Ibai won’t catch your attention when you walk past it in San Sebastian. It’s bar isn’t particularly lively, nor does it look all that attractive, and If you didn’t know about the restaurant in the basement, you would probably simply walk past it.
That would be a shame, as this is a truly remarkable restaurant. From the moment you walk into the dining room, you realise that you’re in a place that works according to its own rules. Most guests seem to be regulars, and know each other well, while Ibai’s reputation also means that the odd table of gastro-tourists can be spotted, spicing things up. The menu is simple, to the point and inviting: you choose how many different products you want to taste and that is pretty much it.
On the face of it, there’s no wizardry in what they do at Ibai: most dishes simply feature protein without even the slightest garnish. This is cooking that is reduced to the minimum, and yet it is evident from the first bite you take at Ibai that it is in a league of its own.
Take a simple dish of wild mushrooms with poached egg. The dish features nothing other than those two products. The mushrooms are intensely flavoured with the cepes having an almost juicy, creamy/bouncy quality to them that you hardly ever find. The egg is almost superfluous, were it not equally good.
But Ibai can do even better: it’s sole is served in it’s juices that are emulsified with vinegar and olive oil to create a divine partner for what is arguably the finest piece of sole to have crossed our path. The meat is gelatinous, firm, and juicy; it is timed perfectly, and the meaty flesh pairs remarkably well with the vinegar based sauce that is naturally thickened through the cooking juices.
Ibai very much encapsulates what makes the Basque Country such a great place to eat in. It is unpretentious, uncomplicated and focused on cooking food of the highest quality from products that one will have trouble tracking down elsewhere in the world. That makes it a must-visit restaurant for any serious food lover.