Long long time ago, there lived a vain Emperor who was excessively fond of new clothes. One day two imposter weavers came to him and promised the Emperor a new suit of clothes that were invisible to those unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. They pretended to work at their empty looms day and night, all the while pocketing the finest silks and most delicate silk threads. When the day finally came for the to Emperor to parade before his subjects in his new clothes, everyone pretended to gasp in admiration until a child on the streets cried out, "Look! The king is not wearing anything at all!"
Thus was the feeling I got when I finished my meals at Tapas 24, Etxebarri and Mugartiz in Spain. I know I am writing this risking my reputation in the foodie world. However, I can no longer ignore the big white elephant in the room. I’ll just have to say it: Look! Doesn’t this just suck?
OK. Let’s start with Tapas 24. What was Carles Abellan thinking? How did he end up with food that tasted like something my newly employed domestic helper just made reading from some random Spanish cookbook? Everything about this restaurant was off. The décor, the staff, and the food. In a spartan, fluorescent-lighted room that suggests the dissection of frogs rather than the fragrant frying of squid, busy waiters flow with stern, sad faces and air as stiff as a board. There was no Spanish or Catalan to be heard anywhere in the room. 80% of the guests were American, and our waiter looked at us with the words “I hate my job and I hate these stupid tourists” written across his forehead. He was impatient, dismissive, and very simply rude. At the end of our unsatisfactory meal, we decided to give Tapas 24 one last chance and asked for the dessert menu. Our waiter, knowing we do not speak a word of Spanish, threw down the menu, pointed at the words “Postre”, and walked off.
Etxebarri. As some of you may know, San Sebastian is a small city in the northern edge of Spain roughly the size of Hong Kong Island with a 10th of its population. Etxebarri was never given a star by Michelin, yet critics rave about this highly personalised cuisine - chef Victor Arguinzoniz, part chef and part blacksmith, grills every single one of his dishes. He even makes his own charcoal, and invented his own oven and grilling contraptions to take it to a whole other level – and the restaurant has been ranked top 50 in the world for a good many years. Some foodies claim it to be "impossible perfection".
Etxebarri was our first gourmet meal upon arrival in San Sebastian and naturally, expectations were high. This name Etxebarri, which simply means ‘new house’ in Basque, was the very definition of the phrase ‘middle of nowhere’. When a thirty-minute drive as indicated on Google Map and GPS turns out to be an hour and counting and you find yourself stuck in an unpaved road the width of your car, you know that you are literally “in the middle of nowhere”. This path took us past rugged mountain terrain so majestic yet so close I felt like I could brush the rocks off its undulating slopes with my fingers (and the pictures don’t do much justice here). And when we finally arrived in the little village of Axpe, where Etxebarri was, I thought that was surely the most beautiful place I had ever seen. With a handful of beautifully constructed stone houses dotted randomly against a dramatic mountain backdrop, skies so clear I thought I might blow away the clouds in a single puff, and everything else a lush, vivid green, the village seem to have walked out of the Sound of Music, and even prettier (because I have been to Salzburg and wasn’t too impressed).
If you must, Tapas 24 is at 269 C/ Diputació, Barcelona, Spain
tel: 934 88 09 77