Friday, March 09, 2007

21 days, 17 Stars, plus Victor and Rafa

This seems a little self indulgent and was already published on eGullet. They are such a snooty bunch over there (I am SO not cool or smart enough for their elevated tastes) that I am putting the stuff here for anyone thinking of going to Spain anytime this century. Oh, and I finally published our Comerc24 post....go back to 1/15/07 if you care.....24 Horrors

Our impressions of three winter weeks in Catalonia, Bizkaia and Gupizkoa….Two restaurant pros refueling the creativity tank.

Chronologically: Andra Mari, Zortziko, Comerc24, Bar Inopia, Can Fabres, La Llar, Rafa, Manechenea (St. Etienne de Baigorry), Alona Berri, Arzak, Akelarré, Cuchara San Telmo, Bodegon Alejandro, Garro (Munitibar), Mugaritz, Zuberoa, Extebarri, Andra Mari

I did not obsessively take pictures of all the food, like many people. I may be an asshole, but I can't embrace that particular aspect of Ugly Americanism. The whole meal is in a continuum....the place, the service, the food, the wine, your companion, the conversation..... Having some prick taking pictures is just too weird. At Mugaritz, a table of Americans actually brought in a photographer with a tripod and everything to memorialize their meal. They were obviously famous, though even at The Cachagua Store we would have thrown them out on the street. And, I fulfilled a possibly racist lifetime dream of growling at an elegant Japanese man at the next table at Arzak to put down the fucking camera . However, I did get all the bathrooms, and snuck a few odd shots when no one was looking.

Most Beautiful Bathroom: Mugaritz, hands down. Cool soaps interspersed among rocks that poke fun at the clay poached potato and rock first course. Toothbrushes to freshen up between courses. I jokingly told Amanda that the creepy maitre d’ probably counted the soaps in case they were stolen.

Sure enough: Busted!! They replaced the one I stole between pees. I counted, too.

Good soap, though. Hey, it lasted almost a week………

Most Beautiful Dining Room: Ignoring view

Mugaritz. Super-cool; nice, weird touches everywhere (a wrought iron spoon pendulum on each table. Weird little greeting cards (Surrender!! For 240 minutes)….but ascetic and a little creepy. Like dining in a modern art museum, with David Bowie's weird androgynous aunt peering over your shoulder.

Second most beautiful room: Garro. The son is a sculptor from Madrid, and has pieces all around the house. More modern art, but warm. Solid cherry flooring, stairs and ceiling. Five hundred year old rock walls. Big fireplace. The one meter snowstorm didn't hurt.

Most Beautiful Dining Room With View:

Akelarré, of course……and if you are annoyed that you didn’t get a window table, you are an asshole….that’s why you didn’t get a window table!

Andra Mari …..sorry about the industrial park in the gorgeous mountain valley opposite. But, hey….. it’s Spain: “We’re workin’ here!”

Extebarri…..blazing Alpine sunshine, starched linens, hardwood beams in a big loft with joyous kids running around everywhere……

Best Service: Akelarré. The staff perfectly walked the line between engagement and professional distance. Informative, cool, political, ironic. It was clear the staff loved the food and wanted you to as well. The gorgeous Chilean waitress served the food and engaged us in political dialogue about the Pinochet regime and Isabel Allende.

Second place: Arzak. Adaptable, attentive.….I just wish the supermodel busgirl would smile once…..a year.

The Meal I Want Back (except Comerc24). Can Fabres. Technically perfect food and service. Beautiful setting. But, take Henry Kissinger or your grandma, not your lover. The highpoint of the day for us was the villager we met in the square while waiting for the place to open…..walking his senile aunt in the sunshine, bursting with kindness and love. That, and the plaster wild boar we bought on the highway. The $600 for lunch for two……not so much. It took me back to Four Seasons in 1972.

Zuberoa. Granted it is winter, but the Zubie brothers are doing seriously old school food in earth tones only. Waitresses perch ten feet away watching your every move in terror of the maitresse d’ hotel. Nice food….some of it gorgeous (I cried there two years ago over an oyster….)

But….Dark flavors only. And the cochinillo was not so “illo”…..If it is milk fed, why does it taste like the barnyard?

Meanwhile, the brothers are so sweet, and so kind….and they remembered my last visit, and my son’s visit with his buddy from Mugaritz last year……It hurts me to admit that I wish I had gone somewhere else with my $400 for lunch.

