A culinary pilgrimage in San Sebastián

At the vanguard of new Basque cuisine, this seaside town has been luring foodies for decades. A tour of some of its Michelin-starred restaurants and cheery pintxos bars reveals why San Sebastián’s culinary appeal is as strong as ever.

By Angela Shah

There might be fine silver cutlery on the tables at Mugaritz, but when they bring out chef Andoni Luis Aduriz’s “beer and olives” —a canny trompe l’oeil of tapa beans disguised to look just like black olives and accompanied by a frothy broth of toasted chickpeas—we’re expected to eat it with our fingers, tavern-style. The soup course is likewise hands-on: waiters present us with individual pestles and mortars, which we use to grind a medley of spices before drowning the mixture in a flask of fish broth.

Chef Pedro at Akelarre

It all makes for a delicious, entertaining extravaganza that lasts through 16 courses, ranging from “edible stones” (baby potatoes coated in edible clay to resemble the gray pebbles found on San Sebastián’s beaches, and nested in a “soil” of coarse salt and pepper) to “Shhhhh … Cat Got Your Tongue!”—an assemblage of delicate strands of slow-cooked beef tongue tweezered into the shape of a tiny bird’s nest. It’s the most theatrical meal I’ve ever had.

The stage for this is the Basque Country of north-central Spain, where I’ve arrived with a trio of friends from Dubai and Dallas. More precisely, we’re in the tiny mountain village of Errenteria, about 20 minutes outside the seaside resort town of San Sebastián (or Donostia, in Basque). We’ve come here on something of a food pilgrimage: with fewer than 200,000 residents, San Sebastián and its surrounds are home to an impressive 15 Michelin-starred restaurants, among them some of the leading lights of nueva cocina  vasca, or new Basque cuisine. Starting with the avant-garde cooking of Mugaritz, whose chef apprenticed under the Catalan maestro Ferran Adrià, we’ve planned to sample as many of these as we can fit into a week. Or should I say afford: with Mugaritz’s multicourse degustation priced at about US$250 a person, our budgets (and waistlines) will stretch to just four of San Sebastián’s haute ristorantes.

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