Sunday, October 21, 2012

What’s the Best Meal You’ve Ever Had?

Have you ever been asked “what’s the best meal you’ve ever had?” And, did an answer come to mind immediately, or did you have to think about it? We spent a week in Spain with some friends and ate many, very delicious things. There were pintxos that I’ll never forget like the foie gras with cranberry from Cafe Bar Bilbao; the Gildas that appeared everywhere which are made with a guindilla chile and an olive with an anchovy fillet draped between them, all skewered on a pick; and the little, sandwich-like pintxo at Bar Martinez made up of squares of toasted bread layered with tuna, mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato salad, and topped with a shrimp. The wedges of tortilla seen wherever pintxos were offered made simply with eggs, potatoes and onion, although there were options with added mushrooms or chorizo as well, were so, so good. There were croissants from Galparsoro bakery, cheeses like Idiazabal and Cabrales made nearby and sold at the local market, and fresh mushroom varieties that I never see at home. And, the food was always accompanied by a lovely, local wine like Txakoli, Rioja, or Albarino. During this week of incredible food, there were two meals that I have to describe in more detail. One of them has become my answer to the above question, and when asked, I won’t need to think about it.

I’ve posted a few more photos from our trip on my Facebook page. First, we spent a day in Bilbao, and we visited that beautiful museum that I’ve read about since before it was even built.

Then, we drove to San Sebastian where we spent a week in an apartment on Paseo de Ramon Maria Lili. It was situated right between the two bridges that cross the River Urumea as it empties into the Bay of Biscay. It was an easy walk to the Parte Vieja, La Concha beach, and bars, cafes, shops, and markets.

The first meal I want to talk about was lunch at Asador Etxebarri in Atxondo-Bizkaia which is about an hour away from San Sebastian by car. Other than the use of grills, wood ovens, and specifically chosen wood for cooking at Etxebarri, the other thing I repeatedly read about this restaurant was that everyone gets lost on their way there. We did too. Our little detour only made us 20 minutes late, and we were still greeted warmly. The restaurant is in an historic building with a backdrop of mountains and a winding country road. The bar is on the first floor with the dining room above.

We tasted several things since I ordered some dishes a la carte, and everyone else ordered the lunch tasting menu. Surprisingly, the flavor of smoke wasn’t evident in every dish. I started with a very generous serving of decadent goose liver terrine served with thinly sliced pieces of toasted cornbread and a pear sauce. There were prawns that were perfectly cooked over wood fire, and those did offer a subtle hint of smoke that somehow didn’t overwhelm the flavor of the prawns. They were perfectly, just cooked through. I loved the lobster salad which was simpler in execution that I thought it might be, but the flavors were outstanding. The vegetable course was a smoky eggplant puree topped with porcini caps. One of the favorite items we tasted was the hake with leeks. Some of the things I didn’t manage to photograph were grilled bread topped with a grilled anchovy that made us want to raid the kitchen to demand more, and the steak that was the defining dish of cooking over a wood fire. Desserts included a delicious ice cream made with reduced cream and served with “red fruits” as it was explained on the menu, and a white chocolate souffle that had a toasty, crispy surface that contrasted nicely with the sweet, melted interior. This was a leisurely, long lunch, but the service felt slow and the flow of flavors from one course to the next got lost in the waiting. Although we loved everything we tasted, we can’t describe the experience without some quibbling.

A couple of days later, we visited Arzak, listed as the eighth best restaurant in the world, for dinner. I didn’t bring my camera for this meal. I just wanted to enjoy it without documenting each bite at the same time. The photos shown here were provided by Arzak. We took a taxi, and as the car stopped in front of the restaurant, the front door opened and we were welcomed and shown inside. Our umbrellas were taken and stored for us, and we were immediately shown to our comfortable table.

The sommelier guided us through the wine list and helped us choose a couple of very nice wines from nearby regions. Then, without further ado, we were each poured a glass of the house Txakoli, which was fantastic, to go with a parade of amuse-bouches. There were long picks holding shrimp wrapped in crunchy kataifi that projected off a vertical support; an unbelievably good corn soup with morcilla; an upside-down crushed Schweppes can that served as the plate for a tiny, chorizo mousse-filled, delicate pastry called “Chorizo with Tonic;” and there were sardines with strawberry which was an uncommonly good combination. I think I’m forgetting one or two other amuse-bouches. I was too delighted to keep track of them all.

We all chose the dinner tasting menu, and there were options for all but one course. I was thrilled to be able to choose dishes with no red meat for the entire meal. The first course, shown in the top photo of this post and above, was a crispy cone made of manioc and filled with a foie gras mousse with huitlacoche. We were instructed to use our spoons to pick up the cones and keep the filling inside and then to bite into them. They were rich, delicious, lovely things, and Kurt suggested I learn to make them and serve them for dinner at home every Tuesday. I’d love to. The meal progressed with perfect timing and impeccable service. One course included a “dusted” sous vide egg with shrimp powder and a plump, little mussel. There was a tapioca salad with citrus and a course of white tuna with prickly pear and figs. I ordered the pigeon which was served with tender slices of breast meat, on which the skin had been crisped, sitting on a purple “anthocyanin” sauce topped with long pieces of chives. The pigeon legs were served on a separate, little plate with hibiscus pudding. Every single flavor complemented the others, and I’ve never been so happy with a course of fowl.

