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SanSebastian

Another year, another pilgrimage to the Basque Country of Spain. What can we say? We are creatures of habit. When we like a place, we can’t help but return quite often.

This year our visit was supplemented by a trip furthest south we have ever been to in Spain, Valencia. To us, Valencia was always known as the home of paella. But we did not realize until we came here that the paella was just the byproduct of what Valencians glorified most, rice.

It is a lesson we first learned at dinner shortly after our arrival from Paris at Quique Dacosta’s one Michelin restaurant, El Poblet. Here, pink foam walls and a girly backdrop provided us with a whimsical take on Valencian cuisine. But this is the home of paella after all and Restaurante Levante was the setting of our first platter. Hours before our meal we were surprised when the head chef emailed us from the market to inform us which pieces of seafood were available. And boy was that worth it. The seafood was as fresh as the rice was flavourful. And after we devoured the contents of our paellera, our pristine white table cloth and napkins were lathered in red crustacean juice. Signs of a meal thoroughly enjoyed.

Seafood paella at Restaurante Levante in Valencia, Spain

Walking off our sated stomachs in the heat of the Valencian sun took much longer than expected. There was so much life in the city that it was easy to wade into the crowds. Before we knew it, the sun was setting over the confines of the imposing City of Arts and Sciences and we had to rush back to our hotel to get ready for dinner at the one Michelin starred Ricard Camarena. On a communal wooden table we were served modern Valencian cuisine showcasing in his classically playful way the fantastic seafood of the area. Overall, the hospitality and food provided a very solid one star experience.

The City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain

The next day we made our way south to the city of Denia. If at all possible, the hour drive yielded a higher temperature than Valencia and upon arrival a haze of visible heat seemed to hover over the town. As we explored the Denia Castle, I was rather full from another dish of paella. Combined with the heat, it was too easy to be lazy and I yearned to doze off under the shade of the palm trees. But Sonny pressed me to solider on and so we did bumping into what seems like a significant German population along the way.

The haze over the city Denia visible from the perch of the Denia Castle.

As hazy as the view was from the Denia Castle is as hazy as we felt when it came to our meal at the three Michelin starred restaurant Quique Dacosta. In part due to the illness that came over me that morning which did not allow me to thoroughly enjoy the multitude of dishes that was served – and there was a lot! But also because we may have ordered the wrong menu. With two options and a request from the house that we order the same, we opted for the more avant garde of the two called Tomorrowland. So conceptual was the Tomorrowland menu that we are still trying to understand it today. Although playful and inventive, if our mind was on Earth, Quique’s Tomorrowland menu was on Mars. Even the maitre jokingly said that the only way to conceptualize dishes such as these was by getting extremely intoxicated. Looking back, as this was our initial visit to his restaurant, we should have opted for the more conservative alternative but whether we would have been able to understand it is still up in the air.

Contemporary art in the patio of Restaurant Quique Dacosta were as playful as the Tomorrowland menu in Denia, Spain.

With such forward thinking cuisine saturating every inch of our bodies, it was comforting to return to the the traditions of the old in the city of San Sebastián -bookending our stay with the very traditional establishments Rekondo and Ibai. These two extremely similar restaurants serve many of the same Basque dishes but I have yet to meet a local who preferred Ibai over Rekondo who boasts some of the best jamon iberico and one of the best wine cellars in the country. Rekondo too was the first restaurant we ever ate at in Europe and therefore will always have a special place in ours hearts. And although similar, minor idiosyncrasies make us prefer some dishes in one place over the other. Such as the rice with clams dish which in Ibai brings the taste of the sea intensely into each and every grain of rice whereas in Rekondo it is significantly more subdued.

The giant tree sheltering the patio of Rekondo in San Sebastián, Spain.

Subdued is also what I would use to describe many of the flavours coming out of our meal at Asador Etxebarri this year. It pains us to say it but this may have been our least favourite out of all our meals there. Perhaps this visit was just too close to the last one, but with almost the same menu as a year ago, it was too easy to compare and the execution at times was simply not up to the standard we had come to expect of Etxebarri. A place we have revered partly due to Victor Arguinzoniz’s perfect use of salt, it was quite surprising when items such as the buffalo burrata lacked so much of it that it was significantly milder and blander than years past. Nevertheless, the overall level of the cuisine still remained high and the classics such as the Palamos prawns or the flan were still perfectly succulent concoctions in our mouths.

