San Sebastian Revisited (Six Months Later)

I have a weird blogging habit – I hate to put up my last post from a particular vacation.

I guess subconsciously I feel like it’s the last time I’ll savor a place. That writing that last post means that vacation is truly ended and in the books and only to be relived on the computer screen. It’s no longer a memory selfishly locked away in my heart. And it makes me very sad.

But one of the main purposes of this blog is to put down all the great things we saw, and did, and ate, so that I could remember them and share them.

lacquered monkfish at Arbelaitz in San Sebastian, Spain
Wait, what was this again and where did we eat it? (lacquered monkfish at Arbelaitz)

And still, I dilly dally.

This post about San Sebastian is the perfect example. It’s been sitting, partially written in my inbox since December 13.

Opening the email this morning sent a wave of yearning over me. I absolutely, unequivocally and totally fell in love with San Sebastian. Especially, the food. And the architecture. And the shopping. And the beaches. But mostly, the food.

San Sebastian, Spain
The view from our hotel in San Sebastian.

This elegant, seaside gem of the Basque Country was also the scene of the most awkward dinner I’ve ever sat through.

But let me back up. Waaaay, back. Like, to 2012. November to be exact.

We reluctantly left the Rioja region and headed up north, to the coast of Spain. Weaving our way up and over the mountains, we drove through at least a dozen tunnels. Apparently, the Spanish never choose to go around a mountain, they instead choose to go through them. Below us, small industrial towns dotted  the bottom of the valleys.

We followed a semi-coastal road, stopping in small seaside towns of Zumaia, Zarautz, and Gettaria.

Rioja region, Spain

Finally, we drove into San Sebastian and were immediately charmed. Just 20 km from the French border, San Sebastian looks like Paris with gorgeous Belle Epoque architecture and wide, tree-lined avenues, beautiful bridges crossing the river Urumea, and two stunning beaches, right in the middle of town.

We stayed at the newly renovated Hotel Maria Cristina, another Starwood Luxury Property. The hotel, which originally opened in 1912, has 136 rooms and suites, all done in soothing, cool grays, silvers, lavenders, and creams. It was plush and ornate and just majestic.

Lobby at Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian, Spain
Hotel lobby
Our room at Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian, Spain
Our room
Our living room at Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian, Spain
Our living room

We had a large suite with a separate living room and small Juliet balconies overlooking the public square below and the Victoria Eugenia Theater where the annual San Sebastian Film Festival is held.

Our balcony at Hotel Maria Cristina, San Sebastian, Spain
Our balcony. Yes. A balcony.

Reluctantly, we left the amazing room to go out and explore. First stop, Zurriola surf beach to watch brave surfers battle the cold water. It was definitely warm for November (around the low 70s), but there’s no way that water wasn’t a tiny bit chilly. We sat at a bar on the boardwalk with outdoor seating and watched numerous people brave the water, only to running back to the beach a few minutes later.

Beach at San Sebastian

After walking around a bit and getting our bearings, we headed back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner at Michelin-star Miramon Arbelaitz. XFE had asked our hotel for dinner suggestions and they sent us a list of suggestions. After much research of websites, XFE choose Arbelaitz, which seemed quite innovative. Our hotel concierge made the reservation for us.

Unbeknownst to us, Arbelaitz was a bit off the beaten path. In fact, it was in a technology industrial park.

We had a 9 or 9:30 reservation, which we thought was late enough for the Spanish. However, we arrived to an empty restaurant. Could it be that even 9 pm was too early for dinner in Spain??

We were greeted by a lovely small Spanish woman, who led us to our table in the romantically lit and tastefully modern dining room and ordered the very affordable tasting menu, starting with fresh oysters. Show tunes played in the background (Cabaret, Gypsy, etc.) Next was a grilled artichoke dish, followed by a wonderful lobster royal accompanied by the sound of pot and pans in the nearby kitchen.

Arbelaitz, San Sebastian, Spain
Grilled artichokes, chard stems in batter, porcini mushrooms and jus of ham.

After the next course of marinated tuna, I’d finally had enough wine to broach the subject that had us burning with curiosity: where were the other guests? I gently asked the lovely Spanish lady if they were very busy this time of year. She explained that they were very busy during lunch with workers from the nearby technology companies. Then she went and got our next course, a divine lacquered monkfish with eggplant.

We were the only customers that night. The chef, Jose Mari Arbelaitz came out and greeted us, not once, but twice. We tried to convey how honored we were that he and (we presumed) his wife had opened up their restaurant just for us. I have no idea why they didn’t just tell us they weren’t open or that they weren’t taking reservations for dinner, or something.

