“Favorite restaurant” is a nonexistent phrase in my world. These two words have appeared in countless questions which I have been asked in the five years since I became the blind food critic: I.E. ethnicity like Italian food, location such as Brooklyn, or regarding specific such as best for large groups. This issue has particularly been on my mind since I returned from the amazing Basque Country, and during my many hours of travel back to New York City I had a revelation. I finally have an answer for my favorite restaurant in San Sebastian and its name is Zuberoa!
Araneder Bidea, Barrio Iturriotz
OIARTZUN (in the Basque country!)
4.75 stars out of 5 stars
Many foodies and critics have noted that San Sebastian, a picturesque town of 200,000 people in the Basque Country, has a disproportionately large amount of Michelin stars; 16 to be exact. Restaurants can receive up to 3 stars, however generally more stars signifies cuisine that is more creative. Therefore, since I am a selective diner, I defined my research to the 1 star establishments. (Side note: I actually did investigate some of the 2 and 3 starred ones, but this only served to confirm my predictions about creativity.)
After a great deal of research involving reading numerous websites and menus in various languages and an ongoing exchange with a few, I finally decided to visit Zuberoa. I quickly learned that history plays an important role in the dining experience here. Zuberoa is located in the classic Basque village of OIARTZUN, which is approximately 20-30 minutes from San Sebastian. The restaurant itself is a converted farmhouse from the 15th century, and the sense of history was simply palpable from my first step into the foyer.
I elected to start this incredible dining experience with a first course of Crispy Norway lobster with smoked bacon salad and green asparagus! My first reaction was that a variety of exquisite tastes were simply exploding off of my plate. As a consequence, I discovered an unlikely star which emerged in the form of fresh, smoky, crispy chunks of bacon. The sparse pieces of crisp lobster and a couple of slices of asparagus exuded such a level of flavor to the extent that any Michelin starred restaurants in the world would be proud to feature them in their amazing dish. As with many fine dining restaurants, it is a matter of quality trumping quantity. Keeping this in mind, my taste buds found Zuberoa’s appetizer to be particularly pleasing.
It is nearly impossible to visit the Basque Country without ordering their superbly fresh fish several times. Therefore, based on an especially large menu, I selected an entree of roasted sea bass cooked in a red wine sauce, served with artichokes and grilled mini-leeks. For the record, I made one small substitution by asking for a local favorite, mushrooms, instead of artichokes. I could sense by the aroma of this dish that it had the potential for foodie greatness: the wine sauce smelled wonderful, with the scent of fresh vegetables and top quality fish. My first bite confirmed my suspicions: the bass was magnificently prepared, with bits of impossibly crispy skin and one of the best wine sauces I have ever tasted. Another amazing discovery was Zuberoa’s grilled mini leaks, which I can most closely estimate as having the texture of asparagus and flavor of onions. As a bonus, this year I reaffirmed my love of Basque mushrooms, and Zuberoa made the most of the available varieties. I believe Zuberoa expertly cooked every element on my plate, and this entree was definitely one of the best I have tasted in San Sebastian and even beyond!
For dessert, I chose one of my favorite chocolate creations. In the United States, it can be called lava or molten chocolate cake, but on many restaurant menus in the Basque Country, the name is simply coulant. An ideal version consists of a warm or hot cake, which does not need to be particularly tall or wide, but which must contain liquid chocolate on the inside. (As a side note, temperature makes all the difference; a few days earlier, I was unfortunately served an ice-cold coulant which I proceeded to immediately send back!) Thankfully, Zuberoa’s version represented absolutely everything that is fantastic about this dessert: crisp on the outside, filled with hot oozing chocolate on the inside, and served with fruit compote and amazing orange ice cream. My meal was complete!
As a refreshing contrast to the United States, where a few chefs can create empires or chains of restaurants, it was refreshing to dine at Zuberoa where the same chef has been creating masterpieces for decades. The staff went above and beyond to provide pitch perfect service and an extremely warm atmosphere. I felt honored to even meet chef Hilario Arbelaitz himself! In summary, I have never given a restaurant 4.75 stars, however, I feel that if any establishment truly deserves this rating, then it is Zuberoa.