"What's the best thing you ate??"
That's the one question we get more than any other when we return home from a trip.
Answering that question is always hard. But after our recent trip to Spain, it was downright impossible. We ate constantly over the 10 days we were in Barcelona, San Sebastian, Seville and Granada. We were always roving: We didn't eat three meals a day; we ate a dozen. And on the occasions we did sit down for a proper meal, it was frequently tapas-style or a tasting menu, meaning a dizzying array of bites, morsels and small plates.
Spain was our buffet, and -- believe us -- it was definitely all-you-can-eat.
Food in Spain is less of a sit-down event than an ever-present hum in the background. There is always food. You are always eating. And it is glorious. Lunch might be four or five plates of food. Dinner might be 10 plates at five different tapas bars. (And yes, dinnertime is 10:30 or 11. We saw families with small kids sitting down to dinner at midnight. We absolutely loved it!)
But out of that complete barrage of food -- that culinary blitz -- we wanted to share some of our favorites with you.
Some of these are specific dishes; others are more about the overall experience. But each of them was truly special -- and delicious.
So settle in, Bittens, and tie on a bib. This post is going to be epic.
Pa amb tomàquet
This was on nearly every menu in Barcelona. It's a traditional Catalan dish, and a very simple one: It literally translates as "bread and tomatoes." But pa amb tomàquet is a staple part of any Catalan meal.
We had several iterations, some as simple as slices of crusty bread brushed with crushed tomatoes. Others were more elaborate.
The best version we had was at a restaurant called Tapas 24, in Barcelona's beautiful Eixample district. We showed up sufficiently late at night on a Saturday, but we still had to wait in line. (Don't worry; there was cava.) We were seated around 11:30, and immediately ordered a plate of pa amb tomàquet. It arrived warm and flaky, slathered with olive oil and tomatoes that had been baked into the fresh-made bread. It was melt-in-your-mouth satisfying.
(Fun sidenote on globalization: At Tapas 24, we were seated at a small shared table with a Lebanese-born couple who now split their time between Paris and Qatar. Topic of conversation: the death of McDreamy.)
Revuelto de patatas
This is another traditional dish we saw all over Spain. It shows up in dive cafes and finer restaurants alike, but it's basically drunk food you would make in your own kitchen at 2 a.m. (That is not a complaint.)
It typically consists of fried potatoes, ham and runny, sunny eggs. If you wanna get fancy, you can add red peppers. It's indulgent and delicious. (How could it not be?)
The best take on this dish we sampled was at another Eixample restaurant, called Cervecería Catalana. Their potatoes were more like matchstick fries, meaning they stayed crunchier when tossed together with the egg and ham. We were hooked.
After spending a few days in Barcelona, we flew to Spain's Basque Country, with the seaside town of San Sebastian as our home base. We met up with our good friends Trevor and Owen, who had moved from Washington, D.C., to Europe last fall.
The four of us spent the next four days eating our way through San Sebastian. It was incredible. Lots of people say San Sebastian is the best food city in Spain; some folks call it the best food city in Europe. We can't say, but we know one thing for sure. To eat in San Sebastian, there's only one word you need to know: pintxos.
Pintxos are tapas on overdrive. Like tapas, they're small bites meant to be shared. But Basque pintxos are more elaborate than tapas elsewhere. If tapas are big snacks, think of pintxos more as tiny entrees. (In the Basque language of Euskara, tx is pronounced as ch, so the word sounds like "peenchos." The name comes from the fact that these bites used to be "pinched" onto little skewers.)
And pintxos are positively ubiquitous in San Sebastian. Every tiny restaurant has a whole counter full of cold pintxos, plus a full menu of hot ones prepared to order. You order a glass of beer or wine, plus a couple pintxos, eat them standing at a counter, toss your napkin on the floor (yes, really) and head out to the next place. Walking along the pedestrian-only lanes of the old city is like the world's tastiest bar crawl.
What you see in the photo above is just a few of the many, many, many pintxos we had during our time in San Sebastian. Also, the photo at the very top of this post is of pintxos laid out at a place called Zeruko, which does a modernist spin on pintxos.
Most all the pintxos we ate were delicious, but there was one that we were obsessed with: a plate of sautéed wild mushrooms from a place called Bar Ganbara. Tossed with runny egg, they were downright magical.
Grilled turbot at Elkano
One day during our stay in San Sebastian, the four of us took a drive along part of the Basque Coast, dipping into the tiny towns of Zarautz and Getaria. Our only real destination was a restaurant in Getaria called Elkano, where we intended to stop for lunch.
A friend of a friend had described Elkano as "tiny, casual -- they just serve whatever fish is fresh that day." We were picturing a seaside shack, an out-of-the-way place only locals know about. Maybe with its own weathered dock.
That ain't Elkano. It is tiny, yes. And their focus is definitely on fresh seafood. But it's hardly some hole-in-the-wall fish joint -- as we would learn later in our trip, it's a one-star Michelin restaurant. (And as we learned by the end of our lunch there, it's got the prices to prove it.)
Anyway, our meal began with a dish of just-caught anchovies. They were gloriously fresh and slightly briny. Then came the daily catch -- turbot -- cooked on a huge wood-fire grill outside the restaurant. The server presented it to us whole (if only we'd snapped a photo!), before filleting it for us.
Bittens, we don't say this lightly, but it was quite possibly the best fish we have ever eaten. Perfectly tender and moist, but also meltingly rich and fatty. The four of us ate until we were stuffed, then we ate some more, picking at the fish with our fingers until we finally waved a white napkin in surrender.
Elkano may not have been what we'd expected (and it may have cost 10 times what we'd anticipated), but it was an absolutely perfect lunch, and a fish we will always remember. God, we're literally getting a little emotional just thinking about it...
Dinner at Akelare
That evening, we had dinner at Akelare, a 3-star Michelin restaurant from chef Pedro Subijana. (We realized the following day that, between lunch at Elkano and dinner at Akelare, we had had a 4-star Michelin day. Is this how the 1% lives?)
Akelare has been around for 35 years, but it's currently housed in a gorgeous, sleek, modern building perched on a cliff high above the Bay of Biscay. (It seemed like the kind of place a Bond villain would live. Or maybe Tony Stark.) Seriously, the setting was jaw-dropping. We were seated next to the window, where we watched the sun set over the azure expanse of the bay.
The meal at Akelare was a dizzying four-hour parade of dishes. Among the four of us, we ordered three different tasting menus (Owen and Clay both ordered the same menu), which meant more than 30 different plates of amuse-bouches, hors d'oeuvres, salads, soups, fish, meat, desserts and petit fours.
This is but a mere sampling of the foods we ate during our dinner at Akelare:
As you can see in some of those photos, there was a heavy element of molecular gastronomy, playing around with textures and surprising flavors. The far-left dish on the third row, for instance, was foie gras "with salt and pepper." But the salt was actually sort of a toasted sugar, and the "peppecorns" were really puffed quinoa. And yes, that's edible paper wrapped around the dessert in the final photo.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime meal (and, ahem, the most expensive dinner we've ever had) but truly an experience we'll never forget.
We'll leave you with photos of two of our favorite dishes from Akelare, both desserts. The first was a "Gin and Tonic," made up of sorbet, gelee, and juniper-berry dust that, when eaten together, tasted precisely like a classic G&T.
And then there was this Broken Yogurt Jar, which you might have already seen if you follow us on Instagram. It had fresh "berries" of fruit gelee, freeze-dried yogurt ice cream, and an edible "jar" made of hardened sugar. This is how it was delivered to the table: