Guide: Eating in Spanish Basque Country

There might not be a better place in the world to eat than Spanish Basque Country, aka País Vasco, aka Euskadi. From Bilbao to San Sebastián there are 28 restaurants with at least one Michelin star and a handful others on the World’s Best 50 Restaurants list. Many of the most influential chefs of the last three decades have restaurants here: Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz, Juan Mari and Elena Arzak of Arzak, Eneko Atxa of Azurmendi, Josean Alija of Nerua, and Martín Berastegui of Martín Berastegui.

So, what makes the provinces of Álava, Biscay, Gipuzkoa on Spain’s northern Atlantic coast, which make up País Vasco, such a wondferful place to eat? Aside of being home to the San Sebastian-based Basque Culinary Center, the cooking school and research organization that gives out the prestigious Basque Culinary Prize, or even the region’s majestic location near the sea, forest covered mountains, and the fertile Ebro valley. For one, there’s a pride in making food, not just food, but good food, made of the best ingredients unlike anywhere else on the planet. Here the average person spends twice as much as the average person does in the United States on what to eat and every meal, from friends gathering at a txoko or snacking and drinking at a pintxos bar to a 20-course menu at a temple of haute cuisine, the ingredients are chosen with the utmost care and respect.

The region’s varied landscapes and rich biodiversity allows for some fantastic ingredients, which align with the seasons: summer brings white tuna, sardines, peppers, and tomatoes; in autumn there is game, sausages, and wild mushrooms; the winter sees walnuts, chestnuts, cabbage, and spider crabs; and in spring there are lambs, mackerel, artichokes, and guisante lagrima, the green peas sometimes called green caviar. There are also angulas (baby eels), squid, smoky Idiazabal cheeses, and some spectacular beef in the form txuletas (rib-eye).

Consider this your guide to digging deeper into the cuisine of Spanish Basque Country. These are our essential eating and drinking experiences in the region, collected on numerous trips to San Sebastián, Bilbao, and everywhere in between:

Asadores

Spanish Basque country’s asadores, or grill restaurants, might be the finest way to taste the region’s flavors.  Txuletas, thick cut bone-in rib-eye steaks, are the specialty here, though they are not by any means all you will eat. The Holy Grail of Spanish asadores is without a doubt Asador Etxebarri in the blip of a mountain town called Axpe, where Victor Arguinzoniz precisely cooks ingredients he has personally selected or raised himself on a custom-built grill of his design. In Tolosa, outside of San Sebastián, there’s Casa Julián, which has been open since 1954 and uses and Argentine-style grill, and Casa Nicolás, open since 1960 and now run by a third-generation family member. In the fishing village of Getaria west from San Sebastián, Elkano, specializes in seafood, such as rodaballo (turbot), which gets grilled in a specialized wire basket.

Shrimp consommé with nata de coco and curry from Josean Alija at Bilbao’s Nerua.

Fine Dining & Avant Garde Restaurants

Much of modern gastronomy has been influenced heavily what has been happening in Spain over the last few decades and this corner of the country is without a doubt the most influential part. There’s Andoni Luis Aduriz’s Mugaritz in Errenteria, where you begin to question everything you thought you knew about fine dining. At Eneko Atxa’s Azuremendi in Larrabetzu part of the meal takes place in a greenhouse. There’s Arzak, which has been open since 1897 and has held three Michelin stars since 1989, as well as Martín Berasategui and his eponymous restaurant, which has held three stars since 2001. Then there are the emerging chefs like Josean Alija, whose elegant cooking at Nerua inside of Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum has helped elevate the former industrial city’s culinary scene. Newer on the scene are the intimate 28-seat Amelia in San Sebastián from Argentine chef Paulo Airaudo and 25-seat Mina on the river in Bilbao.

Cold pintxos at a bar in San Sebastián.

Pintxo Bars

The Basque version of the tapa is called the pintxo, the finger foods served at taverns throughout the region. Tradiitonally, pintxos are a topping or two served on a slice of bread with a toothpick holding them together (hence the name pintxo, which means “to poke”) and served cold on the bar, though many of today’s pintxos bars have hot items too. It’s quite common in urban areas of Spanish Basque Country to go on a txikiteo, or pintxo bar crawl, stopping at each bar for their specialty. In in San Sebastián, head to Bar Nestor for the tortilla de patata, Borda Berri for the orjea de cerdo crujiente (crunchy pig’s ear), Bar Txepetxa for anything with anchovies, or La Viña for the tarta de queso (cheesecake). For something totally different there’s Andoni Luis Aduriz’s Topa Sukaldería, which explores the Latin American influences in Basque cuisine through pintxos. In Bilbao, try La Viña del Ensanche for acorn-fed jamón, Gure Toki for grilled foie gras with apple, and Kresala for chorizo.

Anchovies at a txoko in Bilbao.

Txokos

During the Franco regime Basque language (Euskara) and much of the culture were outlawed, so men gathered together in unmarked cooking clubs called txokos where they could eat and drink and speak Euskara undetected. They’re still around and many of the classic regional dishes like marmitako (tuna and potato stew) and bacalao al pil pil (salted cod in pil pil sauce) are best experienced in this setting. Most txokos allow women now, though they still have much of a man cave feel. While they remain private and you are generally invited by a member to attend (know anyone?), some tour operators can help set up a dining experience in the txokos in Bilbao and San Sebastián.

One of Itsasmendi’s vineyards in Bizkaia.

Drinking

The region’s wine of choice is txakoli, which is most often thought of as a sparkling, dry white wine with high acidity, though from bodegas like Itsasmendi, and it turns into one of the great wines of Spain. There’s also Basque sidra, a barrel-aged, low alcohol cider that is typically drank from January to April – though some of the more popular sidrerías are open year-round and have full service restaurants, many of which will serve a decent txuleta and several other standard menu items (chorizos, tortilla de bacalao, cheeses). We recommend Sidrería Astarbe Sagardotegia, a five-century old cider house not far from Mugaritz, as well as Sidrería Petritegui and Sidrería Zapiain in the sidra heartland of Astigarraga.

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