San Sebastian Pintxos Tour Part Two… drink tourist quantities of txakoli whilst indulging in the carnival of pintxos

This is my second trip to San Sebastián, a food lovers nirvana not just for all the Michelin Stars they have per a capita, but for the mighty pintxos culture. The food is blisteringly good here, the anticipation of rolling the dice again and exploring more bar crawls and drinking tourist quantities of txakoli whilst indulging in the carnival of pintxos gets my heart thumping. This time it was during September 2017, when it’s not too hot or too cold – the happy medium. My happy medium. I rhapsodised not so long ago about the quirks of pintxos and some of the brilliant places that San Sebastian has to offer, just in case you didn’t see please click here. But for now, here are 2344 words and a handful of pictures devoted some of the gems and some not so worthy spots to give a wide berth. 

Bar Kursaal is a neighbourhood joint that’s off the beaten track, ostensibly, only the locals seem to come here. It’s nothing to sing home about as it’s a bit of a dive and the pintxos is possibly worth complaining about! We came as it was en route from our AirBnB to the main pintxo action in the Boulevard. I would probably describe the food as petrol station pintxos if you know what I mean.

Surf n turf with a few shrooms.

Oyster mushrooms with jamon.

A smidgen under €20 for 4 people with 4 beers isn’t bad at all to be fair, you could argue that’s a lot of thrill for the Euro. I call it lubrication for the main event.  Grubstance rating 1.5/5 

Onto Bar Dulia, a random stumble and through peer pressure from one of lads we went in blind, but what the heck. There was a reason why we were the only people in there, either it was only 4pm so not quite dinner time or the food was savagely average. It was both. Everything we tried tasted like their finest hour was the day before.

Grubstance rating 2/5.

Onto La Cepa – this time it’s bit more strategic, as coming here was based on a compelling prior visit that left a lingering impression two years on. It serves pintxos a la classico like the gilda or tuna/anchovy pintxo, but they’re really well-known for their jamón and wild ceps. I recall the slivers of melt in the mouth jamón with a ripe kick of umami that we had last time – I had to inhale some more. 

If you’re a zealous jamón fan then ordering a plate of it is a right of passage here, legs of the stuff dangle from the ceiling with the smell of their sweet funk arousing the nasal passage. The version we had this time was leaner with more tension and chew from what I can remember – still delectable though. Pair it with the freshly baked bread it comes with. 

There’s something about white tuna that I find a happy zone with, it’s a lot less fishy than the stuff we get back in the UK from tins and a whole lot more aromatic. It’s mixed with mayo here and spinach then it’s expertly moulded on a disk of fresh crusty bread. A slither of sharp white anchovy (boquerones) brings the who bite together. So simple, yet so lovable.

The gilda is just a classic and a total go to for me. It’s so delicious. 

We also ordered slow cooked ox cheeks with potato. On paper, the dish is a heart warming marvel – on the table though it wasn’t offensive but more cooking to a melting tenderness and seasoning would have elevated it to the levels it deserved.

Everything was washed down with txacoli, it’s a low alcohol young wine, often just weeks old and it will get you buzzed!

Grubstance rating 3.5/5 

Borda Berri is bit of a culinary legend that’s been doing their thing with glee since 2008. It was opened by former La Cuchara de San Telmo chef Marc Clua. Similarly to the aforementioned, it’s properly snug and they cook up some really amped up pintxos. The menu changes daily, dishes are chalked up on a board that are cooked to order. What we had deserved adulation and praise. The flavours had more slam, more grip and more punch – all deftly done. We came twice for this reason!

Txacoli for days, literally!

The duck, cooked to a blushed pink packed big fisted flavour and came with a reduction that tasted of patience and talent.  

The cross section so you can see the cook.

If you’re a risotto fan then this is a dish for you – it’s Borda Berri’s famed Idiazabal Cheese risotto. Idiazabal is typically Basque, and it’s smoked here for extra funk and intensity.

The ox cheek here just dissolves and it’s full to the brim with beefy flavour. There’s is a rich tomato sauce with enough tang that cuts and balances each mouthful. Heavenly.

We also had a slow-stew of melting squid with a deep savoury flavour in the sauce which we found ourselves chasing with bits of bread.

The fish was indeterminate, but it hardly mattered as it was delicious. The flesh was firm and seared until the edges crispened. All it needed was a simple seasoning of oil and chopped garlicky tomato. 

They’re renowned for their pig’s ears here, served with a smokey romesco with enough viscosity to cling to the crispy edges. It’s a celebration of ripe piggy action for next to nothing.

The second batch of ox cheek we ordered had a lovely sear, slightly on the unyielding side in comparison with the first, but no less triumphant. It came with this lovely seasoned crust and a puree of sorts. Who needs steak when you can have cheek this good?

Not too shabby for 4 people.

The place was so good, we went back on our own steam on the last day of the trip..

Stuffed red pepper with beef and cheese seemed to be really popular – everyone had it. Personally, I loved the way it looked and who doesn’t like melting beef? The thing that brick walled it for me though was the strong cheese they used, quite barn-yardy in taste that over powered. 

Had to get the ox cheek again, this time it was more tender, with more sauce, less of a sear. Intensely satisfying to eat in a different way. 

The slow cooked squid – a maestro of a dish. 

We couldn’t resist the risotto… Neither should you. 

A new dish on the board was the ravioli on a sweet tangle of leeks, stuffed with a rich roux and nuggets of langoustine. The ravioli came with a caramelised top for crunch, it was easily one of the best things I ate here.    

We got the steak this time instead of the duck, not entirely sure which cut it was but it was cooked blue, garnished with a sea salt and garlic, on a smear of sweet/nutty puree.    

Grubstance rating 4.5/5

Bar La Vina is a great example of an institution, its heritage dates back to 1959. It’s a pintxos bar of sorts with a typical counter dining style San Sebastian is famous for. Hanging legs of jamon, plates of small bite wonders and cooked to order dishes make a visual impact when you’re in there. But we’re here for what everyone else comes for – the infamous burnt cheesecake, and it’s dubbed the best cheesecake in Spain.

The meatball, soft and juicy, made of mystery meat. It’s all the more delicious for it, especially with the deeply rich tomato sauce it swims in.

The famous burnt cheesecake.  

The result is all about fluffy creaminess with a back hit of vanilla. I can understand why it’s so popular.  

The txacoli was free flowing as always. 

Grubtance rating 3.5/5 

On day two, we made a beeline for a place that we couldn’t leave to chance, a place that we’ve had multiple rolls of the dice during our last trip and loved unreservedly. It’s immensely popular, lively until it shuts and delivers modern Basque cuisine that can be ordered from the board. Everything here is good so finding fault is pretty much impossible. Welcome to La Cuchara de San Telmo – you can thank me later.

Veal cheeks stewed with red wine, creamy gabanzos (chickpea puree), cumin and espellete pepper is the kind of dish that makes you want to push the “rewind” button and eat it all over again. It has all the deep unctuous qualities you’ll ever need in slow cooking.

Pascal Massonde blood sausage was sautéed with pears, espellette pepper and Sardinian flatbread. It’s rare when a dish renders you speechless – this was one of them. It had everything from dark intense flavours, sweetness punched up with spice, smug levels of umami and texture, it’s was a fantasy dish. Hands down it was easily one of the, if not the best thing we ate during the trip.    

Roasted Foroe cod confit with mustard green romesco, a clean tasting, quality bit of work.  

Roasted 45-day aged ribeye, with roasted piquillo peppers and thyme. Seductive beefy flavour a plenty, but you’ll need the jaws of a Great White Shark to get through it. More resting time and to be cut against the grain would have done it wonders, I recall it arriving piping hot, fresh from the plancha which is indicative of zero resting time.  

We crushed it. 

Visit 2. Naturally we came back the next day before opening and there was already a queue.

One of the main reasons why we came back was for this (they sold out the day before), the slow roasted suckling pig of salamanca with membrillo of Santa teresa (Spanish quince) and vanilla. The paper-then crispy skin gives a crunch that chimes through your ear cavities and the tender flesh just dissolves. It’s one of the best things you could ever bless your mouth with.    

It was attacked by rapid fire forks. 

Grubstance rating 5/5

A Fuego Negro is the rock and roll child in the pintxos scene, the naughty one that was never caught for truancy. Inside, there is a mixture of neon lights, graffiti, comic books, music memorabilia and even siphon’s with eye-catching art work. It stands out from the crowd with it’s unique combination of influences in their food. It was our first rodeo here and  it was bustling when we arrived, much of the volume came with a petite bald man working behind the counter, the linch-pin between us and the kitchen. To say he was vocal is the definition of an “understatement”. He gave some recommendations, but grunted and looked infuriated as we didn’t order them all (we were stuffed to the brim from La Churra De San Telmo), he reluctantly took our order. We all got a proper rude awakening when the food arrived at the counter as the chap, wide eyed, barked out loud in Basque, which got louder and louder with each call out, only realising it was aimed at us when he eventually starred at us with hostile eyes, cursing, loudly. We weren’t sure what he said but the aggression felt like it was intended to be offensive. It wasn’t our fault that we don’t understand Basque! He was more than a trouser biter but a full on pitbull who want to take a chunk out of us. I think he needed a class on basic good manners and anger management! Rant over.

The MakCobe with Txips €3.90 is basically a Kobe beef slider with banana chips. This is a case in point that small things can come in small packages as this 2 bite wonder packed a punch. And no, that’s not what she said! The patty is literally flash seared on both sides, leaving a completely rare centre and it’s sandwiched in the softest sweet bun. You can tell that the beef is a great product as the the flavour popped. It’s a sandwich worth remembering and not made for sharing!

The bacalao with cauliflower puree and curry €3.90 was one of those dishes that I was glad to see the back of as it was relentlessly bland. It seemed like a dish that was over-looked by the kitchen with it’s floppy undercooked skin.

The “little bird” with carrot and red onion €3.90 is quail marinated and deep fried. You can taste that a lot of time had been put into this bird from the secret marinade they use – hints of spices such as star anise coat the palate. It’s not for the faint of heart though as it’s rare in the middle. I would prefer a bit more cooking in my quail, pink is fine but rare is off putting. 

Grubstance rating 2.5/5

Spell bound at how good the jamon was from our visit in 2015, along with the gorgeous octopus tentacle and that delightfully soft ox cheek, we couldn’t resist coming to Atari again. It was heaving when we arrived so we could only find a perch by the bar after being ignored by the wait staff for about 20 minutes. (I blame their trainer!). What you see though is pure pintxos paradise, artfully decorated little bites everywhere. Grab what you like the look of and the bloke manning the bar will charge you according to how many cocktail sticks you leave behind. 

Pintxo of jamon, goats cheese, onion jam and sun-dried tomato. 

The burger pintxo.

How can I not order gilda and tuna stuffed peppers?

You cannot beat the classics! 

A wizards sleeve packed full of white tuna and topped with chopped spring onions.

 Grubstance rating 3.5/5

Ganbara is buzzing little spot, with classic pintxos piled high, made with egg, anchovy, salmon, jamón, prawns – some stuffed into mini croissants. They also have a made to order hot food menu which includes Basque favourite kokotxa (the underside of a cod’s jaw). Come here for a more traditional style of pintxo, only if you’re not claustrophobic and don’t mind the crowds! 

Grubstance rating 2.5/5 – too salty for my liking.

In summary: 

Bar Kursaal 1.5/5 Zurriola Hiribidea, 22, 20002 Donostia, Gipuzkoa, Spain

Bar Dulia 2/5 Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 7, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa

La Cepa 3.5/5 31 de Agosto Kalea, 7, 9, 20003 Donostia-San Sebastian, SS, Spain

Borda Berri 4.5/5  Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa

Bar La Vina 3.5/5 31 de Agosto Kalea, 3, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa

La Cuchara De San Telmo 5/5 Santa Korda Kalea, 4, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa

Fuego Negro 2.5/5 31 de Agosto Kalea, 31, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa

Atari 3.5/5 Calle Mayor, 18, 20003 Donostia-San Sebastian

Ganbara 2.5/5 San Jeronimo Kalea, 19, 20003 Donostia, Gipuzkoa

Previous reviews can be seen here.

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