Akelare, Arzak or Berasategui: Which 3 Michelin star restaurant in San Sebastian is the one for you?

Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while will know how much I love the town of San Sebastián in Spain’s Basque country. In the past 5 years, I’ve been back every single year for my annual Pintxos pilgrimage. In that time, I’ve also been lucky enough to sample all of San Sebastian’s 3 Michelin star offerings – Akelare, Arzak & Martin Berasategui – all of which rank amongst the most spectacular dining experiences I’ve had, and probably will ever have.

One of the questions I often get asked time and time again is which out of Akelare, Arzak or Berasategui I’d go for if I could only choose one out of the lot. Frankly, it’s a tough one to answer. A meal at any of these temples of Modern Basque cuisine can cost upwards of €200 a head. And when the wallet takes such a hammering, it all starts to get very personal depending on individual palates and preferences.

Instead of waxing lyrical about specific dishes (and many there were), I’m going to try to distil my thoughts best I can, comparing and contrasting the cooking styles, ethos and ambience of each to help you decide which is the right one for you.

Akelare

If there’s one thing that stands out about Akelare and has stuck with me ever since dining there, it would have to be its incredible dining room. Perched on top of a hill with a panoramic view of the vast ocean, it has got to be one of the most special places for a meal anywhere on the planet. I’d highly recommend dining here for lunch as opposed to dinner so you can fully appreciate the setting in all its glory.

In keeping with the setting, Pedro Subijana’s 8-course tasting menus here tend to be slightly biased towards seafood. There’s 3 different menus to choose from – one featuring the restaurant’s signature ‘classics’, the other 2 menus more seasonal in focus – all of which are preceded by a ‘sea garden’ of 6 different amuse bouches.

Everything we had on our visit was delicious and executed to perfection. However, there’s slightly less theatre and playing around with the ingredients here compared to Arzak and Berasategui. Flavours are noticeably more delicate and ‘au naturale’, letting the amazing produce do the talking. Molecular gastronomy junkies after food theatrics may be left wanting more, however I imagine the purists out there who favour a more natural style of cooking will find the cuisine here right up their street.

Service was faultless on our visit – the front of house team was genuinely friendly and made us feel right at home throughout our meal. I for one would happily return to their extraordinary dining room just to feel that immersive synergy between the food and the surrounding seas again.

 

Arzak

Arguably the most renowned worldwide amongst its 3 Michelin star peers, I found Arzak’s cuisine to be the most cutting edge and molecular-focused of the lot. You get the most wow factor here: uncanny creations that defy the senses… playful dishes that evoke childhood days at the beach… billowing smoke… crackling sound effects. The ingenuity in some of the dishes was truly mesmerising and every plate was crafted with a painstaking number of different elements.

But there’s more to the cuisine here than just the theatre. Majority of the dishes we had on the tasting menu (I counted something like 17 different dishes in total including amuse bouches!) were properly delicious in their own right – the flavours gutsy yet balanced.

Service on our visit however was rather formal and a tad ‘stiff’ at times. The setting of the restaurant, albeit historic and housed in premises that have been in the Arzak family for generations, can’t quite compete with the jaw-dropping views you get at Akelare, or the tranquility one feels at Martin Berasategui. The food alone however is still worth the trip here.

 

Martin Berasategui

Located in the town of Lasarte-Oria on the outskirts of San Sebastian, the natural light throughout Martin Berasategui’s spacious dining room and the rolling, emerald green landscape of its surroundings are hard to beat. Sure, it’s not as dramatic as the panoramic views you get at Akelare, but it certainly has it’s own charm.

Food-wise, I’d say the cooking style here is a little more avant-garde than the ‘au naturale’ cooking style of Akelare, but there’s slightly less theatre compared to Arzak. Overall however, I found the flavours and continuity of their 14-course tasting menu to be the most harmonious of the lot. Not only was every dish delectable in it’s own right, but the transition from one course to the next was seamless. The gorgeous presentation and meticulous attention to detail of each plate of food was truly world class, matched only by the exquisite flavours and unusual combinations at play.

Service was also exemplary, probably the friendliest and warmest of the 3 restaurants, which made the overall experience all the more memorable.

 

The Verdict?

It’s not easy choosing between 3 world class restaurants at the very top of their game. If the criteria was based on food and food alone, Arzak would probably get my vote for its sheer ingenuity. For a special occasion, Akelare’s spectacular dining room and its immaculate, immersive experience is hard to top. All things considered though, I reckon our meal at Martin Berasategui had the edge over the other 2 (only by a whisker though!). The vivid colours, surprising combinations and harmony of flavours of Berasategui’s cuisine make it quite simply the best meal I’ve ever had.

Whichever of the three you end up at, I hope it’s a meal of a lifetime.

G.

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