. That said I took four non-foodie friends and it was great. Everyone loved different dishes and disliked different dishes, the wonderful lack of consensus made it a really fun lunch, and of course a very generous sommelier who put together some great wine pairing helped lubricate the debate.

                El Bulli
                Spain , ES

                1. re: ManInTransit

                  Some general discussion of the San Pellegrino list and its methods has been moved over to our Food Media and News board:

                2. Now that El Bulli has been mentioned by reviewers, I have to say THAT'S a place worth going with your girlfriend someday (when it reopens). If you are still living in Spain in a couple of years or are willing to travel last minute for a reservation, I'd send them an e-mail and give a range of dates and hope for the best. That place will knock your socks off! I was lucky enough to get a table this year right before Easter and flew from New York just to eat there. It is really the best restaurant ever. Period. It is so good I cannot even compare it with Akelarre, Mugaritz, French Laundry, etc etc or whatever other restaurant may be on the top Michelin/SanPellegrino/or other list. Personally, I don't give a shit what most lists have to say (ok maybe Michelin is decent). Anyway, I know I'm going a bit off topic, but definitely try to go to El Bulli in the future if you can

                  El Bulli
                  Spain , ES

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: citykid426

                    Citykid - El Bulli (as we know it) has closed permanently. Adria will open a culinary institute on the site in the future and they will serve guests ( maybe not customers). But it definitely won't be El Bulli 2 as it will be a very different and possibly changing formula depending on the "research" the institutes students are doing at the time.

                    El Bulli
                    Spain , ES

                    1. re: PhilD

                      That's a damn shame really. I thought it would reopen and that despite being an "institute", they would still serve food (ok maybe not restaurant style, but something...).