advertisement

Truth to tell, San Sebastian is barely in Spain at all, but nestled between two green mountains, with a spectacular view of the Bay of Biscay, on the edge of maverick Basque country. Yet this refined Spanish resort -- the 19th-century summer home of the Spanish court -- has become a destination of choice for European foodies, who flock here to sample an extraordinary cluster of superlative restaurants and seafood. It's impossible to account for the concatenation of culinary talent in this relatively small city -- even the local version of tapas, pinxtos, is executed with flair in every casual bar in town.

The two grand old men of the scene are Juan Mari Arzak at Arzak (Avda. Alcalde Jose Elosegui 273; tel. 34/943/28-55-93; www.arzak.es), an elegantly modern renovation of his family's century-old tavern, and Pedro Subijana at Akelare (Paseo del Padre Orkolaga 56; tel. 34/943/21-20-52; www.akelarre.net), a seaside hexagonal villa on the western edge of San Sebastián. Arzak pays tribute to Basque tradition, but his willingness to experiment, with techniques like quick-freezing ingredients in liquid nitrogen or vaporizing liquids into a powder, inspired his protégé Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame ; Arzak set up his own food "laboratory" to explore new techniques long before Adrià did. While the ingredients on Arzak's menu may be familiar -- oysters, foie gras, crayfish, squid, pheasant -- what Arzak (and now his daughter Elena) does with them continues to amaze diners. Subijana's preparations, on the other hand, define la nueva cocina vasca (modern Basque cuisine), a sublime mix of traditional farmstead preparations (beans with bacon, chorizo, and pork ribs or a special marmitako fisherman's stew) with innovative dishes like boiled cabbage stuffed with duck and served with purée of celery.

Most Spaniards would consider Juan Iturralde of Juanito Kojua (Puerto 14; tel. 34/94/342-01-80; www.juanitokojua.com) as the third pillar of San Sebastian's gastronomic culture. Though Michelin stardom has somehow escaped this snug seafood restaurant in Old Town, with its unpretentious 1950s-vintage pine-paneled decor, it's famous throughout Spain for the reliable excellence of its fresh fish and shellfish, prepared with robust Basque recipes.

As the next generation has come into its own, they've taken those influences in surprising new directions. Chef Andoni Luis Aduriz carries on the high-tech torch at his countryside restaurant Mugaritz (Aldura Aldea 20, Errenteria; tel. 34/943/52 24 55; www.mugaritz.com), 20 minutes southeast of town. Restaurant magazine named it the fourth best restaurant in the world in 2008. His gastronomic flights of fancy can be anything from vacuum-poached baby carrots, baby squid, and carrot blossoms floating in squid broth, to tiny purple Basque potatoes transformed into hard-shelled "pebbles" that melt in your mouth.

On the outskirts of town, Martín Berasategui (Loidi Kalea 4; tel. 34/94/336-64-71; www.martinberasategui.com) learned his craft from his mother, but what has won him three Michelin stars is a fanatical attention to detail: For a porrusalda (eel soup), for example, he collects the moisture eels give off when smoked and mixes it back into the savory broth. Berastegui's protégé Raúl Cabrera has caught his first Michelin star at Kursaal -- recently renamed as Ni Neu -- (Zurriola Pasealekua 1; tel. 34/94/300 31 62; www.restaurantenineu.com), a starkly modern light-filled restaurant overlooking the beach in the Kursaal Convention Centre. Cabrera's recipes playfully explore the deep flavors of his locally grown products. Simplicity seems to have been what scored the star for chef Daniel Lopez at Kokotxa (Campanario 11; tel. 34/94/342 19 04; www.restaurantekokotxa.com), in the Old Town -- from the minimalist white decor of his airy dining room, to attentive service, to meticulously cooked small portions of fresh seafood served on stark white plates.

The San Sebastian experience is very much tied to the personalities of these individual chefs, who preside over their small kitchens day after day instead of jetting off to film TV shows or oversee spinoffs. (Many places are closed on Monday, to give the chefs a much-needed day of rest.) Menus change often, according not only to the chefs' inventiveness but also to the seasonality of ingredients, especially seafood.

Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Spain Message Boards today.