Surprise! For months Jeff has been sweetly plotting a surprise trip for my birthday. Finally, our bags were packed and we were off to the mystery destination…San Sebastian, Spain! Woo-hoo!! This has been tops on my Food Mecca Pilgrimage list for quite some time.
It’s not easy to get to from Montone. Drive to Pisa, fly to Barcelona, stay overnight at the Barcelona Airport Hotel (not bad, but wins the prize for worst acoustics in a hotel bar) Then, at last, a crack of dawn flight to San Sebastian.
First reality check: what-the-hell language is on the signposts? What gibberish is Ms. Google Maps speaking? This isn’t Spanish! No, dear, that's because you are in the Basque or Euskal Herria country. Why does San Sebastian have two names? Because Donastia means Sans Sebastian. The Basque language looks like a Scrabble board that’s been upended and has an over abundance of x’s and y’s.
We follow Ms. Map’s directions into town, and frankly I’m getting nervous. It’s looking like a very well manicured suburbia. Then we come around the bend and it is jaw droppingly gorgeous. The city has its arms wrapped around the Baie de La Concha like a protective mother. There is a white tiled walkway as far as the eye can see that separates the beach from the city, people are swimming and paddling around, and most of the buildings are stunning Beaux Arts beauties.
It’s easy to fall in love with San Sebastian; we were seduced within moments of watching what was happening on the streets. Guys in suits were standing at the corner next to barefoot dudes heading to the beach. Kids were coming back from gym class, holding their surf boards.Stern matriarchal women stopped to listen to street musicians, and every restaurant and bar begs to be explored.
We choose El Caserio as our first restaurant, because it’s old school and thought this might give us some grounding in the local cuisine. Within moments, the restaurant filled up with regulars, except for one large table of French people and us. Jeff had a mildly flavored, but meltingly tender and homey tasting oxtail. I had the traditional baked spider crab, where all the edible meat from a crab is mixed with a roux and baked. The dish is incredibly rich and tasting of the sea. At this moment, we realize we know absolutely nothing about Basque cooking and like grasping for a life-jacket, we need to get a grip as quickly as possible.
Eventually we wander back to the apartment and lo! And behold! There is another surprise… our siblings and spouses are all there to celebrate with us. They’ve been decorating the apartment while we were lunching and they are hungry!! But we have become The Magnificent Seven and the celebration begins in earnest!
We are a family that takes its food seriously, so San Sebastian was like being on one of the best treasure hunts you could imagine. In San Sebastian you do something called a txikiteo or a pintxos crawl. (I told you it was a crazy language!) Pintxos are like tapas, only they are bits of food artistry skewered by a pick to a piece of bread. (Pintxos literally means stake or spear.) The txikiteo is what you do when you go from bar to bar sampling pintxos. It is a fine, fine way to eat, even if you do have to do it standing up. Not to worry, the counters and tables are all chest high, so you can lean and eat.
The advantage of having seven people in your entourage is that you can taste a lot of dishes. The disadvantage is that you usually only get a single bite, and just going silent and hoping no one will notice the dish you are trying to devour does not work with this group. It’s a tough group!
San Sebastian has the highest concentration of Michelin stars per capita. That means there are some extremely good restaurants to tempt you, although this wasn’t the trip for a Michelin exploration. Frankly, I didn’t feel that I knew enough about the basics of Basque cuisine to understand what the top chefs were achieving. This is also my way of making sure we go back.
Here’s some of our picks:
Calle Mayor | Nagusia Kalea
Yeah, it’s touristy, but it’s also a “Pintxos Palace”. As I’m wandering the length of the long bar admiring the beauty of the pintxos, the bartender laughs at me and says, “Welcome to Atari!” in a way that meant, of course they are gorgeous, you are in Atari. Then he explained the system. You take a few pintxos from the bar, onto your plate. Then you catch the eye of the bartender who mysteriously adds them up and starts running a tab. Now, bear in mind, there are seven of us wandering up to the pintxos offerings, and somehow they kept track. If you want kitchen items then order those at the bar and these are the really good stuff. Dishes like a perfectly seared piece of steak, with a light smear of teriyaki sauce, set on a bright orange puddle of tangy pumpkin sauce, with a swirl of vivid green olive oil. Or small bits of perfectly cured salmon accented with a vanilla cream. Artistry on a plate.
Calle Fermin Calbeton 12
Come with a group. Order everything you can. This was my favorite: super crispy salty crunchy pigs ear. The exterior was brown and crunchy, the interior was molten and you swabbed your bite in a slightly sweet sauce that played rock n roll with the rich meat. (I’m using the word meat, but it’s really melted cartilage, but if I say that, you’ll never try it and you won’t know what you are missing.) Balance the richness of the pig ear with a pleasantly refreshing gazpacho. They do lovely things with foie gras, so be sure to try that as well. And remember to hang on to your fork because if they clean up the plates, you won’t be getting a second one.
Calle de los Reyes Católicos, 10
Casa Valles is one of the oldest bars in town, near the cathedral on a pedestrian side street. You’ll recognize it by all the hams hanging from the ceiling. Order the jamon (cured ham). Order a large plate of the jamon. It literally melts in your mouth, no chewing required.
I’m also an anchovy addict. I admit it and have no desire to overcome my addiction. They serve the plumpest marinated anchovies I’ve ever had. It’s as if they did a foie thing and pumped them up before they caught them. The fried anchovies, covered in garlic chips, also brought tears to my eyes. Not tears of joy, but of frustration. I had to share the damn anchovies with my Magnificent 7.
C/ 31 de Agosta, 23, 20003 San Sebastian - Donostia, Spain
This taberna is another old-time pintxos bar and restaurant known for its aged steak. The steak was the perfect combination of aged funk and char. Only word of caution, is to be cautious. The steaks look so good you are tempted to over order.
Plaza De La Constitución, 9
Located in the grand Constitution Plaza, Txurrut is the place to go for vermouth cocktails. House-made artisanal vermouth combined with their ‘secret elixir’ will make you a very happy visitor.
And if you are into artisanal vermouth (and if you’re not….why not??) be sure to look up “The International Society for Preservation and Enjoyment of Vermut.” They hold monthly vermouth tasting parties and you can find someone who knows about the society at Pantori, a lovely food shop dedicated to all things local and delicious. They’re still working on their website, but there’s enough there for you to find them.
In the digestive category, give Patxaran a try. It’s a mildly sweet, raisin tasting wine that goes down very easy at the end of a meal.
We also highly recommend Go Local San Sebastian for a great tour of the city. They offer pay-what-you-want walking tours, or very reasonably priced bike tours. (Go on the bike tour! Our guide Inigo was outstanding, informed, enthusiastic and willing to scale tall walls in search of the last of the season’s blackberries.) Ask Inigo where to go for the best croquettes and cider. It’s way off the tourist track, but worth the short bike ride. GoLocalSanSebastian.com.