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Barcelona/La Rioja/San Sebastian Trip Report – August 2014

Thanks to all the Chowhounders whose posts helped me plan a trip to Barcelona, La Rioja, and San Sebastian this month. This board is a truly invaluable resource, and after years of lurking, I figured it was long past time that I finally give something back. We were in Spain earlier this month: four days in Barcelona, three in Rioja, and four in San Sebastian, before going on to Paris.

Barcelona
First off, wow, what a crowded place Barcelona was in August, far more so than what we've encountered in even August trips to Rome and Paris. That spilled over to our experiences whenever we ate or drank in Barri Gotic and El Born, where we were staying. El Boqueria was near unbearable, especially with Pinoxto closed for the month and El Quim absolutely mobbed. We much more enjoyed Santa Caterina market, where the choices were more limited, but much more manageable. We ate a more than decent lunch at the main market counter there (meatballs with sepia, grilled clams, bacalao with escabeche). And you can’t beat the jamon selection at several of the meat counters – I picked up a daily racion that I ended up eating alone back in our apartment before dinner.

We have gotten massive tasting menu fatigue over the years, so with Mugaritz on the agenda for later in the trip, we opted for more casual fare in Barcelona, with a couple of relaxed tasting course dinners at Gresca and Hisop interspersed with more casual fare at Paco Meralgo and La Palmera:

Gresca. We had a really amazing meal here. Inventive food, but still relaxed and comfortable. Highlights of the five course tasting menu were sardines draped with very thinly sliced cured pork belly, potato “pasta” with an egg soufflé containing a lightly cooked egg yolk, as well as perfectly cooked pigeon. A steal for 38 euros a person. We sent friends here the week after and they also loved it. Can’t say enough about how enjoyable this restaurant was.

Hisop. I would describe Hisop as a little more refined technically than Gresca, and lacking a little of Gresca’s soul, but serving very, very good food. Nice touches of Asian influence (think romesco sauce enclosed in a mirin sphere with zucchini flowers), precise service. Just a restaurant humming at a high level turning out very well-executed food.

Paco Meralgo. We ate here on our first night since it was both a Sunday and we wanted something casual, and it was a great way to kick things off. The notorious croquetas Obama (sigh – time to get into the 21st century, Spain) were delicious, as were razor clams, but the highlight was a dish of beans with squid and paprika. Very Catalan, very simple, very good.

La Palmera. La Palmera was fine. It’s a casual seemingly neighborhood place, and the food is simple and well-prepared. Nothing to blow you away, but it was fun and the owner and all the staff are delightful. There were a good number of locals eating here with us, and the menu is certainly a value at the price.

We also had a really great lunch at the bar at Cerveceria Catlana. Yes, there are a lot of tourists there, but plenty of locals too, even in August, and everything we had from the tapas menu was very well done.

La Rioja

The highlights for us in Rioja were lunches at Asador Ariño in Labastidia and Hector Oribe in Paganos, two places that couldn’t be more different from each other. Ariño is traditional, family-run, and was packed with locals who were starting their weekend party at the Friday lunch we were there for. We had a great menestra (the local stew of mixed vegetables) along with a nice green salad (a rarity for Spain), and an enormous chuleton, the local version of a porterhouse. The steak was cooked perfectly and the beef was really deeply-flavored – a perfect complement to the local wine, and a nice way to soak up the morning’s wine tastings.

Hector Oribe is a more gourmet restaurant, and one of the better-reviewed places in Rioja. They had a very reasonable tasting menu, but we were feeling a bit overwhelmed the day we were there, so ordered a la carte. Everything we had – gazpacho with seafood, hake, oxtails – was great, and everything we saw going out to other tables looked good as well. It’s a beautiful, tranquil restaurant.

We also had a nice dinner at Meson Atamuri (traditional Riojan – menestra and grilled baby lamb chops) and some less successful ones at El Bodegon in Laguardia and Los Calaus in Briones. Even more than other regions of Spain, dinner really is an afterthought in Rioja, which you can tell by how empty the restaurants are at night. (The bars, of course, are packed.)

