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Where to Eat in San Sebastian, Spain: The Best Restaurants
I’m Here for the Food but Where Do I Eat?
San Sebastian is touted as being one of the best food cities in the world. San Sebsastian has more Michelin stars per capita than any other city, even Paris. The food is truly legendary. Chefs and foodies alike make pilgrimages to taste the wares of Juan Marie Arzak, credited for founding modern Spanish cuisine, and to the narrow quarters of old town where the tapas bars have laid out a veritable buffet of tasty tid-bits. Despite the impression though, it helps to know where to go. Why settle for mediocrity when the extraordinary is right around the corner? And is it really worth shelling out the big bucks at the three star temples of gastronomy?
A trip to San Sebastian is hardly complete without a day-trip to Bilbao, home of the famous Guggenheim museum. The museum is not to be missed. Its architectural splendor is breath taking. I have never wanted to fly so badly as when I was standing at the base of its towering atrium. I had visions of me on a hang glider soaring through the complex spaces carved by the waves and curves of the undulating walls. Equally rewarding as the architecture is the restaurant. The best meal to be had in the region, and at a bargain price, is to be found in the museum’s restaurant. I’m convinced the best artist in the museum is Josean Martinez Alija, the chef of the Guggenheim’s gourmet restaurant.
At the museum, there are two options, eating in the cafeteria or in the gourmet restaurant. Opt for the later, even the gourmet option isn’t too expensive for what you get. I found better food and for much less than at the two and three star restaurants that I visited. The chef was trained under Martin Berasategui, a three star chef in San Sebastian. In fact, the two chefs collaborate on this venture, working together to produce astonishing results. Highlights of the meal, which aren’t to be missed if they are still on the menu, are the sautéed baby squid stuffed in an oven roasted tomato and served on top of creamy black rice, cod cooked in the Basque traditional pil-pil sauce served with San Sebastian style baked crab, and a pistachio custard with coffee glaze. All of this in an elegantly sparse dining room with windows overlooking the river outside. Their house white wine is from a Spanish grape, most likely Albarino, that could compete with the best of the Loire Valley sauvignon blancs.
Both the cod with pil-pil and the baked crab are traditional dishes of San Sebastian, and for good reason they are both superb. The cod is lightly glazed in a sauce as silken as hollandaise, but infinitely lighter on the tongue, where the bright herbal flavors of garlic and parsley come through. By contrast the crab is the essence of crab, sweet and saline, with tomato, cognac and tarragon singing back-up. These two dishes can be found at many different restaurants, but these versions are exemplary. Don’t ignore the pistachio custard though, it might not be traditional but it is the work of a genius; a satin custard richer than any I have had, absolutely redolent with the flavor of pistachio, glazed lightly with a contrasting bitter coffee syrup. The dessert alone was worth the easy bus ride from San Sebastian. If a day trip isn't enough to enjoy Bilbao's beauty, then stay the night at Stay Libere apartments right outside the museum.
Also a short ride from downtown San Sebastian is the restaurant Akelare, located on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. The view is doubtlessly superb, but it is the sight of the plates that truly astounds. Each dish is gorgeous to behold and even better to taste. Service is polished and smooth, and it was the only restaurant to offer a wine pairing with my tasting menu; an ideal if slightly intoxicating way to dine as it allows the matching of each dish with the best wine for that course. I would be lying if I said I did not have too much too drink or too much to eat. I would also be lying if I said I did not thoroughly enjoy every minute of that experience. This is about as close to royal treatment as you are ever likely to find.
One of the house specialties is milk fed lamb cooked two ways. The lamb is first roasted sous-vide (in a vacuum sealed bag) to retain all of its moisture and juices, and then roasted in a searing oven until the skin is crackling crisp. This is Peking lamb, only without the Asian flavors. Equally memorable though is the foie gras with walnut soup. A generous portion of foie gras is seared and served with a creamy, nutty cappuccino of a soup. If that was my last bite on earth I would die happy.
Restaurante Bernardo Et-Xea
The last truly remarkable meal I had was very traditional. I’m sorry to say that while fun, the arrays of tapas were just not as tasty as the food in the restaurants. My Spanish food-loving friend explained it as a matter of reason, tapas are supposed to be cheap, therefore they can not use the same high quality ingredients. I look at it as a matter of components. Tapas are usually put on top of a thick slice of bread. The bread in Spain, with the exception of the bread at the Guggenheim, is about as appealing as eating a kitchen sponge. It doesn’t take many tapa to fill up on sub standard bread. So try the tapas crawl once, it’s fun, you may or may not get lucky and find the gems amongst the rocks, but definitely don’t miss the restaurants. Amidst all of the tapas bars in old town is a delightful, traditional restaurant serving Basque classics. It is called Restaurante Bernardo Et-Xea. My Spanish friend introduced it to me. It was one of his favorites and he grew up spending his summers in San Sebastian. Everything we had there was superb, from the rockfish mousse to the cod cheeks, try any of the classics here, it will be well worth it.
Restaurants to Visit:
At the Guggenheim Museum
Avda. Abandoidarra 2, Bilbao
Tel: (34) 944 239 333
It would take food this good to forget the amazing surroundings. Modern riffs on traditional cuisine.
Paseo Padre Orcolaga 56, San Sebastian
Tel: (34) 21 20 52
Perched on the cliffs overlooking the sea, this Michelin two star restaurant serves innovative and outstanding modern Basque cuisine.
Restaurante Bernardo Et-Xea
Portu Kalea 7-9, San Sebastian
Tel: (+34) 943 422 055
In the heart of old town, this restaurant serves all of the traditional Basque dishes.
How to get to each restaurant from San Sebastian:
Guggenheim – the cheapest route is by bus, take a PESA bus from the bus station in San Sebastian, they depart hourly. The trip will take about two hours.
Akelare – take a taxi from the town center to Akelare, it will be less than $10, if you desire you can take bus 13 back downtown.
Bernardo Et-Xea, it is in the pedestrian friendly old town of San Sebastian.
Signature Basque dishes:
Milk fed lamb/cordero de leche
Rockfish mousse/ pastel de krabarroka
Donostia style baked crab/txangurro al horno
Cod or hake cheeks/ kokotxas
Cod with pil-pil/ bacalao al pil pil
Fresh sheeps milk cheese/mamia
Aged sheeps milk cheese/Idiazábal
Leith Steel is an avid writer, cook, and traveler. Her goal is to visit thirty
countries by her thirtieth birthday. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.