41º, 50 Best, Alicio Garro, Arzak, Asador, Azurmendi, Basque Country, Björn Frantzén, Den Gyldene Freden, Ekstedt, El Celler De Can Roca, El Quim, Elena Arzak, Eneko Atxa, Etxebarri, Fäviken Magasinet, Gaztelugatxe, Ibai, Juan Mari Arzak, Lisa Elmqvist, Magnus Nilsson, Martín Berasategui, Matbaren, Michelin, Restaurant Frantzén, Rolfs Kök, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Scandinavia, Tickets, Victor Arguinzoniz
I remember it happening like it was a yesterday. It was a late September rainy evening when I picked Sonny up on our way home from work. “I found a restaurant we should go to, its an hour plane ride from Stockholm, then an hour drive out and it only has six tables” he said to me. Then later that evening, I read a little more and saw this YouTube video. I was sold and Sweden was pencilled into our annual summer trip east of the Atlantic which generally included a trip to Basque Country in Spain and another country in the vicinity.
But that was more than a year ago and since then, our timeline had changed. What was supposed to be a trip in the summer turned to autumn due to professional circumstances, and an unwillingness to coincide with San Sebastián’s international film festival in late September, Gastronomika in early October and Arzak‘s closure in November. To time our trip with a new season, the change of ingredients and the Aurora Borealis up in Sweden was another consideration and late October is what we settled on.
Our arrival in Stockholm during that time lived up to its frigid Nordic reputation – dark by 5PM and chilly. But the beautiful warm hues of the autumn foliage combined with the falling leaves and the crisp air made me feel like I could breathe the season into my lungs. Then came the food. With the season’s seafood filled with crayfish, scallops and oysters, we were not disappointed. What I was not ready for during our time here, evident right from our first dinner in Stockholm at Rolfs Kök, was the prominence of black truffles (usually from Italy) and the massive chanterelles larger than my fist that seemed to be draped over many of our dishes.
The day after arrival took us to the market in Stockholm called Östermalms Saluhalls. Here we had typical Swedish seafood at Lisa Elmqvist and I was reminded of the Swedes’ affinity for dill and pickling. Their pickled herring was less briny and more sweet than what I was used to, and for the first time in our lives, I enjoyed something pickled more than my brother. Then dinner brought us traditional Swedish home cooking in the oldest restaurant in the world, Den Gyldene Freden in Gamla Stan, the old part of Stockholm with major sectors almost preserved as it was back in the 13th century. But with the reputation of the oldest restaurant in the world, comes a number of tourists, and looking back, it was the most tourist-occupied restaurant we went to during our trip to Sweden. I recall my heart sinking a little bit for our server who was asked by the table seated next to us what herring was.
The next couple of days strayed away from Bib Gourmands and were dedicated to some of the Michelin stars of Stockholm such as: Mathias Dahlgren and his à la carte dishes at Matbaren, Björn Frantzén’s Japanese and Nordic-influenced Restaurant Frantzén in Gamla Stan, and Niklas Ekstedt’s festive journey through smoke and fire at Ekstedt.
In between those meals was an hour plane trip up north to Åre followed by a one hour drive to Järpen for an overnight stay in the pièce de résistance of our time in Sweden, Fäviken Magasinet. It was close to bone crushingly cold when we stepped off the plane, but fortunately due to our lack of skill driving a manual transmission car we were given a rental that warmed our seats and made for a pleasant drive through the farm lands, red houses, rolling hills and unending lakes on our way to the restaurant and hunting grounds. But the pleasantness of that drive was nothing compared to our experience at Fäviken, where Magnus Nilsson and the moose fur blankets connected us in such an inspiring way to Jämtland, the historical province Fäviken is located in. There are few meals and experiences that have made an impression on me like Fäviken, and though I did not see the Aurora Borealis that evening (it comes later in the year), what we experienced here was something special and a return is imminent.
Thus ended our trip to Sweden. Where we went from almost zero degrees Celsius to high twenties and my scarf and wool jacket solely in my hands made me start to sweat. Bilbao in the Basque Country of Spain was our initial destination and upon arrival, a quick bite of evening pintxos was on our to-do list. Unfortunately though, Bilbao’s proximity to San Sebastián does not reflect in the quality of their pintxos – a dissociation I find extremely dumbfounding.
Nevertheless, any thought of pintxos was quickly erased the following days when we ventured outside of Bilbao. First, to the rolling hills of Atxondo and the place they say you can hear silence. It had been two long years since our last visit, and the anxiety of driving without a map or GPS system was only trumped by my self imposed fear that Asador Etxebarri, one of my favourite restaurants, would not live up to my previous expectations. But the work of Victor Arguinzoniz was if possible, more exquisite, more profound and more refined than what I remembered it to be. And on the beautiful day we visited, I could not be happier or more at ease on our way home.
