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Pays Basque [Olhabidea, St Jean Pied de Port, Chez Mattin, & Biarritz]

After eight days of excessive eating and drinking in Paris we headed down to the Basque country for more excessive eating and drinking. I will cover the French bit here and the Spanish bit on the Spain board.

We started by staying at Olhabidea near Sare, it's a wonderfully old rustic farm houses out in the countryside surrounded by horses grazing in the fields. The hosts are really nice and it’s a very comfortable place.

We are booked in for dinner so head into the village for lunch and try the Hotel Lastiry which I believe is owned by the brother-in-law of out hotels owners. The restaurant is nice and basic with a real country feel, a great ris du veau stew and one of the best gazpacho’s we tried start us off followed by a sort of French shepherd’s pie and a wonderful duck confit, and to finish a chocolate cake and some sheep’s cheese end a great rustic lunch (cost €52.50 for two with three glasses of wine and water)

Dinner at Olhabidea is totally different to what we had expected. I had billed this to my wife as rustic farmhouse food. Its not it's great slightly sophisticated cooking and whilst it wasn’t what we expected it didn’t disappoint. The restaurant is relaxed and informal, like sitting in someone’s home, but locals do dress up to come here for dinner with many more diners than hotel guests. The menu has two choices of starter, main and dessert. To start we have a dish of chiparones and one of anchovies, both have a fine mirapore of garden vegetables and both are superbly cooked. Mains are simply yet very well cooked beef and cod again with home grown garden vegetables. Then for dessert we both opt for a tarte au citron with figs and strawberries from the garden. The menu was €42 each plus €54 for a bottle and a half of wine, accommodation was €80 for the night. Great value and highly recommended.

Next we headed up to St Jean Pied de Port and had booked at the top restaurant in town in the Pyrenees Hotel but on closer inspection we cancelled as we wanted something less formal and more rustic. We ended up at “Cafe Ttipea: Chez Peio” which was a great find. It’s clearly the home of the locals with people tucking into very hearty food. At breakfast the place was full of the old boys complete with Basque berries tucking into red wine for breakfast (an idyllic retirement!). We had a quick lunch here with homemade pate and boudin noir. Both come in monster portions and with a cheese plate and a few glasses on cider the bill came to €29.50 (easily enough for four!).

That evening we returned for dinner, good home-made foie gras pate, a plate of chorizo, and two servings of wonderful lamb chops, with the best wine the house had (€28) the total bill was great value at €89 for two. If you are in the area and fancy casual but not touristy food its worth trying (near the town hall).

The next day we headed over the border to San Sebastian tapas and meals at Azurmendi near Bilbao and Asador Etxbarri – more on the Spanish board:


After Spain we headed to Cibourne and dinner at Chez Mattin , this is a little hidden away restaurant in the back streets away from the more obvious choices. However, it was fully booked and totally full by 8:30 on a mid-week night out of season, which is a testament to its popularity. The menu may seem short but the gems are on the specials list with lots of interesting seafood. We start with mushrooms, a plate of Ceps Carpaccio and another plate of girolles with ham and a poached egg, both very fine. For mains we ordered hake with garlic which was simple but brilliantly cooked. We struggled through desserts and then waddled home very happy campers – total bill came to €126 for two including €45 on a decadent bottle of wine (most on the list were a lot less expensive) .

Our last night of the trip is in Biarritz and we decide too snack around town taking in the sunset on the beach and the general buzz around Les Halles market area. The best of the lots was Bar (Maison) Pujol which has evolved from a simple cold meats and wine bar (in 2008) to quite a nice tapas bar with great food and a real buzz with lots of locals crowded around it. Best to get there early for the Tapas which are innovative and modern and at €1 (or €2 for foie gras) are better value than San Sebastian and just as good. As the night wears on the food runs out and volume of the clubby dance music creeps up with the crowd changing from after work drinkers to the beautiful people of the night.

Biarritz has definitely evolved a lot over the last 5 years with far more interesting restaurants and bars than before – Le Fooding has some suggestions that looked great. I know the board favors San Jean de Luz but I think Biarritz has a wonderful mix of classy French culture bumping up against a vibrant surf culture. Definitely worth checking out and for us maybe even a better bet than San Sebastian which has got very touristy and a bit rough around the edges (the Spanish economy?)

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  1. Photos of Hotel Lastiry near Sare

    1. Photos of Olhabidea.

      1. Photos of Cafe Ttipea in St Jean Pied de Port.

        1. Cibourne and dinner at Chez Mattin photos.

          1. And finally some photos of Biarritz.

            1. Funny, I was on both sides of the border in 2009 and the posher side definitely was South, and San Sebastian felt and looked more affluent than any place on the "other side". Maybe that has changed.

              1. Doing research for my trip to San Sebastian & environs this summer and this post is really helpful! Thank you!

                1. Nice report Phil,

                  During the last 2 years we have spent about a month in the wonderful Basque country on both sides of the border. My comments are, you made a great choice in Chez Mattin in Ciboure/St Jean de Luz. Our favorite in that locale, with a great special dish,Ttoro. We also enjoyed Olhabidea for dinner, but stayed in town at the cousin's Hotel Arraya, which was not bad, but like you we enjoyed the more rustic fare across the street at Le Lastiry.

                  Sorry you missed a meal at les Pyrénées as it was our #1 meal of both trips.

                  I found it interesting that you thought Biarritz less expensive than San Sebastian. We stayed in both places and were definitely of the opposite opinion. I guess it depends on the individual establishments one visits, but in general we found Spain noticeably less expensive than France.

                  Thanks for taking the time to do a nice, detailed report.

                  1. Bumping this thread to add 2 more restaurant picks in the area : Ttotta in St. Pée and la Ferme Gourmande Landaburria in Ossés, in between Esplette and St. Jean Pied de Port.

                    Ttotta is a modern bistro in a low-key commercial development, youthful husband-and-wife team, no particular focus on regional dishes apart from its pride in clearly-identified local produce, popular with locals, many of whom were having the well-priced set lunch when we were there. We had stir-fried chipirones, 5-hour lamb, cheese and pannacotta with strawberries for 59 eruos with a glass of wine each.

                    La Ferme Gourmande also skips the trad dishes, a bit surprising in its very rustic location 10-min outside Ossés. Our group had pretty much everything on the short carte, which included a jellied pot-au-feu and a stylish salad of cooked veggies and crumbled boudin as starters, and langoustines with lentils, pork belly and local lamb as plats. The cooking is of a very high standard, couldn't ask for more when combined with pleasantly informal service, sunny terrace, hillside views and good company. Under 40 euros a head with 3 courses, wine, amuse bouches. Absolutely must reserve for Sunday lunch.

                    We also ate at Pil-Pil Enea and Chez Mattin in St. Jean-de-Luz, Olhabidea and Lastiry in Sare, and Ttipea in St. Jean Pied de Port. Thanks to PhilD for the recs (plus Parigi who originally provided some of them I think).

                    Not much to add to PhilD's thoughtful comments, all the places were very enjoyable, except for Lastiry where our best attempts to order defensively from the provincial bistro menu still resulted in a pretty bad outcome of tough and bouncy confit pork shanks which could have spent at least an hour more in the pot.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: shakti2

                      "Thanks to PhilD for the recs (plus Parigi who originally provided some of them I think)." the credit goes to Parigi - I simply followed her good advice.

                      1. re: shakti2

                        Thank you so much for your update and enrichment. Am going back to the Basque country, renting a house in Sare, plus one night in the Aldudes valley. Will soooo try your two additions and Phil's additions. They all sound great. Merci encore.

                        1. re: shakti2

                          Thank you for posting this! I am overwhelmed with our choices in the area for our trip in July!

                        2. Is Chez Mattin open daily? I can't tell from their website-- are they closed Monday and Sunday even in the high season?

                          Also: Olhabidea's website says (and Google translate is not helping!)
                          Restaurant ouvert
                          du mercredi au samedi le soir,
                          le midi
                          samedi, dimanche et jours férié

                          *** ***
                          le soir
                          du mercredi au samedi

                          Does this mean they are open for lunch only on Saturday, Sunday, and holidays; dinner on Wed-Sat? Thanks!!!

                          17 Replies
                          1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                            "Is Chez Mattin open daily?"
                            It is clsed Sunday and Monday.
                            It is usually closed for one week in October. Its holiday dates have not yet been announced.
                            "Olhabidéa … Does this mean they are open for lunch only on Saturday, Sunday, and holidays; dinner on Wed-Sat?"

                            1. re: Parigi

                              Thank you both!

                              If I try for lunch at Olhabidea on a Sunday, will there be anywhere open where I can try a gateau basque? I read about it in Mark Kurlansky's book about Basque country and I HAVE to try it!

                              Do they have an email address to reserve or do I have to make the long distance call?

                              Many thanks again!

                              1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                If you have time both at home to manipulate your schedule and time on the road, we can't recommend too highly Hotel Arce, an hour inland at St.Etienne de Baigorry, sweet hotel, very good dining room. http://www.hotel-arce.com/

                                For your Gateau Basque fix, you need to go to Saint Pee sur Nivelle. A tiny bakery on the south side of the main (only) street has a lock on the real thing in the area. Only a short jaunt inland from the coast on D918.
                                You will find gateau Basque throughout the area. If you are lucky, they will have been baked here. If not, visit yourselves. Enjoy!

