NEW YORK Since returning from Spain, where I spent two weeks with a couple of buddies, people constantly ask: "What did you do?"
We didn't visit any museums or churches. We didn't stroll around any parks or fountains. We didn't write one postcard or buy one souvenir.
We mastered the three-hour lunch, followed by the five-hour dinner. We toppled the world's greatest tasting menus and astounded waiters as we devoured a dizzying number of dishes. We drove a couple thousand miles, dashing from city to city, trying to get there in time for our reservations. We tacked on about 25 pounds between the three of us.
We had no budgetary constraints, blowing more than $17,000 primarily on food (mostly good; occasionally awful) and wine, cava, Campari and that American stalwart, Jack Daniels.
We tapped our savings and wielded our credit cards without remorse. We're gastro freaks. And we were completely out of control.
Our gluttonous tour was mapped around a trio of famous Michelin-starred restaurants named Arzak, Mugaritz and Can Fabes. When not bagging stars, we tackled tapas at a hodgepodge of other recommended restaurants. We always had a destination, but we didn't always make it. Complications caused us to stumble occasionally.
The trip began with the three of us rendezvousing in Madrid. Including myself, Team Spain consisted of Robert Berry and Ricky King, two chefs in Washington, D.C., with scary appetites and a deep understanding of food.
Madrid was merely a culinary sideshow of Padron peppers and fried cod. The real action lay ahead in San Sebastian, which is nestled on the Atlantic Ocean and home to Juan Mari Arzak, who's considered the father of modern Spanish cooking.
Arzak's daughter, Elena, who will one day run the restaurant, greeted us warmly. She led us into the capacious kitchen, where we observed 30 cooks silently preparing food with precision and intensity.
One of the chefs, Igor Zalakain, guided us through the twisting hallways and into the wine cellar, which houses a staggering 100,000 bottles and more than 2,300 labels. He then took us to Arzak's test laboratory, where 1,500 dried condiments tapioca from Thailand, chili morita from Mexico sit on the shelves. Here Igor experiments with recipes until they're ready for the menu. Sometimes the recipes can take a day to perfect. Sometimes a year. Sometimes, said Igor, "never."
This brief glimpse behind the scenes gave us a greater appreciation of what we were about to eat: Food rooted in the Basque tradition but with a modern flair.
The meal took hours. We devoured everything, experiencing repeated bursts of sharp, dazzling flavors. We discussed every dish, its ingredients and why it worked.
Juan Arzak, a jolly, vigorous man, came out to our table. He explained how they made the roasted lobster with freeze-dried olive oil and how they infused kefir with the essence of foie gras. In return, we praised the tuna belly and just about everything else. Then Rob and Ricky went to the car and retrieved two quarts of fresh South Carolina grits that they had brought as gifts.
They handed the Anson Mills grits to Juan. He was delighted.
After nights in San Sebastian and Pamplona (where we feasted on braised bull), we headed for lunch at Mugaritz, located in the hills of Basque country at the bottom of a looming mountain between San Sebastian and Irun. But without a detailed map, it was hard to find.
We arrived somewhat frazzled. On our table were two little envelopes. Inside, one card said you could "submit" for "150 minutes to feel, imagine, reminisce, discover" and "contemplate." The other card said you could "rebel" and "feel embarrassed, flustered, fed up."
We chose to submit. Wise decision.
Mugaritz, a two-star Michelin, was a completely different experience from Arzak. It's known for cutting-edge, rigorous techniques that involve test tubes, tweezers and the gastrovac, a machine that extracts flavors from foods without breaking down enzymes.
But that gadget doesn't work miracles, said wunderkind chef and owner Andoni Luis Aduriz.
"If there's a bad cook, he's a bad cook with a machine," Aduriz, 36, said. "The machine doesn't make the cook."
Mugaritz awed us.
The degustation menu embraced wondrous textures and tastes. We consumed, among other things, a buttery Idiazabal cheese gnocchi in salted Iberian pork bouillon; tuna fillet covered in pearl tapioca and roasted in the bottom of a cider barrel with basil leaves; and beef roasted and perfumed with thyme and other flavors.
Five hours later, sipping Luis Felipe Brandy Gran Reserva on the verandah, I was sorry to leave. We had to dash across the Pyrenees to eat in Barcelona.
