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One Week in and Around San Sebastian: Narrowing Down the Choices

Having now read every post on this board made in the last three years comparing the various high-end restaurants in San Sebastian, I was hoping to reopen the dialogue now as I choose among the very many seemingly fabulous places to eat in and around the city.

Our current plan is to fly into Bilboa, rent a car, and drive into San Sebastian this September. I am considering the following restaurants, in rough order of how excited I am about them:

Asador Etxebarri: Unless there is a chorus of disagreement, this feels like a must to me. This is likely be our only chance to explore this part of the world and there doesn't appear to be anyone doing this kind of cooking, at this level, anywhere else. I was thinking we could have lunch here on our last day and try to find a place to stay nearby and then drive to Bilboa for our flight back to the States in the morning.

Arzak: My fiance is a pastry cook and Elana Arzak's wold-famous hospitality and amazing innovations are a must-experience for her. This, too, is a probably a definite on our list.

We would also like to try one or two of the following four place, and would very much like to hear about truly great meals within a couple hours drive of the city (or, of course, elsewhere in San Sebastian) that we might be missing:

Mugaritz: I understand this to be the most hit-or-miss of the bunch: some people swear by it (and I assume some of those benefactors do so only because they spent so much money to eat there) and some people simply do not like it at all. Generally speaking, we are willing to take the good with the bad and think the potential for the most ingenious bite of food is worth the trade for a dud dish or two, but certainly don't want to feel experimented on. Does this place deserve the hype? Is it worth the splurge? Does it have greatness in it?

Zuberoa: The setting sounds remarkable. My thought was that this place offered us a chance to experience a more traditional meal with precisely prepared high-quality ingredients. My only concern is that it seems somewhat expensive: is it worth it? Does anyone have a recent experience there?

Martin Berasategui: MB wasn't on my original list, but some of the photographs I have seen of the food are truly astonishing. It seems to be left out of the discussion on this board, perhaps because it is outside San Sebastian or perhaps for some other reason that we should be aware of. Are the plates as beautiful in person as they appear on line? Can the food compete with that of Arzak?

Akelare: This is currently at the bottom of my greatest hits list, though it could certainly rise. My main hesitation is that people mainly talk about how great the view is. I would prefer a prison cell with awesome food to the best view and a hot dog, but that doesn't move me much.

Are there places I am missing? Is there anything I should keep in mind when making these decisions? I would like to send out reservation requests soon, so any help would be much, much appreciated.

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  1. I took a quick look at your profile and suggest you reaarrange some on your list.
    When comparing Jean-Georges (or EMP) with Daniel (say) it would be fair to comment on how the windows at J-G and EMP create a different ambiance at lunch-time. The room is bright and sunny - whereas Daniel is more sedate.
    Accordingly, I prefer both J-G and EMP at lunchtime. Note that I haven't (yet) mentioned the food.
    Akelare is the same - it is so attractive at lunchtime that it enhances the experience. Arzak is the 'Daniel'.

    In style, Arzak is more 'traditional', compared to Akelare more modern. But both are worthy destinations. Also, if it matters, Akelare has a better winelist.
    Mugaritz is more like a 3* version of wd-50. Creative with a chef that follows his own ideas. Not better or worse - just different.
    Zuberoa was closed for a wedding my last visit, so I can't help there.

    Etxebarri is well worth a visit - nothing else like it in the world.

    I found Martin Berasategui less exciting because of the repetitive use of similar/same techniques. Multiple use of gels (e.g. the beautiful salad came embedded in a gel) so I didn't get much variation in textures (which is important for me) - contrast Akelare where one course was 4 different 'textures' of ice (sort of a shaved ice, a sorbet, a slurry and a granita) each one being flavoured with a different herb.

    But honestly, you can't go wrong with any.

    10 Replies
    1. re: estufarian

      Thank you very much for your thoughts. I understand what you are saying about Akelare at lunch: It isn't necessarily that the ambiance is the best part, it just makes everything better and so deserves some recognition. I appreciate that (as I do the view from Per Se, for example) and will keep that in mind as I narrow things down.

      I have enjoyed meals at WD-50, but have found some dishes lacking in flavor (though never creativity). I would love to hear how people think Mugaritz compares with Alinea in Chicago, which I absolutely loved. Is it operating on the same level?