La Llar (near Roses) A Michelin one-star eight miles from El Bulli, and two miles from Rafa…..what could go wrong? If Can Fabres took me back to Four Seasons in the Seventies, La Llar took me to back to Kitzbuhel. The traditional Catalan food seemed Alpine. I asked the charming hostess (Mrs. Rafa’s best friend….) if the chef was Austrian. No. Never left Catalonia. I guess the Michelin judges are wowed by perfect little carrot flowers. I hid some of the underdone, veiny foie in the plastic flowers.

Last Place: Comerc24. Badly executed basic food in a poorly realized urban space with snotty, self-absorbed waitstaff. And overpriced to boot….the perfect storm. The Hard Rock Café of Barcelona. Carles Abellan should draw a warm bath and open a vein in shame, if he can find a knife sharp enough, or a waiter not currently texting his dealer long enough to help him turn on the tap.

Best Wine Service: Zortziko, hands down. The kid is 22 and has only worked at Zortziko. Not a word of English. He brought us a wine he liked (Solabal ’01), and served it in a way that brought Amanda to tears. It was clear that he LOVED this wine, and the five minute monologue talking about it was lost to me as I watched him decant and serve our glasses with a Manoleté like grace.

Arzak. We got the stagier for an ’81 Zaco Riserva and he broke the cork, but charmingly. I knew it was going to happen (old school wine, long cork, new sommelier) and didn’t stop him in time. His boss, the much maligned Arzak wine honcho, cruised over and made it OK without humiliating the kid and while generating some laughs for us and the tables around us. The honcho read my mind twice: once when we arrived soaked in sweat from having run to Arzak from downtown…..large glasses of Cava, right now!...and after my foie course. He poured me three successive glasses of obscure Spanish Muscat and obscure sweet Spanish red wines that I had been quietly fantasizing about but was afraid to ask for.

Mugaritz. Rut Controneo gave us a charming short course in modern Spanish winemaking, steered us to an obscure bottle of red and opened four others for glasses on a dead night. She is the star of the show, but like everyone else, seems cowed by the maitre d’.

Best Breakfast in the Universe:

Garro (Munitibar, near Axpe). We came downstairs in the 16th century farmhouse to candlelight, freshly baked bread, freshly baked apple pastries, freshly squeezed orange juice, bowls of coffee and steamed milk, jamon iberico and local cheese… a one meter snowstorm. Fire in the fireplace. Wow. An apologetic five euros. Double wow.

Best Fish Dish:

Extebarri, grilled sardine. No sauce, just absolutely perfect. No really…..Absolutely perfect.

Rafa, baby razor clams. Olive oil and salt. Cosmic.

Best Meat Dish:

Akelarré. Roast milk fed suckling pig. Heavenly.

Extebarré Chorizo. Complex, swirly, stained glass, melt-in-your mouth…..

Most Amusing Moments:

Amanda fainting in Cadaiques into the plate of sea urchins (owner recognizing pregnancy and recommending a large glass of brandy)

Amanda biting into a rock at Mugaritz instead of a clay poached potato. The creepy maitre d’ sniffed. The waiter giggled. Points for the waiter.

Michael getting busted stealing the menu at Andra Mari….falling out of the back of his pants as we said goodbye.

Best Foie

Andra Mari. Wrapped in smoked bread, with cherry membrillo.

Best Salad

Mugaritz. Middle of winter and Layda had a crystal clear vegetarian broth with baby herbs. Every note simple and perfect and ringing like a bell.

Andra Mari. Small wild mushrooms, baby clams, baby mussels, and seafoam in a cider escabeche. Had it twice to make sure it was as good as I thought. Perfect.

Best Wine

Can Fabres. San Viecente ‘02

Best Pintxo

Arzak. Pop rocks spoon.

Alona Berri. Grilled mango morcilla with foie and sheep cheese.

Cuchara de San Telmo. Espaldita de conejo, with a poached prune and a poached fig. Three euros. Are you kidding?

Overall Best restaurant (food, service, value, esthetics)

Andra Mari…..Two or three of the best dishes we found in three weeks by all standards……great view…..sweet servers…..140 euros for two with wine.

Akelarré…… Two tears, our highest rating.


Amazing value:

Bodegon Alejandro (Donostia). Martin Berasategui’s original restaurant, now his Triple-A franchise. Lunch is 13 euros with wine and water; the tasting menu is 30 eu. Everything is top notch, and as good or better than the big boys.

Cuchara de San Telmo. Punk rock modern pintxos. Nothing over 3 euros, even the killer foie, the maigret of duck, the rabbit shoulder, the lecherias. Try to spend 40 euros for two.

Crawl through broken glass for another two years to go back:

Rafa, Etxebarri, Bar Inopia, Arzak, Cuchara San Telmo, Alona Berri, Akelarré, Garro, Andra Mari, Zortziko; the Basque and Catalan people.



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