Travels with George: Europe

Travels with George: Europe
My wife, Paula, and I have been avoiding Europe for a number of years due to our desire to see the rest of the world and the punishing value of the dollar versus the euro. Overcoming fear of bankruptcy, we set out for Spain in early September.
Our first stop was San Sebastian, a city of 187,000 people in the heart of the Basque country bordering the southwestern flank of France. This is truly a city that has a keen sense of identity. The infrastructure is incredible. In the center of the city lies a pair of beaches that measures over four miles long. Bordering the beach is a broad pedestrian boulevard and bike path that allows everyone access to the lovely coastline. Underneath the roadway and walking paths are a series of athletic clubs with lockers, showers and beach equipment that allow direct access to the sand. This incredible investment in planning allows thousands of the city's residents easy and quick access to their playground. Parking is also underground adjacent to the beach. In between the two major beaches is the “parte vieja,” a series of walking streets that are home to hundreds of bars, pintxos (tapas) restaurants, clubs, galleries and shops. We were in San Sebastian for seven nights and there was never a moment when the streets were not teeming with residents and tourists eating, drinking and celebrating with abandon. Our favorite stops were Borda Berri, La Cepa, Cuchara de San Telmo and Astelena.

San Sebastian is not only a fun dining destination, it is a paradise for serious foodies – the city has more Michelin Stars per inhabitant than any other city in the world!

In San Pellegrino's list of 50 top restaurants in the world, two from San Sebastian are in the top ten: Mugaritz (#3) and Arzak (#8), with Spanish restaurants El Celler de Can Roca (#2), Martin Berasategui (#29) and Asador Etxebarri (#50) also on the list. Paula and I dined at two of these very special places, Mugaritz and Asador Etxebarri.
Mugaritz is a 20-minute drive outside of town in the rural, verdant and hilly agricultural land surrounding the city. Chef Andoni Aduritz has created an idyllic retreat in this gorgeous setting with gardens filled with flowers, herbs and vegetables. We began our 18-course luncheon with tapas outside in the sunny courtyard.
Frankly, I do not possess the culinary vocabulary to review our entire experience, but I can give you some idea of what we experienced. The first tapa was a selection of olives, beans and thyme accompanied by a "toasted legume beer.” We were never sure if the olives were really olives or just something disguised as olives. Then came "starch and sugar crystal spotted with pepper praline and corals.” Then “edible stones,” which were potatoes coated in ash and nestled in a bed of grey powdery ash. All of the starters were delicious but mysterious. We were then guided into the spare but elegant dining room where each table was semi-secluded by beautiful, artistic silken shades. At each place setting were envelopes, one saying "150 minutes...rebel" and the other "150 minutes...submit.” Inside were notes, "150 minutes to feel embarrassed, flustered, fed up. 150 minutes of suffering.” And "150 minutes to feel, imagine, reminisce, discover. 150 minutes to contemplate." At this point we decided that, what the hell, rebelling would be too much effort, so we submitted. Our server then escorted us into the kitchen where we met the chef de cuisine. He spent 10 minutes explaining some of the philosophies and techniques of the kitchen. For example, the entire cooking staff was comprised of interns from all over the world. Chef Andoniz has a core group of kitchen supervisors who run this team of around 20 chefs. Also interesting was the fact that all sauces are prepared by one key person who then transfers the portions into test tubes to insure consistency. There is a special piece of equipment in the middle of the kitchen that holds these precious ingredients at the perfect temperature.
We returned to our table, chose our wine tasting menu of seven wines and settled in for the afternoon. In the end, we would consider this one of the most challenging and intellectual dining experiences of our lives. We fully enjoyed and appreciated it, but did not fully comprehend it.
Our next adventure began with an hours drive south to Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum. Frank Gehry's creation is something you really need to see if you are anywhere close by. The experience begins by viewing Jeff Koons 43-foot high topiary sculpture of a "Puppy.” But I digress…this is not a story about architecture. After Bilbao we drove an hour to the small remote mountain village of Axpe, where the famous self-taught chef Victor Arguinzoniz works his magic at Asador Etxebarri. Given a rebellious GPS device and a bad map, we arrived for our 1:00 p.m. lunch reservation at 3:30 p.m. The staff apparently is accustomed to this kind of tardiness because they just laughed and invited us to sit down for our 10-course menu. The dining room was well spaced and had a very rustic feel to it, with a wood ceiling and floor and decorative stone borders.
Surprisingly, most of the tables the day we visited were Japanese. Victor's wife, who is one of the servers, joked that only the Japanese are never lost when trying to find this hidden retreat. This experience could not have been more different compared to Mugaritz due to the fact that the food was entirely comprehensible and straightforward. Chef Arguinzoniz has devised various methods of using charcoal, called “la brasa” (translation, “the grill”), which is the method for cooking almost everything on the menu. In fact, he makes all of his charcoal on a custom basis using local hardwoods. I was surprised to hear that his food is driven by a quest to find the best ingredients in the world, not limited to this region of Spain. Our beef was from six-year old cows from southern Spain with absolutely no aging. The prawns and oysters were from France. After another three-hour lunch with six wines, we requested a tour of the kitchen. An American intern accompanied by Chef Arguinzoniz took us through the kitchen and explained the methods used to create such wonderful flavors. A "mother" oven rises to over 2,000 degrees and is the source of smaller bins of charcoal that are transferred to individual cooking spaces that are used to cook each item. The beef, prawns and oysters, for example, each had their own individual grilling space. The Chef could not have been more hospitable with a terrific sense of humor. He and I both joked about being too damn old to still be in the restaurant business!

During our rather long trip through Europe, Paula and I also visited France, Italy and Switzerland. While our dining experiences were generally good, I would say that the level of entertainment, creativity and quality in Spanish restaurants is head and shoulders above the rest of the continent. San Sebastian, where we spent ten days, never lacked interesting things to do and see: the Guggenheim, hiking, biking, beaches and swimming in the Atlantic, people watching and a side trip to the wine region of Rioja occupied us every day. It is a city large enough to accommodate a tourist infrastructure without feeling contrived. We always felt like we were able to observe the locals living their normal lives. So on your next trip to Europe, put San Sebastian on your itinerary, you will have a blast!