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Jan 30, 2014 03:24 PM

Critique my list & need some help for Barcelona, San Sebastian, Rioja, Madrid

Hello there,
I am looking forward to a trip to Spain in September from Toronto, Canada and am trying to get everything in order now as best as I can before work picks up this spring.
I have done LOTS of reading on the board and elsewhere and have a lot of my main big dinner meals picked out but need help with the rest. I know in Spain, it's common to have a long lunch, however, we do not like that at all. We prefer a lengthy dinner and a shorter, simpler lunch so that we can continue our tourist/ exploring ways in the day. In general, as you may see from my choices, my partner and I really like modern cuisine/ molecular gastronomy so I chose a lot of michelin stars with that influence (in Canada, our selection of that style of food is pretty sparse), but I would like more authentic /regionally specific meals for the lunches and remaining meals. Here's a breakdown of where we are at and what I need help with:

Fly in Sept 9th (tuesday) - stay at the Neri hotel in Gothic quarter

Tues Sept 9 - Dinner either at Tickets (havent opened books) or Abac - which do you suggest?
Wed Sept 10- Dinner booked at Carmen Ruscalleda
Thurs Sept 11- Dinner at 41 Degrees (havent opened books)
Friday Sept 12- Dinner at El Cellar Can Roca (booked)

where do you suggest for great inexpensive, casual (not tasting menu) lunches here in Barcelona?

Saturday Sept 13 arrive in San Sebastian, staying at Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra (will make day trips to bilbao, and maybe stop in pamplona on my way there)

Sat Sept 13- Dinner at Akelaire booked
Sunday Sept 14- Considering Mirador de Ulia but open to recommendations that are open on Sunday, its tough.
Monday Sept 15- Again, need recommendations, as nothing is open on Monday. If we do a tapas night, where are the best bets??
Tuesday Sept 16- Mugaritz or Arzak, votes on which is better and why?

Again, need lunch suggestions for San Sebastian

Wed Sept 17 go to Logrono staying at the AC hotel la Rioja by Marriot, and do wine tasting in the days while in the Rioja

Wed Sept 17- considering dinner at Marques de rascal?
Thursday Sept 18- Meson Egues booked, thoughts?

Any great spots to explore in Rioja in the day for wine and good light eats in the day?

Friday Sept 19 get to Madrid, staying at the Gran Melia Fenix

Friday Sept 19- dinner at La terraza del casino (books not open yet)
Sat Sept 20- dinner at DiverXo - books not open yet
Sun Sept 21- dinner at Casa Lucio (unless you have a better suggestion, again, not much open on sunday)

And again, we would love some solid lunch options here too.

Price is no object, so don't worry about that for any of the suggestions. I very much appreciate your help.

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  1. The only thing I would change is pakta for tickets been to both and patka is by far the greater experience .

    3 Replies
      1. re: hungryabbey

        I would go to patka before ABac even though Abac has two stars . Patka will get stars when the new list comes out .

        1. re: Danrich71

          oh yes, I remember looking at this. I don't know if I would be crazy about it- i'm not huge on Japanese myself.

    1. Maybe you could try casa Salvador for lunch .

      2 Replies
      1. re: Danrich71

        I was thinking that, thank you! Is it very stuffy in there? Can one have a relatively casual meal or do you need to dress up?

        1. re: hungryabbey

          Casual fine , but no flip flops or shorts .

      2. In Madrid you could try casa Salvador one of Madrids oldest Resturants good food old school ways !

        1. Hi Hungryabbey,

          I'm also a hound from Toronto and we are planning a very similar trip in the fall. I haven't been to Spain in about 15 years. In researching our trip I have come across some places which look interesting which my give you leads and others can comment.

          Lunch Barcelona:
          Can Ravell (either deli or restaurant)
          Dos Palillos
          Casa Danone (after all those tasting menus, you may want something like this)

          also Barcelona has some unique restaurants:
          Espai Sucre (dessert focus)
          Jamonisimo (ham focus)

          San Sebastian also has things which are unique:
          Zelala (cider house)
          Casa Urola (grill master and also tapas restaurant)
          Etxebarri (grill master, but far from everything)
          Ganbara (tapas but known for their mushrooms)

          Other names on my San Sebastian list:
          Fuego Negro
          Elkano (known for seafood)

          I look forward to your trip report

          3 Replies
            1. re: dubchild

              Thank you! I will go through these and let you know if I have specific questions.

            2. In San Sebastian you have big names like Akelare, Mugaritz and Arzak on the list so maybe look at the reviews on Azurmendi, which received its third Michelin star last year. Several food critics rate it higher than any of the other three you mention, though of course this is going to depend on taste.

              It's open on Sunday for lunch and is close to Bilbao just off the highway to SS, so maybe convenient Sept 14 or on a day trip to Bilbao?