As we silently ate our way through our saddle of venison roasted with citrus, blueberries and rosemary purple potatoes, we tried to not feel conspicuous. The meal was great, but the overall experience was very, very awkward.

Arbelaitz, San Sebastian, Spain
Saddle of venison roasted with citrus, blueberries and rosemary purple potatoes.

The next day, we wandered around the Parte Vieja (Old Town) section of San Sebastian, just enjoying the tiny, winding cobblestone streets. We had no plan, except a lunch reservation at Kokotxa, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the neighborhood, and the one of the very few to be open this slow time of the year (our first choices, Arzak and Akelarre were both closed during non-touristy November).

Koktxa restaurant, San Sebastian, Spain

But the problem with our well-laid plans is that all the streets were lined with pincho bars. We resisted the lure of the beckoning doorways with dark, patron-packed bars and rows of plates teetering with jewel-toned small bites. They looked like works of stained glass – red and green chiles, pink strips of Serrano ham, silvery anchovies, bright yellow mousses.

Pinchos or pinxtos

Our reserve was further tested when we did a walk-by of our chosen lunch spot. Unlike all of the pincho bars we had just passed, it looked dead. Really, really dead. We walked along the waterfront of the old fortress city and dithered back and forth, “Should we call and cancel? It’s kind of last minute. Yeah, but did you see it? There was nobody there. It’s supposed to be really good. I do not want a repeat of last night’s meal where we’re the only people in the place.” (Although the meal was, as I said, very, very good.)

We eventually capitulated to the lure of the pinchos. Our first stop, Atari Gastroteka, was located right in front of the pretty yellow Iglesia Santa Maria del Coro.

San Sebastian street
Nice church. Sure, I’ll eat in the shadow of that plaza.

Church in San Sebastian

It attracted us because it was pretty full, including a large group (dogs and children included) of Spanish-speaking friends leisurely holding court at a picnic table out front. The amount of plates and glasses and overflowing ashtrays gave testament to the fact that they’d been there for quite a while. That was enough of an endorsement for us.

We were quite unlike our delicate Spanish friends, who generally wash down one or two small bites with lots of conversation before eventually, slowly moving to the next place. Our American appetites and curious bellies demanded we try one of everything. Slabs of potato-stuffed tortillas, papas bravas, seafood salads on crostinis, crab-stuffed chiles, goat cheese with asparagus, and countless others were consumed alongside our new favorite Baigorri wine.

Papas bravas, San Sebastian

We went to a blur of places, washing down the little works of pincho art with amazing crisp white wines. We stopped in at the highly recommended A Fuego Negro, but it was too crowded for us to get close to the bar. Considering the huge array of choices we had anywhere along the street, we took our spoiled taste buds elsewhere and kept wandering.

But it was around 3 pm when we found our pincho heaven – La Cuchara de San Telmo. It was a bit off the beaten path, hidden down a side street, but it was by far the best place we ate, maybe even the entire trip. Since it was close to the end of lunch service (they close at 3:30 and reopen at 7:30), we were able to grab a spot at the bar and had a long meaningful relationship with the menu.

Menu at La Cuchara San Telmo, San Sebastian, Spain

Aided by a wonderful barman from Nicaragua who happened to know more about U.S. politics than either of us DC residents, we worked out way through San Sebastian’s most popular and innovative pinchos – one perfectly cooked bacon-wrapped scallop, braised calf cheeks in red wine, grilled octopus. The special of the day, the pigs ear on a chickpea puree was, unfortunately sold out.

Scallop at La Cuchara San Telmo, San Sebastian, Spain
bacon-wrapped scallop
braised beef at La Cuchara San Telmo, San Sebastian, Spain
braised beef

Never one to pass up a chance at pork, we asked them to save us one and swore we’d be back in the evening to try it. It was totally worth it. It was crispy and soft and salty and just perfect. We also added foie gras with apple compote and queso cabra topped with grilled vegetables to the pincho carnage tally. And, we might have revisited a few of our favorite dishes from lunchtime again (What? Being a tourist is very hungry work! And the portions are really small!)

La Cuchara San Telmo, San Sebastian, Spain
Blurry pigs ear.

We ended the evening chatting with a very cool young American couple from Denver who also ordered everything on the La Cuchara menu. After one last ginormous gin and tonic (served in large wine goblets with real juniper berries, naturally), we bid farewell to our friends, stumbled our big bellies back to our hotel and collapsed, dreaming of soft, succulent pig’s ears. It had been a big foodie day for us.

Giant Spanish gin and tonic

Unbelievable food, great wine and new friends.  It was the perfect end to our time in San Sebastian, and Spain. I truly cannot wait to go back.

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Rioja Part Two: Do Great Architects Make Good Wine?

“This Gehry guy really seems to know what he’s doing,” I said out loud, albeit, a bit breathlessly. I’m pretty sure the bellhop heard me on that one.

The swirling riot of metallic ribbons of fuschia, gold and silver that make up the roof of the Hotel Marques de Riscal will do that to a girl.

You would think after seeing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, I’d have been a bit more jaded, a bit more prepared for the impact of a Gehry-designed building. I mean, how many times can one swoon at the site of some curved titanium?

Apparently, in my case at least, there is no cap on being awe-stricken by a building. And as the Spanish sun reflected the colors of the roof onto the ground beneath my feet, I was again amazed by architecture.

Marques de Riscal hotel and winery

The Hotel Marques de Riscal was the whole crazy origins of this trip to Spain. As a Starwood Luxury Property, we would stumble across pictures of it on Starwood’s website. It seemed incongruous to see this crazy modern property nestled in the center of a tiny old Spanish town.

It went into the “maybe someday” file.

But as we started talking about our trip to Spain, we decided we wanted to go somewhere off the beaten path. Someplace neither of us had been and that we would see together for the first time.

And then, of course, there was the wine.

Continue reading Rioja Part Two: Do Great Architects Make Good Wine?

Rioja: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Winemaking (and a teeny bit of actual drinking)

Our three-day visit to the Rioja wine route in Spain has made us experts at making wine.

Spain's Rioja wine region

Prior to this trip, my personal sommelier XFE and I felt fully confident that after watching two seasons of Moonshiners, several tours of distilleries (including Jameson in Ireland) and quite a few breweries (mostly in Colorado), and probably a total of a hundred wineries on three continents, we were conversant in the basics of turning a grain or fruit into a fermented adult beverage.

When planning our trip to the Rioja region, we ran into a wrinkle that we’ve actually run into before. Spain (like other parts of Europe) requires advance bookings for visits to their wineries. Fine. But in most cases, you can’t just go in for a tasting. You have to do a tour of the facilities.

Now, as I mentioned, we go on a lot of winery visits. We go out to Virginia wineries twice a year to taste the latest vintages and stock our wine closet. We’ve been to Napa and Sonoma. We’ve been to Northern Italy. We’ve been to the Barossa region of Australia. We’ve done many, many tours. This is not our first wine rodeo.

So being required to go on tour after tour after tour where there’s actually only a tiny bit of variance in the process (hmmm, you use American oak barrels instead of French oak? Wow.) just so we can have a tiny taste of two of your least popular wines? It’s excessive. In no instance were the wines served as good as wines we subsequently bought and tasted.

My suggestion? I’d rather hear more about the wine itself. What notes should I look for? Which specific ones are available for sale in the US (since the wineries won’t ship)? How long should we store it if we buy it? How is this one different from this one? That kind of stuff.

Nevertheless, we made reservations for tours at four facilities: Bodega Lopez de Heredia in Haro; Bodega Baigorri in Samaniego; Marques de Riscal in Elciego; and Bodega Ysios in Laguardia. Our mid-November trip was around two-to-six weeks after harvest and bottling (depending on the facility), so things were definitely quiet and reservations were easy to arrange.

We started our trip with a pleasant morning drive to Haro, about an hour and a half south of Bilbao. The countryside was beautiful, with steep cliffs of iron on each side of the road and early morning fog burning off.

Spain's Rioja wine region

Haro is one of those small old Spanish towns that has one road entering it, and Lopez de Heredia was one of the first spots right off the road. You couldn’t miss it. Well, and the modern decanter shaped tasting room building also gave it away.

Lopez de Heredia in Haro, Spain
Tasting room at Lopez de Heredia

You see, the big thing in the Rioja region is to have some fancy-schmancy architect build your facility or tasting room. In the case of Lopez de Heredia, the tasting room was designed by an Iraqui-British architect, Zaha Hadid.

The tasting room is the only nod to modernity at Lopez de Heredia. They are extremely proud of their adherence to the old ways of doing things, using many of the traditional methods they’ve honed over the last 130-plus years to make their Vina Tondonia. They make their own barrels and have an onsite cooperage, a source of great pride for our lovely young tour guide. And, in case you were wondering, they use American oak.

