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Basque in the glory of the modern Spanish kitchen

| Sunday, March 22, 2009

Culinary stars — and Michelin stars — shine brightly in the Basque region of northeastern Spain.

Here, where the language to the uninitiated seems a difficult-to-pronounce alphabet soup of K's, X's and Z's, world-class restaurants and their passionate chef-owners cluster in and around the beautiful town of San Sebastian -- Donostia to the natives. This city beside the shell-shaped bay called La Concha -- with its broad avenues, sandy beaches and Belle Epoque ambience -- holds more Michelin stars per capita than Paris. More, in fact, than any other place on the planet.

Curiously, Basque chefs seem almost genetically predisposed to experimental, future-forward kitchens. San Sebastian claims undisputed title as the birthplace of "La Nueva Cocina Vasca," or "New Basque Kitchen." It is Mecca to epicureans seeking gastronomic adventure. Add the region's amazing access to the finest raw ingredients, and dining here heralds a deliciously exuberant experience.

Restaurant Arzak

Born into an established restaurant family, 66-year-old Juan Mari Arzak reigns as founder of modern Basque cuisine.

His father died when Arzak was only 9 years old, so he literally was raised helping his mother in the restaurant kitchen. He then completed formal culinary training and assumed leadership of the business at the moment of his region's great gustatory liberation. His sophisticated, lightened style embraces tradition coupled with continuing experimentation.

In 1987, his daughter, chef Elena Arzak Espina, joined the effort, supporting significant modernization and her father's philosophy of vanguard improvisation. Fine-dining enthusiasts from around the world flock to this iconic restaurant -- ranked No. 8 in the highly respected 2008 Restaurant Magazine/San Pellegrino World's Best 50. It is a favorite dining destination for Spain's royal family.

"I am known worldwide," says Juan Mari, "but I only feel as a cook. With my daughter and companions, we work as a team. I don't like the word 'famous.' When I am given prizes, I look at the guy standing next to me, thinking they are talking about him."

Ever-changing inventiveness is an Arzak constant. Three floors above the bustling kitchen is the flavor bank/spice room, stacked floor to ceiling with thousands of products and ingredients. Next door, a small test kitchen percolates with fresh ideas. Noted: "lobster with a seaweed crust and coriander," "tuna and a flowerbed" and "bronze-colored monkfish." Another night, it's "meat on a hoar-frost of rice" and "a heavenly dessert arrangement."

While Elena's strong presence assures that Arzak's future will be as brilliant as its past, her father shows no inclination to retire any time soon.

"I like the kitchen," he says. "I would like to finish the rest of my life here. It's the passion and the adrenaline to create that doesn't quit."

Mugaritz

At Mugaritz, in the countryside outside San Sebastian, Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, 37, offers his provocative and poetic style of modern Basque cuisine.

Although he attended culinary school almost by accident, he developed there a passion for cooking, choosing it as his vehicle for artistic expression. After a first job in a humble but cook-driven pizzeria, he expanded his experience working in important, modern Spanish kitchens -- including Arzak, Berasategui and El Bulli. At age 26, he took charge of Mugaritz. At 27, he achieved the first of two Michelin stars. In 2008, the restaurant vaulted to No. 4 on the 2008 World's Best 50 list, pushing The French Laundry down a place in the ranking.

Aduriz's philosophy and style resist concise definition. He relies on immaculate technique, yet he says, "technique can be a trap." He supports the supremacy of "soul," but his research borders on the erudite: What other chef would work with a university hospital liver transplant center to study the cell structures of duck liver• He coined the term "technomotion," technology fused with emotion, to explain his approach to engaging both palate and mind.

Agricultural artifacts and whimsical contemporary art punctuate Mugaritz's rustic, glass-wrapped dining room. The bar, in a separate outbuilding, is a cozy spot to start or end a meal. Outside, gardens and fields support the kitchen's fixation on vegetables, greens and herbs. A 300-year-old tree, garizza, the restaurant's logo, marks the border between Aduriz's two worlds -- "tradition and modernity, urban and rural, individual and collective, local and universal."

