In the Bay of Biscay on the northern coast of Spain lies the glittering Basque city of San Sebastian, Spain’s best-kept secret. It is not a large city by any means, but it sure manages to punch above its weight in more ways than one. Its outsized influence is felt in several areas, including economic, political and cultural, but it is surely in gastronomy that this seaside resort is unequaled not just in Spain, but around the world.
Although it has a population of only about 185,000 — less than that of Yonkers — San Sebastian has managed to garner 16 Michelin stars in all, including three three-starred restaurants. (Compare that to New York’s seven three-starred restaurants and population of more than 8 million.) This makes Donostia, in the Basque parlance, the city with the most Michelin stars per capita on the planet.
But, as my husband and I discovered on a recent week-long sojourn there, you certainly don’t have to go to a fancy restaurant to enjoy good food in San Sebastian, for delicious dishes abound at every turn. From the multitude of pintxos (Basque-style tapas) bars to taverns serving up traditional fare, there is something for every taste and budget.
My culinary journey in this Belle Époque refuge for the beau monde began at Arzak. Run by father/daughter duo Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, their eponymous restaurant was the first in Spain to win three Michelin stars. That was back in 1989. On Juan Mari’s watch, Arzak has managed to hold on to this top honor for close to a quarter century — an uncommon feat indeed.
I have to confess that this was my favorite restaurant in San Sebastian. The nouvelle cuisine Basque — essentially French-influenced, lighter traditional fare — which it imaginatively serves up day after day, certainly has a lot to do with it. But, Arzak offers something else — something that is intangible and rarely found in this corporate age. At the risk of sounding sentimental here, the special sauce at Arzak is the pervading feeling of family. Elena, after all, is no less than the fourth generation involved in this enterprise which is benevolently presided over by her charismatic father. The atmosphere created by Juan Mari is one of warmth and intimacy and it is this which made dining at Arzak a truly special occasion for my husband and me.
But let’s not forget about the food, each dish more delicious than the other. Mr. Arzak is a master at creating ridiculously satisfying combinations of contrasting flavors and textures. As I was leaving the restaurant, he asked me how I had enjoyed the meal. “Everything was wonderful,” I replied. “Yes, but did you really feel it?” he wanted to know. After all these years, it’s clear that the pioneering chef is still passionate about his craft.
A few of the amuse bouches on the menu included:
The main fish course included:
For the main attraction, we chose:
And for dessert:
And last but not least, the whimsical petit fours:
After a breather of a couple of days, we headed to Akelaŕe, located 20 minutes outside of town. Helmed by Pedro Subijana, who, like Juan Mari Arzak, is a founding father of new Basque cuisine, Akelaŕe also boasts three Michelin stars and has been hailed a “temple of international gastronomy.”
The first thing you’ll notice about the simple and elegant space are the stunning, “forever” views of the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean. For this reason, I recommend going to Akelaŕe for lunch (which is what we did) or for dinner during late-setting summer days. The highly desirable window seats book up quickly, so you have to act fast, but good views can be had from numerous tables.
For the first course, there was:
For the main course, both my husband and I opted for seafood.
And for dessert:
Last but certainly not least, we also had reservations at the area’s third three-starred restaurant owned by internationally-renowned chef Martín Berastegui. Putting away three such meals in the space of a week, however, proved to be too much. Even two can result in a Michelin overload.
So, with a twinge of regret, we opted to forego this one in favor of a meal at the bodega-style Bodegón Alejandroin San Sebastian’s Parte Vieja, or Old Town. Little did we know when we ate at this casual and popular tavern that it is actually run by Martín Berastegui’s restaurant group, MB. Bodegón Alejandro, in fact, has been in his family for decades. We should have known that some sort of Michelin greatness was behind the scenes for everything we ordered from a menu which offers a fresh and simple take on local classics was absolutely delicious.
I also have to credit Bodegón Alejandro with introducing me to txacoli (pronounced cha-ko-lee), an effervescent, crisp, dry Basque white wine. With its low alcohol content and subtle fizz, it is perfect for summer. There are rosé varieties of txacoli too and as soon as I returned to New York, I ran headed to my local wine shop to stock up on what has quickly become my favorite warm weather libation.
Not surprisingly, txacoli is a great companion to pintxos. And there is certainly no shortage of these delectable, inexpensive snacks in San Sebastian. The thing to do is go on a pintxo-bar hop or txikiteo as it is known in the Basque language. A few of my favorite pintxo palaces include the following, all located in the Parte Vieja:
But wait! That’s not all! In addition to all the wonderful places to eat, there’s the central underground market, the Mercado de la Bretxa, essentially San Sebastian’s supermarket. A popular destination for locals and tourists alike, it is where scores of butchers, fishmongers, cheesemongers, produce sellers and bakers put on a daily dazzling display. A few of the vendors are pictured below …
So why is San Sebastian such a gastronomic heaven? Is there something in the water that makes Michelin stars appear to grow on trees? Perhaps the answer lies in part in the natural abundance of food. The city is wedged in between the bountiful sea on one side and the fertile green foothills of the Pyrenées on the other. Perhaps also, the culinary excellence can be attributed to the emergence of the nouvelle cuisine Basque pioneered by Juan Mari Arzak a quarter century ago which has upped the ante for every self-respecting restaurant, tavern and tapas bar alike. I’m not sure exactly what the answer to this question is. All I know is that it will be a long time – if ever again – that I will eat as well, morning, noon, and night, as I did in San Sebastian.
San Sebastian, Part II coming tomorrow …