Happy as I was that afternoon, it was all too quickly forgotten the following morning when we took a break from food to visit a 10th century church north of Bilbao called Gaztelugatxe. Getting lost on the way there was not ideal, but when the sun finally began to rise and we somehow found the church at a distance, we could not help but sit back and simply admire its glory. As we made our way on foot to the stairs leading up the island (due to several road blockages signifying the site’s closure), the church began to glow from the sun rise. Along with the sounds of the waves crashing hard against the rocks and not a soul in sight, I felt daunted by its power yet awestruck by its majesty. For once on this trip, food took a back seat.
But one has to eat eventually and for lunch we remained outside of Bilbao. Within the Txorierri valley, lies one of Spain’s newest three Michelin starred restaurants, Azurmendi. Like a tree, Eneko Atxa firmly planted his Basque roots and grew his branches to reach the heights of the culinary world. Our time here was representative of so much of the area, but very much unique and his own. And if there was anything more visually pleasing than the view from his hilltop restaurant that afternoon, it was his food.
Speaking of growth, I have noticed it significantly in San Sebastián these past two years. While pintxo bar hopping, I was surprised at the drastic change in demographics and the addition of more international establishments and English verbiage to everyday communications. Its quite amazing to see the progression as we return every year. I still recall upon our initial visit, being told that only Spaniards vacationed here and also feeling a sense of fear (yet happiness) as I could not get by with a word of English and had to bust out the Castilian. But in this October visit, I could not cross the street without hearing English being spoken. It’s nice to see so many people discovering what this magical city has to offer and in return, San Sebastián is adapting to these changes. But a part of me grew to love that somewhat untouched – or at least on the cusp of being discovered by the majority – world and my selfish side still longs for the cocoon I once knew.
Like the city of San Sebastián, Arzak has grown significantly since our initial visit with each year attempting to outdo the previous through constant innovation and the addition of various international complements to their dishes. But its popularity comes at a price, and this year’s dinner included dining with the most rambunctious crowd I have experienced at the restaurant, including some patrons yelling across the dining room to have another chat or picture taken with Elena. Nevertheless, the essence of the restaurant has remained unchanged through its rich tradition in nouveau Basque cuisine and unparalleled hospitality.
In spite of all the changes to the area however, there are still some places that remain relatively uninfluenced by the transforming landscape. Such as Ibai, who’s basement restaurant made me feel isolated from the outside world while eating lunch through the depths of the Cantabrian Sea. It is a meal I will treasure not for its aesthetics, but for its earnest honesty, and only hope that others can experience the same.
A return to Mugaritz was on our initial agenda this year. But with limited time, we instead opted to try the work of Martín Berasategui and his eponymous restaurant in Lasarte, just outside of San Sebastián. I am extremely glad we opted to go here over Mugaritz because I would have never learned of the man’s greatness. His ability to put together certain mismatched ingredients or give the old a modern twist was a delightful surprise. And after the meal, I felt somewhat guilty of previously neglecting his restaurant. Having now eaten at all the three Michelin starred restaurants in Spain except Quique Dacosta, I only hope that others will not make the same mistake as I have.
Barcelona was our final destination on this trip. Having spent so much time there last year, we did not feel inclined to return. But when El Celler de Can Roca told me they had availability after years of trying to find a date that worked for us, we decided to make a quick pit stop here before returning home. Within the confines of their triangular glass encasement, I could have easily felt like I was a child swimming along the Costa Brava if it were not for the busy environment within the restaurant. Left and right, there was so much going on including a camera crew in the works and I wonder if the atmosphere here was the same three or four years ago? Probably not, but at the end of the day, it is the food that speaks for the restaurant, and ignoring the frenetic action around it, the meal was magnificent.
Later on that evening, we went to as much of a literal circus a restaurant could be in Tickets. With so many stimulations, including the whimsical play on food, my tired mind and body was at least shot with a jolt of adrenaline for the few hours we were there.
On our final day, we knew it would not be a successful trip to Barcelona without a meal at La Boqueria market. Here, El Quim filled us with our Catalan cravings of callos (tripe stew), razor clams and the unforgettable squid with scrambled eggs. To end our trip to this part of the world, we took a trip around the world through 41º. Their uncountable number of world-inspired snacks and cocktails truly captured the essence of the individual regions. Perhaps having the most spirited and fun meal at the end, was the only fitting way to conclude this two week long journey and our travels for the year.
With what is the most number of cities we have ever reached in one trip, I am left once again inspired by the cultural differences of the places we have visited and the people we have built relationships with along the way. In the coming weeks, we will attempt to write more in depth posts of the individual restaurants we ventured to on this journey and only hope to bring them justice through our writing.
To view pictures of our trip in its entirety, please visit our Flickr photo sets.
Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny