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Feb 17, 2014 12:43 PM

Bilbao / San Sebastian: best restaurants apart from the "usual suspects"?

we plan a trip to the Bilbao/San Sebastian region and want to visit some great restaurants. We read alot about places like Arzak, Akellare, Mugaritz, Azurmendi, Extebarri etc - but in the category "below" those places, which ones are the best? (meaning: among the numerous 1-star-restaurants).
We like experimental/avantgarde cuisine alot.


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  1. Assume to plan to dedicate a few evenings and lunchtimes to touring the tapas bars....? And note its best to tour rather than plan sit down meals at any of them - simply eat one or two tapas at each and move on.

    1. Here are some under the radar places from Andy Hayler, a famous British food blogger -- most famous for dining at every Michelin 3* worldwide.

      He isn't as high on the SS restaurants as most, rating the three stars as 2's and Mugaritz as no stars at all, but thus far I've found his tastes roughly match mine on the 20 or so restaurants we've both dined at. You might search to see if he has ratings for restaurants you've dined at and see how well they match your experiences at those places. Casa Urola Zuberoa Ibai (he rates this place very high, higher than the 3*'s ... note no credit cards, no written menus, no English spoken ... I'm trying it in May)

      7 Replies
      1. re: willyum

        No disrespect intended to any poster here - but isn't the reference to Hayler exactly the OPPOSITE of what the OP is looking for?

        "We like experimental/avantgarde cuisine a lot"

        Andy is usually consistent in his reviews - he likes traditional/classic foods and preparations. I recall him trashing El Bulli the first visit (although his second was kinder).

        The key is finding a reviewer one consistently agrees with - or consistently disagrees with (equally valid). I use Hayler to avoid places he likes, as his tastes and mine are usually in conflict (I haven't been to Azurmendi which he loves, yet other reviewers suggest it is using modernist techniques; but he hates Mugaritz which is high on my list of places to return to).

        Similarly, several suggestions (so far) on this thread are promoting tapas NOT mentioned by the OP ( I assume Pintxos is used interchangeably) which I have never managed to find as avant garde or experimental - please, anybody, guide me to places preparing these experimental versions.

        I agree with Willyum - compare your likes/dislikes with Hayler's - he is very reliable and consistent - then decide on where to go.

        Unfortunately my SS/Bilbao visits were 5+ years ago, so I can't help with current recommendations - but I hope to remedy that soon.

        1. re: estufarian

          estufarian, you're right that Hayler is not going to list many "experimental/avantgarde cuisine" options but the thread seemed to be languishing so I thought I'd give them some ideas.

          Also, while Hayler keeps saying he prefers classic cuisine I think the old boy really enjoys a bit of the molecular funk when it's done right.

          Looking at his actual reviews I think if a modernist restaurant is sourcing highest quality products and doesn't overwhelm them with molecular tricks then Andy seems to really like them.

          Example # 1 is Alinea -- it's the most molecular Michelin 2 or 3 star in the USA yet Hayler rated it 20/20, the best rating for any USA restaurant. In his blog he said he dreaded going there and was pretty sure he wouldn't like it, but the base was there (good taste combinations, top notch products) and the molecular simply added to it. Now he raves about it in videos for Elite Traveler.

          Example # 2 is Fat Duck -- he rates it the only 19/20 restaurant in England yet it's the most molecular of the big name Michelin places in that country.

          Example # 3 is Spain -- Azurmendi and Can Roca are two of his top three restaurants, both with molecular elements.

          Similar deal in Germany and Italy.

          It's hard to make a convincing argument that he doesn't appreciate molecular done well when Fat Duck, Alinea and Azurmendi are his top rated restaurants in England, USA and Spain.

          Then there are the restaurants where he thinks molecular is either done poorly or detracts from the food or -- heaven forbid -- is used to cover up poor sourcing.

          Lots of examples here -- he thinks Noma is a solid Michelin 2* and that it's silly it was ranked # 1 by Pellegrino. He thinks Quique Dacosta is over rated (a one star) and didn't quite 'get' El Bulli as much as he gets Fat Duck and Alinea and Azurmendi.

          But the one he really killed was Mugaritz, a top five fixture in the Pellegrino rankings ... Hayler got a rubbery squid there, which is pretty hard to find in a good restaurant in Spain, and reamed them pretty well, ranking them as deserving no Michelin stars.

          This is the review people seem to refer to when they say he is anti-molecular, but given the way he rates other molecular restaurants I think he just felt Mugaritz was relying too much on molecular tricks rather than on top notch products.

          1. re: willyum

            Thanks for your response - well documented - although my personal opinions of both Fat Duck and Alinea differ strongly from Andy's. My notes on Can Roca are very old - but given that it never made my personal Top 10 either (and at one point 5 of my top 10 were Spanish) I'm guessing that we're not really on the same page there either.
            Alinea was a disaster on my last visit - under the new format (although admittedly, Andy's visit was under the former style which I preferred). But look at his ratings for wd-50 (consistently one of my top 3 in USA) and Coi - also modernist in style.
            Fat Duck again disappointed me - my two visits 5 years apart (one before its elevation to 3*) were almost identical menus - maybe 70% the same - maybe it's time for a return trip to see if he's come up with something new (sorry, joking - that second visit was so disappointing that I've discounted the first visit).