Barrel making at Lopez de Heredia in Haro, Spain

We also got a peek at some of their very creepy underground storage vaults where bottles of wine were just coated with cobwebs and dust. You could not make out a single label. In many cases, you couldn’t even tell that they were bottles. Our tour guide explained that killing the spiders would be environmentally insensitive since they provide a necessary service of eating other pests. The amount of post-harvest wine gnats floating in the air would seem to suggest—to me at least—that the spiders were not holding up their end of the deal, and just maybe, we could break out a feather duster and tidy up a bit.

Wine storage at Lopez de Heredia

At Heredia, we tasted crianzas, reservas and gran reservas – terms which refer to how long the wines have been aged. They were all very, very good and were bargain priced, although that did us no good since they don’t ship to the U.S. Heredia, like other wineries in Rioja, uses a U.S. distributor, which means you can’t get all of their wines, and the staff at the wineries don’t know which ones you can get. Quite frustrating. We ended up buying a bottle to drink, and a small dessert wine to take home.

Wine storage at Lopez de Heredia

Haro has 19 or so wineries, but we had only made reservations at Heredia, which had been recommended by the guy at our favorite local wine store. There was, however, a tasting room right next door to Heredia that we had read about during our research – Bodegas Roda. As promised, it was small and to the point. You could taste Roda wines and even their olive oil, which we did.

Bodegas Roda in Spain

We then headed down the street to Bodegas Torre Muga, which is a very large and modern operation that, quite wisely, has a wine bar where you can sit and try a flight of wines without going through the tour business. It was here that we made a very odd discovery: although the Rioja region is deservedly known for its wonderful reds, the whites were just as good, if not sometimes better. This was true at Muga, which had a wonderful blanco that we fell in love with.(They also had some of the best buttery crackers there, which I. Tore. Up.)

Torre Muga, Rioja, Spain
Didn’t like anything. Anything at all.

Tomorrow: Wine bankruptcies, the role of gravity in winemaking, and why you should not choose a winery based on a cool, architecturally interesting building.

Spain Does Not Suck

Hola chicas (y, un solo chico, possiblimente)! Como estamos? I’m great! And back from a fabulous vacation in Northern Spain.

Toons wants to go

Petunia really wanted to go. She’s Calico, which is kinda close to Catalonian, so she thinks she should go to Spain. In the photo above, she is sitting on my travel binder.

Oh, do you not know about the travel binder? This is a binder with all the emails exchanged with hotels and all the reservations and hotel and restaurant information we might need. Also, multiple maps for getting from point a to point b. Yes, it’s a bit anal. But it has come in handy. For example, the scuba outfitter in Australia had waived our guide fees because they had to move us to a different boat. Of course, the people actually on the boat had no record of this. So, out came the travel binder with all the emails. Done.

We had no problems whatsoever in Spain and we did not need the travel binder. And, since we had GPS, everything went smoothly.

Guggenheim. Bilbao.
Guggenheim. Bilbao.

The whole trip was pretty perfect. Even the weather cooperated. I had looked up the weather report for the week (and included it in the itinerary in the travel binder – my anal-abilities really do have no limits). The reports said it was supposed to be rainy and kinda cold every day. Highs only in the mid-50s, supposedly. The only time it rained was the first couple of days in Bilbao. Other than that, perfect weather.

Some highlights:

Discovering two new (to me) clothing stores called Cortefiel and Sfera. I picked up a few cute things at each of them. Shopping was how XFE kept me from falling down asleep on my first jet-lagged evening in Bilbao.

Pintxos. Holy tiny deliciousness. These are little bite-sized appetizers, like little open sandwiches and yummy little fried balls of awesomeness. And these things are just laying out at all the bars and you just help yourself. They’re these little works of art. So, so inventive. We pretty much ate them everyday, the entire trip. The very best, in our estimation, were at a place in San Sebastian called La Cuchara de San Telmo. We ate there twice our last day and it was unbelievable.

Pintxos in Bilbao, Spain
Our first night in Bilbao and the first of many, many pintxos.

Two Michelin-star dinners, including a very, very odd one at Miramon Arbelaitz in San Sebastian. It was in a very industrial type area (sorta like Reston), so they do a pretty brisk lunch business. We found the restaurant and went in for our 9 pm reservation. The place was entirely empty. And it stayed that way through our entire tasting dinner. They basically opened the restaurant for us. It was fantastic food at a really good value, but so, so awkward. I just kept wondering why they didn’t just tell us they weren’t taking bookings for that night.

Marques de Riscal with Elciego
At Marques de Riscal with Elciego in the background.

I’ll have some more posts in the coming days, including a description of some of the wine tours in Rioja, the hotels we luxuriated in, and probably some more pintxos.