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.
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
20003 Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain
Grubstance rating 3/5
31 7, 31 de Agosto Kalea, 5
20003 Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain