Michelin stars for may be for Europe and James Beard awards for America, but there's a little ranking out there that transcends international boundaries: The World's 50 Best by San Pellegrino.
Shrouded in mystery and hype, it's an award system that started with the best of intentions but has evolved into a controversial and seemingly arbitrary assigning of rankings. As best as I can personally tell, it is directly correlated to public relations force and features in the hip food magazines du jour.
But hey, maybe I'm cynical. And here's why I'm even talking about it: FOUR restaurants in this tiny region in the north of the Iberian peninsula have the made the Top 20 of this prestigious list. A geographical zone with the same population of Chicago is literally dominating the thoughts and stomachs of the world's food illuminati. That is crazy. It's even crazier for me, running in the same circles as these chefs, running into and talking with them in their kitchens, on the streets, at parties. I can honestly say these are some of the REALEST people I have ever met. So, good on them, and here's a quick breakdown of the big four:
Mugaritz : #6
who: Andoni Luis Aduriz
what: intellectually challenging Basque food
why i like it: Andoni is a thinker. He runs a tight ship with a lot of talent, spending several months out of the year in R+D mode. Every single plate may not be the best you've ever tasted, but they are enthralling tastes and sensations. Here are a couple of my previous visits.
Asador etxebarri : #13
who: Victor Arguinzoniz (<-I can spell that without looking it up. Boom.)
what: seasonal, sophistcated Basque grilling
why i like it: Ugh. Everything. The place. (So gorgeous, in the middle of Basque nowhere) The chef. (Victor is gruff and grizzly, until you get to know him) The technique. (Grilling perfection with bespoke tools designed by the chef) And the satisfying flavors. (Real food...butter, cheese, steak, seafood, soufflé....but all so very Basque) I have a couple blogposts about this one.
arzak : #17
who:Juan Mari and Elena Arzak
why i like it: It's a classic. You get the family vibe upon entering, and to frank, the dishes are just delicious. Perhaps a bit over the top, a bit too playful at times, but they bring a strong game. The local's favorite, by far. Here is a post from one of my visits.
azurmendi : #19
who: Eneko Atxa
what:globally focused sustainable Basque cuisine
why i like it: I'VE NEVER BEEN. FAIL. It's high on the list...stay tuned!