The Best Restaurants in the Basque Country, Spain, According to a Michelin-Starred Chef

In the Basque Country, the pandemic has reminded us how much food forms the fabric of local life. Eating well is a priority throughout ...

In the Basque Country, the pandemic has reminded us how much food forms the fabric of local life. Eating well is a priority throughout the autonomous community of northern Spain, and seems, for some local chefs, even more so now.

The region is an endless party. Culinary destinations are available to you beyond the many Michelin-starred restaurants. You’ll find pintxo bars littered with waxy paper napkins and people munching on savory two-bite snacks, like croquetas or Spanish tortillas, on a slice of bread and skewered with a toothpick; and sidrerías (cider bars) nestled in the verdant mountains, with patrons slicing into a forearm-sized fire-grilled steak while sipping sparkling natural cider.

“Our culture is based on food,” said Álvaro Garrido, chef and owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant. Mine, a restaurant in the La Vieja district of Bilbao. “Geographically we are very lucky,” he said, with access to fresh seafood from the Cantabrian Sea, high-quality produce from small family farms, and meat and dairy from livestock. raised in lush green pastures. The result is a strong culinary heritage that even the most discerning chefs hold sacred – and, of course, attracts food worshipers from around the world.

Mr. Garrido and his partner, Lara Martín, who runs Mina’s dining room, earned their first Michelin star in 2013 and have since garnered a large following. On rare days off, when Mr. Garrido is not in the kitchen with the “warriors” of Mina, as he calls his staff, the Bilbao native visits vendors or enjoys a meal at a nearby restaurant prepared by one of his peers.

I interviewed Mr. Garrido for the first time in December 2019, to tap into his extensive restaurant knowledge and learn about some of his favorite places in the Basque Country. (I worked as a kitchen intern at Mina for about six weeks in 2014.) Soon after, the pandemic brought the hospitality industry to a standstill. Restaurants across Spain have been forced to close by government mandate, some have never reopened.

But some of the places on Mr. Garrido’s list have managed to quickly pivot their businesses. Zarate, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bilbao known for its pristine seafood, has transformed a slice of its street-facing dining room into a seafood counter with takeout. Others waited until outdoor dining was approved and doubled their terrace service. Due to the largely outgoing and deeply food-centric culture, local customers were eager to return.

Then there was that quintessentially Basque spirit of resilience, which has helped restaurants navigate through some of the pandemic’s darkest times – locals are no strangers to persevering in the face of adversity. Amaia Garcia de Albizu, the manager of Arrea! and sister of the chef-owner Edorta Lamo, told me: “when the crisis arrived, it reminded us of our grandparents during the Spanish Civil War”. Aware of the hardships of their ancestors, they did their best to persevere and maintain a sense of gratitude.

Ultimately, all of the restaurants on Mr. Garrido’s list made it through the pandemic. The National Tourism Industry Association, Excelturpredicted in a January report that Spain’s tourism gross domestic product could reach around 88% of its pre-pandemic levels in 2022 (135 billion euros, or around $138 billion) – that’s around 47 billion above from 2021, although this is still 19 billion euros less than around 155 billion from 2019. With the return of tourism, the region has come back to life and the mood among many restaurateurs is cautiously optimistic.

Here, Mr. Garrido shares five restaurants that should be on your radar the next time you visit the Basque Country.

“Arrea! is in Kanpezu, a small town in the middle of the mountains,” Garrido said. Chef Edorta Lamo made a name for himself at A Fuego Negro, the restaurant in San Sebastián where he reinvented the classic pintxo. (Unfortunately, A Fuegro Nuegro closed during the pandemic after 14 years.) For Arrea!, Mr. Lamo returned to his family roots in Kanpezu (or Campezo in Spanish) to pioneer a dining style that cannot be described only as “mountain cuisine”. ”

“They cook with produce from the mountains – wild herbs and produce that the chef and his team harvest themselves,” Garrido said. The Arrea! The team also works with local honey, truffles, rare native plants and various types of game.

The different areas of the restaurant each offer their own style of dining. You can sit down at the bar with a wild boar burger or in the dining room, order game “camouflaged” by root vegetables. Although customers must book at least 24 hours in advance to experience the evening tasting menu (95 euros or $97), lunchtime may be the best bet to experience Mr. Lamo’s vision at a relative price – the menu del dia will set you back just 20 euros, and a more extensive lunchtime menu is available for 40.

