The Astronomer and I dined at Arzak on our final evening in San Sebastian. Of the trio of high end modern restaurants on our itinerary, I was anticipating this one the most. Juan Mari Arzak, the restaurant’s chef and owner, is regarded as one of the great masters of New Basque cuisine. I’ve been gawking at photos of his food for years, so it was extremely exciting to finally step into his den and let the magic begin.
The building where the restaurant is located has been in the Arzak family since it was built in 1897. Constructed by Juan Mari’s grandparents, the space was initially used as a wine inn and tavern. Juan Mari’s parents eventually took it over and converted it into a restaurant specializing in celebratory banquets.
In 1966, after completing his education and a stint in the military, Juan Mari returned to the kitchen where he grew up and began developing his signature cuisine alongside his mother, whom he credits as “the one that revealed all the secrets of gastronomy.” Under Juan Mari’s watch, Arzak became the first Spanish restaurant to earn three Michelin stars in 1989. Today, kitchen duties are shared between Juan Mari and his daughter Elena, and all three Michelin stars remain intact.
While the restaurant’s exterior is a bit dated, the interior is black, white, and modern all over. Each table was adorned simply with a single white iris.
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In Basque Country, tapas are referred to as pintxos, and the hours between lunch and dinner are dedicated to the sport. It’s customary to order a small bite and drink at each bar, consume them jollily on the premise, and then move on to the next joint. Grazing is the name of the game, and one should feel properly full and slightly tipsy by the end of the night.
Whereas the bars in Barcelona and Madrid kept their tapas behind glass cases along the bar, in San Sebastian, the pintxos were beautifully laid out for all to see, covet, and drool over. The Astronomer and I dedicated one evening to exploring the city’s pintxos scene. We had a list of buzzed-about places in hand, but in the end, we trusted our eyes and noses to lead us in the tastiest direction.
Our first stop on the San Sebastian pintxos crawl was Bar Zeruko. We hadn’t planned on dropping in here, but the extensive collection of colorful and unique pintxos on display proved impossible to resist. The Astronomer and I ordered two glasses of cava and tucked into a few choice morsels. We tried to limit ourselves to one dish apiece, but ended up greedily hoarding more.
Our first bite was an egg-on-egg extravaganza consisting of fluorescent caviar paired simply and successfully with a slice of hard-boiled egg.
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Under normal circumstances, our extravagant meal at Akelarre would have been followed by a solid week of home cooking to give our arteries and bank accounts a chance to recover. Alas, our honeymoon was anything but normal, so The Astronomer and I headed out for a three-course lunch at Bodegón Alejandro instead.
Supervised by 3-star Michelin chef Martin Berasategui, Bodegón Alejandro is a casual taverna serving traditional Basque cuisine with a splash of innovation. My brother ate here three times in four days when he last visited San Sebastian and encouraged us to do the same.
After hoofing it down a flight of stairs, we reached a charming subterranean space with bright yellow walls and sturdy wooden furniture. We had the lovely room mostly to ourselves because we once again managed to arrive at the tail end of lunch service. [Truly, this was the story of our lives for two and a half weeks!]
Bodegón Alejandro offers a three-course lunch for 34.50€. The menu changes daily and features a variety of options, each one highlighting the seasonality and bounty of the Basque country.
While we perused the menu, we nibbled on slices of crusty country bread and thin rye wafers served on a log.
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Spain really was the perfect place for us to honeymoon. While The Astronomer enjoyed practicing his rusty Spanish and whooping it up at rowdy futbol games [See: FC Barcelona and Real Madrid], I had the pleasure of taking in some spectacular art and eating at the world’s greatest restaurants. Of all the places on our culinary itinerary, it was a trio of thoroughly modern restaurants that I was most stoked about. I’ve always adored the playful, innovative, and twisted genre of molecular gastronomy, and experiencing it on its home turf was a dream come true.
Our first stop on the cutting-edge cookery tour was at Chef Pedro Subijana’s 35-year-old restaurant Akelarre in San Sebastian. Located high above the Bay of Biscay, Akelarre boasts a magnificent view. Taking in the ocean in between bites made the dining experience all the more wonderful. A table by the window is a must.
The dining room was comfortable and understated, while the service was efficient and quite friendly for a 3-star Michelin rated restaurant. I love fine dining but hate stuffy atmospheres. Akelarre hit all the right notes to make me feel at ease. I also appreciated that there were a handful of English speaking staffers who could answer my questions (sometimes cryptically) about ingredients and techniques.
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