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Northern Realm

Drive along Spain's uppermost border
Tasting Table

Food-minded tourists flock to Spain's metropolises, Madrid and Barcelona, for a taste of the country's cuisine.

No disrespect to those cities, but we'd argue for a different path. Fly into San Sebastián, rent a car and reap the flavorful riches of the country's northern coast, from coastal villages to tiny mountain-edged towns.

Driving in Spain requires patience, so this trip isn't for the timid--but the itinerary offers a concentration of the country's classic dishes and culinary talent.

Day 1: San Sebastián Capital of the "crawl" concept, this Basque town is known for its pintxos (bite-size snacks). Eat your fill at innovative spots such as the new Borda Berri. When you hit a pintxos wall, head to Bar Nestor for a salt-flecked steak and a simple tomato salad. If you time it well, you might catch a slice of the perfected tortilla.

Day 2: Getaria Drive west along the coastline to this seaside village. Follow a windy route to the hilltop, where a handful of wineries produce Txakolí. Visit Ameztoi's winery to try its Primus bottling. Then head down the hill, bypassing the more well-known Elkano for Asador Astillero. When we visited, the place was packed with locals who were feasting on unbelievably fresh spider crab and whole grilled turbot.

Day 3: Axpe Sitting at the base of a craggy mountain range is tiny Axpe, which is home to one of the best restaurants in the world. Asador Etxebarri is a temple to smoke, and its chef, Victor Arguinonziz, prays over delicately smoked mozzarella, a perfectly runny smoked egg yolk with black truffles, grilled chorizo tartare and one of the largest steaks we've ever faced. Each dish is cooked with charcoal made on site each morning on a custom grill system designed by Arguinonziz. Book well in advance.

Day 4: Bilbao Best known for its stunning museum, this city is also gaining a reputation for its great food. Try the two-year-old Bascook, which marries straightforward Spanish flavors with the avant-garde techniques for which the country (and more particularly, the region) is known. Just outside of town is Azurmendi, the newest edition to the innovation-obsessed old guard.

  • When you tire of pintxos, head to Bar Nestor for a simple but delicious meal. Chunks of fresh tomatoes are doused in verdant olive oil.

  • When in season, don't miss Bar Nestor's gernika peppers, still hot from their dip in the skillet.

  • Only two tortillas are made at Bar Nestor each day: one at 1 p.m., one at 8 p.m. Time your visit accordingly to get one of the coveted slices.

  • Local spider crab is one of the house specialties at Asador Astillero in Getaria. The restaurant is located on the port, so you can watch fisherman bringing in their haul as you enjoy your meal.

  • At Asador Astillero, whole turbot is cooked on the grill. Fatty and rich, it comes to the table perfectly seasoned with plenty of lemon.

  • Located in a gorgeous, remote setting, Etxebarri sits at the base of craggy foothills.

  • The bacalao al pil pil is a classic dish, and Etxebarri's verion is among the best we've had: Salt cod filets are gently smoked, then topped in a pil pil sauce made from salt cod emulsified with olive oil.

  • When in season, do not skip the gently smoked baby eels. Tossed in only a bit of olive oil, they have a smoky, fatty, flavor reminscent of spaghetti carbonara.

  • Raw chorizo is cured with a bit of smoke, then served as a decadent tartare at Etxebarri.

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San Sebastian Pescaderia Kalea, 11 Donostia 20003 Getaria Calle Portua, 1 Getaria Bilbao Axpe

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