Subida al fronton, 46, 01110 Santikurutze Kanpezu, Alava, Spain

In the small town of Amorebieta-Etxano, about 20 minutes from Bilbao, you’ll find one of the Basque Country’s best-kept secrets: Jauregibarria, the restaurant where chef Beñat Ormaetxea is quietly advancing Basque cuisine from before keep. “Beñat prepares traditional plates with modern touches, working with local produce like mushrooms, bacalao and teardrop peas,” Garrido said. These are only available for a few weeks a year.

In a restored farmhouse overlooking the surrounding botanical park of the same name, Jauregibarria, you’ll find a menu where classic Basque ingredients are juxtaposed with innovative techniques and creative flavors – like roast squid, or begihaundi, which translates to ” big eyes” in Euskera, the local language, with a form of crispy ink; or Iberian Bellota pork cheeks simmered in Rioja red wine. Tasting menus start at 45 euros for five courses.

Chef Ormaetxea said local clientele kept the pace of business going during the pandemic, even when tourism had all but stopped. “We are close to three major industrial centers, so business people come to dine regularly,” he said, adding that the temporary closures made people hungrier than ever to dine out. “It’s like when someone forbids something, it makes you want it even more.”

In the latest Michelin Guide for Spain and Portugal, Jauregibarria has been included as a recommended restaurant. “Sooner or later they will give it a Michelin star,” Mr. Garrido said.

Barrio Bideaur, 4, 48340 Amorebieta-Etxano, Spain

You probably know txakoli as the refreshing, barely sparkling, typically Basque white wine. It is also the name of the rural houses where Basques historically gathered to eat a simple meal, such as eggs with chorizo, and share a jug of wine. Today, some restaurants still bear the designation “txakoli,” a nod to the traditional comfort foods and warm hospitality they offer.

Nestled in the hills above Bilbao, “just a few miles from where I grew up”, Mr Garrido said, Txakoli Simón is a tried local favourite. “Here you eat simple, traditional dishes, like fried eggs with red peppers, blood morcilla and excellent quality T-bone steak.” Their steak, or txuleta, comes from Galician cattle and is considered by some to be the best in Bilbao – no small feat for a region that prides itself on its grilling culture.

General Manager Oscar García told me that because Txakoli Simón is primarily an “asador”, or grill restaurant, it made no sense for them to go into takeout when restaurants had to close. . (Txakoli Simón’s specialty steak, txuleta, is 49 euros per person.) But as soon as they opened, they were in high demand. Their clientele, about 85% local, García said, took advantage of the restaurant’s spacious outdoor seating areas surrounded by nature. Now, Mr. García said, business is back to normal.

Camino San Roque, 89, 48015 Bilbao, Spain

“Their tasting menu will teach you more about the Cantabrian Sea,” Garrido said of the Michelin-starred Zarate in the heart of Bilbao. The chef, Sergio Ortiz de Zarate, got his start working with seafood in Lekeitio, a small fishing village on the Cantabrian coast where Zarate finds much of its menu today. Although you can order traditional Basque dishes like kokotxos (the fleshy lower part of the hake jaw) on the menu of its eponymous restaurant, the 11-course tasting menu is a real underwater expedition. A meal can start with a pair of scintillating anchovies, continue with a tangle of garlicky eels, and end many courses later with perfectly executed hake with pil pil. sauce, a regional favorite made with olive oil, garlic and guindilla pepper.

While the pandemic-era seafood counter, La Lonja de Zarate, has since closed, the dining room is in full swing. Whether you rush for a tasting menu (105 euros for 11 courses) or choose your own adventure (starters from 25 euros), Chef Zarate insists on staying true to each carefully selected product, enhancing rather than improving masking its essence.

Licensed Poza, 65, 48013, Bilbao, Spain

“Zuberoa is one of the most famous restaurants in all of the Basque country,” Mr. Garrido said, using the Basque word for Basque Country. In a 600-year-old Basque farmhouse in the village of Oiartzun, near San Sebastian, chef Hilario Arbelaitz prepares elegant versions of traditional Basque cuisine. The family-run restaurant, which holds a Michelin star, had no trouble getting diners back out the door once pandemic restrictions eased. “Our restaurant is known for the number of years we have operated. We are a restaurant passed down from generation to generation,” said pastry chef Jose Marí Arbelaitz.

“This is the restaurant where chefs go to sample iconic local dishes, like foie with chickpea cream and their legendary mashed potatoes,” Garrido said. He also notes that their game dishes, such as venison or roast pigeon with liver toast, are not to be missed. (Starters start at 38.50 euros. The nine-course tasting menu costs 159.50 euros.)

Araneder Bidea, 20180 Gipuzkoa, Spain

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The Best Restaurants in the Basque Country, Spain, According to a Michelin-Starred Chef
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