Menu options change kaleidoscopically -- vegetable carpaccio, with sweet-and-sour dressing, Idiazabal cheese chippings and vegetable splinters; heart of baby leeks, roasted over vine cuttings, bathed in a mollusk-infused stock, with crushed citrus; roasted milk-fed veal, perfumed with vine cutting embers and fragments of thyme, cinders, salt and crisp radishes.

But Aduriz retains one plate as a signature: Rock Potatoes -- small, boiled spuds, coated with a mixture of edible white clay and lactose, dried at low heat, then served in a bowl among look-alike real hot stones.

"It's important to generate surprise," he says. "And with something as simple as a humble potato, we create a very good result from both the technical and the poetic prospective."

Restaurant Martin Berasategui

Chef Martin Berasategui, 49, entered the kitchen of his family's popular restaurant at age 15. When he was 17, his father died, leaving operational responsibility to his mother, his aunt and him.

"I grew up in the restaurant," he says. "I have the kitchen in my blood. We worked six days a week, and I would use my day off as a day to learn -- bakery, charcuterie, new cuisine."

Berasategui stays in the forefront of experimental culinary techniques and is an accomplished pastry chef. His namesake restaurant holds three Michelin stars, as well as membership in Relais & Chateaux. While located in the nondescript residential suburb of Lasarte, the restaurant complex, custom built on land owned by his wife's family, is luxurious, with a broad terrace overlooking gardens and a rolling green countryside.

Berasategui's strictly seasonal dishes are daringly complex in technique. The multi-course tasting menu reveals unexpected depth of flavors and beautiful platings. Service can be hovering and solemn, and some dishes can be over-wrought. But there is no denying the passion of the kitchen.

"I propose that you allow me to seduce you in small mouthfuls," writes Berasategui in the introduction to his degustation menu. And he does, through at least 15 two-bite courses -- lightly smoked cod with a powder of hazelnuts, coffee and vanilla; mille-feuille of smoked eel, foie gras, spring onions and green apple; farm egg with beetroot and liquid herb salad; Araiz's pigeon with fresh pasta; cold essence of basil, with lime sherbet, juniper ice shavings and raw almonds.

Perhaps his most astonishing creation is the signature roasted red mullet, with edible crystallized scales standing upright. The fillet rests on a bed of bonito and monkfish tartare. Cucumber gelee highlights the spiky scales and the plate, along with a sauce of mussel broth and liquid black olive bubbles.

Berasategui imbues dishes with his exuberance. "Life is to enjoy," he says. "Live every second of every day to the fullest."

And more

These selected restaurants hardly exhaust dining opportunities in San Sebastian. Ten Michelin-starred establishments are in or near the city. Definitely to be noted: Pedro Subijana of Akelarre; Hilario Arbelaitz at Zuberoa; and Victor Arguinzoniz, Asador Extebarri, a renowned grill master who makes his own charcoal, designed his grill and invented a special grill pan.

And if you run short of stamina for high-end restaurant tastings, the place is awash with tapas bars -- here called pintxos. Each has one or two specialties -- mushrooms, anchovies, cod with onions, soup. The idea is to gather a small group of friends, map out 10 to 15 different bars and roam to sample each with a drink of wine, beer or hard cider.

But that's another story.

On the way

Don't miss a stop in the Rioja, Spain's best-known wine region.

At hotel/restaurant Echaurren, in the small town of Excaray, chef Francis Paniego has taken over most of the culinary duties from his mother, Marisa Sanchez, a fourth-generation female cook. But the restaurant still offers two menus -- his mother's award-winning traditional Basque and his avant-garde New Basque-style menu. Two separate dining rooms share a single kitchen, and, by special request, diners can sample dishes from both menus.

Trained in Madrid and apprenticed to the best modern chefs -- including Arzak, Berasategui and Ferran Adria, Paniego garnered the first Michelin star for any restaurant in the Rioja. He's also chef at the Frank Gehry-designed Hotel Marques de Riscal, in Elciego.

Many wineries spread throughout the region, but the best ones cluster in and around Haro. Here, the giant, well-respected Bodega Muga dominates. Two smaller gems recommended: Bodega Roda, last in a row of bodegas just outside Haro; and Valenciso, the culmination of a 10-year dream for partners Luis Valentin and Carmen Enciso.

