When I heard San Sebastián was the Mecca for Michelin starred chefs and holds more stars per capita then anywhere else I just had to go. It’s small coastal town based in the Basque region of Spain, but it has a big reputation which harkens back to the early 80’s and many will argue it’s the gastronomic capital of Europe!
Michelin stars aside San Sebastián’s answer to tapas is known as ‘pintxos’ which literally means ‘spike’ and when you’ll visit these bars you’ll know why. It comes with many traditions, one such quirk is to throw your used napkins on the floor by the bar. The reasons for this is simple; keep the dining area clean for more pintxos and it’s a sure fire indication for passers-by to assess whether the food is good or not. Lots of napkins = busy bar! Others include pairing your pintxos with a young fruity white wine (sometimes just weeks old or generally months old) called ‘txakoli’ pronounced ‘chakoli’. It’s poured from a height to aerate the wine giving it that extra fizz. Of course eating pintxos isn’t just limited to one type of drink, there is an abundance of wine and cidre to pick from! One more important point to note is the the pintxos code of honour which you must adhere to – when paying the bill tell your barman how many pieces you have eaten and don’t take advantage as it’s criminal! I could rattle on for ages but here are the bars I visited:
Our first stop was La Cuchara de San Telmo which opened in the early noughties with a mission to be innovative with their made to order plates and my god was it good. This place is a must go!
The risotto was cooked perfectly, creamy in consistency with a right amount of bite and radiant with flavour.
Veal cheeks with chickpea hummus, rich red wine jus, and salsa verde filled our palates with pure joy – two words, tender and perfection.
Foie gras seared to a golden brown served with its pan juices, honey, mustard and orange peel was mouth-watering and healthy for you. (Sigh).
Pan roasted octopus with a melange of stewed escabeche vegetables was wonderful too. There was a lovely caramelisation on the octopus with a perfect zing from the vegetables.
Happy faces all round in the tight quarters – it does get packed but service is brisk and the food arrives piping hot. Don’t be afraid to rub shoulders with other diners who will be standing just like you, although there is some alfresco seating available. Don’t come here if you’re claustrophobic. Actually do as the food is that good you’ll forget about your phobia.
Open kitchen theatrics never cease to entertain.
This was the txakoli I spoke of, the freshness and bright nature of the the wine works really well with the rich food and bold flavours.
Someone else is on txakoli duty.
Salamanca suckling pig slow roasted with beer, creamy potato and lemon grass was dreamy – the fat rendered crispy skin was addictive like you wouldn’t know and the spoon tender meat was crazy good. They’d sold out the first night we went so we couldn’t leave the country until we had it! This was the star of the show and if they have sold out when you get there just get there earlier the next day otherwise you’ll be foolish. This was also EASILY one of the best dishes of the holiday.
Cod ravioli with tomato confit and Aragón black olive oil. This was the timid little sister of the family but it was made with a safe pair of hands and went down well. The pasta was perfectly thin and the filling was akin to creamed bacalao.
Grubstance rating 5/5
31 agosto 28 bajos
20003 Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain
has been around for more than 70 years and if it’s the more traditional styles you yearn for then look no further. There are shores of hanging jamon which are graded by where they come from and how old they have been cured for. Lot’s of pre-prepared pintxos are also available such as devilled eggs on bread with slithers of anchovy or the classic ‘Gilda’ which is guindillas (pickled Spanish chilli), olive and anchovy. There is lots of saline ingredients but somehow it works and they are my go-to pintxo. Cooked to order pintxo can be had too such as veal cheeks, or of course wild mushrooms with a hen’s yolk which is what they’re renowned for. We came here for their infamous jamon though and it didn’t disappoint.
Grubstance rating 3.5/5
Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 7, 20003 San Sebastián-Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain
was heaving when we walked past so instead of putting things to chance we popped in. From what I could see the dishes more of the traditional Basque style pintxos with cooked to order dishes too. It took a while to get to the bar to see what treats they had but it was worth it. Everything was a treat for the eyes from the hanging jamon to the eclectic selection of pintxos and of course they have a black board menu too. It seems to be the theme out here.
Plenty of paper means plenty of good food remember?
Deep ruby red and silky smooth. Properly full bodied stuff.
Tarts of what seems to be escabeche vegetables and fried quail eggs were the first things we ordered. The pastry seemed a bit stale though, like it was the end of the night and what we ordered had been sitting there for a while. Oh hold on it was the end of the night.
Morcilla on a bed of piquillo peppers, bread and topped with a fried quail egg. They ended up being just a bit meh as the morchilla was crumbly and dry as was the bread.
Croqeutas – crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle – nice but these were easily forgettable.
Squid cooked in their own ink were stuffed with from what a gather juicy minced pork. Ok it might look like compost but they came out piping hot and were a delight to eat. I’d order these again with no qualms.
Grubstance rating 2.5/5 – a shame really as I had high hopes from how everything looked. I would give it another try though as a truly believe Gandarias wasn’t firing on all cylinders when I was there, until we eat again I guess.
Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain
The following day we went to the award-winning Bar Zeruko
which is dubbed the most innovative pintxo joint. The styling here is modern and clean with an entire bar laden with plates that were a feast for the eyes. Clearly they have gone down the molecular route here but why not? It’s tricky to know what everything is but fortunately staff are used to explaining what things are.
I found that if the bar has a blackboard full of the days specials then generally you’re in for some fireworks.
It’s a fiesta of pintxos seriously.
Tongue with pardon peppers.
Tempura prawns, Basque style. The crispy coating is actually as white as Richard Gere’s hair but they’re actually noodles. But aren’t they pretty?
Padron peppers and jamon needs to feature in every in any pintxo menu in my humble opinion.
Goats cheese in some form.
More goats cheese.
Yet more goats cheese.
It doesn’t matter if there is caviar or jamon the goat will take over.
Finally no more goats cheese but urchin cream with parsley served in it’s own shell. Sadly I didn’t try it but there is always a next time. It also comes with caviar too and doesn’t it look spectacular?
Morcilla with foie rolled in crushed pistachios.
More jamon on bread topped with a thick potato disc, grated cheese and flowers.
A base of bread and pumpkin seeds, there is a cannelloni made with Pedro Ximénez gelatin stuffed with foie gras and porcini mushroom mousse, served with a Pedro Ximénez jus and crispy gold tinted idiazabal cheese (the local stuff).
Mushroom jelly with quail eggs.
Mushroom with mixed seeds, on a crostini of mashed anchovy and black olive from what a gather.
Egg with jamon jelly and roasted bread crumbs.
Grated cheese on quail eggs with mushrooms and crostini of course.
Pastry of some sort, I don’t know what.
More stuff topped with quail eggs.
If you thought that the goats cheese had ended….
Oyster mushroom, patron, jamon bread, grated cheese. The combinations can be endless so choice is abundant!
Tomato confit made into an egg and stuff with Idiazabal cheese.
I had no idea what this was but something compelled me to order it. I got crab sweetness and an almighty iodine perhaps, perhaps it was laced with urchin.
Rolled sandwiches – if San Sebastian did afternoon tea this will feature.
Calamari cooked in its own ink.
I had no idea.
Salmon wrapped cream cheese.
A faux tomato filled with tuna.
Anchovy topped pintxos.
Other jaw dropping pintxos.
Some of the stuff we ordered:
located in the buzzing area of Casco Viejo holds onto tradition so it seems from the way it makes like you’ve stepped back in time when compared with the other pintxos bars. It has a generous selection of cold as well as hot pintxos and cold beer on tap.
Guindillas – you simply can’t beat the classics.
Gambas on a melange of tuna, chopped egg and mayonnaise.
A terrine of salmon and other bits.
Olive omelette and why not.
Fish roe pintxo.
A pintxo of tuna sandwiched with gherkins, anchovy and olives.
Classic pintxo 101.
Grubstance rating 3/5
31 7, 31 de Agosto Kalea, 5
20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain
is a teeny tiny little bar run by 2 brothers who serve up traditional pintxos and are particularly renowned for their “Txampis Tamboril” – a skewer of mushrooms with their savoury poaching liquor, enriched with olive oil and wine. Ok so it’s small here but mighty and everything is well made packing flavour.
I went for the classic tuna with anchovy which had the edge over others I tried as it was made more mouth-watering from the fried bread it was served with.
It’s small here but there is plenty of well made classic pintxos here with ice cold txakoli.
Grubstance rating 4/5
Arrandegi Kalea, 2, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain
+34 943 42 35 07
was our last stop of the tour and they have a good array of cold and made to order hot pintxos. By this time we’re of the alcoholically impaired from all the txakoli we’ve consumed but that’s not to say we’re craving kebabs but a spilling atmosphere and a beautiful view of the Santa Maria Church whilst eating pintxos!
Atari’s pintxos is a pure feast for the eyes but we decided to try some of their hot dishes.
Txakoli was the path to inebriation.
The bread is also the vehicle to counter balance the richness of the jamon and the crusty exterior packs a tonne of flavour & texture.
The melt in the mouth Iberian ham €21 was nothing short of sublime and easily some of the best I’ve ever had. It’s unmissable.
Grilled octopus with charred onions, roasted potatoes and spiced alioli €22 is a must order and will knock your socks off. Pure brilliance and something we didn’t want to end.
Beef cheek with potato purée €16 was a melting tender delight which was unreservedly scoffed but missed some seasoning.
Grubstance rating 4/5
18 Calle Mayor
20003 Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain
+34 943 44 07 92