Wednesday, June 17, 2015

San Sebastián: the Basque Country’s Jewel

After a leisurely 2 hour drive from Elciego and passing by Pamplona (famous worldwide for the running of the bulls) we arrived in San Sebastián in the early afternoon.

Check-in was easy and we were soon settled in our room at the Hotel Maria Cristina.  
Hotel Maria Cristina
This is a view of the back entrance of the hotel which spills onto Okendo Kalea. Our room is circled in red.


After checking in, we introduced ourselves  to San Sebastián by heading to the beach and taking a walk along el Paseo de la Concha, the promenade running beside the beach and lined with a white wrought-iron balustrade.
 
Promenade at La Concha beach
With one of the best urban beaches in Europe (Playa de La Concha), with Michelin stars apparently falling from the skies onto its restaurants ~ Akelaŕe, Martín Berasategui, Mugaritz, Alameda, Elkano, Kokotxa, Mirador de Ulía, Zuberoa ~ and an elegance that rivals that of any European capital, San Sebastián fully deserves its nickname of the Basque Country’s jewel.


It's hard to conceive of a better-looking shoreline. A mile long promenade, which serves as the city's communal front porch, is lined with frilly balustrades, whitewashed cafes, and matronly bathhouses. Concha Beach, the most popular of the city's three beaches. Walk west toward Ondarreta Beach, with its tennis courts and old-money villas. Or walk east, past the tilting glass cube of the Kursaal Auditorium, until you see the rugged surfers on Zurriola Beach.

Playa de La Concha
This lovely white sand beach  may be the most iconic sight in San Sebastian.
 With a wide shoreline and mesmerizing waves, this expansive beach extends
 for over a mile.
 Beach that is the most popular with surfers in San Sebastián.
 Located in Barrio Gros, between Kursaal ‘cubes’ and Monte Ulía.
 It has allowed nudism since 2004, being one of the few Spanish urban
 beaches to do so.


Thankfully our somewhat inconsistent GPS navigation system (see finding Asador Etxebarri) was well behaved and we easily arrived well in time giving us the opportunity to admire some of the surrounding scenery...
Located in the quiet village of Errenteria.
Mugaritz was about a 20-minute drive from our
 hotel. It is completely surrounded by nature.
and walk around the grounds viewing the garden ...


Restaurant garden
 Daily, chefs will pick flowers, plants, and herbs to
 enhance an ingredient, a plate, an experience.
Mugaritz, a 2 Michelin star restaurant in an understated country
 house nestled in misty foothills 20 minutes outside of San Sebastián.
The small wooden building – entirely rebuilt after a devastating fire in 2010 – is surrounded by breath-taking scenery and is where Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz concocts the bold dishes that have earned him 2 Michelin stars and 6th place on the Word’s 50 Best 2015 list.


"When you go to culinary school," Chef Aduriz smiles, "you are taught food must be pleasing, but when you get to Mugaritz, you realize that sometimes you need to be disturbed, to be shocked." Interview in The Guardian May 2012

Stepping into the restaurant we immediately noticed that the walls are plain and wooden and the only gesture to decoration, is a dinner plate on each table, broken in half then pieced back together. The room is almost austere with only 17 tables.


Mugaritz mantra: You don't have to like something to like it.


Decoration on our table
But there are no plates setup, no silverware, no glasses, and
 no flowers, only a broken plate centerpiece adorns the table.  


The waiters wear black and silently walk through the dining room without hardly being noticed. What we noticed was a quiet dining room, people were talking to each other normally, but it seemed like murmurs and whispers. Here, dinner was to be an all-night event.



Joan and Gus are ready to be wowed.

2011 Raventos i Blanc de La Finca Gran Reserva Brut
Conca del Riu Anoia
At Mugaritz, every table begins with a sequence of several finger-food dishes – no forks or knives, where only a napkin is placed by your side and wet towels are handed to you at the end of the sequence. 


Salting of ashes: orchids and ferns.
Unfortunately, this photo is after our dishes
were already eaten as we had not yet adopted
 the "take a photo of every course" policy.



Marine cold cuts.
A very pungent trio of smoked seafood. From left
 to right: mussel, anchovy, and squid with tapenade,
Live cannellone.
Sprouted chia seed with lobster ceviche.
At this point in our dining experience, we were invited to visit the restaurant's kitchen, to get a view of what’s going on ‘inside’ and to learn how the kitchen functions. Here, amongst a cadre of chefs intently focused and quietly working, we were each offered a small bite of crispy chicken skin tortilla with banana and pumpkin seed praline.


Offering us the chicken skins.
 Born and raised in Brooklyn and speaks 6 languages. She has
in Paris and at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain.
(photo credit: insatiableeater)
Mugaritz Kitchen - Where It All Comes Together
Refurbished after the fire in 2010 is a mix of classical kitchen and high-tech
 Lab. The installation was done in a record time (to minimize the closing time of
 the restaurant) and cost "way more than a million euros all included". No
 less than 35 chefs work in the kitchen to prepare the complex dishes.Notice
 Jade lightly circled in green.
Once back in the dining the room, our Mugaritz journey really began.  The tasting menu that remained this evening contained 20 courses. 

After having the sparkling wine with the first 3 plus 1 courses Gus and Joan, with help from our talented sommelier, chose a luscious Tempranillo to accompany the savory courses of our dinner. 


Cold duck pastrami
Egg yolks tucked in with a sea urchin blanket.
Black summer truffle slices with a fresh dressing of garlic and parsley.
Walnut omelette
 A walnut tortilla and sliced fresh mushrooms
 served on a piece of ultra-crisp "crystal" toast.
Tiger nuts with caviar.
Cold starch extracted from the ground tiger nut which is
 mixed with water and shaped into a biscuit; it is finished
 with a spoonful of Osetra caviar.
Mousse of cream and spider crab.
Spider crab set in a milk cream base served
 with a spoonful of cayenne pepper.
Oyster and young garlic warm omelet.
A thousand leaves...
 A mille-feuille made up from chard leaves blanched in
 a  beef reduction served with a piece of Idiazabal cheese.
Glutinous hake.
Roasted loin of hake with crumbly fresh cottage cheese.
Bovis máxima: vive la France!
Inside a beautifully made cardboard cover was a crisp
 sandwich with a creamy bone marrow filling, elegantly
 seasoned with tarragon. A small bowl of demi-glace sauce
 was served on the side.
Ail glacé.
Beautifully roasted, halved bulb of garlic,
 glazed with a lamb jus reduction, which
 we were instructed to squeeze over a piece
 of grilled brioche toast.
Grilled and bathed stingray.
"Pâte de Fruits"
Eucalyptus smoked loin of lamb with its cultivated wool.
The wool was created from lamb jus fermented with tempeh.
The cheese
After this, we moved towards the final stage of dinner, served in five sweet and savory courses.

Toffee and parsnip cake.
The little bit of spice from the parsnip was great with
 the toffee and included, as an ingredient, cod liver.
Strawberries and Port.
Jasmine and hay.
Jasmine ice cream wrapped in mochi skin.
Glass. Sugar and cocoa as a cookie.
Tower of the Seven Deadly Sins
The tower consisted of seven levels of chocolate representing the seven deadly sins. Gold dusted chocolate for pride; one chocolate for envy; broken pieces of chili flavor chocolate for wrath; small crunch balls for gluttony; an empty level for greed; rose flavor chocolate for lust; large chocolate slabs for sloth. So clever...

Black toilet paper
(photo credit: lb.noel)

... yet upon visiting the restroom, Gus felt as if he was in a Dr. Seuss book, experiencing something discordantly novel. He was mesmerized and disturbed at the same time.

Okay, what did we think about our dinner at Mugaritz? Well, for us, it may have been like listening to Thelonious Monk. We knew that many sophisticated diners and restaurant critics love Chef Aduriz and his "jazz band", however, it just was not for us. Sure enough, the cooking and execution were faultless, the conception incredible, there was plenty of intrigue present, the techniques seriously impressive, and the ideas boundless. However, it seemed that every dish needed to explore a new technique or texture or flavor; the experience just didn't excite us. It had many hallmarks of an excellent meal, but we didn't go away with that sense of joy that an excellent meal normally engenders in us. I can only put it down to a question of taste and maybe we prefer classical to modernist (although, Christopher Kostow at the storied Restaurant at Meadowood has wowed us and where inventiveness does not come at the expense of flavor). Gus knew that Mugaritz polarizes people, and he was almost intrigued to see on which side we'd fall. Well, now we know. Gus still is very glad we went while Joan not so much. Mugaritz just like Thelonious is certainly unique and innovative, but for us, was a bit of a letdown given its reputation.

We were back at the hotel in 20 minutes. Our evening was one that we would not soon, if ever, forget.

With morning came a sunny day to explore San Sebastián.





Monte Urgull

Located on the eastern end of the bay above the Old Town. At the
top, you’ll find a city park, (closed to traffic) crowned by the semi-ruined
 12th century Mota castle and a huge Franco era sculpture of Christ, the
 Sacred Heart statue which overlooks the city. 
Port Area and Sea Palace Aquarium
Situated in the western corner of Mount Urgull is a nice place for
 sitting down and relaxing for a bit. At the far end of the port, you
 can see the Aquarium
Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus
We caught the first glimpse of the basilica from a narrow street (Agosto Kalea)
 in front and it is quite inviting. The gorgeous Churrigueresque style façade has
 been recently restored. It was built in flamboyant Baroque style, begun in 1743,
 on top of an older Romanesque church. It has three naves and Gothic ribbed
vaults and houses the image of the city’s patron saint, Nuestra Señora del Coro.
The City Hall of San Sebastián (Ayuntamiento), a former casino built in 1887.
One of the most majestic buildings of San Sebastián. It is located in a beautiful
 location alongside the water and the well-maintained Alderdi Eder Gardens.
Victoria Eugenia Theater
Located next door to Hotel Maria Cristina on Plaza Oquendo.
 Inaugurated  in 1912, it is one of the most glamorous buildings in
 the city. Its recent renovation has transformed it into an innovative
 performing arts venue, with the most modern equipment and
 services whilst maintaining its charm and original characteristics.
As the day was turning to dusk we returned to the hotel and freshened up (which included Gus having  a gin and tonic and Joan defaulting to her go-to vodka and tonic) and changed into our dinner clothes.