      (As an aside, I had a truly terrible meal at Daniel recently)

      1. re: nmprisons

        I love Alinea - but until my last visit didn't think it exceeded what Grant had achieved at Trio (which I went to about 8 times, including 3 at Kitchen Table). Alinea still struck me as a work-in-progress - BUT last visit (in 2010) was best yet. Although I still object to getting burning leaves a half-dozen times over the evening as all the tables around me get that dish (similarly lavender pillows!).

        I rated Mugaritz above Alinea - there's a distinct philosophy at work there that seems to set it apart from other places. But one persons philosophy.......

        Although it may sound strange at first, I likened Mugaritz to Chez Panisse!!
        Chez Panisse represented a 'new philosophy' that was a departure from most (all?) restaurants of the day. Now, of course, everyone wants fresh ingredients with the menu built around it.

        Some of the dishes at Mugaritz are indeed strange (to most North American palates) - but every one is interesting - the wine pairings are also 'strange' - expect fruit/spice juices and beer to pop up (OK I know several places have also jumped on the beer pairing option).
        Most memorable (for me) was the 'smoker' just outside the front door which was designed (I think) to get everyone's palate (in broadest sense, including smell) to the same starting point for the first course (actually drink). I guess I'm saying that Mugaritz is more of an 'experience' than a 'meal'.

        (and an aside - my last visit to Daniel showed me that there are several classes of client - they thought I was someone 'important' for the first half hour, and I was fawned over; subsequently they decided I wasn't who they thought and we were virtually ignored. Boulud even skipped our table and talked to the people either side).

        And so you can discount my advice - wd-50 is my FAVOURITE restaurant in North America - not to be confused with the BEST. I get something different every time I'm there. (Best right now is probably EMP for me).
        Similarly, in Chicago, my FAVOURITE (NOT BEST) is Schwa - exactly the same reason - always something new and exciting.
        In San Sebastian, I rate Akelare top (although the wine list helps that); then Mugaritz, then Etxebarri (OK I know not strictly SS - but close enough).

        I have Alinea between Mugaritz and Etxebarri.

        And I repeat that Arzak is more 'Daniel' in style.

        1. re: estufarian

          Thank you, again, for your time and thoughts. They are much appreciated.

          We have now all-but-ruled-out MB. Have reservations at Etxebarri and will have to choice probably two (maybe 3) from Arzak, Akelarre, Mugaritz, and Zuberoa. It is far too difficult a decision and your thoughts are a great guide.

          1. re: estufarian

            Our first meal at Alinea, which was in 2006, was perhaps the best meal of my life. Our second meal there was very good, but not quite up to the standard set by the first one. I only wish that I had the chance to see GA's progression from Trio. Your placement of Mugaritz above Alinea weighs heavily in its favor.

            Your notes about Arzak worry me a bit. My fiance certainly is high on the place and I am excited to see where it all began, so to speak.

            (Also, I must say that Schwa might be my favorite restaurant in Chicago, too, though Mindy is a friend and I am more comfortable dining at Hot Chocolate than anywhere else in the world.)

            1. re: nmprisons

              At the time I was at Arzak, they 'grouped' the English Speakers upstairs (I'm hoping that was to ensure that English-speaking servers were available) - which also happened to be the smoking area (now banned in Spain - since last year?). The food was perfectly prepared - but lacked the 'wow' factor (again, I have to cite Daniel as a comparison).
              On the other hand - a happy wife is a happy life (or variants to suit your situation).

              We're haggling over diamonds or pearls - BOTH are great! (OK Foie Gras or Caviar).
              And I'll check out Hot Chocolate!!

              1. re: estufarian

                Yeah, I have heard about the English/Non-English separation and clearly understand the Daniel comparison (ugh, just thinking of my most recent meal at Daniel makes my skin crawl). In the end, I suspect we will end up with one of our meals there. The honeymoon really is my wedding gift to her and I am happy when she is.

                Also, I can't say how happy I am that smoking in restaurants is now banned in Spain. I was absolutely dreading trying to eat carefully prepared food with cigarette smoke overwhelming my senses. I imagine your meal in the "smoking section" would have been much more enjoyable sans smoke.

                I absolutely love the desserts at Hot Chocolate and, since it is walking distance from Schwa, and since Schwa doesn't exactly focus on the sweets, my perfect meal is dinner at Schwa followed by desserts and drinks at Hot Chocolate.

                1. re: nmprisons

                  When I was there we were seated upstairs, but I did not notice any other English speakers in the immediate vicinity. The smoke was a bit bothersome, so it's nice that it will not be a problem anymore.

