San Sebastián has a beach shaped like a scallop shell, a bevy of Belle Epoque buildings lining the promenade, a baroque church with a facade as intricate as old lace. But I came here for only one reason: to eat.
In the past decade, this Spanish resort town on the Atlantic coast has become a center of world gastronomy. (Wondering why? How? Articles here, here, and here offer some clues.) I spent hours researching, planning and plotting my attack on the town’s pintxos bars. (Pintxos are the Basque equivalent of tapas.) How many could I visit in 36 hours? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the answer… in chronological order:
1) Paco Bueno — They don’t offer much here, but what they do is done beautifully, specifically tempura-style shrimp. The batter was so airy, the prawns so tender and ocean sweet, I tried to go back at the end of the evening for a fried shrimp nightcap. Alas, they’d already shut down the deep fryers for the night.
2) Al Fuego Nero — More modern and inventive, we sampled a mini Wagyu burger (€3.70), and a dish that matched cured salmon with granny smith apples, crumbled blue cheese and seaweed crackers (odd) (€8). I loved the tortilla (€2.30), with its creamy center. Then again, I’m a sucker for Spanish omelettes in any form.
3) Dakara — We tumbled into this bar because it looked popular and crowded with locals. The minute we ordered a croquette, everyone else gulped down their drinks and split. Said croquetas (€1.70/each) were decidedly mediocre, especially one of ham that turned out to be 99.9% béchamel sauce.
4) Garadarias Taberna — I thought: Why not be brave and order tapas from the menu, even though I don’t speak Spanish? I asked for items one and two on the chalkboard (photo above). The first turned out to be thin slices of meat in a rich sauce, tender and beefy, like pot roast. Tongue, perhaps? (It was beef cheek, I found out later). The second was a layered casserole, mushy, bland, under seasoned, with an odd horsey aftertaste. Later, I found out — it was pig’s feet.
So ends day one.
The next day we drove to Bilbao, which was just an excuse to explore another city’s pintxos scene. The casco viejo (old town) is an easy ride away on the tramway from the Guggenheim museum.
5) At Taberna Basaras I fell in love with an anchovy adorned with a slender red filament of chili (€1.30). Anchovies are usually not my bag, but the pepper softened the salty fishiness, creating a surprising, subtle dimension. I also — surprise, surprise — loved the tortilla, with its tender, moist center (€1.50). I read somewhere that this simple bar is a favorite of Inaki Aizpitarte.
6) At 2pm, Gatz’s kitchen was already closed. We ate a couple of tapas — bits of veg and ham stacked on bread — but missed out on the action.
On the way back to San Sebastián, we stopped in Mundaka, a pretty Spanish fishing village. No pintxos were consumed.
Back in San Sebastián…
7) La Cuchara de San Telmo is decidedly on the beaten path, crowded with gaggles of American college students. All signs pointed to the contrary, but this was actually among my favorite pintxos bars. We ate a small saucer of orzo goat cheese risotto, a succulent bacon-wrapped scallop, and, my favorite bites of the trip: grilled octopus, meaty and tender, scented with rosemary, and a melting braised veal cheek that dissolved under my fork into an unctuous puddle. A quibble: all the dishes came dressed in the same two sauces, which were oddly flavorless, and sprinkled with oversized salt crystals that often masked the actual flavor of the food.
8 ) Bar Zeruko — The counter is laden with the world’s most beautiful and creative display of food — artichokes brushed in gold leaf, balls of cheese studded with flowers, transparent crepes glowing rosy with smoked salmon. Alas, none of it tasted very good. The textures were soggy — like everything had been sitting out too long — the flavors were bland and under seasoned, like no one had tasted the food. I’d read so many wonderful reviews about the inventive, modern pintxos here, but I was very disappointed.
9) La Cepa does not mean cèpe (or porcini mushroom) as one might deduce, even though cèpes (in Spanish, hongos) are a house specialty. So, too, is ham — jamón de jabugo — from a black-footed pig, cut in fine, lacy slices that melt on the tongue into a deep, rich, almost sweet, porkiness. The sautéed mushrooms were golden and garlicky, and the egg yolk was their sauce — break it on the side of the plate and dip accordingly. I loved them even despite their grittiness.
Thus concludes my eating tour of San Sebastián (and environs).
–Helpful drinks vocabulary: una caña (a beer), una coppa de vino (a glass of wine), una zurrita (a small beer), txokoli (pronounced cho-koh-lee — a local white wine, refreshing and lightly sparkling).
–Other helpful vocabulary — una ración de jamón (an order of ham, for when all else fails). Or, una media ración (a half order).
–If it’s your first visit to a bar, order just one pintxo. If the quality is good, you can order more. I regret not employing this strategy with Bar Zeruko.
–Late May was the perfect time for a pintxos crawl — not too hot, not too crowded, but with lovely weather for evening strolls.
Naguisia Kalea, 6
Al Fuego Nero
Calle 31 de Agosto, 31
Calle 31 de Agosto, 27
Calle 31 Agosto, 7
La Cuchara de San Telmo
Calle 31 Agosto, 28
(actual location is on a dead-end street perpendicular to the calle)
Calle Pescaderia, 10
Calle 31 de Agosto, 7
Calle Pelota, 2
Calle Santa Maria 10