Traveling Through Bilbao and San Sebastian? Where You Should Eat In Basque Country (Fine Dining)

Traveling through San Sebastian and Bilbao and wondering where to eat in the Basque Country? Read on to find out my restaurant recommendations! (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

I recently spent some time at Basque Country (my first time!) to celebrate the Guggenheim Museum’s 20th Anniversary with a Four Hands dinner by host restaurant Nerua and El Celler de Can Roca. While I was there, I made sure I ate at these *top* restaurants in the world — “fine dining” they might have once been categorized (but the fine in dining has now gone through an evolution). I’m often asked which one is my favorite and which one I recommend, and it’s really a tough answer because each one has their own philosophy, and they communicate this very powerfully through their dishes. Everything is aligned. And of course, with restaurants at this caliber, the food, the wine and the service are also top. You’ll be surprised because fine dining in Spain isn’t as expensive as a lot of places in the world– I mean, Singapore  and Hong Kong fine dining are waaay more expensive!!! But.. make sure to book months in advance; your wallet won’t cry but getting a reservation might if you don’t plan way in advance.

Here’s a short 1-minute video I made to give you a tour inside the kitchens and dining rooms of these restaurants- and to meet the chefs. Just click the play button!

Here are my 5 “fine dining” restaurant recommendations to you when you’re next in the Basque Country (not in any particular order):

NERUA

Bilbao

1 Michelin Star | #56 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017

Nerua is located at this part of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Nerua is located at this part of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Nerua at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao  was a truly sublime experience. I had an introduction to their cuisine in the Philippines when they cooked with my events platform Cross Cultures at Gallery Vask– twice! But getting the full experience in their own space was a completely different world.

Why You Should Dine Here: Chef Josean Alija’s style is super clean and emphasizes on the purity of seasonal ingredients. These are beautifully supported by alot of other elements in the restaurant (which is already located in a stunning museum to begin with!): Frank Gehry chairs, warm napkins, a change in George Jensen cutleries with every dish and *always* served WARM– and you only see a knife only ONCE during all 16 courses. This is because the dishes are so delicate and tender, all you need is a little nudge with the spoon and fork.

The Chef's Table area at Nerua (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
The Chef’s Table area at Nerua (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
In line with the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao where the restaurant is located, the chairs at Nerua are also designed by Frank Gehry. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
In line with the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao where the restaurant is located, the chairs at Nerua are also designed by Frank Gehry. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Standout Dishes: Kokotxa in pilpil sauce is a Basque specialty and Josean elevates this with sophistication. Every dining experience will often see a different version of it. Plus, he will be serving a cassava cake topped with banana ice cream, inspired by his trip to the Philippines! *PS Both the wines and sommelier Ismael Alvarez are top, top, top! They serve a great boutique selection (all with history) and Ismael narrates them with so much vigor.

Hake kokotxa with egg white asparagus (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Hake kokotxa with egg white asparagus (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Spaghetti Pasta with coconut and pork delicacies, inspired by Josean's Italian wife, Stefania Giordano (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Spaghetti Pasta with coconut and pork delicacies, inspired by Josean’s Italian wife, Stefania Giordano (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Yucca Cake and Banana Ice Cream, inspired by the Philippines' cassava cake during Josean's last visit to Manila. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Yucca Cake and Banana Ice Cream, inspired by the Philippines’ cassava cake during Josean’s last visit to Manila. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
The wine pairing thoroughly and animatedly conducted by sommelier Ismael Alvarez is highly recommended at Nerua (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
The wine pairing thoroughly and animatedly conducted by sommelier Ismael Alvarez is highly recommended at Nerua (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Address: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Avenida Abandoibarra 2,  48001 Bilbao, Spain

Reservations: +34 944 000430;  reservas@nerua.com

Menu Prices: Dinner: 9 courses (110 Euros); 14 courses (145 Euros); 18 courses (170 Euros). They also have a lunch menu from Tuesdays to Fridays priced at 80 Euros. *VAT inclusive for all

With Nerua chef-patron Josean Alija, and celebrity chef Dani Garcia who also happened to be dining with his team while I was there. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
With Nerua chef-patron Josean Alija, and celebrity chef Dani Garcia who also happened to be dining with his team while I was there. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

AZURMENDI

Larrabetzu (20 minutes drive from Bilbao)

3 Michelin Stars | #38 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017

Why You Should Go: Azurmendi by chef-owner Eneko Atxa is so wonderful in every form– food, service, ambiance. The dining experience comes in four parts:  1) picnic at the atrium 2) bites inside the kitchen 3) snacks in the greenhouse 4) main meal in the dining room with the most stunning view. (Tip: come during the day so you can take lots of nice photos!)

Azurmendi also makes their own txakoli (Basque white wine), and is also one of the most sustainable restaurants in the world, built on recycled materials. They recycle their own wastes, harvest their own rainfall, and use solar panels and geothermic system to produce electricity.

Part 1: Snacks in the Atrium
Part 1: The Atrium
Part 3: Snacks in The Greenhouse (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Part 3: Snacks in The Greenhouse (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
The Azurmendi Dining Room (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Part 4: The Azurmendi Dining Room (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Standout Dishes: I had the Adarrak menu which focuses on seasonal ingredients. They also have the Eroak menu which recreates their classic dishes served over the last 10 years. The welcome picnic is one of the most photographed dishes, with delicious snacks. And I’d also like to highlight Green Tear Peas, which is only available in Basque Country for 2 months in a year and is considered, as my friend Inaki explained to me, like their vegetable caviar as they delicately explode inside your mouth.

Welcome snacks at Azurmendi come in the form of their famous picnic basket and txakoli at their atrium (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Welcome snacks at Azurmendi come in the form of their famous picnic basket and txakoli at their atrium (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
The seasonal, caviar-like Green Tear Peas (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
The seasonal, caviar-like Green Tear Peas (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Garlic mushrooms with, fried quail's eggs and garlic flowers. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Garlic mushrooms with, fried quail’s eggs and garlic flowers. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Menu Price: 180 Euros for Adarrak and Eroak menus (VAT exclusive)

Address:Barrio Legina s/n (Exit 25 Txorierri Corridor, Bilbao airport road), P.C.: 48195, Larrabetzu (Bizkaia), Spain

Reservations: +34 944 55 83 59; reservas@azurmendi.biz

With the super nice Eneko Atxa! I first met him a couple of years ago in Madrid Fusion in Spain
With the super nice Eneko Atxa! I first met him a couple of years ago in Madrid Fusion in Spain

 

ASADOR ETXEBARRI

Atxondo (40 minutes drive from Bilbao; 1 hour from San Sebastian)

1 Michelin Star | #6 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017

Asador Etxebarri (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Asador Etxebarri (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Why You Should Go: Asador Etxebarri is a restaurant that a lot of foodie friends told me I shouldn’t miss. It’s special because it’s simple food done well– really, really, really well– by chef Victor Arguinzoniz on his wood-fired grill. A grill is a grill but his technique is extraordinary, Chef Victor is self-taught, and hardly leaves his kitchen, even for big events.

Inside the Asador Etxebarri dining room (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Inside the Asador Etxebarri dining room (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
This is where all the magic happens.. at the back of Asador Etxebarri (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
This is where all the magic happens.. at the back of Asador Etxebarri (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Standout Dishes: Because of his extraordinary technique (whether a light graze or intensely over the flames), “everyday, normal” food like burrata cheese, Prawns of Palamos and the beef chop that remain in memories for years. It was nice to see how the magic happens in such a simple-looking grill over carefully selected woods.

Lightly flame-kissed burrata with my dear lunch date Naiara Ortiz of Nerua. The lunch was extra special because of her company! (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Lightly flame-kissed burrata with my dear lunch date Naiara Ortiz of Nerua. The lunch was extra special because of her company! (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Prawns of Palamos (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Prawns of Palamos (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Beef Chops (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Beef Chops (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Menu Price: 176 Euros (VAT inclusive)

Address: Plaza de San Juan 1, 48291 Atxondo, Bizkaia, Spain

Reservations: +34 946 58 30 42; info@asadoretxebarri.com

It was a pleasure meeting chef Victor Arguinzoniz for the first time! He never leaves his kitchen. That's where all the magic happens btw. :)
It was a pleasure meeting chef Victor Arguinzoniz for the first time! He never leaves his kitchen. That’s where all the magic happens btw. :)

ARZAK

San Sebastian

3 Michelin Stars | #30 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017

Arzak (Photo courtesy of Arzak)
Arzak (Photo courtesy of Arzak)

Why You Should Go: Father-and-daughter tandem Juan Mari and Elena Arzak are legends in the culinary world, one of the greatest forces responsible for putting San Sebastian (and Spain!) on the culinary tourism map. The tasting menu at their eponymous Arzak is one of the shortest out there– just 7 courses and snacks. And the dishes all embody “vision, message and taste.” Explained Elena, “For me, the most important is the taste– everything we do helps the flavor.” The recipes are developed at the Arzak Lab upstairs. Juan Mari is already 75 years old but he still comes to work everyday, although Elena has convinced him to just come during the day. “If I tell him not to come to the restaurant, he will die,” she said. “My father always gave me the possibility of doing things, now it’s my time to give back.”

The Arzak bar waiting area (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
The Arzak bar waiting area (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
The Arzak wine cellar with over 100,000 wines! They have their own Arzak label, too. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
The Arzak wine cellar with over 100,000 wines! They have their own Arzak label, too. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Standout Dishes: Eggs slow-cooked with tomato candy- symbolizing how egg is treated as a main course ; monkfish pyramids w/ pumpkin & chickpea hieroglyphics- symbolizing Elena’s dream to visit Egypt; and Froggy chocolates in diff flavors, a tribute to the near extinct Igara frog– you’ll see their cartoon version on the San Sebastian buses. While they use a lot of local produce, Elena brings back influences from her travels (she’s served kinilaw, and pili nuts after her Philippines trip), paired with wines that are 70% Spanish (they have over 100,000 wines in their cellar!).

Egg With Corn: Egg with tomato candy, "pozole" coen and cordyceps (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Egg With Corn: Egg with tomato candy, “pozole” coen and cordyceps (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Monkfish Cleopatra: Grilled monkfish with pecan nut paste and hieroglyphics forms of pumpkin and chickpea- inspired by Elena Arzak's dream to visit Egypt one day (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Monkfish Cleopatra: Grilled monkfish with pecan nut paste and hieroglyphics forms of pumpkin and chickpea- inspired by Elena Arzak’s dream to visit Egypt one day (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Froggy chocolates inspired by the (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Chocolates inspired by San Sebastian’s near-extinct Igara frogs. Elena shared that she had asked Gaggan Anand of Asia’s No. 1 Restaurant, Gaggan in Thailand for advice on how to execute the curry flavors. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Menu Price: 205 Euros (inclusive of VAT)

Address: Av Alcalde Elósegui, 273, 20015 San Donostia-San Sebastián, Guipúzcoa, Spain

Reservations: +34 943 278 465; reservas@arzak.es

A beautiful family affair: Juan Mari Arzak with daughters Elena Arzak and Marta Arzak (who works at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao- I met her there, what a small world!)
A beautiful family affair: Juan Mari Arzak with daughters Elena Arzak and Marta Arzak (who works at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao- I met her there, what a small world!)

MUGARITZ

San Sebastian

2 Michelin Stars | #9 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017

Mugaritz (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Mugaritz (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Why You Should Go: Mugaritz was a cerebral dining experience. What you think is… is not quite.  It’s a dining experience that makes you think, makes you question. It is the complete embodiment of chef-owner Andoni Aduriz, one of the world’s largest culinary legends, and considered by many as “the natural heir to the title of Spain’s most pioneering chef after Ferran Adria,” also responsible for putting the Basque Country and Spain on the world’s culinary map. Kudos also goes to service training done by the Mugaritz group’s Jose Ramon Calvo, who always make sure the dining experience is special. There are 26 courses, and you won’t necessarily like all of them. But that’s okay. Because the goal of Mugaritz is to introduce a very wide spectrum of flavors and textures, taking you “out of the box.” (Make sure to watch the video I posted above to the very end– you’ll see what I mean!!!)

The Mugaritz experience begins with dishes at the terrace (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
The Mugaritz experience begins with dishes at the terrace. This is the head cheese of “kokotxas.” (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
The Mugaritz inside dining room. Notice there's no cutleries set up only a broken plate sculpture. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
The Mugaritz inside dining room. Notice there’s no cutleries set up only a broken plate sculpture. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Standout Dishes: Head cheese of cod kokotxa; Puffed mackerel with pork skin; Sprouted chia heart and cream; potato chip with duck broth. Andoni does not expect you to finish all the dishes– a question you often get with raised eyebrows when you leave something on the table. “Why? It’s important just to taste!” Thank youuuu!

Puffed anchovies with pork skin. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Puffed anchovies with pork skin. (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Duck Your Chips (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)
Duck Your Chips (Photo by Cheryl Tiu)

Menu Price: 204 Euros (inclusive of VAT)

Address: Aldura Aldea, 20, 20100 Errenteria, Gipuzkoa, Spain

Reservations: + 34 943 522 455; + 34 943 518 343; reservas@mugaritz.com

Mugaritz Group's Jose Ramon Calvo (who heads the service for the entire IXO group of restaurants, which Mugaritz is part of) and chef-owner Andoni Aduriz. I love these guys!! (Photo courtesy of Cheryl Tiu)
Mugaritz Group’s Jose Ramon Calvo (who heads the service for the entire IXO group of restaurants, which Mugaritz is part of) and chef-owner Andoni Aduriz. They adopted me as family. <3 (Photo courtesy of Cheryl Tiu)

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