What is the best meal you’ve ever had?

by Michael Ledwith

November 26, 2023

We drove along the coast road, ocean below the high cliffs on our right, open sea until you hit America, the shadows of the late afternoon extending out past the large breaking waves. All close outs, I thought, but, around one of these points, the surf will be epic.

We were on our way to eat the best merluza in the world at Miguel’s favorite seafood restaurant.

Miguel, known as Miguel Angel Miranda, the handsomest man in the world, was serious about food and wine. He was a well known cook, only for friends, and only at his tiny apartment filled with guitars, and books. He admired Andre Malraux so much that, as a teenager, he hitchhiked to Paris to meet the greatest writer of all time.

André Malraux, 1933

He waited in the small park across the street from Malraux’s apartment, surviving for two days on bread and cheese, sleeping in the bushes to avoid the police, waiting for the great writer to appear. In the late afternoon of the third day, a taxi pulled up to the apartment. Andre Malraux stepped out and paid the driver. Miguel brushed his hair back, straightened his jean jacket, and approached.

In poor French he introduced himself and told of how Man’s Fate had changed his life. That he had hitchhiked from San Sebastian to meet the author. That, if Monsieur Malraux would, would he sign Miguel’s dog eared, underlined copy with notes in purple ink along the sides of the pages?

It was the book his father, who had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, had given him when he was ten and told him that this novel would change his life.

And, that it had.

Miguel held out a fountain pen, also given to him by his father, a pen filled with a special purple ink sold by a gypsy woman from a shop in the Parte Viejo in San Sebastian.

The great writer paused, taken aback by the spectacle of a Spanish boy in hippy clothing, black dirty hair, eyes bluer than Paul Newman’s, tall but unthreatening, addressing him in bad French at the steps of his home.

Malraux replied dismissively, Je m’excuse, señor, I do not talk to strangers.

And, walked into his apartment.

Miguel hitchhiked back to San Sebastian.

We met him in Washington, DC one summer, when he was ‘vacationing’ with a middle aged, very wealthy divorcee, who he had met busking outside the train station in Madrid.

The road dove down into a small, steep sided inlet off the ocean. High prowed, colorful Basque fishing boats tied up along the quay. A small restaurant amid the stone houses of the town. There were the bottom halves of cut away steel drums lined in a row next to the entrance of the restaurant. Perched on waist high stacks of bricks. Filled with white hot charcoal briquets and covered by metal grills. The fishermen from one boat were unloading the freshly caught merluza by hand, tossing them up from the net to a handsome woman holding a wicker basket, who shouted Ole! as each was tossed up to her.

She saw Miguel and almost missed the next fish.

Hah! Hombre! You brought your friends!

She took the basket of fish over to the grills. Her husband, the owner of the place, took the fish out of the basket, filleted them, used a brush to coat the insides with a olive oil, opened them like a sliced baguette, and slapped them, meat down, on the grill.

The woman kissed Miguel on both cheeks and whispered something in his ear, kissed me on both cheeks and whispered nothing, kissed Christy on both cheeks, hugged her and whispered to her as well.

Then into the restaurant, tiny, bar on the right, maybe seven or eight roughly made wooden tables, a mixed assortment of chairs and stools, noisy and packed. She went up to a table on the left, four old men who seemed born for exactly that place, berets, white shirts, black pants, smoking Ducados and drinking wine out of small glasses. She shouted at them to get out, cowed by her outburst, they stood and went to the bar. Christy, who spoke Spanish, told me later that the woman yelled, it’s Miguel, Miguel and his friends, get out, get out you bums!

We sat down, the objects of some curiosity. The woman brought us cold beers and a plate of cheese. A dish of nuts.

Then the merluza fresh from the sea, fresh from the boat, fresh from the grill and a large plate of Spanish fried potatoes, thick cut, crispy, in olive oil.

I have never eaten anything more delicious.

The tiny restaurant, smoke hanging in the air, maybe twenty five people but noisier than if at a Blackhawks game at the old stadium against the Blues.

After the meal, Miguel ordered Spanish cognacs and described how petty the French were when pouring them. After this, you will never order cognac in France. I wondered what Malraux would think?

Four of the fishermen walked in. Broad shouldered, immensely strong looking, short, almost squat. Like undersized middle guards from a college football team. They had bathed, slicked back their long black hair, changed into white dress shirts, sleeves rolled up, wearing the same black pants as the older men we had highjacked the table from.

The raucous crowd cheered as they walked in.

They ordered wine, again poured in small glasses, clinked, shouted a toast, and began singing.

Deep, melodious singing. So deep a timbre that the brandy shook in my glass. Beautiful. Goose bump beautiful.

The crowd silent. One song into another. I looked at Christy, she shrugged, just how lucky were we to eat the best merluza in the world, with the handsomest man in the world, in a tiny restaurant in a tiny town so tiny it wasn’t on the road map, and to experience such singing. As if the Three Tenors had wandered in and done the best of Puccini for the heck of it.

Then the woman who seated us called something out in Basque.

The crowd murmured. The singers looked at each other with some weight.

And, began a song.

Not just any song, but in Spain, at this time with Franco dead but the Falangists still in power, with ETA bombing nightclubs in San Sebastian, not long after ETA had blown up a Spanish admiral in Madrid, the singing of certain songs was illegal. This singing of this song, an anthem of Gipuzkoa, could get you arrested. There might be informers in the room, there were informers everywhere.

The men sang it. The leaned into each other and my cognac shook harder in my glass. The crowd, hesitant at first, began to sing along.

It was the Marseillaise scene from Casablanca.

People hugged each other and cried.

When it ended, the fishermen drained their glasses, shouted No Pasaran, and walked out into the night.


Frequent contributor Michael Ledwith is a former bag boy at Winn-Dixie, who worked on the Apollo Program one summer in college. A former U.S. Army officer, he ran with the bulls in Pamplona and saw Baryshnikov dance ’Giselle’ at the Auditorium Theater.  Surfer. Rock and roll radio in Chicago. Shareholder, Christopher’s American Grill, London. Father. Movie lover—favorite dialogue: “I say he never loved the emperor.”

Comments 7

  1. Wonderful wonderful wonderful writing!!! I can smell the grilled fish and I can fell the odor of the bar inside my nose! I might have to grill some Spanish potatoes.

    My best meal probably was the first time I ate at the venerable Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. My wife was radiant that evening. We had a table for two. It was one of the best bottles of wine I have ever had, a 1993 Leroy Chambolle Musigny.

    We had a lot of tremendous restaurants to go in Chicago back in the day. Spiaggia with Henry Bishop as sommelier was a highlight.

  2. My best meal was when I was working in Taiwan. I was in the tool and die trade. The tool shop and I were waiting for a 2500MT injection machine to start testing the tool for parts. The test run started around 10PM. One of the tool makers on my team brought the fixings for beef noodle soup. While we were testing the mold to see how the plastic flowed and the part knitted together he cooked the soup.

    When we got back to the factory waiting room the soup was ready for us to eat. I can to this day still taste it. It was the most delicious thick beef noodle soup I ever had. Every time we ran molds, we had that tool maker on the test team. He was a good tool maker and a great beef noodle soup chef. My wife comes close. Maybe it’s the food and the circumstances that make the meal.

  3. In a few short words you have transformed the reader into another place and time.
    Delightful writing.
    No particular favorite meal, hot fresh food, usually homemade, and the people make the difference.

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