Ibai is tucked away in the basement of an unassuming tapas bar in central San Sebastian, a restaurant with just eight tables and no menu, chef Alicio Garro serving fish and vegetables that are the best available each day (it is open only for weekday lunches). The dining room has a stone tiled floor and exposed beams, and is a family run business that has been operating since 1983. There is no wine list, but there is a row of bottles to choose from at one side of the restaurant; we went for Alion 2008, which turned out to be priced at €55, compared to a UK retail price a little more than that, around €57. I assume that the other wines had similarly modest (negative?) markups compared to the UK prices, but as there was no printed list I cannot be certain.
Be aware that no English was spoken by the waiters, but they were able to accommodate dietary preferences if you let them know at the start of the meal (my wife's Spanish language skills came in handy at this point). White bread arrives, and this gave no hint of what was to come, the bread bought-in and ordinary. A few pieces of chorizo also arrived as a nibble, and this proved intriguing: most chorizo I have eaten has had a firmness or stringiness of texture, but this was unusual, with smooth texture and plenty of flavour.
The first dish to appear was lobster, served cold with a simple lemon dressing. The lobster was superb, the flesh beautifully tender, the lemon providing just the right balance of acidity. Even in three star Michelin restaurants lobster is rarely of this quality (18/20). A simple dish of ceps was next, accompanied by a few girolles, a poached egg and some cooking juices from the mushrooms. The ceps were again of remarkable quality, having lovely texture and flavour, the seasoning precise (17/20 is probably too low a score).
Squid followed, fried and served with a baby squid alongside it with some finely chopped parsley and a little olive oil. The squid was terrific, without a hint of chewiness and with lovely flavour, perfectly cooked. The only squid I have had to compare with this was in Japan (at least 18/20). Sole was cooked whole and served with a little butter, then filleted at the table. I have had some lovely sole over the years, but none was of higher quality than this, such a simple dish yet perfectly cooked and of exquisite quality (19/20).
The meal descended to more normal levels with dessert, with a pleasant lemon sorbet, and a good almond ice cream, but these were merely well made rather than the dazzling savoury courses (14/20). Coffee was also decent but more. Service was pleasant but informal, and I noticed that most of the customers appeared to be regulars, chatting away with the staff. We were the only foreigners present. The bill came to €236 for two including wine, or £101 a head. The food element came to €85 (£73) a head.
To discover a restaurant like this, which is barely mentioned in guides and has no Michelin star, was like walking into a dream, and a very nice dream at that. I kept having to pinch myself as dish after dish turned out to be of the very highest product quality imaginable. The cooking is simple, but why would you want to distract from ingredients like this? The chef's job should be to let the produce speak for itself, and this was certainly the case here. The quality of the ingredients here would shame many three star Michelin restaurants, and although the setting and the cooking are straightforward, it is a delight to eat food of this quality. Lest you think I am losing my marbles with the score here, let me refer to Vedat Millor, the gourmet who used to co-author Gastroville, for many years generally reckoned the most authoritative food blog in the world. His opinion of Ibai: "the best restaurant in Spain".
Further reviews: 22nd Sep 2014