Exhausted, we didn't make it that night. We ended up sleeping on the side of road.
We arose that morning, feet hanging out of the car windows and feeling beat up. We hadn't a proper meal in more than 10 hours, a disturbing thought for this band of grizzled gourmands.
Finding decent grub wasn't guaranteed that evening in Barcelona. But I had a wild card in my pocket thanks to chef Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York City. Before I departed, he had clued me into Paco Meralgo.
"To me today, this is the best food in Barcelona," Ripert told me.
A favorite among Barcelona's moneyed-set, Paco Meralgo is astonishingly good. The food was simple but pure. Not elegant like Arzak or Mugaritz but possessing a purity and reverence for the earthy ingredients on the plate.
We attacked, plowing through at least 18 dishes: razor clams, sea snails, chunks of black pepper fillet, grilled cockles, broiled Padron peppers with sea salt and the best tomato bread I have ever tasted.
Paco Meralgo doesn't have a Michelin star but it's worth a detour.
Three nights in Barcelona left us exhausted but we had to rally. We had a reservation at Can Fabes, the first haute cuisine in Spain to garner three Michelin stars.
"Cuisine with a Catalan flavor in a contemporary setting," according to the restaurant.
Tucked away in the small town of Sant Celoni, north of Barcelona, chef Santi Santamaria awaited.
"Surprise us," we told the maitre d', choosing a tasting menu of Santi's choice. We were eager to discover what was behind the wizard's curtain.
Santi wowed us, displaying a deft touch in all of his dishes. We relished the tender pork with sea cucumber, calamari with cod fish, and a classic dish that has been on the menu for years, cepes and confit onion encased in shrimp carpaccio.
Everything was plated on gorgeous china. The servers moved like ghosts and were in perfect sync. The cheese boat, carried by two people, was formidable.
The sommelier at Can Fabes designed a fantastic wine pairing the best of the trip that included a a rare Chivite 125 Anniversary Chardonnay 2004 and Vina El Pison 2001. The chardonnay blew us away.
Santi, sick with a cold, came to the table. We thanked him.
He was humble.
"His team is better than him today," the maitre d' explained as a rotund Santi nodded.
Then Santi dropped the biggest bill of the trip on us. The day's lunch had cost $1,500.
In the parking lot we held a staff meeting, discussing the damage. Whatever. We were off to Valencia.
After a savage skirmish with about 30,000 drunken people at the tomato festival in Bunol, we found ourselves scrambling. We were without reservations and one of the restaurants we intended to try was closed.
What to do? We drank Campari and plotted our next move at the hotel's rooftop bar, taking a good two days to choose our next major dining destination.
Finally, we decided on La Sucursal, a one-star Michelin located in the Institut Valencia d'Art Modern that specializes in Mediterranean cuisine. This was the only time we stepped foot in a museum, and it was only to eat.
The evening was a little different from the others. We had female company. We had to behave. Earlier that day, I invited Judith Naylor, aka "Mum," and her beautiful 22-year-old daughter, Lucy Naylor, whom we met at the hotel's pool.
These Brits had no idea how we rolled.
As soon as the cava was corked, I handed one of the Mugaritz's cards the one that said we wanted to submit to our server. She spotted the Mugaritz name, saying it out loud. She knew we were very serious.
Over the next four hours, the chef dished out 10 courses. Many of them sparkled with brilliant colors like the pumpkin with creamy foie gras, beans and corn.
"If I was a fairy, I would dance in it," Lucy said.
But it was too much for our guests. They were unprepared for this epic dinner. Judith gasped after the seventh course. "Is there more?" she asked.
"Oh yeah," Rob answered. "We've just finished the fish. We still have meats and desserts."
Judith and Lucy, who was slumping behind a forest of wine glasses, bravely pushed forward.
We were amused. We were pros.
We walked out of the minimalist La Sucursal about 2 a.m. We had learned plenty about the fabled Michelin standards. We had just completed a Michelin trifecta, gorging our way through the guide's tiered system.
The next day, we returned to Madrid, tired, ragged and very hungry. We couldn't think straight. We needed to come off the mountain.
Rob, steering us to a sprawling plaza dotted with tourist traps, chose our last meal in Spain. A half chicken, french fries and desperately needed salad.
We said little. What more was there to say?
We're gastro freaks.