Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Basque Coast Innovation San Sebastian

Napoleon sacked and burned San Sebastián in 1813, but the resort that rose from the ashes is
the epitome of refined hedonism. Royalty and movie stars bask in the sizzle of the Spanish sun,
while San Sebastián’s Basque chefs demonstrate the innovative Modern Spanish cuisine that has
raised the bar for European gastronomy, much as Picasso rewrote the rules for modern art.

Playa de la Concha, San Sebastián’s
main beach, nestles between the
twin headlands of Monte Urgull and
Monte Igueldo. Its 4-mile (6-km)
swath of white sand makes the city
the pearl of the Basque coast. Once the
sun goes down, beach-goers wash off their tanning
lotion, dress for dinner, and prepare for an evening at
the tables of San Sebastián’s world-class restaurants.
The city has more Michelin three-star establishments
per capita than Paris or Tokyo, and a host of wonderful
cafés, taverns, and bars where the quality of the food
belies the humble surroundings.

San Sebastián is an intriguing mix of the old and
the new. The broad avenues of the sophisticated
modern town, lined with upmarket shops and
restaurants, give way to the atmospheric streets of the
old town beneath the base of Monte Urgull. Centered
around the ancient Plaza de la Constitución, these
narrow lanes hide treats such as the church of Santa
Maria del Coro, a masterly example of Basque Baroque.
The old town’s sheltered harbor curls around a series of
stone embankments, where a small fishing fleet
unloads its rich daily catch of bream, sardines,
anchovies, shrimp, spider crab, mullet, monkfish,
and hake. The Basques are legendary fishermen and
inventive cooks – Basque cuisine was a culinary
revolution waiting to happen. With its emphasis on
perfect ingredients artfully presented, Basque cooking
proved the perfect foil to French nouvelle cuisine.

When San Sebastián’s chefs began bringing theater
to the plate in the 1970s, they championed local
produce, fish, and meat, and jettisoned the elaborate,
time-intensive preparations of traditional haute
cuisine. They had fired the opening salvo of Modern
Spanish cuisine – and have wowed diners ever since.

They experiment with flavors like an artist expanding
his palette, endowing each plate with an element of
surprise. But the emphasis here is on flavor rather than
culinary pyrotechnics: parsley foam brings out the
sweetness of spider crab steeped in spicy tomato sauce;
a sprinkling of crispy garlic wafers provides a crunchy
counterpoint to pan-fried codfish with clams. Every
dish is a sublime medley of texture and tastes.

Basque Wines

There are two distinctive wine regions in the
Basque lands of Spain: the Rioja Alavesa, where
the famous bodega of Marqués de Riscal is
based; and the Basque coast, where the Txakolí
wines are produced. The red Tempranillo and
Cabernet Sauvignon blends of Rioja are justly
famous as bold accompaniments to roasted
meats and hearty stews. The mostly white, often
slightly fizzy Txakolí wines are characterized by a
bracing acidity that makes them the perfect foil
for Basque seafood. Although Txakolí has been
cultivated for at least 1,200 years, it has been the
Basques’ carefully guarded secret, and did not
enter the export market until the 21st century.
Three Txakolí districts are recognized, but the
pale yellow to green wines from Getaria and
Zarautz on the coast between Bilbao and San
Sebastián are considered the best.

The Best Places to Eat Modern Spanish Cuisine

Restaurante Arzak expensive

One could say that Juan Mari Arzak got his
revenge on Napoleon by launching Modern
Spanish cuisine – a revolution that toppled
French haute cuisine from its gastronomic
throne. This was Spain’s first restaurant to
be awarded three Michelin stars, and eating
at Arzak remains as exciting today as it was in
the 1970s, when the unknown provincial chef
first applied the principles of French nouvelle
cuisine to the traditions of Basque cookery.
Arzak reduces dishes to their essential flavors,
then plates them with unfussy but witty theater.
Now working with his daughter Elena, Arzak
continues to experiment with new twists on
familiar foods – his “perfect egg” dishes are
legendary among Spanish chefs – without
sacrificing the integrity of the ingredients or
the surprise of the presentation. Most diners
opt for the astonishing tasting menu, which
allows the broadest experience of Arzak’s
creative and experimental approach. It begins
with a half-dozen or so small dishes, explodes
into three to four “main” dishes built around
meat or fish, and then segues into a series
of sweet and delicious surprises.

Avenida Alcalde José Elosequi 273, San Sebastián;
open for lunch Tue–Fri, dinner Tue–Sat;

Also in San Sebastián

Pedro Subijana is the master magician of
Akelare (www.relaischateaux.com;
expensive), where mountainside views of the
Bay of Biscay match his culinary sleight of hand.
Martín Berasategui crafts a roller coaster of
flavor surprises at his flagship Berasategui
(www.martinberasategui.com; expensive)
while offering an affordable sampling of his
free-form imagination at Restaurante Kursaal
(+34 943 003 162; moderate).

Also in Spain

In Madrid, diners greet dishes at Villa Magna
by Eneko Atxa (www.villamagna.es;
moderate) with either a hearty laugh or an
exclamation of delight. At Sergi Arola Gastro
(www.sergiarola.es; expensive), also in Madrid,
Catalan star chef Sergi Arola composes just a
few strong flavors per plate, cooking much like
fellow Catalan Joan Miró painted. Innovator
Ferran Adrià’s greatest hits form the menu at
Hacienda Benazuza (www.elbullihotel.com;
expensive), in Sanlúcar la Mayor, near Seville.

Around the World

Spanish-born and trained, José Andrés launched
a craze for Modern Spanish cuisine in the US.
His most theatrical and magical restaurant, The
Bazaar (www.thebazaar.com; moderate), in
Beverly Hills, California, won Esquire magazine’s
Restaurant of the Year award in 2009.

A Day in San Sebastián
In July and September the beautiful people flock to San Sebastián for,
respectively, the annual jazz and film festivals, but the decorous city
and beachside promenade are just as delightful when the paparazzi
and their targets have left town. Be sure to arrive hungry.

Explore the narrow streets of the Parte Vieja, or old
quarter, which was rebuilt on the medieval street plan after Napoleon
burned the city. At the harbor, explore the fishermen’s docks and visit
the Palacio del Mar, San Sebastián’s intriguing aquarium, focused on
the marine life of the Bay of Biscay.

Walk up the circular road around Monte Urgull to see
the 12th-century ruins of the Castillo de Santa Cruz de la Mota.
Then catch some sun on Playa de la Concha.

Ride the funicular to the summit of Monte Igueldo to
survey the city from this western headland. Then return to town for an
evening of bar-hopping to sample the city’s inventive pintxos (Basque
tapas) before winding up at a fine restaurant for dinner.

GETTING San Sebastián

San Sebastián Airport has domestic flights; the
international airports of Bilbao and Biarritz
are relatively close. The city can also be reached
by train on the TGV Paris–Madrid route, and
by bus from many European cities.

WHERE TO STAY In San Sebastián
Hotel Niza (inexpensive) offers airy rooms with
Playa de la Concha views. www.hotelniza.com
Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra (moderate) is
a restored belle époque resort hotel with
traditional furnishings. www.hlondres.com
Hotel María Cristina (expensive) is San
Sebastián’s most palatial hotel, with luxurious
appointments in even the simplest rooms.

Boulevard 8; www.sansebastianturismo.com

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