                  1. re: nmprisons

                    Off-topic, but relevant to this post.
                    Made it to hot Chocolate for great lunch; also to Schwa for great meal. Also to Alinea where I was ripped-off. Hate their new format.

                    1. re: estufarian

                      well, two for three at some of my favorite places, sad to hear the third was a dud! haven't had sweets as good as mindy's since leaving chicago so it is good to hear you enjoyed it!

                      sorry to hear about alinea. don't know much about the new format, but i loved the meals i had there in 06 and 2010.

            2. re: nmprisons

              I has the same reaction to Mugaritz as I did to WD-50 my first time. Imagination but not always a delicious dish. Whereas every dish I've had at Alinea was delicious, or at the very least, tasty.

              We dined at Arzak and Mugaritz in succession and I found Mugaritz to always be playful and interesting, but some dishes just did not wow in the taste department. So if your palate is similar to mine, I think you'll like Arzak's food more. I certainly did.

              I still liked my Alinea meals more than both of them (Arzak and Mugaritz).

              Etxebarri is wonderful. You'll love it. Please take me with you!

          2. <My main hesitation is that people mainly talk about how great the view is.>

            I think there has been plenty of comment about the food at Akelare on this board. The view is mentioned in terms of lunch vs. dinner. I loved both Arzak and Akelare, but the creativity of Akelare gives it a slight edge (not that Arzak is not creative, just a bit more traditional) . I think you would enjoy the contrast.

            1. Go to Getaria at mid-day and enjoy the kokotxas and grilled turbot. 25 / 30 mins on a bus and a nice break from the fine dining side of things. I like sitting outside Kaia Kaipe (although others may prefer Elkano). Also, for every *'d establishment there's an inspirational, fun place to eat pintxos. My advice is to keep the high-end places (where possible) for lunch so you can get into this, more social, culinary experience in the evenings. Akelarre would be my pick of the high-end btw

              1 Reply
              1. re: daves2009

                This is super-helpful. Thank you. We will have to take little trip to Getaria. I was a fisherman in a former life and sitting near the water eating fresh seafood is one of my favorite things to do and the two restaurants you mentioned there both seem great. It will be hard to choose.

                Also, I agree completely with your pintxos suggestion. We will have about 14 meals in and around San Sebastian and my hope to have 3-5 at one of the *'d places, 3-5 at another sitdown option (like those in Getaria), and 3-5 simply bar hopping.

              2. We were in BCN/SS 2 weeks ago and ate lunches at Akelarre & Etxebarri (after a fabulous meal at 41 degrees in BCN). After all the positive feedback on Akelarre, I have to say it was a pretty big letdown in our opinion. The view was by far the highlight for us. We tried both tasting menus and although there were a few highlights, we found a lot of the dishes to be lacking flavor and somewhat 1 dimensional. While everything was presented nicely and the service good, the taste was too inconsistent & did not compare to the views.

                Etxebarri (and the tiny village of Axpe) we found even more lovely and beautiful that Akelarre. They have a great outdoor deck that was perfect to enjoy a few bottles of wine on a sunny day. The tasting was pretty good, although if I went back I would consider ordering the highlights a la carte (beef chop, chorizo, goat butter, octopus). Their desserts were fantastic! Overall a much better experience for us than Akelarre.

                3 Replies
                1. re: ATLfoodtraveler

                  Thank you for the thoughts. We have reserved Etxebarri and are so glad to hear that you enjoyed your experience.

                  1. re: nmprisons

                    +1 for Etxebarri!

                    Back in May, I went to Etxebarri, Mugaritz, Akelarre, Martin Berasategui and Rekondo.

                    If ranking should be made
                    1) Etxebarri
                    2)Akelarre
                    3)Rekondo
                    4)Martin Berasategui
                    5)Mugaritz

                    The underdog on my list, Rekondo, is worth going if you want something in the city itself, solid-down-to-earth Basque and Spanish fare, their absolutely unbeatable largest best of the world reasonable pricing wine list.

                    On a side note, if you are renting a car and driving, do have a GPS that will guide you! I had a michelin map, google maps instructions, two pairs of eyes, two pairs of eyeglasses, a quite fair knowledge of Spanish language... we got lost on several occasions. Road signs are terrible there.

                    Or we are just terrible in orientation.

                    1. re: HenryQ

                      I would of put Pedro Subijana 1st ( Akelarre ). Luis Irizar, is the mentor and culinary professor and author of Pedro and Juan Mari Arzak ... they are the founders of the novelle Basque movement.

