San Sebastián | Hotel María Cristina

This is one of the main reasons I want to go back to San Sebastián.

I went for a walk along Playa de La Concha our first day in San Sebastián, and there’s a point along the bay where you get the most amazing view of Hotel María Cristina. It’s beautiful in the day…

…but I like better at night when the sky is pitch black and the hotel is all lit up.

They named it after the queen of Spain and the hotel opened in 1912 during the Belle Époque. It’s opulent, but in an understated, elegant style. Currently it’s part of the Starwood-owned Luxury Collection Hotels (like

The original architect was Charles Mewès…he’s also the guy behind other Ritz hotels in Europe including the ones in Paris and Madrid.

For their 100th anniversary, the hotel received a $25M renovation (the strategy behind the Luxury Collection brand is to restore iconic hotels). And with the María Cristina they focused on enhancing all the feminine aspects of the property. Think curves, silk curtains, and marble floors.

The colors remind me of one perfect box of via]

Rioja | Hotel Marques De Riscal

Deep in Rioja, in the village of Elciego, is Hotel Marques De Riscal.

It sits on a piece of land owned by the Marques De Riscal winery. The owners commissioned Frank Gehry to design a hotel on the property and this is what they got.

We came to visit the winery, but I was far more interested in the hotel.

It’s such a stark contrast to rest of the Rioja and is even more stunning in person. The cascade of metallic ribbons were created to evoke the flow and colors of wine. There are only 15 rooms in the main building. They have an annex with 28 rooms, but the main building is where you’d want to stay.

It’s part of The Luxury Collection of hotels which is owned by Starwood. We could go into so much more detail on hotel groups and who owns what (did you know Hilton owns Waldorf Astoria and that Radisson owns the Missoni hotels?) I find all that stuff fascinating, but we’ll save it for another day.

Meanwhile, take a look inside the hotel’s dining room.

We stayed for a lunch of striped bass and clams…

…idiazabal cheese cake…

…and torreja, the Spanish french toast that tastes like the fluffiest bread pudding in the world with a crisp, caramelized exterior. Heaven. This one came with bananas, caramel ice cream, and a cacao sauce. In NYC, Degustation does an excellent version (even better than this one!). I’ve been meaning to try the torreja from Tertulia which they serve with hazelnut ice cream.

A post-lunch tasting of the Marques De Riscal wines.

Here’s a peek inside the “wine graveyard” where the bottles date back to 1860!

We got to wander in for a few minutes, it was simultaneously spooky and fascinating.

I found this handwritten log towards the back of the graveyard.

Here’s where the wine production takes place. Everyone was busy taking notes…

….but all I could think was ahh, let’s go back to the restaurant for a glass of wine…

…and then maybe a massage? Hehehe ^_^

[photos 2, 3, 4, 14, 15 via]

One Night in Bilbao

We spent our last night in Bilbao, pinxto-ing till 1am and drinking till our 7am flights. It was my first time pulling an all-nighter in years and I’ve never slept that well on a plane. This is how I should prep for flights going forward. Didn’t even wake once on the nine hour flight from Munich to NYC.

In Bilbao there’s a place called Cafe Iruna. The food is good (think melty ham and lard sandwiches)…

…but what you really want are lamb brochettes from this vendor with a permanent shop inside the cafe.

They’re fall-apart-in-your-mouth tender, and juicy with flavors of cumin and coriander. The bread on the side? They give you that to soak up all the spices and savory lamb drippings. Some people split the bread down the middle and sandwich the brochette in the there. Others use the bread to soak up all the drippings on the plate. Your pick. One is definitely not enough.

There’s also a separate take-out counter so you don’t have to step into the restaurant to order lamb brochettes.

We also checked out a few other pinxto bars in the area…

….including the kooky Irrintzi.

Little sausage buns…

…and a layered pinxtos of zucchini, mushrooms, lard, and red and green peppers.

And then a final stop for a mishmash of bites.

Jamon croquettas, potato tortillas…

…and mayo-topped shrimp with grated egg yolks. What did we drink with all this? , of course!

Basque Country | Artzai Gazta Idiazabal

Take a peek into one of the cheese producers which belong to Artzai Gazta – a Basque Country cooperative that produce idiazabal, a unpasteurized sheep’s milk cheese.

This particular producer is called Baztarrika and it’s an hour west of San Sebastián.

Here’s the owner and his smoker. He lives on the farm with his wife…

….and this little boy. It’s a family business with the in-laws also living on the farm.

For restaurants they age cheese according to chef specifications. Baztarrika supplies cheese to Arzak (neat!) and they want it aged for exactly 8 months. So even if you buy cheese from Baztarrika, it won’t taste exactly like what you ate at Arzak.

So many sheep…one was ready to give birth. This specific breed is known for being “ugly” (as far as sheep are concerned), but producing plenty of milk.

From left to right: fresh, aged, and smoked (my favorite). So good with a bit of quince paste on baguette.

And this product which they call “cheese cream.” It’s not so much cream, but a thick spread made from old idiazabal that’s chopped and cooked down with fresh cream from the farm. They tried to sell this to Fairway in NYC, but the cheese buyer said it was too pungent for American tastes. Crazy. I made sure to eat my share before leaving ;)

San Sebastián | Pinxtos Gandarias and Astelena | Foie Gras a la Plancha, Foie Gras and Magret de Canard Ravioli

How beautiful is this? I would have been content sitting at one of the cafe seats (after they opened, that is ;) with endless glasses of txakoli and good conversation. Sadly there was not enough time for that sort of leisure, but I hope to return again soon.

Till then, pinxtos!

We received several recommendations for pinxtos, but wound up visiting the ones suggested to us by the owner of local travel bookstore (I’ll try dig up the name of this bookshop – so charming). There was a solo trip to Casa Urola on the first day…

…and then Gandarias and Astelena with fellow writers the second day.

Here’s the menu of hot dishes at Gandarias, all made to order.

The cold pinxtos are laid out along the bar. This one was fried cod and peppers with sautéed onions.

We ate that along with these super tender beef cheeks and peppers…

…and foie gras a la plancha. I mean, how could you not? ^_^ There was apple compote tucked underneath the foie gras and a bit of balsamic over the top.

And then it was off to Astelena.

Here all the hot dishes are displayed uncooked.

Point to the ones you want, and they whisk it off to the kitchen for a quick deep-fry.

Pistachio and potato croquettes…

…shrimp, asparagus, and jamon, wrapped and fried…

…a mix of fresh mushrooms.

The frog legs were my favorite dish of the afternoon. Here’s the before…

…and after.

And every time I see foie gras on the menu, I just *have* to have it. So! One more order of foie gras a la plancha. These guys served the baguette on the side.

And this! A giant ravioli stuffed with foie gras and . Mushroom sauce (more like a gravy) on top. Best combo ever. Not much of a looker but delicious, decadent. We also attempted to order a dish of pig’s foot stuffed with foie gras, but they ran out of the foot. All the more reason to plan a return trip.