              We were in the area last October and had memorable dining experiences at Azurmendi and Etxanobe in/near Bilbao. We are going back in May and are repeating those two, plus Mugaritz, Elkano, Ibai and Etxebarri.

              Some reviews of Azurmendi:
     -- this is a rare 20/20 from him, the only one in Spain




              17 Replies
              1. re: willyum

                hm, I see the reviews are good.. but from the photos, I feel like I have seen all of it before (perhaps I am being naive?).

                It's an hour from San Sebastian where we will be at night.. and I am already shlepping my partner an hour away for dinner when we go from Barcelona to El Cellar - I have to pick my battles or he's going to kill me. So I think dinner is probably out of the question this trip since we're not staying in Bilbao.

                How long would a lunch be here?

                Any other lunch recommendations for any of my stops?

                1. re: hungryabbey

                  >> How long would a lunch be here?

                  Same as dinner. There are two tasting menus, the original dishes that he made his reputation on ("Roots") and the more recent ones ("Branches"). No a la carte, so maybe some other time.

                  >> Any other lunch recommendations for any of my stops?

                  I like dubchild's list, especially Elkano and Etxebarri, but Etxebarri is also a longish drive from SS ...

                2. re: willyum

                  Hi Willyum

                  Have you made bookings at Elkano and Ibai? I am going in May as well and it seems from the Elkano website that it would be closed in May? It might be that I am reading it wrong.

                  For Ibai, did you just call for a booking?

                  Have you been to Martin, Arzak, Mugaritz and/or Akelare? I have been reading mixed reviews and so I am hesistant.

                  If you like wines, you might want to make a trip to Rekondo as well :)

                  1. re: misochi

                    Hi Misochi,

                    I have a Friday lunch reservation for Ibai. I literally had to convince someone I knew enough Spanish to handle it since they speak no English and there is no written menu, they just describe the dishes in Spanish. I wouldn't go unless I felt comfortable with my Spanish though.

                    I don't have a rez for Elkano yet. I didn't know it was going to be closed in May, I'll have to check that. It was the least important place for us this trip since we're going to Ibai (similar cuisine), but I'd still like to go there for the grilled turbot.

                    >> "Have you been to Martin, Arzak, Mugaritz and/or Akelare?"

                    What's funny is that 2 years ago when I first began planning a Spain trip I wanted to go to all five (at the time) Michelin 3*'s ... but after a simpler meal at a 'producto' place in Bilbao, with simpler cooking technique and an emphasis on highest quality ingredients, suddenly those molecular 3*'s didn't look as enticing :) That's why we were keen to try Ibai, Elkano and Etxebarri this trip, skipping the SS three stars entirely.

                    Like you I've read mixed reviews of the ones you mention. It feels like maybe Arzak is coasting a bit, and the same for Akelare, though you still read the occasional glowing reviews too ... it just seems there are more disappointments than you would expect in a 3*.

                    Anyway, this trip we do have Mugaritz reservations, more out of curiosity than high expectations. That place seems like a Rorschach test, almost. I like molecular with a light touch (Alinea, Azurmendi) but I think Mugartiz may take it too far. But I'm willing to try it with an open mind. Gingerly.

                    As for MB, we dined at his Barcelona restaurant Lasarte in October and it was good but not outstanding, except for the chocolate souffle. I would guess the flagship restaurant is a bit better, but it's pretty expensive.

                    If we can't get into Elkano we'll probably look in depth at the other SS restaurants and if nothing catches our fancy we'll perhaps go to Akelare or MB, but à la carte instead of tasting menu at MB.

                    I will check out Rekondo since, yes, the Willyums do like good wines!

                    I see you don't have Azurmendi on your list in your other post, a newer 3* outside of Bilbao ... I thought this place did an excellent job of concentrating on highest quality ingredients, with bold, strong tastes, and just enough molecular wizardry to lift a couple of dishes even higher. We are returning there (and also to Etxanobe in Bilbao) and really looking forward to it.

                    Anyway, I'm sure you'll find some exciting places to eat over there.

                    1. re: misochi

                      >> "I am going in May as well and it seems from the Elkano website that it would be closed in May?"

                      Hi Misochi, where did you see that Elkano is closed in May?

                      On their site it lists the following vacation closures:

                      March 24 - April 11
                      Nov 4 - 24

                      ("Cerrado por vacaciones del 24 de marzo al 11 de abril, ambos includios. Tambien del 4 al 22 de noviembre, ambos includios.")

                      So I think May is OK, unless it's listed as closed elsewhere. Or did you read 'marzo' as "May"?

                      1. re: willyum

                        Hi Willyum


                        This is what I saw on their website and I read too quickly and thought that they were closed the whole day from September to 15th July (instead of whole day on Tues).
                        "Closed on Sunday evenings, Monday evenings and Tuesdays, the whole day from September to the 15th July."

                        I would love to go to Azurmendi and Exterrbarri but I don't have a car and I am not very confident driving. When are you going to SS? We will be there from 14-17 May. If the timing coincides, and if you like, we could go to Rekondo - I figured, the more people, the more wines we can try :)

                        I speak no Spanish but would love to try Ibai - I would say that it would be something like going Omakase in Tokyo, which I have done before as well without speaking a word of Japanese!

                        1. re: misochi

                          Misochi, we are in SS at the same time!

                          We are in Bilbao earlier in the week, with meals at Etxanobe and Azurmendi, then Wednesday (14th) we will rent a car and go to Etxebarri for lunch, return the car to Bilbao and take a bus or train to SS.

                          In SS we are going to Mugaritz Thursday, then Ibai Friday. All of these are already reserved for lunch. Then Elkano for Saturday (not set up yet). Cool that you are there the same time :)

                          >> "I would love to go to Azurmendi and Exterrbarri but I don't have a car and I am not very confident driving."

                          If you really wanted to go to Azurmendi you could take the bus from SS to the Bilbao airport. Maybe the info is not current, but it looks like there's a bus every 45 minutes for < 17 euros, then from Bilbao airport it's probably only 5-8 euros to Azurmendi, just a short distance up the highway. So you could pull this off for lunch in one day, with a bit of planning.

                          1. re: willyum

                            You convinced me. I'm booked for Azurmendi on the 14 :) and we are reserved for lunch at Ibai on 16. I read that ibai is a small place so I guess we will get to say hi! San Sebastián food is willing to do a round trip transfer to Elkano for 70 euros. Am wondering whether its worth it. I'm giving up Arzak. Still debating on MB given i'll be going to Lasarte and whether I should go to Akelarre given the recent spade of horrid reviews trip advisor reviewers gave it

                            1. re: misochi

                              @Misochi, Great news on Azurmendi! I think you'll enjoy it. We're there a day before you.

                              We'll surely see you at Ibai, I think there are only 8 tables. I'm tall, slender, old, wearing glasses, with a blonde wife.

                              We are now undecided about Elkano since the cuisine is so similar to Ibai, and since we will likely return to SS another time. Maybe we'll just wait and decide once we are there, or maybe we'll go to MB since my wife loved the chocolate souffle we had at Lasarte.

                              1. re: willyum

                                Yes I know what you mean about Elkano. Though if Elkano was nearer I would probably just have tried both since I'm from Singapore and we are traveling all the way there just to try the food.

                              2. re: misochi

                                Slightly concerned you put so much faith in Trip Adviser restaurant reviews. I find it impossible to assess how much experience the diners have, are they criticising the place because they appreciate that sort of food, or is it because the food is quite alien to them and they don't get it. It's a few years since I ate at Akelarre but I can't believe it's no longer good. Hopefully you will enjoy Azurmendi - it's very very good.

                                1. re: PhilD

                                  Hi Phil thanks for your comment. I read a couple of other reviews elsewhere that stated that the standard has gone down as well. It's still on my list as I'm hoping that someone would report back soon to say its worth going

                                  I'm really looking forward to Azurmendi. Will report back!

                                2. re: misochi

                                  There's a pretty straightforward bus service to Getaria from Sanse's main bus terminal, 35 min ride, every half-hour on weekdays and every hour on weekends. I can't remember the cost but certainly not 70 euros !

                          2. re: misochi

                            I've been to Martin Berasategui, Arzak and Mugaritz and of the three I think MB is by far the best. I don't think it's even close. I would say Arzak is second.

                            Mugaritz is a nice restaurant, it will make you feel like you're in Napa. The food when I went there was very uneven. There were some courses that were absolutely awful. (A mostly unadorned piece of cartilage for the main course was memorably bad -- there was a professional food critic at the table next to ours who started laughing after he tried it)

                            Arzak is a classic, if you can't find time to travel too far out to go to MB or others, Arzak is very good. It is more traditional than the others.

                            MB is one of the most elegant restaurants I've ever been to in my life. What set it apart for me is that every bite I had was both inventive and extremely well-executed.

                            I did not make it to Etxebarri or Akelarre -- but I've heard others say they would pick Akelarre over Arzak.

                            1. re: calumin

                              Have you been to Lasarte in Barcelona? If so, is MB in SS better or Lasarte?

                              Yes I have heard that ppl would choose Akelarre over Arzak. However when I read recent reviews on tripadvisor, the reviews were dismal!!

                              1. re: misochi

                                I haven't been to Lasarte in Barcelona, but the one in SS is known as his flagship restaurant. (It is actually in the town of Lasarte, very near San Sebastián).

                                1. re: calumin

                                  Thanks yes I have a reservation there but I'm wondering whether to go there given I already have a reservation at his Barcelona restaurant