                      I had a real sketchy time with Chef Victor Arguindoniz. He had been a Fireman for numerous years and created unique machines and gadgets to broil and grill and prepare steak and cod. However, we have had a not so great cut of steak, my dog would of given me a dirty look and the cod was not up to par ! I would go to LUIS IRIZAR ...

                2. Here is our revised itinerary based on further research and peoples' suggestions:

                  The current plan is:

                  Day 1: Fly into Bilbao and drive to SS ... no food plans ... might do some stuff in Bilbao

                  Day 2: We scheduled a private market tour and pintxos tasting through San Sebastian Food. We have dinner reservations at Arzak (despite some trepidation based on CHers comments, my wife has wanted to eat here for years and so it remains a must).

                  Day 3: Spending the day in Getaria. We have lunch reservations at Elkano and will likely be back in San sebastian for a dinner of pintxos.

                  Day 4: Lunch at Zuberoa. We haven't figured out dinner plans. Perhaps we will head over to one of the other town near San Sebastian (Hondarribia, Irun, etc.) for dinner. Thoughts?

                  Day 5: Lunch at Mugaritz.. Dinner of pintxos.

                  Day 6: Day trip somewhere, location undecided. Thoughts?

                  Day 7: Lunch at Etxebarri, no dinner figured out, but spending night in Bilbao and so might try and eat there.

                  Day 8: Fly out early

                  Thanks for everyone's help. We will be sure to post reviews of places that we try. Any thoughts on filling in gaps would be much appreciated. (As an aside, we care far, far less about wine than we do food.)

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: nmprisons

                    Bilbao has fanstastic Pintxo ( pn cho ) Bars, and I would not do another sit down formatted dinner. I would select 3 to 5 bars, have a glass of Txacoli ( white wine - Basque D.O. ) or beer and / or cocktail and each order a tapa, have a forkbite, and then finish up and ... move on to next Bar ... until u have had enough to pick on ...

                    Your itinerary is a bit too restricted to street life and meeting new people. It is all focussed on sitting at a table. Not my style of travel. I enjoy walking through the historic district of a city and doing the Taverns. One 3 star or 2 star Michelin; however, it is just way too much food and u see nothing of the city because u are sitting all nite in a restaurant -- do lunch time Michelin and leave ur nites free to explore gorgeous San Sebastian and Vanguard Bilbao and have lunch at GUGGENHEIM. FORGET WASTING A TRIP TO A TINY HAMLET ...

                    It is not worth it in my viewpt. THE GUGGENHEIM IS AWESOME.

                    ENJOY UR TRIP NONE THE LESS.

                    1. re: foodeditormargaux

                      FYI: Our only dinner reservation is Arzak. All the rest are lunch, leaving the evenings to do precisely as you suggest.

                      Thanks for your suggestion of the Guggenheim.

                    2. re: nmprisons

                      Did Etxebarri, Arzak and Akelarre last Oct. Also a tour with SS Food. A couple of reminders that may be helpful:

                      - On Day 2, if you are doing the pintxos tasting tour which is at night, don't do Arzak on the same day. The tour includes drinks/pintxos at 5 bars and it is almost a dinner. Also nice to continue exploring the other bars in the area afterwards without worrying about getting a taxi to Arzak. BTW, also avoid doing the pintxos tour on Sunday or Monday. Zeruko, for example, is closed on both days when I was there and it came highly recommended from several people.

                      - On Day 7, lunch at Etxebarri was a 3-4 hours affair for me as I sat on the outside terrace taking in the view and the scenery. I did the tasting menu with one additional item and it was a lot of food. Not sure if you will really need dinner afterwards. I would imagine a couple of pintxos would be sufficient. I didn't do my homework on Bilbao and actually have a tough time finding a pintxos place. Wind up wandering into a place called Museo del Vino de Bilbao that has a pretty good selection of red wine and interestingly paired it with canned tuna .... and it worked really well!

                      1. re: HKTraveler

                        Thank you for both of these helpful suggestions.

                        On day 2, we are actually having a private tour (just the two of us) in the afternoon that will have some bites of pinchos and some time in the market. Basically, it is an attempt to get our feet wet and see the city a bit with someone who knows it.

                        Bay 7: very good to hear about extebarri. i assume that, after the beef, i will be pleasantly stuffed. i didn't know they had an outside option. i will request it, thank you.