We had dinner reservations at 8:30 and we were the very first diners; by 9:15 the restaurant was full and alive. We were graciously welcomed and seated by Beatriz Bengoetxea, co-owner, head waiter, sommelier, and wife of the chef. 

Agorregi Jatetxea
Small, casual and contemporary restaurant which
 is a short taxi ride from central Donostia Amid the 
new office buildings of the Igara district, Agoreggi
 is not on the tourist map.
We started with a wonderful amuse-bouche of ...


Gazpacho
(photo courtesy of Diane64190 on TripAdvisor)
followed by appetizers/entrées ...  


Gus chose roasted mushrooms with an egg at 65º.
Joan had tuna tartare with a quenelle of mustard
 ice cream.
For our main courses ...  


Joan's lightly grilled prawns in, what she recalls as, a 
delicate sea urchin sauce. 


Gus' perfectly roasted pigeon with onion petals
Local Galparsoro artisan breads accompanied the meal ... along with




For Gus a single glass of a young Tempranillo from
Bodegas Landaluce and for Joan a single bottle
of a full bodied San Miguel, Selecta beer washed
down the delicious dinner.
Florentine cookies
Crisp, lacy almond cookies flavored with orange.

Chef, Gorka Arzelus, created delicious and beautifully presented dishes of extraordinary refinement, delicacy, and harmony. Our bill was €80; truly an exceptional value. N.B. We ate at Mugaritz the night before and enjoyed tonight's experience and food at Agorregi far more yet our bill was only a small fraction of our bill at Mugaritz. I will trade 2 Stars for a Bib in this case!  


Congratulations to Gorka and Beatriz on their well-deserved Bibendum.



We returned to Hotel Maria Cristina, comfortable and pleased. The next morning we set out without breakfast and soon found ourselves in front of ...

Pastelería Oyarzun (aka Pastelería Oiartzun)
Close to the Almeda del Boulevard, an enchanting bakery which
 will have your mouth watering in no time. Next to intricately crafted
 sweets, this place offers cakes, pastries, and fresh bread. There is hardly
 a better way to start the morning than taking a seat outside of this lovely
 café with a selection of cakes and watching the people pass you by.

We selected pastries, ordered coffees, and went outside and sat down at a table on the cafe's terrace. The cool morning air, the peacefulness of the moment, freshly brewed coffees making their acquaintances with "just-out-of-the-oven" pastries, all contributed to a general feeling of salubriousness. The perfect way to start a day in San Sebastián.

Next, we found ourselves strolling ...

Fresh crustaceans and bivalve mollusks
Crab tank below the floor of the fish purveyor

We wondered past La Bretxa Market and glanced at the stalls of the local farmers that sell their produce every day on the side of the building.


Fresh, organic produce beautifully displayed
 Besides seeing vegetables and cheeses we particularly enjoyed the beauty of ...

Colorful flower stall
Stopping for a light lunch in Parte Vieja (Old Town) we enjoyed a wonderful assortment of cold pintxos(Basque tapas) featuring boquerones en vinagre (marinated white anchovies).

BAR LA CEPA
The most typical, most Basque of all pintxo bars

One of the bar's specialties was a mouth-puckering gilda, a toothpick stacked with Ibarra guindilla pickled peppers, garlic-stuffed Manzanilla olives, and an oil-packed Cantabrian anchovy that must always be taken in one bite, as dictated by local tradition.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around one of the "shopping districts" of San Sebastián. Boulevard Zumardia, which we simply chose by chance, was populated with impressive historical buildings and shops selling Spanish as well as international brands. We picked up a few things, a scarf for Joan's sister, a fishing cap for Joan's brother-in-law, and a poster depicting San Sebastián for Gus and Joan. 

Grand Establishment Baths
The Pearl of the Ocean
San Sebastian Spain
Royal Beach
 One of the Best of Europe
Along the way, we enjoyed ice cream cones from ...

Gelateria Boulevard
They offer, maybe as many as, 30 flavors. The staff is friendly
 and honest with their recommendations and will allow what 
seemed like unlimited tasting samples of delicious scoops of
 smooth creamy goodness.
(photo courtesy of SaaKu on TripAdvisor)
which we ate on our walk to La playa de Zurriola and finished while sitting on a bench and watching the afternoon surf break on the white sandy beach. Our walk back to our hotel was disturbed when noticing that Gus had left our poster on our bench on the beach; Gus quickly returned to the bench, fortunately, he recovered the poster. Whew!
Tonight we prepared for our departure the next morning to Barcelona. To keep things simple we ate at CAFE SAIGON, one of two restaurants in our hotel. 
Gus having a bowl of Phở 
A very light dinner was appropriate if not a requirement; eating over the last 3 days had become more of a gluttonous marathon rather than a culinary adventure.