LOCATED ON SPAIN’S NORTHERN COAST, IN
Basque country, this stunning, small city (called Donastio in the Basque language) drapes around a golden crescent beach like a fabulous stole on the shoulders of a stunning heiress. The beautiful bay is sheltered from the wild waters of the Atlantic, but still gets enough swells to encourage a healthy local surfing community. Speaking of swells, the boardwalk that lines the beach is a wonderful see-and-be-scene. Glamorous dowagers stroll past young families frolicking in the sand and surf, their skin sun-kissed, their hair swept back by the sea breeze. The former royal summer palace stands guard on the hillside, perfectly positioned to insure privacy and a spectacular view for the royals and their guests, while still allowing easy access to the beach.
And while it’s easy to see what lured the royals here, the scenery is merely a backdrop for what the main draw to San Sebastian is now—food. In fact, San Sebastian has become a mecca for foodies across the globe. It is no wonder. This magical little city of 180,000 boasts an extraordinary 16 Michelin stars.
Only a short drive from the storied elegance of the French seaside resort of Biarritz, San Sebastian has, surprisingly, managed to remain somewhat under the radar, which makes for a delightful sense of personal discovery upon arrival. You are obviously aware that people know about this place, but you can’t quite shake the feeling that people withhold the retelling of their experiences to participate in the conspiracy of being “undiscovered.” After all, in the Internet age, there are so few places left to discover. This is one to know.
In contrast, much ink has been spilled over its neighbor, Bilbao, thanks entirely to the stunning Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim museum that was built there.
But the visit to Bilbao should be nothing more than a side trip to your culinary pilgrimage to San Sebastian. In fact, you can take a bus to Bilbao for the day, see the museum and be back in San Sebastian in time for dinner. The museum is definitely worth the trip, but the city of Bilbao offers very little beyond that.
You can even keep your gastronomic fidelity to San Sebastian by eating lunch at the museum’s café, which is run by San Sebastian Michelin three-starred chef Martin Berasategui.
Crazy as it seems, Berasategui is one of three chefs in San Sebastian to achieve the coveted three stars from Michelin. His Restaurante Martin Berasategui, in the hills just outside of town, is joined in the three star club by Akelarre. Pedro Subijana’s glass-walled restaurant tucked into the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic is a perfect spot for a decadent lunch.
And then there is Arzak. The brainchild of an ingenious duo, Juan Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena, Restaurant Arzak has become one of those legendary food experiences that people rapturously retell. Now, I have joined that club.
Juan Mari and Elena Arzak are two of the most forward- thinking, innovative chefs on the planet. Their kitchen is a laboratory, where new flavors, textures and presentations are created daily. Some of these inventions will grace their menu. Others may not make the cut. A trusted advisory group of friends and family come around for experimental meals on a regular basis.
Their input and feedback is invaluable to the father and daughter team. For you see, at Arzak, their goal is nothing short of feeding you the best meal of your life.
The restaurant is set in the family homestead, a large, multi-story building that has been their home for several generations. The front waiting room has a clubby feel, with a dark wooden bar with green leather settees. Then you are whisked through a sliding frosted glass door into the main dining room, a study in Asian-inspired minimalism. There is a reverence to the noise of the dining room. You can tell people are either anticipating or enjoying a spectacular meal.
Moments after being seated, the entire vibe of the dining room changed as Juan Mari Arzak himself entered. I was to have an audience with him after the meal, but he made a beeline for our table for a proper introduction.
After a hail of mucho gustos and encantadas, he leaned against the wall like, well, like he owned the place. It was casual and familiar.
“You like . . . lobster?” He began in his delightfully broken English (sigh, no one would ever describe my Spanish as “delightfully broken”). He quickly ran through a list of items to make sure they were to our liking: lamb, monkfish, foie gras, pigeon, waiting for an affirmative response before nodding to our waitperson to add that to our menu.
“You like . . . egg?”
I was definitely not going to turn this one down. One of the trademarks of Restaurant Arzak is the egg. Juan Mari’s mother opened the first restaurant Arzak in the same space, where she sold eggs to local fishermen. In her honor, there is always one egg dish on the menu. But we’re not talking over-easy here.
No, on this night, the dish was playfully called del huevo a la gallina. Which came first? The interplay of a warm, soft yolk over a spun concoction of intense chicken flavor was breathtaking in its presentation and absolutely sublime on the palate. Mama Arzak would have been proud.
All in all, 12 courses were laid before us, eliciting gleeful giggles and other audible exclamations of pleasure. Bite after bite of the most amazing flavors imaginable, each course paired perfectly with wine. Soon enough dessert was upon us, and Sr. Arzak and I retired to the lounge to chat over chocolate and coffee.
He told me that either he or Elena—and often both—were in the kitchen every night. He considers them a “tandem,” that the kitchen and restaurant couldn’t be what it is without their collaboration. He talked about the importance of food and family. Of being true to culture of the Basque region. He stressed the importance of local ingredients, not just because of the freshness, but because of the economic impact of buying from local farmers and fishermen. And he talked of the friendly competition between the Michelin-starred chefs. “We are all friends, but we push each other to a higher level.” I can’t imagine a higher level. I had just eaten the best meal of my life.
After dinner, we waddled back to our hotel, The Maria Cristina. I called my sister, an accomplished cook herself and a devoted gourmand to tell her of my evening. I knew she would enjoy the experience vicariously. Then we closed our eyes, imagining that this must be how kings feel as they drift off to sleep.