We also did a tapas crawl on Calle Laurel in Logrono for lunch one day and it was a blast. Definitely try to include it if you’re in the area.

San Sebastian

First of all, the pintxos in San Sebastian are every bit as good as they are cracked up to be, especially if you follow a few tips. The woman we rented an apartment from advised us never to take a plate and pick the tapas on the counter, because they aren’t fresh, but instead have them make them for you. We found it was fine to take some of the pre-prepared stuff (jamon on bread, boquerones, etc. – things that are fine at room temperature), but in general all of the really good things are available only by ordering. All of the really good places have menus either on a board behind the bar or on cards, and you will find some of the best items things, as well as each place’s specialty, on the menu.

Except for La Cuchara, which is as good as advertised, I won’t bother trying to list all of the pintxo restaurants, most of which are referenced already on Chowhound, but another tip I read somewhere that we found useful is to go to the Hotel Maria Cristina and ask the concierge for a tapas map (it probably helps if you pretend you’re a guest…). It’s a really useful map dividing the bars into modern and traditional style, and listing a specialty or two for each one. You don’t need to follow it religiously – it’s also fun just to hop in and out of places and order what looks good – but it’s a nice introduction, and very helpful in figuring out what each bar is really known for. We didn’t hit every spot on it, but over four days, we came pretty darn close, and we ate better for having the hotel’s recommendations.

We also had an incredible meal at Bodegon Alejandro. Everything there was good, but one thing in particular stood out: the cogote, a local dish of hake neck, baked and served for two people to share. We’d heard of this dish before coming to Spain, and when we saw it on the menu, we had to order it. Glad we did too, because it might have been the best fish dish we’ve ever had, and probably the single best thing we ate on the entire trip. Soft, luscious, intensely flavorful – a real testament to taking a perfect ingredient and not messing it up.

Finally, Mugaritz. I knew we would only do one blow-it-out meal on the trip (well, we would have done two had Etxebarri not been closed for all of August), and so I agonized over this choice for months, going back and forth between it, Arzak and Akelare. And while I can now understand why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, we absolutely loved it. It sounds like a cliché, but it was as much an experience as a meal, and an experience that was thought-provoking without being pretentious.

Which is not to say that the food wasn’t delicious – it absolutely was. But I can understand why some people wouldn’t enjoy it as much. For example, the amuse-bouches were presented as a study in textures, and the textures were really interesting. Some of the flavors weren’t (and one or two things my wife downright hated), but that seemed to be kind of the point. Then when we moved to the next courses, they hit us straight away with powerful flavors, obviously looking to change directions dramatically.

I won’t bother going through all of the courses we had, but some of them were as stunning as you would expect. On the experience side, there was a course that involved everyone in the restaurant grinding their food up in a mortar and pestle at the same time, even though we were all at different progressions in our meals – the point being that everyone was doing this noisy thing together, which led people to talk across tables, laugh, point, etc. Really fun, and in a way you don’t expect at a restaurant where the food is 190 euros a person.

We’ve gotten somewhat jaded in recent years over “death by food” tasting menus, which even when good can start to feel just a bit staid and boring. So Mugaritz was probably perfect for us. Delicious food, delightful atmosphere, some daring concepts – just a world class experience in every way, and the perfect capstone for our trip. We had friends in town who went to Akelare and after comparing notes, it seemed to be a much more traditional presentation of courses. They loved the food, and I’m sure it was wonderful. But if you’re one of those people, like us, who have gotten just a little bit bored of the whole experience, I would wholeheartedly recommend Mugaritz.

Thanks again to everyone whose previous posts helped us eat so well on the trip.

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  1. Excellent report! I'll be there next Tuesday for 11 days and I hope the crowds have thinned out a bit.

    Cheers!

    1. Really good report - mirrored our experience as well. I need to go back to Barcelona for a holiday out of season (if there is such a thing), August is horribly hot, really crowded, and many places are closed. On work trips out of season it's seemed a lot calmer.

      Interesting advice on the SS tapas on the counter. I have really enjoyed many of them, but tend to choose places that turn them over quickly with a kitchen refilling them.

      Totally agree on Mugaritz - it's a cerebral restaurant and not a "meat and two veg" place. Really enjoyable if you are an experienced diner, more challenging if you are a "I know what I like diner".

      9 Replies
      1. re: PhilD

        PhilD - I think it's a case of using common sense at the tapas counters. Basic things like skewers of peppers and anchovies, or jamon on bread and such are fine from the counter (especially at places with a lot of turnover, as you note). But don't order the pre-fried items that get warmed up in the microwave, and even more importantly, don't just eat from the counter if it means you skip ordering from the actual pintxo menus, where a lot of the truly amazing food can be found.

        I'd love to try to make it back to Barca in the off season to compare. Sadly, the nature of my job pretty much confines us to August and December trips.

        1. re: DC Wine Fan

          Unlike San Sebastian, tapas and pintxos eating in Barcelona is relatively recent, popular from the early 90's. It's pintxos scene is simple compared to San Sebastian. Most just serve items from the counter, very little ordering. Even the better places such as Taktika Berri, simple hot items come out periodically on big platters and set on the counter. It is a stampede for them. No menu, no ordering, no racions. It is strictly a bar/counter stand up eating. Barcelona tapas scene has much more variety.

        2. re: PhilD

          im getting sort of tempted by murgaritz too

          we are in ss for 3 nights

          we have arzak and ibai bookings

          we too just booked ibai as tastings ( somewhat ungreatfully ) can seem tiresome

          and in san sebastian it seems mad to be sat down in one place for three hours when you can be cruising and eating

          1. re: ajpickup

            Ibai was awfully tempting to us too, but, yeah, you can't beat the tapas crawls in SS. We were there during Semana Grande, their annual festival, so it was even more packed and fun than it otherwise would be, but I suspect it's always that way to an extent.

            The usual option is to do your meals at lunch and do tapas for dinner, when the town is more alive, people are drinking more, etc. Of course if Arzak is anything like Mugaritz, you probably won't be eating much afterwards.

            1. re: DC Wine Fan

              monday

              arrive, pinxtos then evening try maybe la fabrica or atlari gastroteka

              tues pinxtos then arzak in the evening

              weds ibai lunch then pinxtos in the evening

              arzak like murgaritz seems to divide opinion but i think you can tell if you should take notice a review or not by seeing if expectations are alligned with your own.

              eg, murgaritz was expensive and therefore rubbish.

              Im not going to take notice of that

              1. re: ajpickup

                Sounds good. And one thing I didn't mention in my post: definitely find time to try kokotxas somewhere. La Cuchara does a good version, as do other places. Really outstanding.

            2. re: ajpickup

              I haven't seen it mentioned, so I'll throw it into the mix ... A Fuego Negro in SS is a really fun place. You can go for pintxos. We opted for a reservation which means you're committed to a tasting menu. Honestly, it was as creative as many more expensive places but had much more attitude, which I really appreciated.

              For a classic seafood place, Meson Martin is really nice.

              1. re: ajpickup

                Also, let me add that for creative pintxos another good place is Bar Zeruko. Try the "Lobster Roast".

                1. re: weshoke

                  Those places are on our list, la fabrica is a possible. I guess I just don't want to be sitting down much in san sebastian

            3. hi

              has barcelona calmed doen by september as a rule?

              ive been a couple of times years ago ... im struggling to repmber exactly when but was prob out of season

              1 Reply
              1. re: ajpickup

                Some parts of Barcelona are protesting about the illegal lets. Do not except this to pass by quickly.
                http://www.elperiodico.com/es/noticia...
                http://www.abc.es/espana/20140828/abc...

              2. Thank you for the excellent post. There is no off season in Barcelona. The summers are the most crowded because it has become the starting and ending port for the big cruise ships. Also August draws loads of visitors from rest of Europe. Everyone descend on the old quarters and the lower Eixample. The Boqueria become unbearable and not a place to shop, mostly browsers buying cut up fruit and juices. Once out of the tourist areas, it is still a very civilize city.