The best things we ate on a foodie tour of the Basque Country
Time Out London’s Food and Drink Editor takes a gastronomic tour through San Sebastián, Bilbao and Rioja
Photograph: Azurmendi Restaurant
The Basque people are a rightly proud bunch. Tucked away in the Bay of Biscay, and scooping up the best bits of northern Spain and southern France, the region is home to some of the finest food in Europe as well as some gobsmacking scenery. Enjoy misty, moody mountains and high quality local ingredients cooked to perfection by passionate chefs? Then the Basque Country is hollering your name.
We recently took on the arduous task of visiting the Spanish Southern Basque region to eat our way around the hallowed cities of San Sebastián and Bilbao, with a little trip south to Rioja country as well, where we ate the most sensational lamb that’s ever passed our lips. Looking to go on your own culinary tour of the region? This is how it’s done.
Where we ate in the Basque Country
Photograph: Azurmendi Restaurant
A very fine feast
We began in Bilbao, with a lunch experience so theatrical you could put it on a West End stage and have queues down Shaftesbury Avenue for at least a decade. Chef Eneko Atxa’s three-star Michelin restaurant Azurmendi is a four-hour long piece of performance art that celebrates Basque culture and ingredients (fish, mainly), with 20-odd courses, and a touch of alchemy regarding a particular pressed mussel dish. Any dinner plans were jettisoned in favour of a pleasantly comforting food coma. A couple of days later we swung by Atxa’s new rooftop restaurant NKO, which is perched atop the city’s Radisson Collection Hotel and serves Japanese Basque fusion dishes. We scoffed oxtail bao in farmhouse milk bread and edamame with espelette pepper as well as red mullet, Basque cider and lime nigiri.
A pintxos crawl
Anthony Bourdain visited San Sebastián in a 2017 episode of Parts Unknown and had a joyful time – understandable considering he also popped into the Michelin-minted steak house Etxebarri in the Basque foothills. With quite enough fine dining under our belts, we head to the Bourdain-approved Ganbara for a rainy afternoon pintxos, where the drool of the late Bourdain and a stream of celebrated local chefs is still fresh on the tiles. Think of pintxos as the platonic ideal of bar snacks – savoury, salty and in possession of alchemical stomach-lining properties. They’re available at every turn in San Sebastián’s atmospheric and car-free Old Town, and are ideal for soaking up toothsome local cider and the young and perky txakoli white wine that seems to be as omnipresent here as Vichy Catalan water. Be warned, they’re not as bite-size as you might think – unless you go for the original Gilda, a treat named after the 1946 Rita Hayworth movie and made up of olives, guindilla peppers and salted anchovies on a toothpick.
At Ganbara we scoff piping hot crab tartlets, and mushrooms smooshed with egg yolk, as well as a stunning and sizable monkfish, langoustine and potato creation – the latest pintxo development from the mother and daughter team who run the bar. At the nearby Mendaur we devour a soup-like egg en cocotte with cheese and truffle and squid served three ways, making sure to save enough space for the sensational baked basque cheesecake at La Vina. A serious San Sebastián draw since 1959, there’s barely room to stand but we still manage to devour the cream-like pudding with an espresso. A lovely glass of sweet wine is also an option, but – depending on your constitution – you might already be rat-arsed, and it’s still only 2pm. The streets literally run with booze in San Sebastián. On our visit a cider festival is happening in Konstituzio Plaza, the town’s old bull ring, and the done thing is to chuck whatever’s left in your glass over your shoulder on the ground if you don’t manage to down it in one. The whole thing is over and done in time for a siesta, seemingly so participants can be ready to go again in a few hours. Getting drunk twice a day? Who are we to go against the trend?
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Red, red wine
Next, we head south to La Rioja and the pretty town of Haro, which every June holds the heroic Batalla Del Vino De Haro. Less a festival and more an extremely messy booze battle, nobody leaves this MMA of drinking without getting drenched head to toe in red wine. For the rest of the year, things are a little more restrained. You visit one of the many caves – we pop into Roda and its nineteenth-century cellar for a tasting – but the jewel in Haro’s tipsy crown is the charming Casa Terete. Founded in 1877 and now six generations deep, the family who run the restaurant have been roasting lamb in the same flawless, simple way since they opened. The result is succulent, salty chops; perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted. A few years back they added a vegetarian dish to the menu, an incredible and magnificently murky stew of battered and deep-fried courgette flowers. Like Mary Poppins’ handbag, there’s also a 400-year-old wine cave attached to the restaurant where they make their own house reserve wine. Getting drunk twice in one day – again? In Basque Country, it’s almost impossible not to.
Leonie Cooper travelled to the Basque Country on a press trip and stayed at the Radisson Collection Hotel, Gran Via Bilbao. Our reviews and recommendations have been editorially independent since 1968. For more, see our editorial guidelines.