From ambitious chefs, delightful bites in Basque country

Try to imagine the gustatory experience of
running up a mountain. Drawing a blank?

An avant-garde dish called Juego de Verdura
claims to be just that. On a small plate there are two short glasses, one
spewing cloudlike vapour and the other containing layers of egg, mushroom,
vegetable soup and spinach-tinged foam. Strangely delicious, it also makes
sense: Envision jogging upward past hens (there’s the egg), then mushrooms and
small vegetable gardens (that’s the green soup and foam), and, upon reaching
the summit, being surrounded by early morning mist (that’s the bartender’s cue
to pour hot broth over dry ice, unleashing a swirl of fog over the table).

This is just one fantastical example of the
innovative cuisine being dreamed up by a crop of talented young chefs in
Hondarribia, a hamlet in Basque Country on the northern coast of Spain.

For the last decade, Basque cuisine has
held a vaunted status in the culinary world; the region is awash in
Michelin-starred restaurants headed by first-rate chefs like Juan Mari Arzak
and Martin Berasategui. With the brightest stars orbiting around San Sebastian,
the city is a revered destination for food enthusiasts eager to taste delicately
constructed technologically complex dishes that challenge every notion of what
food could be.

In the last few years, the apprentices of
these acclaimed kitchens have struck out on their own, extending lofty new standards
across the region.

With its abundant variety of local produce,
a daily influx of fresh seafood, and what has become a critical mass of new
talent, the tiny town of Hondarribia has emerged as one of the best places to
experience the region’s ambitious cuisine, and without the parading crowds of
San Sebastian, just 20 kilometres away.

“Here there are 15 or 20 young chefs and
they are all very motivated,” said Bixente Munoz, a local chef, former protégé
of Berasategui and the mastermind behind the award-winning mountain dish, the
Juego de Verdura (Vegetable Game). The chefs, he said, “try to do their own
thing; some are more traditional, some are more innovative, but everything has
to do with the love for the products.”

Situated on Spain’s Atlantic coast,
Hondarribia sits on the banks of the Bidasoa River, which flows into the ocean
just beyond the town’s port. On the other side of the river – a seven-minute
ferry ride away – is France.

The centre of town is anchored by two
historically relevant neighbourhoods: the ancient Parte Vieja, where a maze of
cobblestone lanes winds past medieval stone palaces and traditional Basque
wood-beamed houses; and the fishermen’s village known as the Marina, where old
men congregate on benches along San Pedro Kalea, a tree-lined street packed
with lively pintxo bars.

A touchstone of Basque culture and a focal
point for the new breed of chefs, pintxos are small, often bite-size creations
similar to Spanish tapas. The tradition of txikiteo, or pintxo-bar-hopping, is
to go from bar to bar, grabbing a pintxo or two and a drink before moving on to
the next. Throughout Basque Country, pintxo bar chefs strive to outdo one
another, and formal pintxo competitions up the ante. In recent years,
Hondarribia bars have competed against San Sebastian’s with favourable results,
earning regional and national recognition for their tiny masterpieces.

Munoz’s Gran Sol is perhaps Hondarribia’s
most successful pintxo bar and has trophies and plaques to prove it. After
achieving national acclaim for his miniature creations, Munoz sought another
challenge, so in 2008 he opened a new restaurant in town, Sugarri, where he
presents his gastronomic artistry on larger plates.

But it was back at Gran Sol, on a recent
sunny Thursday afternoon, that locals packed the bar, munching on his creative
bites and sipping glasses of cider or txakoli, a local dry white wine poured
from a height to grand effect.

“For a long time it was San Sebastian, but
now I think the food in Hondarribia is best,” said Alvaro Larramendi, a local
sailor and Gran Sol regular.

In addition to a stop at Gran Sol, any good
Hondarribia txikiteo will include Vinoteka Ardoka across the street, and Enbata
a few blocks away.

Opened in 2008, Vinoteka Ardoka is a chic
wine bar with black and white decor that serves modern pintxos to a younger
crowd. At Enbata, businessmen in suits are more likely to be sidling up to the
polished counter, eating elegant pintxos like grilled jamon iberico with warm
tomato salsa.

With a charming old town, a breezy
riverfront promenade and a sizable slab of beach, Hondarribia is a natural
destination for Spanish and French vacationers. But the town has yet to begin
attracting anywhere near the international crowd that flocks to San Sebastian,
a state of affairs reinforced by the lack of new hotels. Instead, Hondarribia
is still a place primarily for residents; most restaurants are occupied by
local families and couples, not tourists.

“The fact that there are so many high-level
restaurants here is because of the high degree of gastronomic cultivation of
the people in the region,” said Gorka Txapartegi, the chef at Hondarribia’s
only Michelin-starred restaurant, Alameda.

After training at Martin Berasategui’s
three-starred restaurant in Lasarte that bears his name and in the starred
Zuberoa kitchen in nearby Oiartzun, Txapartegi returned to Hondarribia to head
the kitchen of his family’s restaurant, which has evolved from the simple
tavern that his grandmother opened in 1942. Earlier this year, he was named
chef of the year by the Basque Academy of Gastronomy, an impressive honor in
such a food-crazed region.

“Technical knowledge allows you to dare and
try new things,” he said, which at Alameda means light, modern cuisine without
any hocus-pocus. Instead, it’s the skilful presentation and delightful
surprises – a tangy shot of creamy cheese in an amuse-bouche of pea soup and
smoked salmon, or tiny violet flowers adorning succulent jamon iberico and
white asparagus – that help make Txapartegi’s food so pleasurable.

One needn’t be a foodie with a fat wallet
to enjoy Hondarribia’s offerings. As Txapartegi put it, “good restaurants here
are not just for people with a lot of money.”

In fact, demand for quality cuisine at
reasonable prices means that some of the best places for a sit-down meal are
surprisingly unassuming locations.

From Alameda, it’s a leisurely 15-minute
walk into the hills past twittering birds and grazing sheep to Laia Erretegia,
a rustic restaurant and cider house where the 16-euro ($20) three-course lunch
might end with an outstanding, ephemeral rice pudding.

Closer to the Marina, Abarka Jatetxea
serves pitch-perfect food, but from the sidewalk, the restaurant could easily
be mistaken for an ordinary home. And on another residential street snaking
away from the Marina, the yard and swing set outside Arroka Berri give no indication
that awaiting inside are elegant dining rooms, crisp linens and a kitchen that
produces divine sea bass and delectable crème caramel.

In a town where one can spend the day
murmuring “This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted,” it’s reassuring to hear
Txapartegi’s prediction for gastronomy in Hondarribia: “The cuisine will
certainly evolve, but without forgetting its roots.”