                                1. re: mangeur

                                  Thank you for the hotel recommendation. We have already rented an apartment in San Sebastian for five nights, after which we're heading back to Madrid. I am reserving one day (probably the Sunday we are there) for French Basque country. It seems like much of what I want to do is open Sundays, which is great.

                                2. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                  After Olhavidea, you are not likely to want to have another restaurant meal.
                                  Instead of looking for it in restaurants, why not get a piece in the market ? The gateau basque stand outside the Arraya hotel is very good.

                                  I don't know their email addrss. I always call.

                                  1. re: Parigi

                                    I was wondering about a bakery-- which I searched for and found several that are open on Sunday (one right in San Sebastian, where we are staying, called Paries). I looked at the Arraya hotel but couldn't find if they sold the cakes on Sundays-- do you know?

                                    I will call Olhabidea and hope that I can make my so-so French comprehensible to them to secure my reservation. :)

                                    I am going to post on the Spain board regarding other Spanish Basque country meals.

                                    1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                      It is a stand , not a bakery, outside the Arraya hotel. A street stand has no posted hours, but I seem to see it everyday, and always counted on buying one there at any hour during the several stays when I rented a house in Sare.
                                      If you are driving up to Olhabidea from San Sé, another good food option is the Sunday morning market - around the Mairire - in the lovely seaside village of Ciboure. It's got all kinds of goodies including gâteau basque, and so much more: roast chicken, gobs of pâtes and cold cuts, local seafood specialties, Pyrenees cheeses, plus of course fresh fruits. Perfect for your picnic dinner needs.
                                      The people at Olhabidea speak very good English.

                                      1. re: Parigi

                                        Thank you so much. Your help is invaluable!!! That market sounds wonderful. I also saw a market open daily in st. Jean de Luz. Would that be worth going to on a Sunday? Aside from food we are also interested in shopping/browsing for local products and I'd like to buy some of the special cherry preserves too.

                                        1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                          "I also saw a market open daily in st. Jean de Luz. Would that be worth going to on a Sunday?"
                                          The Sunday market in St Jean de Luz is one of my top 5 in all of France, may be top 3. But is a small operation Sunday. The Saturday one is huge. The Sunday one in Ciboure takes up several streets. The two markets, like the two towns, are about a 15-minute walk apart. You can do both if you want.

                                        2. re: Parigi

                                          I made our lunch reservation at Olhabidea. Very excited. We will plan to go to the markets in St Jean de Luz and Ciboure in the morning beforehand. I noticed the grottos or caves near Sare, any other attractions nearby for in between meals and snacks? Perhaps a pretty spot or vista to walk to and munch on our gateau basque?

                                          I am going to compose a Spanish basque country post on the Spain board. I'll post the link here later if anyone would like to give their opinion. Thanks again!

                                          1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                            The whole area is beautiful. You don't need to drive again to go somewhere to find a gateau basque-eating spot. Do you love to drive or seomthing ? :)

                                            30 seconds from the Ciboure market is the port with a view of St Jean de Luz and the sea. I'd say it's damned beautiful.
                                            But if you love to drive and find new parking spots, then Socoa beach 2 km from the center of the village of Ciboure is also spectacular with the view of the fort, the 2 villages and the sea.
                                            If the 2-km drive is too short, then on to Sare, which has a socalled Roman road la Calade - the stone road is really medieval - that comes out of the village with an enchanting view of the valley.
                                            If this is not enough run-around, there is a nearby lovely village, back to the Spanish side, Zugarramurdi, and very near the cave you mentioned, that has many beautiful gateau-basque-eating spots. :)

                                            1. re: Parigi

                                              Haha, actually I was trying to make my non-food related question tangentially food related to appease the chowhound powers that be. :) Just was curious what else we shouldn't miss that isn't food.

                                              One of our favorite parts of our time in Piemonte on our trip to Italy was driving around to and stopping in different towns. We are really looking forward to doing the same this trip.

                                                1. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                                  Sare and many of the other inland villages have their own open-air peloton court, often centrally- and prettily-sited, with shady seating for spectators, and Sunday afternoon is as good a time as any to catch it in use. The game isn't hard to follow and it's a nice glimpse of the local culture.

                                          2. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                            Paries is a fabulous patisserie that features Basque specialties. They, as many other places will have your cherry preserves. Look also for their nougat.


                                            1. re: mangeur

                                              Parigi, Phil D, Mangeur, or anyone who also is familiar with the Spanish part of basque country, I made a thread on the Spain board....would love your input!


                                    2. re: i_eat_a_lot_of_ice_cream

                                      Chez Mattin is closed Sunday and Monday and all public holidays. Yes even in the high season.

                                      Olhabidea us open for dinner Wednesday to Saturday and lunch only on the weekends and public holidays.