Sea bream in Asador Etxebarri in Atxondo, Spain

When it comes to Mugaritz, the word perfection is a little harder to throw around. Progressive, unique and polarizing seem more apt when it comes to the plethora of dishes coming out of the mind of Andoni Aduriz. The influences of Jade, the relatively new Chinese-American head chef, were also extremely evident the evening we were there with Chinese dishes and flavours quite prominent. To us however, every prix fixe menu we have had at Mugaritz has had significantly more hits than misses. And the front of house staff, although too systematic and robotic at times, has grown warmer and more welcoming since our first visit four years ago.

Lacquered duck neck with herbs and dry grains at Mugaritz in Errenteria, Spain.

Hits and misses didn’t just come in the form of food though. Last year due to construction, we were unable to walk up to the island housing the hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. So after our meat at Etxebarri we made a conscious effort to once again meet eye-to-eye with this medieval sight to behold. This time, it was more than just a sight as we were finally able to climb the steps onto the site and feel the eerie majesty that teased us from a distance a year ago. We also returned to the comforts of the familiar retreating to pintxos restaurants in between massive meals, many times reacquainting ourselves with places we had not visited in years. Bar Bergara for example was the first ever pintxos restaurant we stepped into the first time we visited San Sebastián. However, there continues to be some unfinished business with one – Bar Nestor. One day, their tortillas will not taunt us behind their closed gates. In the meantime, it is something to look forward to upon our return.

The hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in the distance in Bermeo, Spain

In spite of our multiple visits here however, there is so much yet to be explored. Slowly we’ve uncovered places with each passing stay. Such as when we met up with a friend at a new establishment called The Loaf. Although just a bakery and coffee shop, an establishment like The Loaf casts a very positive light on a well executed take on the modern. We also decided to venture to the Igueldo side of town for the first time on foot, stopping and exploring places we chose to ignore in the past. By la playa de Ondaretta we found a trio of oddly-shaped fork-looking sculptures called “Wind Combs” and a funicular nearby took us to the top of Monte Igueldo giving us the infamous view of the city – a sight that rivals that of Gaztelugatxe.

Peine del Viento (Wind Comb) by Eduardo Chillida at the Igueldo side of San Sebastián, Spain

But our annual trip to this part of Spain would never be complete without a visit to Arzak. What started off shaky with a new maitre turned for the better when the other maitre, Adolfo, and Elena Arzak took the reigns and worked with us to create our own menu as we had most if not all the items on the à la carte and tasting menu previously. The product was a mix of traditional and modern Basque cuisine with flavours supplemented by spices and sauces from Africa to South America to Asia – influences of Elena’s extensive travels she enjoys sharing stories about. Most items in our makeshift meal were either served during other seasons or were still being experimented on resulting in a less cohesive menu and dishes that needed further tinkering. But we knew what we were getting into when we ordered and appreciated this divisiveness over the tasting menu that was served to the rest of the dining room. Throughout the years, our visits to Arzak have certainly changed. Since the climax of our culinary experience three years ago, revisits have become less about the analysis of the food and more about the relationship we have developed with the restaurant and its matron. Perhaps this is a natural progression of a place we have visited so many times.

Wild dove and prunes at Restaurante Arzak in San Sebastián, Spain.

Flying out of the local airport required a trip to either Madrid or Barcelona to get back home. So we decided to stay overnight in the capital in the hopes of eating at our last three Michelin star frontier in Spain, DiverXO. Trying to get reservations was quite difficult as it was a point of transition for the restaurant. Physically, they were moving to the NH Eurobuilding. Virtually, they were implementing what is now the current booking system. And with the hopes of getting off the wait list at DiverXO dwindling with each passing day, we almost bought unreasonably priced tickets to the El Clásico Real Madrid v FC Barcelona match. Instead, we passed our stay in Madrid amongst the sea of Real Madrid jerseys within the Mercado de San Miguel munching on whatever bites we could get our hands on. Seafood, jamon, paella, yogurt ice cream and more filled our stomachs and our time. Before we knew it, our alarms were buzzing at 6 a.m. and we were leaving the hotel while being greeted by Real Madrid revelers headed back to their homes and hotel rooms after a hard night of victorious partying.

Jamon at the Carrasco Guijuelo stand at the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, Spain

Thus ended our 2014 travels. Spain wasn’t filled with as much excitement as our trips to Paris or Tokyo that same year. But in many ways when it comes to Spain Frank Bruni’s words hold true for us:

She knows [our] heart, knows [our] drill …We don’t have fireworks, not this late in the game. But we have a rhythm. Sometimes that’s better.

To view pictures of our trip in its entirety, please visit our Flickr photo sets.

Thanks for reading and happy eating,
Carla and Sonny