San Sebastian Pintxos Tour – The Food Gods’ Are Here!

When I heard San Sebastián was the Mecca for Michelin starred chefs, and holds more of stars per capita then anywhere else, I just had to go. It’s a small coastal town, based in the Basque region of Spain, but it has a big reputation which harkens back to the early 80’s for good food, and many will argue it’s the gastronomic capital of Europe. I’m one of them.

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. It’s a sure fire indication for passers-by to assess whether the food is good or not. Lots of napkins = exemplary pintxos! 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. (I’ll come back to that later). 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 – hopefully this will save you time and money.

Our first stop was La Cuchara de San Telmo which opened in the early noughties with a mission to be innovative with made to order dishes. My god it was bloody good. It would be a culinary crime not to go.

The risotto we had was creamy in consistency with a right amount of bite and blasted our palates with flavour.

Fork tender veal cheeks with a viscous full bodied jus, was dredged over chickpea hummus, a herby salsa verde provided freshness. It is the sort food I yearn for regardless of weather and I wouldn’t have any qualms about bathing myself in it.   

Foie gras seared to a golden brown, served with its own pan juices, a dash of honey, mustard and orange peel was mouth-watering and healthy (cough!). Forgive me if you’re vegetarian – pretend I never mentioned it.

Pan roasted octopus with a melange of stewed peppers and onions (escabeche style) was wonderful too. There was a lovely caramelised sear on the octopus and a nice acidic zing from the vegetables. 

There are 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 alfresco seating available. If you’re claustrophobic don’t be put off as respite will be had with the swaggeringly good food here, your phobia will soon be forgotten about. 

Open kitchen theatrics never cease to entertain. 

Round 2 – we couldn’t resist coming back…

This was the txakoli I mentioned. The freshness and bright nature of the wine was a delight with the rich food and bold flavours.  

One of us decided to take on the txakoli pouring duty. 

Salamanca suckling pig was left to linger in an oven with beer until it was yielding an unctuous. It was accessorised with creamy potato perfumed with lemon grass. The fat rendered crispy skin gave this snap and crunch that echoed in my ears. They’d sold out the first night we went so we couldn’t leave the country until we had it! I can earnestly say that it was the star of the show. If they have sold out when you get there, go earlier the next day otherwise you’ll be depressed with regret like how I momentarily was. This was also EASILY one of the best dishes of the holiday. 

Cod ravioli with tomato confit and Aragón black olive oil. This dish was dull in comparison but the pasta cookery was faultless, the filling was akin to creamed bacalao from what I could gather.

Grubstance rating 5/5 

31 agosto 28 bajos
20003 Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain
+34 943 44 16 55
La Cepa 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 long 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. The later is a triple salinity for the palate, but somehow it works brilliantly. It ended up being 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 and walked away grinning from ear to ear.  
 
 
Grubstance rating 3.5/5
Address: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 7, 20003 San Sebastián-Donostia, Gipuzkoa.
Phone: +34 943 42 63 94
Gandarias was a fortuitous visit and hard to ignore since it was heaving when we walked past.. From what I could see, the offering was 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 were advertised as it was thronged with lively patrons. There was plenty of gawp worthy pintxo available with hanging jamon and a black board scribbled with specials.
Plenty of paper means plenty of good food remember?
Deep ruby in 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 been sitting for a while. 
Morcilla sandwiched between piquillo peppers and fried quail eggs had a good general appeal – there wasn’t much to dislike. But they ended up being just a bit meh as the morchilla sucked all the moisture out of my mouth as did the bread. 
Croqeutas – crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle – nice but 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 positively compelling 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
Phone: +34 943 42 63 62
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 eye-catching intricacies. Clearly they have gone down the molecular route here but why not. It’s tricky to know what everything is but fortunately staff were quick to reel off what things were.
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 they’re cocooned in is actually as white as Richard Gere’s hair, they ended up being noodles. 
Padron peppers and jamon needs to feature in every pintxo menu in my humble opinion, as they are brilliant. 
Goats cheese in some form. 
More goats cheese. 
Yet more goats cheese.  
It doesn’t matter if there is caviar or jamon the goat’s cheese 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 acts as a platform for an expertly rolled cannelloni made with Pedro Ximénez gelatin. It’s stuffed with foie gras and porcini mushroom mousse, 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 ready to be deep fried. 
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 hit, tasted like it was laced with urchin. 
Crepes. 
Rolled sandwiches – if San Sebastian did afternoon tea this will feature. 
Calamari cooked in its own ink. 
I have 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:
Grubstance rating 4/5
Bar Martinez is located in the buzzing area of Casco Viejo and holds onto tradition so it seems from the way it makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. It has a generous selection of cold-stroke-hot pintxos and icy beer on tap.
Guindillas – the unbeatable classic.
Fried cod 
Gambas on a stack of tuna, chopped egg and mayonnaise.  
A terrine of salmon and other trinkets.
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
+34 943 42 49 65
Tamboril is a snug 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, boosted with olive oil and wine. Ok so it’s small here but it’s mighty. Everything we tried was well made and treated with respect.
The classic tuna with anchovy pintxo is what I got deep pleasure from during this trip, the one here had the edge. There was something about the meatier texture of white tuna that makes more compelling than the John West stuff. Just saying. It’s quenelle’d on a piece of crisply fried bread with a piping of mayo and a slither of anchovy placed on top.  
It’s compact here but there is plenty of well made classic pintxos with ice cold txakoli to distract you from your claustrophobia.  
Grubstance rating 4/5
Bar Tamboril
Arrandegi Kalea, 2, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain
+34 943 42 35 07
Atari Gastoteka was our last stop of the tour, and as standard good array of impressive looking cold and made to order hot pintxos were available. Atmosphere wise, this place was the best. The pavements spilled with foodies and a breath-taking view of the Santa Maria Church was the feather in the cap.
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 on this holiday. 
The crusty bread which was note-worthy in itself acted as a vehicle to counter balance the richness of the jamon.
The we got a plate of palate dissolving Iberian ham €21. There’s loads of it in the Basque but this stuff was a minor revelation. 
Grilled octopus with charred onions, roasted potatoes and spiced alioli €22 is a must order too 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, a touch more seasoning would have made it great, but we unreservedly scoffed the lot anyway.   
Grubstance rating 4/5
18 Calle Mayor
20003 Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain

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