            I'm not claiming (and would never claim) that "I'm right and anyone else is wrong" - not that you've even hinted at that. I have a reservation for Azurmendi in April to check out what I hope is a fantastic experience - based on your, Andy's and other reviews.

            My points were to try and help the OP - of course you were also trying too - I just thought the thread (all posts, not just yours) were not taking sufficient account of OP's stated preferences - and at least I hope I've nudged it back.

            Incidentally OP mentions Viajante as a favourite - also my favourite UK restaurant. And another favourite of OP is Alinea - but I don't know when the visit occurred - I was a great fan of Grant long before Alinea - only 1 of my half-dozen meals at Alinea matched any of the five I had at Trio, his former place (not boasting, just sad that it's evolved into the current parade of gimmicks - IMO).
            I feel for the crying baby!

            1. re: willyum

              I tend to agree about the Hayler comments - my read is he likes good food and seems to appreciate the classic and avant-garde.

              After all his favourite at the moment seems to be Hedone which is a great example of modern cooking i.e. good classic technique with a few avant-garde twists. And if I think back to my best molecular meals they all had this attribute (including El Bulli) - the bad ones tended to be 100% molecular.

              Azurmendi falls firmly into the former camp - some great classic food and a some inspired modern touches. Don't miss the foie gras coated with shaved frozen foie gras - a modern classic.

              1. re: PhilD

                Hey Phil, we scored Fat Duck reservations for April, our first trip to England for fine dining. Had to get up at 3 AM here to log on and be first in line.

                We wanted to add another restaurant and I remembered you posting earlier about liking Hedone so we booked it as well for the next day.

                So one meal highly molecular, one meal oriented more towards quality products with mostly simpler cooking techniques. Should be interesting, with the contrasts.

                I'll tip a glass to you at Hedone for the suggestion if we like it as much as you and Hayler. Which I think we will.

                1. re: willyum

                  Congrats - I couldn't get into Hedone a year ago.
                  Fat Duck reserved (also in April). I think we lucked out because it was erroneously reported in North America that Fat Duck was closed because of Norwalk virus (was actually Dinner by Heston). I 'practiced' (and failed) a few times leading up to my date - but on the day we actually got two reservations (2 couples - both trying for a four seater), so thanks to non-fact-checking by reporters! (Obviously we cancelled the duplicate reservation immediately).
                  Enjoy both.

            2. re: estufarian

              Good point regarding the stated preference. But that said I would be surprised if someone who likes good food doesn't appreciate the tapas scene in SS (and yes I do lazily use tapas and Pintxos interchanably).

              The OP may understand the "grazing" nature of this style of food, but having read far too many threads that want a "sit down meal" in a tapas bar I thought it worth making the point.

              And yes the avant garde or experimental does exist, although maybe not to the extent that some of the bars may position themselves. Often it's really pushing the envelope of the traditional styles - which I always thought was what all the competition between the bars was all about, and in days gone by this was often better off the beaten track away from the tourists in the new town.

              Bottom line going to the Basque Country and doing either tapas or the avant garde would be to miss one of the reasons for going.

          2. The above mentioned Zuberoa is an excellent restaurant if one stick with what Chef Arbelazitz does best, cooking traditional Basque food. In the past few years, he is using more modern technique and ingredients, to me, not for the better. It doesn't quite fit your preference of "experimental/avantgarde cuisine'. Skip the hodgepodge degustation menu and ask the staff to custom a menu of traditional Basque specialties or order his foie gras, roasted fish and especially his meat dishes, any of his wonderful desserts and you will have a great meal. The setting is a wonderful old farm house. You will need a car. A little more avantgarde, go to Fagollaga in Hernani, just south of SS.
            Within San Sebastian old town, no star but very good and not expensive is Bodegon Alejandro or the downstair dining room of Ganbara (great pinxtos in the street front bar); both simple and very Basque.

            2 Replies
            1. re: PBSF

              Excellent recs as usual.
              In fact for a place like San Sé, traditional is the unusual.
              The Bodegon Alejandro, traditional but not commonplace, always one of my faves.

              1. re: PBSF

                We also had a great lunch at Bodegon Alejandro last year. It's an excellent choice for a "sit-down" meal if you fancy one amongst the pinxtos grazing that usually happens.

                We were there during asparagus season, and I still remember that plate of fat white Navarro spears.

              2. I have a somewhat related question. Would Etxebarri and Elkano be too much on the same day? I only have a car for one day and figured I could do them for lunch and dinner respectively. However, I don't mind taking the bus from San Sebastian to Getaria on another day.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Negaduck

                  I literally couldn't move after Extebarri's degustation lunch so it may be ambitious......

                  1. re: PhilD

                    I might not have to decide since I can't seem to reach anyone on Elkano's line.

                2. Okay, this whole discussion went kinda off topic. We have booked at Azurmendi, Mina and Mugaritz now. Thanks to all!

                  Now: what are the best Tapas/Pintxos places in Bilbao not SS!), please?