The people

Anthropologists disagree about the origins of the unique Basque culture. Where did these people come from• What are the linguistic roots of their tongue-twisting language, Euskara•

Questions of ancestry remain shrouded in mystery, but a dramatic difference clearly exists between this ethnic group and the rest of the Spanish people. A distinct, intensely felt Basque identity vibrantly expresses itself in many ways -- including the clear, bright flavors of their robust cuisine.

The Basques are widely considered to be Spain's best cooks. They enthusiastically support gastronomical societies, whose members -- until recently all male -- gather to cook for each other's pleasure. Their early seafaring population invented salt cod and introduced the Old World to New World products such as corn, potatoes, chocolates and chiles. Each January, San Sebastian hosts the huge Tamborrada Parade, in which marchers carry giant forks and spoons instead of guns.

Since the 11th century, Basques have been explorers, fishermen, shepherds and farmers. Straddling both sea and mountains, balanced between northern Spain and southern France, the region has access to the finest raw ingredients -- fish, shellfish, meat, cheese, wines, apple cider, produce, fruit. And generations of food lovers continue to perfect and pass down meticulous techniques.

The place

Unlike many Spanish cities packed with remains of Roman, Moorish and the great Spanish empire of the 15th and 16th centuries, San Sebastian repeatedly burned to the ground -- most recently in the 1813 Iberian campaign of the Napoleonic Wars.

Fortunately, Queen Maria Christina chose the magnificent beach, La Concha, as a summer retreat, and the royal court of Spain took up residence there. Considerable royal patronage and a glorious natural setting catapulted the town into an international playground for the rich, famous and fashionable.

What you see today is a mid-19th-century marvel of magnificent public buildings and grand hotels reminiscent of great Victorian British cities like London, Leeds and Manchester. Add to that today's attraction of culinary tourism, and, as www.sansebastianspain.info notes, the "Belle Epoque" lives on.

The new Spanish table

The Spanish food revolution began in the 1970s in San Sebastian, Spain's epicurean capital.

Historically, seafaring Basques always had been exposed to and receptive of different cultures, flavors and ingredients -- easily integrating new elements into their cuisine. But the espousal of nouvelle cuisine by established French chefs -- especially Paul Bocuse -- at just the right moment unleashed a sense of freedom and inquiry that appealed immensely to young Spanish chefs.

Juan Marie Arzak responded with enthusiasm to the possibilities of modernizing Basque cuisine. He eschewed flour, fat and cream, producing lighter, fresher and more seasonal dishes. San Sebastian became a hot bed of experimentation. Chefs collaborated with scientists and each other, pursued futuristic techniques and sought provocative flavor combinations. But they never abandoned their commitment to fresh, premium, local ingredients -- essentially the heart of Basque cooking.

So the New Basque kitchen combines a cuisine of tradition with a cuisine of change. It evolved through the '80s, then exploded in the '90s with the advent of Ferran Adria at El Bulli. Since this defining moment, Spain's image has advanced throughout the world, giving the country an enviable cultural image and increased dollars in food tourism.

If you go

Many international airlines serve Madrid Barajas Airport, including US Airways nonstop from Philadelphia.

Rent a car and head for the Basque region with a stop in the Rioja. Haro is about a three-hour drive, most of the way on excellent Autoroute, del Norte, A1. Accommodation options include Echaurren itself with old fashioned but large and comfortable rooms, the glorious Hotel at Marques de Riscal and Hotel Los Agustinos in Haro, formerly a convent.

Continuing on to San Sebastian, rejoin the A1 (also numbered AP1) not far north of Haro, an excellent road most of the way, but with many twists and turns through the mountains over the last 50 kilometers.

In San Sebastian, the (Sheraton) Hotel Maria Christina is the "grand dame" of hotels, close to the city center and next to the river Urumea, which bisects the city.

For a quieter but still luxurious stay, book at the Hotel Villasoro, also within walking distance of the city center and a five-minute stroll to Arzak.

Avoid the return drive to Madrid by taking a flight from San Sebastian -- or Bilbao, the larger airport, about 120 kilometers to the west, offering more frequent flights to more destinations, plus a tempting visit to the arresting, Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum.

Web sites

www.sansebastianspain.info

www.arzak.es

www.mugaritz.com

www.martinberasategui.com

www.roda.es

www.valenciso.com

www.villasoro.com

www.hotellosagustinos.com

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