There were two desserts per person, and the males received different desserts than the females did. Each was a plate made up of components with a dish of a ice cream or sorbet on the side. After a chocolate column filled with a fruity pastry cream, toasted garlic slices, and edible flowers held in place with tiny dots of more pastry cream among other little chocolate confections on the dessert plate, my palate was cleansed by a basil sorbet. My next dessert was served on a clear, glass, rectangular plate that was set on top of a same-sized rectangle of colorful art. There were more little components across the plate including a bright, red, jellied ladybug that burst with a creme fraiche-like filling. The passionfruit and banana sorbet with that dessert course was fantastic. Last, our check came with a silver platter of chocolates molded into shapes of nuts and bolts.

Both Elena and Juan Mari Arzak came out to talk with us at different points in the meal. They were both extremely friendly and kind. As we were leaving, the chefs were saying goodbye to diners and happily taking photos with groups. The two of them were so approachable and sweet, we forgot for a moment what incredible talents they both are in the culinary world. Before we stepped out the door that was being held open for us, our umbrellas were returned as we were thanked and told buenas noches. And, that, undoubtedly, was the best meal I’ve ever had.


  1. What a fantastic trip! You must have had a wonderful time. Thanks for describing your meals in so much detail - I felt as if I was right there. I'm not actually sure how I'd answer the question about what's the best meal I've ever had. I'm usually hungry, so the honest answer is really the next one; but of course that doesn't answer the true intent of the question. Really excellent post - thanks so much.

  2. A very difficult question to answer... What a fabulous meal! Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.



  3. So jealous of your trip! Spain has long been on my list of dream destinations. Glad you got to experience your best meal ever too!

  4. Remarkable. So happy to read about your experiences.
    Don't think I could have left my camera behind. Kudos to you.
    Great writing Lisa...

  5. What a great holiday. I love all your images and that restaurant looks gorgeous. How strange that everyone gets lost getting there. At least you found your way there fairly quickly xx

  6. Thank you for sharing such an incredible holiday experience my friend :)

    Choc Chip Uru

  7. That's a difficult question to answer, Lisa. I don't think I could choose a favorite meal.
    It was great fun when our 50 Women Game Changer group did Elena Arzak. I would give anything to have a meal there!

  8. I don't think I could narrow it down to one, but the two that came to mind the quickest were restaurant experiences where great atmosphere was coupled with marvelous food. Nick's Italian Cafe in McMinneville, Oregon and Gallitoire's restaurant in New Orleans. And then throw in a couple of meals I've prepared and I'd could at least have a top 5. Your trip looks fantastic. And the descriptions of your meals .... well thanks for taking the time to write it up. WOW. And to be able to visit the 8th best restaurant in the world. What a treat.

  9. I have had so many great meals.....however, one of my most memorable and favorites was in a little boucherie in Montreal! We sat down to the most amazing duck rillette sandwiches on baguettes wrapped in paper. I was moaning after each bite.

    Your Spain trip looks wonderful!!!!

  10. That area of Spain is high on my travel bucket list. I'm bookmarking this post for future reference. Great job on posting ... and thanks!

  11. Oh Lisa, what an intoxicating post! I am happy you had a great trip with food experiences that will forever remain etched in your memory!

  12. Lisa, this was an OUTSTANDING POST! What a great gastronomic experience, and I'm thrilled that you shared it with us!

    I've Elena and Juan Mari on TV a couple of times, I think on a show with Anthony Bourdain, maybe - indeed, your meal was a once in a lifetime deal! I lived vicariously through it all, the cone made of manioc is intriguing, I wish I could taste it some day...

    as to my best meal, I think I would have to pick our lunch (tasting menu) on Taillevent, which I blogged about a couple of years ago. It was outstanding!

    1. Ooops, I meant to write "I've seen Elena and Juan..."


  13. Lovely shots- looks like you had a great trip! Like everyone else, I'd have a hard time picking just one meal. I find that it's difficult for any experience to be the best on all fronts- i.e. quality of meal, ambiance, and service. I've had a few meals that were really terrific foodwise but the service was lacking. Or conversely, I've had meals where the ambiance was wonderful, the service agreeable, and the food nothing spectacular. But hey, I'm picky :-) I have to say that John Besh's August was pretty awesome on all fronts. And Chez Panisse wasn't too shabby. Beast in Portland was amazing but the communal seating was a buzz kill for me. Book Bindery in Seattle had amazing service and good food. On a really good night, Uchi and Uchiko also fit the bill although I've also been in when one of the elements was off, as well.

  14. amazing photos Lisa! i don't know if i can choose the best, but one of my most memorable meals was actually very close to here - it was in Biarritz, it was a simple rotisserie chicken place but right on the plage. my aunt and uncle took me and i remember we ate the juiciest chicken i've ever had, delicious tarte tatin for dessert and my first ever kir royale. i will never forget that meal. great post!

  15. Sounds like fabulous trip and what a lovely meal!

  16. I am officially SO jealous of your trip. It looks amazingly delicious!

  17. I am so jelous! What an amazing recollection. The pictures are all beautiful. My favourite has to be the two waitresses. Talk about service!


    How wonderful! It all looks fantastic! Thanks for taking u s along!

  19. What an amazing trip! I'm glad the meal at Arzak was so fabulous and lived up to your expectations :)

  20. I loved my food when I visited Spain early last year, and your trip sounds equally amazing. I'd be totally jealous if I knew I was not going back in a few months. Thanks for the ideas!


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